The First Law of Magic

by Jest

First published

A prodigal child is born once more with a strange condition that makes her uniquely gifted in a lost magical art. Unfortunately for the child, that art is soul magic and Celestia does not tolerate the manipulation of a soul under any circumstances.

Twilight Sparkle was born with a very strange disease, one that doctors were never able to cure. One which has made her powerful but also painted a target on her head that a certain alicorn cannot ignore. Though it seems as though destiny has given her the short end of the stick in this life in the next, well, things might just turn around.

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An Unfortunate Birth and a Fortunate Death

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The first law of magic is that magic cannot be created or destroyed. Everypony knows this; in fact, just about every being knows this. Magic is not brought into existence by those who can use it, but rather it is channeled, altered by will and then released once more into the world. This holds true for all magic, from pegasus flight and weather control to earth pony strength, durability and connection to the earth to zebra potion magic. Even the primitive rituals some griffon shamans perform, all utilize the same currents of magic that flow through our world.

Though many have tried to find the origin of magic, it is an esoteric field of study that has more theories than evidence. As such, it is generally regarded as unimportant at best or the work of hacks and mad ponies at its worst.

However, there were ancient ponies of all three tribes who understood the nature of magic and its relation to the soul. That knowledge was deemed dangerous when applied and they were subsequently slaughtered by the two sisters, their great works of magic erased from history so that none may follow in their twisted steps.

Or at least, that was the intention.

For after Luna’s madness, the magic of the soul was used once more and on a much grander scale than the world had ever seen until that point. After Nightmare Moon’s defeat and the subsequent banishment of her followers to the depths of the Everfree, Celestia breathed easily, allowing herself to believe once more that she had stamped out all traces of the twisted art of manipulating the soul.

After witnessing the horrors her sister had unleashed with the knowledge they had thought to eliminate from the world, Celestia knew better than to even hold onto the memory of such magic’s existence and purged it from her mind, deeming the complete removal of all knowledge of soul magic worth the price of utilizing neuromancy on her own mind. Leaving behind only enough information to know the signs, the horrors it unleashed, and how to deal with it. Which gave her more than enough drive to stomp it out despite her self-imposed ignorance.

With the threat of her sister’s madness destroyed forever, her own knowledge gone, and all traces stamped out, Celestia’s arrogance grew.

For in that moment she had forgotten the first law of magic, that singular moment of folly would eventually seal her fate.

A mother and father leaned against each other as they stared through the window into the crib-filled room beyond.

The labor had been hard but without complication and though Twilight Velvet desperately wished to fall into the sweet embrace of sleep, she had to ensure her daughter was safe and healthy.

Night Light was slightly less tired but his nerves were no better than his wife’s. He couldn't stop himself from worrying himself into a tizzy when he had gotten word that his wife’s labor had drawn out far longer than it should have.

Both of their sufferings had been deemed worth it once they had laid eyes on their healthy baby girl who, now lay only a few feet away.

The filly herself lay on her back, legs spread and eyes closed, contently snoring away, seemingly oblivious to the other children’s cries.

The calm the child had didn't seem to extend itself beyond her as every foal around her screamed, cried, thrashed or did a combination of all three.

Strangely, the ones furthest away from the child seemed fine, lying in fitful sleep or utter calm, unaffected by the aura of fear and unease that permeated the child.

This all was lost on the parents who merely saw children being children, stress robbing them of the worry that would have bothered any other pony. Besides, they thought, there were two adult ponies standing on either side of their little girl. They were probably the source of the disturbance as they probably woke up the closest ones, it was exactly midnight after all.

That wasn't true; that was just the last time Night Light had glanced at the clock which had coincidentally been the moment their darling filly had been born.

The two medical ponies stared down at the child between them, the gears working within their mind as they tried to figure out the best course of action. She was obviously different than the other children, though you wouldn't know that without the benefit of their higher education and enhanced scanning spells they had both used.

The only real difference seemed to be her horn, which was slightly too pronounced for her age and was probably a part of the reason why her delivery was complicated. Other than that she seemed fine, her coat of lavender fur was even and pristine. Everything seemed to be in order and when she had been awake, she reacted as anticipated to external stimuli. Hearing seemed okay, eyesight worked, and they even caught her sniffing the air at one point, meaning the foal had her faculties as best as they could guess.

Only her horn and nervous system seemed… wrong.

One of the ponies, a pediatrician by the name of Tender Hoof, gulped nervously and tried her best not to look over at the parents, who were no doubt staring at her right this moment.

The neurologist across from her harbored similar dark thoughts, but was better in hiding them. Axon hushed the other doctor with a silent hoof placed to his lips.

Tender nodded once and turned a little further away from the parents, all the while imagining their gaze drilling into her. This was wrong, very wrong. She wasn't the expert, but even she could feel it. The aura of fear and unease that surrounded this filly seemed barely existent to the powerfully built earth pony nurse who had delivered her, but to the unicorn pediatrician, it was an ever-present pulse at the back of her mind. A pulse that told her to run, to hide, and to never speak of this again.

The stallion across from her could feel it as well but his academic drive pushed those thoughts from his mind, focusing on the why. Why did he feel this way? Where was this aura coming from, and how could it be stopped?

His muzzle scrunched in thought as his horn glowed brighter. Subtle shifts in his magically enhanced senses allowed him to see the pulsing undercurrent of the filly’s nervous system. There, just under the traditional nervous system, was the magical one, referred to as the lambda system. It gathered mana from the surrounding world and drew it into the body, where it could be transformed into magic with the application of will, as well as pushing that mana all over the body in order to store it for later use.

Though nopony knew why it followed the normal nervous system almost to a T, they did know that they were both intertwined and different at the same time. Sometimes, one could be hurt without affecting the other and, and other times damage to one was instantly reflected on the other, seemingly without rhyme or reason.

Which was why it was so disconcerting to find that the filly’s real, physical nervous system was nearly non-existent, seemingly replaced by the aetherial strings that mimicked and overlapped the traditional system. Though it was just a guess on the part of the neurologist, it almost seemed as though the filly’s immense magical strength had somehow either compensated for a damaged nervous system by building a magical one over it, or she was simply so powerful that her lambda system had overtaken her nervous system for whatever reason.

Axon clenched his teeth and looked up. “I am going to touch the child in a few spots to test something. Be ready to calm her down if something goes wrong.”

Tender shook her head instantly. “Please don't ask me to touch that… thing.”

The stallion growled and looked the other doctor in the eye. “That thing is a filly who might be suffering from some rare disease. Now, you will do your job, or I'll find somepony else who will.”

Panic slipped over the mare’s face for a second, quickly replaced by reluctant determination fueled by guilt. “Yes, doctor.”

Axon nodded once and brought a hoof down next to the child’s side. Beginning gently, he pressed against the filly’s side in a few places. Slight pressure yielded nothing. Not even a brief flicker of the eyelids. He frowned at that; clearly, there was some potential nerve damage there.

He pressed a little harder and was relieved when he saw one of the filly’s legs squirm and her eyelids squeeze shut a little tighter.

He breathed a soft sigh of relief and lit his horn, extending his magical sense and checking on the currents flowing through the filly’s body. What he saw nearly took his breath away.

“Something's clearly wrong with her nervous system, that is obvious. But the way her lambda system reacts makes me think it is acting as the nervous system the filly doesn’t seem to have. Whatever this filly has isn’t life threatening… yet.” He mumbled to himself.

With that out of the way, he lowered his hoof back to the ground and turned to give two very nervous parents a warm genuine smile.

The two ponies behind the glass breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed visibly, pulling their faces away from the glass and regaining some much-needed composure.

Though Axon eyed her carefully, Tender Hoof seemed to trust his judgment and gently pulled up the slumbering filly’s blanket until it sat snugly under the newborn’s chin.

“Are we done here, doctor?” Tender asked, with a more enthusiasm than what was probably appropriate.

Axon frowned and did one last cursory scan before nodding. “Yes, get that same earth pony nurse to keep her eye on this one. Maybe she will have the fortitude you don't.”

Though she was tempted to argue, Tender merely nodded once and left, more than happy to have an excuse to leave.

Axon looked down at the filly one last time before leaving. Whatever was wrong with this child was beyond his understanding, and with his colleague being so ill at ease around the child it fell on him to break the news to the parents.

He sighed as he exited the nursery and left the crying foals behind, along with the headache that had been rising in the back of his mind because of them. This wasn't going to be easy; it was not like he expected many of these conversations when he had chosen to spend his life studying neurology.

Once clean and assured the rather burly, elderly earth pony nurse was assigned to the child, he made his way over to where he knew the parents of said child were no doubt still standing, nervously awaiting the news he bore.

As he turned the corner, his eyes met theirs and he couldn't help but feel sympathetic. Having an expert get called out for your child so quick after the celebration of its birth was not something any parent wanted to experience.

He forced a polite smile to his face and made his way over.

“Hello, my name is Axon Verge and you are Twilight Velvet and Night Light, correct?”

The stallion before him nodded quickly. “I wish I could say it was a pleasure to meet you, doctor.”

The neurologist merely nodded grimly. “Well, I should start with the good news first then.” That drew their attention and both parents leaned closer. “It is neither life-threatening nor is she in any pain.”

“Not life-threatening... what do you mean by that?” The hysterical tone of the mare’s voice drew the stares of the few ponies still around this late at night.

Axon’s smile fell away and he sighed. “We should finish this conversation in my office. It would be better if we were somewhere private.”

Both parents exchanged a fearful look, and although the mother seemed more hesitant to leave than she cared to admit, she nodded reluctantly.

A short trot later saw the three in a slightly cramped office without so much as a window. Little decorations spattered the room haphazardly. Piles of various papers covered the desk and an open book covered what little empty space was left.

“My apologies about the state of my workspace, I don't usually speak directly to the public.” The doctor levitated in two folding chairs he had swiped from a nearby waiting room which was, of course, empty at this hour. He gently placed the now unfolded chairs on one side of the desk while closing and locking the door with his magic.

The parents seemed reluctant to part but they ultimately took the offered chairs and sat down. Axon moved to the other side of the desk and sat on a slightly comfier wooden chair.

“Now, I know you are eager to ask questions, however I would like to ask that you do not interrupt and hold onto your questions until I have told you all I know.” The neurologist pulled his chair up to the desk, making the wood squeal harshly as it was dragged along the tiled floor.

“Firstly it seems as though your daughter has suffered from an unknown affliction. At this time it seems as though her nervous system has either not grown properly or has been damaged in some way before or immediately after birth.”

“I know the labor was a little harder this time, could that explain what happened?” The father interrupted, throwing a glance at his wife.

“I am not sure, though I don't believe so.” The doctor stopped and steepled his hooves, recovering a pipe and tobacco from a desk drawer. “Do you smoke?”

The father shook his head, as did the mother.

“Shame, terrible habit but it calms the nerves.” As he cleaned and filled his pipe with his magic the doctor continued, “I want you to know that what I say tonight shouldn't be repeated. Right now I have mere guesswork and a few minutes of observation.”

Both parents nodded darkly, the father squeezing the mother’s hoof a little tighter.

A brief flame better illuminated the otherwise dreary office and the doctor gently puffed on the lit pipe, continuing after letting out a slow exhale of smoke.

“Her nervous system is underdeveloped to the extreme, barely extending from the base of her neck and hardly connected to the spinal column. Though she has connections all over her body, they don't seem to go anywhere or connect to anything and will probably be reabsorbed by the body within the first year or two of life as her body realizes the connections are dead.”

“Are you saying she's paralyzed?” Twilight Velvet asked, panic creeping into her voice.

“No. Quite the opposite, actually. It seems as though her lambda system has adapted and now does the central nervous system’s job for it, albeit at a slightly reduced efficiency.” He stopped and took another few puffs of his pipe before releasing a slow exhale of smoke. “She will likely have a reduced sense of touch, a minor resistance to pain, and may be a little uncoordinated. Other than that, my initial analysis suggests she should not have any developmental challenges.”

Both parents relaxed, the stallion finally releasing his wife’s hoof and swallowing his panic.

“That being said, how much do you two know about a pony’s lambda system?”

Twilight Velvet spoke first, evidently more educated in this field than her husband. “I know it's the underlying magical system that enables a pony to use their tribe’s innate magical ability.”

Her husband merely nodded, adding nothing.

The doctor smiled. “Good, then I won't have to explain everything. Suffice to say that due to the loss of most of the nervous system, it seems that your daughter's lambda system has grown accordingly in order to take control over the motor control. This will dramatically increase the amount of mana her body can create and store, and she will require proper tutelage on managing this power.”

The doctor grimaced and took one last puff on his pipe before extinguishing it. “And that means flares.”

Both parents gasped.

“It's possible she may suffer from them occasionally, and if neither of you is trained in first aid and how to respond to the threat of a flare, I would advise at least one of you to get trained.”

“I can do that.” Twilight Velvet responded instantly.

Night Light turned to her with a grave expression. “Are you sure dear?”

Her courage was unwavering and she merely nodded. “My schedule is a little more flexible than yours and they will need you at the observatory. Besides, my editing career never did really take off like I had hoped.”

The stallion couldn't argue even if he wanted to, remembering the many similar conversations they had already on the subject. Reluctantly, he settled back into his chair, determined to speak with his wife further once they were home and had some sleep.

“Yes, well, I know the hospital offers free training for handling flares but you should still get in contact with the guard and notify them of this development. Though it’s not illegal to have that much power if the state is not properly informed it may reflect… poorly on the girl.”

“If that's what you believe is right, doctor.”

“Good. Secondly, this larger lambda system also has a few side effects. Judging from the way her lambda system has grown, it is slightly larger and more pronounced in her hooves and horn as that is where unicorns store our mana. This will probably guide development somewhat. Meaning, she will probably be taller, and leaner with a more pronounced horn than fillies her age. This will be normal and though she might suffer from growing pains, they won't last long and should be dulled by her own lack of a functional nervous system. Lastly, well, I am not sure how to say this, but... did either of you feel anything while in her presence?”

The stallion gulped, earning a glare from his wife. The doctor lifted an eyebrow at that and looked at him.

“Well, a little. I didn't want to admit it but it felt a little like there was a large animal in the room with us.” The doctor nodded knowingly.

“I have two theories for that. One is that her abundance of power is obvious to any who are with her and they are forced to acknowledge that power, which may come off as a sense of instinctual fear much like those who stand near a predator… or the princess.”

Both parents arched an eyebrow at that but said nothing.

“My second theory is that her mana is leaking into a form of unformed spell that takes the shape of a fear aura. Either way, those who are weak-willed will be significantly more affected and if this ability cannot be…” The doctor rolled a hoof in the air, looking for the right word. “...handled, then I would suggest keeping her out of public school.”


“Put quite simply, it would cause panic. Children that age rarely have the will to resist their instincts and have a tendency to lash out when faced with such stimulus.” He coughed nervously, his lack of interpersonal skills showing quite handily. “At least until she's of high school age.”

The parents exchanged a knowing look that said “We will talk about this later.” and turned back to the good doctor.

“Anyway, that's all I know now, but with your permission, I would like to continue to examine her thoroughly and watch her development. Hopefully I can figure out a way to help, or at least find out why this happened.”

“Of course,” the mother replied.

“Good, now if that's everything, I have some sleep to get back to.”

“Two things before you go. First, is she, you know… all there?” Night Light asked tentatively, earning him a sharp jab from his wife.


“Yes, she should have all her faculties and her brain scans came up with no complications.”

“That's a relief. The second thing is kind of sensitive so I must ask that you won’t repeat it to anypony.” The stallion’s grave tone and stern face alerted the doctor to just how important secrecy was to the father.

“Of course, patient confidentiality is secure from even Princess Celestia.”

The stallion wavered slightly before speaking again. “My family was cursed, centuries ago, and though it hasn't come back up since my great uncle, it might explain all this.”

“I doubt a curse would last that long or do what happened, but I will keep that in mind.”

“You know that curse stuff is a load of nonsense, dear.” Twilight Velvet added sharply.

“Well, my father believed in it until his dying day.”

“Curses can have strange effects further on and it's not that unheard of for a particularly powerful one to cling to a family,” the doctor added. “Now, if that's all, I really must be getting back to sleep.”

Both parents quickly stood up. “Of course doctor, and thank you.”

“Yes, thank you for everything you've done. I have never met a medical professional quite as candid as you,” the father added.

“Hah, I will take that as a compliment and bid you goodnight. I will speak with you again tomorrow after I've gotten some sleep and had a little time to review a few medical documents.”

Both parents turned and left, leaving the doctor alone with his thoughts.

Contrary to what he had just said, he had no intention of going back to sleep. Once the door was locked again, he drew a pen and paper from the desk drawer and hastily began writing the symptoms noted, physical characteristics and anything else he thought prudent to put to paper. Once done, he held it aloft in his magic and eyed the document carefully. In his tight, neat script lay all the information he had gathered about the unicorn filly named Twilight Sparkle and her unique problem.

His eyes glanced over the page, eyeing it carefully for anything he may have missed. Noting a slight error, he frowned and turned to grab his pen when he was blinded suddenly by a green light emanating from the page he held.

In his panic he dropped the pen and inkpot he had been holding and looked back at the page, half of which was already consumed by a green flame. Before Axon could even think of a plan to save his work, the paper was gone, burned away in green fire, leaving behind not even a trace of ash.

“What the?”

Deep within Canterlot Castle, a long-dormant machine suddenly shuddered to life, alerted to the presence of something that should not be. The massive arcane contraption released a high-pitched whine for a few seconds before it seemed to right itself and stop. Once righted, the machine hummed with life, different parts spinning while others flashed a variety of lights.

Spells nearly a thousand years old suddenly sprang to life and began their pre-programmed routine. Scanning spells reached the destination, while another set determined if the information gathered was in line with its programming. Once the location was secure and the information verified, the scanning spells stopped.

Another set of powerful magic began to hum to life as it locked onto the position designated. Once focused, it flared briefly with a strange green fire. An odd mouth-like opening near the front ejected the green flame that morphed into a piece of familiar paper. Within seconds the spell was complete and shut down once more.

The flames vanished and the paper fell a few inches onto a plate that sunk down into the machine, activating yet another set of spells that found Princess Celestia’s location and mentally pinged her, notifying its creator that its job was complete, for now.

Horror, it was a word that brought forth images of movie screens, plays, and for the unfortunate few, real pain and death they have witnessed.

They know nothing of horror. Celestia thought grimly. Though she was proud of the peace she had enabled and the quiet, mundane lives her ponies now lived, she would be forever unable to enjoy such a peaceful and quiet life.

Hers was a lonely life, being the last alicorn and having no other true immortals she could call friends. The passage of time buried all her friends and loved ones. Loneliness could be conquered, and it was not the yearning for another true immortal in her life that drove her to be so apart from her ponies; rather it was the fact that she had experienced true horror. Not a recreation by an actor on a screen or a stage, she had seen and done things that could only be described as truly horrific.

Anypony with any experience in history knew the princess had experienced first hoof all the horrors brought forth by every war and conflict Equestria ever fought. Though some liked to believe they did, nopony could truly grasp what that meant in this day and age. They were naive and small, unaltered by the effects of fear and unhaunted by decisions forced upon them.

Celestia sighed, her breath leaving a slowly shrinking circle of perspiration on the window. Beyond the gilded confines of her castle she could see the first early risers getting a start on their day and heading out into the world.

A millennium ago she would have enjoyed the scene playing out before her. The morning ponies already out for a jog before work, saying their hellos to their neighbors and the few others who enjoyed the same routine.

The weary not-so-morning ponies who got up anyway, either for their health or work, used to draw a chuckle from the sun princess as she sipped away at her morning tea and watched them go about their grumpy routine.

Now, however, it only drew the faintest of interest at the best of times and uncharacteristic scowl at the worst.

It certainly didn't help her mood that her night and thus sleep had been ruined by the reminder that the horror she had sacrificed so much to stomp out still remained in her pure and peaceful world.

The things she had done to protect the peaceful lives of her ponies and ensure they didn't have to see what she had were the driving force of her life these days. But if the public knew what she had done, they would have crucified her and she would hardly blame them.

They hadn't done or seen the things she had. They have never been forced to choose between life and death, and been equally as tempted to choose one over the other.

Celestia sighed once more and turned from the window, taking a gentle sip from her morning coffee that was still a little too cold for her taste. She placed the cup back down on the enchanted saucer and the pot back on its burner, waiting for it to heat up.

Meanwhile, her mind was elsewhere, away from this place and even this time. Far, far away, a long time ago in a place surprisingly close to this one, the memories returned.

And with a vengeance.

The screams of the dying, their anguish-filled screams of pain echoed through the battlefield. She didn't know which side they belonged to, but this far into the melee it hardly mattered and could barely be determined.

Early on in the war she was cocky and careless. She had the most well-trained troops equipped with the most up-to-date arms and armor with the backing of almost every successful mage Equestria had at the time.

Still her sister resisted. Luna had gone out into the countryside, to the towns and villages that popped up in the shadow of the Everfree and there she had raised a great peasant army.

Celestia had laughed at the mention of her little army, of course. To think an army of potters, farmers, bakers and other lay ponies could stand up to a well disciplined and supplied professional army was simple madness.

And what came after their forces clashed was madness on a scale the solar princess had never before experienced, or even imagined.

Renegades, exiles, and those few ponies who valued knowledge over ethics had always made their home in the vast forest that had perpetually been beyond Canterlot’s reach, but they were few and far between.

Or so Celestia had thought.

There, among the twisted branches of that chaotic wood, they had grown and prospered. Some even went so far as to form villages, covens and enclaves of their own. Celestia had always cursed her inability to govern the scattered townships at the edge of the Everfree and the stubborn independence they all seemed to have. Despite generations of isolation and no official contact with Luna or the beast she became they almost all flocked to her banner.

The wood had given them the isolation and freedom they had wanted, but it also gave them a cruel and twisted gift, perverting their bodies and minds and twisting them into beings that could hardly be called ponies anymore.

Great rock-like equines with the strength of several earth ponies thundered through the battlefield, wielding stone shoes or simple clubs that crumpled her soldiers’ field plates like a child’s toy. The strange rock like pony’s injuries never seemed fatal and their deaths never permanent.

Ponies more akin to spiders than the equines they had originally been descended in droves, wielding strange silken armor that turned aside blade and spell alike with impunity. Their many legs granted them speed and dexterity that only her pegasus forces could match. Although they could neither fly nor cast complicated magic, they were whirlwinds of death that wielded more weapons than her normal soldiers could ever attempt, with an ease that spoke of decades of practice.

The descendants of farmers and fools that had tried to cultivate the Everfree were perhaps the most savage of the lot. Some seemed barely above beasts, snarling and vicious with hides as tough as bark and a bite that was far worse. They tore through flesh and armor with tooth and claw, and shrugged off all but the most concentrated attacks. Baying like wolves they attacked in packs and dragged off those soldiers not lucky enough to be killed in the initial onslaught.

Even the very Everfree itself seemed to resist the sun princess, hordes of great beasts poured out of the twisted wood in all shapes and sizes. Timberwolf packs hounded her supply lines with an intelligence they had never before displayed. Manticores clad in silver armor broke the ranks of her ponies and then vanished before they could be dispatched. Even the woodland creatures that seemed too small to be of importance fought against the solar incursion. Bunnies, squirrels, rats and other small creatures swarmed over the army’s food, eating nearly everything and befouling anything they couldn't.

Worst still were the lunar pegasi, faster, stronger and more brutal than their feather-winged cousins; they swooped through the battlefield, picked off anypony caught unaware and swiftly dispatched their surprised foe. They were well-drilled, well-disciplined and held together every other race and sub-race the Nightmare brought to bear, carrying an air of leadership that rallied her sister’s forces wherever they went,all the while holding a nearly fanatical belief in her sister’s selfish cause.

Repelling these attacks and forcing unit cohesion after the chaotic and brutal melee nearly broke the sun princess’ army, and she was forced to reveal her ace far before she had wanted. Bringing forth the full force of her connection to the sun, she bathed the battlefield in light and flame, scorching friend and foe alike. Though her own troops were resistant to the sun’s rays, some still fell to their princess’ attack. In the end it had paid off and the creatures born in the darkness were killed or scattered. From that terrifying display of power, a fear of the light was borne in those lucky few that survived the sun’s onslaught that would last generations, the terror of the sun unbound being passed down from parent to child for centuries after the devastating assault.

With the first wave defeated and their supply lines resecured, the solar army marched onward, drawing closer and closer to the Everfree with each passing hour. Her troops’ morale was low but holding, the demonstration of power being enough to reaffirm her ponies’ faith in her abilities.

What happened after that was true horror, the likes of which made the destruction of war look like child’s play. The necromancers revealed themselves and raised a vast army of the dead that had been hastily abandoned the day before, sandwiching the solar guard between the dead and the living.

Celestia shuddered, a tear running down her muzzle.

She pushed the memory away with frantic insistence. Please don't make me remember. She begged whatever greater being might have been listening.

Please don't remind me how my ponies suffered and what I did to her.

The memories would not be stopped; even after centuries they were too vivid, and far too horrible to ignore.

Celestia whimpered and squeezed her eyes closed tighter, images of horror long past flashing before her mind’s eye.

Images of her soldiers’ limbs sloughing off their bodies while they were still alive, rot taking them before they had even been felled in battle, the bodies of their brothers and sisters in arms rising back up after a fatal stroke, only to turn on the nearest pony with a ruthlessness that could only be borne of mindlessness.

No, stop, please I'm begging you. Tears fell from the princess’ face, pooling on the floor beneath her.

Cuts that showed only the first symptoms of infection suddenly became gangrenous, having to be amputated within seconds only for the stump to become infected and a swift death becoming the only reprieve. The earth beneath her ponies died, from tip to root every blade of grass perished while torrential rains pounded flesh and earth alike, turning the battlefield into a quagmire.

The sins she committed in the face of the atrocities, the blood she had spilled in hate. All of it flashed before her eyes, reminding her of her deeds.

And then it was gone, replaced by the sound of boiling coffee cascading over the sides of the pot while her cup bubbled quietly.

Celestia shook her head and blinked away the tears. She had a job to do. She swallowed the boiling hot cup of coffee, quickly pouring herself another and then turned off the burner. With her second cup held aloft in her magic, she forced herself towards the door.

She had a kingdom to run, and no time to shed tears for past mistakes.

At the behest of Axon, the parents of Twilight Sparkle ultimately decided not to send her to a public school, homeschooling the child until a surprise invitation from Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns arrived one day at their door. Said invitation came in the form of none other than their esteemed leader herself.

“P-p-princess Celestia!” Stuttered the much, much older looking mare known as Twilight Velvet, quickly ducking into a bow so deep she nearly face planted when her aged knees nearly gave out on her, her long gray hair brushing the ground as she bowed.

A calm, serene smile sprang easily to the monarch’s face. “Please stand, no need for such formality today. Simply call me Celestia.”

The aged mare scrambled back to her hooves. “Twilight Velvet, your highness.”

This caused the monarch to stop for a moment. “Oh? I had assumed you a caretaker of some kind. You seem older than the last picture I saw.”

The mare coughed nervously and rubbed the back of her neck. “Yes, well, raising two children can take a lot out of you.”

More than you know. Celestia thought darkly.

“So it seems. May I come in?” the alicorn said.

“Of course!” The smaller mare stood to the side and closed the door gently behind the alicorn as she made her way inside.

Once in the same room, the aura of fear emanating from the princess would have been suffocating had Twilight Velvet not spent the last sixteen years of her life living in the presence of a pony with a similar, albeit lesser, effect of her own.

The alicorn strode in purposefully, planting herself on the largest couch and indicating the chair across from her. Her powerful stride and calm features made her seem in charge even while in another’s home.

Once seated, the smaller mare smiled nervously, unused to such a forward pony who strode through her house like she owned the place.

“Where are your husband and children?” said pony asked innocently.

“Night Light was just having a nap, work has been hard on him lately. Twilight is upstairs in her room, reading I assume, and Shining Armor is at school,” the mare replied, a little too quickly.

“Oh? I had thought school would be out by now.”

The smaller mare gulped and wiped a stray strand of grayed hair from her eyes. “He had to stay late because...” She paused, considering for a second lying. Ultimately she decided on the truth, feeling guilty having even thought of lying to the princess. “He was in a little trouble today.”

The princess raised an eyebrow at that. “What happened?”

“Just a little disagreement with another colt. You know how boys can get.”

The monarch didn't seem to notice or care for the other mare’s nervousness. “He is what, eighteen now, correct?”

“Yes, last month of high school before he's off to basic,” Twilight Velvet said with a hint of pride.

“I remember his application coming across my desk, quite a bit of promise.” Though the praise was brief, Twilight Velvet cheered silently in her mind. “Speaking of promise… how is your other child doing?”

The younger mare’s eyes suddenly lost their luster that had come from hearing her son praised by the princess. “Oh, fine, just fine.” She smiled, hoping it looked less fake than it felt.

“Oh, that's good to hear. How are her studies? I heard she already graduated high school.” The alicorn’s smile spoke of knowledge that made Twilight Velvet nervous.

“She got her G.E.D. over a year ago and she is well into her second year of private lessons in magical theory.” Though there was pride in her voice, there was also fear, one born of worry that could only come from a parent worrying for their child.

The alicorn nodded thoughtfully, smiling politely. “Do you have any tea by chance? I’m afraid I'm parched.”

The sudden shift jarred Velvet and she stood up quickly. “Oh, yes, of course, your highness, I’m afraid we only have honey tea. It's Twilight’s favorite.”

“That sounds delicious, thank you.”

The younger mare bowed once more and dipped out of the room.

Once alone, Celestia cast her eye around the room, analyzing every minute detail. The house was relatively small, given the size of the family and it was built in that tall, tower-like manner that had been fashionable around fifty years or so ago. That meant only the kitchen, living room and bathroom were on the main floor. The second floor, Celestia knew, had the master bedroom, a second bathroom, and a small office. The third would have two bedrooms with a small common area. The fourth was an attic, probably only used for storage.

The room she currently occupied was pleasant and had a very lived-in vibe to it. Bookshelves lined one wall from floor to ceiling, wrapping all around a large window that gave a generous view of the street, while several potted plants, all fake, dotted the room at irregular intervals.

The couch was comfortable but worn, and was probably as old as the house. The rest of the furniture seemed to carry this theme as well, everything bearing a distinct age to it. Celestia glanced briefly at the books she could see from her spot on the couch. Nearly every single one she glanced at was either a work of fiction or a book of spells or magic. Though most were mundane, she noticed one very different, and probably illegal book that sat on the bottom shelf. Its spine faced the inside of the bookshelf, making it impossible to know what it contained had the distinct purple pages not given it away.

Celestia frowned, she knew books made with such pages were almost always used to contain spells that were either banned or simply frowned upon. She made a note of it and moved on, noticing a faint whistle from the other room. A second later she had to stop looking around as the sound of hooves approached from the kitchen

The steps were close together and erratic, indicating an undercurrent of nervousness that Celestia could sense a mile away.

She looked up as the other mare entered the room. “I’m terribly sorry, Celestia, but it seems as though the tea has gone bad. I am afraid I didn't notice until after I had boiled the water.”

Alarm bells sounded in the alicorn’s head. “The honey tea has gone bad?” The princess arched an eyebrow that served only to make the other mare sweat.

“I’m afraid so, it's dreadfully hard keeping food from going bad in this house. It’s the damned old wood they made this place out of.” The mare shook her head and sat back down across from the alicorn. “Anyway, is there a reason you were stopping by? I hope it wasn't just for a taste of my tea or I'd feel dreadful.” She forced a small laugh.

“No, I was actually hoping to extend an invitation for your daughter to join my school. May I meet her?” Celestia asked.

“Oh, of course!” the smaller mare said quickly.

Both mares were suddenly distracted by the sound of hooves descending the stairs. Both turned to see a quite surprised stallion standing on the landing and looking at them.

He blinked twice and dropped quickly into a deep bow. “Greetings, your highness.”

The alicorn smiled. “Please rise, sorry to wake you.”

The stallion rose and waved a hoof dismissively. “No, no. I just heard the sound of tea as I was lying awake in bed.” He walked over and placed a gentle kiss on his wife’s cheek. “Any left for me, by chance?”

With the two of them so close the startling age difference became readily apparent, making Celestia narrow her eyes in thought. Weren't they supposed to be the same age? Maybe one or two years apart but this Twilight Velvet appears to be ten years the stallion’s senior.

“I'm afraid the last of the tea went bad. Sorry honey.” The stallion frowned deeply at that and he glanced upwards for a moment before catching himself and looking back down, a sudden look of guilt on his wife’s face.

“Your name is Night Light, correct?” Celestia interjected.

The stallion looked away from his wife and towards the alicorn. “Yes, my apologies for not introducing myself, your highness.”

“Pardon my bluntness, but how old are you and your wife?”

Velvet’s face fell, avoiding eye contact. Her husband’s eyes suddenly seemed to fill with an intense disdain. “We are both forty-two, or at least we should be the same age if it wasn't for it.”

“Dear, please.” The mare placed a hoof on her husband’s and gave him a pained smile.

After a second he withered and let out a breath. Celestia dismissed the entire interaction, having learned all she needed.

“May I please see your daughter now?”

Velvet stood up suddenly. “Yes, of course.” She turned to her husband. “Why don't you go buy some more tea and pick up Shining? I’m sure he will be out of detention by then.”

The stallion stood his ground for only a moment before turning towards the door. “Yes, dear.” He turned once before reaching the door and shot Celestia a strange, almost pleading look. Then, he was gone.

Velvet coughed and moved towards the stairs. “I will go get her now your highness; please make yourself at home.”

The alicorn merely nodded, remaining seated.

The smaller mare quickly stood and disappeared up the stairs, leaving Celestia to her thoughts.

The alicorn’s nose perked up to a nearly unnoticeable smell. One that seemed hidden behind the smell of the home. Sniffing a few more times Celestia stopped suddenly. Her muzzle scrunching up in disgust, her fears realized. Beneath the smell of books and home cooking there was the distinct smell of death.

She didn't have long to ruminate on this information as her host came back down the stairs, another much younger, taller mare clinging to her side.

The second pony had to be Twilight Sparkle, however, she was much too tall for a mare of sixteen. Standing nearly a whole head over her mother with sharp, angular features accentuated by a long spiraling horn. However where her mother was slightly round, Twilight Sparkle was painfully skinny, skin stretched tightly over a skeleton that seemed to be trying to escape the hold her flesh had on it. Deep bags hung under her eyes, giving the mare a haunting gaze. A plain black dress that seemed one size too small covered the mare’s cutie mark and draped a few inches down her legs before coming to an abrupt stop.

Her lips were drawn tight and she stared worriedly at the alicorn the entire time she approached. Her legs were long and would have been shapely and enchanting had it not been for how painfully skinny they looked.

Last was her hair. Purple fur so dark it was nearly black covered her body. Short, neatly cut mane and tail covered the rest of her body. Her hair was a deep blue with an equally deep magenta and pink highlight running through them.

Though Celestia was unaffected by it, she could still feel the powerful aura of fear that the mare emitted.

“Hello Twilight Sparkle, I’ve heard so much about you,” Celestia said with a smile.

Instead of returning to her seat, Velvet stood beside her daughter, shifting nervously as she watched the interaction.

“All good things I hope,” the youngest mare said without humor, in a voice two tones deeper than what Celestia would have guessed from a mare her age.

“Of course! Which is why I am here to invite you to study at my school.”

“No,” the mare replied instantly.

Celestia pretended to be surprised. “Why do you say that? You hardly gave it any thought.”

The mare looked down. “I frighten ponies, besides I don't want to abandon my current studies.”

Celestia frowned. “You know we could work something more private for you if you would like. I have a tower without an occupant that would suit you perfectly, plenty of books, even a world-class telescope would be all yours and plenty far away from anypony who might bother you.” Celestia leaned in and smiled. “Why I even have a vacant position for a personal pupil that I think you might be able to fill quite nicely.”

The lanky teen frowned and seemed to think about it.

“Give it some thought and send your response to the castle tomorrow. I find sleeping on an important decision helpful.”


“Now dear, don't be like that. This might be a wonderful opportunity, think of it. Your own place, plenty of books and the princess as your teacher,” Velvet said, bumping her daughter with a hip which did nothing to extract the mare from her funk.

“I’ll think about it,” the young unicorn replied.

“That's all I can ask, thank you.” Celestia beckoned with a hoof to the two chairs across from her. “Please sit.”

The two mares reluctantly did as asked and made their way over.

Velvet sat without trouble, her daughter, however, was a different story. As soon as she was free from being so close to her mother, her hooves became less coordinated and she stumbled into the chair with all the grace of a china cabinet being thrown down a flight of stairs.

Celestia looked at the teen with a questioning gaze. “Are you alright?”

The lanky girl just snorted in annoyance. “It's just my condition acting up, makes me clumsy.” Under her breath, she added. “Like I need help with that.”

“Condition?” Celestia asked inquisitively, feigning ignorance.

Velvet answered before her daughter could. “Yes. She was born with a damaged nervous system. Her lambda system took over and has stopped her from being paralyzed or anything like that, but it has damaged her coordination a little.”

Celestia stared at the mare for several long seconds before seemingly accepting the explanation. Meanwhile, the gears were turning within the monarch’s mind. Although my fears were already confirmed, this just furthers my assumption. And unless she accepts my invitation I will be forced to act. The strange sense of deja vu I first received when I saw her is not leaving me and worse still the mere sight of her brings thoughts of the war to my mind. This is an ill omen indeed, I must act quickly. Once she settled on a plan of action, she lit her horn and disguised a flash of magic as simply levitating a few magazines into a neat pile. The magic formed a message that was sent to her guard captain waiting outside.

“Tell me more about this condition of yours, Twilight.” Celestia accentuated her point by deliberately looking at the lanky teenage mare before her.

She didn't back down one iota, merely narrowing her eyes and meeting the challenge. “The condition still doesn't have a name but it damages a pony’s nervous system pre-birth, forcing the lambda system that usually controls magic to take over its job.”

Celestia almost smirked. It seems as though I have struck a nerve. She held back a giggle at her own joke.

“Oh, is that all that happens?” Celestia challenged.

Twilight’s eyes narrowed further while a frown spread across her face. Several tense seconds of silence passed.

Then a knock on the door drew everypony’s attention. “Oh, I’ll get it.” Velvet stood up quickly, however not quickly enough and the being behind the door simply pushed his way in.

Twilight Velvet stood there shocked for a moment, absolutely sure she had locked the door behind her.

There in the doorway stood a golden coated unicorn stallion with a grim countenance and full armor. He ignored the elderly mare before him and stared past her.

“Ma’am, there is a situation that requires your attention,” he said in a gruff voice.

Celestia nodded and stood up. “Wait outside, I’ll be right out.”

The guard saluted and left just as quickly as he appeared.

Celestia turned to the lanky unicorn and flashed an apologetic smile. “I’m terribly sorry, Twilight, but it seems as though I’m needed. Please give my proposal some thought, I believe you would be quite happy with the facilities my school could provide you.”

Twilight Sparkle smiled back hesitantly. “Thank you, I will consider it with my family tonight.”

The alicorn turned and left, pausing at the door and looking to the elder Twilight. “Which would be free by the way, I am willing to waive the tuition in order to have such a brilliant young mind.”

“That's very kind, your highness, you will have our response shortly.”

Celestia smiled one last time and left.

Outside the Sparkle house, Celestia strode through the street, a single guard at her side, following silently. All around the ponies pretended not to notice the monarch, knowing better than to give the impromptu appearance any fanfare. A block later they were joined by a second guard who appeared from an alley.

He was identical to the other guard, save for being an inch or two shorter than his colleague.

He moved swiftly up to the princess’ side, allowing her to whisper quietly enough for only him to hear. “I will have to bring in the expert if she does not accept my offer. Ensure she knows of the contraband spell book in the family’s living room. Use illegal magic as the excuse and go in hot in the middle of the night.”

The guard grit his teeth. “Are you sure that is necessary, your highness? You made her quite a generous offer back there.”

“She will not accept my offer. I wouldn't be surprised if she doesn't even write to me.”

“What makes you think so?”

“She has almost never left home, the few times she did were disastrous. Beyond that, I believe myself to be good read of character, and she didn't so much as entertain the idea even after I waived tuition and offered her personal tutoring. Her eyes did not even have a spark of interest the entire time, and worse still, I don't believe she respects me at all. Best to simply solve this problem with the use of a specialist and be done with it.” The alicorn remarked, a small tremor of annoyance running down her spine.

“Are you sure that's a good idea, your highness? The guard would be much quieter.”

“Yes they would, however, I like to keep my stallions’ hooves clean of blood wherever possible and her hooves are already irreparably stained. Besides, the royal guard will be doing its job by keeping out onlookers and ensuring the scene is secure discreetly while she does the dirty work. Even if there is a little collateral damage, nopony will remember anything other than what the official report says.”

The guard earned a sharp glare from his colleague and gulped. “Are you sure it will even come to that? Despite her being a shut in her family doesn't seem wealthy and you did give them a pretty nice offer back there, no tuition, housing... She'd be crazy to pass that up.”

Her smile faded, replaced by a grim look of determination. “Hopefully not, however beyond the lack of respect I sensed, her heart contains much fear and anger. If it's up to the filly, she will not leave.”

The guard nodded and took position across from his colleague.

Hopefully it does not come to that, unleashing my little ‘specialist’s’ power is not something I do lightly. With that grim thought firmly in mind, Celestia trotted towards the castle in the distance, the nagging feeling of deja vu never leaving her.

It had been almost twenty-four hours since Princess Celestia had come into their home and suddenly offered them a reprieve from that thing his wife called their daughter, and still nopony agreed with him. Night Light looked out the window and frowned. It was an incredibly nice day outside, the sun was shining, birds were chirping, and it seemed like everypony was outside enjoying it.

Except for his family, of course.

Twilight found direct sunlight to be hard on her skin and had opted to spend the day reading again. Shining Armor had a mountain of homework which he was probably receiving help with from his sister. His wife was tired, laying on the living room couch and resting her eyes.

All the while Night Light was bound by duty and circumstance. He couldn't just up and leave his family and enjoy the day only he seemed to enjoy, especially when they remained unconvinced by Celestia’s offer.

He sighed, quietly wishing he had his pipe on him, but the last time his wife had caught him with it she had laid into him about setting a poor example for his kids.

Night Light laid his head in his hooves and snorted. One of his kids was the top of his class and could have left early for basic training if he wasn't trying so hard to woo that Cadenza pony. Night Light wished him luck in that front, but he frankly didn't see it. Cadenza was an enchanting pegasus mare with ties to the princess, and Shining Armor was a short, scrawny young colt with the cursed sister.

The stallion continued grumbling while leaning on the windowsill, all the while watching the passersby that trotted up and down the street.

In Night Light’s mind there was no doubt she was cursed, or a monster or something! He didn't know exactly what it was, and no one listened to him when he talked about it... but he knew something was wrong. All he did know was that whatever his daughter was, it wasn't good. Shining had been growing up fast and strong with powerful magic until he got closer to his sister. Then his growth slowed to a stop and all attempts to put on muscle failed. Even his magic had faltered somewhat, and though he was still the strongest shield caster in his grade, he had difficulty with any advanced spells that most of his classmates could cast with ease.

The stallion ground his teeth together as his anger got the better of him. Worst of all was his wife, she had aged faster than he had thought possible; going from a few grey hairs to a full head of it within five short years. She had passed it off as just a little premature grey, but her family had no history of it and if that wasn't all, her joints had started to bother her. Which, in itself, wouldn't be significant if she didn't have a history of keeping in shape and eating properly. A few years ago she even had to get reading glasses! She had perfect vision before their second child, and now she had reading glasses. It didn't sound like much but Night Light knew better; he had seen the prescription she was supposed to be wearing and it was clear they were not simple reading glasses, but still his wife stubbornly refused to buy the glasses she needed. Was it an attempt to stop him from worrying, or something else? The stallion stopped his train of thought, noticing how hard he was grinding his teeth and the odd looks a few passersby were giving him. Night Light frowned and got up, closing the window and stepping down on the floor.

It wasn't going to help anything if he sat there getting angry again, he had to convince his wife that Celestia’s school was the great opportunity it truly was and he was running out of time to do that.

He walked slowly up the stairs to the second floor, contemplating what possible angle would convince his wife or even just anything he could say that would change her mind. As his mind raced, he landed on one unfortunate conclusion: he had already tried everything he could think of! He had argued until he was almost even bluer in the face than usual and all it took was one word from his daughter to shut it all down. A simple no from that brat had been enough for her. His well thought-out arguments, damned by those two letters.

The stallion stopped on the stairs, his forehoof stopped in mid air as an idea occurred to him.

If all it took was a word from Twilight then she was the one that needed to be convinced, not his wife. Sure he had tried before but he had been… short with her. It was hard to have patience around the thing that had stolen the life from the mare you love and stunted the growth of the son you cherish. He quickly trotted to the top of the stairs and down the hall.

Until he came within a few feet of Twilight’s door, then he stopped. Hesitating slightly as he fully realized what this plan meant. He would have to remain calm the entire time despite his feelings, and be convincing enough to get her to leave. Though he was pretty sure he could do one he doubted his ability to do both at the same time.

It couldn't be helped, he had to do what he had to do and no amount of doubt was going to stop him.

Get in and out quickly, find out why she doesn't want to leave and convince her otherwise. Don't be authoritative unless absolutely necessary.

The stallion breathed in, then out, then opened the door, steeling his resolve and calming his temper.

The instant the door started opening, Night Light could feel the pressure of Twilight’s aura. It was strong and made him want to turn and flee, forgetting about this entire thing. Between his experience and his willpower, he pushed through it and walked into the room.

The first thing that hit him was the smell of dust and books; though not oppressive, it also wasn't welcoming. It reminded Night Light of a second hoof book store he used to frequent. It was stifling and musty, and the only thing that kept him coming back was the rock bottom price of everything… which stopped mattering soon enough as mold contaminated most of the books and the building had to be condemned.

Directly ahead with her back to him was the mare he sought. She sat on a wooden chair, her magic glowing faintly, a book no doubt in front of her face, just out of Night Light’s view.

To his right was the large bed she had traded with her brother when it became apparent that she would grow taller than him and would need the bed far more than he would. The bedding was made perfectly, everything exactly as it should be, the pillow placed at exactly the middle of the bed underneath the tightly tucked blanket. A small, ratty doll hidden halfway under the blanket was the only other thing on the bed.

Night Light nearly chuckled at the sight, that doll was almost as old as Twilight, and here it still was after all this time.

To his left was a wall of bookshelves packed tightly with various tomes of magic and other areas that the room’s owner found interesting, ranging from theoretical magical wave theory to mycology.

Between the stacks of books on what little wall space that was not occupied by shelving hung a few posters. One was of an elderly bearded unicorn with an elaborate hat and cape that depicted stars and constellations in incredible detail. He stood tall, a confident smile on his face, and a fierce glow around his horn.

Another depicted a white stallion in gold armor standing proud atop a pedestal with a rising sun behind him and a single word below him, ‘Serve’. The last was of some dreadful metal band Twilight liked, called ‘The Full Metal Mare’, the poster depicting the helmeted head of a mare with red mane poking out between the few chinks in the helmet, the only thing not clad in blackened steel was her jaw exposing a row of sharpened teeth and a serpentine tongue. Night Light had no idea why anypony would enjoy such music, but his wife had been quite insistent that they allow her to keep the poster and all the records Twilight had bought, despite his disappointment.

The mare in front of him still hadn't moved, the only sign of the fact she was alive was the faint magical aura around her long horn that flickered briefly, turning the page of whatever she was reading.

She was hunched over the large oak desk that lay against the wall underneath a window that was completely covered by a set of blackout blinds. Night Light faintly remembered an argument about those blinds, his wife insisting the even a little light bothered Twilight’s skin.

Night Light cleared his throat. “What are you reading?”

The mare hardly moved to the sudden intrusion, merely stopping mid-page and placing a bookmark where she had left off and swiveling her chair around. “A book on advanced rune theory and ancient earth pony magic.”

Night Light merely nodded. “Interesting.” he remarked without enthusiasm. “I was hoping to have a conversation between just you and me.”

The stallion sat down on the bed, frowning slightly when he noticed a small puff of dust to lift off the blanket, indicating the bed had not been used in a while. Putting that thought aside, he patted the part of the bed next to him.

The gangly unicorn looked at her father, then the bed, and smiled nervously before plopping down next to him, a little more gracelessly than he did.

“Sure, dad. Do you want to talk about astrology? I read a really good book all about star magic patterns the other day. I bet I can finally understand what you have been researching all these years!” The mare’s eyes lit up, an innocent smile spread across her lips and for a moment Night Light couldn't help but imagine her as the tiny innocent filly she used to be.

Guilt pulled on his heartstrings for a moment, but he forced it down. Maybe one day he could forgive her for what she's done, but that had to start with her leaving and stopping her from doing any more damage to his family.

The mare beside him looked away, shuffling nervously in the silence. “I even got the book right here. I think it was by Star Seeker, do you know him?”

The stallion sighed. “Yes, I know him, he's a brilliant astrologist. But that's not why I wanted to talk to you.” The mare slumped, knowing full well where this conversation was going. “I wanted to ask why you didn't want to go to Celestia’s school. It sounded like a pretty nice offer.”

The mare deflated a little, resting her head in between her long forelegs. Then after a long silence, she spoke. “It seems fishy.”

Night Light’s temper threatened to boil over at the comment. That's it!? It seems a little fishy? He quickly got his anger under control and smiled weakly. “What is so fishy about the princess offering you this once in a lifetime opportunity? You are undeniably a genius, she would be crazy not to try and get you into her school.”

Twilight blushed and fled into her hooves a little deeper, hoping her father didn't see her rosey cheeks. “I want to finish my studies. I am almost done so maybe I could go to the princess’ school after that? I don't want to just leave everything i've started, especially after you guys already paid for it.”

Night Light breathed a sigh of relief; he was on to something. Twilight had always been a terrible liar, and she was clearly not hitting at the heart of why she didn't want to go. Pressing on, Night Light placed a gentle hoof on his daughter's shoulder. “Is that the real reason you don't want to go?”

After a few tense moments the mare’s shoulders sagged. “No…” she replied miserably.

“Then what is it really?”

Twilight gulped. “I like the mare who delivers my assignments and books. She doesn't run away, she's nice, and besides mom and Shining, she’s my only friend. If I left then I would never see her again. I would go back to being that freindless monster again, I don't want to be all alone daddy, please don't make me.”

Night Light felt the slightest tinge of guilt when he noticed he wasn't included in her list of friends, but stowed that for later, like those other bothersome feelings. Maybe he had been a little harsh... perhaps… No, he shook his head. This has to be done.

The stallion leaned in closer. “You know she's using you, Twilight.” The mare’s body suddenly grew rigid.

“W-what are you talking about? No she isn't. She's my friend!” But the conviction wasn't there.

Night Light pressed his advantage quickly. “I've seen the assignments she gives you, Twilight.” The unicorn under his hoof tensed even more before forcibly making her muscles relax. “She gives you assignments that aren't even the same subject.”

The unicorn mare sniffed hard. “I don't know what your talking about.”

The stallion sighed and gently rubbed her shoulder. “I’ve picked up your assignments, Twilight I know.” The mare remained tense, and silent. “Remember Tuesday last week, when she came around? She gave you her history homework, Twilight.”

“I’m taking history on the side, I’m studying the Third Griphonian War

“Don't lie to me, missy. It’s my bits you spend taking these courses. I know what I’m paying for.” The mare sobbed quietly, her hoof covering her eyes. “See? She isn’t your friend, Twilight.”

The sobs suddenly stopped and the hoof covering her eyes whipped to her side. “What does Moon Dancer have to do with anything?”

Night Light didn't flinch from the mare’s anger. This was going exactly as he had hoped. “Think about it, Twilight. I bet there are plenty of ponies at that school. You could make some real friends.”

“I have real friends, Night Light!” She snarled back at him, rising up to her full height and glaring down at the stallion.

The stallion just snorted. “Your family doesn't count and Moon Dancer certainly doesn't either. You know I’m right.” The mare wilted slightly and Night Light pushed one last time, a little too hastily. “The school is a big place, I bet there is somepony there that will put up with you.”

The despair and sadness that had slowly crawled into Twilight’s features vanished in an instant. “Put up with me?” She whispered, icily.

Night Light cursed his poor choice of words but chose to double down. “Your condition dear, I bet there are ponies there that are learned and able to look past it.”

The mare got off the bed and pointed to the door. “Get out.”

The stallion snarled. “You don't get to tell me what to do in my own home. Now sit down and let's talk about this.”

The mare just shook her head slowly. “You don't get it. If my own family can't even ‘put up with me’, what chance is there that a bunch of random ponies will?”

The stallion stood up and took a step forward, only to be stopped when he noticed his forehooves were encased in a faint bubblegum colored aura. “Don't you dare.”

Tears ran down the mare’s eyes. “Please, just go, daddy.”

The stallion grimaced and pushed forward. “No, now we are going to sit down and talk about this like adults or so help me

A sudden shove of magic and the stallion found himself sprawled out in the hallway, the door slammed shut a second later. He was back on his hooves in moments and banged on the door.
“Get out here right now!”

He slammed his hoof a few more times against the wood. “You have until the count of three before I come in there and drag you out.”

He waited a few seconds but the door didn't budge, the house was quiet save for the faint sound of sobbing on the other side of the door.




The stallion lit his horn, only to be stopped at the last moment when a stark white hoof grabbed his shoulder.

Night Light spun around, his horn still alight with power and a snarl of rage still across his face. It quickly changed when he noticed his wife’s eyes looking back into his.

“We have to talk, Night Light.” The stallion wanted to argue, wanted to yell and scream, but he knew better. The tone his wife had spoken in was one he never wanted to hear but seldom had to. It was one she reserved solely for when she was extremely angry.

Burying his anger, he let out a deep sigh. “Yes, dear.”

Celestia sighed deeply and stopped, eyeing the door in front of her with a grim resolve. It has to be done. She couldn't deny the necessity of using her ‘specialist’, but that didn't mean she enjoyed it.

She shook her head and swallowed hard. No. Her indecision and hopeless optimism had cost her enough opportunities to sweep this little problem under the proverbial rug. If only she had the resolve that burned within her sixteen years ago. Than she would have been able to rid herself of that monster without the guilt that had plagued her.

No matter, the past was the past and she could not affect it, now matter how much she wanted to.

She nodded to the guard standing silently to her left. "Open the cage, Sun Spear. I have need of the prisoner."

The guard nodded back. "Yes your majesty." With a pulse of his magic the door was unlocked, the stallion pushing it open for his princess.

The alicorn quickly stepped through, allowing the door to swing shut behind her, a small click indicating she was locked in. Not like that truly mattered to a being of her power; she had been the one that had put such redundancies in place, after all.

The room wasn't terribly large, a single magical torch burning to her right was enough to illuminate it completely, allowing the alicorn to see the entire cell easily. Directly in front of her was a small control panel with several buttons and a single lever, standing atop a pedestal of alicorn-convenient height. Behind that was a black wall of glass that separated the alicorn from the source of her anxiety.

Celestia stomped her hoof and sighed. There was no getting around this. She just had to get this done and move on before she wasted any more time. The deja vu that had bothered her since she saw that mare had grown into an incessant ache at the back of her mind that spruned her on. Not even her pre memory wipe journal she had left behind contained any information pertaining this strange girl or her condition which made the alicorn nervous. She detested the feeling immensely and looked forward to seeing the mare dead and the feeling gone.

One press of a button illuminated the room beyond the glass, a single magical torch burning opposite of Celestia, revealing an identical room on the other side of the glass save for the fact that there was no way out and there was an X-shaped table with a pony lying on it.

Celestia looked down on the mare firmly tied to the table by thick, enchanted straps of leather.

Her fiery red and gold hair were in disarray, her fur equally as unkempt. Her entire body lay limp in her restraints, her eyes closed and an almost peaceful look covered her face. Celestia paused and stared at that face. It was one she rarely saw on the unicorn, and had never seen on her when she was awake.

The alicorn sighed and moved her hoof to the next part of her preparation, but stopped suddenly, images of all the ponies her little specialist had killed flashing before her eyes. Her hoof wavered, and for a second she nearly moved away.

Come on, Celestia, indecision doomed your sister, you can't let it take anything more! But her hoof still wavered, undeterred by her mental pep talk. Do it! You failed once when she was young, you can't make any more excuses! With a firm hoof Celestia pressed the button and began the next stage in the process.

Glyphs interwoven into the rock walls and floor of the room flickered to life and several fields sprang up around the unicorn that permeated her body with magic, all to make the inevitable mind spells Celestia would have to work into the unicorn’s psyche that much easier.

First Celestia suppressed Sunset’s desire for killing, focusing it to include only the targets Celestia had in mind and not potential innocents. Next was a geas to complete her mission and listen to the orders Celestia would give her.

The alicorn stopped for a moment, her horn powering down as she allowed herself a slight breather. Neuromancy wasn't a fancy or particularly showy school of magic. It only illuminated the caster’s horn in a faint aura while surrounding the head of the target in an identical glow. It was, however, a rather strenuous school of magic that demanded the caster have an enormous pool of mana at their disposal and decades of study, meaning only a select few unicorns could cast it, and fewer still even knew that neuromancy was even possible. It did have a few side effects, such as the target would suffer a mind-shattering amount of pain if they were awake and capable of fighting the effects of such a spell.

Celestia re-lit her horn and quickly got back to work, shaping her specialist’s mind to allow no possible slip-ups. After she was certain the unicorn would not disobey orders again, Celestia checked over her work, scanning the neural pathways of her subject until she was absolutely sure. She refused to have a repeat of the first time she tried this.

Now secure in her spell casting, Celestia gently pressed the next button, stopping one of the passive fields within the containment cell from keeping the unicorn from waking. Before the mare could wake up, Celestia pressed the last button that activated another set of glyphs which flashed once after a second of warming up, teleporting in just the right amount of sedative to keep the patient quiet and receptive, and a healthy dose of rejuvenating serum to reactive muscle groups that had long since atrophied during her long stasis.

The mare flinched and shook when the teleport fired, but Celestia knew that was just a minor side effect of her heart restarting while a bunch of foreign liquid was teleported into her veins.

The mare’s eyes squeezed shut and her limbs twitched; it would take a few minutes but she was slowly waking back up. At the back of Celestia’s mind she was vaguely aware of the fact that this was one of the longest times she had kept her little specialist on ice and was curious if she would survive being ‘dead’ for so long.

Just as that morbid thought crossed Celestia’s mind, the unicorn’s legs twitched and her face twisted into a grimace. Perhaps my fears are unfounded. Celestia thought grimly, standing patiently behind the glass.

After a few minutes of twitching and shifting expressions that ranged from pain to confusion and anger, the mare woke up. Her eyes shot open only to see the same stone roof she always woke up to. She tried to look at Celestia, but the leather strap around her neck stopped her from moving more than a few centimeters.

The unicorn groaned and rolled her head to the side and in a gravelly voice she asked, “How long?”

“One year, six months and three days,” Celestia replied cooly.

There was a long pause before the unicorn gulped. “Damn.”

Her chest suddenly heaved, the feeling of something getting stuck in her throat stopping her from speaking. A hacking cough broke the relative silence and continued on for several long seconds before the unicorn hacked up a ball of phlegm and spat it onto the ground.

Celestia’s muzzle crinkled in disgust and she looked away from the disgusting bodily fluids.

Sunset tested each of her restraints one at a time before slumping back down in defeat, her chest heaving as the rest of her body began to wake.

“What is it this time?” Sunset asked breathlessly.

“Possible necromancer. You’re going to have to kill her and dispose of the body. You will not be allowed to kill or seriously injure anypony else but you can stun and restrain as you see fit.” Celestia turned and began to pace as she spoke. “Also, her family is to be subdued and sent to processing as quickly as possible.”

“You know I’m not exactly good at subterfuge and silence, Celestia.” Sunset remarked grimly.

“I know, but if this mare has started to tap into her necromantic powers then you will make an excellent guage of her power.”

The unicorn growled but said nothing, knowing she was being used like a canary in a coal mine. After a few seconds her anger abated and grim reality set in. “How long will this take off my sentence?”

“Fifty years.”

The mare whistled at that. “Wow. That is a long time, she must be a big one. This oughta be fun.”

Celestia frowned, disgusted by Sunset’s blatant blood lust, which the unicorn could just barely see from her odd position.

“What? Aren't you going to enjoy this? I know I will.”

“I don't enjoy killing, it is merely a necessity.”

The unicorn laughed a harsh and barking cackle. “You will enjoy the fact that she's gone. I know that for a fact. You are always much less tense after I’ve killed somepony that's pissed you off.” Celestia’s frown of disgust deepened and she stopped pacing. The unicorn grinned and pushed on. “See? We both enjoy killing, I just don't fool myself into thinking it's anything but cold-blooded murder.”

Celestia turned away from the glass, not allowing the mare to see her face. “I don't kill, you do. That's the whole reason I brought you in, instead of executing you.”

The unicorn craned her neck as much as possible to look at the spot she assumed Celestia was still standing. “Tell me, Celestia, is the sword at fault for the will of its wielder? Does the sword kill, Celestia?”

The alicorn’s face contorted in rage but she forced those feelings down. “You move out in four hours.”

As the alicorn walked to the door the unicorn began laughing, a harsh and cackling laughter that echoed in the small room, all the while taking a perverse amount of pleasure in getting under the alicorn’s skin.

Celestia stopped at the door and, for a moment, she considered simply throwing the lever and simply being rid of the foul creature. The alicorn let out a breath of air and stepped through the door, slamming it shut behind her and cutting off the mad cackling of the demon she left behind.

Maybe next time.

Night Light was not having a good night. He sat on the step of his house with a pipe in hoof and a frown on his face. His wife and he had finally gotten the chance to get rid of the creature that had been draining the life out of her for the last sixteen years, and she had sided with the creature in its demand to stay in his home and had the gall to not even respond to the princess. She just let the whole day go by without sending word!

Twilight had been even less receptive to his arguments and had ended up getting him put in the proverbial dog house for his efforts.

If only that damnable doctor Axon or whatever had fulfilled his promise. Instead, he had vanished a few days after that creature’s birth and every other specialist they saw said the same thing.

“There is a little damage to the spine but that’s understandable given her complicated birth.”

He lit his pipe, brought it to his lips and pulled gently on the tobacco. It burned his lungs and tasted faintly of the herbs he had ground up in it, adding a little much-needed flavor to it as well as some chemical calming.

Until he released the smoke he thought of nothing, enjoying the respite from his worries and simply enjoying the flavor and act of having a smoke outside his own home.

Once the smoke had left his lips his worries returned with a vengeance. He simply couldn't put up with that thing his wife called their daughter. His wife had taken a break from her work when she was born to better support the seemingly wounded foal, but as she grew, his wife never did return to her work, devoting more and more time to helping the thing that was draining her of her very life the entire time.

She had aged quickly, too quickly. She looked older, yes, but her body was also older, gaining the problems of age far before she should have naturally. Joints bothered her and she had already been forced to take supplements for her weakened heart.

The stallion stopped and puffed on his pipe a few more times, ensuring the flame didn't go out yet.

And now when Celestia had come into their lives and finally offered an out, their little monster had declined and his wife and son had agreed with her! He could almost forgive his wife, she truly believed Twilight was not the monster that he knew her to be, but Shining Armor?

His pipe cracked in his magic and he tossed it aside.

His son was a shining example of what all stallions wish their son to be. Strong, courageous, and intelligent. He had a good heart that was tempered by a good head on his shoulders. Yet he had still not been able to see the signs that Twilight was a cancer and had defended her despite Night Light’s logic.

He sighed in defeat.

Maybe they were right.

Then, when he was at his lowest, a light appeared. Unfortunately for him, it was a really bright one that was pointed at his face.

As he was blinking the spots out of his eyes, something hard connected to the side of his head and he felt his body ragdoll to the ground. Groaning in pain, he hardly noticed as the limiter was placed on his horn and his legs were shackled together.

Something gripped his mane and forced his head up into an uncomfortable position.

“Aaugh, what’s going on?” he asked the lights flickering in front of his eyes.

A harsh feminine voice laughed in his face. It was brutal and unkind, and seemed to say without words that this was only the beginning of his pain.

“Didn't you hear it was garbage day, Mister Sparkle?” the voice asked and dropped the stallion back to the ground where he landed in a heap. “And you didn't even bring out the trash, shame on you.”

“Who are- oof.” With the wind now thoroughly knocked out of the stallion, the mysterious assailant just laughed.

“Don't you worry about that. I'm just a garbage mare doing her civic duty.”

By the time Night Light came to his senses and regained his breath, the mysterious mare was gone and the door to his house stood open.

He blinked in shock and wiggled enough to yell into the door.

“Wake up Velvet, get the kids and run! There’s a crazy mare in the !

A sudden golden bolt of magic shot from the doorway and, just like that, the stallion was gone. He appeared an instant later at the hooves of a guard who quickly got to work knocking the poor stallion out and prepping him for the painful task of having his memories wiped and rewritten to fit the cover story.

“Such a loud mouth, always waking up everypony at this hour, tsk tsk.” The mare glanced at the book in her hoof, the worn purple pages faintly illuminated by the golden light of her horn. “Yes definitely illegal, only a minor fine though. Oh well, good enough for me.” The mare tossed the book over her shoulder and walked slowly up the stairs, listening to the sound of commotion one floor up.

She heard the frantic hooves beating across the hardwood floor and the door opening to a room. A second later she caught the fleeting glimpse as a mare ran in front of the opening at the top of the stairs.

“Gotcha.” A thin lance of golden magic shot from the mystery mare’s horn and thundered up the stairs.

The older mare tried to dodge, but the premature aging and weak joints meant she couldn't react in time and only barely made it out of the path of the lance of magic. It zipped over her shoulder and gouged a deep red line in her flesh, biting through the skin and muscle beneath with impunity.

A cry of pain could be heard throughout the house, but the older mare didn't stop, much to the mysterious mare’s pleasure.

“Yes that's right, fight fight fight! I want to feel you squirm beneath my hooves before I crush you.” She crested the top of the first set of stairs just in time to hear the older mare reach the floor above her.

The mysterious assailant smirked and followed the blood trail down the hall and up the next set of stairs. By now she could hear three sets of hooves and feel the aura of fear one of the owners of those hooves emitted.

“Oooh, that tickles. It is going to feel so good killing you.” The mare giggled and made her way to the top of the, stairs only to bump nose first into a shimmering blue wall of force formed just over a foot into the room.

The mare poked the barrier with a hoof and smirked.

“Who are you and what do you want from my family?” the voice of a brash young stallion called out.

From his vantage point, Shining Armor couldn't quite see the mare on the stairs save for the yellow furred hoof that poked out of the darkness. He tried his best to look intimidating and strong, which was slightly hard for him considering even his mother was taller than him.

“Well, before I beat your father, I said I was the garbage mare... but I think that joke has run its course.”

Shining ground his teeth. Behind him, he heard his little sister gasp in shock while his mother yelled.

“Don't you dare touch him!”

The mysterious mare’s teeth glinted in the darkness as she smiled. “Oh, he's fine, just taking a brief tour of the dungeons and receiving a first hoof lesson on neuromancy. As for who I am and what I want... the first doesn't matter and the second is her.” The yellow hoof poked out of the gloom and pointed towards the lanky purple mare towering over her brother and mother.

Instead of shock the lavender mare merely grimaced. “Why?”

“Why? Well, to Celestia, you are a danger. To me, you are just a fun little challenge.” A sudden light from the mare’s horn illuminated her face a second before a glowing yellow pin appeared and slammed into the shimmering blue shield. In that second realization struck the three ponies and they all thought the same thing. Sunset Shimmer, the butcher of Canterlot, was here.

However that wasn't the only thing to occur in that moment as Shining Armor buckled instantly, cracks appearing all across his shield, centered on the point of contact with the golden tack.

A faint whistle could be heard coming from the mare known as Sunset Shimmer. “Impressive. I’ve popped barriers made by ponies twice your age with half the effort. A quick lesson before I beat you and your mother unconscious and then murder your sister; the modern shield spell is designed to refract force larger than a hoof. Once you go smaller, the damage done multiplies exponentially.”

Time seemed to stop. Sunset’s horn was alight with magic, a second tack appearing where the first had vanished and pausing mid-flight towards the barrier. Shining Armor was halfway on the ground, his horn glowing brightly with power as he tried to reinforce his shield. Twilight had lit her horn in an attempt to do the same, but it was too little too late; this, Velvet knew with grim finality. She also knew that judging from the angle of the pin, once it broke through the barrier, it would continue flying until it hit her daughter standing beside her.

In that moment she decided to do the bravest thing she had ever dreamed of.

Time slowly increased in speed. A millisecond after Sunset’s spell was launched, Shining Armor’s shield broke and the stallion blacked out from the pain, tumbling into a heap on the ground. Half a second after that and the pin would have flown through Twilight Sparkle with enough force to obliterate the mare.

But Twilight Sparkle was no longer standing where she was a few seconds ago. In her place stood her mother, fearless and without regret. Her hooves on the shoulder of her daughter, shoving her out of the way.

Panic flooded through Twilight’s mind and her spell fizzled. She looked back as she fell, her eyes catching her mother’s the moment before the golden tack hit. In those eyes there was peace. Peace and an apology, her lips moving to whisper “I love you” one last time. But she didn't get the chance, for an instant later the spell flew through Velvet’s and obliterated the lungs she would have used to speak those three words.

Then, time went back to normal all at once.

Twilight Velvet’s body flew into the wall in two distinct pieces, her only saving grace being that her heart and spine were destroyed in an instant, so to her there was only a pinch and then nothing.

Shining Armor was already in the sweet embrace of unconsciousness and didn't have to see that particularly brutal moment. Twilight Sparkle, however, was not graced with sweet oblivion quite yet.

“NOOOOOOOOOO!” Raw mana and directionless spells poured out of the enraged unicorn’s horn, forming into a great mass of purple that shot at the golden unicorn.

Sunset Shimmer was hardly able to throw up a shield before the veritable wall of destruction would have vaporized her.

The enraged unicorn screamed harder at her vengeance being denied and poured on more power, bringing her incredibly large reserves of magic to bear for the first time in her life in an attempt to simply overwhelm the other unicorn. Everything caught within the six-by-six foot blast was obliterated.

The house buckled under the sudden redistribution of weight, but didn't fall... yet.

The flow of power suddenly cut off and the lanky unicorn stumbled. The sudden shock of so much mana leaving her body pushed her dangerously close to joining her brother in unconsciousness.

Meanwhile, her lambda system began to desperately pull in whatever mana it could in an attempt to refill Twilight’s nearly empty reserves.

She panted, watching as the shimmering sphere of golden magic disappeared to reveal a completely unharmed unicorn mare beneath it.

Twilight’s mind whirled, she had just obliterated half of her own house to kill the psychotic mare, and still wasn’t able to do the job.

Thinking quickly, Twilight suddenly asked. “Why does Celestia want me dead?” Keep her talking Twilight, just keep her talking until your magic has healed itself and you can hit her again.

“You are a necromancer,” the mare replied simply.

“Necromancy is impossible!”

“Tsk tsk, Twilight. Some would say that living without a nervous system was impossible too, but yet, here you are.” The other mare recoiled as if slapped. “Yes, I know about your little condition, and I know it only got worse as you grew older. You shouldn't be able to move or even breathe, but yet here you are!”

The mare waved a hoof at Twilight’s body. “And necromancy isn't impossible, just really, really difficult, and only able to be learned by a select few.”

Twilight’s heart fell in her chest. “You don't mean…”

“Oh yes, you can learn the magic of the soul. And to top it all off, you gave the old bitch the silent treatment for an entire day. That's usually enough to earn a quick death.” The golden mare smirked.

Keep her talking Twilight just a few more seconds! “Why are you here? I thought you were killed by the guard five years ago

“Blah blah, my patience is running thin, and I have one last thing to say to you. Which you will be surprised to know is a compliment.” The golden mare smirked when she noticed the panic on the other pony’s face. “Your spell use was impressive, your overcharge of mana bolt was simple and elegant, easy to cast and just as easy to dump more power into. I like it. You know another good spell that’s simple but can be used quite elegantly? Telekinesis.” The mare’s smirk grew into a huge wolfish grin as her horn lit with power.

“Wha-hr.” Twilight’s confusion melted into pain and the power gathering at her horn disappeared into nothing as a tightness erupted in her chest.

She looked down in horror to see the faint outline of golden magic radiating from within her body.

“With telekinesis, I can grab your heart and hold it like I am right now, stopping you from doing anything and making your body utterly panic without killing you.” The tightness increased threefold and Twilight’s legs fell out from under her. “Or I can give a gentle squeeze and pop it like a grape, like this!”

The tightness quintupled and the lanky unicorn was vaguely aware of a faint popping sound and several panicked seconds before oblivion took her. Her last thoughts before death were of her mother.

Then, there was nothing.

The lavender corpse tumbled to the side, its dead weight carrying it into an uncoordinated heap.

The golden unicorn mare’s smile faltered. “Damn I should have said something like. ‘And I always loved making wine.’ or something like that.” She shrugged. “Oh well. Time to dispose of the body.”

She looked around at the ruined home and noted the fires all around the blast hole surrounding her. “ Well, I can't use the botched raid excuse.” She paused and tapped her chin. “I could just leave them here and maybe knock down the building.” Suddenly the mare growled. “But the bitch did say this one was the only one allowed to die.” She angrily kicked the purple corpse.

A sigh escaped her lips and she cast a glance at the splattered remains that had been Twilight Velvet mere moments ago. “She is gonna have a bitch fit about that. Oh well, back to work.”

With a flash of her magic, the unconscious colt at her hooves was gone, appearing a moment later in the exact spot his father had been in mere moments before, with a familiar guard ready and waiting to prepare him for the same treatment his father was undergoing right at that very moment.

Next, she gathered up the pieces of Twilight Velvet and cast a spell that made the flames licking at the house to suddenly roar to life. “That should take care of that, but what about you?” Suddenly the mare’s eyes flew open. “I got it! You accidentally unleashed an enormous blast of magic that killed your mother and knocked out your family, then in a grief-stricken panic you fled into the hills in the middle of the night and then… drowned yourself! And I was there, trying to help because I saw the fire!”

With a grin and a flash, the lavender corpse and the golden mare were gone.

A millisecond later at the edge of Canterlot, the corpse and the mare appeared. Below them was a cliff and below that ran the deep, quick running Canter River.

The golden mare stopped and levitated the corpse before her. The corpse’s cold empty eyes stared into her live ones, making her feel that much more alive. “That was pretty good, but not good enough. Maybe in the next life you'll best me.”

Then, without another moment wasted, she tossed the corpse over the cliff. It spun end over end, pinwheeling through the air until it landed with a splash in the river below.

“Perfect.” Then the golden mare was gone.

So was the corpse two seconds after that, carried away by the powerful current.

Sunset Shimmer thought her victory complete, and when Celestia got word, she would believe the same.

However, Sunset Shimmer’s arrogance was born of ignorance; to her, there would be no surviving what had happened to Twilight Sparkle, and she was partially correct. Celestia’s arrogance was born of a belief that she could truly stamp out an entire branch of magic.

But she forgot the very first law of magic.

Magic cannot be destroyed.

Several miles away from Canterlot, a corpse tumbled gracelessly down a river, tossed around by the uncaring current. A current that threw the corpse into a hidden tributary shrouded by the branches of several fallen trees. Trees that marked the entrance to the wild wood of the Everfree.

Now instead of simply washing up on the shores of Lake Canter in a couple of days, the corpse was bound for a destination few knew of and even fewer still spoke of.

Ponyville was not a name mentioned in polite conversation. It was one whispered in hushed conversations, followed by a quick sidelong glance to see if anyone else heard.

The cursed town that had been swallowed by the Everfree was rumored to be inhabited by everything from demons to vampires to the lingering dead, damned to walk the earth forever for the sin of siding with the cursed sister.

Twilight, in life, had cared nothing for these rumors or conjectures, but in death… Well, that would change.

The corpse, now on slower currents, drifted lazily down the hidden tributary, deeper and deeper into the Everfree.

Though damaged by its fall and subsequent travel down the river, it still vaguely resembled Twilight Sparkle. Though a chunk of her mane and most of her tail was missing due to getting caught on a stray branch, and a few parts had taken particularly nasty hits by a few sharp rocks, it still undeniably looked like the corpse of Twilight Sparkle.

Most importantly, above all that, the corpse still contained the overactive lambda system that had guided the development of her entire life. A system that was, strangely enough, still operating and pulling in ambient mana, feeding it to the mare’s ruined body.

This system was powerful, and with it suddenly being drained the way it was, it had sucked up nearly every drop of ambient mana it could get ahold of, including Twilight Sparkle’s very soul. Even that was not enough to bring the mare back to a state of unlife, however. For that, it needed one more ingredient.

An ingredient that fate had decided to give her in the form of a tumble into the unknown waters of the Everfree.

Now, within the twisting and chaotic forest, Twilight Sparkle’s soul-fed lambda system drank greedily at the font of wild magic that permeated the forest, gorging itself on the veritable buffet of powerful magic that flowed into it from every direction.

Within minutes it had grown fat with the potent mana of the soul as well as the chaotic magic of the forest. There they mixed into a strange type of energy that was the stuff of assumption and legend; a type of energy that would give rise to a type of being Equestria had not seen in nearly a millennium.

A twitch came from the corpse, then another, and another.

Then a lavender hoof reached out of the water and gripped the mud-slick river bank.


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The sound of water was all around Twilight, and it was deafening in its power; so loud was the crash that even the sound of her own screams was drowned out completely. Every time she tried to move closer to either bank of the river, another pull of the current would carry her back to the middle.

She charged her horn for a quick teleport only for the current to slam her around, foiling any attempt at instantaneous magic. Gritting her teeth, Twilight grabbed herself in her magic and used a lightning fast telekinesis spell to lift herself out of the water, only for an errant rock to slam into her mid section and send her spinning, knocking her magic out. Even the so-called Instant spells took too long, and gaining even a single ounce of concentration while being buffeted by the current was beyond anypony’s ability. Even minor attempts at levitation were impossible.

But she couldn't give up. Her family needed her, her father needed her, her brother needed her and her mother…

A rock that protruded out of the tumultuous waters connected solidly with the unicorn’s side, sending her spinning in agony.

Her head dipped below the water and all sense of direction was lost as her vision was bathed in blue.

In those chaotic moments of blue, there was nothing. Her limbs refused her desperate calls to move. She could hear the distant sound of churning water, she could see nothing but blue, and if it wasn't for the intense pain that assaulted her body, she would have felt nothing.

Though she could not move, could not feel, and did not know even what direction was up, she fought on, fighting tooth and nail with a body that refused to answer her call.

A life of solitude and isolation had left her body weak, and what little muscles she had were left small and underdeveloped. Slowly they answered her call, and began to push her towards what she assumed was the surface. Her greatest strength, her magic, was useless now, yet still she fought on, the steady brightening of the moon’s light telling her she had chosen the correct direction. The memory of the last moments she shared with her mother fresh in her mind gave her enough strength to push to the surface.

Twilight Sparkle had never had anything to live for save for her books and her family, but she had never needed anything else. Now she had something more to live for, something deeper, something that would give her the power she needed to survive.


White hot determination pulsed through her body, and with fire in her blood and hate in her heart, she surged out of the water, barely escaping the icy clutches of the rapids all around her.

With a lurch, the unicorn suddenly scrambled her hooves over the side of the river she had believed was there, only to realize she was no longer anywhere near the river. Her frantic hooves stopped grabbing at nothing and curiosity overwhelmed panic; wasn't she just in the river? But it was dry and… A thought occurred to her.

Where was she?

She was lying on her side, which explained why she every attempt to reach the imaginary riverbank were unsuccessful. Wherever she was, it wasn't somewhere comfortable. The ground closest to her was a verdant green, covered in moss and and leaves which had fallen from the trees she saw rise above her.

That was odd.

Twilight gently placed a hoof against the moss and pressed; the spongy green plant squished slightly under her hoof and made a squelching sound as liquid was forced out of it.

Very odd.

She craned her neck around as much as her strange position allowed and noted she was currently wedged under a fallen log. She slipped out of the impromptu bed with a little wiggling and slowly put her hooves under her.

Was that all a dream? She thought to herself, unaware of destiny’s cruel hand guiding her further into the twisted forest.

Though she initially wanted to take off at a sprint towards where she believed the river was, a lifetime of falling over her own hooves had taught her to not take things too quickly... Only to be surprised when the intense clumsiness that had plagued her for as long as she could remember was hardly there. Sure she was still a little awkward on her hooves, but it had only been moments after she had woken from… whatever strange dream or memory that had been.

Now with her hooves under her, she took stock of her surroundings, noticing the distinct lack of grand spires trimmed in gold or any real mark of civilization. All around her spread a verdant forest, dense with foliage, and relatively dark. She was clearly not in Canterlot anymore.

She cast her gaze upwards, flicking a wet, muddy clump of hair out from in front of her eyes. She sighed; that was going to be a mess to clean up later... but survival first, worries about her mane later. Trees the size of which would have rivaled some of the tallest spires of Canterlot surrounded and captivated her.

Her mouth dropped in stunned admiration; she remembered from Green Hoof’s General guide to plant biology that trees this tall were common in some of the forests near Canterlot.

Despite the fact that she knew the size of the trees before and had read apt comparisons, there was something about actually seeing them in real life that made her experience a sense of wonder and awe that a simple illustration could never accomplish.

She continued to gape at her surroundings as she took it all in. Trees of various heights were interspersed all around her, while a dense undergrowth made it impossible to see for more than a few meters.

That was strange, to say the least. Though Twilight had never been terribly interested in ecology, dendrology, or anything like that, she did know the fundamental basics that governed plant and forest life. Or, at least, governed plant life save for this forest.

The taller trees she saw above her should have dominated the ecosystem and rendered smaller trees all but extinct, or at least much more scarce than they were now. She scrunched up her muzzle at the thought, that wasn't universally true, but something about these trees and the places they grew on seemed off to her. The size of the smaller trees, the fact that they didn't seem specialized for low light beneath the canopy... it all added up to the conclusion that something was different about this place, something that put it apart from the forests Twilight had studied before. Even the shorter, thicker trees seemed nearly as abundant as the titanic trees that grew hundreds of feet above their cousins and grew great canopies that should have starved the smaller trees of light.

Twilight shook her head. Even the brief glance that she had taken told her that this was a chaotic place where wild magic roamed freely. Thinking too hard about it would only be a lesson in futility.

Forcing her eyes away from the bizarre foliage, Twilight took stock of the next thing on her list; herself.

She looked down at her forelegs, noting the slightly damp and thoroughly mud-encrusted fur that clung to her body. She frowned at that and tried to shake off the mud, only for her frown to deepen when the mud refused to be moved, indicating it was at least partially hardened around her fur. She could tear it off, but the fact that it might end up removing a patch of hair made her stop and rethink that.

She had never been obsessed by cleanliness by any stretch of the imagination, but spending almost all her time indoors meant her didn't have much experience to draw on in this situation. Huffing in annoyance, Twilight resigned herself to misery until such a time she could find another body of water and wash away the mud and dirt without potentially tearing out chunks of her fur.

However, she would make sure that the next body of water she found would be calm and unmoving, or rather, a bath. Yes, that sounded much better than chancing it in a river.

Moving on, she decided to stretch her long, lanky limbs one by one, testing for any damage or anything out of place. There was a stiffness in them that was obvious, but she felt no pain coming from her muddy limbs. That held true until she tested her back right leg and felt a strange pinching sensation from it.

Although not pain, it certainly was uncomfortable. Pinching wasn't even the best way to describe it, but it was the closest thing Twilight could think of.

She thanked her lucky stars that it didn't hurt, and judging from the minor amount of discomfort, it was probably not a big deal.

All those assumptions were thrown right out the window the moment she looked back at her leg, only to recoil in horror and disgust.

Twisted bone poked out of ragged flesh at two different points, indicating a compound fracture the likes of which she had never seen in her entire life. Her breathing suddenly grew ragged and panic threatened to overtake her once more as she looked on, unable to tear her eyes away. Twisted flesh that poked out at an odd angle a little lower indicated there was at least one more break closer to her hoof that she didn't even want to think about.

Her head spun away from the grisly sight. There was no way she could put weight on what was left of her leg. She felt no pain even after looking at it... and now that she thought about it, she did flail that same limb about earlier when she was under the log and hadn't even noticed.

She was in shock, there was no other explanation to things, it was simply not possible for such an injury to not come with an earth-shattering amount of pain. She mentally ran through the healing spells she knew, only to curse in frustration. Holy magic had never agreed with her, and it was hard for her to cast anything above a minor cantrip. As such, unless this counted as a minor cut or an upset stomach, she could do nothing about it.

The unicorn pushed herself forward, forcing herself to move. She knew that once shock set in there would only be so much time left, and since she was no doubt bleeding internally, she needed to find help, fast.

She stumbled through the undergrowth, trying to keep her weight off her right hind leg as best as she could, but the awkward three legged gait coupled with her improved-but-still-poor coordination and the seemingly endless supply of roots ready to trip her made any progress incredibly slow.

She landed flat on her stomach more than a few times after tripping over another unseen plant, or due to her own confused and stumbling hooves.

“Oof.” She wasn't sure if this was the fifth or sixth time her face had become intimately familiar with the ground, but it was becoming frustrating.

She lay there for a moment, hopelessness and anger temporarily robbing her of the panicked desire to run that had overcome her several minutes ago.

As she lay there she noticed something odd...

She was neither an expert nor had she ever even been in a forest before today, but she always imagined that it would have been louder within one. She knew the forest was home to a plethora of animals including a cornucopia of song birds, so why could she hear nothing other than a rustle of the leaves caught in the wind?

She shook her head and forced herself to a standing position once more, determined to take it slower this time. She clearly wasn't capable of moving fast in her current state.

With her pace slower, she no longer had to worry about falling on her face, allowing her to realize she hadn't even tested her magic since she woke up under the log.

Closing one eye and parting her hair with a hoof, she looked up at her horn, trying to see if there was any physical damage to the most prized part of her body. Thankfully it seemed fine, other than a clump of mud clinging to it, which she flicked off with a hoof swiftly. Next, she began to build a little power. Slowly, she started casting a simple light spell to better help her navigate through the dense foliage, knowing better than to start with a more complicated spell first, in case there was some unseen damage.

She felt the power build nicely and once there, she pushed it into her horn only for the spell to sputter out a moment after it had begun. The color of her magic made her panic and stop the spell; where her magic used to be a soft bubblegum color before, it was pitch black now. So deep was the color of her magic that she couldn't even see her horn when she was casting.

“No no no.” She ran. She had no idea why she ran, but she did. The logical part of her mind told her that color didn't matter, but that was quickly ignored as she blindly pounded forward through the bush.

...And made it only a few feet before her hoof found a rock and her face met the ground once more.

Panic the likes of which Twilight had never experienced suddenly gripped where her heart would be. Though in her panic, she was hardly aware of the fact that the organ beat no more and the usual pounding sound of her heart that accompanied panic was curiously absent. Her logical mind was slowly coming to a strange realization but with pure, unadulterated panic pounding through the unicorn’s head, the voice of logic was washed away for the moment. Every thought served only to increase her panic. Why was her magic black? Why did nothing hurt? Why hadn’t she noticed any blood before now? Where was she? What was happening?

Why her?

She curled up into a ball as tight as her lanky limbs allowed and lay there, paralyzed by fear, indecision, confusion, and all consuming panic.

Time slipped by for the unicorn as questions without end ran through her head. She felt the hold of madness close in around her.

That made her only dimly aware of the conversation happening a few feet over her head.

“Just wait a few more minutes to make sure she's dead first,” whispered a small, feminine voice.

Some great bird squawked angrily back at the voice.

“Yes, I know you are hungry Mrs Vulture but you might get hurt if she isn’t dead.”

Another angry squawk coupled with a few smaller, seemingly grumbled ones followed.

“Shhh it's okay. Look, she isn't moving anymore? Why don't you let me check if she's dead and then you can eat,” the voice said.

The bird didn't squawk again but clearly it was still no doubt angry as it ruffled its feathers loud enough for Twilight to hear.

Twilight’s ears flicked around as she heard something soft impact the ground a few feet away from her. The haze of madness and confusion lifted slowly as curiosity and hope took over.

Just in time to receive a poke to the spine from a fuzzy appendage. “Um excuse me, are you dead?” asked the polite voice.

“I’m afraid not.” Oh wow, her voice sounded like she had gargled rocks. She hadn't noticed how bad it was as she didn't like talking to herself, but this was bad. She had already sounded more masculine than most mares, and now she could easily pass for a stallion if anypony only heard her voice.

“Eep!” The voice was followed by the sound of soft, padded feet hopping away and then the rustle of a bush.

The unicorn extracted herself from her own legs and looked around, noticing first a large green and brown vulture staring down at her in what looked like anger.

Next she saw two small blue eyes peering out of a bush a few feet away. Twilight blinked and looked around. Clearly she had heard a pony’s voice, but all she saw was the vulture and whatever tiny thing was in the bush.

“Hello? You can come out now, I won't hurt you.” Speaking seemed to ease whatever problem her voice was having as it got a little better, but it was still way too deep for her liking and a bit too gravelly. She made a note for figuring that out, but first, she needed help. Where there was one pony there had to be more, and she reasoned that if there were a lot of ponies, a hospital had to be present.

She extended a mud-encrusted hoof towards the bush and smiled as best as she could.

White cute little whiskers poked out of the bush, followed by a pinkish little nose. Twilight nearly squealed with joy at the realization that it was an adorable little bunny. She had always wanted one but for some reason her usually lenient mother had never let her have a pet before.

“Daww aren't you just the cutest.” Twilight resisted the urge to mutter any more baby talk.

“Why thank you,” said the bunny in the same quiet, feminine and pony-like voice from before.

“Whu?” Twilight blinked twice. “A talking bunny? I think I might have knocked my head harder than I thought.”

The bunny smiled and hopped the rest of the way out of the bush before speaking again, “Well I'm not really a bunny, but that doesn't matter. Are you hurt?”

Twilight grimaced and started to stand, showing off her mangled back leg, which elicited a shocked gasp from the not-bunny.

“Oh my! What happened to you?”

The vulture squawked loudly.

“Oh hush you, go scavenging somewhere else. This one isn't dead yet.” The vulture squawked angrily a few more times and flew off in a huff. The not-actually-a-bunny that looked like a bunny watched the vulture go and smiled at the unicorn. “Sorry about that, she's just hungry.” The bunny leaned forward conspiratorially. “And a bit of meanie head sometimes. I can't really blame her, I'm not sure how you survived that.” The bunny pointed to her mangled leg and gulped, looking away from the gruesome sight.

“I don't really want to talk about it, but what I will say is that I took an unscheduled white water rafting trip, minus the raft.” Twilight rubbed the back of her neck awkwardly- Humour had never been her strong suit, but she did know it helped alleviate tension so she tried anyway.

“Oh goodness. We better get you to nurse Red Heart right away.” The bunny turned and began hopping away, leaving Twilight to stumble a few times before remembering to focus on not using one of her legs, while also not tripping on every root and rock that blocked her path.

“Wait, Ms Not-a-bunny. What is your name?”

“I’m Fluttershy,” she whispered, hopping along beside the unicorn.

“My name is” Twilight stopped, teetering for a moment when her right forehoof connected with something hard and sent her sprawling yet again. Not for the first time in her life she cursed her clumsiness that had plagued her for as long as she could remember. “Augh, Twilight Sparkle.”

“Hehe, it's nice to meet you Augh Twilight Sparkle,” Fluttershy said in a tone suddenly a few octaves deeper it had been a moment before. Twilight tried to get her hooves under her in order to figure out the sudden change in voice and height.

Only for two large furry arms to reach down and wrap around the unicorn and pick her up, sending her into a panicked fit of kicking limbs and frantic writhing. “What, what’s going on?”

“Shhhh, it's just me. It looked like you were having some trouble walking so I thought mister bear would be able to help you. If that's alright with you of course.” Twilight stopped her flailing, partly because it wasn't helping much, and partly because despite the sudden change in voice it was undoubtedly the same one from before.

Twilight blinked, slowly turning her head and looking up at the large bear cradling her like a foal. She blinked again. “Fluttershy?”

Twilight had never seen a bear smile before now and was pretty sure they couldn't... until now anyway. The large furry face was split in a small but genuine smile, and Twilight had to admit it was a rather pleasant if strange experience when she realized they could, and rather well at that.

“I’m just borrowing mister bear until we get you to Ponyville. Or would you like to walk on your own? I hope it's not too warm for you. Mister bear can be a bit of a cuddler.” The bear’s smile grew slightly.

Twilight shook her head quickly. “No, that’s perfect, thank you.Just… warn me next time you do that.”

The bear smiled again and began walking deeper into the forest, its bulk making it easy to simply walk through most of the undergrowth that had slowed Twilight’s pace.

“Um, two questions, Miss Fluttershy.”

“Just Fluttershy, please, if you don't mind.”

“Oh, okay. Well, don't take this the wrong way but…” Twilight hesitated. “What are you?”

The bear giggled, which was a strange and rumbling sound that unnerved the unicorn. “I’m a wild soul. I can move from animal to animal and borrow them for awhile so long as I’m respectful.”

Twilight made a mental note of to ask more questions but one question burned brighter than the rest. “D-d-did you say Ponyville?”

“Mmmhmm.” the bear nodded. “It's a nice little place, not enough animals around in my opinion, but the beings there should be able to help you.”

Twilight gulped. She had deduced a few minutes ago that she was definitely in the dreaded Everfree Forest, but something about receiving concrete evidence that she was now trapped within the accursed place suddenly made it much more real. She had been lying to herself up until now, using thoughts like: I could be just on the edge, or maybe it's not the Everfree but a small forest near it. Now she could lie no longer, she was in the heart of the Everfree and a thousand miles away from civilization.

She was in the heart of ancient place of legend that had become infested with the Nightmare’s monsters. The land of the forgotten, the cursed and the evil, and this giant bear that could probably snap her like a twig was taking her to its very heart.

Twilight gulped.

Though she knew, academically, that her fears might be unfounded. And since the victors wrote the history books, that meant the intensely personal nature of the war meant Celestia would have a clear bias. None of that made her feel any better.

She had grown up hearing horror stories about the evil that dwelled within the forest nearly her entire life. Tales told of the great beasts that devoured ponies that dare wander too close to that cursed place. Of the many varieties of plants that spewed toxins, devoured ponies whole or were otherwise deadly to any foolish mortal that tread too close. However, the most frightening to Twilight had always been stories of the great murderous beasts, ranging from the normal wolf to the bizarre chimera, timberwolf, and even the great river serpents that the few brave pegasi that had flown high over the forest told stories about.

And that wasn't even the worst part.

The worst part had to be those creatures who were still sapient but had been corrupted by the Nightmare’s touch, like the lunar pegasi who were no longer even real ponies. Twilight had once read a book that had claimed that they couldn't even interbreed with other ponies anymore as they were so alien, that they had more qualities of a bat than of a pony and sported fangs used to drain the blood of their victims. Worst of all, the book had gone on to say that they couldn't even feel emotions like ponies could. They knew no fear, no happiness, no sadness... only the thrill of the hunt was enough to wake any kind of emotional response from the remorseless killers that had served in the Nightmare’s army.

Twilight shuddered as she imagined the drawing the book had contained. The illustration was of a small bat winged pegasus who stood barely taller than a foal, but the book had said it was full grown. It was snarling, huge fangs poking out of its upper jaw, each easily as long as her horn and twice as sharp. They glinted despite the blood that dripped from the pony’s fangs and maw. Its huge slitted pupils were black as the night and utterly emotionless. Its wings were open wide, displaying tiny claws at the tops of the wings much like a bat would have. Even their ears seemed to display their feral nature and reminded Twilight of a wolf’s more than a pony’s.

The bear cradling her seemed to take note and gave the unicorn a gentle squeeze, to which Twilight only panicked for a split second before realizing that the bear had not attempted to squeeze the life out of her.

Her frantic breathing slowly came under her control as she willed the panic away and forced her mind to not wander any deeper into the terrifying information of the denizens of these woods. She stopped herself firmly with a thought. They were probably all lies of Celestia. I bet they are a nice, if misunderstood group of ponies and definitely not the murderous, blood sucking monsters that the history books say they are.

Yes, that was a nice thought, one that Twilight chose to believe. For now.

Besides, she thought to herself, that monster Celestia had probably ordered all accounts of the ponies in the forest to be changed to make them crueler and far more intimidating than they actually were! She hoped, at least.

She looked in the direction the bear was carrying her, towards where she assumed the mysterious Ponyville was. All that lay before her was more chaotic forest and thick undergrowth, meaning she couldn't see for more than a few metres. She didn't see a path or notice a change, so they must still be awfully far out from the town, if the citizens of that nightmarish place even used paths.

A thought occurred to Twilight, one she clung to in an effort to make her stop thinking of any more disturbing information pertaining to her destination. She tilted her head and looked up through the canopy, noting the relatively little amount of light that crept through the leaves. It had to have been seven or eight o'clock in the evening at the earliest, she thought.

“What time is it?” The unicorn asked.

The bear looked up and seemed to think. “Probably around noon.”

But it’s so dark. Twilight blinked twice, panic already welling up inside her as a new thought occurred to her. I was attacked just before midnight and that little river ride shouldn't have taken more than an hour. Meaning I must have been out for ten hours at least. She realized to her mounting horror. Most ponies wouldn't have thought twice about losing so much time, but Twilight knew that forgetting that much or being out that long meant she most likely suffered at least a concussion, possibly even brain damage.

That panic seemed to dissipate somewhat when she realized it was just another terrible thing in an already long line of terrible things, which somehow made the news of possible brain damage the least unnerving thing that had happened in the last hour.

Fluttershy squeezed her tighter, apparently sensing the turmoil roiling within her new traveling companion.

Twilight sniffed and forced the urge to cry back down. It was all too much.

Fluttershy spoke suddenly, trying to distract the mare she carried from whatever was bothering her, “What brought you to the Everfree, Twilight? We don't see much of your kind around here.”

“I was attacked and thrown in a river, I guess. I woke up a little ways away from where you found me.” The unicorn clenched her teeth and looked in the direction she thought Canterlot was. “And as soon as my leg is healed I am going to go back there.”

Fluttershy gulped, the sudden steel in the unicorn’s eyes putting her on edge. Thankfully it dissipated after a few tense moments.

“How are you going to get back? Not even I know how to leave the forest.”

Twilight frowned, she hadn't thought that far. “I guess I will pick a direction and walk one way until I'm out, then I’ll follow the treeline until I find Canter River and go from there.”

The bear looked at her worriedly. “That could take years of wandering, the Everfree isn't like other forests, or so I was told. Without a guide, you could wander for a long time without finding a way out.”

“I’ll just use a compass then.”

“What’s a compass?” the bear asked inquisitively.

“It's a thing that tells you which direction is north and south; a little circle with numbers around the outside, and a red and blue pointer in the middle.”

“Ooooh.” The bear nodded. “Those things don't work here.”

Twilight’s muzzle scrunched up in confusion. “What do you mean by ‘they don't work’?”

“I found a pony a long time ago, who had wandered through the forest until she ran out of food and water. Though she was scared of me, I think she thought I was a delusion of hers.” The bear seemed to ponder for a moment before continuing, “The whole time I was trying to give her the berries I found she was talking to this spinny circle thing she had, saying that it wasn't being nice and somepony kept changing the poles on her while she slept. She had this weird looking hat and outfit, and claimed she was after some lost treasure.” The bear shook its big head.

“Odd, I will have to test that, I guess. If what you said was true then I don't know what I would do.” The unicorn seemed to deflate a little, her mood darkening at the news.

The bear’s eyes lit up after a moment of thought. “Rainbow Dash might know the way out of the forest! She’s flown all over while working with the night guard.” The bear flashed a tentative smile down at the unicorn before turning back to the path ahead.

Night guard, now that's something I have not heard of in a long time. Twilight mused. Though the information was scant, Twilight was pretty sure they mirrored Celestia’s secretive day guard.
Even though the royal guard functioned identically to the police, they didn't bother with petty criminals or local law enforcement, leaving those small duties to the rural and municipal guard who in turn didn't have to worry about dealing with dangerous murderers or rogue monster attacks. Above all that was the secretive day guard that worked as Celestia’s honor guard. Though Twilight had never seen more than a hoofful of them in magazines, papers, or otherwise, it was rumoured that their number was much, much higher than it appeared.

Would that make them a lot like this supposed night guard, only for the fallen princess? Twilight’s muzzle scrunched up as she thought. But she is gone, what purpose would the night guard have now?

Twilight tried not to think about it too much, choosing to stop worrying and distract herself asking a few of many burning questions on her mind instead.

“So what is this Rainbow Dash like?” Twilight asked.

The bear’s grin grew bigger and a wistful look crossed its face. “She's the most daring and awesome being I know! She's a lunar pegasus who lives in Ponyville, though she was born in Cliffsdale like me!”

Twilight couldn't help herself but to smile at that, the quiet and reserved being that had been carrying her around seemed to light up at the mere mention of the lunar pegasus. Twilight tried not to think about them either, lunar pegasi had horrible reputation, but Twilight chastised herself for being presumptuous, reminding herself that it was probably just more of Celestia's lies, like necromancy being real and whatever crazy cover up job she had done on Sunset.

The unicorn shook her head, not allowing herself to go down that particular train of thought. Anger and grief wouldn't help her now.

The bear was looking down at her with an odd look, making Twilight blush, or at least she felt like she blushed. “Sorry about that, Miss Fluttershy, I was just thinking. So tell me a little more about this Rainbow Dash pony.”

“Being.” Fluttershy corrected.


“Not pony, being. Not everyone around you is going to be a pony anymore, and most folk around here don't like being called a pony. Too many bad memories.” The bear shivered slightly, but it passed quickly.

“Right, sorry.” Twilight grinned sheepishly, suddenly reminded just how easily she could get snapped in half if she offended the being carrying her.

“Anyway, Rainbow Dash likes to pretend she's a freelance soldier or mercenary but…” The bear looked left, then right, then leaned down conspiratorially. “She just does that because she thinks guard sounds lame.” The bear leaned back up to its full height and grinned.

Twilight smiled back, a sliver of hope worming its way into her heart. With a guide and her leg healed, she could get back and save her family. She still had a lot more to plan, like figuring out what to do once she got back to Canterlot... but she’d figure that out before long.

“So I don't suppose you'd mind if I asked you a few questions as well?” Fluttershy asked a little awkwardly, not quite sure of herself anymore.

Twilight shook her head. “Go ahead.”

“Umm, you said you were attacked, what happened?” The bear’s voice faded to a volume barely louder than a whisper.

Twilight’s mood instantly darkened, and she knew she couldn't reveal everything that had happened. “My family got attacked by a mad mare. I don't know what happened during the fight, but I was thrown into the river.”

“Oh my.” The bear gave Twilight a gentle squeeze and a concerned look. “Did anybeing else get hurt?”

“My mom got hurt.” The unicorn sniffed, trying to hold back tears. “She was trying to protect me, but” Twilight clamped her mouth shut, she wasn't sure why she was saying all this but it felt… right. As if she was in the presence of a friend, even if they had only just met.

The bear tucked its arm closer and cradled Twilight like a child, pressing her head against the soft fur of its belly.

Twilight sniffled and willed the tears back, but it was too much. Fluttershy’s patient kindness for a pony she hardly knew broke down what little walls Twilight had thrown up to guard against the pain of the sudden loss of her mother.

But no matter how much she wanted to cry, she refused to. She stopped her thoughts dead in their tracks and turned them to the image of her mother’s killer. She wouldn't despair, she wouldn't cry yet, not until Sunset and her mistress were dead at her hooves.

Though her anger threatened to pour over, she snuffed it out. It had served its purpose and had dried her tears.

Besides, it was awfully hard to be mad or even sad while you were getting carried around like a baby by what felt like an oversized teddy bear.

Twilight smiled at that thought; after the most shocking cruelty she had ever experienced in her entire life, the one thing she thought she’d never experience again appeared as if summoned by destiny.


And in that moment of realization a strange thing happened. Far above her, beyond the harsh glare of the sun, a star twinkled. It was small, barely visible beside the five other bright stars that clustered all around it. Despite already drifting in a sea of brighter lights it sparkled regardless, reveling in the new feeling it experienced. A nearby star, smaller and softer than its fellows, twinkled a quiet yellow light in kind, resonating with its neighbor’s new found joy before falling silent once more.

For a moment, their light became visible. Small though it was, those who knew where and when to look witnessed the sudden sparkle with a mix of trepidation. The tiny purple and yellow sparks quickly winked out, lost amid the multitude of other lights in her sky.

Among the beings that saw the star twinkle, few understood the gravity of the star’s actions, either having forced themselves to forget due to fear and guilt, or having suffered a thousand years of misunderstood visions and now suffocated beneath dogma, or the quiet few who were simply ignorant to the importance of the stars’ sudden awakening.

Whether it was ignorance out of dogma, forced upon themselves out of desperation or being innocently oblivious, all would soon learn to fear the evening star’s rise.

And Broken

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The next few hours spent tromping through the forest were remarkably pleasant, though Twilight couldn't say she enjoyed it. She had just lost her entire family forever... or for the foreseeable future, if she was lucky. Her shattered leg hung limply from the bear’s embrace, every so often hitting a branch or tangling into a bush. All of that a hundred miles from her home, rendering any attempt to raise her mood only marginally successful.

After a while, Fluttershy’s arms became tired and Twilight was forced to hobble the last few minutes with a fretful bear by her side, constantly catching her when she fell and offering polite words of encouragement. Though Twilight had insisted she was fine, by the time Fluttershy mentioned they were getting close, the unicorn was forced to admit that she was anything but fine.

The feeling of her bones rattling around inside her leg was like jiggling a sock filled with twigs. Just thinking about it made Twilight shudder with disgust. She still had no idea why it didn't hurt, but by now the sheer sensation alone was beginning to drive her to madness. She was pretty sure they would have to amputate it if they didn't get to a hospital quickly.

She sighed and stopped for a moment. “Hold on, Fluttershy. Just give me a minute.”

The bear stopped a few paces in front of the tired unicorn, shyly wringing its huge paws together and glancing down at the pony nervously. “Are you going to be okay until we get to the hospital?”

Twilight breathed hard, looking down at the ground while doing her best to not think about her leg or the unnerving sensations coming from it. With a deep sigh, she took a step forward. “Yeah, I think so. How much further?”

The bear looked from the unicorn and then over its own shoulder, squinting into the gloom that had only gotten deeper by the minute. “We aren’t far now. If you keep walking straight, you should hit it. I’m going to go dig up some gems I had stashed away for an emergency. It will be just a minute, are you going to be alright?”

“I should be fine, but why do you need gems?”

The bear looked back, cocking an eyebrow. “Well, how else are we going to be able to pay for getting your leg fixed?” With that the bear turned and left, tromping off deeper into the forest.

Twilight blinked twice. “What in Equestria… Wait, we have to pay for a hospital stay? This really is a cursed and desolate hellhole.” She shook her head and walked towards the direction the bear had initially signalled.

The second Fluttershy was gone, the forest seemed to close in around her, reminding the unicorn she was alone once more. The few brave streams of light that broke the canopy were barely able to illuminate the forest floor enough for her to see where she was going.

She focused her attention on the ground just before her, carefully choosing each step to make sure she didn't trip and fall once more. She became a lot less sure of herself without the bear’s company. The forest grew darker when she realized she could no longer hear the heavy footsteps of the kind bear.

Twilight cursed her luck and picked her way through the underbrush, more than a little annoyed that there wasn't a path despite their relative closeness to the supposed town. A few more feet in and a large leafy bush blocked her path. Grunting, she picked her way around the bush. She made sure she didn't overstep, lest she end up in a heap without Fluttershy nearby to pick her back up.

When she finally managed to get around the bush, which was way bigger than she had first thought, a soft red light could be seen seeping through the cracks left between the foliage. In front of her was civilization. The light was welcoming and disturbing in equal measure; it was soft and almost gentle, and reminded Twilight of the red cross that stood atop most hospitals. Only small spears of light made it through the foliage and illuminated the underbrush, casting everything around in an almost sinister light that mingled with the shadows.

Twilight gulped and took a step forward only to shriek and stumble backwards when a huge black shape rose before her.

“AHHHH!” The shape screamed back in a high-pitched, feminine voice.

Twilight’s scream died in her throat nearly instantly. She squinted her eyes into the gloom. “Fluttershy?”

The huge furry shape stopped screaming and settled back down onto all fours. It took a step back only to blink, revealing a soft and gentle pair of teal blue eyes staring back at the unicorn. Twilight breathed a sigh of relief at the sight, she knew a bear’s eyes didn't have the light, emotion or color of a pony’s or whatever Fluttershy once was.

“Sorry if I startled you, Twilight.” The bear pawed the earth submissively, looking down and away from the unicorn.

Twilight’s metaphorical heart melted at the sight and she let out a breath of air. “It's fine, just… warn me next time. A bear popping out of the woods right in front of me is not something my bladder can take a second time.”

The bear blushed a little and gave Twilight a gentle smile. “Sorry, I'm not used to being able to sneak up on anyone. Almost every being can spot me before I even notice them.”

“It's fine, Fluttershy. Are we almost there?”

The bear nodded and pointed a little to the right of the direction Twilight had been walking in. Noticing her error, Twilight blushed a little, to which Fluttershy merely smiled kindly.

The bear turned and took the lead, either clearing or showing the way for Twilight’s much smaller and less confident steps. Within a minute they had clambered through the last of the underbrush and found themselves stepping out into a clearing.

Twilight stumbled forward, captivated at the sight she beheld. Her attention was so focused on what was in front of her that she hardly even noticed her hooves slipping out from under her, caught on a tree root. The bear’s large paws were there to catch the unicorn just in time, placing her back on her hooves while giving her a wary look.

“Where are we?” the unicorn asked breathlessly, her eyes frantically running this way and that, trying to take it all in.

Fluttershy merely smiled and waved a dramatic paw towards the objects of Twilight’s fascination. “Welcome to Ponyville.”

Twilight had enough sense to at least close her mouth, though not enough to look and walk at the same time. The collection of hovels and lean-tos she had expected was nowhere to be found. Instead, there was a plethora of strange and wonderful homes made from just about everything Twilight could imagine.

Directly in front of her sat a large tree that stretched up into the canopy, it was quite the sight to behold. All over it were the marks of civilization; circular windows dotted the outside of the tree and softly glowing red crystals dangled from hundreds of branches, bathing the entire area in a strange eerie light that neither illuminated everything nor created shadows overly deep. Twilight smiled despite the strange situation, her analytical mind already deciphering the enigma of her surroundings. The glow could be seen for a great distance, but such intensity would usually come with the light source being nearly blinding. Now that she was relatively close, it was neither blinding nor eerie, but rather… pleasant, and the longer Twilight looked at it, the more she was forced to admit that the artificial additions to the tree only accentuated its beauty rather than taking away from it.

The tree itself was a huge structure that was probably the size of four or five of Twilight’s houses in Canterlot squished side by side, and probably ten of them tall before the windows petered out, though something told Twilight that the hospital itself probably extended beyond what the lack of windows might imply.
The wood was a soft, earthy red color that snaked along the branches but became more green as the tree rose skyward, culminating in rich, vibrant green leaves that stood out against the reddish trunk.

Twilight couldn't help but smile. Initially it seemed as though it would be a waste to kill such a massive tree in order to use it as a structure of some kind. Seeing the fresh leaves rustle in the wind, she quickly realized the tree was still alive and thriving. Its life-giving liquids ran just below the bark, leaving the long dead, hollowed-out part as a place of healing and renewal. Clearly there was a careful hoof and powerful magic involved as well.

Beyond the tree, Twilight could see enormous mushrooms the size of adult spruces, their windows emanating the soft, artificial glow of candlelight, indicating they were being used much in the same way the hospital was. Perhaps even more surprising than either of those were the random boulders that dotted the landscape. They lay between trees and jutted out of the forest floor haphazardly, each and every one hollowed out much akin to the trees and mushrooms around.

Strangest of all was the distinct lack of ponies, or beings, that would have lived in such a town. It seemed deserted, and the few spots of movement that did catch the unicorn’s eye were simple birds or small animals who apparently had the courage to wander through the center of town. Though despite not seeing anybeing around, Twilight couldn’t shake the distinct impression she was being watched. With a shudder she turned her thoughts away from such grim musings and back to the strange and fascinating buildings she had seen.

The skill and craftsmanship that had to go into those wonderful buildings were beyond Twilight’s wildest imagination. She wondered how long it would take to construct even a single home from any of those strange materials the inhabitants had chosen.

Her eyes narrowed slightly as she saw a faint glimmer of something, her curiosity sparking. She focused on the spot and peered deeper into the gloom. Her eyes were unsuited to the low light, but even they could see the black stone building she hadn't noticed before. It was small, narrow, and reminded Twilight of one of the many watchtowers that dotted the walls surrounding Canterlot and the palace. But where Celestia’s towers were grand and sparkling, made to be seen from far and wide, these were inconspicuous, and nearly invisible while shrouded in the mid-evening gloom. Twilight was completely sure she could walk within a few feet of one without noticing the nearly five story tall tower. If it wasn't for the glint of something she had seen, the tower would have stayed hidden.

The thought sent a shiver down Twilight’s spine and a thought occurred to her. There was probably a lot more than just the one tower. How many of those could I have passed in the woods without even noticing they were there?

A small cough made Twilight look down where a small, white and brown spotted bunny with familiar eyes looked up at her. “So, what do you think? I may not stay here often, but to me, Ponyville is home.”

“It's…” Twilight paused, trying to think of the right words to properly display the awe and wonder she was feeling. However, a writer or a poet she was not. “It's big, and intriguing. Do you know what those towers are made of?”

Fluttershy shook her tiny head. “I don't know. The night guard don't let anyone inside and…” The bunny looked both ways before whispering, “They are kinda scary. All big and black and sometimes I bump into them in the forest without even noticing.” The bunny shivered and hopped a step closer to Twilight.

The unicorn grinned despite her companion’s fear. There was much to learn while she was trapped in this unfamiliar place, and she decided then and there that she would learn as much as she could in order to bring that knowledge back with her to Canterlot. She took a step forward, only to forget about her back leg and nearly fell flat on her face yet again. Thankfully she caught herself and shook her head. Focus, Twilight. First things first.

Twilight couldn't quite see the entrance to the hospital from here. Judging from the location of the rest of the town, it was probably just on the other side.

As she trotted closer, she noticed the soft padding of Fluttershy’s tiny feet was no longer following her. Twisting over her shoulder, Twilight noted the bunny hadn't moved from her spot and was rubbing her tiny paws together nervously. “What’s wrong, Fluttershy?” Twilight asked, turning and lowering herself to look the bunny in the eye.

“It's just… well, I don't like the hospital. Oh, I know it sounds silly, but I’ll just wait over here for you if that's okay.” Fluttershy pulled one ear down over her eye and looked away shyly.

Suddenly the prospect of going into the hospital became much more terrifying to the unicorn when she realized she had to do so alone. Twilight hadn't even thought that her new friend would stay behind, and the thought of going into this new and strange place without Fluttershy made what little courage Twilight had left to slip away.

“I don't like hospitals much either, the only time I went in one somepony tried to vivisect me.” The unicorn laughed nervously, but stopped quickly when she noticed Fluttershy was trembling at the thought. “Maybe we could face our fear together?” The bunny looked off to the side, unable to meet Twilight’s gaze, her paws running down her ear nervously.

“I don't know, Twilight…” Fluttershy muttered.

“Please, Fluttershy, I don't know any other po- I mean beings, everyone else is gone and I’m… scared.” The unicorn looked down. The realization that she was well and truly alone for the first time in her life was a crushing one.

Fluttershy hopped closer and gently booped Twilight’s nose. “Okay, I’ll come with you. But could I ride on your back? I don't want to get lost and left behind in there.”

The unicorn smiled, her courage slowly creeping back up her spine. “Sounds good.” Twilight lowered herself closer to the ground, being wary not to put any weight on her injured leg. Fluttershy scrambled onto her back and gripped Twilight’s fur tightly, her body pressed tight against the unicorn’s neck. “All set back there?”

The bunny took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay, I'm ready.”

Twilight stood back up and took a step forward, only to stop and turn to look at the tiny scared rabbit clinging to her back. “Thank you, Fluttershy.”

The bunny’s trembling seemed to wane and she flashed a small smile back at the unicorn. Twilight, now much more confident that she had somebeing else with her, strode forward steadily, around the hospital and into the tree building. The twin doors between her and the hospital had large windows in them, showing off the waiting room just beyond. The room was filled with many differently sized chairs in front of a monolithic black desk made of some sort of stone Twilight had never seen before. Though Twilight couldn't quite see the being working the counter, the sheer size and color of the waiting desk made Twilight gulp.

Stepping inside hesitantly, the two beings were awash in a pleasantly cool feeling, some unseen enchantment ensuring the air was kept at a more comforting temperature than outside. Twilight idly considered riddling out what exact spell it was, but judging from the complete vacancy of the seats that surrounded her, she didn't think she’d have the time.

“Hello! How can I help you, miss?” called out a sweet, feminine voice from the direction of the desk.

Twilight quickly turned her mind from potential spell combinations to the voice, stopping for a moment and twisting her head. She rolled her eyes and mumbled. “That explains the paid services.”

“Um... what?” Fluttershy asked, subtly moving to keep Twilight between her and the staring receptionist.

“That's a wyvern behind the counter, they are dragons that don't grow very large or breathe fire, instead their tails are poisonous and they don't have the head fins that dragons have. One thing they do share in common with the other wyrms is greed.” Twilight whispered quietly in disgust.

“Just because they are greedy doesn't mean you can call them worms, Twilight,” Fluttershy whispered back in an accusatory tone.

The unicorn sighed. “Wyrm, not worm. There is a Y in there, it's a term for dragons and their cousins.”

“Oh.” The bunny blushed, making a note to read more on dragons when she had the chance.

“We also share their wonderful sense of hearing by the way.” Twilight slowly turned away from Fluttershy, both of their cheeks burning red with embarrassment. “We are far more even-tempered though. My great uncle Forge Fire would have roasted you lot for such a slight, but not me! Not like I can roast anything, mind you.”

While the wyvern spoke, Twilight carefully examined her, hiding some of her embarrassment behind cold curiosity. She was taller than Twilight, but not by much, and she was currently leaning on the desk, her chin in her hand and an amused expression on her face. She was also surprisingly thin, which would explain how she managed to sneak in here without Fluttershy’s big ears catching her approach.

She pushed up and beckoned the pair over. “I won't bite, unless venom would somehow fix that mangled leg of yours.”

Twilight shook her head, stopping herself from staring into the wyvern’s polished alabaster scales or deep crimson eyes. “Sorry about that, I’m new around here.”

The wyvern raised her scales where an eyebrow would be. “I would say so, we don't get many of your type around here.” Once Twilight had carefully trotted up to the counter, the wyvern extended her claw. “Name’s Red Heart. Nice to meet you.”

Twilight extended her hoof and shook the wyvern’s claw, an act that made Red Heart shiver and recoil suddenly. “Likewise. Is something wrong?”

Red Heart shook her head. “No, nothing. Just felt like someone walked over my grave all of a sudden.”

“Oh um, sorry about that. So uh, Red Heart, interesting name for a wyvern,” Twilight remarked awkwardly, hoping to change the subject.

The previous awkwardness forgotten, the wyvern snorted. “If I had a nickle for every time I've heard that... Originally my name was Red Hearth, not terribly uncommon for a dragon, but after studying medicine, it didn't really fit anymore. Anyway, what can I do for you and your talking bunny?”

“Uh, the obvious.” Twilight picked up her worthless leg and shook it slightly.

“Stars above, that must hurt! How are you even standing?” Red Heart grimaced in part because the various bits of bone pushing obviously against the unicorn’s flesh, but more disturbing still was the fact the mare treated the injury with the same calm as one would a papercut.

“I don't really know, to be honest with you.” The unicorn and the bunny shared a look before looking back at the wyvern.

“Well as much as I hate to mention it, how much do you have in gems? That doesn't look like it’s going to be a cheap fix.”

Twilight’s muzzle scrunched up in disgust before plucking the bag of gems from Fluttershy’s diminutive paws and dropping it on the counter. “Is that enough?” Thief! Twilight thought, but did not say.

The wyvern grimaced. “This will be enough to pay for a proper brace but I’m afraid that's about it.”

Twilight groaned. “Are you sure there isn't anything we can do? A loan or something?”

“Ma’am, we are a hospital, not a bank. Do you want the brace or not?”

The unicorn turned to the sheepish-looking bunny, with a sigh she turned back to the dragon. “I guess it will have to do.”

The dejected sigh and sullen look of resignation were almost enough to pull on the heartstrings of the nurse, almost. Instead she simply swept up the bag of gems, weighed it and having confirmed her fears tucked it away under the counter and turned towards the door behind her. “Just a moment, please. Have a seat.”

Twilight frowned at the chair. She knew, logically, that sitting would be a good idea, but despite the long walk she wasn't the least bit fatigued... which was odd for the mare who so rarely exercised.

“I’m sorry, Twilight, I thought that would be enough to fix your leg,” the bunny whispered, sniffing back tears.

The unicorn turned her head and gently ran a hoof across the bunny’s back. “It's okay, I appreciate you getting me this far. I just wish there was something more we could do.”

The bunny fidgeted, looking away from the unicorn’s gaze. “Well, there might be something, but it could be risky.”

Twilight’s brow lifted. “How risky?”

“Well, we would have to go back into the forest and find a zebra that lives just outside of Ponyville. She healed some animal friends of mine for free and she might be able to help you as well.”

“Well, that's better than nothing. Either way, I should at least get the leg braced before we leave so it doesn't get any worse,” Twilight said, giving her mangled leg a wary glance. “As if that was even possible.”

The bunny nodded her agreement and clinged a little closer to Twilight’s neck. Together they stood and waited for the nurse’s return. Thankfully it didn't take long.

The wyvern slipped back into the room and held the door open for the pair. “The doctor will see you now, third door on the right.”

Twilight nodded, unable to bring herself to thank the nurse for a service she believed should be free. The unicorn limped down the white hall and towards the aforementioned door that, like the rest of the hospital, was a pristine white.

A small lunar pegasus sat with his back to the door, his leathery wings tucked close to his body as he fiddled with a leg brace. “Come on, you darn…” As the pair entered the room the stallion stopped, a sudden shiver running up his spine.

In a flurried instant he leaped off his chair and spun around, wings splayed in a frightened attempt to appear larger. With his sharp fangs bared and his wings spread wide, he was a frightening sight... well, at least to Fluttershy. The bunny trembled and gripped Twilight’s neck tighter. To Twilight, however, the entire situation was rather amusing. The stallion was just over half her height and even with his wings splayed, he was still quite small. The huge fangs she had been fearing were little more than a large pair of canines that barely even poked out past his other teeth.

The pegasus was made doubly less intimidating by the fact that his lab coat was adorned by several childish stickers, and a bright teal name tag proclaiming him as Dr. Little Hoof. Putting two and two together, Twilight giggled; she was just threatened by a pediatrician.

Recovering quickly, the stallion brought his wings in, a huge blush spreading across his face. “Oh stars above, I’m so sorry! I’m afraid you startled me.” He ran a hoof over his coat, straightening it and seeking an excuse to not look his newest patient in the eye.

Fluttershy quickly stopped trembling. “Don't worry about it, I get that a lot,” Twilight added nonchalantly.

The stallion stopped his grooming and looked up. “Hmm. Well, either way, I feel like quite the foal. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Dr. Little Hoof, pediatrician and one of the few doctors on staff so early. Don't let my area of expertise fool you. I am quite capable of applying a simple brace to an adult.”

Twilight cocked her head. “Nice to meet you, my name is Twilight Sparkle. I am curious however, what do you mean by early? It's just barely evening.”

The doctor cocked his head slightly in the opposite direction Twilight had, making Fluttershy giggle quietly. His eyes squinted and he looked the injured mare up and down. “Ahh, you must not be nocturnal, as most beings around here are. You will get used to it if you end up sticking around.” The stallion pointed a hoof towards the examination table in the corner of the office. “Please, lay down and I’ll get started.”

“Fluttershy, are you going to be alright on the chair?” Twilight whispered to the bunny, who merely nodded nervously and hopped off the unicorn and to the small chair by the door.

“Oh, I didn't see your pet, I’m sorry to say so, but we don't allow animals in the hospital. I’m going to have to ask you to take your bunny outside.”

Fluttershy frowned. “I’m sorry doctor, I didn't know.”

“Wait, you can talk?” The stallion’s eyes shot open. “Oh, you must be a wild soul! Forget I said anything. Please sit down and, if you wouldn't mind staying after, I would love to ask you a few questions,” he said in a somewhat pleading tone. Twilight and Fluttershy exchanged a worried glance which Little Hoof swiftly caught on to. “Another time then, perhaps?”

Fluttershy ran her paws over her downturned ear and nodded, making the stallion grin.

By then Twilight had managed to lay down on the bed and get comfortable without putting too much strain on her leg. Little Hoof trotted over to the mare and began inspecting the limb with growing disgust and pity.

“Stars above, how are you not screaming in agony?”

Twilight shrugged. “I have no idea.”

The stallion mumbled to himself. “Possible nerve damage or the strangest case of shock I've ever seen.” He continued his visual examination, carefully prodding the limb at certain points, all the while keeping a careful eye on his patient’s expression.

He went to grab the brace only to stop, looking down at it in disgust. “I’ll be right back.” Little Hoof swept up the brace and tucked it under his wing before swiftly exiting the office.

As the lunar pegasus fled the room, Fluttershy and Twilight exchanged a confused glance. “What was that about?”

The bunny just shrugged and hopped up to the bed beside Twilight, laying her head on the unicorn’s flank. Within a minute the stallion returned in a huff, carrying a much more sophisticated brace that glowed faintly from several runes etched into it.

“Alright, there we are. Just lie still and I will get this on you.”

“I am no medical expert, but what good will a brace even do me at this point?”

The stallion sighed. “The other one wouldn't have helped you much at all. However, this one should help healing and should enable you to walk on it as if it wasn't broken.”

Twilight gasped, making Fluttershy eye her curiously. “That’s quite an advanced set of enchantments. Are you sure I can afford that?”

The stallion gently maneuvered the brace into position and began latching it around the shattered limb. “Err, of course. It was just a mix up with how much your gems were worth. Actually, the one Red Heart thought was white topaz was actually a diamond, and as such you were able to afford a much better one.”

He laughed oddly nervously and continued to strap the brace into place, finishing the last of the straps around Twilight’s upper leg and thigh, allowing the brace to place the weight directly onto the unbroken part of her leg.

All the while Fluttershy watched and appraised the doctor’s actions. Though she hadn't applied a brace before, she knew the basics and was eager to find out more about the procedure. Some of her animal friends might benefit from such an action by an off chance.

Meanwhile, Twilight silently ruminated on the sudden turn of events. Though she was no expert in petrology or gemology, she could have sworn that what she had seen briefly were in fact white topazes and not diamonds. The unicorn’s muzzle scrunched up and she silently eyed the stallion in a different light. Did he lie in order to do something kind for her? She shook her head and smiled softly. Either way, he didn't seem to want anyone to know about his kind act so she shut her mouth. Thank you, kind sir.

The stallion stopped and rubbed his chin with a hoof, trying to make sure he didn't rush the last few straps and activation techniques. All the while Fluttershy yawned, curling up tighter against Twilight’s flank and slowly nodding off.

As Twilight watched Little Hoof work, a sudden thought occurred to her. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about lunar pegasi?”

“Hmm?” The stallion looked up at her for a moment. “Oh sure, fire away. I have quite a few questions pertaining to yourself as well. That is, if you don't mind staying for a few minutes after I’m finished. It's not often that we get some being from outside the forest, and I’d be remiss if I lost the chance to catch up on what is happening in the wider world.”

Twilight smiled, forgetting some of her previous trepidation and fear that had lingered with her since she had first heard she was going to the infamous lost village of legends.

“Do lunar pegasi drink blood?” she suddenly asked.

The blunt question made the doctor stop and blink owlishly a few times. “What?” He scratched the back of his neck with a hoof. “Well, I suppose we can, though it's not like vampires or anything. We can digest complex proteins found in blood and meat, but we are still mainly herbivores. Do… do the beings out there think we drink blood?”

Twilight blushed. “Maybe? There are a lot of myths floating around and it's hard to separate fact from a thousand years of fiction. Never mind the fact that there aren't any lunar pegasi in Canterlot, so it's not like I could just ask somepony on the street.”

The stallion merely grunted at that and moved back to finishing his work, his demeanor dampening slightly as he focused more attention at the task at hoof. Twilight, however, soldiered on, undeterred by the change in atmosphere. “Are lunar pegasi purely nocturnal?”

“Though more trouble than it’s worth, we can switch to sleeping during the night if need be, much akin to other ponies who are traditionally diurnal,” he answered robotically, as if reading from a text book.

Twilight rubbed her chin idly, unaware of the brace that should be painfully tight by now. Fluttershy’s ear twitched at the firm sound of another series of clamps being shut around the unicorn’s leg.

“Do lunar pegasi-”

“Look, I get that you’re inquisitive, but there are books on our basic anatomy and history that exist, you know,” Little Hoof snapped.

Twilight gulped. “That's fair.” The mare looked down at her limb, noting the fact that almost all the buckles, belts and clasps were now secure. “How much longer, doctor?”

At the mention of his official title, the stallion straightened his back slightly, a hint of pride worming its way into his thoughts. He quickly tightened one last belt and secured it in place. “Just need to activate the runes and then you are ready to go. Just give me a second to go grab someone magically attuned and I will have you out of here in a moment.”

As the stallion moved towards the door, Twilight glanced down at the brace. “Wait, is it a simple reinforcement and weight distribution matrix?”

The lunar pegasus stopped and turned. “Uh, yes, that's what the instruction manual said.”

“Then if it's all the same, I can do that myself. I don't want to take up any more of your time.”

The stallion blinked twice. The complexities of the activation runes supposedly necessitated special training and aptitude, and there were only three individuals on staff attuned enough with magic to even activate it. Who was this mare?

His questions and confusion doubled when the mare’s eyes grew black and her horn became marred by a swirling reverse glow that sucked the light from the area around the mare’s horn. After a tense moment her magical senses receded, her eyes returned to normal and the unnatural darkness swirling about her horn dissipated. A moment later the brace clicked and glowed for a second before locking into place, the runes activated perfectly.

As if nothing incredibly disturbing had just happened, the unicorn stood up, tested her newly braced leg and grinned. “Thank you very much for your kindness. I won't forget this, doctor.”

The stallion merely stepped to the side, at a loss for words and suddenly aware of the fact that he did not want to be between her and wherever she may want to go.

“Come on, Fluttershy, we are off to find that zebra you mentioned.”

The bunny got up and yawned. “Sorry for dozing off, Twilight. Tt seems like Ms. Fuzzibuns was a little more tired than I thought. What did I miss?”

The stallion wanted to interrupt and mention the disturbing show of magic, but he thought better of it and kept his mouth shut for now.

“Not much, you were only out for maybe a minute.” The unicorn stretched briefly before walking next to the examination table, allowing the small fuzzy creature to hop up onto her back.

With Fluttershy secure, Twilight walked tentatively to the door, her courage building as the brace did as it was supposed to. She nodded to the stallion as she walked through the door. “Thanks again doctor, you are a lifesaver. Next time I have a moment, I promise to come down and have a chat under nicer circumstances.”

The bunny smiled weakly as they passed by, whispering her thanks as well. After the soft clip clop of hooves that was occasionally interrupted by a more mechanical clack disappeared into the distance, Little Hoof breathed a sigh of relief. He wasn't a magical expert by a long shot, knowing only enough to diagnose the most basic and common of magical afflictions, but the terrible feeling of wrongness that accompanied her show of magic was enough to make him worry.

“No, it's not my place to make baseless assumptions. I will just bring it up with Arcane when she is in later. No reason to get all jittery.” Despite his self-talk, he was doing exactly what he told himself he had no reason to do, wringing his hooves nervously together as his mind wandered.

Absently, he made his way over to the door and shut it firmly before flopping down onto his office chair and staring off into space. After a few moments he got his breathing under control, and a minute later he had finally calmed his racing mind down and reminded himself to take his anxiety meds when he got off his shift.

With his mind at ease, Little Hoof breathed in a deep lungful of air and glanced at the clock, noticing it was only ten minutes before his shift was up. He made the executive decision to leave a few minutes early, under the logic that he had been coming in early these past few days anyway. As he stowed his personal effects and quickly got his desk in order, he turned to the door, running a hoof over through his mane and reaching for the knob.

A sudden trio of heavy knocks from the other side of the door nearly startled the poor doctor out of his skin, making him leap into the air, pumping his wings and sending himself across the room before he got a hold of his bearings once more.

With fur on end and wings flared, standing atop the examination table, he called out in a squeaky voice a few octaves higher than normal. “W-who is it?”

“Hey Little Hoof, it's me, Blue Leaf. Can we come in?”

Breathing a sigh of relief, Little Hoof forced his wings to come to rest at his sides. “Door’s open, come on in.”

The portal opened to reveal a smiling lunar pegasus clad in armor, eyeing him with a curious expression. “Did I catch you at a bad time, doc?”

Little Hoof looked at his perch and rolled his eyes, hopping down from the examination table. “No, just startled me is all. Is there something I can help you with?”

The guard gave the room a quick once-over and popped his head out into the hall. “All clear, I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Roger that,” said a new, deeper voice just beyond the door.

Little Hoof scratched his leg awkwardly. “Am I in trouble, officers?”

Blue Leaf closed the door and turned around, his friendly smile still plastered on his face. “No, no, just a precaution is all. It's always protocol with Steel Tempest.” The guard pony rolled his eyes and eyed the visitor’s chair. “May I?”

Little Hoof gestured to the chair and sat in his own. “Of course.”

The guardspony sat. “Thanks. You know, just between you and me, I think it's the name.”

“I'm sorry, what?”

“His name, Steel Tempest. He was doomed to be too serious since the day he was born.”

Little Hoof cracked a smile. “With a name like that, I suppose it would be odd if he wasn't a little bit of a hard ass.”

Blue Leaf suddenly became serious, his smile falling away. Little Hoof almost instantly began panicking, thinking he had crossed a line, but before he could apologize the friendly smile was back and a boisterous laugh was on the guard’s lips.

“Too true doc, too true.” The guardspony took his helmet off and placed it on the ground next to him. “Hope you don't mind me getting a little more comfortable, that helmet always makes my ears itch.” Blue Leaf ran a hoof over the aforementioned appendages.

“So, if I'm not in trouble and this isn't personal, then why are you here? If you don't mind me asking of course.”

“Just got an interesting report from one of the scouting towers. Apparently Fluttershy brought us a rather interesting stray this time around.”

The diminutive doctor snorted uncharacteristically. “That's one way to put it. That pony had the worst set of compound fractures I've ever seen, nevermind whatever magical ailment she has.”

“Magical ailment?” the guard asked inquisitively, leaning in slightly.

Little Hoof leaned forward, his voice lowering slightly. “Get this, her magic was black. I’m no expert, but that's gotta be bad. I mean, not even ponies that have black coats and black manes have black auras like that.” The stallion opened his mouth to continue, then closed it suddenly, shaking his head.

Blue Leaf raised an eyebrow at that. “Go on, doc. You seemed like you were going to say something more.”

“Well, this may sound like I'm jumping to conclusions, but the weirdest part was the fact that she didn't seem to feel any pain.” The doctor winced, imagining living with such a brutal injury.

“What do you mean?”

“Her back leg was completely snapped in at least two places and it would take a mountain of gems and half the staff to fix an injury like that. But it's not like she had that kind of money, so I just fixed her up with brace that is usually reserved for paralysis victims or individuals who have lost a part of a limb. The strapping and activation of the brace is excruciating, but she never once made a peep.”

The guard pony put his helmet on his lap and let his chin rest on it. “Not even a little bit? I mean, I have only ever broken my nose and even then you can bet your bottom gem I still bitched and moaned when I had to get it put back into place.”

“I remember that. You ever get that drunk Digger back for that?”

Blue Leaf sighed. “I didn't have to, poor bugger drank himself into an early grave shortly thereafter, but that's not why I'm here. Anything else you can tell me about this strange individual?”

“Only that she seems to be quite proficient in magic. She called on her magical senses and activated runes that usually take a proffessional a few minutes. She did it in a few seconds! Plus I think that was her first time ever seeing those specific runes.” The doctor leaned back in his chair, studying the guard pony as he digested the information.

After a few seconds, Blue Leaf sat up and put his helmet back on his head. “Well, thanks for the info, doc. I gotta go talk to the higher-ups about this.” Blue Leaf hopped down from his chair and made his way to the door.

“She isn't a threat, is she?” Little Hoof called out, a hint of worry in his voice.

“Let's hope not. If you see her again, let me or Steel know, alright?”

Little Hoof nodded his head vigorously. “Of course.”

“Good morning, doctor. Pleasant dreams.”

“Same to you!” Little Hoof called out after the retreating form of the guard.

When the clip clop of hooves once again receded down the hall, Little Hoof sighed. “I am so eating that cake I was saving.” With sugary delight fresh in his mind, Little Hoof began his journey home.

Meanwhile, two other beings were heading back into the twisted forest and into the jaws of an uncertain future. Though neither of them knew it, they were again being pushed down the path destiny had paved for them, all the while the evening star burned in want, feeling though it was on the precipice of something either great or terrible.

Only one thing was certain; destiny was at work, and it was only a matter of time before it and its earth-bound host found out what the future had in store for it.

But Not Defeated

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Twilight hummed softly to herself, noting just how easily the brace took her weight, distributing it perfectly while not applying too much pressure to any one point on her flank and upper leg. It really was quite the feat of magic and engineering now that she thought of it. She didn't anticipate something like it in a place like this, not when she was so far from any unicorns capable to make the runes or any ingenious earth pony to create a brace that worked with the enchantment.

She idly wondered as to what being was magically attuned enough to make the runes in the first place. The shifting weight on her back signalled her friend had grown concerned with the silence and tugged gently on the unicorn’s mane.

“How is it, Twilight? Is your leg feeling better? Does it hurt?” The soft pleading tone of the being riding on her back made Twilight’s proverbial heart swell.

Before today she would have written off such concern as suspicious and asked the individual inquiring such things what they hoped to gain. But something about Fluttershy repelled those thoughts from even entering her mind. She was simply unable to be suspicious of such a kind soul that had helped her and wanted nothing in return.

The thought sent a shiver down her spine. I finally have a real friend.

Shaking that thought away, she focused on the path ahead. “It's okay, it feels odd but it doesn't hurt.”

The bunny squirmed slightly on her back. “What do you mean by ‘odd’? Are you sure it it’s not uncomfortable? You are walking a little funny...”

The unicorn smiled gently, she really was the kindest being she had ever known, save for maybe her mother. A sudden urge to protect such innocence swelled inside her. “I’m just getting used to it and by odd I mean… I don't know. It's just weird, the weight is higher up on my leg now so it just feels different, not bad though.”

The bunny seemed to fret for a moment before sighing. “Well, if you are sure…”

“I am. Now, where were we going again?” Twilight looked around, a few feet in front of her the well-manicured grass and trimmed trees ended and the wild forest began.

The forest quickly swallowed what little light emanated from the slowly awakening town behind them. Already they could hear the inhabitants stir in their homes, doors opening and drowsy greetings echoing out of the windows. Despite Twilight’s now assuaged worries, she couldn't help but imagine some fresh horror was behind her, just out of view.

She knew it was probably wrong of her to think that way, but decades of propaganda and stories were hard to dismiss in a single day. She would have disregarded such worries much sooner if she knew what she was, but how could she know such a thing? Having lived her life away from the light of truth, beneath the false sun’s rays.

Fluttershy leaned forward, bracing herself against Twilight’s long neck and pointing a tiny paw into the woods, slightly to Twilight’s right. “There should be a path just inside the woods that will lead us right to her, but we should get moving, Angel is getting tired and you should get some sleep soon as well if you want your leg to heal.”

Twilight nodded, despite the distance she had half walked, half stumbled already and all the stress she had experienced, she didn't feel the silent pull of exhaustion. Though she could feel her eyes droop occasionally, she felt no desire to stop and lay down. She hoped this mysterious being had a potion for what ailed her and was willing to help a stranger. Normally Twilight would have snorted dismissively at such a thought and shook her head, but she had already learned that kindness wasn't as foreign a concept as she had thought.

As she put one hoof in front of the other and waded into the woods, it suddenly occurred to her that she had nowhere to sleep. She hadn't thought about it until now, but a small part of her imagined her bed when she thought of sleep. Despite the fact that it was now many miles away in a potentially hostile environment, a naive part of her just assumed she would be sleeping in her bed, same as almost every night of her life.

It was where she had slept for the last sixteen years after all, minus the disastrous party she had attended and the very few family gatherings she partook in in her youth. A small part of her died at the realization, despite knowing logically that she wasn't just going to skip off home to bed. A piece of her only seemed to realize this fact when faced with the obvious realization that she would not be sleeping in her own bed.

A tear slipped down her cheek, startling her from her reverie.

“Are you okay, Twilight? If you want we can stop for the night, there is a burrow not far from here that would be big enough for you to sleep in. It is actually pretty cozy despite being made of dirt and moss.”

Another tear slipped down her cheek and landed on a small flower sprouting from the thick underbrush. The moment the liquid hit the plant it began to rot, withering away to nothing within moments, vanishing into the tall surrounding grass.

“I’m…” She breathed a deep, unnecessary breath. “I’m okay, just thought of home is all.”

“You miss them, don't you?” Twilight sniffed and wiped her eyes. “I know how you feel, but it’s not too late to see your brother and father, right?”

Twilight nodded weakly, strength slipping from her limbs with every passing second.

“If Rainbow Dash were here, she would say something that would make you determined to see them again. I kinda stink at that type of thing though. So, umm, I just wanna say that I’ll help you as much as I can. If you want my help.” The bunny hugged the back of the unicorn’s neck with all four of her limbs.

Taking a deep breath, Twilight took a step forward, she couldn't keep breaking down like this, not when there was something she could do. Not when she had somebeing there to help her.

With her confidence returning, she strode into the woods. She felt like she should say something or thank the bunny but she couldn't find the words, instead she chose action and continued onward, Fluttershy guiding her with a well-placed tug on her mane every few minutes. Though the forest had been an active place before, now it became downright noisy. Much like the town of Ponyville, the forest itself seemed to be waking up. Every sight and sound drew another question to Twilight’s mind and before long she was pelting her guide with questions.

What was that sound?

What exactly is a manticore?

How does it walk like that with just two legs?

What kind of bird is that?

What does that thing eat?

Her enthusiasm to learn was matched only by Fluttershy’s love of animals and before long, they had wandered slightly off their path, having chased down a rather rare and colorful bird that Fluttershy had enthusiastically referred to as a bird of paradise. Its brightly colored plumage seemed to be every color of the rainbow and as it flew, the few shafts of moonlight that poked through the tree cover made the colors seem even more vibrant than Twilight had assumed was possible.

Though normally she would have been worried that they were getting off course, there was something about having a whole new world to learn about and explore that captured her imagination, while Fluttershy was just happy to finally have somebeing that was as interested in animals as she was. With Fluttershy close at hoof Twilight felt invincible, and why wouldn't she? There was a wild soul on her back that seemed to know everything about every animal they saw and they weren't very far from town, so it should be safe, right?

But we all know what happens when one feels invincible, don't we?

“Did you see the size of that snake, Fluttershy? It must have been thirteen feet long!” Twilight remarked.

“Oh yes, the Emerald Vine snake grows as long and as big as its tree does, so they can grow to be much, much larger,” Fluttershy added with a smile

Twilight gasped, imaging a huge snake as long as the redwoods she had read about. A sudden snapping sound brought her head out of the clouds, her eyes whipping over to a large bush set between them and the path they had wandered off of.

Fluttershy stiffened up, her big bunny ears swiveling to the source of the sound. Noticing the bunny’s sudden tenseness, Twilight stopped moving, her own ears going up.

“What is it Fluttershy?” Twilight whispered.

The bunny leaned forward, whispering directly into the unicorn’s ear, “Something big, walk backwards slowly, don't show it your back.”

Twilight gulped and began backing up slowly, making sure not to trip. After a few steps she slipped behind a large tree and out of sight of whatever creature was close by. Now relatively safe, Twilight let out a sigh of relief.

“Is it following us?”

Fluttershy shrugged. “I don't hear any breathing.”

Suddenly the tree they had been using as cover vanished in a flash of claws, the top half tumbling out of the way to reveal the huge snarling face of a beast made entirely of wood. Twilight’s eyes went wide and she froze in panic. Fluttershy’s high pitched scream knocked her out of it.

In a flash of black light they vanished and reappeared a few feet away, Twilight’s stumbling hooves already under her. Behind them the wolf howled and charged. Its great bulk crashed through the underbrush with ease while the unicorn was left stumbling on awkward hooves.

The creature made short work of the distance between them and only another short, panicked teleport saved them from being sliced in half by the creature’s wicked claws. The wolf stopped, sniffed once, then took off after them once more, easily catching the scent of the pair, though it had no olfactory sense organs to speak of.

“What was that thing?”

“T-t-t-timberwolf!” A sharp pull on the right side of Twilight’s mane was all the warning she needed. She ducked down and to the right. The wolf crashed through a sapling and swung a clawed paw through where they had been a moment earlier.

Twilight put her head down, ducking under a branch all the while her legs desperately carried her forward as she thought of some way out. She had more than enough spells to destroy such a creature, but she couldn't gain enough ground for that to be possible, her spells simply took too long and she couldn't teleport very far. Not with a massive animated pile of wood attempting to turn her into minced meat.

Maybe if she got a little more distance she might… Her eyes shot open and she dove to the left, narrowly missing the timberwolf that had leapt upon the spot she had been a second ago. Putting her hooves under her she pushed her thoughts away. She really needed time to think!

She ducked under a low hanging branch and tried to tune out the bellow of rage that echoed all around her, only narrowly suppressing the desire to quiver in fear. Eyeing up a tightly packed group of trees that was just big enough for her to squeeze through, she poured on the speed as best as her brace would allow and dove through the narrow crack in the twisted wall of wood.

A second later she heard the timberwolf crash into the foliage, its huge bulk making the trees creak but not relent. Breathing a sigh of relief Twilight quickly looked around. Finding what she was looking for in the form of a tall, thick tree with several large wide branches, she fired off a quick teleport.

From her new vantage point she could see the lumbering form of the timberwolf round the other side of the tree wall and stop suddenly where Twilight had vanished.

As quietly as she could, she whispered, “What exactly is that thing? An animal of some kind? Can you possess it?”

The timberwolf snooped low to the ground below them, sniffing the forest floor, looking for its lost prey.

The bunny continued to shiver, gripping Twilight’s neck tighter. “It's the spirit of a lost lone wolf that doesn't know it’s dead and inhabits the wood it died near. I can only borrow creatures that are alive and I know are nice.”

Twilight’s muzzle twisted into a grimace, that made things far easier.. She had no remorse for such a creature. “A simple fire spell should do the trick then.”

Twilight’s face twisted in concentration and the strange black aura surrounded her horn, only to be cut short when a frantic voice stopped her just as she brushed her magic up against the wolf, measuring the distance and calculating how much power to put into the spell. A strange tingle ran down the base of her horn for a second before it was extinguished, along with Twilight’s concentration. “Wait! The forest hates fire!”

Twilight cursed under her breath, trusting her friend despite how crazy that had sounded. “Then what are we supposed to do?” she replied, more angrily than she intended.

“Stay quiet and hope it gets bored, its sense of smell is good but its eyesight is poor.”

Nodding to the bunny, the unicorn turned her attention down to where the wolf had been moments ago, only to blink in surprise. “Where did it go?”

“I don't know. Twilight this is bad, can you do that flashy thing again? We need to get out—”

A thunderous crash and the shaking of the tree interrupted the terrified bunny and sent Twilight scrambling. The pair exchanged a worried glance before looking down to find the snarling timberwolf scramble up the side of the tree, only to slip back down the trunk, its claws unable to find purchase. Even then it had managed to climb nearly half way up before gravity won the fight and sent it tumbling back to the ground.

“Now what do we do?”

“I don't know, I usually just run away!” The bunny tugged on Twilight’s mane and pointed to the top of the tree. “Put me up there and I’ll go see if I can't borrow some other creature bigger and scarier than the timberwolf.”

Twilight nodded, trying to ignore the second slam and subsequent clambering against the base of the tree as the timberwolf managed to gain a few feet, now almost able to reach the lowest branch on the tree. Twilight gulped and turned away from the snapping jaws of her pursuer and lit her horn.

The bunny shivered as she was enwrapped by Twilight’s magical aura, waiting patiently as Twilight carefully lifted her up and through the branches to her destination.

“Almost there, you can do it, Twilight!”

Carefully Twilight pushed on, maneuvering her small friend around the twisting branches until Fluttershy was nearly there, her tiny paws reaching out for the branch, only for the sudden shake of the tree to break her concentration. Twilight watched in panic as her small friend began to fall, her paws too small to reach any of the branches.

Ignoring the sound of the timberwolf clawing its way up the tree, Twilight concentrated and grabbed the bunny in her telekinetic grip. She had seconds until the timberwolf reached the first branch and if it got a grip from there… She chose not to think about that, all of her attention was needed on her friend. With a less than gentle push she tossed the bunny up and towards the tallest branch where Fluttershy was just barely able to hold on to.

“Twilight, watch out!” Fluttershy pointed down to where the clawing had drawn closer.

Twilight spun around just in time to see the timberwolf’s paw grip the branch and began to heave itself upwards. The unicorn panicked, pushing every ounce of telekinetic power into a shove. Pointing her horn down at the monstrous wolf, she pushed past her usual elegant spell casting and simply brute forced it with as much mana as she could.

The air distorted and rippled in the blast’s wake until it impacted the wolf’s paw with a sharp crack. Recoiling in agony, the wolf let out an ear piercing shriek of confusion and pain, chunks of its paw flying in all directions.

Twilight blinked, she had never been able to muster a push so strong in her entire life and stranger still was the… connection she had felt with the wolf when she felt her magic touch it again. There was a familiarity there, almost as if the creature’s innate magic was close to her own.

A sudden crack drew her eye to the branch she had been standing on. The ancient oak was strong and able to easily support her weight mere seconds ago. Now it was thin, sickly and sported blackened sections that seemed to have grown from around her hooves.

Thinking quickly, the unicorn scrambled closer to the tree trunk, narrowly avoiding the rest of the branch as it creaked and snapped under the combined effort of the sudden rot and her clambering hooves. She tossed a quick glance up at Fluttershy, noticing the telltale light had left the bunny’s eyes and left behind a terrified and panic ridden animal devoid of true intelligence.

The keening cry of the wolf below brought Twilight’s eyes back down to where the creature gripped the shattered remnants of its paw. Chunks of nearby wood twitched and slowly began to move towards the wolf, gathering at the base of the creature’s wrist and moving to fill in the gaps Twilight had created when she had blasted it.

Looking down at the tree, Twilight could tell the beast had been close and though she didn't doubt she had a few more well placed blasts left in her. What she did doubt was the strength of the branch holding her up, if whatever happened the first time happened again she would be forced to look for another tree. Looking around, Twilight couldn't see any branches thick enough to support her weight and even the closest trees seemed to shy away from her.

Brushing that thought aside, she looked around, past the trees and further into the wood. In the distance the vibrant green of the forest was marred by a smattering of grey that stuck out like a black eye. Squinting, Twilight was barely able to make out a dried up riverbed that had several large rocks along its side and top. The bottom was narrow and the sides steep, if she could lure it closer she could loosen one of the boulders with her magic and use it to crush her foe and hopefully not her. If she teleported that far away she may need tempting bait for the creature... Her eyes traveled up to the bunny that clung to the tallest branch with all four limbs, shaking hard enough it was nearly vibrating.

Twilight shook her head. No. Live bait would work but what would Fluttershy do? She would be kind. Letting out a sigh Twilight looked down to the wolf just as the last remnants of its paw reassembled. The wolf stretched its new paw, testing it before setting it down and looking up at the unicorn, snarling.

Live bait would work after all. Gritting her teeth, she teleported down and towards the cliff she had seen in the distance, but not far enough that the beast would lose her scent. From her new vantage point she could see the timberwolf stop and look around, only to see a smaller morsel at the top of the tree and launch itself upwards.

A dark thought entered Twilight’s mind, if she ran now the wolf might get the bunny, but it wouldn't get her. No, she shook her head and gritted her teeth, Fluttershy had shown her kindness and she would too!

“Hey why don't you pick on someone your own size, you overgrown kindling!”

The wolf’s ears perked up on the top of its head but it did not stop, leaping up to the lowest branch and beginning to heave itself upwards, its bulk straining the branch without breaking it.

Twilight lowered her horn and fired off another telekinetic push, the rolling ball of force rippling towards its target and flying right past. Cursing her aim, Twilight readied another until she thought again of the strange familiar tickle she felt as the blast rolled past the creature. What was that sensation? An odd feeling of deja vu filled her.

She felt as though she had done this exact same thing before, only long ago. She was tempted to brush the feeling aside, but it was strangely captivating, leading her down a path that ended with a suggestion. Pull.

Twilight didn't know where the thought came from but the confidence, and power that it radiated, demanded that she act. Without thinking she followed the voice’s demand and without thinking, pulled, willing the timberwolf towards her and away from the defenceless little bunny clinging to the top of the tree.

The timberwolf lurched backwards, its body suddenly pulling away from the tree while its paws reached out and tried to grab the trunk. Twilight grunted, digging in her hooves and pulling with all her magical might. The timberwolf growled in frustration and pushed off the tree, breaking Twilight’s grip and tumbling to the ground.

Within an instant the beast was back up, now facing the confused and vulnerable unicorn. This time there was no howl or snarl. It simply began to run directly at her as if its entire existence depended on reaching the strange unicorn.

Twilight’s hooves flew in a panic, nearly tripping over herself as she spun around and began running towards where she had seen the cliff, the lingering deja vu replaced with blind panic. This time the wolf didn't take its time dodging and weaving around all but the smallest trees and bushes. Simply leaning into the larger trees and simply bowling them over despite the fact that such a tactic slowed it down. The previously careful hunter now seemed possessed, as if its mind was consumed with a single purpose, a single command.

Firing off another short range, half-calculated teleport, Twilight narrowly dodged the timberwolf catching up with her. However, the sudden expenditure of mana and constant running had taken its toll. She could already feel a strange sense of exhaustion beginning to overcome her. Her limbs felt heavy, her body strangely empty. Pushing those thoughts from her mind, she ran on. I will sleep when I’m dead. she thought grimly.

Breaking through a small bush, she could see the dry riverbed rise out of the forest, ignoring the obvious fact that such a thing should be impossible to simply appear in the middle of the forest. Sure enough, the large rocks she had seen earlier were there, dotting the sides and top of the riverbed as if positioned there by some other force that foresaw her vulnerability. The timberwolf burst through the brush a moment later, its weight crushing the foliage beneath it.

The unicorn yelped and kept running, trying to think of way she could execute her plan without opening herself up to the wolf’s jaws. She eyed the ridge and tried to quickly complete the necessary calculations, but the complexity of the spell was too much. The variables were simply too numerous, she had to take into account her speed, direction and too many other things for a pony that still had to focus on not getting bitten in half by an undead tree monster.

Ahead she could see the sides of the riverbed slowly narrowing until it turned suddenly, becoming dangerously close together. Above her a flash of pink caught her eye and suddenly a boulder around forty feet away came loose and began rolling down the sides of the riverbed. The thunderous howl of the great beast still on her tail made her legs fly into action once more.

Pouring on what little speed she had left, Twilight pushed her heavy limbs to their limit while no doubt testing the durability of her new brace. With a resounding crash the boulder bounced off a ledge and rocketed into the air. It was at least three times bigger than the unicorn and would have no doubt turned her into paste if she didn't keep moving.

Firing off one last short range teleport, Twilight cried out in agony as a fresh surge of exhaustion morphed into a stab of pain. That was the least of her worries and with the last few stumbling steps carried her under and past the falling rock’s shadow. The great rock narrowly missed the stumbling mare and instead landed squarely on the timberwolf’s neck, crushing the majority of the creature’s upper body and separating its head from the rest of its body

Twilight stumbled, her hoof catching a loose rock and carrying her into a pile of smooth river rocks where she landed in a heap. Head spinning and senses scattered, she lifted her body only for dizziness to overcome her, forcing her to drop back into the pile of rocks. She sighed. Judging from the fact the back half of her body hadn't been bitten off, she had to assume the mysterious stranger had been successful in helping her, either that or she was in some serious shock.

She hardly even noticed the tumble of rocks and debris as the mystery being slid down and landed next to her.

“Hey, are you alright? Hello? Everfree to random unicorn, come in sparkle butt.” Her rescuer giggled and prodded her shoulder.

Twilight grumbled, wincing as the headache pounded even harder in her head. Something about the mare just being close to her was enough to make her headache worse than falling face first into a bunch of rocks.

“Back up, would ya?” the unicorn mumbled.

The mystery being took a tentative step back. “Well it’s good to hear you can still talk at least, I thought that last tumble might have knocked a few screws loose.”

I don't need help in that department. Twilight thought grimly. Stumbling to her hooves, Twilight nearly toppled back into a heap. However, her forehoof found something curious. A small patch of greenery had grown beneath the cracked and dry riverbed. Though it was little more than three flowers and a hoofful of grass, it was vibrant and growing strong, and its life essence would be just barely enough to break the unicorn out of her funk, whether she knew it or not.

The instant her hoof crushed the flowers and grass she stopped, breathing in a deep and steadying breath. While the life beneath her hoof shriveled and died, becoming little more than a black patch of earth, covered in a thin layer of dust, the mare became more alert, the exhaustion that plagued her lessening enough to allow her senses to return.

Steadying herself, Twilight let out a sigh, thankful her pounding headache had receded somewhat into a dull thumping at the back of her mind. “I’m okay. Just gotta breathe.”

Opening her eyes she turned, expecting to see the pony form of her wild soul friend, only to see a very different sight. The being before her was definitely equine, she was almost as tall as Twilight, which would make her easily tower over the bat ponies she had seen so far. Though she wasn't as tall as Twilight, she was easily much wider, her limbs were stocky and incredibly well muscled and Twilight couldn't help but imagine how easy it would be for the being to crush her head like an oversized grape.

Oh and it definitely was a she, or at least Twilight assumed from the voice and the fact that its coat was offensively pink. Or at least Twilight assumed it was a she, maybe they used different pronouns or only had one gender. Twilight stared her savior up and down, her curiosity beating out her manners.

Whoever they were, she looked like a pony save for the fact that where its fur should be there was a hard substance that reminded Twilight of stone. Twilight squinted, the substance definitely weren't scales but they did line up at regular intervals and seemed to serve as natural armor. They looked thick and some seemed to glint in what little light there was, as if they had veins of minerals running through them. The only hair on the creature’s body were its voluminous mane that leaped out of its skull and its equally poofy tail.

Twilight blinked twice and realized she was staring and the being had said something.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“I’m a troll, that's why you are looking at me all funny, right? Not literally funny, but you know.” She giggled. Her voice definitely was feminine, but there was a… rumble, a promise of power just beneath the polite facade it wore.

“Yes, sorry I’ve never met one of your kind before. I apologize for staring. Were you the one that knocked that boulder down?” Twilight motioned up to the place the boulder had been sitting mere moments ago.

The creature smiled. “Yuppers! That big nasty timberwolf seemed a little peeved at you for some reason.” The mare giggled, glancing down to her right where the empty eyes of the timberwolf lay dormant, its huge head little more than an inert pile of twigs now.

“Well thank you very much, uh?” Twilight winced but the mare picked up on her awkwardness quickly.

“Pinkie Pie,” she said with a smile.

“Twilight Sparkle.” The unicorn extended her hoof to which the troll enthusiastically bumped, a small tingling running up her limb after making contact with the unicorn.

“Ooh neato, nice to meetcha Twilight. What were you doing way out here?”

“Well I was following my friend, Fluttershy. She told me about a healer that could help fix my leg.” The unicorn lifted her back leg and showed it to the troll who grimaced at the sight.

“Yowch, how long do you have until it turns into a tree?”

“What?!” Twilight spun around to find the brace had collected quite a few small branches and leaves during her mad dash through the woods. Rolling her eyes Twilight lit her horn and extracted the plant matter between the brace and her leg.

A presence stirred within the shattered remains of the timber wolf the second her horn lit up, a lost soul saw a light and had leapt with a renewed vigor back into the body it had just been pushed out of.

All at once the disassembled head reassembled itself. Its eyes saw prey close and it lurched forward. Its belly rumbled despite the fact that it did not exist and its teeth sought soft, undefended pink flesh.

“AAAAH!” the troll screamed, a sudden pinch all the warning she got before her leg was bitten clean off in one swift bite. In her panic the troll attempted to lurch forward, away from whatever had bit. She managed only a single stop before toppling to the ground in a heap that sent a tremor through the earth.

Twilight backpedaled, narrowly avoiding getting crushed beneath the larger being. The bodiless timberwolf messily tore into the dismembered leg, spraying bright green blood everywhere.

The unicorn grit her teeth and lit her horn, firing off another concussive blast that sent the head spinning away. Losing the grasp on its snack, the timberwolf tried to turn but without a neck or body all it could do was snap and growl angrily at the rock wall it was facing. Twilight stared down the bodiless timberwolf, only moving after it became apparent that it could do little more than snarl angrily at nothing.

Letting out a sigh, Twilight turned away from the timberwolf, readying herself for the grim task of helping some being she had just met with getting their leg amputated. However where she assumed there would be a scene out of a horror novel, complete with crying and loads of blood stood a somewhat disheveled Pinkie Pie, balancing on the tips of her three remaining hooves, looking over Twilight’s shoulder at the timberwolf with considerably more calm than Twilight would have guessed.

“Is it dead?”

“Uh.” Twilight looked over her shoulder to where the timber wolf remained, its eyes spinning backwards in their sockets to glare angrily at the pair. Well that's going to be in my nightmares tonight. “I guess.”

“Whew.” The troll wiped the sweat from her brow and grinned. “We better get back to my teacher’s place before another nasty critter like that shows up.”

“Wait, doesn't that hurt?” Twilight grimaced, pointing down to the ravaged chunk of leg that was still bleeding strange green blood.

“What, this?” Pinkie waved the quarter of her back leg still attached. “Nah, I lose legs all the time. Why, this is the third time this month I lost righty.” She giggled and turned towards the point of the cliff she had slid down and called over her shoulder. “You coming?”

Twilight shrugged and followed, morbidly fascinated at the fact that Pinkie seemed as adept on three legs as she was on four, easily hopping up the slippery side of the riverbed with little difficulty. The unicorn shook her head, the beings around here were strange, that much was certain. Once on top of the cliff, Twilight stopped and took a breather, taking the time to look around for Fluttershy.

The troll didn't notice and bounced further into the forest. “Wait up Pinkie, we have to find my friend Fluttershy.”

Pinkie spun around and giggled. “She's right above your head, silly.”

Twilight looked up to find a very awkward hawk doing its best to hide its bright teal eyes. “Oh um, hello Twilight.” The bird winced and hid behind a wing.

“What’s wrong? You didn't get hurt trying to find help did you?”


“Did Angel get hurt?”


“What’s the matter, Fluttershy?”

The bird gulped. “I just… I couldn't… You almost died and I couldn't do anything.”

Twilight smiled softly and extended her hoof up towards the bird. “It's not your fault.”


“No buts, you did your best and in the end it all worked out.”

Peeking out from behind its wing, the bird stared down at the unicorn. “You mean that?”

“Of course, now hop on and let's go see this Zecora pony or being or whatever.”

Gingerly, the bird hopped down Twilight’s extended leg and perched on her back, settling into a comfortable spot. “Hiya, Fluttershy!”

“Oh, hello Pinkie Pie. I see you lost righty again.”

“Yup!” Pinkie waved her stump leg at the pair, much to the dismay of Twilight’s stomach.

The bird just laughed. “I don't suppose Zecora would have something to help with Twilight’s leg, would she?”

“Oh pisha Flutters, we don't need Zecora for that. Why I already got a super awesome brew that should fix our new friend up right as rain!”

New friend. Twilight stopped and blinked, she had made two friends already. Funny, she had spent sixteen years in Canterlot and had never made even a single real friend. Thoughts of Moondancer were pushed from her mind, she had real friends now. The thought left a bitter taste in the back of her mouth, in the sixteen years she had lived amongst her own kind she hadn't made a single real friend but she stumbles blindly through the Everfree for a mere day and meets two.

As Twilight followed Pinkie deeper into the forest, she couldn't help but grin. Sure, she still had to avenge her mother and reach her family once more and despite the frequent danger that seemed to be doggedly following her, things seemed to be looking up. The thought of gaining friends so quickly made the unicorn’s paranoia spike, the fact that it felt so natural put her fears to rest for now.

The rest of the walk to Zecora’s place was a quiet one, occasionally Fluttershy would take off and scout around, but the forest seemed clear of anything dangerous save for a poisonous plant or two. Twilight could tell the troll wanted to speak, several times she would turn and open her mouth only to stop and mutter about it not being safe here. Trusting her new friend more than she cared to admit, Twilight kept her mouth shut and her eyes open.

It was as if the woods themselves could feel their vulnerability and had decided to pity the poor trio. Or perhaps it was simply intimidated by the defeat of one of its more dangerous denizens. Either way, they made it to the shaman’s residence without being interrupted, stopping only once when they found a blackberry patch and even than they only paused long enough to eat a couple hooffuls of the juicy fruit before moving on.

With blackberry stained hooves and beak, the trio pushed through the last wall of foliage that divided the forest from the shaman’s residence. Twilight’s mind had run rampant, imagining the fairytale like abode that such a renowned healer must have and was not let down one iota. In a small clearing a large squat tree had been hollowed out and was clearly being used as the shaman’s residence. Masks hung from branches all around the clearing, all facing away from the tree home. Twilight deduced they must have been used to scare off animal life as the clearing was strangely quiet and devoid of the usual chatter of the forest.

Fluttershy gripped Twilight’s back with her talons, her eyes darting back and forth. “You alright back there?” Twilight asked, turning to face the frightened hawk.

“Y-y-yeah, Steven is just a little scared of the masks.”

“If you close your eyes I will tell you when we are inside.”

“Thanks, Twilight.” Breathing a sigh of relief, the hawk hid beneath her wing and shut her eyes tightly, calming the body it resided with a quiet hum.

Inside the house tree Twilight could see several candles burning and beyond that a larger fire set beneath a great pot at the center of the home. Stowing her curiosity for now, Twilight quickly trotted past the masks and the door held open by a smiling troll.

“Were inside now, Fluttershy,” she whispered.

The hawk peeked from behind its wing and looked around the hut in wonder. “It's so cozy in here. I never saw the inside before...”

Pinkie grinned from ear to ear. “Thanks! Part of being her apprentice means keeping everything spic and span!”

Twilight’s mouth hung open as she inspected the home. In one corner several masks rested against the wall in various states of completion. In another she could see a small bed fit for some being much smaller than her, next to it on the floor was a bed roll just barely bigger than Pinkie Pie. Twilight rolled her eyes at the sight, it was almost as pink as her troll friend and had tiny blue and yellow balloons sewn all over it.

Beyond that, every nook and cranny of the hut seemed filled with ingredients both mundane and extraordinary. In one corner Twilight could see simple sage and black rush next to what looked like dragon scale and ironbark. Perhaps most impressive of all was the large pot that sat in the center of the room, where a small fire burned beneath. Though it didn't seem to give off any smoke, she could feel heat emanating from it. Twilight leaned closer, inspecting the base of the flame and finding a small pile of gems pushed close against the pot.

“Are those fire rubies?”

“Yuppers!” Pinkie responded cheerfully, grabbing a hoofful of the same gems from a nearby ledge and showing them to Twilight.

Grinning, Twilight reached out for them only to stop. “May I?”

“Sure! They are pretty neat, plus they make for a good snack too! Nice and spicy.” The troll hoofed over all but one which she popped into her mouth and began crunching away.

Fluttershy winced at the sound of the gem being crushed in the troll’s teeth while Twilight just gawked. After every few bites a small gout of flame would escape the troll’s lips which she didn't even seem to notice. “Wow.”

Remembering she had a few in her hoof Twilight inspected them as the troll finished her snack. The rubies were about the size of a bit and perfectly round, within them glowed a faint light, like a flicker of a candle. Twilight was pretty sure she had enough curiosities to study for at least a decade and she had only been in two buildings and met a couple beings. What wonders will the rest of the town yield?

Handing the rubies back to Pinkie Pie, the troll swallowed the last of her snack. Her eyes screwed up and after a second of confusion on her guests part Pinkie belched loudly, a small torrent of flame rushing out of her lips and nearly singing Twilight before she ducked out of the way.

“Wow,” Twilight and Fluttershy said in unison.

“I thought trolls were hurt by fire?” Fluttershy hopped closer, eyeing up the much larger being with concern.

“We are! Fire rubies’ fire is different. It doesn't burn like fire fire does, ya know?” Both other beings shook their head, making Pinkie groan. “Fire rubies burn like peppers and fire fire burns like fire. Get it?”

Twilight scratched her chin. “Basically you are saying magical fire doesn't harm you like natural fire would.”

“That's one way of putting it, I like my explanation better though.” The troll’s eyes shot open suddenly and she slapped a hoof to her head. “I almost forgot!” Spinning around, the troll grabbed a small vial from one of the numerous shelves hidden all over the tree home. “Here! This will fix your leg right up.”

Twilight reached out to it, only to stop and eye the troll warily. “How much does it cost?”

“For a new friend? Diddly doodily neighborino!”

“Really? I may not know much about potions, but aren't the ingredients for this type of potion rare?”

“Little bit, but if it helps a friend and helps bring a smile back to your face then it's worth every gem!” The troll fixed her with a huge toothy grin, brimming with confidence, showing off sparkly crushed bits of gem stuck in her gums.

Twilight couldn't help but smile and take the vial, the troll’s happiness infectious. “So what do I do? Drink it… or?”

The unicorn eyed the strangely thick brew in the vial cautiously, the brown liquid hardly moving as she shook the glass container.

“Yup! Just pop it back, all in one go and try not to throw it back up. Trust me on this one it’s twice as nasty coming back up as it is going down.”

Twilight nodded and braced for the worst. Tossing aside the stopper, she took a whiff of the potion. Her assumption was off, slightly. It smelled unpleasant but it also didn't smell as bad as she anticipated, it reminded her of the black tar smell that she remembered from her childhood when they paved the street outside her window.

Before she could think about it, she tossed back the vial and winced prematurely. However after a few seconds of nothing happening she opened her eyes to see the stuff had just barely shifted enough to start flowing down the vial.

“Does this stuff react badly to magic?” Twilight asked, eying the troll.

“Oh what? No.” The troll scratched her head absently. “I don't think so anyway.”

Gripping the substance in her telekinetic field the mare pulled it out of the vial and tossed it down her throat. The thick mucus-like substance slid into her gullet at a painfully slow pace. She had just barely managed to avoid her tongue with all but a few drops. The taste was surprisingly close to what she assumed the black tar stuff the workers had used would taste like.

“Blech.” Twilight swallowed over and over until she was sure she had sucked down every last drop. A thought occurred to her suddenly as she felt the strange concoction slide down her throat.

Why had she trusted this being she had met mere minutes ago? She was sure that if she was in Canterlot, she would have never trusted another pony with such a disturbing liquid but here she tossed it back without much of a second thought. Shaking her head, the mare grinned.

“Thanks Pinkie, how long does it take to work?”

“Oh that?” Pinkie rubbed the back of her neck awkwardly. “I’m not the best at potion making, so it should take about a week.” The troll winced.

“Oh, well that's not bad.” Twilight winced and looked over her shoulder at the hawk.

“Hug her, silly,” the hawk whispered. “She seems self-conscious.”

“Um okay.” Twilight awkwardly stepped over to the troll and after the hawk had hopped off her back, the mare stood on her back hooves and awkwardly hugged the large being.

Slowly the troll hugged back, her own awkwardness vanishing along with her sense of failure. Squeezing the thinner being tightly, the troll giggled. “I like your hugs, they make me all tingly!”

Twilight smiled, that didn't sound like a compliment to her but she chose to take it that way. Disengaging from the stronger being, Twilight stepped back. “Really Pinkie, thank you, but shouldn't you have used that potion? I mean your leg is a little worse than mine.”

Pinkie waved around her leg stump that had thankfully stopped bleeding a while ago. “Nah, that's a busted leg potion, not a leg maker potion.” Grabbing a hoofful of sandstone from a nearby shelf, the troll tossed it back and began to chew loudly. “‘Sides, I just gotta keep up my nutrition and my leg will be back in no time!”

Twilight nodded, she had so many questions about trolls and potions and everything she had seen, but she stowed them away for now. If she had a week of being unable to walk properly, then maybe she could find a library around her and fulfill her seemingly boundless curiosity. Though there was something more pressing she needed to, and that was plan.

First things first, she would need gems in order to get home, though she knew not how she would earn them. She would need supplies, a guide, a weapon of some kind as well as a disguise and fake identification to get back into the city of her birth. Even then, she didn't know how to get any of those things. She would cross that bridge when she got there.

“Hey Pinkie, Fluttershy, do you know where I can make some bits, er, gems?”

“I usually just find my gems lying around, plenty of beings drop them and my animal friends pick them up and bring them to me. Sometimes beings just give them to me. Sorry, I can't help more...”

“That's fine, thanks anyway, Fluttershy.”

“I used to work on my family’s rock farm but that's all the way near the bottom of Cliffsdale. After I left home I was lucky enough to find out about Zecora and after plenty of convincing she let me stay with her and let me learn all the super neat stuff she knows. I never really needed to make any gems, but Zecora gives me some occasionally for helping her with tough stuff. Oh and I make all my party supplies myself!” The troll grabbed a hoof full of homemade confetti and threw it into the air.

Twilight smirked at the display, it looked like dry grass that had been dyed different colors. She had to admit that was a pretty ingenious improvisation. “Darn, you girls aren't leaving me with a leg to stand on.”

“Hehehe, good one Twilight!” The troll laughed deeply, her rumbling laughter so present Twilight could feel it.

She blinked. “Oh yeah, I suppose that was pretty clever. I guess you got the leg up on me there.”

The troll’s laughter doubled and she rolled on the floor, clutching her sides. Twilight was a little more reserved, merely snickering at her own terrible puns. Fluttershy just sighed and covered her face with a wing.

“Not another one of you,” the hawk said with a sigh

Twilight giggled at the hawk’s annoyance. “Can't take the punishment, Fluttershy?”

Fluttershy groaned louder while Pinkie Pie laughed harder, only stopping long enough to add her own pun. “Well you know what they say Fluttershy, birds of a feather flock together!”

While the two other mares laughed, Fluttershy scowled as much as a beaked creature could scowl. “Getting back on topic, I’m pretty sure there is a farm at the edge of town that was looking for help the last time I passed through. No offence though Twilight, but you don't look like you could do a lot of farm work.”

Twilight waved a dismissive hoof. “No, no that's fine, I’ve never been athletic.”

“Oooh that's good thinking Fluttershy, I’m sure Applejack would help Twilight out. Plus it’s almost her big brother’s birthday!” The troll gasped and suddenly reached over and grabbed Twilight’s cheeks. “Do you know what this means?”

“Nwo wut?”

“Double party!”

“Double party?” Twilight shared a confused glance and shrug with Fluttershy.

“Well yeah, we gotta throw you a Welcome to Ponyville party! Plus we can have it at the farm and make it a double party! The fun has been doubled! Huzzah!” The pink mare took on a more regal posture with the last two sentences as if quoting somebeing Twilight had never heard of before.

“Anyway… Thanks again Pinkie Pie, I must have been really lucky you had made a ‘leg fixing’ potion.”

“No luck about it, my Pinkie sense told me someone was gonna come along and need a leg fixer potion.” The troll tapped the side of her head with a hoof and grinned.

“Pinkie sense?”

“Yeah! It was a tail shake followed by a scratchy nose followed by my legs feeling all noodly. After that I just knew someone was gonna need a leg fixer potion…” The pink being scratched her head awkwardly. “Or it was warning me I was gonna get my leg nommed on.” She shrugged. “Oh well.”

Twilight merely shrugged as well, realizing it was just Pinkie being Pinkie. Even being around the troll for mere minutes seemed to make the unicorn realize that trying to think too hard about the strange pink creature would only make her head hurt. Which was a far cry from what usually happened in other realities that involved their meeting, I wonder if it was because this Twilight went through so much craziness in her life so quickly and that made her more accepting of the odd pink being.

“Well it was nice meeting you, Pinkie Pie. I look forward to the party,” Twilight said with a poorly mustered smile.

“Yuperino! Oh before I forget, strawberry, vanilla or chocolate?” The troll pulled a pencil and notepad from her mane and eagerly awaited Twilight’s response.

“Strawberry… no wait chocolate! No wait…” Twilight frowned, deep in thought.

“Why not both?” Fluttershy added.

“That’s perfect, can you do both Pinkie?” Twilight asked.

“Of course! I’m so excited I can't wait until your party with all your friends, it’s gonna be great! Now out you two get going, auntie Pinkie has plans to make and cakes to bake!”

“I’m a year older than you,” Fluttershy mumbled.

“Toodaloo!” With a swift push the pair was out the door and on the curb, the door closed firmly behind them.

Twilight blinked repeatedly. “What just happened?”

“You got invited to a Pinkie Pie party.”

“Oh uh, does she do this for every being?”

Fluttershy simply nodded.

“I’ve never been to a party for me before.” Twilight stared down at the ground between her hooves, lost in thought.

“Not even one?”

Twilight shook her head. “I’ve only been to one other party and that was a disaster.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” the hawk asked sweetly, hopping closer to the mare.

“Not really, sorry it still kind of hurts.” Twilight winced.

“That's okay. We don't have to talk about it unless you want to. Now, why don't we go get some rest, I’m sure you are tired after all the excitement we had today.”


The pair picked themselves off the front step and started back towards town with Fluttershy leading the way. As they walked and flew Twilight’s mind drifted back to thoughts of the pink troll. Sure, she was strange and seemed to defy the laws of linear causality, but considering everything else that's happened recently this just seemed par for the course.

Twilight smiled, she wasn't sure why but becoming friends with her felt… right. As if it was meant to be. Maybe it was how nice and funny the being was or maybe it was something else… Nah, that was silly, she dismissed the thought. It probably wasn't some sort of cosmic destiny, but the pink troll’s sense of humour surely had a fair share in it. Twilight hadn't laughed or smiled as much as she had while in the pink troll’s presence. Not since her brother’s last birthday...

No, she wasn't going to think about that, not now, not while she was starting to make progress back home. Instead she chose to think about the jokes they had shared, much to Fluttershy’s dismay. When she had woken up earlier today lost and alone and so far from home, she had believed she would never laugh again, never feel kindness again nor be able to locate a soul that would stand with her, but here she was.

With hope blossoming in her chest Twilight lifted her head high and dared to dream of a better tomorrow. Of a world where her life was not one horrible misstep after another, blundering further and further towards her own demise.

The mare smiled and picked up her pace, quickly catching up to Fluttershy and smiling widely at the hawk. Who in turn couldn't help but smile back, though that came out more in the being’s eyes as smiling with a beak was a rather difficult task.

Making their way back to town the pair took a more wary pace, frequently stopping while Fluttershy scouted ahead while Twilight lay low, ensuring this walk through the forest would not end at the jaws of some beast. All the while they talked idly, Twilight’s curiosity burning bright as she finally had time to ask some of the many questions she had thought of since her arrival at Ponyville. Fluttershy did her best to answer but she had never really been interested in the how and why of what happened, save for when animals were concerned.

The evening star pulsed joyfully, its light matching the identical flickers from a nearby star. This one was different from the others that had shone so far, its light was pink and where the others stayed in the same spot, unmoving in the sky, this one seemed unbound by the laws of gravity and hopped happily across the night sky.

After a time the stars dimmed and reassembled into their places, their light disappearing once more, fading into the background of many other brighter stars.


View Online

Rainbow Dash peered into the bathroom mirror, staring intently into her own slitted eyes. Her confidence wavered as her mind summoned scenes of failure and disgrace, ranging from the probable to the incredibly unlikely. She shook her head when her mind went down a particularly insane road, imagining her getting chewed out and fired for chewing gum that one time over a month ago.

“You can do this Rainbow Dash, the sergeant asked for you by name. All you gotta do is go up there and look professional. You haven't screwed up too badly recently, so it's probably good, right?” The thestral wilted, her bat-like wings tucking into her sides.

The mare frowned as she stared at her fur with disdain. It was too bright for a thestral, and every time she looked in the mirror, she couldn't help but frown at the sight. Some namby pamby pegasus genes on her father’s side gave her fur of a brighter coloration than she would have liked and a name that she couldn't stand.

It had grown on her somewhat as time went on, but when you were surrounded by others with cool names like Night Stalker and Silent Step, Rainbow Dash stuck out like a black eye. “Why couldn't I have been named something cool, like Night Wing or Red Robin? Actually that second one kind of stinks.”

The mare blew a stray strand of hair out of her eyes. “Augh.” She hated her mane most of all, what kind of thestral had a rainbow mane? Worse still, the last time she had cut it she missed a few errant hairs that were far longer than the rest, now sticking haphazardly out of her mane. She would have gone to a hairdresser but she was embarrassed enough as it was. She frowned and yanked a few of the hairs out of her skull but quickly stopped as the pain beat out her frustration. She would just have to be happy with a short mohawk that had a few stray hairs until she got home and fixed that.

Sighing to herself, she slumped closer to the ground, only for a thump at the door to draw her attention. “You going to take all day in there, Crash?” yelled a deep, yet feminine voice.

“N-no, Ma’am!” Rainbow stuttered back.

“Good, because Swift Wing just came back from town.”

“Uh, so?”

“It's Thursday, Crash,” the thestral officer stated.

Rainbow Dash shuddered, bean day. “Out in a minute!” The mare on the other side of the door merely grunted and left, leaving the thestral alone with her thoughts once more.

The mare took a deep breath and steadied herself, running her hoof over her uniform once more. She silently lamented the fact she wasn't allowed to wear her armor while off duty for what was probably the millionth time. With her uniform straight and orderly, the mare stepped out of the bathroom and back into the barracks.

Down the hall to her left, she could hear the night shift idly chatting with their day comrades as they were changing. There had been more than enough time for the official debriefing to happen, so now it left friends and stragglers to converse while testing their superior’s patience. She yearned to join in and maybe find another friend amongst the guard, but today would not be the day. She sighed, at least this time it wasn't because she was getting teased about her giant clumsy wings.

She turned to the right and made her way up a nearby set of stairs, climbing the tower to the third floor before walking down another hallway and up a different set of stairs to the where commander Dark Hallow’s office was located. When she reached the top of the stairway, she waved at the commander’s assistant who was leaned back on her chair, sharpening a fang with a small file.

The commander's tower was small and there was room for little more than the stairway, a single chair for those waiting for an appointment and Dark Hallow’s assistant’s small desk that sat next to the door to the commander’s office. Rainbow thought it was a little cramped, but to a pure blooded thestral like the commander and his assistant, it was downright cozy.

Rainbow Dash instinctively pulled her upper lip higher, hoping to show off her own diminutive fangs more prominently. The receptionist ran the file over her tooth a few more times before touching it with her tongue and smiling to herself. “You are here to see the commander I presume?”

Dash gulped and nodded. “Yeah, he said to be here ten minutes from now.”

The receptionist blinked owlishly and looked up at the clock hanging above the stairwell. “Well would you look at that, you are not late for once.” Dash frowned which only made the other mare laugh. “Don't be like that Crash, I’m happy for ya, honest. The commander having nothing to complain about makes my life easier.”

“Heh, well this time I had a little extra push to get out of the barracks what with it being bean day.”

The assistant groaned. “Don't tell me Swift Wing is on shift today.”


“Augh. I’m going to have to sneak into one of the officer bathrooms again.”

“Again? Is it true they got heated seats?”

The mare’s eyes went wide and she leaned in conspiratorially. “That's not the half of it, they even got these fancy things that dry your hooves for ya and—”

“Is that Rainbow Dash out there, Mrs Ever Flight?” yelled a slightly shrill stallion’s voice from inside the office.

“Yes, Commander Hallow!”

“Send her in, would you?”

“Right away!” The receptionist turned back to the other mare and shrugged. “You better get in there, he's usually a stickler for his schedules so this must be serious.”

Rainbow fidgeted nervously for a few seconds before the other batpony motioned to the door and whispered, “Go on.”

Gulping down her trepidation, Rainbow pushed open the door and was immediately assaulted by the musty smell of very old books. She crinkled her nose in disgust and tried to suppress the urge to sneeze that crept through her muzzle. The dust that hung heavily in the commander’s office always rankled the young thestral and irritated her sinuses.

She saluted quickly, shaking off the smell. “Commander.”

“At ease,” said the old stallion, motioning to the empty chair across from him. A large easy smile spread across his face, showing off the prominent set of fangs. “Take a seat please, we have a lot to talk about.”

The old stallion was a shining example of a pure blood thestral and even in his advanced age, his mane and tail were still a stark black. Only his deep grey coat had become lighter somewhat as the years had gone by. Even his eyes and size were the epitome of the thestral blood line. His eyes nearly shone in the darkness and Rainbow was quite sure he could probably see in all but the most absolute darkness, his irises were the soft blue of a cloud illuminated by moonlight. His wings were much smaller but Rainbow Dash knew that was in part what made them so perfect, he could duck and weave with precision she could only dream of.

Rainbow Dash gulped and did as she was told, tearing her eyes away from the old stallion. She tried to remain as professional as she could while a nagging voice in the back of her mind told her she was doomed. “Is there a problem, Sir?”

“No, no problem, Private Dash, why quite the opposite. First things first though.” The stallion turned the head of a small bust on his desk. A brief glittering blue sphere expanded outward from the head, rapidly filling the room and passing through everything until it met the walls where it brightened briefly before fading. “There we go, that should stop anybeing from listening in on us.”

Behind the door Mrs Ever Flight cursed silently and put away the cup she had held to her ear, grumbling about Dark Hallow taking away the sole fun part of her job.

Back inside the office the wiry old stallion stroked his chin. “I just want you to know that I noticed what you did the other week down at the Twinkle residence. Stars know that kid has been through enough, and it does this old heart good to see at least one of my guards knows how to handle the young ones.”

Rainbow Dash blushed and rubbed the back of her neck awkwardly. “It was nothing, Sir. I just couldn't sit around when I heard it was her birthday, especially after what happened to her parents.”

The old stallion’s smile widened. “And that is what we need more of in the guard. It’s not enough that the beings here respect us, they must trust us. What you did is precisely how trust is gained.”

The young thestral’s blush deepened and she looked away from the stallion, withering under the unusual amount of praise.

“Which is also why I am choosing you for a special mission.” The mare blinked, the blush gone in an instant. “You know Fluttershy from your foalhood, correct?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“Good.” The stallion stood and began to pace between the large bookcases that lined either side of his office while looking out the window directly behind his desk. His eyes scanned over the town below idly. “Would you be a dear and pack my pipe for me? I’m afraid my old hooves are having trouble with that nowadays.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Top drawer on the left, thank you young one. Getting old is the best reward for an old stallion but the worst curse for a young colt.” He laughed bitterly as he looked out the window.

Rainbow quickly opened the drawer and did her best to ignore all the other cool stuff in there. She rummaged through the contents, avoiding the several medals the commander had won and a ceremonial dagger left without a sheath in the desk. Pulling out the pipe case, she quickly got to work, packing the ornate petrified mushroom pipe with some of the sweetest tobacco she had ever smelled. Which was one reason she didn't mind doing this for the old commander as at least he had a good taste.

“Now, I know I said special mission, but I don't want to get your hopes up. This is going to be little more than a bit of glorified snooping.”

“Snooping, Sir?”

The stallion grunted and turned back to the mare. “Have you heard of the newest arrival in town?” The mare shook her head. “Figured you wouldn't. She just came through town yesterday evening and left just about as quickly as she came, heading back out into the Everfree.”

“She, Sir?” The mare finished packing the pipe. She closed the wooden pipe box and handed the pipe over.

“Thank you, and yes, her. Seems like Ponyville is playing host to a unicorn. Private Dash, do you know what that means?” The young thestral blanched and shook her head. “I assumed as much, you young ones never study history. My pops always said, ‘every stupid thing that could ever be done has been done’ then he’d give me a new history book to read.” The stallion laughed at the memory despite the fact that he had told the same story an innumerable amount of times already.

“Anyway, what that means is that either she is a visitor from the far east or she is from Sun Rock.”

The mare gasped. “Is she a solar spy?”

The stallion lit the pipe with a match and let the nervous mare stew in her anxiety while he gently pulled on the pipe and exhaled slowly. “We don't know. Which is where you come in as that is something we need to know. She was last seen in the company of your old friend, so start your search there, Private Dash.”

The young thestral nodded eagerly. “You can count on me, Sir.”

“Good, I want you to watch her, keep your distance at first but if she seems like she's doing something spyish, then call for backup before going in. I don't want one of my rising stars going missing just because she thought she can handle it all by herself, understood?” The mare’s face lit up at the comment and she nodded quickly. “You will answer only to me for as long as she's in the Everfree. Reports are expected to be on my desk every other day. Oh and before I forget.” Dark Hallow opened another drawer and placed a small bangle on the desk.

It was relatively simple, a thin dark grey metal ring with a raised section in the center. A stylized fruit bearing vine was wrapped around it with a large berry on the raised section.

“You are going to need that. It was a gift from an uncle of mine that had done some exploring in the deep wood. Should make you not need to eat or sleep while you wear it but when you take it off, make sure you are in bed because you’ll pass out immediately.” The stallion pushed it closer to the mare and smiled. “Try it on, I’d hate to go through all the trouble of digging it up only to find out it doesn't fit.”

Rainbow Dash’s trembling hoof grabbed the deceptively heavy bangle. “Are you sure, Sir? Treasures from the deep wood are…”

The stallion waved a dismissive hoof. “Don't worry about it, besides I know you won't lose it, right?”

“Never! I mean, no, Sir.” Rainbow slipped the bangle over her leg and frowned at how easily it went on, right when she was about to take it off, the bangle shrunk and fit snugly on her right foreleg a few inches above the hoof. The young thestral squeaked in alarm and nearly tried to pull it off before realizing it wasn't continuing to get tighter.

The stallion merely laughed at the mare’s reaction. “I didn't know it could do that, I must be going senile in my old age.”

The mare stared in awe at the bangle, eyeing it up from multiple angles with wide, wonder-filled eyes. The stallion leaned back in his chair and puffed on his pipe for a few times, letting the filly-like wonder burn itself out.

“Now, unless you have something else you need to know about your mission, I have a schedule to keep and interviews I need to prepare for.”

Rainbow smiled widely and saluted. “I won't let you down, Sir!”

“I know you won't, Private Dash, I’m counting on you. Dismissed.”

The young thestral trotted out the door and once outside, she squealed at a high enough pitch half the dogs in Ponyville began barking. Mrs Ever Flight clamped her hooves over her ears and grimaced. “What the hell, Crash? Trying to make me deaf or something?”

“No time to explain, I’m on a top secret mission!” Then with a pump of her wings she shot down the staircase and was out of the building in four seconds flat. It had the unfortunate side effect of sending all the papers that had been carefully laid out for the commander’s approval flying all over the room, leaving behind a rather angry assistant cursing the rainbow maned thestral.

Inside the office Dark Hallow took one last long drag on his pipe before exhaling and knocking out the remnants of the tobacco left within. Once his pipe was away, he looked back out over the town of Ponyville. From his tower he could see a good portion of the town and the many beings wandering around. His smile slowly grew until he was grinning like a maniac.

Turning suddenly, he gripped a small moon sculpture from his desk and hugged it briefly. “This mare might be the key, the expert that analyzed the hospital room in which she used her magic has already brought back promising results.”

He lifted the moon statue high in his grip and laughed. “A long shot though it might be, you may soon rise and then we shall finally—”

The door slamming open suddenly broke him from his monologue and he spun around to see a sheepish Rainbow Dash blushing. “Uh, did I interrupt something?”

“No, no of course not. I’m actually practicing for a play I am a part of and I’m rather embarrassed that I keep forgetting my lines. Now what do you need?”

“Well I was wondering if you, uh, knew where Fluttershy went so I can start my search? The Everfree is really big…”

“Oh, uh, yes. She went to the Zecora’s last I heard. Do remember to knock next time.”

“Sorry about that.” Rainbow Dash quickly retreated into the other room and closed the door behind her.

“Where was I? Oh yes— Soon you shall rise aga—”

A rainbow maned thestral poked her head back in and whispered, “Like super sorry.”

Dark Hallow was a patient stallion, but even his seemingly limitless patience had been stretched too far. Hoisting the moon statue up in one hoof, he moved to throw the wooden object at the offending mare, only for her to bolt out the door. Of course he didn't intend to actually throw it, but he got his point across. Unfortunately Rainbow’s quick retreat had the poor side effect of ruining what little progress Mrs Ever Flight had made.

Leaving the mare’s curses behind, Dark Hallow locked the door firmly and walked back to his spot by the window and gripped the statue once again. Only to hold it up and feel none of the power, none of the energy he had first felt. He fell into his chair and tossed the small statue back to its spot.

Leave it to that mare to ruin a perfectly good monologue. He frowned and glanced down at his empty pipe. Maybe a little more wouldn't hurt, after all he did seem to have a headache coming on.

Sunset Shimmer sighed and pulled at her eyelid, staring into her rune-inscribed eyes with disdain in the bathroom mirror. She cursed herself for having wasted so much time gazing at the runes and glowing lines of power that subtly infused nearly every part of her body. She had at first used the excuse that she was searching for a weak link in Celestia’s bindings, but there were none. Now she had degraded to the point where she stood in horror upon realizing that her very eye sockets were infused with Celestia’s hoof work.

She didn't know what the runes around her eyes would do, but when she looked straight up, she could see them better. What little information she could glean was unpleasant in the extreme. The runes seemed to have the basis of a remote viewing spell, but there were many extra lines and layers added that Sunset could only guess at. The fact that somepony could be looking through her eyes at this very moment was a disturbing one, so much so that she had wasted nearly half an hour of her remaining freedom desperately twisting her eyes in their sockets and trying to figure out more.

She put her hoof back down on the cold sink and let out a ragged breath. She had less than an hour of freedom before she was put back in the hole and she would not waste it agonizing over things she had very little chance of changing. Brilliant though she may be, Sunset Shimmer held no illusions that she could break the princess’ enchantments, she had a millennium to spend studying the field and Sunset had only ever been able to study their effects. Adding on the fact that any damage Sunset could do to the enchantments would inevitably be fixed when she was put back under, she quickly realized the futility of resistance.

She threw on a snarl and stepped out into the small apartment she was allowed to reside within for the several hours of freedom she gained every few years. Although using the word freedom was a little exaggerated.

The ‘apartment’ was relatively small and despite the large windows that displayed the city, it did not mean she was several stories above the ground as the view might suggest. The windows were merely remote viewing spells tied to glass and behind them was a solid stone wall, something Sunset had figured out the first time she was allowed to stay here.

Sunset chuckled darkly at the memory, remembering when she had scanned the window only to realize there were no protective barriers. She had leapt through the fake window within seconds, imagining Celestia had merely forgotten to reinforce them only to impact the rock wall a few inches behind them.

Sunset rubbed her forehead at the memory, that had not been a pleasant experience and despite the fact that she had no evidence, she couldn't help but imagine that Celestia had made there be a space between the wall and the fake window which allowed Sunset to build up enough momentum that her impact hurt more.

Shaking her head, Sunset looked around the room. The small cot in the corner lay unused, and though tempting, Sunset had decided not to sleep her freedom away this time. The small kitchenette had a few fresh fruits left in a small bowl that had been welded to the table which was in turn welded to the ground. The sink was tied to a water summoning and water banishing subset of spells, meaning there were no pipes to use as an escape means. Finally in the far corner of the room was a small bookshelf that held several books, most of which Sunset had read several times.

Or, in the case of one book, had written herself. She gently ran her hoof down the spine that bore her name, Reinventing the wheel by Sunset Shimmer. It was not a large book, nor was it professionally bound, but Sunset still swelled with pride every time she saw it. To this day she didn't know why Celestia had let her keep it, maybe to allow her a tiny amount of joy in her life or, what seemed more likely, a grim reminder of her so called fall.

She pulled her hoof from the book as she heard the metal squeal of her ‘apartment’ door opening.

“Down on the ground prisoner 11248!” commanded a strong, slightly distorted voice.

Rolling her eyes and sighing, Sunset lay on the ground, hooves splayed in all directions and eyes facing the ground. The heavy hoofsteps of the guard circled her quickly and plunked the now familiar feeling of a custom inhibitor ring on her horn.

Goodbye magic, she thought glumly.

Next a collar was clamped around her neck and a leash attached to that. Sunset knew very well that such an action was unnecessary but it seemed as though Celestia enjoyed her humiliation. With a sharp tug she stood up and turned toward the door. The guard stared down at her through the gold lenses of his helmet with what Sunset imagined was disgust.

“Follow me, the princess has demanded your presence.” Before Sunset could ask why she was being summoned, her leash was pulled again and she was forced to scamper to catch up with the stallion tugging at her throat.

Sunset was tempted to growl in annoyance or defiance, but she knew how that would end up and she did not desire more pain, despite the brief bit of catharsis she would be granted.

Instead she merely observed the stallion that was now leading her out of the apartment and into the dull grey halls beyond. The guard wore the same full plate that every other did, gleaming steel met gleaming steel to create a seamless blend between plates, revealing not a single patch of fur or flesh. His mane and tail were most likely shaved as there were no traces of either and the armor made no allowances for unnecessary hair.

The silver and gold armor went all the way up to the stallion’s neck where a thick silver mesh of smaller plates bridged the gap between helmet and armor. Sunset was fairly sure that the armor’s seals functioned in such a way that negated gas attacks and most likely pressurized the inside, judging from just how completely the guard was covered. Which would explain the slightly distorted voice that was most likely magically reproduced as the helmet wrapped around the entire head and encapsulated even the guard’s horn.

Sunset wasn't quite sure how they had managed to do that as usually such an act would make spellcasting impossible, but she did not have the time to think about it as the guard stopped suddenly in front of a large oak door the likes of which they had passed dozens of in the time they had spent walking.

“Hold, prisoner,” the guard commanded.

Sunset frowned but did as she was told, standing perfectly still on the spot next to the door that the guard indicated. A golden aura surrounded the guard’s encased horn and the door opened slightly.

“Princess, I have brought the prisoner, are you ready for the interrogation?” The gruff, commanding voice from before was replaced with one of deference and supplication, to which Sunset scoffed.

“Yes, bring her in and then you may leave, your presence will not be needed,” came the reply from what Sunset assumed was Celestia.

“By your will.” The guard nodded once and turned to Sunset. “You heard her, prisoner, get in there.” The guard yanked on her leash and lead her inside.

Sunset bit her tongue and followed closely into the room, only to stop as she noticed the strangeness therein. It was not the tea lounge Celestia liked to use when she gloated, nor was it her containment cell as that was much much further from her little ‘apartment’. The room she was in was much, different than the others she was usually lead to after a mission.

Knives and blades of many different sort lined the walls and in the center was a wooden horse with bindings set in such a way that whomever was placed within would be completely unable to escape. Panicked eyes spun around to see numerous other items of torture, including the equipment necessary to create additional runes. Sunset Shimmer shuddered at the thought of any more of the cursed things being placed on her.

She had been put under for when the majority of the runes was inscribed into her flesh, but the few she had been awake for had been the most painful experience of her life.

“Front and center prisoner!” the guard commanded, tugging her leash hard enough that she nearly choked.

“That will be all, thank you,” Celestia added. The guard nodded to the princess, hoofed over the leash and stepped outside, the door slamming shut behind him.

“Would you kindly take a seat, please?” Celestia extended her hoof, indicating the wooden horse.

Sunset grunted and felt her hooves move on their own, carrying her up and onto the horse without her consent. Once on top, she felt leather straps tighten across her legs and neck, immobilizing her completely.

“Why are you doing this, Celestia? I did exactly as you commanded, yes there was some… fallout, but that was hardly my fault!”

Celestia’s jaw tightened. “That mare’s memories would be nearly impossible to alter with how close those two were. The fact that she is dead does not concern me.”

Sunset gritted her teeth as she felt the straps tighten painfully so. “Then why am I here?”

The alicorn ignored the question entirely and stood before the mare, staring intently at the wall of knives. She reached out for a long sharp knife made for piercing, only to stop and reach for another smaller, serrated knife.

Sunset snorted. “What are you going to do, torture me for fun?” She spat on the floor in disgust. “Just when I thought you couldn't get lower.”

Celestia sighed and stepped around the offending glob of spit, the knife held aloft in her magic. “You are close in your assumption. Yes this is fun, but it is not solely for my enjoyment.” The mare walked around her captive, running the dull side of the knife across her captive’s flanks. “You keep up this facade of ruthlessness and a desire to kill in an attempt to convince me that I should not keep you as a specialist. Isn't that right?”

“You know as well as I just how much I enjoy the act,” Sunset spat.

“Speaking of act, why don't you drop yours?” Celestia stopped and pressed the knife against the other mare’s flanks.

Sunset growled and flicked her tail into Celestia’s face. “If you think this is an act you’re more deluded than I thought.”

The alicorn recoiled slightly, a frown marring her usually perfect mask. Gripping Sunset’s tail, Celestia pulled it straight and swiftly removed the offending appendage in one swift slash. The unicorn merely smirked at the sudden removal of her tail. “Oh no, you’ve cut off my tail! What horrific torture is next?”

“Oh that? I was just removing something that might get in the way. You see Sunset, I had yet another annoying suitor come in today and I got to thinking. What these horny stallions need is a good way to vent their frustrations. Wouldn't you agree?” The mare smirked, giving Sunset’s flank a firm smack.

“You wouldn't…”

The alicorn lifted the unicorn’s chin and forced their eyes to meet, one set of eyes filled with steely resolution, the other filled with desperation. “You are right, I wouldn't.” The alicorn dropped Sunset’s head. “Well not yet anyway, tell me Sunset, in your own words. What happened to Twilight Sparkle?”

“What, are you going senile in your old age? I told the handler everything and you know I cannot lie in those reports.”

Celestia sighed and suddenly slapped the mare hard and fast enough to make her neck strain to as far as it could go without snapping. “Fuck what the hell?” the unicorn spat.

Celestia wiped the blood from her hoof onto Sunset’s flank and tsked. “Language young one. Now I will not repeat this again, in your own words, what happened to Twilight Sparkle?”

“You know very well what happened, you crazy bitch! I popped her heart with the spell you taught me.” The mare snarled, wishing as hard as possible that she could spit in the mare’s face but some latent command laced into her body made such an action impossible to follow through.

“You know very well that I did not teach you that spell. I allowed you to view the unaltered first telekinesis spell. It is you who used it for evil!”

“Evil? Celestia, I was trying to enable doctors to perform surgery without ever having to open a pony up! But all you saw was a way to kill and jumped to the stupid conclusion that I was—”

Another back hoof, this one just as hard and just as fast. Thankfully Sunset saw this coming and was able to brace herself at least a little before the blow came.

“I will not be spoken to in such a manner, you have lost your right to speak until somepony asks you a direct question.” Sunset felt something spark to life within her and the insult that was forming on her lips become unintelligible noise. “There, much better. Maybe a stay in the tank will set you straight. This should give you ample time to regret underestimating a necromancer and undermining the utopia I have spent millennia building.”The alicorn’s face morphed into one of overdramatic pity. “What is it, specialist Shimmer? No come back, no spit of defiance? Why, I am shocked.”

The alicorn tossed aside the blade and walked towards the door, ignoring the incoherent rambling coming from the unicorn. The mare walked through the door and moved to close it behind her, only to stop at the last possible second. “Oh yes, I almost forgot. Silly me, here I was so preoccupied with thoughts of a massage and cake that I nearly forgot to enact your punishment.”

The mare lit her horn and with a flash of power the room went pitch black and the unicorn’s nonsense cries were silenced, the only light or sound emanating from the still open door. “There we are, oh yes and one last thing, Miss Shimmer?” The unicorn blinked and looked up towards the door. “Burn.” With a smirk the alicorn was gone along with all light and sound, leaving Sunset alone.

Alone with the sudden pain of having every inch of her body immolated. Her muscles twitched, her horn sparked and her mouth screamed a wordless cry. She could not smell a fire or feel its heat, but she could feel its fiery touch over every inch of her body.

Thoughts of defiance and promises that she would escape fled the unicorn’s mind, replaced by a seemingly endless pain that burned her to her very soul without damaging her body in the slightest.

In the darkness one mare was given purpose and direction while another suffered untold agony, alone in the abyss.


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Exhaustion, the bane of the mighty, bringing down alicorns and mortals alike. The foe even the movers of the heavens could not overcome had finally settled into Twilight’s bones and the unicorn felt its burning presence acutely.

“Wait.” Twilight gasped and put up her hoof. “Just wait a second.”

Fluttershy landed on a nearby branch and cocked her avian head to the side, staring intently at the unicorn. “Is something wrong, Twilight? Is your leg hurting again?”

The unicorn shook her head. “No, I just need to catch my breath.” She wheezed, her knees shook and her balance wavered, for a second Fluttershy feared her friend may collapse where she stood.

“Maybe it would be best to lay down before we go into town and find you some food.”

“No, I can make it.” The unicorn smiled weakly and took a step forward, only to trip and end up in an undignified heap. “Ow.”

Fluttershy fluttered down to the forest floor and poked the unicorn’s nose with her beak. “Should I go find Mr Bear and carry you back? My burrow isn't far from here.”

Twilight groaned weakly. “Maybe a nap would be for the best, despite my rumbling stomach. I don't think I can make it all the way back to town.”

Fluttershy smiled faintly, or would have, if she had lips. “Okay Twilight, it's not much but I do have a few blankets and pillows for guests.”

“Thank you, Fluttershy, I’m sure it will be perfect. Would you back up a bit? I don't want to fall on you if my legs go weak again.”

The hawk took a few hopping steps back and eyed her friend cautiously, watching as she rose to her hooves once more. Once again on all fours, Twilight’s knees shook and for a moment she seemed as though she was about to fall again. One deep breath later, her limbs ceased their quaking.

“Okay, I think I’m good,” she said more to herself than anyone else.

Fluttershy nodded and took wing once more, never going more than a few feet away from the still wary and unsteady unicorn. Slowly, the pair made their way through the woods, stopping occasionally to allow Fluttershy to scout ahead. They were close now, closer than they were when they met the timberwolf, but neither individual let their guard down as they did before, the stinging reminder for letting their defences lax still present in their minds.

The hawk settled in on a branch just above Twilight’s head and nodded down to her friend, extending a wing north before taking flight once more.

Twilight didn't waste the energy to even nod an affirmation, merely putting her head down and following at a slow pace. At this point she didn't even care that Fluttershy had said burrow and not home, a hole in the ground would be a fine place to sleep.

Eventually, they made their way to the edge of a small clearing, the first thing Twilight noticed was the potent stench of rot. Her nose crinkled up in disgust and she looked around to the source of the foul smell.

All around the edge of the clearing were bits of bones. Scraps of flesh formed small piles near the base of a tree. Twilight took a step back in disgust and looked to Fluttershy for an answer.

“Oh sorry, I should have mentioned the protections my burrow has,” the hawk said casually, looking down at the unicorn from a low hanging branch.

“Protections? How does dead stuff protect you?”

“It keeps predators away. We are close to town but not close enough to be included in the night guard’s patrols. All this,” Fluttershy sweeped a wing over the piles of dead things, “keeps the worst of them at bay and marks this place as my home. Sorry if it’s a little strange to you.”

Twilight shook her head, her reasoning did sound good and she didn't notice any pony-like skeletons in the mix. Most were either wolves, or other canines and a small mixture of other minor predators.

The unicorn held her nose closed and passed through into the clearing. “Wow,” she muttered, her eyes scanning the strangely well-lit section of the forest.

All around her small prey animals scurried, from squirrels to rabbits to many others Twilight didn't know the name of. Above her numerous small song birds welcomed their host with a chorus while larger birds peered down at them with curiosity. At the far end of the clearing a large bear slept soundly, its snoring audible despite the distance.

In the center sat a thin, but very tall tree with many, many branches that spread to cover almost the entire clearing in their shade. Its bark was the lightest shade of brown Twilight had ever seen and its leaves shone with a soft pink when the light hit them just right.

“What kind of tree is that?” Twilight asked, dumbfounded.

“Oh, um, it’s unique. Sometimes the forest grows trees that aren't like any others and this is one of them. I like her a lot,” Fluttershy said with a smile.

Twilight looked down to the bunny Fluttershy now inhabited and started to ask a question, only to stop and mumble, “Sleep first.”

Fluttershy laughed and hopped toward the tree. “Follow me and I will show you around.”

The unicorn’s hooves followed the bunny but her eyes did not, they stared in wonder at the strange tree. Its trunk seemed to be too small to support the weight above it and its coloration was bizarre. Fluttershy said the forest just decides to grow a unique tree. What could that mean?

She shook her head, this wasn't the time for curiosity, maybe one day soon, but not today.

As she neared the tree, she noticed the ground began to slope and large powerful roots could be seen bulging up through the forest floor. Ahead of her a yawning opening revealed itself at the base of the tree, though small, Twilight only had to duck in order to sneak inside and she had no doubt that a bat pony wouldn't have had to duck at all.

Once inside, her eyes adapted remarkably quickly to the darkness, allowing her to see all the strange nick nacks that lined the walls, held up by roots that served as shelves. The inside smelled of earth and wood and... the soft smell of incense?

Twilight sniffed a few times. Yes, that had to be what she smelt.

“Do you like it?” Fluttershy asked nervously, drawing the unicorn’s gaze down and to a corner where a small altar sat, several aged photographs in picture frames leaned against the earth wall, right below a small infinity symbol that seemed to be made of brass. In front of all that was Fluttershy, holding a small gem to the end of a stick of sweet smelling incense.

Twilight nodded her head. “Yeah, it’s sweet, reminds me of cooking with my mom.”

Fluttershy smiled faintly and put down the gem. “It reminds me of my mom too. Sweet Scent in town brings me a bunch every month and these are my favorite.”

Twilight laughed. “She has a very apt name.”

Fluttershy giggled with her. “I suppose she does, these are her specialty after all.” The bunny’s eyes suddenly lit up and she quickly hopped over to a corner and grabbed a small bundle of blankets and pillows. She tried to pull them to a large furry rug in the center of the room but her tiny paws were not enough for the task.

Twilight giggled. “Need a hoof?”

“Mph pwease,” came the muffled reply.

Twilight lit her horn and carried the pile, along with the bunny over to the center and quickly spread them out just so.

Once free from the blankets, Fluttershy blushed and hopped out of the way. “Need anything else?”

Twilight looked down at the small pile of blankets and the rug and shrugged. “Nope, this should be perfect. Thanks, Fluttershy. Are you going to sleep as well?”

Fluttershy shook her head. “I don't need to sleep and I got a snake family I want to check up on before I can relax.”

The unicorn quickly snuggled into the blanket and grinned when she found it to be just as comfortable as it looked, even the pillow seemed brand new. Despite the fact that it was being stored on the earthen floor, it didn't seem to have suffered any damage or have any real trace of dirt.

Even the ground she lay on was oddly smooth. Wrinkling her nose, Twilight tapped her hoof against the rug. The soft thump of wood answered her question, clearly Fluttershy had gone the extra mile in case she was forced to entertain guests.

Twilight cast an eye back to the exit of the burrow and smiled warmly at the waiting bunny. “Thanks again, Fluttershy. I promise I will find a place to stay as soon as possible and pay you back for all this.”

The bunny blushed. “Don't worry about it, what are friends for? You just focus on getting a good sleep and we can start working on that tomorrow. Blessed be your dreams.” With that, the bunny hopped away, pulling a hidden blanket down in front of the exit and disappearing.

“She really did think of everything, didn't she?” Twilight smiled, snuggling into her blanket and closing her eyes.

After a minute the animal sounds outside dulled and silence reigned through the burrow, but still she didn't find sleep. Frowning, Twilight squeezed her eyes closed tighter. She had always fallen asleep quickly and had a reputation for being able to sleep in the weirdest places, but now that seemed to have changed.

Twilight tossed and turned every few minutes, each new position being just as uncomfortable as the last. Finally with a groan, Twilight tossed aside her blankets and sighed audibly.

“What is wrong with me? Is it stress? That seems likely but I am dead tired and can hardly hold open my eyes.” Twilight’s frown deepened. Maybe getting up for a minute would help her think.
Making sure to bend her knees and duck, and pointedly keeping her horn down, lest she carve out a chunk of the ceiling, Twilight got up and looked around the burrow.

Her eye caught the glimpse of something shiny and she found herself drawn towards a small collection of trinkets along one of the walls. A glossy stone with a bit of fool’s gold in the center stuck out and instantly an image of Pinkie Pie jumped to the forefront of her mind. She couldn't help but imagine that the strange troll had given Fluttershy the stone or otherwise had been involved in Fluttershy’s acquisition of the stone therein.

Beside it was a small collection of teeth and at first Twilight was a little shocked the strange being would keep a morbid trophy. Twilight looked closer and giggled. They were carved from some sort of deep white rock, the cord binding them appeared long enough to comfortably drape over the neck of a bat pony, but a full grown unicorn like Twilight would have trouble putting it on.

A letter, still sealed with wax, lay next to the necklace and under a black mug holding a single bright red flower in water. Odd, Twilight thought. Maybe she wanted to keep the letter but didn't like thinking about it? Either way, it wasn't her business to pry.

The rest of the nick nacks varied greatly from postcard to a piece of an eggshell to a single long, vibrant feather from some rare and unknown bird. Twilight turned and glanced over at the altar in the corner. Slowly making her way over, Twilight stopped. Was this snooping? Twilight’s hoof recoiled.

She shook her head, she was just having a brief look, that wasn't rude to her host, right? In any event, her curiosity got the better of her and after promising to only look for a minute, Twilight leaned in, gazing at the strange altar.

The shelf Twilight had thought had been a piece of furniture was actually an enormous root that had emerged from one wall and entered the other, allowing Fluttershy to use it as a table. On it were two pictures, one much older than the other. The older one had the strange aetherial quality Twilight knew indicated that it was created by a spellcaster of some kind. She herself knew the spell and also how much time and effort had to go into its casting. It was no small thing to say the least.

There was a smiling thestral in the center of the picture, her fang-filled grin was undeniably cute, her long pink mane over one of her eyes and nearly obscuring her joy-filled face. Her fur was another oddity, through a dull color, it was still undeniably yellow ,which stuck out against her dark wings and deep teal eyes. She was obviously still very young, but due to the angle of the photo, Twilight couldn't see her cutie mark.

She was flanked by pair of grinning thestrals from both sides, their joy outshining what looked to be their child’s. The male one to the left held aloft a small trophy of bronze, fashioned in the likeness of a small thestral with outstretched wings. However, his hoof obscured the inscription at the base. He was more along the norm for thestrals; his coat, well-groomed moustache and finely coiffed swirly mane were all a deep shade of green, bordering on blue. His mane was lighter, to the point of being almost white with a few grey streaks. His smile seemed more genuine, more wild, his hoof around the filly clutched a little tighter than the mother’s as if he could hardly contain his excitement.

To the filly’s right was an equally happy female with coat and mane brighter than her husband’s. Her burnt red mane was well-brushed and done up in a single swirl that sat on the center of her brow. Her eyes matched her mane and stuck out against her deep yellow coat. A large, wide-brimmed pair of mauve glasses sat prominently on her nose and a set of pearls curled around her neck.

Twilight couldn't help but smile and imagine the filly being Fluttershy once upon a time.

The other photo was much newer and was clearly a machine-made one. The image within was a stark contrast from the happy-go-lucky other photo. A large hydra lay dead in the center of the photo and whoever took it probably had to have stood a good distance back as they managed to get a good chunk of the creature in the photo. All around the deceased hydra stood or flew numerous night guards in full armor. Their features were all obscured, save for one that stood at the center of the shot, helmet in one foreleg, a blue-eyed wolf in the other.

The night guard was odd, and stuck out from her compatriots, her mane was all the colors of the rainbow and her fur a much brighter blue than her fellows. She also wore a much easier smile on her face, beaming with pride. All these qualities the wolf, that was presumably Fluttershy, lacked. The shy being smiled faintly, but her eyes were drawn to her left, towards the many heads of the fallen hydra, a sense of pity and guilt could be seen in the teal orbs and Twilight couldn't help but feel as though this was not the desired outcome.

Twilight inhaled a lungful of the still burning incense and forced a smile to her lips. She couldn't help but feel as though she had intruded on her host’s life somewhat, but she also couldn't deny that she felt as though she had learned something about the shy being.

The infinity symbol was strange compared to the rest, though, and its placement moreso. It hung from the earthen wall by a string drawn around an errant root that jutted out a little further than the rest. It seemed old, as if someone had kept it in a bag or pocket for many years. It reminded Twilight of the altars some ponies erected in their homes back in Canterlot, though those tended to have several candles instead of pictures and usually had a crude likeness of Celestia’s cutie mark hanging above.

Twilight scowled at the thought. Great, she was pissed off all over again. This was really gonna help her sleep, she thought sarcastically.

Sighing, the unicorn flopped down into her bed and angrily scrunched up into an angry ball of insomnia. Stupid Celestia. Thoughts of her mom suddenly came to the forefront of her mind, swallowing everything else that entered her head. She squeezed her eyes closed and forced the images away, that wouldn't help anyone now, not while she needed to keep her head.

With angry determination she lit her horn and cast a quick knockout spell on herself. Her last thought being, if her body didn't want to go to sleep, she was going to make it. Oblivion took her in seconds and she drifted off to an empty and dreamless sleep.

Twilight shot out of her bed and looked around, hardly remembering where she was. Part of her had half-expected to wake up in her own bed, the mid-afternoon sun poking through the edges of her curtains and teasing her awake with the promise of another amazing late breakfast made by her mother.

The grim reality of a tiny, windowless hole in the ground was a stark difference for her half-conscious mind.

The mare sighed and flopped down on her back. She felt rested, remarkably, but that seemed to be the only blessing she had received. Within a few moments she felt the harsh sting of hunger that pulled her out of her melancholy.

Groaning in annoyance, the mare rose to her hooves once more, nearly bumping her head on the low roof in the process. Standing once more, she grabbed the blankets and pillow and gently folded and placed them back in the corner where they belonged. She stretched her back as much as the small room allowed and silently marveled at the lack of cracks and pops that came from her body that had just spent a night on the hard wooden floor.

“I wonder how long I was out for…”

She made her way out of the burrow, pushing aside the drapes and stepping out into the moonlight. She blinked and looked up, yes, it definitely was moonlight, but it had been night when she had passed out, did she sleep for a long time or not long at all? Either way, she needed to find Fluttershy.

She looked around the curiously empty clearing, not a creature stirred, though she did see a few birds higher up in the trees and a few bunnies. They all hid and watched the strange unicorn as she looked around.

“Oookay then, time to find Fluttershy,” Twilight mumbled.

“Who?” asked a strange voice.

“Fluttershy, the being who lives here?” Twilight answered, looking around for the voice.

“Who?” asked the voice again.

Twilight looked almost straight up, directly into a pair of yellow orbs looking down on her. The unicorn nearly facehoofed at the realization. “Right, of course you are an owl.”

“Who,” the owl said back.

The unicorn sighed. “I don't suppose you know where Fluttershy is, don’t you?” It was a long shot, but…

The owl hooted and took flight, going a few feet away before turning its head, as if beckoning the unicorn to follow it.

“Apparently I can talk to owls now, I guess it could be worse.” She shook her head and followed the strange avian creature.

She had only made a few steps before she heard the soft crunch of something under her hoof. Twilight stopped and looked down, only to see a plethora of fallen leaves, all as brittle as if they had fallen before winter, but it was not even summer yet. Even the grass seemed dead, as if kissed by the first frost of the season.

Twilight shook her head, this forest was weird and her head already hurt just trying to figure it out. She dismissed the notion entirely and continued following the owl, who sat perched on a low hanging branch, its head twisted to the side and looking at her inquisitively.

“I'm coming, I’m coming.”

The owl hooted back and took flight once more, slipping past the edge of the clearing and into the forest proper. Thankfully it didn't go far as Twilight’s brace had come loose over the night and her speed was diminished slightly as she tried to keep off her leg and not make the problem worse.

Just a few feet into the forest, nestled in the crook of a large oak, was a fox curled up in a ball, amidst a small pile of green grass and collected leaves. The owl sat atop a branch above the fox and hooted proudly.

“This is Fluttershy?” She eyed the owl. The bird nodded. That was so weird, she thought.

She extended a hoof to prod the fox only to stop, what if it wasn't Fluttershy? Could she get a disease from the wild animal? She doubted an animal would be capable of such duplicity, but then again, she doubted an animal could understand her just a day ago, so all bets were off.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, she reasoned. Extending a hoof, she prodded the fox. “Fluttershy, is that you?”

The fox stirred and mumbled something in Equine. Twilight rolled her eyes, it was most likely Fluttershy. Wait a second, didn't she say she didn't need sleep? She eyed the fox in a new light, observing it for injuries or something being wrong. There was nothing obviously wrong and judging from the bed it had made itself, it had chosen to rest here.

“Fluttershy?” Twilight asked cautiously.

Slowly the fox rolled over and its eyes opened, revealing the teal irises of her friend. “Oh, hello Twilight, did you have a good sleep?”

The unicorn shrugged. “Could have been worse, what about you though? I thought you said you didn't need sleep.”

The fox got to its paws and stretched like a cat, yawning loudly. After it gave itself a shake, it eyed the unicorn. “I don't, but after you fell asleep I suddenly had the urge to cuddle up with Mrs Fox after getting the strangest headache.” The fox rubbed her head with a confused expression. “It's gone now, though.”

“Odd, aren't you a spirit?”

The fox nodded but seemed unperturbed by the revelation. “Maybe the forest wasn't in a good mood. I hope he's feeling better now.”

“How can a forest feel good?” Twilight asked.

The fox giggled. “No offence, Twilight, but you wouldn't understand. I've met beings from outside the forest before and they all think it's just lots and lots of parts, but when you’re born in it, you can feel it’s alive.”

Twilight opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. There was clearly wild magic at work and the studious mare could never find anything concrete about the subject. What little she knew was that it worked in bizarre ways that bent the natural laws and the laws governing magic. So if that force was involved, well, who knew, maybe it was really alive? Strange though it may seem.

Twilight followed the fox, her head in the clouds as she considered the possibilities. If the forest was alive, was it omniscient within its boundaries? Was it a true intelligence or a series of reactions that were closer to an emergent intelligence? Regardless of the answer, Twilight knew she would have to keep an open mind on the subject.

“What's the name of this little guy?” Twilight asked, tilting her head up towards where the owl sat, watching them curiously.

“Oh, I don't know, I have not seen him around yet.” The fox turned and looked up at the owl. “What's your name, Mr Owl?”

The avian hooted back a few times, the fox frowning, only for the corners of her lips to raise by the end.

“He says he doesn't have a name and that he wants you to give him one.” The owl hooted excitedly a few more times. “Something cool, he says.” The fox giggled.

“Something cool, huh?” The unicorn rubbed her chin as she thought. She had never been good at names, except for when it came to helping her brother name his Ogres and Oubliettes characters.

The sting of the memory was quickly wiped away with a thought, I will grieve when I see your body and not a moment before, Shining Armor.

She was still rather out of practice when it came to ‘cool’ names. What was that one pop song Moon Dancer had sung that one time while she waited for Twilight? Fergalicious? That was cool, right?

She nodded. “Owlicious will be your name.”

The owl cocked his head and seemed to think about it, only for him to suddenly began hopping on the branch, hooting excitedly.

“I think he likes it.”

Twilight giggled. “What do you think, Mr Owl? Like it?”

The bird nodded and hooted an affirmation and the trio quickly fell into a quiet conversation as they made their way to town. It mostly consisted of Twilight asking a litany of questions, Fluttershy answering and Owlicious adding his two cents occasionally while he sat on Twilight’s back.

“Wow, so that's how a chimera is made?” Twilight asked, stunned.

Fluttershy nodded, a blush slowly spreading across her face. “Oh yes, but it’s very rare as most are infertile due to the wild magic and three beings in one body.”

Twilight cocked her head, trying to imagine the physics of what Fluttershy had just described. To think they have three heads and three-

A sudden loud hoot in her ear derailed her train of thought. She blinked twice and looked around. “Oh, we’re here. So, food first, right? Is there a soup kitchen around here?”

The fox stopped and cocked her head. “Soup kitchen? Isn't every kitchen a soup kitchen?”

“You are technically correct, but a soup kitchen is where poor ponies... er, beings, would go to get a free meal if they were down on their luck.”

Owlicious cocked his head as well and hooted at Fluttershy.

“That does sound nice, but I’ve never heard of something like that.”

Twilight groaned and facehoofed. Of course they didn't have a soup kitchen, they had paid hospitals! Grumbling to herself, Twilight punted a tiny rock in anger, sending it flying into the woods.

“Well, I know where some good berries are, oh! And there should be some shiitake fruiting soon.”

Twilight’s nose wrinkled in disgust. “Language, Fluttershy.”

“What, but it’s a- oh, you were joking.” She giggled and playfully swatted Twilight’s leg. “Good to hear you making jokes that aren't puns.”

“Seriously, no offence, Fluttershy, but I have not eaten in a day, I think I need something a little more substantial than that.”

Fluttershy’s muzzle scrunched up in thought, only for her eyes to suddenly go wide in realization. “Oh, there is this really nice being that always gives food to my animal friends, maybe she can help you? She's very generous.”

“Well… I don't like to beg, it's one thing to get a meal from a soup kitchen, another to actually ask someone. Buuuut... if she's that generous, she's probably quite successful and should be able to afford it.”

“Oh yes, she's one of the few tailors around and makes very beautiful dresses.” Fluttershy blushed slightly and looked away. “Or so I’ve heard.”

“Well, where does she live, then?”

“We are already here.” Fluttershy pointed up to the strange, round structure before them.

“She lives inside a carousel? What a strange being.” Twilight’s stomach chose to rumble at that moment, making the owl and the fox giggle at the sound. “Well, I better hurry before I get in the mood for fox!”

“Oh my, not Mr Fox, he's all skin and bones!” Fluttershy replied in mock horror.

The two beings giggled while the owl hooted inquisitively, confused as to the use of sarcasm, but shrugged it off. Ponies were weird.

Twilight lifted her hoof to the door and knocked twice. “What did you say her name was, Fluttershy?”

“Oh um…” The fox blushed. “I don't know.”

Twilight blanched. “What do you mean you don't know? What am I supposed to say?”

The fox shrugged. “I just look cute and she gives me food. Err, so I’ve heard anyway.” The fox looked away, awkwardly rubbing her neck and avoiding eye contact.

“I’m afraid we closed an hour ago, but if you wait right there, I’ll be with you in a moment!” called a feminine voice from within the building.

That certainly wasn't what Twilight was expecting when Fluttershy mentioned this generous being. Sure, there was a slight warble to her speech establishing that it wasn't an equine voice, but removing that, Twilight would have assumed the being within was some sort of singer or Canterlot noble.

The scurrying sound of many legs on wood was all the warning she received before the door opened to reveal the smiling face of the strangest pony Twilight had ever seen. Her main body was supported by eight long, spindly spider legs, but rising from the foresection of the body was the torso of a mare. Her fur was the same white as the rest of her body and a vibrant magenta mane fell from her head in a perfectly coiffed wave. It cascaded so low that it nearly brushed against the mandibles extending from her lower jaw. Her deep sea blue eyes widened in surprise and her strange hoof-ended forelimbs extended from her torso, gripping Twilight’s shoulders.

“Stars above, I thought I’d never see another one of you enchanting creatures again!” She quickly covered her mouth with a hoof and took a skittering step back. “My word, I’m so sorry. You are not a creature and that was a terribly rude thing to say. My name is Rarity.” She extended a hoof in greeting.

Twilight’s brain slowly caught up to reality and she shook the extended hoof in dumbfounded silence. After shaking her hoof for what was probably much longer than what was comfortable, she took her hoof back. “Twilight, Twilight Sparkle.” She winced, suddenly realizing how long she had been gripping the arachni’s hoof. “Sorry about that, I was just startled. I’ve never met an arachni before.”

Rarity winced, but quickly covered that with a smile, shaking her hoof in order to return the feeling to it. “That's quite alright, though I must say I’m impressed by your grip.”

This time it was Twilight’s turn to wince. “Sorry about that.”

“Don't you worry a single hair on your head. Now, what can I do for you? I don't suppose you came here to have something made by chance?” Her eyes lit up and her mandibles shivered.

“Err no, sorry I, um, well I was hoping that you would...”

“Yes?” The arachni leaned in, closer, her smile growing.

“I don't have any money and I’m really hungry.” Twilight hung her head in shame, unable to meet the other being’s gaze.

“Stars above, look at you. You are practically a skeleton, don't you fret, darling, Rarity never turns away somebeing in need. Give me a moment to get my purse and I will be right back.” The arachni quickly skittered off deeper into the building, leaving the door open and allowing the pair to look inside.

Twilight looked down at Fluttershy. “What just happened?”

“Her name is Rarity and she offered to take you out for something to eat,” Fluttershy stated, quite matter-of-factly.

“Oh.” Twilight blinked. “That was easier than I thought.”

Twilight leaned forward and looked around the interior, staring wide eyed at all the strange and wonderful creations within. All around her various mannequins wore clothes of all kinds, from simple to extravagant, though there seemed to me more of the former. Most intriguing to Twilight, though, was the variety of the inanimate beings. There were small ones, designed to look like bat ponies. Larger ones that resembled Pinkie Pie and larger ones still that seemed to be designed after some massive fanged creature that appeared to be more wolf than pony.

The mare was about to step inside in order to satiate her curiosity, but the sudden presence of Owlicious landing on her head made her stop. The owl hooted excitedly, an undercurrent of worry evident in his voice.

Fluttershy blanched and covered her mouth with her paws. “Oh my! Are they alright?” The owl hooted a few more times and gestured south with a wing. “We better hurry!”

“What's going on, Fluttershy?” Twilight asked, noting the panic in her friend’s eyes.

“A poor, hungry manticore wandered too close to town, I have to hurry before somebeing gets hurt.”

“Stay safe, Fluttershy.” Twilight scratched her head. “Err, keep everyone else safe, I guess.”

Fluttershy snickered. “Thank you, Twilight. I will catch back up with you later, best of luck on your lunch date!”

“Thanks!” Twilight waved, watching the fox and owl run and fly towards the source of a growing commotion at the edge of town. “Wait… what?”

The mare’s blush doubled when the arachni skittered up to the door, now wearing a wide brimmed sun hat, curled lashes and delicately painted hooves. “Where did your little friends go? I didn't scare them off, did I?” Her smile faltered somewhat and the spider pony looked around for the wayward critters.

Twilight gulped down the sudden lump that had formed in her throat. “No, Fluttershy and Owlicious had to leave in order to help a manticore.”

“So that was Fluttershy! I should have known she would bring by another hungry stray.” Her soft smile and soft tone stopped Twilight’s panicked apology in her throat.

“I’m not a… actually I guess I am a stray.” Twilight reluctantly admitted.

The arachni eyed her inquisitively as she moved to lock the door behind her, placing the key back into a small purse she tossed over her shoulder. “What do you mean by that, are you in trouble?”

“No, well, sort of. Celestia tried to kill me, my mom died and I’m probably wanted by the royal guard.”

The arachni stopped and blinked. “What? That's terrible, darling!” Rarity turned suddenly and gripped her shoulders with her hooves. “If there is anything you ever need, don't hesitate to come talk to me, understood?”

Twilight blushed and looked away. “I don't want to be a bother.”

Rarity tightened her grip on the mare’s shoulders. “I will not take no for an answer, understood?”

The unicorn nodded weakly. “Yes, ma’am.”

The lighthearted smile slowly returned to the spider pony’s face and she released the unicorn’s shoulders. “Good, now, first you need something to eat. Unicorns are omnivores, correct?”

Twilight blanched. “Technically yes, but I would prefer a vegetarian meal.”

Rarity subtly shifted their path more to the right, forcing them down a different street. “Then I know just the place. I come here with my vegetarian friends all the time.”

“Are you an omnivore as well? I’m sorry if this sounds rude, but up until yesterday, I’d never met a being that wasn't a pony.”

“Don't worry, darling, a little curiosity never hurt and to answer your question, I’m a carnivore myself, we arachni can't digest most plant matter.” Noticing the already limited amount of color draining from the mare’s face, Rarity recoiled slightly. “If it makes you feel any better, I can stick to the few vegetables I can eat.”

Twilight shook her head. “No, that wouldn't be fair to you. Especially since you are the one with the gems.”

“Are you sure, darling? Really, it's no trouble.”

“It wouldn't be right to ask you to take my dietary needs into account and not your own. Really, I’m fine, plus I should probably get used to it. Something tells me I might be stuck here for awhile.”

“Well, as long as you are sure… ah, here we are!” Rarity extended a hoof upwards toward a large sign displaying the words ‘The Lilypad’ in bright green letters. “A most charming cafe that serves all dietary needs equally and makes a wonderful orange jasmine blend that is to die for.”

“The Lilypad? Interesting name.”

“Oh yes.” Rarity giggled. “Chef Pond was inspired to use a lilypad in her tea and after the success of her teahouse, she chose to expand and name the new cafe after the source of her success.”

“Well, her tea does sound interesting, jasmine is my favorite, but I am not so sure about the addition of orange.”

“Trust me, darling, I thought the same thing and all it took was a single cup to make me a believer.”

“I suppose a single cup couldn't hurt.” Twilight looked around at the outdoor eatery, noticing several empty picnic tables adorned with lace table cloths and sets of silverware. Guess crime must be pretty low around here, that silverware looks expensive.

“Hi there, where would you like to sit?”

“Bah!” Twilight stumbled back from the sudden appearance of a small orange and violet bat pony, who stared up at her with huge, expectant eyes.

“The usual spot, if you don't mind, Chef Pond, and a pot of your specialty, I brought you a new customer that’s never partaken before.”

The thestral’s wings shot open in excitement and her already impossibly cute eyes became even cuter. “Really? Oh, that's splendiferous, Rarity! Go right ahead, I will have your booth clear in a moment.” Just like that she was gone in a flash, disappearing into the cafe in an orange and violet blur.

Twilight blinked and looked over to Rarity, who only giggled at her dumbfounded look. “Just how many Pinkies does this town have?”

“Pinkie? So you have met Zecora’s student. That would explain the invitation I received not long ago.” Twilight groaned, something told her there were going to be more beings at the party than she'd like. Rarity extended her hoof towards the door. “Shall we?”

“Err, of course, lead the way.”

The pair walked inside the cafe, one with mild indifference, the other with a slowly growing fascination. A plethora of smells assaulted the mare’s nostrils, tantalizing her with smells she had never experienced before her in her life. Some were strange, others were too strong for her taste, but others still drew her like a siren song towards the counter.

Dozens of strange food items sat behind a display, upon which three kettles sat on, ready and waiting for some lucky customer to order a cup. Above the counter hung a large sign that went from wall to wall and displayed what must have been hundreds of different food and drink items. Plenty of plants and some animals Twilight had only ever heard of in rare books were listed as ingredients. Though a part of her was repulsed by how common meat was as an ingredient, she couldn't help but try and imagine what it must taste like.

“Quite impressive, isn't it? And to think she does it all herself most days.”

At the sound of Rarity’s voice, Twilight pulled herself from her thoughts and shook her head. “Uh, yeah, that is pretty crazy. Hey, uh, I know this will probably sound odd but… how old is she?”

The spider pony giggled. “Don't worry about it, darling, I asked her the same thing the first time we met. She’s…” the spider pony tapped her mandibles with a hoof, her face scrunching up in thought, “twenty-three, I think. It has been a number of years that she has been running the cafe.”

“Twenty-four actually.”

“Bwah!” Twilight spun around and glared at the small mare, who grinned sheepishly.

“Sorry, your table is ready and your tea will be there in a moment,” Pond announced before zipping back into the kitchen.

“Come along, darling, don't want to lose our spot now, do we?” Rarity made her way over to the corner of the shop where a one sided booth lay, far away from the other tables. One side was a traditional booth, while the other had a single large pillow laid out, which the spider pony delicately snuggled into.

Twilight slipped into the booth and was surprised at just how comfortable the seat was and she hoped the tea will get here soon, lest she doze off. As if on cue, the purple and orange blur returned with two tea cups and a steaming tea pot all balanced on one hoof. In a flash the tea cups were set, filled and menus dispensed.

“There you are, is there anything I can get you two, or do you need some time?” the bat pony asked, her short stature demanding she put her hooves on the edge of the table and pull herself up to their head level.

“The usual, Miss Pond, but if you wouldn't mind waiting for my friend here, that would be perfect,” Rarity answered.

“Oh no, go ahead. It’s going to take me forever to go through this menu and find something I want, you go ahead and order.”

“Well if you are sure, darling. I am rather hungry.”

The bat pony grinned and stuck Rarity’s menu into a side pocket in her cute little server’s outfit. “Alright, one usual for the arachni and more time for the unicorn, be back in a few!”

Twilight nodded, her attention instantly grabbed by the enormous menu. All in itself it wasn't enormous, but the sheer amount of things was intimidating to the unicorn, but even then it was almost familiar. The tiny text, the tightly packed grouping of words reminded her of her many long study sessions and she couldn't help but smile a little at that.

A nervous clacking sound made the mare’s ears go up and she glanced at the arachni across the table. Rarity seemed on the verge of bursting with things she wanted to say. Twilight cocked her head. “Are you alright?” she asked.

“Never better! I just can't contain how excited I am to meet another of you.” The arachni’s eyes went wide. “I’m terribly sorry, that was rude of me. I must admit I am rather flustered around unicorns.” She slapped her forehead with a hoof and whispered, “That was even worse, keep it together, Rarity.”

Twilight couldn't help but smile, she had always known herself to be socially awkward, but to see the eloquent arachni stumble was kind of cute. “Well, what did you want to know? I am afraid I’m not very interesting.”

Rarity’s eyes and mandibles went wide and she placed a hoof over her heart as if she had just been gravely insulted. “Nonsense, darling, you can perform magic; a rare feat in Ponyville. I don't suppose you have very much practical knowledge of the art by chance? I’ve never been able to do more than lift my needle and thread and I would love to see somebeing do real magic.”

“Well, I was working on my master’s in theoretical magical properties before I was, erm, displaced.”

Rarity didn't seem to notice the hint of sadness that slipped into the mare’s features. “Oh, you must show me something before you return home. What's wrong, darling? I’m terribly sorry if my enthusiasm is bothering you, I just-”

Twilight held up a hoof and swallowed hard. “I can't return home, not yet anyway.” She gave the arachni a weak smile. “I could show you a few things I learned, I know quite a few spells.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” The mare shook her head. “I understand, that's perfectly fine.” The arachni reached across the table and gently squeezed the unicorn’s hoof. “Now enough of this melancholy, please try the tea before I manage to fit my hoof any further in my mouth.”

The mare wiped a solitary tear away and gripped the teacup in her magic, drawing an eager ‘ooh’ from the spider pony. Twilight brought the cup to her lips and gave it a sniff, the strange mixture of smells once more put the unicorn off, but she pushed past and gave it a sip. “Mmm, that is good!”

“What did I tell you? Trust me, darling, her combinations may be out of the ordinary, but they are fantastic. Speaking of which…” the arachni glanced towards the kitchen just in time to see the diminutive bat pony walk through the double doors with a large steaming bowl of soup in one hoof.

The smaller pony grinned and quickly made her way over, depositing the soup onto the table. “One chicken noodle soup with extra noodles and a BLT.” The bat pony grabbed the sandwich balanced on her back and placed it next to the bowl. “Now, what can I get you, miss?”

Twilight blinked, looking across the table at the lily pad floating in the middle of the soup. Rarity gently plucked it out of her soup and placed it on a napkin. When she had been looking over the menu, Twilight hadn't found anything appetizing, but something about the lily pad, that seemed to have been used as a garnish, caught her attention.

“May I?” Twilight pointed to the lily pad, drawing a confused glance from Rarity.

“Go ahead, darling.”

Twilight licked her lips and picked up the lily pad in her magic before tossing it into her mouth. Instantly her senses lit up, the tea had tasted pretty good, but this, this was amazing. She didn't know what had been used on it or why a lily pad would ever taste this good, but she didn't care, she quickly swallowed it and turned to the confused waitress.

“Can I get a plate of those?”

The bat pony looked to the spider pony, both of them shrugging. “Uh, sure, one plate of pads coming right up, miss!”

The thestral hopped down and quickly disappeared into the kitchens. Rarity sipped her tea quietly, pondering as to how anybeing would actually enjoy the taste of lily pads. But then again, who was she to judge? She shrugged and began to dig into her sandwich, blowing on her soup between bites.

All the while Twilight ran her tongue all along her mouth, trying to find any last scrap of that delicious plant. She frowned after finding nothing, almost upset at realizing that there wasn't even the tiniest shred of the tasty morsel left behind.

Within a few minutes, the cafe owner returned with a plate heaping with lily pads. “Here you are, miss, seven lily pads, fresh from my personal pond.” Just as she was about to put the plate down, she found it yanked from her hoof and brought before the unicorn, who began to devour them. The bat pony blinked. “I didn't think anybeing liked to eat lily pads, I usually just use them to add a little flavor, plus they look nice.” She shrugged and wandered off to serve the few other patrons still around at this time.

The rest of the meal was eaten in relative silence, the unicorn oblivious to anything other than her meal, and the spider pony tried not to stare too much. As the last of the lily pads slid past the unicorn’s lips and descended into her gullet, Rarity swallowed the last spoonful of soup and stared in wonder.

Twilight leaned back and let out a low, contented sigh. “That was amazing.”

“I would hope so, did you even chew?”

“They didn't taste quite right if I chewed them too much. Sorry if I was a little uncouth, but I have not eaten in just over twenty four hours.” The mare scratched her head. “I think.”

Rarity waved a dismissive hoof. “Pish posh, darling, I’m just glad you are not going to keel over on me. You weren't looking well when I first saw you, but now you seem to have regained some color.”

Twilight blushed. “Thank you again for this meal, I really should find a way to make some gems in order to pay you back.”

“Think nothing of it, in fact, I would like you to accept this small bag of gems.” The arachni reached back and pulled forth a small brown bag and placed it on the table before the unicorn.

“I can't accept this, I-” Twilight was hushed by a hoof placed against her lips.

“You don't have anywhere to stay, or any money for food and I feel as though you have suffered greatly. It is the least I can do.” She pushed the bag a little closer, smiling widely at the nervous unicorn.

Twilight reached for the bag only to hesitate, after a moment of indecision she grabbed it and placed it beside herself on the bench. If she was going to survive, she would need money and despite the fact that it wounded her pride, she couldn't turn down Rarity’s generous offer.

“I will pay you back for this.”

Rarity just smiled. “I won't accept it. Now, I am sure you are going to be in need of little more than a hoofful of gems, so please do come around my shop in a few days and I will hopefully have something for you by then.”

“What do you mean?”

“I will talk to my contacts and see if anybeing needs your help. Talented magic users are rare in Ponyville and I’m sure there are many that would pay quite handsomely for your help.” Rarity sipped her tea and watched the myriad of different expressions cross the unicorn’s face.

First was disbelief, followed by curiosity, then realization and finally… sadness? “Are you alright, dear?” Rarity asked quizzically.

Twilight shook her head. “That was the most generous thing that’s ever happened to me in my entire life.” Tears welled at the edges of the unicorn’s eyes and she suddenly lurched across the table and squeezed the spider pony hard enough to make her squeal.

Rarity gently patted Twilight’s back. “Not a problem, dear, but... would you kindly let go? I need to breathe.”

Twilight instantly let go, an embarrassed blush spreading across her face. “Sorry.” She smiled weakly, sinking back into her seat.

“Yes, well, don't thank me yet, I can't promise anything will come of asking around, but it certainly couldn't hurt. Oh, and if I were you, I would stop by the Apple family grove at the east side of town, they are always looking for an extra pair of hooves and I’m sure bucking a few apple trees won't be too hard for you.” Rarity winced and realized the sorry state of the mare’s hind legs. “At least you can use your magic until your leg heals.”

“I better head over there before it gets too late.” The unicorn moved to stand, only to stop. “If that's alright with you, I don't want to seem rude.”

Rarity smiled gently. “That's perfectly alright, tell Applejack I said hello.”

Twilight quickly got out of her seat and trotted to the door, only to stop and turn. “Which way is east?” Rarity giggled and pointed the way. “Thanks!”

With the strange unicorn gone, Rarity chuckled quietly to herself and drank the last of her tea, waiting patiently. She didn't have to wait long and the same purple and orange blur flew up to the table with wide and curious eyes, a million questions threatening to burst from her lips.

“Grab another pot darling, we have much to discuss.” The bat pony grinned and ran off.

Rarity’s hooves tapped together while she stared at the last place she had seen the strange unicorn. “Much to discuss, indeed.”

A New Home

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The soft crunch of leaves underhoof was an interesting, but altogether confusing sensation for the wayward unicorn. She stopped and stared down at the brown leaf that lay crushed beneath her hoof. She could already feel another headache coming on as she looked around to see more of the dry leaves, despite the fact that it was the middle of spring. She scratched her head and looked up through the tree top. At least she thought it was spring.

She shook her head and walked over to a tree at random. Its bark looked like that of a typical oak tree, everything else about it seemed to indicate that it was just that; a typical oak tree. Save for the fact that its leaves had changed color and were falling to the forest floor. She put a hoof to her chest and breathed deeply, forcefully putting away the thought and chalking it up on an ever growing list of random phenomena that she would look into when she had the time.

She resumed walking towards the orchard, growing only slightly more annoyed when she realized that the trees, that for whatever reason were acting as though it were winter, were increasing in number. Yes, they were just as sporadic, but as she got closer to the supposed orchard, the number of the odd trees increased. Worse still for her sanity, she also noticed that the shrubs and bushes that dotted the ground became fewer than normal, making the walk easy and the path straight.

Twilight groaned, something told her that she was going to have to learn to accept a certain amount of randomness to her life if she was going to survive the forest and Pinkie Pie.

Sure the general chaos was annoying, but when put in contrast with Canterlot, a picture of control, the difference was a bit much for Twilight. She idly wondered if there was a way to weaponize it, to throw a wrench in that bitch Celestia’s plans. The unicorn unconsciously ground her teeth together in anger, not noticing the blackened hoof prints marking her wake on the grassy path.

When her walk eventually devolved into little more than angry stomping, she forced herself to stop and breathe. She was in the middle of a short breathing exercise when she heard a branch snap to her right. She spun around instantly to face the potential danger, the lack of travelers on the road had not helped one bit and her paranoia had run high. Her horn glowed with the first part of a mana bolt spell.

She squinted into the woods, but only saw the the numerous trees and underbrush that made up the forest. Staying still for a few moments longer proved equally as useless and she shook her head and dispelled the magic. “Must have been my imagination,” she mumbled, not noticing the dark lumbering form of a predator a mere thirty feet away.

Her ears swiveled at every sound, but she forced herself to remain calm. I am still close to town, I’m sure it's just another animal. It might even by Fluttershy!

Her fear pushed from the forefront of her mind, the unicorn held her head high and tried to look like she was not ready to jump at every single sound the forest made. While she walked, the surrounding foliage had grown more and less uniform at the same time. The trees began to form neat orderly rows, but they also seemed to be in various stages of different seasons. A group to her right was budding with new leaves while a tree in its midst was ready to drop its deep orange leaves. Each one appeared to be the same species though, and her nose could smell the distinct aroma of apples carried on the slight wind. Up ahead she could see the source of the smell.

A small basket of apples sitting beneath a tree drew her attention and was the first indication she had received that anybeing tended to this odd orchard. There were no mailbox, fences or signs that anybeing worked here. She walked a little further, glancing down at the basket of apples and licked her lips at the sight of the pile of fresh fruit with a single green apple sitting atop. Only the single green apple tempted her, but even if she was tempted, Twilight wasn't going to take it, that would be stealing after all. She retracted her hoof from the basket and kept walking. Even if it was only a single apple, it still felt wrong to take it. She made a note of asking this mysterious Applejack individual if she could have one of her good apples, assuming she found this illusive being at all.

She stopped in a random row of trees and looked back and forth, trying to find any sign of civilization like a house or barn, but only the sight of hundreds of twisted and chaotic trees could be seen in either direction. The mare’s frown deepened and she continued along the path, unsure if she was going in the right direction, but stubborn enough not to try anything different. She was on a path, so it must lead somewhere, right?

After several minutes spent walking seemingly in a straight line, she came up to a very familiar basket of apples. Twilight stopped and blinked, she was absolutely sure that it was not the same basket, as such a thing was obviously impossible. She looked to the right and back, noting that there was the very familiar group of odd trees, but that could be a simple coincidence.

Her steps became hesitant and she couldn't help but fear what she would see, she remembered the single green apple and hoped that it would not be there. Hesitantly she peaked over the side of the basket and stopped.

A single solitary green apple stood atop the pile of red ones, staring definitely at the now visibly annoyed unicorn. “Damn this stupid forest to Tartarus,” she cried angrily, stomping in circles and mumbling obscenities.

“Well, that seems downright uncalled fer, what did the Everfree ever do to ya, huh?” asked a small, but clearly annoyed voice.

The unicorn spun back around and was shocked to see what looked like a completely normal earth pony looking back at her. That couldn't be right, could it? She leaned closer, inspecting the filly with a sharp inquisitive eye.

She wore a large pink bow tied into the back of her vibrant crimson hair, it was almost as large as the filly’s head and Twilight had to admit it looked incredibly cute on her. The orange eyes looked up at the unicorn with disgust, which Twilight also had to admit looked pretty cute on such a tiny pony as well. Something caught her eye though, the filly’s light yellow fur was marred by a spiderweb of green, spreading across her body like tiny roots and a small patch of what looked like bark covered several inches of her back.

The filly snorted angrily. “Well?”

Twilight blinked twice, realizing she had been staring. “Well, I just wanted to meet this Applejack pony, but it seems as though I got turned around somehow.”

The filly rolled her eyes. “And that's the forest’s fault how?”

“I... er well…” Twilight scratched her head awkwardly, realizing just how dumb she would sound if she announced nonchalantly that she had been mysteriously teleported without noticing. “It's a lot more confusing than the forests I’m used to, is all.”

That seemed to appease the filly somewhat and her glare lightened. “Well, ya do seem like ya ain't from around these parts. Why are ya lookin fer my sister anyway? Are ya a spy?” The filly’s eyes narrowed and her glare returned with vengeance.

Twilight just rolled her eyes. “I am not a spy. I heard she might need some help and I’m a little short on gems right now.”

The sharp, but still cute glare lasted a few seconds before she suddenly turned around and bellowed in a voice three times louder than a filly her size should be able to produce, “Applejack! We got somebeing out here lookin fer ya!”

Twilight rubbed her ear and looked down at the filly with newfound appreciation, clearly whatever this being was, it wasn't a true pony. Which sounded awful now that Twilight thought about it like that. She made a note to not say that aloud.

“I’ll be there in a second!” hollered back an equally impressive voice, one that seemed to have been carried for what sounded like miles.

The filly turned back around and continued to eye Twilight up as if she expected the unicorn to jump at her and attack at a moment’s notice.

Twilight coughed awkwardly and rubbed the back of her neck. “So… how old are you?”

“I’m twelve.” The filly took what she thought was an intimidating step forward, her eyes narrowing dangerously. “Why do ya want to know?”

“Like I said, I’m not from around here and I didn't want to assume you were a foal, it’s confusing enough with all those small bat ponies that make guessing ages difficult.” Twilight quickly realized what she had said might be taken the wrong way and her eyes went wide as her mouth tried to sputter out an apology.

The filly just snickered at the comment. “They are pretty tiny, aren't they? We Apples grow mighty big, so don't let my small statyour fool ya!”

The unicorn cocked an eyebrow at that. “Did you mean stature?”

“Yeah, what ya said.”

“So, you are saying your species is called Apples? Well, I suppose there are worse names out there, I’m pretty sure there are at least three species of beetles whose name means poop in another language.”

The filly recoiled as if she had just stuck her nose in a pile of cow manure. “What, no! We ain't called apples, my family is called Apples. I mean, we are the Apple family!” She puffed out her tiny adorable chest with pride, which brought a grin to the unicorn’s face.

“Good to know, little one. My name’s Twilight Sparkle, what's yours?” The unicorn leaned down and extended her hoof.

The filly reached out to bump it only to stop herself, her indecision did not last long and she shook her head and bumped her hoof against Twilight’s, receiving a slight jolt for her effort. She shook her hoof, trying to dismiss the strange tingling. "What did ya do to my hoof? Felt like ya shocked me or something.”

Twilight winced. “Sorry about that, I thought I grew out of that when I was a foal, but every once in a while my magic goes a little haywire and decides to zap someone. Are you hurt?”

The filly stomped her hoof a few times and shook her head. “Nah, just took me by surprise, is all.” Her eyes went wide and her brain suddenly caught up. “Did ya say magic?”

Twilight nodded. “Yeah, I was studying to become a mage before…” She swallowed hard, unable to speak another word.

“Would ya know how to turn a being into a different species? Like a…”

“Now I know ya weren't about to ask this stranger what I thought ya were gonna,” said an authoritative voice from somewhere behind the filly. Instantly Apple Bloom gulped and closed her mouth with a snap.

“That's what I thought,” said the slowly shambling tree walking towards her.

Twilight’s mouth opened to ask who was there, but her voice was robbed by the sheer strangeness of the creature before her. It walked on all fours like a pony, had two large eyes like a pony and sported nearly every other noticeable characteristic of a pony, save for the tree growing out of the being’s back. The tree itself seemed to be an apple tree that was budding several small pink bulbs. It was only a few feet tall and reminded Twilight of the bonsai tree her aunt had given her when she was twelve. The bonsai tree had died, but not Twilight’s interest in dendrology. A stetson sat proudly on the creature’s head.

The tree’s roots seemed to wrap around the pony’s back, running down all four of her legs and up her neck and toward the pony’s muzzle, ending just shy of her nose. The roots varied in size and seemed half-burrowed into the pony’s body, half-running over the surface of her skin. Twilight couldn't help but wince at the sight of the poor being, its every movement must have been incredibly painful.

The being didn't seem to notice Twilight’s pity and extended a hoof and a wide friendly smile. “Hey there stranger, name’s Applejack and this here is my sister Apple Bloom and behin’ ya is my big brother, Big Macintosh.”

Something behind the unicorn snorted, sending her mane aflutter. Slowly she turned around to see the single biggest pony-like being she had ever seen. He was easily twice as large as the unicorn and where Applejack seemed as though she was slowly being consumed by a tree, this being was one with it. His whole body was a mixture of wood, roots, and short branches that covered nearly all of his skin. A good majority of his body was covered in a thick woody exterior, occasionally broken up by patches of thick bark. One eye had the look of a normal pony eye with a light green iris, while the other was completely wrapped in the strange wood and the eye within was pure green and glowed slightly.

The being’s eyes narrowed and he leaned in closer, causing Twilight to back up slightly. The wood-imbued stallion sniffed once, twice, then took a step back and eyed his supposed sister.

“Nope,” the stallion rumbled.

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Come on, Mac, there is no need fer the scary big brother routine. We got ourselves a guest, and one that looks like she could use some Apple family hospitality.”

The woody stallion snorted again and shook his head, which made Applejack frown. “Now lookie here mister, just cuz ya got a bad feelin’ doesn't mean nothin’. It's probably that bad apple ya ate yesterday.”

The stallion looked away from the unicorn and fixed his sister with his strange, intense gaze. “Nope.”

Applejack’s patience seemed to run out quickly. “Ya get on out of here, skedaddle now, ya got chores to do and ya ain’t helpin’ here.”

The stallion snorted and turned to leave. “Eeyup.”

Twilight watched him leave, amazed that she couldn't so much as hear a single step of his mighty hooffalls.

Applejack coughed politely, diverting Twilight’s attention back to her. “Sorry about him, got a little bit too much of the forest in him. Tends to trust his gut a little too often fer my likin’, but he means well.”

“Ya better not be saying our brother is dumb or I’m telling Granny,” Apple Bloom added.

The older sibling rolled her eyes and plunked her hoof down on the filly’s head. “I ain't sayin’ that, I’m just sayin’ he should use his head fer thinkin’ and not that belly of his. Now you skedaddle too or ya are goin’ to be late.”

“Sweetie Belle’s recital, that's right! Thanks, Applejack!” The filly spun around and dashed in a seemingly random direction, quickly disappearing into the forest.

“Don't stay too late ya here, ya got school tomorrow!” Applejack shouted at the now vanished filly.

“Sorry again about my kin, they mean well, but don't have much in the way of tact.” Applejack once again offered her hoof in greeting, which Twilight bumped with a smile. The mare retracted her hoof and shook it briefly. “Apple Bloom wasn't kiddin’, ya got some static built up in ya or something.”

Twilight shrugged. “Sorry about that. It usually doesn't last this long, must be from all this stress.” The unicorn rubbed the back of her neck awkwardly, taking a mental note not to touch anybeing until she got her magic under control again.

Applejack waved a hoof, urging the other being to walk beside as she started to trot back up the path Twilight had just gone down. “Walk with me, sugarcube, and tell ol’ Applejack what the matter is.”

Twilight quickly picked up her hooves and trotted beside the strange pony... thing. “Old? You don't look much older than I am.”

Applejack gave the unicorn a sidelong glance before snorting and turning back to the path ahead. “Probably about right, never met a unicorn before though, so I can't rightly tell. Now what's buggin’ ya, friend? Ya look hungry, tired and in a mighty need of a bath, if you don't mind my sayin’.”

Twilight giggled. “No offence taken, I probably could use a good meal, and a good sleep and probably a good wash while I am at it.”

“Well, ya don't worry about that none, ya just follow me and I’ll get you right fixed up. What brought ya out here anyhow?”

Twilight smiled awkwardly, unused to the strangely common show of generosity. “I heard you might need some help with tending to the trees, but they seem to have some sort of affliction.”

“Affliction? What makes ya think that?”

“I noticed a few shed their leaves already and it's not even summer yet.”

“Ahh, I wouldn't worry about that. It's just the forest playin’ tricks on us again, ain't nothin’ anybein’ can do about that.”

Twilight cocked an eye at that. “What do you mean it's the forest playing tricks? Forests can't play tricks.”

“I don't know where ya’re from, but around here the forest does and will play tricks on ya if ya ain’t careful.” Twilight opened her mouth to ask something, but was interrupted. “Ahh, here we are. Home sweet home. I’ll fix ya up a slice of some apple pie and we can chat more about what ya can do to help out round here.” The tree-bearing being gestured toward an aged farmhouse, a wide grin on her face. “After you.”

The canopy parted, allowing rays of moonlight to illuminate the seemingly ancient farmhouse sitting across the clearing from them. She could also see a barn off in the distance and a shed as well, but they were less interesting than the house. It was huge, at least three floors high and with the looks of a basement to boot, though the top floor windows were empty unlike the others that had some sign of habitation, be it a candle or decoration.

Twilight smiled, some of her apprehension slowly dissipating, beaten down by Applejack’s unrelenting kindness and unspoken understanding. “Why thank you-”

The door to the farmhouse suddenly opened with a slam, the aged screen door flying open to reveal a startlingly old version of what Twilight imagined Applejack would end up becoming.

The small, shriveled prune of a being was nearly completely covered in roots and branches blotting out her eyes and almost every patch of fur on her body. “Applejack!” the aged tree-bearing being shouted through her cracked and broken lips.

The farm pony sighed. “Yes Granny, I’m right here.”

“Oh thank the stars, quick, get inside before the darkness shows up.” She opened the door wide, casting a quick and useless glance left and right.

Applejack turned to Twilight and shrugged apologetically, the unicorn understood the gesture and merely smiled gently and took a step away. Turning back to her still frantic-looking Granny, Applejack stepped closer, speaking in a low, reassuring tone of voice. “Remember what Doctor Mindseye said. There ain't no darkness, now get back inside, ya are gonna catch a deathly cold out here.”

“I know what that crook said and I’m telling you the darkness exists! I seen it in my dreams and now it's at our farm! I can feel it in my bones, young one. It’s watching us right now.” The old mare took a step back and ushered Applejack inside.

“There ain't no darkness, Granny, there is however a guest that ya are probably scaring the wits out of.” Applejack stood next to her Granny and waved Twilight over. “Come on in, err… I never did get yer name.”

“Twilight, Twilight Sparkle.”

The old timer’s face lit up and she grabbed Applejack’s hoof in an attempt to pull her inside. “It's the darkness, Applejack, it's right here! Get inside before it steals your soul!”

Applejack sighed, easily resisting the older being’s attempts to pull her inside. “Sorry about this, Twilight, ol’ Willbor got in her brain a few years ago and she ain’t been the same since. Just wait by the barn while I get her back to bed.”

“Consarnit, Applejack, get inside and quit talking to the darkness already!” the old being screeched, still frantically tugging on the other being’s leg.

“I’m coming, I'm coming, hold yer horses already.”

The pair disappeared inside, leaving Twilight alone, confused and a little bit intrigued. The older being had fur the same color as Big Mac’s eye color, and the bark around where her eyes would be the same as that of Applejack’s fur; bright orange. The older being also had a clearly more advanced case of whatever Applejack was afflicted with, the tree growing out of her back was large and despite the old mare being scarcely taller than a foal, the tree growing on her back was taller than Applejack’s, and with large, leafy branches that shook as she moved.

Twilight wasn't sure what or how one ended up with a tree growing out of them, but whatever the affliction was, it was obviously hereditary. The older mare’s movements were choppy and one of her back legs had looked like it didn't move at all, so covered in wood and roots that it was unable to even bend. Stranger still was her lack of eyes and the strange coloration of the bark where they should be. Maybe there was a difference between Big Macintosh and this Granny character?

Twilight shook her head, clearing her mind of the curious thoughts. She would have time for questions later, for now Applejack had mentioned a barn she should wait by. She looked around the clearing, searching for the barn she had seen earlier and finding it far to her left, half-hidden amongst a group of apple trees.

The unicorn gulped nervously, suddenly unsure of waiting by the kind of spooky barn when the clearing she was standing in was perfectly bathed in moonlight and was way less creepy. She gulped again and looked back towards the house. Applejack probably did have a reason for asking though, maybe…

Twilight stopped and slapped her hoof to her forehead. “Stupid aura.”

She felt like an idiot for having forgotten about the fear aura that had made her life difficult since as far back as she could remember. She grumbled and stomped over to the barn, her angry hoofsteps the only sound save for a distant unknown type of bird. Midway to the barn, she stopped suddenly, a thought occurred to her. But the nurse hadn't noticed it, neither had Pinkie, or Applejack or Big Mac or even the filly. What had changed? Her mother had mentioned the fact that those with a strong will didn't become fearful, but surely someone as young as Apple Bloom didn't fit in that category?

She trotted over to the barn and plunked down on a bench, deep in thought. Was it the forest? No, that was silly. Maybe it was due to her magic fluctuating? Possible, but she had never figured out why her magic fluctuated, it hadn't happened often and it only seemed to happen when she was forced to be alone for an extended period of time when her parents and brother were out of town. Loneliness, maybe? No, that was equally as silly.

As she ran through every possibility in her mind, she slowly became aware of a small set of glowing green eyes looking up at her from the corner of her eye. She turned quickly, startling the tiny timberwolf and making it scramble backward, its small paws ripping up the dirt as it tried to get away.

Twilight placed a hoof on her chest and forced herself to breathe. It wasn't the timberwolf that had attacked her, it was just a baby… or something. She looked over to the edge of the barn where the wolf had run off to, spying its small eyes peering curiously at her from around a tree.

When their eyes met, the wolf ducked behind the tree. Twilight couldn't help but smile despite the unpleasant memory the creature’s appearance brought to mind. “You’re not a big scary timberwolf, are ya? You are just a little one.”

The unicorn’s soft tone drew the wolf from its hiding spot and it edged around the side of the tree, eyeing the pony cautiously.

“D’aww, you’re adorable.” The unicorn got up off the bench before sinking down close to the ground, trying to be as nonintimidating as possible.

The wolf, emboldened by the mare’s nonthreatening posture and kind words edged closer, its body low to the ground and ready to leap away at a moment’s notice.

“C'mere, little guy, I won't hurt you,” Twilight commanded, unaware of her horn glowing a soft reverse light.

Instantly the wolf stood up, suddenly unafraid and trotted right up to the unicorn, expressionless. Twilight cooed softly and ran a hoof along its chin, noting that despite it being made up of wood and bark, it was surprisingly soft. “I wonder if you like ear scratches. My neighbor’s dog used to love it when I scratched behind her ears… until they stopped letting her outside for some reason.”

The mare reached behind the pup’s ears and used her hoof to scratch the soft bark that made up the back of the wolf’s head. The pup’s ears instantly went up and its tail began to wag. “You are just the cutest little thing and so docile too!” She continued to gently scratch the back of the pup’s head, unsure of how much pressure to apply to the strange wolf-thing made of sticks.

“Well, I’ll be. Winona likes ya more than Granny.”

Twilight looked up to where Applejack stood a few feet away, startling her. “Wha... how do you guys do that? You are so quiet.”

The mare just laughed and ambled up next to the timberwolf pup, who was pouting adorably and looking up at Twilight expectantly. “Apple family secret. Now then, I promised ya pie and I never break a promise, specially when pie is involved.” The mare reached behind her back and pulled out a plate absolutely filled with one enormous slice of pie the size of a whole meal.

Twilight smiled, and though she still felt hungry, the pie didn't seem appetizing. She couldn't figure out why though. It looked good, she leaned in close and sniffed it, it smelled good, but she felt no desire to eat it. She shook the thought away and grabbed the fork and plate in her magic.

“Woo nelly, is yer horn supposed to do that creepy black light thing?” Applejack asked, taking a subtle step back.

Twilight frowned and looked up at her horn. “I don't know why, but it’s been doing that for a few days, it's not painful and on the walk over, I went through all the steps I could remember to self diagnose any magic-related illnesses and came up with nothing. I think it might just be the forest, I’ve felt… strange ever since waking up here.”

“Waking up here? Now that sounds like quite the story. I won't bother ya fer the details though, it seems like ya are still hurtin’ in a way us Apples know all too well.” Applejack’s usually kind and gentle eyes grew dark and Twilight’s heart fell.

“Thanks, how did you lose your? No, I’m sorry, I shouldn't have asked, especially after you were so kind not to.” Twilight winced, expecting anger.

She did not expect a sympathetic sigh and for the mare to wrap a hoof round her shoulder, squeezing her gently. “Ain't much to tell. My ma got sick and joined the forest, my pa couldn't live without her and just faded away until they were together again. That's the thing with us Apples, we grow deep roots. Pun not intended.”

Twilight smiled back. “Well, at least they are together again?”

Applejack pulled her limb from around the mare’s shoulder and gave it a shake in an attempt to get the pins and needles out. “Yeah, that's what I like to believe anyway.” The apple pony adjusted her hat and stood up suddenly. “But I’m sure ya are not here to listen to my life story, how can I help?”

“Well…” Twilight tapped her forehooves together nervously. “I need to get home but that's going to take money, money I don't have. Never mind the fact that I don't have anywhere to stay, or anything to eat for that matter.” The mare’s ears fell flat and her eyes drifted to the ground, staring down at the tiny timberwolf that looked up at her with an equally forlorn expression.

“Well shucks, I can help with most of that. We got an old cabin out back that an uncle of ours used to live in, he joined the forest decades ago and it's sat empty ever since. Shouldn't be in too bad a shape. I go down there once every few months to make sure nothin’ nasty has tried to move in. As fer food, well, we got plenty of apples that are ready to go bad that still make fer good eatin’, but I don't feel right sellin’ ‘em. Aside from that, ya could work as a scout and let us know which trees need buckin’.” The apple farmer smiled. “What do ya say?”

The unicorn would have been taken aback by the sudden generosity, but it seemed as though every being was more than ready to open their hearts and homes to a stranger like her. She had to make it up to at least one of these generous beings and it would start with Applejack. She would be the best damn scout this farm had ever seen!

Something caught her and started a chain reaction of thoughts in her brain. She blinked, the tears forming at the edges of her eyes disappearing. “Could that work, no… maybe.” She looked past the apple farmer, her mind churning with ideas.

Applejack cocked her head and followed the unicorn’s gaze, after finding out she was just staring at a seemingly random tree she scratched her head awkwardly. “ Ya alright, sugarcube?”

“More than alright! I think I know how to fix your forest affliction!”

“Wow, slow down there girl, it ain’t really a problem and trust me when I say the Apples have tried everythin’ over the years and the forest didn't like none of ‘em.”

“It wouldn't fix the problem, but it would fix the symptoms. I’m afraid whatever crazy magic is in this forest is a bit beyond me, but I could make a er…” The unicorn scratched her head and cast a quick spell to create a small illusionary picture of the farm.

“Diorama? Scale replica?” Applejack offered.

“Yeah, pretty much but not just that.” Her horn lit with its strange reverse light and one of the tiny illusionary apple trees had grown several large healthy apples. “It could indicate which trees are ready to harvest, so you wouldn't need a scout.”

Applejack frowned. “I dunno, the forest don't much like spellcraft or meddlin’.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “That's just it though, it wouldn't directly affect the forest, it would just scan it in order to figure out which trees were ready. It wouldn't change the trees in any way. It would take a while as I don't have much in the way of reference material for that type of spell, but with time, I think I could do it.”

The mare stood suddenly, scaring Winona who scrambled behind her owner’s legs while watching the strange unicorn make her way over to a tree and pick up a rotten apple from the ground. “All I would need is a few dozen apples in various states of maturation and maybe a few crystals but where would I find a…” Her face scrunched up in thought, oblivious to the growing smile on Applejack’s face.

“Ya could really do somethin’ like that?”

Twilight blushed slightly, glad she was facing away from the farm pony. “Well, like I said, it would take time and a few base components that I don't have, but it shouldn't be hard and the spells wouldn't try and manipulate the forest in any way, so we should be fine in that regard.”

“Well shoot, if ya could do that, ya would make us a whole mountain of gems! The rottin’ apples are good compost, but we got so much of the darn things we can hardly use half of it, we usually just end up tossin’ ‘em into the creek.” Her face grew stern suddenly and her voice flat. “I need to ask ya something first though, Twilight.”

The unicorn turned, tossing aside the rotten apple and scraping her hoof on the grass. “Sure, go ahead, Applejack.”

“Can ya really do somethin’ like that? We are used to hearing gussied up words from busy bodies tryin’ to make a dime off our hard work and, no offence, but ya wouldn't be the first to offer a solution to our problem.”

The mare eyed Twilight with a sharp critical eye, reading the unicorn like an open book. “Well, I, uh, never did something like that, but how about this; I’ll give you the completed rune array and everything for food and lodgings and if it works I’ll take a cut of the profits. We can talk numbers later when I get it working.”

For a second Applejack’s eyes narrowed, but Twilight didn't falter, she knew her possible array could work and she didn't feel like she was asking for much. After a few more seconds of intense scrutiny, the apple farmer smiled. “Well, I’ll be. That's the fairest offer anyone’s ever given us. Ya got yourself a deal.” The pony suddenly spat in her hoof and presented it to Twilight, who grimaced. “Oh, I suppose ya city folk ain’t used to such tradition.” The mare put down her hoof and wiped the spit off before extending her other, non spit covered hoof.

“It's a deal.”

Their hooves connected with a brief jolt of electricity passing between them. Applejack shook her hoof again, trying to regain feeling in the appendage. Twilight grimaced. “Sorry about that. I’ll try to get my magic under control soon.”

“Well, so long as ya don't light my farm on fire, I think we'll be fine.” The apple farmer turned back towards the farmhouse and beckoned the unicorn to follow her. “C’mon, I’ll grab ya the keys and in the evenin’ we’ll grab ya a few bushels of apples to stock yer cupboards fer now while we work out the details.”

Twilight smiled and followed the mare. “Sounds good to me. Thanks again, Applejack.”

“Don't mention it, helpin’ folk get back on their hooves is what any good Ponyvillian would do.” The mare grinned at the unicorn before making her way up to the farmhouse and disappearing inside.

Twilight’s smile lingered and she couldn't help but wonder how lucky she had been to meet the beings she did. Fluttershy’s kindness, Pinkie Pie’s gift of healing and laughter, Rarity’s generosity and finally Applejack’s honest and straightforward nature were all things Twilight would have to repay, but for now she thanked the stars they had been delivered to her.

She shook her head and looked down at the little timberwolf that had dutifully followed her owner. She was suddenly struck by the realization that this wolf or dog had died alone and lost in the woods, taking up residence within the wood it had probably died near. She pushed that thought away, Winona looked happy, if a little shy. No point in getting depressed over something that might have happened decades ago for all she knew.

She looked up to the farmhouse to see Applejack’s strange form stepping across the threshold with a silver pair of keys in hoof. She tossed them to the unicorn, who in turn caught them in her magic. “Nice catch. The cabin ain’t far, though I warn ya, it's a mighty bit creepy round that part of the orchard, we ain't had the hooves to tend it as much as we'd like to.”

Twilight smirked. “I think I can handle a few spooky trees.”

Applejack shrugged. “If ya say so. Stick close, don't want to get turned around in here, mighty easy to get lost if yer new to the orchard.”

Twilight followed suit, confidence building in her chest by the second.

A mere ten minutes later and said confidence was completely and utterly gone, replaced by a vague anxiety and a building paranoia. Though they weren't that far from the farmhouse, it felt much further than it was, the path had become overgrown and the majority of the time spent so far was used up clambering over fallen logs and leaping over puddles that persisted despite there not having been rain for days.

That wasn't that bad in Twilight’s mind as the real thing that had begun to bother her was the cramped nature of this part of the orchard. The canopy, which was usually soared to incredible heights, seemed just beyond the tip of Twilight’s horn and though she had crossed through parts of the forest like this, it was in the company of Fluttershy. If she lived here, she would have to travel this path often, and alone, which was an unpleasant thought.

She looked down at the shy timberwolf pup that followed close beside her. Maybe not completely alone anyway.

“Not too far now, how’s yer leg doin’?” Applejack asked.

“Not bad, it's feeling a lot better, but I should tighten it once I have a moment to sit down.” Applejack nodded knowingly, stepping carefully over a small, but thorny bush. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions, Applejack?”

“Sure, got a minute or two till we’re there anyway.”

“I was wondering what you were called. Err, what your type of being was called.”

Applejack stopped in the path and tilted her head to the side. “Ya mean what type of pony I am?”

“Yeah, sorta.” Twilight scratched her head. “I mean, you look like earth ponies, but with the whole tree thing...”

Applejack smirked and turned back to the path. “Well, ya are kinda right. Our ancestors were earth ponies who made a deal with the forest, they didn't want to clear it to make a farm and we couldn't grow or find enough food in the forest. Or so the legends say anyway, not sure if I buy the whole deal with the forest, it don't seem the type to make deals. Anyway so, apparently this,” the apple farmer waved a hoof towards the tree growing out of her back, “was part of the deal.”

Twilight’s muzzle scrunched up in thought and she nearly tripped over an exposed root as she mulled over the farmer’s words. Thankfully Applejack was quick on the draw and pulled her back up before she even hit the ground.

Twilight blushed. “Thanks.”

“No problem, sugarcube, but ya should save the deep thinkin’ fer when ya got a roof over yer head.”

Twilight’s blush persisted and she looked away from the tree-bound mare.

After a few more minutes and a few more close calls with things getting in Twilight’s way--which was something she was becoming increasingly annoyed by--and they had reached their destination.

Applejack smiled proudly and swept her hoof towards the small structure nestled atop a slight rise that was devoid of trees, save for one right next to the building itself. “Here we are, Uncle Crab Apple’s cabin.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow at the structure, noting that it was little more than a shack roughly the size of a large outhouse. “Uh, I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but is that it? There aren't even any windows.”

“Great Uncle Crabby was a strange one. Was convinced that Sol herself was goin’ to come down here and torch the whole orchard, so he built the whole cottage underground, what ya see there is just the exit. Hope ya ain’t claustrophobic cuz it's big on the inside, but the climb down can be somethin’ else.”

Twilight shrugged. “I’m not claustrophobic, nor am I overly fond of the sun, but I am curious as to how he got the well, waste, out. I don't see an outhouse.”

Applejack made her way over to the door and beckoned Twilight to open it. “He got some Arachni from Cliffsdale to come down and do a bunch of enchantments on the place to handle that sorta thing. Runnin’ water, waste disposal, even got a little stand thing to teleport down the heavier furniture cuz he built the stairs too small. Though I believe that part’s busted, now that I think about it.”

“Well, so long as I don't have to pee in the woods, I’m fine,” Twilight commented while levitating the keys down. “Are they both for the door?”

“The round one is fer the door, the other is fer a safe he kept in there, darn thing is too heavy to take out, so I figured ya might find some use fer it.”

Twilight nodded and placed the round key in the hole and turned. The door opened with a lot more resistance than Twilight thought it would, and it turned out to be much denser than its seemingly crude exterior would indicate. The room inside was much smaller than what Twilight had seen on the outside, indicating it was far more reinforced than was normal.

Directly before her was a staircase spiralling down with a metal plate hinged to it, allowing someone inside to pull the plate down and seal themselves inside. Shrugging off the strangeness of the situation, Twilight stepped back, allowing Applejack to take the lead, which she politely declined. “If it's all the same to ya, I will leave ya to the tour, stairs don't much agree with me and Bloomberg here.” She motioned to the tree on her back. “Hard enough to amble up and down those stairs every few months or so and they ain't gettin’ any easier, I’m afraid.”

Twilight looked down the tight, worming stairs and back to Applejack, forcing a confident smile onto her face. “Yeah, of course. Thanks for everything, Applejack, anything I should know about the place?”

Applejack shrugged. “Not much really, there is a little doohickey on the wall that controls the magic torch thingies he bought. Other than that, it's a normal cabin... thing.”

“Alright, thanks, Applejack. Oh, before I forget, I don't suppose you'd mind if I could have any green apples lying around?”

“Sure! There are some in the barn, I can rustle ‘em up fer ya by tomorrow. Oh yeah, ya almost forgot yer pie back there at the barn, here ya go.” The mare reached around to her back and passed Twilight a familiar pie-filled plate. “We got to talking so much I darn near forgot about it.”

“Oh thanks! I’m going to eat this inside where there is a table.” Twilight turned, only to stop. “There is a table, right?”

“Well shoot, of course there's a table. Enjoy!”

Twilight nodded and closed the door and sighed. For whatever reason, the pie still did not look appetizing. She admitted it looked aesthetically pleasing, but whenever she looked at it, her hunger seemed to dull and she couldn't help but recoil slightly at the thought of eating it.

She glanced down to the stairwell and shrugged, relying on kindness had gotten her this far, surely Applejack wasn't leading her into some sort of trap, was she? No, that was silly, she shook her head and started down the wooden steps. She quickly remembered the rune on the wall and pressed her hoof against it. The stairs and the room instantly lit up in a pale blue light emanating from several small torches lining the wall and stairwell.

Her pace slowed as her mind imagined all the things that could be down there, lurking in wait for her in the unknown depths. She forced the thoughts away once more and made her way down with firm confident steps.

After a few more twists of the stairs, they suddenly stopped and a large room opened up. The room she was in was about the same size as her living room back home, but the roof was slightly taller and the walls made of harder wood and without any windows to speak of.

Looking around, Twilight could see a couch, a small, nearly empty bookcase, a table complete with three chairs and a small kitchenette with a stove and a sink.

“Well, would you look at that.”

Against the wall to her right was an open door that appeared to lead into a bathroom. To the left was another opened door, presumably to the bedroom. She glanced into the bathroom first, noting it had a sink, a toilet and a shower like every other bathroom she had ever known, save for the slightly cramped nature of it. Other bathrooms also didn't have everything wooden, but the earthy color of it was relaxing to the unicorn.

The couch was old and dust-covered, but appeared to be in a good shape and quite comfortable despite its age. She looked closer at the bookcase and smirked when she noted the titles. Farming, the basics. Several other books were next to the first, all on the same topic, though it varied from an entire thick book solely about manure to a thin one about the effects of magic on crops.

Despite her curiosity about the last tome, she moved on to the bedroom and was happy to see a large bed and a small writing desk with a chest of drawers along the wall to her left. The walls were made of the same wood as the rest of the ‘cottage’ and the blankets and pillows were all the same, deep brown color.

She gripped the bed in her magic and moved it into the corner. “There, perfect.”

She turned around and deposited the pie next to her bed on the small desk. Maybe she would be hungry later.

“Alright, what's next?” she asked the empty room.

When the said empty room did not respond in any meaningful way, she started a mental checklist as per usual. “First, learn more about the cottage, then maybe read that farming book and finally get to bed within a few hours in order to better align my sleep schedule to the local population.”

Nodding to herself, Twilight set about her first task, ignoring the ever present pang of hunger that troubled her, instead she drank deeply from the surprisingly fresh tap water and hoped it will help. It didn't.

Eventually, she retired to bed and when sleep did not come as easily as she hoped, she once more was forced into simply zapping herself asleep with a spell. This time while she lay slumbering, her body did not find any readily apparent source of energy and in its desperation, it extended its aura, seeking something, anything to satiate itself.

The pie that still lay on a plate next to her began to mold rapidly before disintegrating entirely, becoming little more than a small pile of dust. It was not enough, it needed more and so it continued to expand, hoping to find more sustenance.

Outside Applejack hummed a small tune to herself while walking back to the farmhouse, mumbling the melody of some song she had forgotten the lyrics to. She ducked under a low hanging branch before hopping over a puddle, silently making a note to clean up the path a little if Twilight was going to end up staying there for awhile.

Thinking about the strange unicorn, Applejack couldn't help but speculate. She had lost family, that much was obvious, her pain was intense and familiar, but she also seemed angry and guilty. She had always been receptive to the pain of others before, but it seemed especially easy to pick up on what the strange being staying in her cottage was feeling.

She brushed the odd train of thought aside, as Twilight seemed a little sheltered, which was probably why she was so easy to read. Poor girl’s probably not used to hiding how she feels and Applejack couldn't help but smile at the accidental honesty. What else did she know about her? She was from a city, judging from the reaction she had to AJ’s city slicker comment. Probably hasn't worked much either as her legs were twigs and she looked almost sickly, then again she was awfully gangly too, so that might explain it.

She was startled out of her reverie by a shape moving in the forest to her right, however one glance was enough to rob her of any anxiety she might have felt.

“Come on out, Big Mac, ya ain't gonna be able to sneak up on me and I know ya got somethin’ on yer mind, so just spill it.”

Sure enough, the shape stopped and sullenly made its way over. Once close, the moonlight was enough to illuminate the stallion, who stood tall and opposing, which meant little to the orange mare, who merely snorted at her brother’s attempt at intimidation.

“She ain’t with me, so ya can knock off the tough guy routine.”

Big Mac shrunk slightly and looked around before walking up beside his sister, joining her on the hike back. They walked in silence for a few minutes, though Applejack could tell he wanted to break the silence, it usually took him a while to gather his thoughts. So, in the meantime she merely waited.

Finally, he looked from Applejack back to the cottage with questioning eyes.

Applejack frowned. “What are ya gettin’ at?”

He rolled his eyes and looked back the way they came, before pointing in the general direction of Canterlot.

“So? Who cares where she's from, she needed help,” Applejack responded indignantly.

The stallion stopped his sister and placed a hoof to her heart before pointing back at the cabin, the quizzical expression returning to his features.

“Why do I trust her?” He nodded. “She lost somebein’, somebein’ close to her and recently no less.”

The stallion frowned and drew one hoof over his face and smiled at his sister, only to draw the invisible curtain over his face, which had grown cold and with an evil grin.

“She ain't fakin’ it, mister.” She placed a hoof over his own heart and leaned in close. “I know ya could feel it too, that filly is hurtin’ and needs our help.”

He seemed to mull it over, half-agreeing with the mare, but still stubborn. To which she just snorted. “Ya trust yer gut on everythin’, but trustin’ other beings.”

The stallion frowned at her and pawed the dirt nervously.

“Look, I know ya are anxious and I get it, I am too. She's a stranger from the mountain, a unicorn to boot and she's got a weird aura about her.”

He raised an eyebrow at that.

“Ya know what I mean, I know ya felt it, hell even Granny could feel it clear inside the house.”

He put his hoof slightly off the ground, the exact height of their sister, before casting a glance at Applejack.

“I dunno about Apple Bloom, but she's awful fierce fer her age, wouldn't surprise me if she ignored it.”

He looked doubtful, but didn't ‘voice’ it.

Applejack sighed. “Look big guy, I got a good feelin’ about her, plus she might have a way to make our jobs easier with the trees. Says she might have a way to use magic to tell us which trees need buckin’ and when.”

He raised an eyebrow and frowned deeply.

“I know that look, but trust me, her solution don't meddle with the forest none and it don't cost nothing to upkeep. Hell, she didn't even ask fer money up front like those other idiots.”

His eyebrow fell and he looked down at her with more curiosity, and less disdain.

“I know it sounds too good to be true, but all she wanted was a place to stay, a little food and maybe some gems down the line, but only if her idea works. If not, she volunteered to scout fer us.”

This got him intrigued and he got up, and the pair proceeded towards the farm house.

“I got a good feelin’ about her, I’m telling ya, Big Mac, she's gonna help turn this place around and help us go from barely able to supply ourselves to feedin’ the whole gosh darn town.”

He rolled his eyes with such intensity she could almost hear them in their sockets.

“I know I talk big, but think about it. Imagine if we could harvest every bushel of apples when they were at their peak. No more harvestin’ ‘em before or whenever we happened to get lucky enough to see ‘em get ripe.”

He looked over, studying her features and after finding no hint of deception he allowed a small smile to spread across his face.

“Besides, if she does end up hurtin’ somebein’, ya can tell me ya told me so.”

He snorted and stomped his hoof before sharing a laugh with his younger sister, the pair proceeding inside the farmhouse in high spirits.

Far above the world and its pain, a distant star flashed in the sky. It wasn't the brightest, or the biggest, but it was centermost in the small collection of strange colored stars. Its light was warming, calming and made one think of home and family and its resurgence made the others shine brighter.

Even the dim teal star that weakly shimmered in the night sky joined in. Though it was small, unsure of itself and unconvinced by the other’s light.

All that was overshadowed by a lavender star becoming darker, its light fading into nothing until eventually it began to absorb the light of the others. Whatever was the cause of this sudden shift would need to be remedied, and soon. For every second the formerly lavender star thirsted for the light of its sister stars, the others dimmed and threatened to go out altogether.

Until the pink star, liveliest of the bunch moved to investigate and grew a little too close.

Suffering in Silence

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Shining Armor took a deep breath and pressed his hoof against the doorknob, only to stop. The weight of the acceptance papers, though miniscule, weighed down the stallion. The three thin slips of paper were the only things in his saddlebags, yet he felt the pull of the cloth bag intensely. He shook his head and straightened his back, pushing away the doubt that plagued him.

You are going to go in there, and tell your father that you’ve signed up for the royal guard and that you are leaving in a matter of days and you are going to like it! he thought grimly.

After one last deep breath, he pushed open the door to the hotel room him and his father were staying in. The heavy door slowly opened to reveal their shared room, the scent of cooked vegetables and empty whiskey bottles attacking his nose. It was a small, cozy affair with a breakfast nook and a small area to make food, opposite of him were two large sliding glass doors that revealed the narrow balcony beyond.

His father stood over a skillet, staring down into the food, his mind a million miles away. Shining Armor frowned at the sight and stepped inside, closing the door behind him with a little more force than what was necessary, sending the small box of empty bottles beside the door rattling.

Blinking, Night Light turned to his son and smiled faintly. “Hey Shining, how was your day?”

“Not bad, I, uh…” He wanted to finish that by saying accepted into the royal guard and will be leaving soon, but his traitorous mouth refused to speak the words.

His father didn't seem to notice, having turned down to the skillet, shaking it a few times before looking back. “You say something?” he mumbled.

Shining shook his head meekly. “I was just saying I didn't get any headaches today, I think I finally beat them.”

Night Light smiled a little wider, a hint of genuine happiness threatening to slip past. “That's great to hear, Son. Why don't you take off that bag and sit down? Supper is almost ready.”

Shining Armor obliged, but stopped short as he was putting his saddlebags down next to his bed. “Dad, it's four thirty. Don't you think it's a little early?”

The old stallion stopped his intense scrutiny of the supper and looked up. “Oh, is it…” he trailed off, staring into space for a few seconds before shaking his head. “I was just hungry, is all. Do you want some?”

Shining Armor hopped up on the bed in order to see what was being made. Sure enough his nose hadn't lied and he could see potatoes, onions and a few other vegetables in the pan before him. He smiled weakly, his father had never been a good cook and this was the same vegetable medley he had made for the last three nights in a row.

Looking into his father’s expectant eyes, Shining Armor couldn't help but feel his hunger return. “Yeah Dad, looks good.”

“That's good to hear, your mother was always the cook and I...” His smile faltered and he turned his attention back to the vegetables, staring vacantly as they sizzled.

Shining Armor sighed, glancing over at the small pile of empty bottles near the door. At least six empty bottles of whiskey sat in a small cardboard box, ready for the chambermaid to remove them. Hopping down from the bed, the stallion trotted over to the small pile of plates and deposited two of them and a set of cutlery at either side of the breakfast nook.

He jumped up onto the seat and sat down in his place and just when he got comfortable, his father came over with the skillet. Shining pushed his plate forward slightly, watching as the slightly burnt vegetables tumbled down. He frowned, they were only black on one side, indicating his father had gotten distracted again.

Ignoring the burnt sections, the stallion grabbed his fork and put the least burnt vegetable he could find into his mouth and chewed. Across from him his father had applied a liberal layer of ketchup to his vegetables and dug in as well.

The pair sat in silence for several minutes, both eating their meals, deep in thought. Shining Armor could only guess at his father’s thoughts, but he assumed from the vacant stare that they were dark memories. On that thought, the stallion tensed up and felt courage surge within himself.

“I got accepted to the royal guard,” he said suddenly.

For several seconds nothing happened, his father stared at his plate, unmoving. Until his fork suddenly clattered to the table and he fixed his son with a look that made the small stallion want to take his words back.

“You are bluffing, you are too small, sickly. You’d never get accepted,” he whispered.

Shining’s jaw tensed. “The last physical found nothing wrong with me.”

“That's good!” Night Light smiled suddenly, his mood shifting rapidly. “You should use this to finally get on the hoofball team.”

“I don't want to play hoofball, Dad. I finished my last class, I will be leaving in a few days.”

The old stallion’s sudden cheer vanished. “It's too dangerous, you should be well-aware what the terrorists do! This family knows well enough what those terrorist scum are capable of.”

“Which is why I’m joining the guard, they can help make me strong! Strong enough to protect you.”

“I don't need protecting, Shining, you do! Putting yourself in harm’s way won't help anyone!” The stallion shook his head and muttered darkly, “You can't protect anyone if they kill you too, Shining. Don't you see?”

Shining sneered. “I see perfectly clearly, Dad. I see that you don't want to get the ponies that killed Mom and Twilight!”

Night Light rolled his eyes. “That's not what I am saying at all, one pony isn't going to bring down the terrorists overnight! They have been trying to destroy this city since I was a child. Leave that for the guard and the princess.”

“Even one pony can make a difference! Even if it takes the rest of my life, I will find out who made the bomb and bring them to justice!” The meak stallion slammed his hoof against the table, hardly rattling the plates.

The old stallion sighed and ran a hoof down his face. “That isn't the point. What matters is that it is too dangerous. You can't go putting yourself in danger for some misbegotten sense of justice.”

Shining Armor’s muscles twitched, and his anger peaked at what he saw as his father’s cowardice. He had been the one to hit the bottle, even before the accident he had drank to flee from Twilight’s affliction. A problem only exacerbated by the sudden death of his daughter and wife. He had chosen to run from his problems and accept Celestia’s offer of a new house, one closer to the castle. All his father did was run, but he was not his father. Shining Armor would stand up for what was right and fight against the forces that had corrupted his sister and killed her and his mother.

“Danger is everywhere! We know better than anyone!” the colt cried. “If I am not safe at home, or in the castle, where am I safe?”

Night Light froze and for a second, Shining Armor thought he had delivered his point across, only for the old stallion to suddenly get up and make his way to the door.

“Where are you going?” Shining asked incredulously.

“I’m going to check on the movers, they said they were going to be done tomorrow.”

“You can't just run from all your problems.”

Night Light stopped, his hoof wavering over the door handle, only for his head to shake. “You aren't thinking about this rationally. Your mother isn't even cold in the ground and you are already using her death to win arguments.”

Shining Armor staggered back as if struck, only to put a hoof to stop his father. “Wait-”

The door slammed shut, ending their argument and driving a spike of guilt into the stallion’s heart. He hadn't meant it like that, he wanted to…

He didn't know what he wanted.

The stallion crumpled, like a puppet with its strings cut, unable to stay standing. Why did he want to become a royal guard so much? Was it truly because of the recent disaster? Sure, he had desired to join before, but he had wanted to join the Equestrian guard in order to see the world.

He shook the strange train of thought from his mind. He needed to see justice done and even if he didn't find out who made that bomb, he was damn sure he would do everything he could to put a stop to the terrorists.

He may not be able to stop them all, but if he could bring justice to at least one of the animals that had taken his family from him, he would be proud. And if one day he could somehow manage to kill every single last terrorist in Equestria, then he could die happily.

Night Light groaned and rubbed his head, pressing his face into the pillow. He fumbled blindly for the the cup of water he had left on his end table. Once found it, he threw back the meager amount of water and groaned. This was not a good start to the day.

The stallion tossed aside the blankets and stumbled to the floor, standing there for a few moments as the world around him slowly stopped spinning. Once more in control of his faculties, the stallion shook his head. Keep it together, Night Light, you still got one pony left in your life, can't give up yet.

Making his way across the room in his half-awake, hungover state, the stallion was barely able to dodge the various boxes that littered the floor randomly. He had meant to start unpacking already, but days had passed and he had yet to touch the things. Something about the act of unpacking added a sense of finality to the move that he couldn't bring himself to go through with.

He slowly made his way downstairs, his headache subsiding as his body started to wake up. By the time he got to the bottom of the stairs, he felt almost normal. The dull ache in his heart was still there, but at least his head was clear.

He looked around the small main floor, easily able to see everything from his spot at the bottom of the stairs. Where the old house had thick wooden beams that had been left unpainted and exposed for all to see, the new house used some fancy technique to hide the supports that held up the house and covered them up with flat walls that were easy to paint over.

He liked it at first, but everyday he looked at the flat, even, perfectly painted walls of his new house, he couldn't help, but miss the character of his old home. It had its faults, but it was honest about them, but here, every fault and imperfection was hidden behind a thick veneer of perfection.

Musing silently to himself, he turned away from the living room before him and to his right, where the small, humble kitchen sat empty. Unlike the rest of the house, it had been filled first, his late wife’s many pots, pans, cutlery and other kitchenware lovingly put away before he had even so much as looked for the box containing his clothes.

He winced as he made his way into the kitchen, the windows were large and were a nice selling point of the house, but in actuality, everything seemed to reflect into them and blind the stallion every morning. The passing sets of gleaming armor, strapped to the powerfully built guards, seemed to reflect every stray bit of light directly into his eyeballs.

With a flash of magic the stallion drew the curtains and sighed, the darkness doing wonders for his lingering headache. He grabbed a large cup and filled it to the brim with ice cold water and made his way back to the living room. His hangover had robbed him of any desire to eat, so he passed by the small tray of muffins he had bought yesterday without even looking at it, despite a nagging voice reminding him they would go bad soon.

Flopping down into his favorite chair, the stallion breathed a sigh of relief. Even when things changed, something always stayed the same and for him, this chair was that rock. He had it since he had moved out of his parents place and it somehow managed to survive two kids and the rigors of time without gaining more than a few small scuffs.

His eyes closed and lips curled into a grin, and the stallion drank deep from his glass, feeling the cool relief slide down his throat and refresh his very being. Now feeling awake, alert and relaxed, he put down his glass, only to notice there was a folded piece of paper on the small table beside his chair.

Curious, he leaned closer, noticing there was only a single word written on the front. Dad. That wasn't good, Night Light felt a certain sense of unease at the sight of the slip of paper. It was written in the neat and punctual horn writing of his son and after the last argument they had only the night before, the stallion couldn't help, but imagine the worst.

The stallion flipped over the paper and unfolded it, revealing the same neat script nearly covered the other side. Somewhere deep down he knew exactly what this note contained, but he read on, stubbornly hoping it was not as he feared.

I am sorry.

I cannot take the job you managed to get me down at Donut Joe’s. I know you meant well in getting it for me, but I can't just relegate myself to a restaurant job when I know destiny has bigger plans for me.

I am sorry for bringing up what I did the other night. It wasn't right of me to say what I did. You were just trying to look out for me, like you always have.

But I can't do this, I can't go back to a normal life. Not after what happened.

I need to do this and I’m sorry you disapprove, but I must follow this through to the end.

One day I’m sure you will understand.

Thank you for all you've done.

We’ll talk more after I’ve completed basic. If you still want to see my face after this.

Shining Armor
Royal Guard.

The cup flew from his hoof and shattered across the perfectly painted wall, sending uneven shards of glass in all directions. The paper followed suit, having been crumpled into a ball and jettisoned across the room, but it did not make quite the satisfying crash that the glass did.

The stallion toppled from the chair, falling gracelessly to a heap on the ground, where he pounded his hoof into the perfectly white floor. No no no no no!

Night Light lurched into a standing position, running towards the stairs and clumsily climbing them, moving too fast for his hooves to catch up to him. “Shining! This better be a joke!”

Careening across the landing, Night Light only barely managed to turn in time to face his son’s door. Throwing caution to the wind, he lit his horn and cast aside the door, charging through into an empty room.

The small, box-filled bedroom was almost exactly the same as it was the day before, save for the absence of a few things. Shining’s bag of clothes was gone from its perch atop the pile of boxes in the corner and the stallion’s favorite hat, along with the pictures of his mother and sister, that had sat on his end table were also gone. Worst of all, the stallion himself was absent, leaving the suddenly very old stallion shocked and terrified.

This was it, the moment he had feared since that hellish night. The moment where he was well and truly alone. His daughter was gone and though a part of himself was relieved at the thought, the rest of him crushed that feeling. He had never wanted her truly gone, only away, somewhere her condition would harm nopony, somewhere they could visit as much as they wanted without suffering as his wife had. Worst of all, his wife had been taken from him by the very daughter he had ostracized, having been seduced by the terrorists into carrying a bomb for them. Despite all the hatred boiling in his heart, he couldn't direct it towards the daughter that had started his family down this dark path.

No, he would never blame an innocent, not when he carried the guilt for all of this happening. If he hadn't pushed her away she wouldn't have been so easily seduced by the twisted tongue of the terrorists that despised their way of life. Even his son, the last living family he had left was pushed away because of him. It was all his fault, everything that had happened had been his fault one way or another.

The stallion surged from the ground where he had lain crumpled in despair, lurching awkwardly on uncoordinated legs as he made his way back down the stairs, only to trip and tumble down the last few steps, landing once more in a heap on the floor. He quickly righted himself again and stumbled into the kitchen, tears pouring down his face and dripping to the floor.

When had he started crying? He didn't remember and it didn't matter.

He tore the cutlery drawer out, the various cooking implements scattering across the floor. The stallion cursed, searching for the one piece of steel that would end all this misery. A glint from across the room caught his eye and hastily the stallion scrambled towards it, grinning madly as he saw the object of his freedom.

The large, sharp knife lay on the ground, waiting for the stallion to reach out and grab it. As he did, he felt a surge of something push through his mind and almost without thinking he found the knife pressed against his own throat. Something stopped him though, something small, just a whisper.

“Take care of them, Nighty, please?”

His hoof trembled and the knife pressed dangerously against his flesh, mere millimeters from opening up his throat. He was so close, all he had to do was push a little forward. It wouldn't be hard, only a moment of pain for an eternity of release, it would be worth it, right? A dark voice within his mind whispered.

“Take care of them, please. For me,” the ghost breathed.

The knife clattered to the floor along with the stallion. Velvet would never forgive him for abandoning them, not when he had one child left. He wasn't gone, not yet anyway.

He remembered the words he had spoken that night so long ago. He had lain on his side, his legs wrapped around his wife, who clutched their newest bundle of joy in her grasp. The tiny filly lay still, her chest rising and falling only faintly.

“I know you will, my love, but please let me hear you say it,” Twilight Velvet whispered.

The words had come to the stallion’s lips without him even having to think of them. “Until my dying breath.”

His wife smiled and pulled the tiny bundle closer to her chest, a small hint of sorrow gracing her features. As the memory faded, Night Light couldn't help but wonder what had brought on the sudden demand. Had she known what was going to happen, all those years ago? Or had she merely been scared of leaving her children alone, in an uncaring world?

Night Light didn't know, and he didn't care. For as long as his promise was left unfulfilled, he could not rest. No matter how much he desired to and no matter how much the dark voice at the back of his mind demanded him to end it.

Shining Armor dragged his hooves down the long hallway that lead to the barracks. The pack on his back was relatively small, but to the stallion, it might have weighed a ton for how much it dragged him down. Every step he took from his home towards the place that would become his new home was harder than the last.

Leaving at the break of dawn had been easy, his steps pulled by an unforeseen force that had dragged him along at an incessant pace. His anger towards his father, his guilt at not being able to help his sister and mother both driving him onwards and upwards. But it were not the steep streets or the few ponies out at such an early hour that slowed him down, but a worry that festered in his soul.

His father had been strange and distant since the bombing and Shining couldn't help, but worry that the old stallion might do something rash in the heat of the moment. When he had passed through the enormous gate to the castle, his worry compounded, how long would it be until he could see him again? Would the self-destructive path he had already been on only get worse? Would he be responsible if…

“Recruit Armor?” a voice asked gruffly.

The scrawny stallion blinked and looked up to see a tall, imposing royal guard clad in gold armor looking down at him with obvious disgust on his face.

“Yes?” Shining answered awkwardly, unsure as to what he had done to deserve such distaste.

“Come with me.” The stallion turned, not waiting to see if the colt was following him before trotting off down the hall.

“Wait! I haven’t put my stuff away!” Shining Armor pleaded, running after the taller, longer-legged stallion.

“You won't be putting your things in this barracks anyway.”

Shining Armor took his saddle bags in his magic and placed them on his back, moving all the while in order to not get left behind. The guard’s quick pace carried them down several halls in no time at all, leaving the shorter stallion scrambling to keep up. The guard turned suddenly after taking a few steps up a winding spiral staircase, casting a curious eye at the stunned stallion, who had stopped short of the steps.

“What is it, Recruit Armor?” he asked tersely.

Shining Armor gaped. “But that's towards the officer barracks. Surely there must be a mix up.”

The guard shook his head. “No, the princess, in her infinite wisdom, has selected you to be fast tracked for officership. You will be stowing your gear in the third floor with the others training to lead.” He took a few steps up the stairs, but stopped when he didn't hear Shining Armor’s hooves. Turning back, he frowned at the short stallion. “Is there a problem, recruit?”

“Yes, there is. I won't accept nepotism. I know Celestia pities me for what happened to my family, but this isn't right. Tell her I do not accept her offer.”

The guard blinked, his mouth opening to speak, only to close, his opinion of the small stallion soaring. “I... well then.” He tapped his chin, suddenly unsure of what to do. “I was ordered to bring you to Celestia regardless. So... you should bring up your refusal with her. For now we can skip stowing your gear and we will make it directly to the royal suite.”

Shining’s confident appearance melted at the thought of denying the princess to her face. He gulped and stepped after the guard, who seemed to eye him with a burgeoning respect. Together, the pair climbed to the third story, passed a security point, then entered a different set of spiral stairs and climbed an additional two stories, only to repeat the entire process one last time.

By the end of it, Shining Armor was left wheezing and his heart hammered in his chest. His legs felt heavy and he couldn't help, but curse whomever had designed this section of the tower with so many spiral staircases. A part of him knew this was because most ponies were right hoofed and the construction of the staircase ensured the defenders had the advantage, but the rest of him was too busy wheezing and trying not to collapse to the floor to care about that little nugget of information.

The guard stopped, waiting patiently for Shining to crawl up to the last security post. “How… how many stories was that?” Shining wheezed.

The guard snorted, amused by the smaller stallion. “We are on the forty-second floor.”

Shining Armor gasped. “What? But... what?”

The guard chuckled. “We took the enchanted stairs, since our identity was confirmed. An invader could get lost for days in the maze of stairs if they didn't know where they were going, so keep that in mind if you ever think you are going to sneak somewhere you’re not supposed to. Now come on, the princess’ suite is just up ahead.”

Shining Armor nodded, pulling in a few last frantic gulps of air and silently hoping the wobbling in his legs wouldn't get any worse, he would hate to fall over in front of the princess. They trotted past one last pair of guards that appeared to be identical to the rest. Tall, stoic, powerfully built and with the same gold armor and sleek white coat as the rest. The unicorn and pegasus guards didn't even look at Shining or their fellow guard, their eyes staring straight ahead, unblinking.

After passing through the archway, the hall suddenly shifted, growing far larger than the narrow tower they were now in should allow. Within several feet, the hallway opened to the left and right, both of the new hallways extending a dozen meters over what would have been the outside of the tower, numerous doors along their paths. That was of course assuming Celestia’s suite obeyed normal laws of physics, which it clearly didn't.

As such they passed numerous rooms, antechambers, a lounge and even what appeared to be a smoke room before they hit the end of the hall and were forced to take the stairs. There they again passed by numerous rooms, each more oppoulent than the last. A sauna, a pool, an art gallery, an enormous library, a private spa, a gym, Shining shook his head in disbelief. There was more space in the two floors he had seen of the tower than the entire rest of Canterlot Castle.

The entire time he walked he was flanked by ancient and renowned art, from paintings to statues to stained glass to ornate and antique weapons. He had no doubt that what little he could see from his current angle would be enough to keep him and his entire extended family in exorbitant wealth for generations if they were to be sold. That was also discounting the sheer amount of gold and jewels that lined the decedent halls. Vases of what looked like pure gold were inserted randomly into the endless sprawling halls of Celestia’s suite. The door handles were almost exclusively made of gold and many of the ornate doors were made from some ancient tree and were inlaid with gems of a size the stallion had never seen before.

The sheer scale of Celestia’s wealth would normally look gaudy, but there was such artistry in the placement and such perfection in the subtle blending of color with the natural light, that somehow streamed in from seemingly everywhere, that it all worked perfectly.

“It's a lot to take in, huh?” the guard asked.

Shining shook his head in disbelief. “This is crazy.”

The guard snickered. “When you’re around for as long as the princess, you tend to collect a few things. I shouldn't have to tell you, but don't touch anything. Most of what you see is worth more than your life’s salary and that's assuming you somehow make captain of the guard.”

Shining snorted. “That will never happen.”

The guard laughed and motioned towards a seemingly random door in the middle of the hall. “Let's go, the princess will be waiting for you.”

The younger stallion breathed deeply and straightened his spine, standing tall and unafraid. “Right. Ready when you are.”

The guard nodded and smiled faintly before opening the door with a hoof and beckoning for Shining to enter. The stallion did as asked and proudly trotted into the room. That pride didn't last long and his step quickly faltered as he looked around. It had a bed in it, but Shining wasn't sure if that was enough to classify it is as a bedroom. The ceilings were high enough to allow a whole flock of pegasi room to fly and it was probably large enough to hold his entire childhood house within its four walls and still have enough space left for the yard to fit as well.

The roof itself was a piece of art unlike anything the stallion had seen. From one corner to the other was a great painting that depicted hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller pictures. From his brief glance he could tell that it was a history of Equestria, but he could only guess at what half the scenes were meant to show as history had never been his forte. Even then he saw scenes that he was pretty sure no history book would ever depict. Blushing madly, the stallion pulled his gaze down and looked around the room.

Several doors exited the main room, though they were all closed, leaving Shining to guess at what new and opulent room lay beyond. A walk-in closet with room for hundred dresses? A bathroom large enough to have a small pool in the center while still having room for the necessities? Shining pushed the thoughts from his head and forced himself to look away from the gleaming gold and red that covered the room from top to bottom and towards the thin line of yellow that fell across the room from the open archway to his left.

Upon noticing the thin line of sunlight, Shining Armor’s ears perked up and he realized that the room beyond was filled with the sound of music, so much so a small tune could be heard. The soft plucking of a harp intermingled with the hushed tone of an enchanting songstress carried the stallion past the arch and onto the large balcony before he even realized his hooves had moved.

To his right were the sources of the music he had heard, a tall elegant looking earth pony mare plucked at a harp while an equally as elegant, but slightly leaner pegasus sung beautifully. The sound was like the burbling of a brook, indistinct, but relaxing and utterly enchanting.

Closer to the balcony’s edge was her. Celestia herself, the Unconquered Sol, the Empire Maker. From her perch atop a small mound of pillows, she gazed out at her city, while a pair of younger ponies stood nearby, a unicorn filly waited close at hoof, levitating a fork full of angel food cake. The princess opened her mouth and the unicorn dutifully placed the cake into her mouth and quickly cut off another piece and readied it. The other foal appeared male and like his counterpart, he was dressed in a silky, yellow and gold dress that dusted the floor.

Shining gulped, noticing the pair of musicians eyed him cautiously, though not overtly enough to interrupt their song. Without turning her gaze from the city below, the princess spoke, “You may go, Sun Speaker and Whisper Wind. Please, find some breakfast and return in an hour.”

The musicians nodded and left without a word, the absence of their song leaving the stallion despondent for its loss. Shining opened his mouth to speak, but Celestia beat him to the punch.

“Come to me,” she whispered huskily, while smiling warmly and patting a spare cushion she had pulled from the pile she sat on.

Shining Armor blinked, his hooves moving as if of their own volition, carrying him to the pillow and plopping him down near the edge of the balcony, his head just barely enough to see over the railing. Celestia’s smile widened and her eyes sparkled as she beamed down on the stallion.

“Good. Now before you ask anything, I want you to look out over Canterlot and tell me what you feel.” The alicorn slipped in closer to the stallion, rubbing a hoof down his back and drawing a shiver from the much smaller pony. “Tell me what stirs within your heart when you look out over our city.”

The stallion gulped, every fibre of his being calling for him to move away from the enchanting alicorn, but there was something about her presence, the closeness, that soothed him. He relaxed, leaning slightly against the mare’s leg, feeling worries of protocol and politeness flee from his mind.

He cast his eyes out over the city, looking down upon the great spires of gold and marble that dotted the cityscape. He marveled at the great and ancient city, his mind awash with numerous emotions. To the point that he almost forgot about the alicorn’s request, so lost amidst the seemingly endless towers, roads and numberless ponies that walked and flew amongst them.

“I feel… nervous,” Shining mumbled.

The alicorn raised and eyebrow and leaned closer to the stallion. “Why do you say that?”

“It looks so fragile, like the boats in bottles my father used to make when I was little. It’s perfect, too perfect,” he muttered darkly, his gaze lingering on a particular set of towers that were so small he felt as though he could reach out and snap them off with his hoof.

The alicorn hummed in thought, looking out over the city and sitting in silence for a few moments. “Do you know what the terrorists feel when they see our fair city?” Shining Armor shook his head. “Greed, envy, and the all-consuming desire to take. To them, Canterlot is a great treasure chest, filled with the spoils gained by thousands of industrious ponies over generations. They see our great work and they envy us for it.”

Celestia gently placed a hoof on the stallion’s chin, caressing his cheek and pulling his eyes up to meet hers. “Which brings me to you, and why I want you among the officers of my royal guard.” He opened his lips to speak, but Celestia placed a delicate, lilac scented hoof over them. “I know what you are going to say and I know how you feel. You think you don't deserve it, but you also have something that my guard sorely lacks. Do you know what that is?”

The alicorn lowered herself until her face was mere inches from the stallion’s own, their muzzles nearly touching. It took every ounce of willpower Shining Armor had not to look away. He just shook his head, unable to make the words reach his lips.

“Drive.” She smiled and stood tall once more, allowing the stallion to breathe easier. “Most of my guards are here out of obligation, they cannot see the big picture and they strive for nothing. They have seen our society and they have grown fat and lazy, confident in our power. To them, guarding the city is an afterthought to their wants and desires, something to keep themselves busy with while they pursue other interests.”

The alicorn frowned and stomped her hoof, the two foals shirking away from the small tremor that ran through the balcony. “They have not visited the border cities or seen true strife. They care little of the fledgeling nations that edge closer to our borders every day. But you! You have seen the danger lurking within even our fair city. I can taste the powerful will within you.” Celestia smiled and pulled the stallion closer to her. “You will succeed because you have the vision and the drive that my officers seem to lack and you will set an example to the layabouts that clutter my guard. Now, do you understand why I want you inside my guard?”

Shining’s mind felt hazy and though he wasn't quite sure if he agreed with a promotion so soon, he couldn't help but find himself agreeing with the alicorn. Most of the guards he had met seemed unconcerned, lacking the fire he expected to see in those brave few who were tasked with safeguarding Canterlot and Her Majesty Celestia.

“Do you… do you really think I have what it takes?” he whispered, turning his head and staring out over the city, unable to meet her gaze.

Celestia smiled, he couldn't see her lips turn, but he could feel her confidence. “I know you do.”

After running his eyes over the cityscape one last time, he sighed. “Then I will not let you down, Princess. You have my word.”

The alicorn gave him a gentle squeeze, subtly shifting his body even closer. “Good, you just have to do one little thing for me.” Celestia’s grin grew twisted, her tongue slipping from her mouth and licking her lips.

A small, demure unicorn with soft blue fur and a purple mane and tail sat nearly motionless, a book held in her dainty hooves and a small frown on her lips. She shifted slightly in her seat, her cutie mark of two deep blue moons visible for only a second, quickly hidden behind her saddlebags. From her elegant and flowing mane style to the well-manicured hooves, everything about the pony screamed the fact that she belonged here.

Moonlit Echo sat silently on the bench across the street from a newly refurbished home, deep into the most expensive part of town. She flipped the page of the book she held, though she had not read the contents of its pages. All around her the street lay silent, occasionally broken by the sound of laughter or the chatter of ponies from inside one of the many houses. It was a peaceful calm, one brought about by the closeness of the castle, an object that brought an intense paranoia to the lounging unicorn.

She didn't care about any of those things though, the enchanted glasses on the end of her nose allowed her to see the house across from her as if she were standing just outside the window and it took every ounce of her attention.

Night Light stumbled in front of the window at the bottom of the stairs, tossing back the bottle in his grip only to stop, look up at the empty bottle, only to fling it aside. Moonlit could all, but hear the clatter as the glass was thrown, hopefully into a garbage bin. The stallion stumbled up the stairs and entered his room, made evident by the flickering glow of his horn. Within seconds the light disappeared and the stallion no doubt passed out.

The mare sat quietly on the bench, her head moving slightly from left to right, giving any passerby the assumption she was reading while her eyes stayed fixated on the window. After counting for several minutes, she turned the page and placed a bookmark in her place. She placed the book, Nothing to Envy, in her saddlebag and stood up. After a brief stretch and the subsequent series of pops that came from her back, she turned away from the castle and began to trot towards lower Canterlot.

Her steps were measured, each one timed and perfected in order to give off the air that she was aloof, yet confident. Any passerby would take one look at her and judge that she was meant to be there, from her perfect stride to her well-manicured mane and tail, everything about her was just so.

She made her way down, her hooves carrying her for nearly an hour before she reached the gate that divided upper Canterlot from middle and lower Canterlot. The traffic had increased, as did security, the now numerous guards overlooking her from the parapets above as well as from the gate itself. Even with so many eyes on her, including the many ponies coming and going, she did not break stride or spare them a glance.

Not a single pony, guard included, gave her so much as a second thought as she passed through the gate. The hidden charms and wards passed over her, hardly even noticed by most. Once past, she let out a small breath of relief, her countercharms, wards and enchantments had all worked flawlessly, but the gate still made her anxious no matter how many times she walked through it.

The mare dodged around a small family making their way towards upper Canterlot, picking up her pace. She danced her way through the crowd and quickly slipped into one of the less trafficked streets that went even lower. Middle Canterlot passed by quickly and transitioned seamlessly to lower Canterlot. Gone were the sprawling apartments and towers that housed the general population, replaced by plentiful market squares and shops that covered every street corner. The third and least reputable section of Canterlot was still opulent by the standards of someone who grew up in the frontiers though and even the smallest home was still at least two stories tall and polished to a shine.

Hundreds walked the streets even with the sun setting, confident in their safety and uncaring of the hour. Moonlit couldn't help but grin, thankful that she worked in such a place. Amongst the frontier towns it was dangerous for a mare to travel to such places alone at such an hour, but here, in the heart of Equestria, it didn't even occur to most that their safety might be in jeopardy. As such she still did not bat an eye, even when she slipped down an unmarked alley and behind a dumpster that nearly occupied the entire alley.

The mare cast a quick glance back and forth, seeing nothing out of the ordinary, she reached down and gripped two cobblestones a few feet apart from each other that rose slightly from the otherwise flat ground. With a slight heave and a grunt the ground between the stones lifted, revealing a ladder down into the darkness. The mare set aside the fake cobblestone road section and got onto the ladder. With one last grunt she lifted the circular block of fake cobblestone back into place with her magic, the faint click of the hatch like music to her ears.

After a moment spent catching her breath, the mare began descending the ladder, deeper into the darkness. Though it should be nearly impossible for anyone to see in such an environment, she had no such issue. The smell of stagnant water and mold tickled the mare’s nose, but she had long since grown used to the scent and easily ignored it. Eventually, she made her way to the bottom and stepped out into a narrow circular hall that hung low, meaning she was forced to crouch down slightly.

Turning right down the hall, the mare passed by several other intersections that branched in either direction. After counting off three intersections she took a right, then a left and finally after counting off fifty steps she stopped and turned left in front of what looked like a completely normal brick wall.

The mare breathed a sigh of relief, the catacombs that served as the city’s old sewer were supposedly completely sealed save for their secret entrances, but Moonlit couldn't help, but imagine a monster or royal guard around every corner of the ancient underground, despite all the hours spent crawling through the moldy passageways without any issue.

She placed her hoof against the wall and after a short wait, her limb glowed blue for a moment before fading. Smiling softly to herself, the mare took a step back, and on cue the wall slid away soundlessly, slipping neatly into the side to reveal two determined-looking stallions standing with spears raised, barely illuminated by a small crystal overhead, only their thick black robes and shining spears visible.

“Identity?” one barked.

“Moonlit Echo, back from my mission overseeing the Sparkle residence,” she replied back calmly.

The stallion nodded. “Password?”

“Love burns eternal.”

The pair breathed a sigh of relief and lowered their spears. “Thank the stars you are back. We have been hearing a lot of noise coming from the catacombs and one of our patrols hasn't returned yet.”

Moonlit made her way inside, chuckling all the while. “Was it Twitch and Daisy?”

The stallion cocked his head. “How did you know?”

She rolled her eyes and placed her glasses and saddlebags on a nearby table. “Those two have been making goo goo eyes at each other for weeks.”

The stallion snickered and hit a lever on the wall next to him, causing the wall to slide neatly back into place. Only then did the other stallion seem to relax and place his spear along the wall as his partner had done already.

Moonlit took a few steps forward and hit a button on the wall opposite of the one she entered, causing the crystal to glow much brighter. After blinking a few times, the mare looked around, noting her companions had shed their enchanted robes and were placing them on racks next to the entryway. One was smaller, a little leaner and much younger with a quill for a cutie mark and with a pair of wings on his back. His coat was a soft yellow and his mane and tail a deep auburn.

The older stallion was much bigger built with wide, powerful shoulders and an impressive stance. The horn on his head was filed to a deadly point, adding an extra layer of intimidation that the bloody spiked club on his flank already did an amazing job of.

Moonlit smirked as the pair moved to the table in the room, the older stallion drawing a pair of cards from somewhere. “They stick you with the newbie again, Mace?”

The older stallion snorted and settled down at the table, his chair squeaking under the weight. “Unfortunately. Didn't even let me take Lavender with me. Said it scared the newbies too much.” The stallion snorted again.

Moonlit chuckled and moved to the door, casting one last glance at the old bruiser before shaking her head and stepping through the portal. The next room was much larger and much busier than the small guard station. Tunnels crisscrossed every ten feet and ponies trotted to and fro, carrying boxes or stacks of paper or the occasional odd weapon. Maneuvering through the mix easily, Moonlit made her way through the horde of ponies and deeper into the headquarters, only stopping at the several security stations before coming to a large iron door.

The mare drew herself up and took a deep breath before knocking. “Just a second!” a distinctly feminine, but oddly gravelly tone answered.

Moonlit looked around, spying the odd thestral and even a minotaur hauling boxes and bags. “Must have finally gotten that resupply…” she muttered.

“You can come in now!” the strange voice yelled again.

Moonlit pulled the door open and quickly slipped inside, shutting the door behind her. “Ahh, Moonlit. Come to report directly to me again, despite being asked to submit a report like everyone else.”

Moonlit snorted and plunked down in a chair, shaking her head at the alicorn across from her. “I don't do paperwork and this is news you would want to hear.”

Across from her the alicorn smiled gently, her cut up lips revealing far too much of her teeth. “Why don't you drop that disguise first, you know my policy on changing while at base.”

The mare rolled her eyes and did as she was asked, dropping her disguise and revealing her black chitin-clad form for all to see, rolling her solid blue eyes in annoyance. “Now can I tell you?”

The alicorn nodded. “Yes, but remember we shouldn't be ashamed of ourselves, not down here at least.”

Moonlit sat a little easier at that, normally a pony saying something along those lines would have made her annoyed, but Cadence was different. Her pink fur only covered parts of her body, the rest of her skin was a dense web of scar tissue. One leg ended at the knee and her horn was broken, but she didn't seem to notice, her singular eye was open wide and she smiled unashamed at the small changeling.

“Hungry?” the alicorn asked in her strange, gravely voice.

The changeling shook her head, only to stop and blush as she felt just how much the day had drained her. “Maybe a little. Do you mind?”

Cadence scoffed. “Of course not.” Then, before the changeling could change her mind, the alicorn lowered her head, pointed her shattered horn at the changeling and poured an ample amount of love into the mare.

The changeling shivered as she felt the love wash over her, drinking deeply. Her eyes fluttered open a few seconds later, having drunk from the intoxicating well of love Cadence seemed to overflow with. “Thanks, boss.”

The alicorn waved her stump leg dismissively. “Don't worry about it. Now, what is this info I couldn't wait to hear?”

“Well, as you know, I’ve been tasked with watching the Sparkle residence and it turns out this morning Shining Armor left in order to join the royal guard without telling his father.”

Cadence grimaced. “That couldn't have gone well.”

“That's an understatement, the old pony nearly killed himself.”

The alicorn gasped and reeled back. “No way! Shiny would be devastated.”

The changeling rose a non-existent eyebrow at that, but said nothing on the subject. “Yes, well, it doesn't stop there. After he nearly decided to end it all, he left the house suddenly and donated pretty much everything he owned to charity, only keeping sentimental stuff, and the things his kids left behind. After that, he threw out all his booze except for one last bottle, then drank it and passed out.”

Cadence shook her head. “What do you think he's planning on doing?”

“I don't know, but he seems like he's in a slightly better place now. Could be a good time to contact him?”

“I could use my public persona to talk to him. Maybe feign me interest in Shining and inquire as to where he has been, which would confirm a few things for us at least.”

The changeling nodded. “Perfect. If we do manage to win him over, his help would be invaluable as I don't think we have ever managed to get into the royal observatory before.”

Cadence rubbed her chin with her stump leg. “It could be useful, but I doubt my dear old aunt really has anything too nefarious hidden up there.”

Suddenly, the iron door swung open, startling them from their thoughts. “Ma’am! News from Ponyville!”

Cadence tsked. “Knock first, remember? We went over this, Swift River.”

The blue and green stallion shrunk. “Uh, sorry about that.” The changeling shot him an angry glare and pulled herself off the ceiling, slinking back into her chair. “You just wanted to know the minute we got news from Ponyville, so I thought…”

“It's okay, Swifty, just remember to knock next time.” He nodded and the alicorn smiled. “Well, what are the news?”

Swift shifted nervously, taking a step back. “I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”

“Nothing terribly important, go on, Swifty.”

“The supply mission was a success as you know, but we also managed to recruit a few more wayward changelings.” He winced. “They are in bad shape, but the doc says they’ll live. Might have to amputate a few limbs though, a couple had some bad chitin rot.”

Moonlit winced, a shiver running up her spine, Cadence’s cheery tone breaking the horrid images that threatened to invade her thoughts. “That's great news! Was there anything else?”

The pegasus stallion nodded. “There were rumours of an outsider that wasn't one of ours, who appeared in Ponyville, only to vanish again.”

Cadence blinked and looked at Moonlit, who only shrugged. “She's not one of ours. All our changelings are needed here in Canterlot.”

“What did this outsider look like?”

Swift scratched his head. “Well, reports are sketchy. The only pony who got a real good look at them was the town drunk and she rambled on and on about how terrifying this pony was, but when we pressed her for details, she didn't sound scary at all.”

“So what did she have to say about this scary… mare?” Cadence asked.

“She just said she was tall, a little lanky, awkward and with a strangely long and curved horn. She had purple fur and-”

“Short, clean cut mane and tail that was a deeper purple then her fur with a strip of pink and lavender running through it?” Cadence finished.

Swift River blinked. “Uh, yeah. How’d you know?”

Cadence’s torn lips turned up into a huge grin and a sudden burst of laughter dashed forth.

“Uh…” The two other beings eyed each other worriedly, both wondering about the state of their commander’s sanity.

“You alright there, boss?” the changeling asked.

Cadence’s laughter slowly stopped and she breathed deeply. “You have no idea how happy I am to hear that, Swifty. Get our best agent to track her, but don't interfere.”

The changeling reached across the table and gripped the alicorn’s head, staring into her lone eye with a strange intensity. “You alright in there, boss? No way you just told me what I think you did.”

Cadence chuckled. “Yes, I did. I want you to pull Queenie off whatever she is doing and stick her on this.”

Moonlit’s eyes narrowed, only to pull back and shake her head. “You are serious. And not completely nuts. What's going on, boss? Who is this pony?”

The alicorn’s eyes sparkled and her lone wing twitched at her side. “Someone special. She's going to close the circle, Moonlit, after all these years, Twilight Sparkle has returned.”

A Dawning Revelation

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Twilight Sparkle smiled while looking out her bedroom window from the comfort of her bed. She gazed past the oaken limbs that extended from her tree home and towards the bright, sunny town of Ponyville. She could hear birds chirping in the distance, interrupted by the yells of excitement from a small group of foals chasing a ball. The sun was bright, but not oppressively so, adding just the right amount of illumination to the small hamlet.

The unicorn sighed, breathing in a deep lungful of the relaxing woody scent that permeated her home. She guessed it was around ten in the morning and though a part of her wanted to get moving on her day’s schedule, the temptation to laze about for a few more minutes won out in the end.

Her hooves clopped against the living wood floor until she made her way to the window and threw it open, letting in the surprisingly cool mid-morning breeze. She could feel the last vestige of the cool night air that stubbornly held on. It reminded her of the coming winter and though the reminder was grim, she quickly chastised herself for her negative thoughts. She had nearly two months before winter would arrive, but summer would be back before she knew it. Do not bemoan the summer for its mortality.

Those were words to live by if ever she heard them. She sighed, leaning against the windowsill, and staring out over the town from on high. She could see over most of the single story, simple dwellings of the hamlet with ease, allowing her to look out over the entirety of the settlement. Her gaze lingered over a few colorful shapes that might be friends, family or other ponies she knew, all of which were too far away for her to be certain.

Which was for the best Twilight thought, she was in a dour, introspective mood this morning and didn't want to ruin anyone’s good cheer quite yet. A feeling of foreboding had been growing on her since she awoke, one she could not shake despite all her fervent attempts to distract herself. Inevitably, her eyes were drawn upwards, away from the town’s life and its cheer and towards the looming forest beyond.

Where the burgeoning hamlet was a bustling center of life, prosperity and minor trade, the forest was the opposite in every way. The inhabitants of the wood were savage, powerful and utterly bestial, not capable of prospering for long before being eaten by a bigger predator. She felt the smile she had forced onto her face begin to slip when she noticed two shapes standing at the wood’s edge. Their coats were a burnt orange and pale blue and they both swung gleaming axes at a large stubborn tree that had seemingly grown overnight at the edge of the forest.

She could almost hear the mixture of country-flavored frustration and the harsh, foul language of the former captain as they futile attempt to chop down the tree. She shook her head and sighed, knowing full well what was about to happen.

Sure enough, a few minutes later the pair threw their hopes and their axes aside. The light blue colored one threw her axe into the woods and no doubt cursed while the other ground a straw hat into the dirt angrily, taking her frustrations out on her chapéu.

Twilight pressed her hoof against her forehead and groaned. She had told those two that simply chopping it down wouldn't work and neither would fire, yet here they were again. Maybe Luna was right and the forest truly was unstoppable, but she couldn't just give up, right? Celestia had grandly stated that she would fight it with all she had, but what had that accomplished, other than getting a few squads of guards killed?

Twilight sighed, laying her chin down on the cool window frame and sighing with exhaustion. Her own studies were inconclusive, nonsensical or otherwise baffling. The forest was alive, that much was obvious, but it defied all reason. Trees grew from seeds to full size overnight while others were healthy one day and a withered husk the next, and that wasn't even considering all the bizarre creatures found in the depths of the otherworldly forest!

When she had learned of the timberwolf epidemic, she hadn't slept for several days. The question of just how such a creature could come to exist had driven her late into the night in search of an answer, which ultimately turned out to be a futile effort. The creatures acted like they were alive, but to her spells, they simply weren't. They clearly weren't golems, as they acted without orders and retained their wolf-like characteristics.

She shut her eyes and focused all her attention to the cool breeze rolling through her fur. It couldn't ease her worries completely, but it was nice, soothing even. The questions, curiosities and endless thoughts were pushed aside in favor of simply enjoying the moment.

Do not bemoan the summer for its mortality.

She wasn't sure where she had read it, but it was poignant and something certainly worthy of remembering. Maybe later she would search through her poetry books in order to find where she had heard it first…

A knock on her door broke her train of thought and a small masculine voice shouted through the oaken portal. “Your breakfast is ready, Mom! Are you awake?”

Twilight couldn't help, but smile at the sound of his voice. “Yeah, I’m awake. I’ll be down in a minute.”

When she didn't hear the telltale scampering of footsteps, she turned her gaze towards the door where a rather frantic set of draconic eyes peered at her nervously. The unicorn sighed and trotted over to the door, pushing it open to reveal her adopted son Spike, standing there awkwardly, clutching a wooden spoon in one claw.

“What's wrong, Spike?” she asked in the calm, motherly voice she had copied from her own mother.

The small green drake frowned and looked down, unable to meet his mother’s gaze. “Some of the townsponies said it was the dragon’s fault for the Everfree growing out of control… That their war with the griffons is making all this bad stuff happen.”

Twilight lowered herself down to the diminutive dragon’s height and picked up his chin with her hoof. “Those ponies are just scared, they are trying to find excuses rather than solutions.” She frowned, noticing the faint buildup of tears at the edges of the dragon’s eyes. “Do I have to get Little Seed to beat some jerks up for you?”

Spike chuckled and wiped away the tears, mumbling a weak, “No.”

“Good. Remember, little flame, it's not your fault.” She fixed him with a semi stern glare. “Got it?”

The dragon smiled back weakly and reached out to hug her, an action she eagerly reciprocated, pulling the tiny dragon close and squeezing him tightly. After a few moments passed and his breathing returned to normal, she gently pushed him back and shot him a wide smile. “Why don't we go eat breakfast and after that, we can even go see if Sterling Gem found anything good this time.”

The little dragon’s eyes sparkled. “Really?”

“Yup! But only if you eat all your other food, dragons who only eat-”

“-gems go to bed with a tummy ache. Yeesh, you say that every time,” Spike finished.

“Well, sometimes the most important lessons need to be repeated.” She stood up only for a sudden weakness to grip her, causing her to crash down to her knees.

Her adopted son scampered up to her with worry in his eyes. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

Twilight gasped, a hoof gripping her chest. “Send a letter to Luna, tell her it's an emergency.” She looked up to the unmoving dragon and pushed him gently. “Go. I’ll be okay.”

Spike looked from her towards the stairs, where the writing supplies were, then back to the mare crumpled on the ground. He nodded and scampered off, eager to relay his mother’s message, leaving Twilight alone, where she breathed a sigh of relief.

Just hold on a little longer, Twilight, we still have work left to do.

Despite her valiant attempts to stay conscious, she knew it was a losing battle. Her last thoughts before the void took her was a whispered apology to Spike for putting him through all this.

Twilight Sparkle awoke with a start, her breathing heavy and her mind a flurry of confusion. “What the?” she whispered, running a hoof across her face.

Was that a dream? If it was, then who were all those strange individuals? She didn't know any of the names, though a few seemed familiar. More off-putting than that was the small dragon she had been holding, she felt like she knew him, but with each passing second she forgot more and more about him until all she was left with was a blurry greenish purple blob and his name, Spike.

She felt something cold crawl down her cheek, confused, she reached a hoof up and brushed away a tear she hadn't known she had shed. She blinked, looking down at her wet hoof, baffled. She wiped her hoof on her blanket and lit her horn, hoping to illuminate the room. However the eerie reverse light did little to illuminate the surroundings, making her frown.

I really need to figure out what the heck that is. Thinking quickly, she cast a quick light spell over her horn, which began to glow the telltale color that her magic used to.

“What in the world?” She gaped, looking around the devastated room in confusion. The paint had peeled off the walls, exposing the now blackened wood beneath. Her bedding had dried to the point that she felt like she was draped in little more than dust, her pillow felt like it was filled with ash, and the wooden bed posts were pitch black.

“How did this happen?” she muttered, looking around to where her pie had been and noticing there was a tiny pile of dust where she had left it. Even the candle that had been next to the bed had been afflicted by the same strange rot, crumpling into a small dry pile.

She got out of bed and stood on the formerly carpeted floors that now seemed to resemble coarse hair rather than carpet. The mare coughed, suddenly aware of all the dust she had kicked up. Covering her mouth, hacking, she stumbled into the next room, only to find it in a similar state of destruction.

In her confusion she forgot to maintain her light spell and her horn flickered and died. Rather than relighting it, she reached out to the rune on the wall. Instantly the same blue lights flickered into being, at least for several seconds anyway, until they flickered and died as well.

Twilight lit her horn and cast the same light spell, this time taking an extra few seconds to infuse it with enough mana to keep it going for a few minutes. With her horn relit, she looked out over the room once more. Barely noticeable over the visible destruction and rot beyond was a small handwritten note crumpled on the ground.

Every piece of wood was black, as if it had been charred, the delicate lace tabletop was little more than dust, the books hadn't fared much better either. Even the magical torches along the wall were nearly destroyed, most were little more than stumps and wherever she looked, the runes were dull and flickering or out entirely, meaning the enchantments had been broken or drained.

She suddenly became aware that all the support beams were wood, and that said wood was black and most likely not as stable as it once was. Quickly, she trotted over to the staircase that was in similar state. She placed a cautious hoof on the bottom step and leaned against it. The wood seemed to hold, but it groaned as it took her weight.

Good enough, she thought darkly, she really didn't want to get trapped down here if one of the steps gave out under her.

Slowly, carefully, she shifted her hooves up the stairs, climbing at a painfully slow pace in order to make sure she never put her full weight on a single step. For a while the only sound was her breathing, which was short, frequent and marred by panic.

Then, when she was about halfway up the stairs, she began to hear voices, they seemed to be coming from above her, but were a great distance away. Confused, she looked up the staircase only to see not a single stray shaft of light from above. Which was understandable, she supposed, but still disconcerting.

A few more minutes passed and she finally made her way to the top of the stairs, where she noticed why there was no light and the voices were oddly distorted: someone had dropped the plate, sealing the underground home. Confused, Twilight reached out and pushed the plate lightly.

The thin metal shifted slightly, indicating she hadn't been barricaded inside. Breathing a sigh of relief, Twilight put a little more force into her push and shoved the plate up and out of the way. The voices stopped, she heard a the distinct sound of hooves just outside and for a moment she stood there, confused and frightened.

“H-hello?” she asked, weakly, edging closer to the top of the plate.

The door was open and the soft light of the moon illuminated a rather intimidating-looking bat pony staring down at her angrily. Her fur was a surprisingly vibrant teal and what little of her mane was visible beneath her the sleek black armor was all colors of the rainbow.

A sudden twinge of fear shot through the bat pony when their eyes met and Twilight shrunk back into the stairwell when the pony’s lips pulled back to reveal a pair of diminutive fangs. The brief bit of fear seemed to pass quickly and the guard flared her wide, leathery wings. “What did you do to Pinkie Pie!” she shouted down at the unicorn.

“What? Who are you-” Twilight tried to ask.

“I’ll be asking the questions here, outsider! What did you do to Pinkie Pie?” Her eyes narrowed dangerously and Twilight became quite aware of the fact that the bat pony’s armor extended up to her wings and ended in a small, but incredibly sharp pair of blades.

“Look, whoever you are, I don't know what you are talking about, but I can assure you I would never hurt Pinkie Pie,” Twilight calmly asserted.

Applejack shook her head and spat, which surprised the unicorn as before than she hadn't even noticed the farmer. “Well then, tell us all how Pinkie Pie went down in there, tryin’ to deliver you an invitation to the party she was organizin’ for yer sorry ass, only to come outta there with one less leg than when she went in?”

Rainbow Dash sputtered and jabbed a hoof at Twilight. “Yeah, what she said!”

Twilight backed up, noticing a small set of retractable blades attached to the hoof armor being pointed at her. “I don't know, honestly. I wanna figure out what happened to Pinkie Pie as well, maybe it would explain why the whole underground house looks like it’s thousand years old all of a sudden.”

Applejack scratched the side of her head and tried to peer past the tall unicorn. “What in tarnation are ya talkin’ about? Looks fine from here.”

The unicorn rolled her eyes. “Inside is where, whatever happened, happened. The wood’s black, the paint has nearly peeled off completely and the whole place looks like it's about ready to crumble at a moment’s notice.”

“Now I know that ain't right. That wood was treated and sealed with this fancy stuff that made that kinda thing impossible,” Applejack replied confidently.

“I noticed, which is why this is so perplexing. Maybe it has to do with what happened to Pinkie-” As Twilight spoke she took a few more steps up, not wanting to test her luck with the rickety stairs any longer.

“Hey!” The rainbow maned bat pony jumped into a hover in order to look Twilight in the eye and fix her with the meanest glare she could muster. “What part about I’m asking the questions don't you get, outsider? Now you are coming with me back to the umbral tower and no funny business, capiche?”

The longer Twilight spent in the company of the strange bat pony, the less she was intimidated by her. “Uh, yeah sure, I’ll be right behind you.”

The bat pony’s slitted eyes narrowed. “You are going to be in front of me, so I can make sure you don't try anything.”

Twilight sighed and rolled her eyes. “I don't know where this umbral tower is.”

“Applejack, would you mind bringing up the lead, then?”

The tree-bound mare shrugged her large shoulders, sending the branches on her tree shaking. “Sure, so long as I’m back on the farm by lunch.”

“Good.” The mare moved out of the way and ushered Twilight forward, to which she obliged.

The unicorn tried to ignore the odd thestral as best as she could but she could almost feel the daggers being stared at her from the bat winged pony. She trotted a little closer to Applejack, who eyed her cautiously, but said nothing.

“Hey uh, Applejack, what happened to Pinkie Pie exactly? She lost a leg somehow?”

Applejack lifted an eyebrow at that, studying the mare’s face. After a few quiet moments, she snorted. “Just fell right off, was the damndest thing.”

Twilight winced. “What did the wound look like?”

“Ya really didn't do it, did ya?” the farmer asked incredulously.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Of course not, you, Pinkie, and Fluttershy have been nothing but kind to me. Why would I try and hurt any of you?”

“Couldn't tell ya, Rainbow thinks you are some sort of spy.” The farmer rolled her eyes and glanced back to the bat pony hovering just behind them, ready to swoop in at a moment’s notice.

“Hey! Quit talking to the prisoner! She might use some sort of mind magic on you!” Rainbow Dash physically pulled the two ponies apart, glaring at the unicorn all the while.

Twilight took a step back and sighed. She wanted to correct the bat pony and explain that such magic didn't exist, but she quickly realized that she hadn't believed Celestia would ever want to kill her either and that was apparently a thing. That, and she was pretty sure the nervous thestral would take anything she might say as proof that Twilight was some sort of spy.

So she just shut her mouth and marched silently into town, the guard hovering mere feet behind her. Eventually, the trio made their way to their destination, the farmer guiding them around the town and avoiding most other people that may have been wandering around, something Twilight was immensely thankful for. Only stopping for a moment in order for the farmer to whisper a quick apology for the hostility, which Twilight brushed off. The unicorn could understand the fear and hostility and couldn't help but admit that if the tables were turned, it would have likely turned out much worse.

During most of the walk there, Twilight had used her time to imagine many terrible versions of this umbral tower. Her imagination had run wild with thinking of a great black tower that pierced even the high canopy of the Everfree, splitting the sky like a jagged obsidian scar. What she had not imagined though was a four story tower, which multiple smaller towers budded off from. Though it was a deep black color, this real umbral tower was not nearly as intimidating as the one Twilight’s imagination had come up with. The real tower’s black exterior was dotted with hundreds of stars, making the entire exterior blend in with the night sky seamlessly and was a work of art the likes of which Twilight had never seen before in her life.

It wasn't the least bit intimidating, in fact Twilight felt herself drawn towards the structure, her eyes running up and down the exterior and marveling at the intricacy of the stars. Her starstruck reverie was interrupted when the brash thestral bumped her shoulder and pointed to a door at the base of the tower that was flanked by two guards in similar identical sets of armor.

“Over there and no dawdling, outsider!” The bat pony jabbed Twilight in the flank with her steel clad hoof.

“I’m already walking,” Twilight tiredly replied.

Applejack swatted the thestral’s hoof out of the air. “Cut it out, Dash, she’s not hurting anybody.”

The thestral recoiled her limb and stuck her tongue out at the farmer. Twilight rolled her eyes again and made her way over to the pair of guards by the door. The hovering thestral finally landed and smiled broadly at the pair of waiting guards. “I’ve brought in the spy that assaulted Pinkie Pie.”

The pair exchanged a confused glance, the larger guard leaned to the right, glancing at the farmer and the unicorn. “I am so sorry, ma’am. The night guard wish to extend an official apology for buck Private Rainbow Dash’s actions today.”

“Bwuh?” Rainbow blinked.

Twilight smiled faintly and let out a small sigh. “Oh, thank the stars.”

Applejack snickered. “Lemme guess, you went out and arrested someone before the guard even got a warrant again.”

The larger guard sighed. “Unfortunately. Someone from command is waiting inside to give you new orders. Oh and send out Pinkie Pie while you are in there.”

“But, I... She… Augh.” The mare’s head sunk and she slunk into the tower, defeated.

As she passed by the door, the thestral brushed the smaller guard, who jumped, drawing a crescent sabre and pointing it towards the unicorn. Twilight took a step back, but the older guard didn't even flinch, turning to the smaller guard with barely contained annoyance. “What exactly are you doing, Private Moon Breeze?”

The other guard began to shake hard enough to make her armor rattle. “D-don't you feel it, sir? That… thing exerts some kind of pressure. Like it's trying to crush me.”

The larger guard trotted over and smacked the blade from his subordinate’s hoof. “I will not hoof out two demotions in as many minutes, you will get ahold of yourself or you will be polishing the whole flight’s armor. Am I understood?”

Moon Breeze gulped, slowly picking up and putting away her sabre, but not withdrawing her gaze from the unicorn for a second. Twilight shared a nervous glance with Applejack. “Is everyone usually this twitchy?”

Applejack snorted. “Not usually, seems like you have some damned bad luck.”

“Must be part of my family’s curse,” Twilight added.

The guard’s brow lifted. “Are you sure about that? The magical crimes division says curses aren't real. Enchantments and hexes sure, but curses that cling to a blood line? Sounds like a load of nonsense to me.”

Twilight frowned. “I wish it was nonsense, at least then others would stop being scared of me all the time.”

The stallion chuckled. “You, scary?” He gestured towards Applejack. “This pretty tree lady is scarier than you.”

Said tree lady scratched her head awkwardly, blushing slightly. “Thanks, I think.”

The door opened and all idle conversation died. A rather sickly pink troll hobbled out the door, supported by glowering Rainbow Dash. The usually excited pink being was moving oddly slow, her limbs heavy as if she were pushing through a thick mud. Her mane and tail hung loose and her eyes were slightly sullen, distant and lacking the distinct sparkle they had before. She had lost a lot of her color and she wore some fabric around her neck that hung down and obscured the missing limb from view.

Twilight’s heart fell and her jaw clenched with determination. “Pinkie, is that really you?”

The pink being looked up at the unicorn, only to shy away from her gaze. “Hey, Twilight. Sorry I couldn't deliver your invitation, but I started feeling all woozy doozy when I was dropping it off.”

“I don't care about the party, what happened to your leg?” Twilight extended a hoof to peek beneath the fabric, only to have her hoof swatted away by a protective Rainbow Dash.

“You’ve done enough damage, outsider! Keep your hooves to yourself,” she hissed at the unicorn, her lips pulled back to reveal her small fangs.

Twilight winced, pulling back her hoof and taking a step back, not due to the violent reaction of the thestral guard, but rather the terrified look that entered Pinkie’s eyes for a moment. The unicorn had felt as though a knife had been plunged into her heart the moment she had seen her friend, but seeing the fear in her eyes when she was close twisted that knife brutally.

“Pinkie is outside now, are you happy, Shade?” Rainbow snarled.

The guard sighed and turned to the shriveled troll. “Is this the being that attacked you?” He jerked his head towards Twilight, who shrunk under the attention.

“No, I got bit by a snake,” Pinkie Pie muttered.

“What! But you. She… Augh!” Rainbow’s slitted eyes narrowed and she stared at Twilight with unabashed hatred. “I’ll be watching you, outsider. Just because you did something to Pinkie to make her lie will not stop me.”

The guard rolled his eyes so hard it was nearly audible. “Look, Crash, even when she was surrounded by the guard in the most secure place in town and after she had been cleared for possible mind-tampering and drugs, she gave us the same line. Now go back inside and receive your new orders, or did you forget that part, buck Private Rainbow Dash?”

The thestral growled low, but ultimately hung her head in defeat once again. “No sir, just make sure Pinkie doesn't fall over.”

He snorted. “Of course.”

With that, the pair traded places, the guard swiftly switching places and holding up the much larger being with an ease that masked his diminutive stature. “Thanks for helping Dash by the way, Applejack. Give Granny my regards.”

The apple farmer blinked. “Oh uh, yeah sure. Twilight, when you head back to the farm later, make sure to stop in at the house, alright? I reckon we should have a little heart to heart.”

Twilight gulped. “Yes, ma’am.”

The apple farmer snorted. “And none of this ma’am nonsense. Makes me feel old.”

Twilight and the guard watched Applejack quickly disappear into the forest, vanishing around a nearby tree. The guard just shook his head at the sight. “Apples. If they could teach the night guard that trick it would make our jobs a hell of a lot easier. Whelp, we better get you back home in order to heal up. Where am I taking you, miss?”

Pinkie looked down at the small bat winged pony and frowned. “You sure you can manage, Shadey?”

The guard grunted. “Just because I ain't as big as you doesn't mean I can't hold my own and then some,” he said with a wink.

The troll hummed and hawed, only to shrug. “I guess I’ll head back to Zecora’s. You should come too, Twilight.”

“Do you really want to be near me after,” she winced, “all that?”

Pinkie sighed. “It was an accident, my granny Pie always said accidents can hurt, but they can be forgiven.” She smiled suddenly, perking up slightly. “Besides, I got a feeling Zecora’s gonna be home soon and I thiiink she’s gonna wanna talk to you.”

“How do you know that?” Twilight asked.

“Juuuust a feeling.” She winked exaggeratedly at the unicorn.

Twilight considered simply turning and returning to the farm, but a grunt from the small guard doing everything to help the troll along forced her to make up her mind. “I’ll come with you, but first I… I’m sorry Pinkie”

Pinkie smiled faintly and allowed the guard to guide her forward. “I’ll forgive you after you talk to Zecora. Oh oh and you gotta get me a whole pile of shiny rocks!”

Twilight giggled. “I think I can do that for you, Pinkie.”

The troll licked her lips and looked off into the distance. “Fool’s gold is my favorite. It's crunchy and poppy and kinda spicy. Oh oh! But if you find any quartz then grab that instead! No wait, rubies!” She scratched her head. “I’ll have to think about this.”

“Oh, what does this fool’s gold taste like?” Twilight asked, her guilt slowly falling to the wayside as her curiosity got the better of her.


And so the trio slowly made their way back to Zecora’s, this time in the capable care of an alert and trained guard, meaning they didn't meet any unexpected resistance. The pair managed to talk about nothing, save for the taste of various rocks and minerals the entire way back, which would have bored the guard to tears if he didn't also have to worry about keeping Pinkie vertical while watching for any sudden movements.

When they drew close to the troll’s hut, he finally relaxed and the conversation shifted suddenly, Twilight having broken the relative silence that had fallen over them. “So uh, I have to ask, but what exactly is Rainbow Dash’s, well…” The unicorn scratched the back of her head awkwardly. “Deal?”

The guard snorted. “Pinkie, do you want to handle this one?”

The troll sighed. “It's complicated. Do you want the short version or the super duper long one?”

“Uh, the short version? We aren't far right?”

Pinkie shook her head. “We are not far now. The short version is well…” She turned to the guard with a pleading look. “Are you suuuure you can't explain this one?”

The guard shook his head. “I don't feel like it’s my place to say. I may be a fellow member of the night guard, but unlike you, I am not her friend.” There was no malice in his voice, rather he was simply stating the fact.

“So, the super short version is that her family got betrayed by some big jerks and she left Sliffsdale with only a hoofful of gems. When she got here, we helped her find a place to stay, a place to work in order to get some gems and some kind beings gave her enough food for her to get by.”

Twilight smiled. “So I’m not the only poor soul this town has helped. Interesting.”

Pinkie smiled faintly. “Yeah, Ponyville has always liked to give to those who just need a little help. Anyway, so after she got back on her hooves, she wanted to give back, so she joined the guard and gave the town the only thing she had left to give, her loyalty.”

The guard snorted. “I didn't know you were so poetic, Pinkie.”

The troll giggled. “You can thank Mistress Zecora for once. When it comes to spinning words, she is second to none.”

The guard and troll both shared a laugh, leaving the unicorn confused. “Is she some kind of poet?”

“No, no, you’ll see when we meet her. If you want to know more, I’d ask Rainbow Dash. She probably wouldn't want me telling just anyone, now that I think about it,” said the blushing troll.

Twilight sighed, now that she knew at least a small part of the story, she couldn't help but feel at least a small part of her annoyance at the thestral begin to disappear. She was being protective of her adoptive home and family and even though Twilight couldn't really sympathize with her completely, even she had to admit that she felt a burgeoning sense of loyalty towards the small town and its peoples. They were so kind, generous and honest that it was difficult to feel overly mad at the mare for her misbegotten sense of loyalty.

The group was silent for the last leg of their journey, the forest was relatively flat and lacked the usual abundance of undergrowth, allowing Shade to relax a little more. Only the near silent plodding of their hooves could be heard above the gentle sound of the forest. The thick, powerful hooves of the troll were thunderous compared to the barely audible sound of the thestral’s light hooves, with Twilight’s somewhat awkward gait bringing up the rear.

It didn't take long to reach the hut from there, but even a few minutes felt like an eternity to the unicorn. In the absence of any distractions, she had been forced to face the fact that whatever had happened to Pinkie had likely been her fault somehow. Logically she didn't have any true evidence for this, but in the ensuing silence, she was forced to face the fact that there were no other suspects.

The creaking of the door mercifully pulled the mare from her thoughts and she glanced up to see the entrance to Zecora’s hut opened wide and the guard and troll just inside. The pair hobbled over to Pinkie’s bed, which she promptly fell into with a content sigh.

Shade brushed off his armor with a leathery wing and turned to the unicorn who still stood outside. “Twilight Sparkle, would you mind if I spoke to you alone for a moment?”

The unicorn blinked. “Oh uh, sure.”

The guard silently slipped outside, shutting the door behind him firmly. With a tired sigh, he slipped off his helmet and placed it on the ground under his hoof. Now free of the helm, his mane fell to the side of his face, obscuring one of his eyes and hanging nearly to his knees. “Look, I know it was you.”

Twilight’s heart instantly began pounding in her chest and she took an awkward step back. “I-”

“But I also know it was an accident.” Shade smiled softly and trotted over to a fallen log and sitting, beckoning for the unicorn to do the same.

Slowly, the mare made her way over and sat next to the guard, who was looking up at the night sky through a break in the trees. “We live in strange times, you know. Over a thousand years ago all they knew was peace.” He frowned, gripping his helmet tightly. “And not just the reluctant peace that falls between conflicts, real actual peace.”

“I thought the frontier was quiet.” The incredulous stare from the bat pony made the unicorn shrivel slightly. “-or so the papers say anyway.”
The guard chuckled darkly. “You know, you are a hard mare to hate. Sol’s forces relentlessly press against any race that is not judged as pure. It is only a matter of time before another offensive and there are a lot of individuals out here hurt directly or indirectly by her. And in the midst of all that, you just wander in, innocent as a babe.”

“I didn't know, the papers talk about conflict and the occasional skirmish as well as attacks by terrorists, but I’ve never left the capital.” She shrunk a little, looking down. “I hardly even left my house.”

“Look, I’m not blaming you, far from it. All I’m saying is that for a lot of folk out here, Sol’s forces are a faceless entity that has hurt them or the folk they know. When they see your face, well… just don't wander too far from Ponyville. Sol’s fury rarely touches anyone this deep in the forest, but others haven't been so lucky.”

“Yeah…” There was a deep weight to the word and Shade instinctively knew that this wayward unicorn had tasted such fury.

He sighed heavily and picked himself up from the log. “I’m not very good with words and I get kinda rambly, but what I’ve been trying to say is that I know you are just someone caught up in bigger things but not everyone’s gonna see it that way.” He dropped his helmet down on his head and spread his wings. “Stay safe.”

Then, he was gone in a surge of wind, vanishing into the night sky.

The unicorn lingered, her eyes drawn upwards towards the stars above, for a moment she sat there, not thinking of anything and merely letting the cool breeze run through her fur. She wanted to go inside, to make things right with Pinkie, but that could wait a minute or two. Right now her eyes were glued to the wide starlit sky peeking out through the branches. Away from the light of the city, the stars were brighter, despite the clinging canopy of the Everfree, or perhaps because of it. Twilight wasn't sure which.

Her gaze lingered and she allowed her mind to wonder about times past. She had always been fascinated by the night sky, but after finding out how much her father loved it, her interest had soured somewhat. Now she wished she had held onto that love, it was beautiful, infinite and mysterious. She remembered reading about the many theories that sought to explain the origin of the stars, the moon and other planets, but they for the most part had always sounded so… boring.

Logically she knew that them simply being balls of burning gas or cold rock way out in the universe was the most likely answer. On the other hoof though, those things would forever be theories, shrouded in mystery. Even if their tools and magic got better, they would never be able to go out there and observe any of these strange other worlds with their own eyes.

In a way she rather liked the now discredited theory that her mother had always talked about. Even at a young age, Twilight knew her mother’s stories of each pony’s destiny being tied to a star were just that, a story. But it was perhaps the most fitting story of the origin of the stars, and was one that could never truly be disproved. She wondered if there was a star up there for her and if she saw it, what would she learn?

She shook her head off such silly thoughts before getting up and making her way back to the hut. She didn't have time to muse on impossible theories and stories of the stars, she had much more pressing concerns than such esoteric subjects. Namely an injured friend, one that had insinuated she may have answers to Twilight’s most pressing questions.

Twilight pushed her way into the hut, warily glancing around and finding the pink mare on her bed, a sparkling, obsidian brick balanced on her sole forehoof. She stared at it for a moment longer before dropping it to the bed and turning to the unicorn.

“Oh hey, Twi. Beautiful night, isn't it?” the troll remarked.

Twilight couldn't help but smile. “Yeah, it sure is something. I could never really appreciate it in Canterlot, too many lights.”

The troll chuckled. “In a city of light, the most difficult thing to find is the stars.”

The unicorn cocked an eye at the pink being. “You sure do have a way with words.”

She rolled her eyes. “Pisha, Mistress Zecora reads so much poetry that it's hard not to pick up a little.”

“Zecora… that's a strange name. Zebrican, right?”

Pinkie winced. “Yeah, but don't bring up her homeland, alright? It's a bit of a sore spot.”

“Oh yeah, sure.”

A lingering silence fell over them and Twilight nervously pawed at the floor, looking at anything other than Pinkie Pie. “So uh… About what happened.”

The troll sighed and fell to her side. “It's going to take a whole lotta rocks to make my leg grow back this time, so how about a trade?”

“A trade?”

“Yeah, I thought of the perfect rocks! All you gotta do is promise to find me more bricks like this one and I’ll forgive you.” The troll extended her foreleg with a smile.

Guilt washed from the mare and she found herself already reaching for the offered hoof, only to stop. “These aren't super rare bricks or something right?”

Pinkie giggled. “Noper doper! You just gotta go by the old castle and grab a bunch. Wouldn't take more than an hour or so and most creatures are scared of that place, so it wouldn't even be too dangerous.”

The unicorn shook the offered hoof quickly, paranoid that she was going to cause whatever happened before to happen again. “I’m curious though, Pinkie, why did you offer a trade? If the rocks were so easy to get?”

Pinkie rolled her eyes. “Would you feel like you earned your forgiveness if I just gave it to you?” Twilight’s smile faded and she was forced to admit that no, she wouldn't have felt worthy of forgiveness. “Exactly! I can tell from the look on your face that you get it.”

“You are one wise troll, you know that?” Twilight remarked with a smile.

Pinkie Pie blushed and covered her face with her forehoof. “Thanks, Twi Twi!” her blush suddenly faded and she rubbed the back of her neck awkwardly. “That was probably one of Zecora’s lessons though.”

“Still, a lesson well learned honors the teacher and the student.”

“Now who's the wisey Mc Wisey Pants!”

The pair giggled, the sense of unease that had settled over them beginning to slip away. As their laughter slowly dwindled, Pinkie got up and patted the empty part of her bed. “Now tell auntie Pinkie about this silly curse business.”

Twilight rolled her eyes but did as the troll asked, plunking herself down beside her friend. “Well, what do you want to know? It’s apparently been around for generations and my father claimed to go as far back as they could remember.”

Pinkie frowned. “Did he ever say why you guys were cursed?”

“No… He just said a shadow hung over this family due to the ‘sins of the long shadow’. He didn't even know what the saying meant, it's just something handed down I guess.”

Pinkie rubbed her chin with her brick, nibbling at it occasionally in short crunchy bursts. “What does the curse do?”

“I overheard my mother whispering about my great aunt, whose presence made flowers die.” Twilight waved her hoof dismissively. “She was an old and strange unicorn though, lived alone with a houseful of plants and more cats than you could count.”

Pinkie’s muzzle scrunched up in thought and she noisily crunched on the brick, biting through chunks of it like it was little more than a loaf of bread. After a few minutes of near silence, she swallowed the last bit of the brick and sighed loudly. “Ahh, that feels good. Nice and spicy.”

“How exactly can a rock be spicy?”

“It's got lots of funny magic in it, makes my tummy all rumbly, but feels really good.” Twilight had more questions, but the expression of utter bliss that crossed the pink troll’s face made her just shake her head and give up.

She would just have to quench her thirst for knowledge when she went to this castle in order to make it up to Pinkie, even though she still wasn't quite sure what she had done. Regardless, there was a small part of her that knew she was at fault somehow and that was enough for the unicorn.

As the unicorn stewed in her grief, Pinkie picked up any pebbles that had broken off her brick and tossed them into her mouth, chewing loudly. Something about eating off the bed irked the unicorn, but she quickly realized that this was a rock-eating troll, if there was something on the bed that may cause her harm, she doubted it would survive past whatever inequine stomach the being had.

Another curiosity to add to the pile, Twilight reluctantly thought. If the pile was a physical thing, it would probably be about the size of an adult pony and something told the unicorn that it was only going to get bigger before she would start getting answers. The unicorn plopped down on the floor next to the troll’s bed, idly wondering if the floor was a part of the tree or if it were made of boards like a normal house.

Pinkie giggled at the strange intensity at which the unicorn stared at the floor, only to stop suddenly, her left ear flopping about. “Oh! Zecora’s home!”

Twilight turned to the mare and then the door, cocking her head slightly. She knew better than to doubt the troll, but still, there was no way her hearing was that good, right? She stared at the door for several long seconds only to sigh and turn to the troll. “Are you-?”

The unicorn found her words stopped dead by a hoof pressed against her lips. “Shh, she's going to make a dramatic entrance.”

The mare merely rolled her eyes and looked over at the door only to find it open with an aged zebra standing in the doorway. Her hair was longer than what Twilight would have imagined and though it may have been a mohawk in her younger days, it was long and frazzled now, sticking out at seemingly random angles.

Her jaw hung open and she stared wide eyed at the increasingly flustered unicorn. “Umm, hello?” Twilight whispered meekly.

“Twilight, is that really you?” the zebra whispered back, the color having drained from her face.

“I told you it would be dramatic! Yipee, story time!” Pinkie clapped her hooves together triumphantly.

More Questions Than Answers

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“Uh, yes? That is my name, do you know me from somewhere?” Twilight looked over to Pinkie who was busy tossing a hoofful of pebbles from what looked like a popcorn bag into her mouth and chewing loudly.

“Yes, and no.” The zebra shook her head, sending her wild mane a flutter. “It matters not from where I know you, only that you are here now. Come, sit. I’m sure you have questions.”

The zebra gestured to the pot at the center of the room. “Pinkie Pie, my student, did you keep the pot boiling as I asked?”


“Good, good.” The old zebra trotted over to the pot and produced two cups from a nearby cubby and dipped one into the boiling pot before handing it over to Twilight. “Here, drink and then we'll talk.”

Twilight eyed the cup warily, the strange greenish black liquid swirling within bubbling occasionally. “Uh, no thanks. I don't need another potion.”

The zebra cocked her head for a second only to burst into laughter. “It is tea.”

Twilight blushed and took the cup, trying to ignore the zebra as she cackled while pouring herself a cup as well. The unicorn gently brought the cup to her lips with her magic, and took a single, tiny sip. Instantly her eyes went wide and she gulped down a mouthful of the strange liquid.

“I told you there were others that like my tea.” Zecora said while jabbing a hoof at Pinkie Pie, who in turn...

Stuck out her tongue at the aged zebra. “Yeah like one out of a hundred. How can you drink that stuff, Twilight? It's like, super duper bitter.”

“What? It's not bitter, it's actually kind of nice.”

The zebra’s eyebrow raised. “What do you think of the flavor?”

Twilight looked down at the drink, trying to think of what it tasted like only to come up with nothing. “I… don't know. It feels good though, leaves my mouth a little tingly, but…” She sipped the tea, rolling the liquid around in her mouth before swallowing. “Huh. Doesn't really taste like anything, really.”

Pinkie Pie shook her head. “You are one strange pony, Twilight. Zecora only let me try her tea once and it tasted like she liquified a whole bunch of bitterroot and then boiled it somehow.”

“Hmph! First my student insults my tea and now she insults my tea making. Go make yourself useful and get some more fire stones and the telling salts!” The zebra barked, gesturing towards the door.

“Uh, I can do that.” Twilight offered.

“No, no, that won't do. The guest’s job is to sit and enjoy, and Pinkie Pie lost righty a dozen times since coming into my tutelage, so that is no excuse!”

Pinkie Pie rolled her eyes. “Yes, mistress Zecora.” The troll hobbled out the door, stopping long enough to blow a raspberry at the zebra’s back.

The zebra rolled her eyes and gestured to the floor next to the pot where two pillows lay. “Come, sit, let us talk.”

Twilight followed the zebra’s suggestion and sat cross legged on the pillow, waiting patiently for the older mare to sit down across from her. The aged zebra’s limbs cracked and her joints popped but after a few seconds and a little adjusting, she sat cross-hooved on the floor.

“How did-”

The zebra held up her hoof, silencing the unicorn’s question before it could even leave her mouth. Zecora slowly tipped back her cup, downing the contents therein in one long gulp. “Ahh. Now, what was you're question?”

“How did you know who I was? I’ve never met you before in my life.”

The zebra chuckled. “Not in this one anway. That question does not matter, you will find the answer to that in time. Ask something else.”

Twilight frowned. “But-”

“-But nothing, ask something else. I know you have many questions.”

The unicorn huffed indignantly. “Fine. Do you know why, or how, I hurt Pinkie Pie?”

“Your priorities are commendable, but that still is not the right question. Dig deeper and ask the true question that is on your mind.”

“Bu-.” Twilight clamped her mouth shut before the zebra even had a chance to shush her. Evidently she wants me to ask something closer to the root cause, so what would… oh I get it! “What caused me to hurt her?”

“You are getting closer, but that is still not the question you truly want answered. Think back to before you came here, ask the question that your heart has been denying since your first day within the forest.”

Twilight ground her teeth together and grumbled. What kind of nonsense is this? A question my heart has been denying? The unicorn sighed, reluctantly pushing down her annoyance and forcing herself to really think about it.

What is the one question I’ve been wondering since my first day? The mare thought back, her mind going out to the very first day she stumbled into the strange forest. She remembered wondering what the forest was, how it came to be and what kind of strange magic had given rise to the odd inhabitants, but that was not a question she had ever denied.

As she continued to cast her mind back into her recent memories she couldn't help but grow more and more annoyed with the cryptic zebra. I don't get it, what kind of question could she possibly want me to ask?

Her eyes squeezed shut and she thought back to the very moment she had woken up, the very first thing she thought of suddenly popping into her mind unbidden. “How am I alive?”

The zebra smiled slyly and placed another cup of tea into Twilight’s waiting hooves. “Now that, is the right question. How could one live through the suffering you thought you went through?”

“I thought I did? What does that mean? How do you know about-”

“Hush, child! I was getting there. Sit, drink your tea and let this old zebra tell you a story.”

“Oh yay! I love stories! Is it the one about the manticore and the three fillies?” Pinkie asked inquisitively, leaning intently towards her teacher.

Twilight nearly toppled backwards off her cushion. How did a three legged troll sneak up on her? “Bwah, where did you?! How…? do I want to know?”

The troll merely shrugged. “Not really, that's a mystery for another time. Besides, Zecora is going to tell us a story and you do not want to miss her stories.” The troll leaned in close, whispering in Twilight’s ear. “Seriously though, you don't want to miss it.”

The zebra sipped her tea and motioned for Twilight to do the same. “I have told many stories and weaved many tales, but the yarn I spin this night is one as old as history itself.”

“I don't mean to interrupt, but don't zebra story tellers usually rhyme?” Twilight asked curiously.

Zecora sighed deeply. “I’m afraid they have left me, but that is a story for another time.”

Pinkie leaned close to the unicorn and jabbed her in the ribs. “Pst, I wouldn't touch that subject if I were you.”

Twilight blanched. “I’m sorry, I should have been more considerate.”

“Your concern is appreciated, and though it hurts me still, it was a long time ago.” The zebra shook her head. “Now, hold Your questions until after the story.”

Twilight nodded while Pinkie mimed zipping her lips, locking a padlock on her face and throwing away the key.

Pinkie Pie hoofed over a small black velvet bag, from which Zecora pulled a pinch of grey dust.

“Long, long ago, before the empires of today, there was only chaos, madness and war.” Zecora clapped her hooves together, causing the dust to explode and fill the hut with a haze so dense Twilight couldn't even see the zebra, whose voice now seemed to emanate from everywhere. “The war of the gods was endless, spiteful and cruel. In their power they nearly destroyed the world, and though they did not succeed in that regard, they did succeed in destroying each other.”

The zebra’s hooves clapped together once more and instantly the haze vanished, revealing two glowing balls floating between the trio. One was orange and blazed like the sun while the other glowed a subtle blue, it's cratered surface resembling the moon. “Only two gods were left, the daughters of life herself. Hidden away in case of such a calamity. Together they were destined to rule in the old god’s place and usher in the peace and prosperity the petty gods of the past could not.”

But folly ran through both of the sister’s blood, and though they ushered in the promised peace and prosperity, they did so through cruelty and war.” The zebra leaned close and blew away the sun and moon. “They knew no better, for even life herself had taken up arms against her fellow gods in the end. It was all they knew, and all they thought they were good at. In the end, when there were no enemies to defeat, no wars left to wage, a deep distrust began to fester between the two rulers.”

Zecora waved her arm and in its wake, a floating expanse of green hung in the air, one side slightly darker than the other. “Creatures had always been divided between day and night, each group favoring one or the other. In turn each sister favored the people that flourished under their light and in their arrogance they thought their chosen were superior.”

Small wisps floated from each side of the green, taking various shapes both big and small and once both sides were full they turned on one another, smokey weapons appearing in their grasp. “And then when war seemed inevitable and one sister seemed to be on the brink of madness, a bridge was born. A bridge not between water and land, but between day and night.”

“Her power was incredible, aweing both day and night with her natural abilities that seemed to rival even the new goddesses, and both sisters prized her for their own.” The smoky figures disappeared and restructured into two towering alicorns standing firmly on either side of the field while a small pony sat firmly in the middle. “Alas, she favored neither day nor night, and through wit and empathy, she managed to unite the sisters once more. The young mare knew well the dangers of war and the death that would inevitably follow.”

The smokey figures slowly met at the center and disintegrated entirely, replaced by three ponies standing side by side with the unicorn in the center. “Peace seemed assured and harmony was restored.But as you know, that peace was not meant to last. Though the student of day and night grew in power, she aged like all mortal beings, and on her death, peace was broken for the final time.”

The zebra drew forth another cloth bag and sprinkled her hoof with another mound of ash before tossing it into the air. “The world grew so mad that even history has forgotten why the conflict began.” the deep black smoke billowed between them, becoming two alicorns locked in combat, only to shift into a pair of pegasi swooping and diving, both trying to drive a blade into the other. “Did the bridge die or was she killed? Was it one of the sisters’ doing, or nature herself? We do not know. All we know is that chaos reigned in the wake of the bridge’s demise and the already strange forest of the Everfree grew ever more twisted in the years that followed.”

The shapes twisted into several other pairs of various ponies and monsters locked in combat. “Though they were evenly matched in power and arms, the eldest sister had always been the tactician. Despite her initial arrogance, she eventually drove her sister back. On and on she pushed until her own flesh and blood was forced to retreat into the chaotic and ancient forest of mystery and legend.”

The zebra waved her hooves and blew the smoke together until it formed a forest dense and thick. “The eldest sister was not content with the victory she had won, and pushed her forces ever onward, ever deeper, intent on ending her sister’s supposed madness once and for all.”

Thin, smoky shapes appeared at one end of the cloudy forest and began to march through it, only for the smoke ponies to begin to disappear until only a single smoke alicorn emerged out the other side. “History knows not what happened that night, but time whispers secrets to those who know how to listen. She whispers of a power beyond even the gods and a fight between family that would stain Equis forever. In the end, the eldest sister emerged, and though we know not what happened to the youngest, the moon has never moved again.”

Twilight blinked and leaned back in her seat, watching as the smoke slowly dissipated completely. Pinkie meanwhile sat in unabashed wonder, her jaw hanging open. “Wow, Zecora, that was great! Could you teach me how you did that part with the forest and the ponies?”

The old zebra chuckled. “Of course, my faithful student. In time I will teach you all I know.”

The troll turned to her friend and smirked. “Pretty neato, huh?”

Twilight scratched her head. “Yeah, I guess so, but I'm not really sure how that answers any of my questions. Unless my ancestor was also named Twilight, and she was the bridge, which might explain the curse thing? I mean, my mom did mention it was tradition to change your name to include Twilight when you married into the family, or to have Twilight in your name.”

“You are closer to the truth than you realize, my friend.” The mare threw back the last of her tea and put aside the cup. “The story answers many of your questions, though you have not asked them yet.”

The unicorn rolled her eyes. “Yeah, but how does that explain what happened? Or how I’m still alive?”

“Patience my friend, patience. First, you must tell me what you know of the soul.” The zebra refilled the unicorn’s cup before refilling her own as well.

“Every living thing has a soul, and the less intelligent and the younger, the smaller the soul. When the creature dies, the soul leaves to rejoin the old gods who choose if it should be reborn as something else.” Twilight frowned, noticing Pinkie Pie giggling and Zecora barely holding back her own laughter. “What?”

“The old alicorns are gone, Twilight.” The troll dropped a pebble on the ground before slamming her hoof into it, disintegrating it utterly. “Poof, gone forever.”

“Look, I don't buy into the tall tale of the old gods, or that Celestia is their chosen leader of the world’s ponies either, but that's what they taught.”

Zecora nodded sagely. “It is good to see you have an open mind my friend. It will serve you well.” The zebra sipped her own tea and sighed contently. “You are right to doubt the tale told by your former sovereign, as Pinkie Pie is correct. Alicorns may not age, but they can be killed, and when that happens, there isn't much that can be done about that fact.”

“What is the truth then? And what does this have to do with anything?”

“The fate of the old gods will be important soon, but the soul, that has everything to do with your question. It is why you are here, why you are feared, and why you accidentally hurt our dear Pinkie Pie.” The zebra reached back from her spot on the floor and grabbed another bag of salts before throwing a small pinch of the stuff into the air, where it dissipated into a small glowing blue sphere. “The soul is a force akin to magic or gravity. Unlike those things, it cannot be manipulated by magic, unless you happen to have a gift for it.”

The zebra gestured to the mare’s flanks where her star cutie mark rested, making Twilight frown. “So you’re saying your special talent has to be necromancy in order to use it?”

The zebra nodded. “My own people have no such restrictions, but…” She sighed and shook her head. “Again, that is a story for another time.”

“Are you insinuating I have such a talent?” Twilight looked down at her flank, half convinced it had changed, only to see the same star cutie mark that had been there since she had first learned how teleport when she was just a filly.

The zebra chuckled. “Yes and no. your talent is for magic in all its forms, and manipulating the soul is a form of magic. Though you have not had access to that side of yourself until recently.”

Twilight blinked. “Is that why my magic changed color and how I survived?”

“In a way. The talent for soul magic placed you on a different level of being which was only further complicated by your condition.”

“Wait, how did you know about my condition?”

The zebra just shrugged and smiled wryly. “You just told me.”

Pinkie Pie giggled. “She got you there, Twilight.”

The unicorn rolled her eyes. “Okay, so I have a talent for soul magic that was complicated by my nervous system being damaged... and?”

“And when your body tried to keep pulling in mana, your soul had essentially come loose from your body. It was probably absorbed by your lambda system, which would have only been possible due to the chaos of the forest.” The zebra sipped her tea, watching as her guest’s face twisted from one emotion to the next.

“I.. okay.” The unicorn rubbed her forehead. “I guess that makes sense, but how does a soul come loose?”

Pinkie Pie’s single remaining forehoof shot into the air. “Oh, oh! I know that one!”

Zecora nodded to her student. “Yes, Pinkie?”

“When the body dies, the soul dissipates, being absorbed by the ambient mana of Equis.”

The zebra nodded once more. “Well done, Pinkie. And furthermore, it is usually reabsorbed instantly, but with the Everfree…” The zebra shrugged. “Nothing is certain. Though I am curious as to why it chose now of all times.”

“Okay, wait a second. So you’re telling me my soul came loose, was consumed by my lambda system which somehow reanimated me, and that the forest chose to do that?”

Zecora chuckled. “Pretty much. It's a little more involved than that, and I am just guessing, but that seems to be the case. Don't worry, you are not a lich or anything, you can still get killed again... well, for now, anyway.”

“Wait, what do you-”

“Shh! Twilight, don't interrupt.”

Twilight stared at the troll incredulously. “But I-”

“You should know that you have a somewhat different set of dietary needs. For one, you need to consume living energy or matter regularly, or your body will break down and your soul will reach out and try and feed on anything it can.”

Twilight gulped, looking down at the empty space where Pinkie’s hoof had been. “Are you saying I have to-”

“Stars above, girl, no!” The zebra scoffed.

“But you said-”

“I said living matter or energy, which includes plants.” Zecora shook her head. “You’re a morbid one, you know that? It's not like you're a vampire or a ghoul or something! You just have to consume the essence of a living thing is all. You can stick to a purely vegetarian diet if you so choose, but living creatures, especially willing creatures, will give you the biggest boost of energy.”

Twilight chuckled nervously. “Sorry about that... I just assumed.”

Pinkie Pie rolled her eyes and placed a hoof on her friend’s shoulder. “Don't worry about it, Twi! I got tons of friends that eat meat, plants, magic, and even bugs! You’ll fit right in here in Ponyville!”

A faint smile trickled across the unicorn’s features. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. This isn't so bad. Anything else I have to know, Zecora?”

The zebra hummed thoughtfully. “Well, that fear aura of yours should go away once you've eaten your fill. Then you should be able to dampen it at will.”

The faint smile on Twilight’s face bloomed into a wide grin. “You mean I can finally go out without everyone being scared of me?”

“Unless you start dressing up in black robes and start skulking around town. Just stay well fed and you should be fine.” Zecora replied, sipping her tea.

Twilight sighed, her shoulders sagging. “That's… wonderful news. Do I just eat the whole plant or what?”

Zecora chuckled. “Merely approach the object you would like to drain and focus yourself completely on the target. Once you are focused you need only to extend your aura towards it and your body will do the rest.”

“How do you know all that? Are you-”

Pinkie Pie suddenly burst out laughing, clapping the unicorn on the shoulder and shaking her head. “Zecora is a zebra, Twilight. Her body isn't the same as a pony’s.”

Twilight chuckled nervously. “Right, sorry. I should probably stop assuming things.”

“Always good advice, my friend. But to answer your question, I knew someone who had a similar set of circumstances as yourself. Though she has long since passed, I still remember her trials and tribulations, even if the years have muddied them somewhat.”

“Wow Zecora, thank you for telling me all this.”

Zecora waved her hoof dismissively. “That is not all. I should warn you not to take too much from the forest, unless you wish to anger it. Choose those creatures and plants whom are on death’s door, and you will not raise the forest’s ire.”

The zebra sipped her tea in a long, slow motion, sighing contently once she had drained her cup once more. “One more thing before you go.”

Twilight put down her now empty cup. “What? I’m not going anywhere.”

“With time and patience, you will be able to master necromancy. It is imperative you do this.” The zebra stated firmly.

The unicorn blanched. “What, like raise the dead? You… You can teach me that?”

Zecora leaned forward and tapped the part of her forehead where a horn would be, causing Twilight to groan and facehoof. “Right, duh. It wouldn't be the same.”

The zebra chuckled. “Necromancy is not only about raising the dead and concocting foul curses.”

Twilight cocked her head. “It's not?”

“You may think necromancy is a practice most foul, but that is no excuse to sit and scowl. With proper practice a boon it will be, and will help you find a truth you may not want to see.”

“Hey, you rhymed!” Pinkie shouted.

Zecora blinked. “So it seems.”

Pinkie frowned. “Awww.”

“Thanks again for your help, Zecora. But do you mind if I ask you a few questions? I was really wondering what you meant when you said you knew me, but not in this life? Also, what did you mean when you said I can get killed, for now?” Twilight’s eyes went wide and she leaned forward. “And how did you know about what happened before I came here, and-”

Zecora opened her mouth wide, yawning exaggeratedly for several seconds. “I am sorry, my friend, but my journey has left me tired. I assure you, everything will be revealed in time. All I can say for now is that the answers you seek are in the undertower.”

Pinkie gasped, nearly falling over in the process. “Are you serious, Zecora? The undertower is like, super mega dangerous!”

Zecora got up and trotted over to her bed. “Dangerous though it may be, that dark place is the key.” The zebra flopped onto her bed and turned over, tossing a blanket over herself. “Now leave an old mare to her sleep, these bones are dead tired.”

“What is this undertower place?” Twilight asked.

“It's a secret tower deep underground, beneath the old castle. It’s guarded by lots of scary monsters and cruel traps.” Pinkie replied.

“So gather your allies, friends and tools, or you may find yourself played like fools.” The zebra remarked, turning back around. “And one last thing before you go, I have one last thing that you should know.”

“Uh, okay But how did you know the answers I seek are-”

“Shh! Do not interrupt me child.” Twilight frowned but reluctantly said nothing. “There is only one lesson on necromancy that I can teach. And that is that necromancy is not all doom and gloom. If you have the strength, you can even help stubborn life bloom.”

Before Twilight could even open her mouth to ask a question, Zecora had already turned back over and begun to snore loudly. Grumbling to herself, Twilight got up and trotted over to the door. “Well, that was… infuriating.”

“Hehe, Zecora always says in order to learn, you must lead your student to the answer. She probably wants you to learn something on your own.”

Twilight huffed. “Still, she sure knows how to give a lot of answers and somehow ask just as many questions.”

Pinkie Pie clasped the pony around the shoulder awkwardly, shaking her head slowly. “Finally, someone else knows my pain.” The pair chuckled and Pinkie disengaged from the embrace. “Seriously though, she probably is trying to teach you something. She has a way of answering a question without even answering it that makes it just stick in your head like glue! You just gotta look for it.”

“Hmm, that is one way of looking at it, I suppose.” The unicorn shook her head, clearing her mind of any lingering questions. “Either way, I should find someone who knows more about this undertower thing, and hopefully, someone who can help me.”

Pinkie grinned. “Well, you came to the right place! I’ll help by gathering up the ingredients for some helpful potions! You should find someone to get some supplies. Oh, and we’re gonna need some muscle!”

“Muscle?” Twilight asked incredulously.

“Well yeah! It's dangerous in there, and we need someone who can fight.” the troll hopped up onto her back hooves and pretended to box with an invisible opponent.

“I suppose you’re right again, Pinkie Pie. But where would I find someone like that?”

The pink troll rubbed her chin and thought before her eyes suddenly shot open. “Oh, I know! Rainbow Dash doesn't look tough, but she’s actually super-duper tough!”

Twilight groaned and rolled her eyes. “Not her…”

Pinkie Pie frowned. “You really should give her another chance, Twilight. She would be a good friend if you got to know her.”

The unicorn frowned and kicked a pebble Pinkie had dropped. “I guess.” She shook her head suddenly. “Either way, I have other things to focus on in the meantime. Namely like finding some provisions, and maybe a book about this undertower place.”

“Think about it, Twilight. Oh, and stick to the path! I made sure to hang some more charms, so as long as you stay to the path you should be fine!”

The unicorn breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Pinkie. See you soon?”

The troll wiggled her solitary hoof. “When the forest wills it.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow at that and stared at the troll.

Pinkie chuckled. “It’s a saying. Means don't worry about it, everything will work out in the end.”

The unicorn shook her head and turned towards the path. “Whatever you say, Pinkie Pie.”

Having turned away from her new friend, Twilight didn't notice Pinkie chuckling quietly before moving towards the back of the hut and into the herb garden she had hidden away. “I better make those potions extra special strong.” The troll muttered, her mind whirling with all that she had left to do.

Behind her, Twilight walked into the forest, her mind whirling with questions to the answers she had been given. As she walked deeper into the forest, she noticed an odd pattern marked into the trees every hundred or so feet. Three scratches had been made in the tree’s bark, one short, one long, one short, and all three scratches seemed to glow faintly when the moonlight struck them.

The unicorn stopped and looked up at the sky, noting the barren, cratered face of the moon staring down at her from the spot it had always sat in. She had hardly ever seen the moon in all her time in Canterlot. Even when she went stargazing, it seemed absent from the sky. Had Celestia hidden it from sight somehow? Twilight shook her head, dismissing such questions she may never know the answer to.

Stopping by one of the scratch marks, Twilight leaned in and inspected it, her nostrils filling with the potent scent of the pine tree where the marks were inscribed upon. More than just the natural scent of the tree, there also seemed to be another smell, one far more subtle and far stranger. It was like animal pheromones or something similarly primal. Either way Twilight couldn't figure out just what it was, only that it stirred some sort of instinctual action within her that told her to leave.

Shrugging her shoulders she turned back to the path, continuing her trek back to Ponyville and forgetting almost instantly about the marks and the strange smell.

True to Pinkie’s word, Twilight made it back to town without so much as hearing a creature larger than a squirrel, which only got her wondering. She couldn't stop her analytical mind from wandering, trying to puzzle out the nature of Pinkie’s charms. Clearly they had worked to dissuade certain creatures, but was it based solely on size? She had seen signs of chipmunks and squirrels and even an odd rabbit ,but nothing larger than that.

In the end she made a note of asking Pinkie about it. Only to realize something that had been staring her right in the face. Charms!

Twilight slapped her face with a hoof.

Charms weren't a type of magic or alchemy or anything that she had heard of during her exhaustive studies, and she had thought she knew of every branch of magic and alchemy in existence. Although now that she was thinking about it, she realized it did make sense. It seemed as though the charms were part alchemy, part magic, and she doubted Celestia would appreciate such a thing in her perfectly ordered society.

She shook her head and stamped her hooves, working out her aggression. Getting angry about something this silly won't help you here, Twilight. Now focus!

She glanced at the edge of town, wondering where exactly she should start looking for the things she needed. A library might have the book she would needed, the guard barracks would have someone experienced, and Applejack would have the provisions she would need. But the meager bag of gems she had left at Applejack’s was awfully light. That wasn't even taking into account her new dietary needs and how she could fulfill those as well.

Groaning, Twilight walked down the chaotic, maze-like streets of Ponyville, letting her hooves wander as her mind did as well.

Where should I start? The tower?

No, she might run into Rainbow Dash over there and she wasn't ready for that quite yet.


She wasn't quite ready for that either.

What she really needed right now was a guide, someone who knew the town and where to go to get what she needed. However with Applejack, Rainbow Dash and Pinkie out of the picture, that left only Fluttershy and that Arachne named…

Twilight stopped and blinked, searching her memory for the elusive name.

Rarity! That was it.

She doubted she would be able to find the wild soul, and Twilight knew how much Fluttershy disliked being in town. Which just left that Arachne pony…. Spider…. Thing.

Twilight mentally chastised herself for her poor word choice before focusing on her goal. Now, where did this Rarity being live?

She hadn't gotten a good look at the exterior of Rarity’s home, nor the interior, now that she was thinking about it. That entire day had been so hectic that it was a bit of a blur to the unicorn. With a vague picture of Carousel Boutique in mind she set off, hoping she didn't have to wander too long.

Sure enough, there was only one building in Ponyville that seemed to match the description of a carousel. Though that was only a loose description, as it was unlike any carousell Twilight had ever seen.

The main floor appeared somewhat normal, at least for Ponyville anyway. It had two large circular windows on the front, both of which displayed a ponyquin, and a small open sign hanging in the left most one. Only they weren't exactly the ponyquins Twilight remembered, as one was obviously smaller and had fake bat wings poking out from the back of the dress. The dress itself was dark, a deep violet with black lace trim and teal gems interlaced at seemingly random intervals, vaguely resembling the stars. The entire ensemble was rather voluminous, yet still hugged the not-ponyquin tight enough that it probably wouldn't get in the way of normal movement.

The other ponyquin was a fake arachne, similar to Rarity herself. Her dress was more of what Twilight imagined a dress designed and worn by a spider would look like. It was dark as well, but not quite as dark as the other dress. This one took on more earthy tones, and seemed to be more of a shawl than a true dress. Whether or not that was from the differences in biology, or that was simply the fashion, Twilight didn't know. Either way, the entire thing had a large, web-like pattern interlaced throughout, and the unicorn couldn't help but smile at the sight.

Both looked nice, but the arachne’s was brighter, more alive, and lacked the almost victorian era, ballroom appearance of the other dress. Twilight’s eyes trailed upwards towards the second story, where several different creatures were on display, attached to poles much like a normal carousel. Except these were obviously not of the three tribes Twilight had grown up seeing represented in such a way. Ponies were replaced by a minotaur, a thestral and a strange fanged pony with insectoid wings and a jagged horn.

The poles extended from the second floor up to the third, where a single small window overlooked the town, nearly scraping the canopy of the trees. All the windows save the very top had the soft glow of candle light coming from within, though the light itself was a little low, barely illuminating the inside of the store.

Probably since most folk around here have no trouble seeing in the dark.

Twilight looked around, realizing it was only what she would consider noon, yet there were no ponyvillians around. Surely her fear aura didn't extend that far? Shaking her head, she made her way to the door.

Rarity was the only other being around that she knew who could help her, and though she was loathe to ask yet another person for help, she knew it had to be done. Raising her hoof to knock, Twilight stopped only to face hoof.

It's a store, you don't have to knock. With that in mind, she pushed her way inside, her eyes searching over the interior of the fashionista’s shop.

Dresses of all shapes and sizes were displayed on an equally diverse amount of not-ponyquins. Larger, less fancy dresses were displayed on what appeared to be a rocky, troll-like ponyquin, scattered amongst the arachne, thestral and even the odd minotaur-shaped ponyquin. The sheer amount of them was a little creepy, but Twilight figured it was necessary, what with all the many different beings that lived in and around Ponyville. It wasn't like Canterlot, where they could get away with three or four types of clothes displayed and then simply hanging the rest on racks.

Clearly this Rarity person understood her customers very well.

“Hello?” Twilight called out, a little confused by the deathly silent shop and lack of a welcome.

The unicorn glanced back over her shoulder, wondering if she had been wrong to simply walk in. She shook her head and called a little louder.

“Hello! It’s Twilight Sparkle, I was wondering if Rarity was available.”

Twilight waited.

And waited.

When no response came for nearly a minute, the unicorn turned to the door, only to stop when she heard a door open somewhere deeper in the shop, followed by the hushed sound of distant voices.

“Sweetie, what is wrong with you? I’m just trying to greet a customer!” Rarity hissed. “Stop pulling on my leg!”

Twilight turned back around, trying to listen to the faint sound of arguing.

“There is not a monster in my shop. Now will you get ahold of yourself and let go of me?”

“But Rarity, can't you feel it? There is something down there! Please don't go!” A small, feminine voice squeaked back, desperation clearly evident in her pleading tone.

“Sweetie Silver Belle, you are going to let go of me this instant, or you will be going to bed without any supper, do you hear me?”

There was a pause, then the skittering sound of many legs, before a door suddenly slammed shut, followed by an indignant huff and another skitter of legs as Rarity made her way down the stairs. Thinking quickly, Twilight spun around and pretended as though she was intensely interested in the display before her. She tried to pay even less attention to the creepy sound of eight legs skittering across the floor towards her.

“Welcome to Carousel Boutique, where every garment is chic, unique and magnifique! Oh, hello again Twilight! So that was you I heard down here.”

“Hello again, Rarity. How are you?” Twilight asked back innocently, still half-pretending to eye the display before her.

The Arachne rolled her eyes. “Just fine, until a minute ago. Sweetie Belle started making a fuss about a monster coming into the store.”

Twilight shuffled nervously. “I err..” It had just dawned on her that this plan was really, really stupid.

What would I even say? Hey Rarity, would you mind closing up shop in the middle of the work night in order to show me around town? Stupid, stupid, stupid!

“I must apologize for whatever my line of minotaur pants did to upset you.”

Twilight blinked, just now realizing what kind of clothes she had been pretending to look at. “No, that's not it... I just realized how silly it was for me to come here.”

“Now, now, darling. Tell me what’s on your mind.” The arachne placed a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder, forcing the mare to look up into the arachne’s warm, gentle smile.

“Well, I…”

“Ah, ah, ah. I will not take no for an answer. Tell aunty Rarity what troubles you.”

Twilight chuckled. “Well alright... I was hoping to find someone that could guide me around town. I need to find some things for a little… expedition I'm planning.”

Rarity tilted her head slightly, clearly intrigued. “Oh? And just where are you going?”

“The undertower.”

Rarity gasped, covering her mouth with a hoof. “You can't be serious! You are but one pony! And the undertower is in the cursed, desolate part of that dirty old castle!”

Twilight frowned. “Yeah, but there’s something down there that I need.”

The arachne’s lips pursed and she looked the unicorn up and down in a slow, appraising motion. Just as Twilight was about to ask what that look was for, the arachne’s eyes suddenly flew open. “Ideaaaa! Why don't you let me come with you? And in return, I shall help you in any way I can!”

Twilight blinked, confused by the sudden enthusiasm. “Why do you want to go there? I thought you said it was all dirty and cursed?”

The arachne tossed her mane to the side and scoffed. “A proper lady is always ready for a little dirt. The rewards will be more than worth it, after all.”

“Oh, what kind of rewards? Don't tell me you want some bricks from the old castle as well?”

“What? Stars above, why would I want that? No, what I’m looking for is one of the banners that hang in the throne room... which is unfortunately in the more dangerous section of the castle.”

Twilight’s ears perked up. “What's so special about the banners?”

Rarity hugged her chest as she spun in a little circle. “Oh, they are just the most amazing things! When I was very small, I got to hold a square of that enchanted silk, and it was the softest, yet strongest material ever woven by one of my kind. With such a flexible and durable material on my side, my boutique would be the talk of the town!”

Her eyes sparkled as she scurried up to Twilight, grabbing the unicorn’s cheeks in her hooves. “So, what do you say?”

Twilight blinked dumbly. “Hokay.”

“Yes, yes, yes! You won't regret this, I promise you!” The arachne clapped her hooves together excitedly.

Well, that was easier than I thought. “Do you have a piece of paper? I need to start a checklist.”

“Of course!” The arachne scuttled over to the till and reached behind it, producing a small pad of paper and quill, complete with ink pot.

Levitating the writing utensils and paper over to her drew Twilight an odd look, which only grew worse as she scribbled down her small list of tasks.

“Are you okay, darling? I know I should have said something before, but your magic looks a bit… off.” Rarity remarked.

Twilight sighed. “It's just a part of my condition.”

The spider pony skittered back a few feet, her hoof covering her mouth. “It's not contagious, is it?”

The unicorn chuckled darkly. “It's impossible to transmit.”

The arachne’s posture relaxed slightly. “Sorry, I shouldn't have assumed.”

“Don't worry about it.” Twilight gestured to the checklist laid out before them. “Alright, so the first thing we need is a professional, someone who can help keep us safe while we’re down there.”

Rarity frowned. “I’m afraid I don't know of anyone that would fit such a description.”

“I’m sure we’ll find someone.” The unicorn tapped her quill beside the next item. “Second, we need information on this undertower and the area. I don't want to walk in there blind. The optimal solution would be finding someone that fills the first two requirements, but I’m not gonna hold out for that.”

“Maybe the library would have something on it? The castle is relatively well explored and safe, and there have been some expeditions to that wing of the castle. Even if they were…” The arachne gulped. “Unsuccessful.”

Twilight frowned. “Yeah, that element of danger is what I’m most worried about. Either way we'll go slow and play it safe. I was thinking of making a base camp outside the undertower. Someplace safe where we can rest and recuperate.”

“Good thinking. I may be willing to help, but I’m afraid I would be a bit at a loss when it comes to fighting and other such acts of barbarity.”

The unicorn chuckled. “I figured as much.”

“Thank the stars we are on the same page. A lady must know how to defend herself, but getting dirty is never pleasant.”

“You know, you don't have to come. We could probably bring back the banners if you gave us a good description.” Twilight offered.

Rarity scoffed. “And anger the spirits of the castle? I think not!”

Twilight rolled her eyes and was about to say there is no such thing as spirits. But then she realized she knew a spirit, she could apparently do necromancy and pretty much everything she had ever been taught might very well have been a lie.

“Right.” She muttered. “After that we just need to gather some provisions, and than we should be ready. Anything you want to add to the list?” Twilight raised her quill.

The arachne tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Hmm... I would recommend you bring some tents, pure spring water, and someone who knows how to make restorative potions. Or at the very least have some of the potions on hoof, just in case.”

“I guess I can understand the tents and the potions, but why does the water have to be pure spring water?”

Rarity scoffed again, shaking her head in dismay. “It’s simply the best water in the forest. It’s all I ever drink.”

Twilight rolled her eyes but added it to the list anyway. “Alright, anything else?”

“Oh, candles and lamps! My eyesight may be good, but I heard it gets unnaturally dark in that wing of the castle.” Rarity added.

Twilight nodded, adding candles and lamps to the list. “Alright, when do you close down?”

Rarity giggled behind a hoof. “I own the store darling, it closes whenever I want it to. And I just so happen to have all my orders completed.” her eyes lit up and she suddenly turned, her many legs carrying her to the stairs only to slap her forehead and turn back around. “I will need to find a sitter for Sweetie Belle and make sure everything is in order. Go on ahead and try and find us an adventurous type. I’ll meet you at the market.”

Twilight nodded. “Right.” She blinked. “Wait, where is the market?”

“At the center of town! Take a left when you leave the shop, then a right down lunar avenue!” Rarity yelled down from upstairs.

Okay, I can do this. Twilight took a deep breath and stepped outside. First things first, I need to find someone who can handle themself in a fight. If I can't find someone to do that, then the rest is irrelevant. Now, where do I find such someone like that? Maybe that nice guard I talked to before? If he can't help, then he at least should know someone, right?

Hmm, maybe. It would be a good place to start, even if I might run into that Rainbow Dash pony.

With that in mind, she headed down towards the tower, all the while unaware of a slitted pair of eyes peering down at her from the canopy. Far above the streets of Ponyville, a rainbow maned thestral straightened her leathery wings and soundlessly leapt into the night, her speed carrying her to the umbral tower with all the haste she could muster.

What would an outsider possibly want with the old castle? Or the undertower for that matter? The thestral’s eyes narrowed as she flew. I bet she's trying to steal some lost relic or release some sort of evil monster! Her eyes went wide as she imagined some great flaming creature emerging from the castle, intent on burning down the forest and destroying her home.

Not on my watch! With a burst of speed she zipped around the last corner and came to a skidding stop at the entrance of the umbral tower, tearing a deep groove into the dirt and kicking up a fair amount of dust.

The older guard at the door sighed and shook his head while the younger guard coughed and waved a hoof, trying to dissipate the dust that clogged the air.

“How many times have I told you to slow down when you approach the tower? Look at what you did.” The guard gestured to the twin grooves in the dirt. “The captain is going to be furious you know.” He remarked with a frown.

“No time! Outsider wants to sneak into the undertower! have to get some backup before we bring her in!” Rainbow Dash replied, making a beeline for the door only to stop when the older guard held out his spear, blocking the way. “Hey, what gives?”

“The commander mentioned all news on the outsider should go directly to him, remember? You were there.”

“Fine. I’ll go tell him the news first,” the brightly colored thestral grumbled, “then he’ll give me some back up and we’ll arrest her.”

The guard shook his head. “Whatever, just tell commander Hallow already.”

In a flash the thestral was gone, zipping inside and sprinting towards the commander’s office, leaving behind one annoyed thestral, and another confused.

“Why exactly is she assigned to something so important?” The younger guard asked gesturing towards the door the aforementioned thestral had just passed through.

The older guard chuckled. “Kid, trust me. She may not look it, but she's tough. Top marks on everything but obedience, and loyal to the core. She's the right bat for the job, trust me.”

The younger guard shook her head and grumbled. The image of Rainbow Dash getting top marks in anything other than being a hot head was a hard one to grasp. In the end she merely shrugged, glad of the fact that the outsider wasn't coming here.

Said relief was shattered the instant a distinct horned and lanky pony appear down the road, making the guard clutch her weapon tightly. The older guard looked down, noticing his younger’s sudden tension and following her eyes up to the source of her apprehension.

“Oh for fu-”

Above them Rainbow Dash stood anxiously before the door to Dark Hallow’s office, shifting nervously from hoof to hoof. He had already received her report but instead of giving Dash the squad she had requested, he had commanded her to stand outside and wait, before sending word that the outsider should not be detained but actually allowed to roam free. He even insisted that she be encouraged to explore the castle, on the promise that she not take anything from it’s hallowed halls.

His receptionist, Mrs. Ever Flight, wasn't any help either, as she was intently staring at her hoof, filing it for a few seconds before starting the entire process over on the other forehoof. Her calm and collected demeanor only further annoyed the twitchy thestral, and Rainbow Dash couldn't help but grind her teeth a little. When her patience had finally reached it's breaking point, she heard the voice of the commander shout from behind the door.

“Come in, private Dash!”

“Finally.” She groaned, pushing her way inside and offering a quick salute, stepping back inside the musty office.

“Your assignment has changed.” He gestured over to a small, pure-white gem roughly the size of an apple that currently sat on his desk. “You will keep this gem on you until further notice. If it turns black at any time, take note of that and include it in your next report.”

The rainbow maned thestral grabbed the gem and turned it over in her hoof. It seemed like a normal light gem, although it was a little smoother than usual. “What does it do?”

“Don't worry about that, just tell us if it changes color. It will stay black for a few hours after it first changes color so you don't have to check it constantly.” The smaller thestral stood up and paced in front of the window. “ I also want you to grab one of the militia kits and the books that will be ready for you, and aid this outsider in her search.”

Rainbow Dash’s mouth hung open in shock. The unicorn was to receive not only approval, but assistance? “You can't be serious, commander. She could be a spy!”

“Which is why you are going to keep such a close eye on her.” The thestral turned, his eyes narrowing at the other being as he glared over the table. “Right?”

Rainbow Dash wilted. “Yes, commander Dark Hallow.”

He maintained his hard glare for a few seconds before chuckling suddenly. “Honestly, you've done a good job so far, private. Keep this up and you might just get that promotion you’ve had your eye on.”

Her eyes lit up. “Really sir?”

The commander wiggled a hoof at her. “That's only if you help her with her objective. Keep one eye on what she's doing, and another on the gem. Discreetly.”

“You can count on me, commander!” She turned to leave, only to feel a hoof on her shoulder and found herself turned back around where the commander was staring intently into her eyes.

“A lot of trust is being placed in you, Rainbow Dash. I hope you understand that.”

Rainbow chuckled nervously. “How hard could it be to help one little pony? I got this.”

“Still. Don't think for one second that this will be easy. The undertower is in a dangerous wing of the castle, and the tower itself is even more dangerous. Do not underestimate it, understood?”

The thestral shook off her commander’s hoof and shot him a cocky smile. “Like I said commander, I got this.”

Shaking his head, the older thestral walked back behind his desk and plunked down in his chair, a hoof reaching for his pipe. “See to it that you do. I do not want to have to add another name to the wall.”

Rainbow Dash stood a little taller, her back a little straighter. “You got it, commander. Is that it?”

He sighed and crossed his hooves on his desk. “That's it, private. Best of luck. And don't forget what I told you.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Rainbow Dash mumbled as she trotted out the door.

Now alone in his office, the commander groaned and rubbed his temples. This certainly was an amazing opportunity, but it also might doom the entire operation and the hope he had built up after hearing about the strange foreigner. Still…

He glanced over at the moon statue and felt the worries that were plaguing him begin to lift. If everything worked as he hoped, the rewards would certainly be worth any sacrifice.

Outside, a rather confused Twilight blinked as Rainbow Dash hoofed over several books along with a saddle bag filled to the brim with stuff. On the brief glance Twilight had managed to sneak inside her new rough-looking saddle bags, she’d seen a crowbar, over a hundred feet of rope tied to the end of a grappling hook, and several other miscellaneous things that she might need on the outing she had planned. Twilight slung the saddle bags over her back, noting the surprising weight that settled on her back and onto her still weak leg.

“Wait, so why are you giving me all this? What is all this stuff, anyways?” Twilight remarked as another small book was added to the growing pile currently held aloft in her magic.

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “Those books are on survival, records of the expeditions into the forbidden area of the castle, and everything we know about it and the undertower. As for why you’re carrying it, well, that's because you’re the egghead and I need to stay light and fast. Duh.”

“No, I mean, why are you giving me all of this for free?”

“We’re not giving it to you. You’re borrowing it from us. The commander doesn't want to see you get hurt so he sent me along with this stuff to help us out.” The Rainbow-maned thestral dropped a towel on top of the pile and smiled. “There, all set.”

“Why do we need a towel?”

“You always need a towel. First thing they taught us in basic.”

Twilight couldn't understand why they would need a towel, but she also had no clue if the thestral was joking, so she just shrugged and tucked the towel into her saddle bag.

“Uh, okay.” The unicorn tucked the books in one side of her bags, adding to the already considerable weight resting on her back. “Aren't you going to carry anything?”

The thestral grinned and gestured to the crescent blade on her side before giving her new, more protective armor a firm thump with her hoof. “I got everything I need to keep us safe. Anything else would slow me down, and could be the difference between life and death.”

Twilight looked at the cumbersome armor the other mare now wore. Though it didn't look terribly different from the deep purple armor she had worn before, Twilight could tell this was much different. For starters, she could tell the thestral had a chain shirt underneath, and her minimal helmet was replaced with one that covered nearly everything but her eyes. The helm was also styled in such a way as to not obstruct her range of vision. The plates on the armor were also larger, less ceremonial, and they covered nearly the entirety of the thestral’s body. She also had a pair of knives strapped to her right forehoof, while her left hoof was bare, only covered by a strange bangle. Finally, she had her own set of saddle bags thrown over her armor, but they were much smaller than the rough leather ones Twilight wore. Rainbow’s bags were much lighter and strapped into her armor, meaning the thestral could probably go completely upside down without losing her bags..

“Fine.” Twilight muttered.

“What's next, egghead?” Rainbow asked, launching into the air and hovering nearby.

“I am not…” The unicorn sighed. “We have to go back to Applejack’s first, and then meet Rarity by the market.”

“What do you need from Applejack?”

“I have to apologize for something... and we still need provisions.”

“Pfft, not me. I got my own.” she hefted the bangle and shot the unicorn a look. “Let's go, I want to get everything ready before dayfall.”

Twilight arched an eyebrow at the strange statement but stayed silent, reasoning it must have been some sort of colloquialism she didn't know.

The pair’s trek to Sweet Apple Acres was a silent one, neither really having anything to say to the other that didn't boil down to a thinly veiled statement of distrust on the part of Rainbow Dash, or annoyance at the former from Twilight. Eventually they made their way to the orchard without much in the way of distractions other than once where Twilight tripped over a root, much to Rainbow Dash’s amusement.

It took a surprisingly little amount of wandering before they managed to locate the house, the forest guiding them to their destination with little difficulty this time. Surprisingly, they didn't see hide nor hair of any of the apple family during their trek through the orchard, and now that the old farm house was in view they knew why.

Big Mac stood on the porch, standing vigilant, his eyes never leaving the unicorn as she walked closer. Making sure to leave lots of room between her and the house, Twilight stopped and gulped, drawing a strange glance from her companion.

“What's the matter outsider, scared of ol’ Mac?” The thestral snickered.

Twilight pawed the ground nervously. “A little.” Shaking her head she looked up to the large wolflike earth pony. “Hi, um, Big Mac. I was hoping to talk to Applejack if she was around...”

Big Mac stared down at the pair for several long seconds before stomping one massive hoof twice. Seconds later Applejack pushed open the screen door with a weary sigh, limping out onto the porch. “Yeah, what is it Mac? Oh.” She pushed her stetson up a little further on her head, her eyes going wide. “Back already.”

The unicorn gulped under the combined stare of two of the apple siblings. “I’m going to the old castle in search of answers, and I was hoping you could help us out with some apples?”

“Well, I’ll be.” Applejack remarked.

Bic Mac snorted and gestured in the direction of the bunker Twilight had been staying in, making his point clear without ever having to speak a word.

“Now, I know we ain't having this conversation again. Would ya please go inside so I can talk to our guest alone?”

The larger being’s eyes narrowed and he snorted angrily, pawing at the porch and shaking his head.

Applejack spun around and glared angrily up at him. “Now that's enough of that, I said git!”

Big Mac’s lips pulled back into a frown, revealing his strangely sharp teeth. After a few seconds of strained silence he reluctantly passed by his sister and went inside.

“Heh, sorry about that. He can be as stubborn as a mule sometimes.”

Twilight felt her muscles relax the second Big Mac was no longer visible. “Big brothers are supposed to be like that.”

The farm mare chuckled and made her way over to the pair, walking a little lighter on the back left hoof that had the majority of tree roots digging into it. The mare gave a friendly smile and nodded to the thestral. “Rainbow Dash. Nice to see you when you ain't nappin in mah trees.”

The thestral snorted dismissively. “Whatever.”

Twilight cleared her throat. “Anyway. Sorry again about before, Applejack. If it makes you feel any better, I found out why I did what I did, and it won't happen again.”

Applejack nodded slowly. “Good. That old hole in the ground didn't mean nothing to nobody, but Pinkie means everything to everybody.”

“So, will you help us out? I know I still have to work on that map for you, but this is really important.” Twilight pleaded.

The apple farmer frowned and rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “Hey Dash, you know where the library is in that old castle?”

Dash blinked. “Yeah. It's in the off-limits area, though.”

The farmer nodded slowly. “Right, I’ll help ya. If you help me get to the library.”

“What do you need from the library?”

“All I’ll say is it's a family matter.”

Rainbow Dash frowned. “What, is there, like, some sort of super-secret apple farming book in there you’re going to steal?”

The apple farmer frowned “I ain't gonna steal nothing. Now do ya want my help or not?”

Twilight quickly put herself between the guard and the apple farmer, stifling the ensuing argument before it began. “Yes, absolutely!” A huge smile spread across the unicorn’s face and she suddenly wrapped the tree bound pony in a tight hug. “Thank you so much, Applejack! You have no idea what this means to me.”

Applejack blinked, feeling an odd sense of power rippling through her. The tree on her back groaned slightly, it's roots retreating a few inches from the farmer’s body. “No need to thank me, y'all are doing me a favor as well. Seems only fair to give something back.”

Twilight released the other being and took a step back. “Still... Thank you Applejack.”

A small blush spread across the farmer’s face and she rubbed the back of her neck. “Aw, shucks, Twi, that's just what friends do.”

Rainbow Dash snorted. “Alright, break it up you two, I don't wanna have to take you in for public indecency.”

“What? I just gave her a hug.” The farmer chuckled slightly, a huge smile spreading across her face. “You’re just jealous this pretty little thing hugged me and not you.”

“What!?” the thestral yelled, suddenly flying right up into the farmer’s face, her slitted eyes narrowed. “You take that back.”

Twilight blushed profusely, utterly baffled by anyone other than her mother calling her pretty. She gulped down her embarrassment and magically pulled the two beings apart “Alright, break it up you two.”

Applejack shrugged and shot Rainbow Dash a sly grin. “You are too easy to tease, sugar cube.”

The thestral huffed indignantly, turning away from the both of them. “Come on Twilight, let's leave this overgrown weed to her trees.”

Twilight rolled her eyes and gave Applejack another smile. “Thanks again. Wait, where should we meet you?”

“There’s a big spruce tree at the edge of Ponyville, Rainbow knows where it is. I’ll meet ya there.”

With that, the thestral and the unicorn turned back to town, quickly leaving the twisted trees of Sweet Apple Acres behind them. When the two beings were swallowed by the forest, Big Mac stepped out of the house, frowning at the spot he had lost sight of the pair.

He snorted once, airing his annoyance.

“Ya know it was a good idea, we can't afford to hire some muscle to get us in there, and it's not like you can go.”

Big Mac’s frown deepened, gaining a more worried look to it.

“Now don't you worry none, Rainbow Dash knows her stuff and Twilight doesn't seem like a slouch either. Plus, she's got magic. Real honest to goodness magic. I’m sure with those two on our side we could handle whatever that nasty castle could throw at us.”

The big farmer’s expression grew hopeful but his eyes bellied an unspoken question.

“I don't know where it is, only that it’s there. I’m sure with their help we can finally find it and fix all this mess.” Applejack waved a hoof over the farm.

Big Mac lightly punched the other farmer on the shoulder, shooting her a wide, hopeful smile.

“Heh, don't give me that look yet. We still gotta find it first and then make it back here in one piece. Let's just hope the deed is still there after all these years.” Applejack turned, following her brother inside only to stop after a few steps when she noticed she had lost the limp that had been troubling her for the last few hours. She looked back at the tree on her back, a perplexed expression on her face. “Bloomberg’s giving me a break for once... today sure is a strange one.”

Together, Twilight and Rainbow Dash looked out over the market, their eyes searching past the many, many different kinds of creatures and the equally numerous objects being sold. Twilight’s jaw hung open in awe while Rainbow Dash had a much more subdued expression, having long since grown accustomed to the sights and sounds of Ponyville’s open market.

The unicorn turned this way and that, gawking at the new and strange beings wandering through the open air market. Minotaurs wandered around mostly by themselves, glancing occasionally at the odd stand but mostly clustering around anything that advertised weapons or anything that required metalworking to construct.

A group of arachne skittered past them, talking animatedly and laughing at an unheard joke. Even the odd troll could be spotted throughout the crowd, usually lingering around any stand that sold rocks or food. Twilight chuckled. Rocks and food, now that was redundant.

She even caught a glimpse of some small, chitinous pony-like creatures that were clustered intently around a tall, smiling deer who was speaking animatedly to the group. His long sweeping gestures and intense facial expressions drew the crowd into whatever story he was telling.

What most surprised Twilight was the fact that most of the gathered beings seemed to ignore her. Though a few eyed her with fear and distrust, her aura seemed more subdued than usual, and so far there were no screams of panic. Perhaps the aura was dissipated over so many beings? Twilight put that thought away for now, focusing on just enjoying the fact that she hadn't caused a panic quite yet.

“What are those beings called?” Twilight asked, gesturing to the insectoid ponies with jagged black horns and small buzzing wings.

“Changelings. Now come on, I think I know where we can find Rarity.”


Rainbow Dash didn't wait for whatever new question the egghead was going to ask and flew off towards the other end of the market, ducking and weaving past other airborne creatures with practiced ease. After coming around a larger tent she smirked, noticing the distinctive curls of the fashionista. “Found her! Right next to the fabric tent.”

When no reply came she turned to find her ground bound charge wasn't there. Sighing inwardly, the thestral crossed her hooves and waited, hovering a few feet off the ground.

Eventually the unicorn appeared, her eyes desperately searching for any sign of her rainbow-maned guide. Upon noticing the thestral, they grew narrow and she stomped over to the guard. “Don't do that! I could have gotten lost!”

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. “What, really? The market isn't that big. Heck, Cliffsdale’s is four times the size.”

Twilight blushed, only now realizing just how little she had ever left the house and thus how little she knew about such things as basic as what the normal size of a market was. “S-still!”

“Whatever, you're friend is over there.” She gestured over to where she had last seen the arachne. “Can we go already?”

“Fine, I just need to talk to her first.” The unicorn slipped through the crowd, finding no trouble maneuvering the packed market. Whether that was her aura, general distrust, or kindness, she wasn't sure.

It didn't take long for the pair to find the arachne as her height put her well over everyone save for the odd minotaur. Twilight continued walking towards the arachne, a greeting on her lips, only for a sudden scream to erupt from inside the tent. A terrified looking thestral draped in silk and her own long flowing white mane burst from the entrance. She didn't stop for a second, her wings carrying her out of the tent and straight in the other direction furthest from Twilight. The unicorn could hear her terrified scream for several long seconds as she flew into the night.

The unicorn rolled her eyes and waved at Rarity who was scratching her head and looking to where the strange thestral had flown off to. Suddenly noticing the waving unicorn she blinked, looking down at her newest friend.

“Hello darling, is this our escort?” The arachne asked, gesturing with a long spindly leg towards the thestral guard she had arrived with.

Said guard snorted. “Don't read into it.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Yes, she will be helping us with this little expedition. I also managed to get Applejack to help as well.”

Rarity clapped her hooves together triumphantly. “That's wonderful news! Any member of the Apple family is a good help when it comes to navigating the forest. Though I wish it was that strapping older brother of hers.”

“Oh, I didn't know you were into wolves, Rarity.” Rainbow Dash snickered.

Rarity tsked, tossing her mane dramatically. “I will have you know that Big Mac is a kind and gentle individual.” The archne smirked. “Besides, it's better than having a crush on a rabbit.”

Rainbow Dash’s face grew beet red. “I do not!”

Rarity giggled demurely behind a hoof, looking down at the fuming thestral with amusement. “Oh? I never said you did, darling.”

The thestral huffed indignantly. “Whatever, I’ll be waiting by the big spruce at the edge of town whenever you’re done wasting time.” The thestral turned and quickly disappeared into the crowd.

Twilight sighed and rubbed her temple, feeling a headache coming on. “So, what do we have left to buy? I forgot my gems, but I can go grab them if you like.”

“Oh, I already bought everything we need except the food, which is a nice bit of serendipity I must say.”

Twilight nodded. “Perfect. Next time I remember my gems don't forget to let me pay you back. I don't know how much all that stuff you bought was worth, but I’m sure it cost a pretty penny.”

“Penny?” Rarity scoffed. “Don't worry about paying darling. Think of this as payment for helping me find the silk and launching my business into a new age of success!”

Twilight frowned. “But we haven't found the silk yet. We haven't even left.”

“Your word is enough for me.” The arachne turned, revealing a large pack positively bursting with supplies resting on her arachnid back. “I have all the water, tents, candles and lanterns. Now, we had best hurry. Don't want our escort leaving without us, now would we?”

Twilight frowned but followed the arachne as she led them out of the market. Her mind was much too occupied thinking of how she would pay everyone back for what they’d done for her to bother listening to the few screams of terror that came from the crowd. Her mind so distant that she wasn't even aware of all the hushed whispering and pointing her presence garnered.

“Oh my, what has gotten into everyone today? Nightmare day isn't for another month.” Rarity remarked as she watched a mother minotaur desperately try to silence her screaming child.

Twilight sighed. “It's me, sorta.”

Rarity glanced down at the unicorn. “What are you talking about, darling? Why, you’re about as frightening as Fluttershy. No offence.”

The unicorn chuckled. “I’ll tell you and everyone else later, but long story short, it's part of that condition I mentioned earlier.”

The arachne frowned but didn't push the matter, instead focusing on maneuvering through the last of the crowd and towards the meeting point with the deft agility hey kind was known for. Rarity seemed to know exactly where the big spruce was after Twilight mentioned it, and she quickly led them to it.

Approaching the tree, Twilight could see Applejack standing next to a large basket of apples sitting on a small cart set beside her, a stem sticking out of her mouth and a thoughtful expression on her face. The tree bound pony was staring off into space, her eyes slightly glazed over as she looked in the general direction of the castle, her mind clearly elsewhere. Rainbow Dash was nowhere to be found but something told Twilight she was nearby, waiting for them to arrive, perhaps even sitting in the massive splayed branches of the large spruce Applejack was standing next to.

“Hello darling, how is the farm this time of year?”

Applejack seemed to snap back to reality, spitting the stem out of her mouth and smirking at the approaching arachne.

“Rarity, is that you? I never woulda guessed you'd be the type to go and get your hooves dirty with this kinda thing.”

The arachne scoffed. “If the rewards are worth it, even a lady must be ready to get a little dirty.” The eight legged being shivered, a scowl crossing her face. “Even if she finds such an act utterly repulsive.”

The farmer chuckled, maneuvering into place so she could hitch herself back up to the cart. “Well, y'all ready to go? I got everything in order and we should be good for about a week or so.”

Twilight nodded. “Yup, everything is set. I just wanted to meet up with Fluttershy and stop by Zecora’s one final time.”

“Good thinking. Fluttershy’s expertise in all things animals and Pinkie’s potions would really help on such a dangerous endeavor.” Rarity remarked.

“Pfft, you don't need all that. You got me after all.” Rainbow Dash said with a scoff.

The rest of the party rolled their eyes but continued into the forest, conversation flowing surprisingly easily for a group of individuals who either just met or were never anything more than mere passing acquaintances. Twilight herself felt surprisingly relaxed in the presence of her new friends, her years of social awkwardness and very insular existence almost forgotten during the few minutes they walked together through the forest.

A thought struck her suddenly while the rest of her new friends were talking about the rumours that floated around the old castle. Would she leave the forest, if she could? The thought was odd and her first reaction was to think yes, of course she would.

But as she watched her new friends talk and laugh at some of the more absurd superstitions, Twilight couldn't help but wonder if she really could go through with leaving them.

She had never felt like she belonged anywhere before. Sure, her mother and brother gave her something to hang onto and in their presence she did genuinely feel as though she belonged. But with her mother gone, would that feeling remain? Was there anything truly left for her in Canterlot other than a broken family?

She shook her head. She had a brother that loved her, a sibling that may be going through gods only knew what at this very moment. But if he could be rescued, would they stay in Canterlot? Could they even do such a thing?

Thoughts of bringing her brother back to the forest to live their lives in peace with the menagerie of other creatures that made the forest their home was an endearing one, and for a moment the unicorn considered abandoning her plans of vengeance entirely. A second later the image of her mother’s agonized features flashed through her mind and all such thoughts of peace vanished in an instant. She would never know peace until Celestia and Sunset were dealt with, permanently.

As her thoughts turned dark, she felt an energy rise within her, and a second later she suddenly felt… relief. A strange and sudden wave of relief washed over her, and a haze suddenly lifted from her mind.

“Wait a sec, you girls feel that?” Applejack remarked, rubbing the back of her neck. “Felt like a chill was in the air for a second there.”

Rarity frowned. “Really darling, if you needed to borrow a scarf I could have grabbed one for you.”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Not like that. It was like a cold draft... like someone walked over your grave or somethin’.”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “You need to stop listening to the old stories yer granny tells ya.”

“Hey! My granny’s stories ain't all hogwash.” Rarity placed a hoof and looked into the farmer’s eyes with a weary expression, making her visibly wilt. “Okay, so what if some are a little far fetched? It don't hurt no one.”

“Darling, wasn't she the one yelling last week about the day lasting forever?”

Applejack huffed. “Fine, maybe she’s had a few screws come loose with age, but she's a hundred and six! I’d like to see you lot stay lucid after all that time.”

Twilight chuckled. “No one is insulting Granny Smith. We’re just saying that maybe you should take her stories with a grain of salt.”

The farm pony sighed. “Yeah, yeah. Let's just hope Fluttershy is near her tree.”

The party grew quiet as they made the last leg of their journey towards Fluttershy’s grove, each member keeping an eye open for the elusive spirit and any dangerous beasty that may wander their way. It didn't take long for the group to begin to feel as though they were being watched, and soon they could see several animals sitting along the path or on the branches above, scrutinizing the group as they made their way closer to Fluttershy’s peaceful grove. Even the small, easily startled creatures that had been terrified of Twilight only a day earlier seemed remarkably calm around the unicorn. Though even then, they did seem to eye the mare with more suspicion than the rest of her companions.

As the edge of Fluttershy’s grove came into view, they were stopped by several bunnies standing across the path, their shoulders squared and steel in their eyes. The companions would have been quite intimidated by the bunny’s resolve if they weren't less than a foot tall and utterly adorable.

Applejack stepped forward with a friendly smile, leaning down to the bunny’s level, her knees cracking audibly as she did. “Excuse me little fellers, we were looking for Fluttershy. Y'all know where we can find her?”

The center bunny, whom everyone recognized as Angel took a step forward and held up a paw and tapped his wrist. “Uh, you girls know what he's trying to say? I never was good at charades.” Applejack remarked, standing back up and taking a step back.

Twilight cocked her head. “But you always seem to know what Big Mac is saying, and he doesn't even speak.”

The farm pony shrugged, sending the tree on her back shaking. “Big Mac’s an easy read.”

“I’m pretty sure he's telling us to wait here.” Rainbow Dash added, much to Angel’s visible relief.

“Err, alright...” Twilight looked around awkwardly, only now realizing just how many animals were watching them, and her especially.

A pair of eagles sat further up the branches, looking almost straight down at her with what could only be described as confusion on their feathery features. A small group of squirrels and other equally tiny creatures huddled further away, half hidden behind a tree trunk, their miniscule heads just barely poking around the sides and staring at Twilight with fear in their eyes.

All around her, the animals of the forest came to look on at the companions in a mixture of curiosity and fear. Though Rainbow Dash seemed nonplussed by the entire experience, Rarity, Applejack and Twilight were more than a little put off by such an assembly of animals, almost all of which held various levels of interest in the gathered beings.

Twilight gulped, trying to ignore the glaring animals while Applejack seemed to have grown more amused than anything.

Rarity’s eyes went wide. “Oh, look at you! Aren't you beautiful! Such coloration, such poise!”

Rarity skittered a little closer to the branch where a large purple and gold bird sat. It’s expression was unreadable and it's large wings were tucked firmly against its side. As the arachne drew close, the bird opened its wings slightly, seemingly striking a pose for the fawning spider pony.

“Oh I absolutely must make a note of your colors. They would make for a beautiful dress, or perhaps even just a scarf, or a hat!” Rarity pulled a notebook from one of her many bags and began scratching down various notes.

“Oh um, hello girls. Am I interrupting something?” A small, familiar voice asked. Instantly the companions all turned to the source of the voice, making the owl blush and hide behind a wing.

“Did you borrow Owlicious?” Twilight asked.

The owl waved a wing nervously. “Yes. It seems as though no one else had the courage to come to the castle with you except this brave little owl.”

“D’aww.” Twilight trotted over and nuzzled the owl, which drew a confused blush to the spirit’s body.

Applejack pushed up her hat and scratched her head. “Wait a second. How’d y'all know we were going to the old castle?”

Fluttershy giggled. “My friends told me. It seems like a few of them decided to follow Twilight around after getting spooked.”

“Are you sure you want to come with us? It might be dangerous…” Twilight added.

The owl nodded firmly. “Owlicious wants to come with you, and I want to support my friends.”

Twilight nuzzled the owl again. “Thanks you two.”

Rainbow Dash huffed. “Alright, break it up. We better get moving if we want to camp before sunrise.”

“Err, right.” Twilight took a step back, allowing the owl to fly over and rest on Rainbow Dash’s shoulder, much to the thestral’s delight.

Together the four companions set out for the last stop before they began their journey. Their animal watchers slowly petered off, breaking away and going back to whatever they were doing before, much to Twilight’s relief.

With Fluttershy and Applejack’s expert guidance, they quickly found their way onto Pinkie Pie’s trail, allowing the group to relax slightly, no longer having to worry about any roving monsters accidentally wandering into their path. As they traipsed quietly through the woods, Twilight’s mind began to wander again and she couldn't help but wonder why just so many animals had approached her.

Sure she felt more energized after leaving Zecora’s, but the people in the market had still been scared of her. But then her anger had flared up, and after that her fear aura seemed to have dissipated. Had she been accidentally absorbing energy from the plants around her?

Too many questions swirled within the unicorn’s mind, and not nearly enough answers. Reluctantly, she put aside the mess of questions and pushed them completely from her mind, making a note to experiment with her powers when they settled down for camp.

Evidently she had been thinking for longer than she first thought, as the group were now nearing Zecora’s hut, the familiar smell of the shaman’s home borne aloft on the soft wind. Twilight could hear the bubble of a cauldron and the faint drone of a chant as they approached the strange home.

At first she had thought it was Zecora’s voice due to the strange language it was speaking, but as they drew close to the zebra’s house, the group spotted Pinkie dancing an awkward three legged dance before the cauldron. Her voice grew more distinct as they approached her, though the language she was speaking was clearly not one any of them knew, judging from the confused expressions on the five being’s faces. Rainbow Dash moved to the door but Twilight held her back, holding a hoof to her lips. “Shhh, wait a second.”

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes but did as she was told, standing back and waiting for Pinkie Pie’s dance to end. Sure enough, it didn't take long for the three legged troll to stop suddenly, her chest heaving and her body slick with sweat.

“Whoo-wee, that was a tough one! I sure hope this batch turns out better than the last.” She commented while wiping the sweat from her brow. The companions could also hear the faint sound of snoring through the wood.

Rainbow Dash knocked on the door. “Hey Pinkie, you in there?” She called out.

“That's them! I’m so excited!” the troll bounced over to the door before throwing it open and wrapping Rainbow Dash in a one legged hug. “Hiya, Dashie!”

“Hey Pinks,” Rainbow Dash replied, pushing the affectionate troll to hoof length.

“Oh wow, you brought everyone!” Pinkie smiled. “Great work, Twilight!”

Twilight frowned. “Uh yeah, thanks.”

“What's wrong, sugarcube?”

The unicorn rubbed the back of her neck awkwardly. “I just can't help but worry that I’m putting all of you in danger.”

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “Pshaw, you’ve got me.”

Twilight sighed. “Still, it doesn't feel right to do all this just because I want answers.”

Applejack chuckled and threw a hoof around Twilight’s shoulder. “Relax Twilight, most of us are here for our own reasons, stuff we had wanted to do but never did ‘cus we had no one to help us. Why, Rarity here was telling me about her wanting to figure out that ancient silk banner of hers. I need to find something for myself. Rainbow Dash is apparently here just to whine and grandstand, and Fluttershy is too kind for her own good.”

Rarity wilted a little. “Well, when you put it like that it doesn't sound very flattering. I really do want to help.”

“Aw shucks, Rares. I'm not saying ya don't, or that anyone else doesn't wanna help. I’m just saying that most of us are here in order to help each other.”

“That is a nice way of putting it.” Fluttershy remarked.

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “I’m just here on orders, not ‘cus I want to help.”

“Yeah, whatever sugar cube.” Rainbow Dash huffed and looked away, drawing a chuckle from the companions.

Pinkie Pie wiped away a single tear. “I really wish I could join you girls, but I gotta wait for righty to grow back. Buuuut, I did make you some potions that should help!” Before Twilight could try and say no, the pink troll had already pushed a bag filled with bottles into the unicorn’s hooves. “That one there is for bug bites, it's an ointment. That ones for poison joke, you gotta drink it. One for devil thorns, which is another ointment, aaaand…!” She disappeared in a flash and returned a second later with three jars filled with a thick reddish liquid. “Some grade-A health potions!”

“I, er, wow... thank you, Pinkie!” Twilight remarked, quickly stowing the bag of potions in her saddlebags.

“Thanks Pinks.” Rainbow Dash added.

Applejack tipped her hat. “Thank you kindly.”

“Well said, Applejack!” Rarity added, throwing the troll a heartfelt smile.

Pinkie Pie blushed. “D’aw, it's nothing. Just want to make sure my friends are okay.”

Twilight sniffed, wiping a single tear from her eye. “It's not nothing, Pinkie. Thank you.”

The unicorn reached out and pulled the troll into a tight hug, one which Pinkie eagerly reciprocated without hesitation or reservation. Twilight squeezed her tightly before reluctantly letting go. “Thanks again Pinkie, once we find what we’re looking for, I’ll come back and tell you all about it.”

Rainbow Dash tapped her hoof impatiently. “Alright, come on. Hurry up you slowpokes, it's going to be morning soon.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Twilight remarked before giving Pinkie one last hug. “Bye Pinkie Pie.”

The troll blinked, feeling an odd warmth spread through her. “Err, yeah. Later, girls.”

She stood in silence as the other companions said their goodbyes and headed off, too distracted by the strange feeling of warmth and new energy suddenly coursing through her. When her friends were finally out of sight she looked down at her stump leg where the feeling of warmth had slowly begun to center on. She waved around the few inches of leg she had left, wondering what exactly was happening.

Shaking off the odd feeling, she finally turned and closed the door.

Moving On

View Online

Moonlit Echo lit her horn and activated one of the many enchantments on her glasses, replacing the quiet bench, she was currently sitting at, with a three story tall view in upper Canterlot. The magic took a moment to calibrate, but once done, the changeling was given a perfect view of the Sparkle residence from atop one of the houses nearby. The enchantment itself had been placed on a small gargoyle sculpture, which felt fitting to the changeling, as if the statue meant to invoke protection for the house’s occupants was actually doing its job.

Looking through the statue’s eyes, the changeling could see all the traffic coming up and down the road in front of the home and a good portion of the entire neighborhood as well. To her right she could see a small group of middle-aged mares chatting and trotting down the road. They wore colorful headbands and spoke in jovial tones as they enjoyed a mid-morning jog. To the left a business pony wearing a perfectly form-fitting suit walked towards the castle, his head held high. A few other ponies dotted the streets here and there, but for the most part the road was barren and the houses dark and silent.

The agent scanned the streets once more, her experienced eyes picking out every little thing that seemed out of place. A pegasus lingered above the Sparkle residence a bit too long, aiming a newspaper far longer than necessary. As he passed by the third house up the street, he exchanged a brief nod with a unicorn mare sitting on a bench reading a paper. It would have been a small innocuous thing, had they not looked so serious when they passed one another.

The changeling could easily pick out several other minor things that stuck out and in a matter of minutes she had a small list of enemy agents stationed outside the Sparkle residence. The two from earlier were obvious, but less obvious was the entire group of middle aged unicorn mares who for whatever reason had jogged the same block three times this morning. That in itself wouldn't be too strange as the neighborhood wasn't that large, but they dropped the jovial conversation the instant they passed from sight of the Sparkle house and picked it up once they were back in sight once more. As if their conversation was a play and the only audience member was Night Light.

“Amateurs,” she muttered.

Celestia was subtle, compared to most ponies, but to a seasoned changeling, her attempts at stealth were the half-hearted attempts of a fool. Still, this was a stark contrast from the last several hundred years of operation as she had always favored more straightforward and bombastic approaches. Grand works of magic that hampered stealth, and caused ponies in the area to be unable to lie, easily dodged by being duplicitous without outright lying. Solar agents outfitted with powerful armor so strong it turned a small squad of unicorns into a four pony wrecking crew, easily dodged for their enormous weight and the fact that they could be heard from a block away. These were only a few of the hammeresque attempts Celestia had made to try and ferret out the supposed terrorists.

The fact that she was attempting stealth at all had given Cadence pause for concern as the alicorn had bullheadedly tried the same brash and over the top plots for as far back as she could remember. If Celestia was changing her tactics now, after all this time, it obviously meant something big had happened. Cadence and her advisors had easily deduced that she must know of Twilight Sparkle’s survival, and was changing their approach out of fear.

The lights flickering within the near empty home alerted the changeling that her quarry was awake and moving about, drawing her from her reverie. The changeling flicked the page of the book she had been pretending to read and gave a quick glance around her. Sure enough, the park she sat in was relatively empty and most ponies gave the well-treed area she sat in a wide berth. With her position secure, she looked back down in time to see Night Light pass by one of the windows.

Judging from the time and the bleary eyed state he was in, he was probably heading to the shower. Giving the changeling about eight minutes to change position, as she had remained here for far too long already. The agent pushed the glasses further up her nose and closed her book, placing it in her saddle bags. She gave only a cursory glance around before heading off towards one of the smaller parks in the area that she knew would be empty at this time of morning.

As she walked, she pulled out every trick she had, scanning the area for emotions, using a remote viewing spell set fifty feet above her, and several other, more mundane techniques that ensured she checked for anypony who might be suspicious of her. Other than a child who was gaping at her from the window of a house, nopony had even given her a second glance. The changeling stowed a laugh, merely smirking as she passed within inches of solar agents without garnering even a second glance.

The energy she expended in order to cover her back was not small and using that much love in a short period was always a pain. In the end though she knew it was necessary, but some primal part still cried out every time she used so much love on something so small. As she walked to her secondary position, she lamented, not for the first time, the limits of the remote viewing spells they had placed around Night Light’s house as they needed the caster to remain in the area and outside.

She was a professional though and even with these limitations, she had more than easily managed to remain inconspicuous for several weeks without drawing attention to herself. Noticing the smaller park completely empty, the changeling trotted over to a more secluded area beneath a large oak tree. Plunking down under it, she pulled out her book and lit her horn, reactivating the remote viewing spell and bringing the Sparkle residence back into view.

She frowned, instantly noticing the fact that the stallion was standing in the front entryway of his house with his bags on his back and a piece of toast in his mouth. It seemed as though he had skipped his morning shower and chosen to go to work early, something not outside the realm of possibility, but still an unfortunate change to his schedule. The stallion stepped outside and locked the door behind him before tossing the last bit of burnt toast into his mouth and grimacing, drawing a chuckle from the changeling.

Evidently his cooking skills hadn't improved over the last few weeks and even a toast seemed out of his range of skill.

With his breakfast eaten, the stallion trotted towards the castle and Canter mountain itself. Moonlit grimaced, having just gotten cozy in her new spot beneath her favorite tree. She reluctantly packed herself back up and began her long trot to a cafe closer to Night Light’s work, which she knew would be open by the time she got there.

And so her day continued much the same way as it had began, with the changeling shifting from reading, to writing, to conversing with random civilians, all while keeping an eye on her charge through conventional or magical means.

His work day was average for the most part, with him arriving way before his coworkers and staying within his corner office for the most part, studying an odd comet the observatory had been tracking for several weeks. The changeling couldn't help but frown at the sight, it was obvious that he was lonely and hurting, but the few ponies who did try to speak to him did so in such an inelegant way that Moonlit cringed as she watched them flounder in their attempts to converse with the stallion.

All the while a veritable storm cloud of negative emotions followed him around everywhere he went. The agent didn't even have to be a changeling to see that he was still suffering as his mere body language told her.

It got to the point that the changeling was going out of her way to use more magical surveillance than normal, even if it ate up her love reserves as it allowed her to not have to be near the odd stallion. So oppressive was the miasma of negativity that merely being in his presence made her feel physically ill. The sadness was so consuming that the changeling couldn't help but wonder if there was something more going on. Grief was crushing, but this seemed even beyond that. She brushed aside the thought, choosing to bring it up later with her commander, rather than let it consume her while on the job.

When he had finally left work, he returned home late, his bags bulging with books of various subjects. From atop her magical perch, Moonlit could see several titles ranging from a set focused entirely on shield spells to ones on general magic and even one that likely contained the most advanced battle magic not outlawed by Celestia.

It was concerning to say the least, but Celestia always put backdoors into spells available to the public, allowing her agents to easily shut down any rogue spellcaster with ease. Which of course allowed Moonlit’s organization to do the same once they found those same loopholes. Still, the small selection of battle magic not outlawed was, for the most part, lacking the usual backdoors and loopholes that allowed it to be dismissed quite as easy.

The stallion was clearly preparing for something, but what exactly that was, Moonlit didn't know and as time passed, she only became more confused by what she saw.

Night Light lived up to his name that night, staying up late and only retiring several hours before the sun came up. During that time he spent almost every waking moment practicing various spells, rarely stopping for breaks or even to eat, causing his basement windows to light up with the occasional burst of light from his horn.

The changeling agent shook her head and sighed at the sight, this added another layer of complication, something Cadence wasn't going to like.

When the stallion had finally collapsed into his bed after a brief shower, he had fallen asleep almost instantly. With her charge incapacitated, the changeling got up and stretched, wincing slightly as her back popped and cracked along with her forelegs. The last few hours had seen her sitting and writing at an outdoor restaurant and by the end of it, her love reserves were low and her body was exhausted.

Shaking off the fatigue, she got up and made her way down the street, pausing only to exchange greetings with a mare she had seen frequent the same coffee shops as her. With no other distractions in sight, she made her way out of the royal quarter and proceeded down to the lower levels.

It didn't take long for the changeling to get back to the labor quarter of Canterlot and it took even less time for her to find a familiar path that lead to their secret headquarters. This entrance was different from most as the actual way of entering the secret sewers was within a resistance owned restaurant. Slipping past the cooks, the changeling slipped into the walk-in freezer, pulled a hidden lever and stepped down the staircase that had opened up in the center of the floor. Once down, she hit another lever, this one resealing the tunnel and indicating that it shouldn't be used for another twenty-four hours.

The musty, mold-filled caverns brought a sigh of relief to the mare and she picked up the pace, determined to catch Cadence before the mare was finally convinced to get some sleep. After exchanging a familiar password and passing by an increasingly familiar pair of guards, the changeling trotted happily up to Cadence’s door and knocked twice.

After a few seconds of silence Moonlit frowned, leaning against the door and extending her emotional detection into the room beyond. She could feel the familiar warmth of love within, but it obviously wasn't directed at her, more confusing was the fact that she could barely hear anything, even with her more advanced hearing.

The changeling shrugged and pushed her way into the room, slipping past an unseen sound barrier and stopping instantly. “Mother?!”

The blush nearly covering Cadence’s face suddenly vanished and she glanced over at the changeling with wide, panic-filled eyes. “M-M-Moonlit! I thought I told you to wait outside?”

Beside the scarred alicorn stood a miniature replica of Chrysalis, complete with missing horn and the branded heart cutie mark on her flank. She smirked at the younger changeling, her voice far more cheery than normal, “Oh, what's this? Moonlit, was it? Why don't you wait outside, dear, I was just in the middle of something with my little love bug.”

Moonlit glanced back and forth between the alicorn and the changeling, blinking rapidly. “What exactly is going on here, were you two…?”

Cadence blanched, the blush quickly returning to her features. “N-no!”

“Yes,” the queen said with a smirk.

Moonlit blushed as realization settled in. Her mother, Queen Chrysalis had been in the middle of what she could only assume was a very lengthy make out session as it had taken a second for the changeling’s tongue to extract itself from Cadence’s mouth. Moonlit’s legs finally seemed able to move again and she quickly backpedaled into the hall and shut the door.

Inside, Chrysalis chuckled while Cadence continued to blush profusely. “Did you see the look on her face? Priceless!”

“Queenie! Now she knows!”

“Knows what? That I am an excellent queen and capable smoocher?” The queen wiggled her non-existent eyebrows at the blushing alicorn.

“Smoocher, really?”

The changeling leaned closer. “Admit it, you find it adorable.”

“M-maybe. But that's besides the point! Shouldn't you be watching the asset?”

The queen shrugged noncommittally. “Meh, they camped early after attracting the attention of a pair of timberwolves.”

“Timberwolves? I thought you said they were keeping to the path?”

“Yeah, I’m going to have to look into that, something seems to be agitating them.” The changeling shook her head. “Regardless, I’ll give you my full report in a bit, I think we let Moonlit stew for long enough.”

“R-right.” The alicorn cleared her throat. “You can come in now, Moonlit!” Only to wait a few seconds and facehoof. “Right, the sound barrier.” She leveled her broken, sparking horn at the door and with a gentle glow of teal magic, the enchantment cracked and shattered. “Come in!”

The now undisguised changeling poked her head inside and breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh thank the stars.”

The queen giggled while the alicorn blushed.

Cadence coughed, destroying the awkward silence that had threatened to settle over the conversation. “Please, sit. What was so important you needed to tell me right away?” The alicorn gestured to the seat across from her while the queen took position very close to the alicorn’s right.

“I, erm… Are you two…?” The now sitting changeling rolled her hoof and winced.

“Fucking?” the queen offered.

“WHAT?” the field agent screeched.

The alicorn growled and lightly punched the queen in the shoulder with her good hoof. “Shh, you! Can't you see she's riled up enough as is it?”

The queen giggled while rubbing the sore spot. “Hey, it's not my fault she's the most pony-like of my children. She’s too easy to tease.”

The sitting changeling frowned, crossing her hooves. “Hey!”

“Now, Queenie, let's not start this again.” The alicorn smiled. “Please, continue with your report.”

“R-right. I just, well...” She shook her head, clearing her mind of unwanted thoughts. “The target went to work early, and came home late with a saddlebag of books. This wouldn't be too strange, but they were all books on spellcasting and ranged from shields to offensive magic.”

“Odd.” Cadence tapped her chin and turned to the queen. “What do you make of this?”

The other changeling shrugged. “I don't know. It's obvious he is still grieving… maybe he believes the official statement and is now trying to go all batmare on us?”

Cadence giggled. “I don't think a stallion as old as Night Light is going to, ‘go all batmare’ on us. Still, this is strange.” She looked over at the changeling agent sitting across from her. “If you are up for some more recon, I think I’m going to keep you on Night light for a little while longer.”

Moonlit blinked. “Really? But I’ve been shadowing him for weeks, isn't it about time to change operatives?”

“Yes, but I feel as though it's important to keep the same pony on him, at least until we figure out what he plans to do.”

The queen nodded. “I concur. Changing operatives now would be inopportune, best to figure out what he wants and then switch. In case he needs to be contained, or brought in.”

Moonlit gulped. “If those are your orders boss, I can get back on him tonight if you'd like.”

“Good thinking, I want around the clock surveillance. Take a love vial with you for tonight and I’ll have someone trained to be your second by tomorrow.” Cadence smiled, revealing her teeth. “Is there anything else?”

Moonlit looked down, shuffling her hooves awkwardly. “Kind of…”

Chrysalis nodded to the mare. “Speak, child. You must trust your intuition.”

“R-right.” The changeling sighed. “I think he may have had a spell cast on him, or perhaps a curse.”

The alicorn’s eyebrow raised and she leaned closer to the mare. “Are you sure? What happened?”

“I can't be certain, but he has an almost oppressive air of sadness around him that it makes me feel ill just to be near him.” Moonlit shook her head. “Even when he appears happy, the sadness is still there, just as intense.”

The queen shrugged. “He just lost most of his family and may feel as though he was abandoned by his son. It's only natural for a pony to be sad in this instance.”

“Are you sure it's not simply the loss of his loved ones?” Cadence asked.

“I am not so sure… Depression, sadness and grief are like other emotions, they come and go at times even if they may not feel that they do. This…” She shook her head. “Is not like that. Even while he sleeps I can feel that sadness weighing him down.”

Cadence grimaced. “That is strange… During sleep a pony’s emotional state fluctuates as their subconcious shifts.”

“That is odd,” the queen added. “If you find yourself close enough to detect a spell then do so, otherwise do not compromise your position, it's too dangerous.”

“Right.” The changeling nodded.

Cadence tapped her chin, leaning back in her chair. “Now… How do we get you close without causing suspicion. Oh!” Her eyes went wide and she leaned on the desk with her good hoof, a manic grin spreading across her face.

The queen rolled her eyes. “Oh no, not again.”

“Not again?” Moonlit asked.

“Yes, this is perfect! We’ll alter your cover story to include the fact that you are also my public persona’s assistant so when I visit him, you two can hit it off.” The alicorn giggled excitedly. “Oh, this is going to be so fun.”

Chrysalis pressed a hoof against her face. “Augh, please stop trying to hook my changelings up with ponies.”

“Wait, hook up? You don't mean…” Moonlit Echo gulped, casting a glance over her shoulder at the only way out of the room.

Suddenly the alicorn was inches apart from the changeling agent, her eyes sparkling. “Tomorrow you will accompany me to the Night Light’s residence and aid me in figuring out his plans, and if things go well, you two will be seeing much more of each other.”

Moonlit gulped. “A-alright boss, whatever you say.”

“Good!” The alicorn nodded. “Now, continue your watch after getting a little pick-me-up, then meet me at the corner of Sherbert and Castely at 10 A.M. sharp! Dismissed!”

The changeling leaped from her chair and saluted. “Yes, ma’am!” She quickly scurried from the room, trotting off towards the changeling barracks in search of something to help her stay up.

Now alone, with the door firmly closed and locked, the alicorn turned to the changeling and giggled excitedly. “Oh, this is going to be perfect, Queenie!”

The queen rolled her eyes. “If we did not benefit from their love so much, I would tell you to cut it out.”

“And you think I’d listen?”

The changeling laughed. “Probably not.”

Cadence held open her hooves expectantly, making the changeling blush. “You know I hate it when you cuddle my proxies like this.”

“You know I love it when you get all blushy.”

The changeling harrumphed, and crossed her hooves but ultimately allowed the alicorn to pick her up and hold her tightly. Cadence giggled, nuzzling the frowning changeling and occasionally kissing her cheek or neck. After a few seconds the queen finally relaxed, allowing the snuggly alicorn to pull her in closer.

The changeling sighed. “Alright Cadence, this one can't consume anymore love or else he's going to throw up all over you.”

The alicorn pouted and reluctantly placed the changeling back on the ground. “Fine. But when you get back, I am going to snuggle the shit out of you, understood, missy?”

The changeling shivered, a wave of arousal crawling up her spine. “You are ridiculous, I love it.”

Cadence giggled and sat back at her desk. “Alright, so what was your report again? Before we got uh… distracted.”

The queen hopped onto the chair across the desk. “I was trying to tell you that none of them have any idea I’ve been shadowing them.”

“Speaking of which, are you sure you are in a secure enough place to talk like this?”

The queen scoffed. “Of course! I have found a small cave not far from their camp and used the scrolls you supplied me with to create a temporary base of operations.”

“Right, sorry to doubt you. I was just…”

“Worried?” The queen scoffed. “Don't be. Even without the ability to disguise or use magic, I am still more than a match for these children.”

“That I don't doubt. So, tell me of this wolf problem.”

The queen frowned. “It's like I said, they seem agitated for some reason and completely heedless to harm, charging the purple one much to their detriment.”

“As a necromancer, she does have a connection to the undead wolves, but it shouldn't attract them, in theory anyway.” She shook her head. “If you have any idea why, please let me know.”

The queen nodded. “Of course. What should I do about the other group that is also shadowing them?”

Cadence frowned. “There was four of them, right, all thestrals?”

“Yes, though they seem to be meeting with one of those forest spirits occasionally.”

“Hmmm.” Cadence tapped her chin with a hoof, staring off into space. “I will get in contact with the cell placed in Ponyville and try to figure out who these mystery ponies are. In the meantime see if you can find out anything distinct about the other group. Markings, tattoos, you know the drill.”

The queen nodded. “What are you thinking, Cadence?”

“Well, I’m not saying it's them, but the Black Rose has been quiet for a long time and it would make sense for them to follow this particular mare.”

The queen scoffed. “Those old fools have been trying to raise the moon for centuries, why would they follow around those six?”

“Well, Twilight is a necromancer. Maybe they seek her help?”

“They have necromancers of their own, why seek one who is not even educated in the art?”

Cadence rolled her eyes. “You know as well as I that Twilight’s skill is far beyond that of a normal necromancer.”

The queen frowned. “That may be, but she has no training and knows not of her strength.” The changeling shook her head. “Regardless. Have you considered the possibility that they may be trying to get rid of her?”

The alicorn tensed. “Why do you say that? Surely they would not dispose of a possible asset.”

“Well, what if they believe she might raise the moon and maintain control of her?”

“Preposterous, no mortal, not even Twilight Sparkle could control the moon.”

The queen shrugged. “Yes, but do they know that?”

“I…” The alicorn withered slightly. “Don't know.”

The changeling shrugged. “Either way, I will keep an eye on them.”

“Good, no reason to get in their way quite yet, but that might be necessary. For now stay the course and gather info, we can decide what to do once we understand their motives.”

“You are quite the slave driver, you know? First you get me to chase down some ancient rocks for you, now you have me following around some child. I haven't had a break in months.”

The alicorn sighed deeply, her shoulders sagging. “I’m sorry, Chrysalis, it's just you are the only being I can really count on right now.”

The changeling made her way over to the other mare and placed a reassuring hoof on her shoulder. “Woah there, love bug, I was just teasing you. It's alright, really.”

Cadence took the changeling’s hoof in her own, pressing it against her cheek. “Sometimes I miss it, you know.”

“Miss what? Other than me?” The changeling smirked.

“Well that and sometimes I miss the days after our escape. Just you, me, and the open road.”

“... and the three hundred or so ponies desperately trying to chase us down and murder us.”

Cadence coughed. “That part I don't miss.”

“I know what you mean, my little love bug.” The queen took the alicorn’s chin in her hoof and pulled her close into a kiss. “It was simpler then.”

Cadence sighed. “Yeah…”

There they remained for several long moments, both mares holding each other and just being close to one another, drawing strength from the other’s proximity. “I should really go,” Chrysalis announced sadly.

“Must you?” Cadence pleaded, her wide eyes sparkling.

“You know I should. I have not checked up on them in over an hour, or the uninvited guests for three.”

The alicorn wilted. “You are right, Chrysalis. I suppose we should let Muddy Waters have his body back as well.”

“His name is not… you know what, it doesn't matter.” The changeling chuckled, shaking her head. “You ponies and your desire to name everything.”

Cadence winked, giving the queen one last kiss on the cheek. “You know it, Queenie.”

The queen reluctantly pulled away. “I miss it too. Maybe one day we can find some peace and quiet.” The changeling’s eyes closed and before Cadence had a chance to say goodbye, a wave of green fire cascaded over the bug pony’s body.

It revealed a slightly taller, male changeling who had his horn intact. As his eyes flickered open, to reveal not the clear distinct eyes of a queen but rather the faded blue of a drone, he suddenly stumbled forward. “Woow.”

Cadence chuckled. “Do you need help, Muddy?”

The changeling gripped the back of the chair tightly, slowly regaining his bearings. “No need, boss, just gotta get my head back on straight.”

“Take all the time you need.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” After his legs stopped wavering under him, he looked up at the alicorn with an odd expression. “Did you two really have to get all lovey dovey? It's gonna take me weeks to work all this love off.”

Cadence blushed and profusely. “I assure you it was necessary.”

The changeling shook his head and slowly trotted out of the room. “And why does my mouth taste like bubblegum?”

Moonlit Echo stopped just below the ladder leading to the surface. A quick glance told her that she had remained completely alone. Reaching into her bags, she produced a single vial of bright pink liquid that glowed faintly in the near complete darkness. The mesmerizing liquid twisted and turned inside the glass container, as if begging for release.

Still, after years of service she had yet to stop being amazed by the sight of pure liquid love, undiluted by lust or sadness and even directed at a changeling no less. She tipped the vial back, draining it in one gulp and shivering in sudden ecstasy.

The feeling of having pure love pumping through her system was the equivalent of gulping an entire pot’s worth of Mace’s worst/best coffee and everything suddenly burst into focus. She felt energized, but not artificially, it was as if she had just slept an entire eight hours, then ran around the base. With her body ready and her mind focused, she climbed up the ladder with confident, purposeful steps all the while shifting into one of her intermediary disguises.

A small pile of trash shifted around awkwardly before being hastily placed back in the same spot. A second later a pair of yellow eyes peered from around the side of the garbage, observing the oft used alley that lay hidden between a pair of decayed buildings near the lower east side of the labor quarter.

Such squalor would usually disgust most Canterlot ponies, but to a mare like Moonlit Echo it made sense, even if she didn't agree with it. Everypony couldn't be rich, couldn't be successful and couldn't have what they wanted, there simply wasn't enough wealth to go around and even if there was, who would be left to clean the streets and do other menial tasks?

The changeling pushed aside such esoteric rambling and checked her appearance.

Other than some dirt and grime that stuck to her hooves, her disguise was more or less perfect, with only a few hairs out of place that were quickly corrected. With that fixed, the changeling made her way out of the alley and towards the closest populated area.

Unfortunately for her, she didn't make it far before she was stopped by a trio of ponies moving to block her way. The changeling gritted her teeth and cast a quick glance over her shoulder. Sure enough, there was nopony else all round, guard or bystander alike. She took a step back and eyed the three ponies cautiously.

They were all young, barely old enough to have received their cutie mark. Two earth pony mares flanked each side of a slightly older, taller mare who carried herself with confidence. The earth ponies were shorter than the unicorn, but slightly larger, their cutie marks were of a brick, and switchblade. The taller, more angular unicorn sported a scar on her lip and rather disturbingly had a cutie mark that depicted the outline of a pony who had what looked like a knife plunged into its back. The unicorn rolled her toothpick to the right side of her mouth and smirked at the disguised changeling.

“Look what we got here girls, looks like someone is lost,” the leader remarked.

“Sure looks lost, boss,” the bright green earth pony to her right added.

“Wouldn't want that boss,” said the off yellow mare to her left.

“Quite right girls, so what do you say, stranger? Need a hoof in the right direction?” The unicorn tossed her mane to the side, shifting the long flowing mass of teal hair out of her way.

The small changeling bristled. “What are you, twelve? Shouldn't you be in school?”

The leader scowled at the changeling. “And shouldn't you know better than to antagonize ponies?”

“That just isn't nice.”

“And we were trying to be right friendly like too.”

The leader breathed easier, tossing her mane to the side again. “You look smart, just give us your bits and we will help you get to where you’d like to go. We'd do it for free, but these streets are mean, see?”

The changeling sighed. “Look, I don't have time for this. I’m giving you one warning, my employer would not like to hear I was late because a couple of punks got in my way.”

The goon to the left gulped. “I dunno boss, this one looks like she knows where she's going.”

The unicorn snorted and spat out her toothpick. “Why don't we give this pretty little thing a reminder as to why ponies tend to stay off our turf?”

The two earth ponies grinned, cracking their necks in unison. “Sure thing, boss,” they both intoned.

“Aww, pony feathers,” the changeling mumbled.

Time seemed to slow as the unicorn powered up her horn and her lackies both charged with hooves raised. As the milliseconds stretched on, Moonlit Echo pondered her options carefully. It wouldn't be too hard to knock the two punks out but they had seen one of her intermediary disguises, one that was supposed to belong to a middle class working mare who served a mid-tier noble. Though it was unlikely for these punks to go to the guard, it was a possibility, one that would ultimately bring a lot of scrutiny down on her. With the decision to flee made, she briefly scanned the area quickly before ducking low and sprinting to the right.

Time asserted itself once more, and both goons missed the dodging changeling, having opted to start the fight with clumsy haymakers. The unicorn was a little quicker on the draw, having opted for a simple mana bolt, which grazed the changeling’s flank a second before she disappeared down the alley.

“After her!” the leader called.

The changeling tossed a glance over her shoulder, noting that both earth ponies were chasing her while the third was strangely absent. The mana bolt burn had already healed itself in the several seconds of running, her love infused body quickly replacing the damaged tissue. The agent leaped over a pile of garbage before making a hard right, smiling as she heard the faint sound of cursing as somepony couldn't stop in time. The slim changeling was obviously far faster than the two bumbling earth ponies and within a matter of seconds, she was already outpacing the clumsier ponies.

Though they were losing ground, they didn't seem to care and continued to give chase, occasionally yelling insults or hurling debris at the running changeling. It didn't take long for the lead she had to become apparent, the two earth ponies still giving chase despite the fact that they were obviously outmatched. Wanting only to end this waste of time, the changeling leaped from the ground, kicked off a nearby wall and deftly hopped over a chain link fence nearly twice as tall as she was. The earth ponies quickly skidded to a halt, trapped behind the fence.

Knowing better than to just give up while ahead she decided to put a little more distance between her and the goons before turning and looking down the alleyway. Sure enough the two street ponies stared at her through the fence, massive grins on their faces. “Hey, flower butt!”

Moonlit blinked, only to remember that her false cutie mark was a baby’s breath arrangement. The changeling cocked her head to the side. “Yes?”

“What’s dumb and ugly and about to get splattered all over the pavement?”

Just as the changeling was about to pass off the insult as little more than the ravings of a madpony, her emotional senses began screaming at her, alerting her to a sudden burst of joy several feet above her head. With pure love still pouring through her body, she leaped back with more strength and speed than a normal pony should be capable of.

A second later there was a crack, and then a scream as the pony that had been about to land directly onto the changeling’s unprotected back instead landed hoof first into the stone ground. The changeling spared the screaming mare a glance before turning and running the opposite direction, ignoring the cries of her goons, the pool of spreading blood from the unicorn and the unnatural angle her leg was bent at.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid!” The changeling gritted her teeth and sprinted towards one of the more occupied junctions in the area, only stopping when she saw a small crowd gathered outside a club.

She spared a glance over her shoulder, but sure enough nopony had followed her. She placed a hoof against her forehead and sighed, mentally berating herself for her failure. Of course the unicorn had access to a forbidden teleportation spell! This was the labor quarter, there were no rules down here! Of course she would use that spell to her advantage and of course her goons were merely a distraction. She had been so hopped up on love that she had grown arrogant in her supposed victory and because of that arrogance she had nearly gotten her skull caved in by some run of the mill street punks.

The changeling placed a hoof to her chest and forced herself to breathe, using the breathing technique Chrysalis taught every one of her infiltrators. She looked up to find the group of ponies milling about the exit of the club giving her odd looks, a rather inebriated stallion already meandering over to her with a glazed look in his eye.

She chuckled at the sight of him, but quickly turned and trotted away before he even had a chance to try his best pick-up line on her. With the assurance of the wide open, and more importantly patrolled streets ahead of her, Moonlit Echo took a more leisurely pace up to the gate to the middle quarter.

Once close by, she ducked into a late night cafe, slipped into a bathroom and hastily checked her bags and, more importantly, the many enchantments and talismans tucked away inside that were ultimately responsible for her able to pass through the gates with ease. With that done, she quickly fixed her appearance in the mirror, took a drink from the sink and trotted back out, her head held high.

With everything secure, she quickly made her way up to middle Canterlot, or the so called merchant quarter. This time her passage through a quarter was unhindered and the few guards who gave her a second glance seemed more worried about the ponies around the mare than the mare herself. She chuckled to herself as she slipped through the crowd, glad to see that chivalry wasn't quite dead.

It didn't take long for the mare to get through the merchant quarter and up to the noble or upper quarter. Once through and away from the prying eyes of security spells and guards, she found a nice quiet park to change disguises and made her way towards the Sparkle residence.

Of course she didn't go straight there, that would be rather obvious. Instead she took a long, meandering path through the noble quarter, one that conveniently ended at her target’s street.

It was quiet, as one would assume if they were to walk the mostly residential streets of the noble quarter at night. Other than the odd guard or group of party goers returning home late, she was mostly left to herself, allowing her plenty of time to come up with a plan.

She walked slowly, her head down as she tried to think of some good excuse her cover would have to lurk near the residence. There were the parks, but they all had ‘no loitering’ signs outside, and she didn't want to have a run in with a guard, even if they would likely just tell her to go find somewhere else to sit. She hummed quietly to herself, not even noticing as an equally distracted being trotted right into her.

In her confusion the changeling was knocked clean off her hooves, leaving her stunned and confused as she looked up at a familiar sight, the apology she had automatically began to speak dying on her lips..

The older unicorn stallion rubbed his shoulder, wincing. “Wow, you are tougher than you look.” He lifted an eyebrow at the gaping mare. “You alright? I didn't bump you too hard, did I?”

Getting this close to her charge was not the plan, and now that she was here she was nearly overwhelmed by the all consuming sadness that seemed to reach out and grip the changeling’s very soul. “I-I’m alright I just I’m…” She gulped, trying her best to hold back the sudden surge of tears that came unbidden to her eyes. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”

The stallion sighed tiredly. “I appreciate your concern but… are you crying?”

The changeling wiped her face. “N-no I just... I have to go!” She got up and tried to brush past him.

But the stallion held out a hoof, blocking the changeling’s escape. “Wait, I never got your name. I’m Night Light, as you probably already know.”

The changeling blinked, looking down at the offered hoof awkwardly before giving it a weak shake. “I’m Moonlit Echo. I’m sorry, but I really must go.”

The stallion stood awkwardly, watching as the crying mare fled down the street. “Such a strange pony.” He looked down at the hoof he had offered, perplexed as to why she stuck out so much from every other pony that had offered their condolences.

Then it hit him. She was the only pony that seemed truly touched by what had happened to him, which only made him more distracted by her. Had she suffered and lost someone as he had? Or was she just one of the rare few who truly cared, and felt his sorrow as if it were her own?

He gave one last glance at the vanishing form of the strange pony before continuing his walk. He decided right then and there that if they ever met again, he would go out of his way to treat her in some way, it seemed only right. He blushed slightly, his thoughts consumed by the first truly kind act he had witnessed in what felt like forever. It reminded him of one of his wife’s stories she had edited a long time ago. In it the two lovers had met due to bumping into one another and here he was, doing the same thing like some sort of cliche romance novel character. A fierce blush suddenly overcame the stallion and he facehoofed as the realization had settled in. He had just knocked some poor pony over and not even apologized.

He spun around in place, ready to run after the mare, only to stop before he had moved more than a foot. The mare was gone, and the street was dark and empty, without a single soul in sight.

“Aw, pony feathers,” he cursed, before turning once more towards his late night goal.

The changeling placed a hoof against her chest, panting with the exertion and trying to catch her breath. It wasn't even that her body was particularly taxed, but rather it was her very spirit that felt heavy. Such sorrow, such sadness had come from the stallion that she couldn't help but feel her own fears and moments of desperation to come to mind with a disturbing clarity, and in that moment completely forgetting about her secondary mission.

Images of her first flight, of the death of her pony family and lastly the first mission she had ever gone on. All those strange thoughts and images had flashed through her mind and unsettled her stomach. Though tempted to empty her guts all over the alley, she could feel the eyes of another on her and she needed to move, painting the street with her stomach contents would have to wait.

She could hear the distant sound of wings and the soft, padded steps of somepony trying to be stealthy. Though they kept their distance, there was no promise that they would be happy simply observing her. So rather than take any chances, she beat a hasty retreat, using her years of experience to easily elude the less stealthy royal guards.

A half hour later and significantly more tired, she slipped into the side door of a hotel, exchanged coded messages with the receptionist and was rewarded with a key. Which, in turn, opened a door to a small safe house, tucked away behind a false wall in a janitor’s closet.

The room was small, barely able to contain two cots, a pile of boxes and an alchemy set, stocked with all the necessary components a field agent might require. None of which interested her in the slightest, other than the dirty cot and meagre blankets that covered it. After making sure to lock the room down tightly and to activate the defence wards and alarms, the changeling settled into the cot and after her stomach stopped turning, fell quickly to sleep.

Shining Armor was not a large pony, in fact some might think he was malnourished or perhaps had some sort of disability, none of which could be further from the truth. Now however, with his sister having been killed, the source of his demure stature was now gone, allowing the stallion to finally begin to add muscle mass for the first time in what felt like forever.

Still, he had a lot of bulking up to do and so far had only had several weeks to do said catching up, meaning that his attempts at sprinting were lackluster at best, and kind of pathetic at worst. For despite his will, and the small improvement he had seen, the truth was obvious, he was far behind his peers. To the point that even the overweight recruit who looked to have over a hundred and fifty pounds on him was now beating him in a simple race.

“Come on, Recruit Armor! I’ve seen mountains move faster than you!” shouted the drill instructor, who trotted several feet behind said recruit.

The overweight recruit wheezed a little harder, his lungs too overtaxed to actually allow him to laugh. “And that goes double for you, Stout Shield! You got no excuse for being such a butter ball!”

The round stallion picked his head up and ran a little faster, putting even more distance between him and Shining Armor, whose hooves were beginning to shake with exertion, and his breathing coming in short, rapid breaths.

The thunderous sound of hooves was rapidly picking up on the small stallion and within seconds the main group of his fellow recruits lapped him once more. Though the appearance of the drill instructor kept insults, and snide remarks to a minimum, Shining Armor could still hear a few scathing remarks about his ability as the group passed him by.

Shining Armor gritted his teeth and ignored the jabs of his fellow recruits, choosing instead to focus on the nearly all consuming desire to finish the damn test. Seconds became minutes and though the stallion could feel his legs becoming weaker and weaker, he refused to give up. Eventually everypony but him and Stout Shield had finished the race and still the gaunt stallion had yet to catch up to the much larger pony.

The drill instructor had grown quiet, only occasionally remarking about Shining Armor or Stout Shield’s lack of progress. Unknown to either recruit, the instructor was silently considering an alternative exercise plan and was watching the two closely, trying to gauge where exactly they most needed improvement.

Stout Shield had merely been lazy for the most part and other than diet and exercise, he didn't actually need anything special. Shining Armor on the other hoof required something much more focused and personal. A protein heavy diet, plenty of weight lifting, and perhaps even some alchemical assistance would be necessary to truly make him into a pony capable of fulfilling the duties of a royal guard. He had the bone structure, but lacked muscle or even fat, and the instructor couldn't help but grow concerned the longer he looked.

The recruit jogging and wheezing before him was clearly driven, perhaps more driven than even the rest of his fellow recruits and yet he was… emaciated, sickly even. How would a pony as driven as him end up in such a state? The instructor pushed such thoughts from his mind and peered over his aviators at the gasping and wheezing pony he had been tasked with training.

“You are almost done, Recruit Armor, don't you dare give up,” he barked.

“Sir, no sir!” the recruit shouted back.

The instructor’s frown deepened and he looked up, calculating that they had at least three hundred metres before the end of the little race and still the stallion was several metres behind the larger recruit. “Recruit Armor, if you do not finish this race before Recruit Shield, I will make you do this entire race again.”

“But sir-”

“That's an order, recruit, hop to!” the instructor shouted back.

The stallion gritted his teeth and looked up, noting that Stout Shield didn't seem to have heard their little conversation. His jaw clenched and suddenly the stallion broke into a sprint, nearly catching up to the other recruit before he was noticed.

Stout Shield blinked, looking back at the rapidly approaching form of the sickly stallion. “Stout Shield, if you finish last I’m halving your rations for a week. Am I understood?”

“Sir, yes sir!”

The two recruits exchanged a glance of determination before both poured themselves into one last burst of speed. Shining was small and a little faster than his larger counterpart, but Stout seemed to have a bit more endurance than the sickly stallion. All he had to do was pray his opponent ran out of energy before he passed the finish line and he was home free.

Seconds dragged on and the two stallions gained a surprising amount of onlookers, some of who were beginning to take bets on who would come in last. The instructor didn't seem to care, his eyes focused firmly on the two stallions who were by now nearly neck and neck. Shining Armor seemed to have lost whatever edge that had enabled him to catch up to the larger stallion though and the tiny lead he had was bleeding away.

“Your opponent is nearly twice your size. Recruit Armor! That sack of lard probably has more chins than you can shake a stick at and you are going to lose to him!”

The two stallions gritted their teeth, focusing on the last few seconds of the race. The instructor’s eyes narrowed, thinking about what exactly drove this strange recruit and how best to tap into that drive. “Recruit Armor, you will pass this pile of sentient fat this instant, that is a direct order!” he shouted.

The sickly stallion’s eyes shot open and something deep inside him clicked and before he even knew what was happening, he found himself breaking out into one last sprint. Stout Shield gaped at the other recruit’s sudden burst of energy, as up until now he had looked as though he may pass out at a moment’s notice. With the threat of seeing his already diminished portions shrunken even more, the large stallion threw on his own burst of speed.

The two stallions were neck and neck, the finish line closing fast and with only seconds left in the race. Stout Shield had managed to squeeze ahead a few times but every time he did, Shining suddenly burst into another sprint that put more distance between them. In the end, the larger stallion simply didn't have the will to keep trying in the face of such dominance and with mere metres left in the race, he slowed his pace and accepted the fact that he was going to be suffering through even smaller rations for the next week.

With his lead secured, Shining Armor sprinted into the finish line, his hooves giving out after several steps past the green line in the sand that indicated the race’s end. His chest heaved and his breathing was labored and a small part of him wanted to throw up but he had done it.

Stout Shield had enough energy to limp over to the grass before tumbling over into a heap and panting, leaving the instructor to walk up to the gasping stallion who lay sprawled out in the finish line. “Great work, Recruit Armor. I see much potential in you.” The grizzled old unicorn turned to the small group of recruits standing around the finish line, some of whom were exchanging small hooffuls of bits. “You two!” He pointed towards two of the only ponies who weren't a part of the impromptu gambling ring. “Haul Recruit Armor to the infirmary and tell the medic that he's to be treated for exhaustion.”

“Sir, yes sir!” the two recruits yelled back in unison.

“Good. As for the rest of you.” His eyes narrowed and an evil grin spread across his face. “Gambling is against guard protocol and the usual punishment is the lash, but I am a fan of punishments that fit the crime. So, you lot will be running this track until I manage to flick five bits and for all of them to turn up heads.”

“But that could take hours!” One recruit yelled back.

“And you will be running until I get bored of watching you suffer! Anypony else has something dumb to add?” The recruits all turned and began sprinting down the dirt track, leaving the instructor alone with a gasping Stout Shield.

He shook his head and walked over to the prone form of the pony before heaving him back to his hooves with a burst of telekinesis. “On your feet, recruit! Your training is done for today, so I expect you to get the hell off my track.”

The stallion nodded weakly, trotting wobbly towards the barracks, occasionally swaying back and forth every few steps. Now completely alone, the instructor watched the scrawny stallion get dragged towards the infirmary, his eyes twinkling behind his reflective sunglasses.

“Finally, Celestia sent me a pony with heart. It's about goddamn time.”

“Prisoner 11248, get up and prepare to receive Her Royal Highness, Princess Celestia,” a voice shouted.

“Whuh?” Sunset Shimmer muttered, her unfocused eyes only seeing a mass of gold and silver standing over her.

The voice sighed. “I said get up! You will have company soon and I will not waste Her Majesty’s time with scum like you.”

Sunset’s body felt distant, and there was a long delay from her brain telling her body to move and her body actually moving. After several seconds of weakly flailing for the edge of her blanket, she saw the blurry gold shape’s horn began to glow and suddenly a bucket of water was hurled over her.

“HOLY FUCK!” Sunset screeched.

The water was ice cold and thrown at her with enough force to cause her to get knocked off the small cot she had awoken on and tumble to the even colder stone floor of her cell. “What the hell, Sun Spear?”

The stallion snorted. “Sun Spear was my grandfather. Now get up and get ready for Her Majesty’s arrival, her time is precious.”

The cold unicorn wiped the water from her face and shakily got to her hooves. Her vision had cleared enough for the mare to see that she wasn't in her usual cell. I must have finally passed out. Sunset sighed, the memory of her most recent torture was still fresh in her mind, but Celestia’s magic kept such thoughts from becoming all-consuming, and pushed them away from the forefront of her focus. It was strange to feel such an integral part of her being manipulated through magic, but by now she was used to it, or perhaps that was the same spell working its way into her thoughts, either way she didn't know.

She gripped the meagre blanket she had been given and used it towel off as quickly as possible, robbing the ice water of most of its bite. As an afterthought she summoned her magic in an attempt to create a source of heat, only to find the usual mental block had stopped that before it could even actually happen. The mare sighed and went about it the old fashioned way by squeezing the water out of the thin blanket and wrapping it about herself.

The stallion turned and gestured towards the cot. “Sit. Her Majesty has indicated that she will be a few minutes, which will allow you enough time to eat.”

The mare nodded, sitting down on her cot and looking over to the heavy iron door where the implacable guard stood . Sure enough, a minute later an attendant had shown up with food in hoof and handed it over to her wordlessly before turning and leaving. He had the exact same armor as the rest of the guards and seemed exactly the same height as them as well, making identification impossible.

Still, it was interesting to know that her primary handler was no longer Sun Spear, which only gave rise to more questions. She grabbed the spoon on her plate and began the regrettable task of consuming the mashed up gruel they called food.

As she ate, her mind wandered to what she had heard from the guard. If Sun Spear was indeed this guard’s grandfather, then that meant a lot more time had passed than what she had thought. Her spoon stopped halfway to her lips as a thought occurred to her. If it's been that long since her last mission and there had been an indeterminate break between that one and the three missions before… How long had she been here? How old was she?

Sure, she had seen some changes in her brief travels in Canterlot, but the strings that bound her ensured she never wavered and never stopped long enough to even glance at a newspaper. There had been only a few notable changes in Canterlot, but other than the absence of a few businesses, there really wasn't anything to tell her how much time had passed.

The guard’s remark of his grandfather had truly been the first time she really had an inkling of the passage of time. Though Celestia had used to tell her how much time had passed since she had been woken up, she had stopped doing that a while ago.

Just how long had she been on Celestia’s leash? It was easily over a hundred years, but how big was that number? Two, three, or maybe even four hundred years? Was her sentence over, or was that merely a ruse Celestia had abandoned over time as she grew bored of it?

The mental magic kicked in and shunted that line of reasoning out of the forefront of her mind and she slowly began to eat once more, the moment of panic now behind her. She gulped down the last of her food quickly, knowing full well what would happen if she wasted anymore time.

With her food done, she placed the metal bowl and spoon at the end of her cot and sat on the other side, allowing the stallion to pass them off to another guard who had been just outside the door. The two guards exchanged a quick, silent conversation which ended with the first guard nodding and the second disappearing once again. This time the door did not close and the guard stepped outside.

“Her Majesty will be delivering your next assignment in the situation room, stand still,” he commanded.

The mare sighed, knowing what would come next, but unable to do anything about it. The guard approached and fastened a collar around her neck before attaching a leash to that and placing an inhibitor ring on her horn. All of which seemed unnecessary as the mental blocks placed on her stopped any unallowed spellcasting already. Then again, the entire thing wasn't about necessity as she could not willingly leave anyway, which made the collar and leash obvious tools of humiliation.

“Follow me, prisoner.”

The mare lowered her head, already feeling her legs getting out from under her and carrying her to the door before she even chose to move. The guard moved quickly, occasionally tugging at her leash and urging her to go faster. Which she complied with instantly, trotting behind the guard as he made a beeline for the situation room that lay much deeper into the underground complex.

The only sound was the clank of his armored hooves as they impacted floor, the only light the meagre magical torches that lined the walls and the glowing gold magic that held her leash aloft. The dull grey stone walls and numerous iron doors lining the hall gave way after they made a turn and climbed a spiral staircase. After passing another group of similarly armored guards, they walked through a brief security checkstop and after a short scanning spell were admitted past a large, rune-bound steel door.

Within was a large round table above which a magical representation of Equestria floated. Other than Sunset Shimmer and her guard, the room was occupied solely by the domineering presence of Princess Celestia herself. She seemed distracted, her gaze lingering on the floating map as she tapped her hoof on the table.

“Sunset Shimmer, it's about time.” Celestia turned to the pair and flicked her head towards the door.

The guard nodded and turned to leave, sealing the door once he had passed through it. The leash that had fallen slack when the guard had left was quickly picked up by Celestia’s magic. “Come here and look at this.”

Sunset ground her teeth, but did as she was told, maneuvering to the other side of the table and allowing her a view of the map. On it was a zoomed in view of Equestria with Canterlot at the top left, the rest of the map almost completely dominated by the Everfree forest.

“Tell me, Sunset, what do you know of the Everfree forest?” Celestia turned to the mare, gazing down at her appraisingly.

Sunset wanted to say something snarky like, It's the one place in the world not under your iron hoof. But her lips betrayed her, already moving without her consent. “I know everypony avoids it and that although Equestria surrounds it, nopony lives there and no colonists have tried to live there in centuries. It's also the only place on Equis where wild magic springs forth naturally.”

Celestia nodded. “That is true. It is also the last place on the entire planet that has access to the knowledge of necromancy.” Her eyes narrowed and she glared down at the unicorn. “Which is where Twilight Sparkle currently resides. Do you understand my distaste, Sunset Shimmer?”


The alicorn’s glare lingered for a few seconds longer before she finally turned back to the map. “You will be dropped here.” She pointed to a point on the map north east of the forest, a few kilometres away from Canterlot, near the winding Canter river. “That is the last point our long range scanning spells could detect her magic. You should be able to pick up the trail from there.”

“What makes you think I’ll even be able to pick up a trail? She was dead, her heart crushed and her body tossed off a cliff.” Sunset remarked with a roll of her eyes.

Celestia yanked the leash hard enough to choke the mare, dragging her over to the raging alicorn, who gripped her neck in both hooves. “Think for just one second and tell me why it's significant that her magic was picked up there.”

Sunset struggled to breathe, wanting nothing more than to fight back and free herself from the alicorn’s grip, but unable to lay a hoof on the princess due to the magical conditioning. Her mind whirled with possibilities as to the significance before her realization settled in.

“Magic is only found in living things.” The unicorn managed to squeeze out before the pressure suddenly vanished and she found herself on the ground panting desperately.

“Exactly, so if she was killed, and her magic was picked up, then…” She rolled her hoof, gesturing for the unicorn to finish the thought.

“That means somepony reanimated her or she wasn't dead.”

The alicorn nodded slowly. “Exactly. I don't know the specifics of necromancy, but I know enough that the sudden reappearance of her magic signifies something terrible.” She jerked her head towards the door. “Now go, the good sergeant will have all the supplies you need for the journey. You are allowed to use any methods necessary to ensure the target has been put down permanently, which means incineration.”

Sunset got to her knees and rubbed her neck awkwardly. “R-right.”

“You will also be allowed to kill anything that gets in your way. You are not to even think of any information that will lead her back to me, if questioned and if you are detained or captured you will activate the harakiri protocol.”

“You can't be serious, Celestia I’ve followed every order you’ve ever-!”

“Be silent.” The unicorn’s mouth clacked shut. “These orders are not up for debate, now go. I want that thing removed from my world and I want it done yesterday.”

Sunset nodded once and turned towards the door, her eyes burning with hatred that she could not give voice to. She crossed the room in silence, her leash dangling between her legs. As she reached for the door, Celestia spoke once more, only this time her voice wasn't quite as deep, and it strangely lacked the barely contained rage that it usually did.

“Sunset, wait!” The unicorn blinked, stopping dead in her tracks and turning toward the alicorn. “I’m sorry she's done this. I authorize you to be released from your-mf!” The alicorn’s hoof shot up and covered her mouth suddenly.

The alicorn yanked her head to the side while her other hoof grabbed her other forehoof and tried to remove it. All over her body muscles twitched seemingly at random and often times contradictory, as if she were trying to move in two different directions at once. The alicorn seemed to wrestle with herself for several seconds, both sides vying for dominance as one side tried to remove the hoof from her mouth while the other turned any attempt at magic into a shower of sparks while keeping their mouth shut.

Through it all Sunset stood baffled by the sight. Was this some sort of trick? Another cruel joke by the twisted alicorn who had eagerly revelled in her suffering? The alicorn’s face twisted from one of rage, to one of fear then back to rage in the span of milliseconds. Then it stopped all at once, leaving the alicorn panting and a slick line of sweat covering her brow.

“Go, now!” the alicorn growled, her burning, hate-filled eyes instilling an almost primal fear within the mare.

Sunset Shimmer’s hooves shot out from under her, and only when she was out of sight of the alicorn did she slow down and glance over her shoulder.

“What the hell was that?” she muttered.

Friendship is

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“That sure was nice of Pinkie to go out of her way and help us out. Couldn't have been easy what with her missing righty again,” Applejack remarked, ducking under a branch in the path.

Twilight ducked under the same branch, following the other mare close behind. “Yeah, though it makes me wonder just how often this happens if everyone knows she calls her right hoof righty.”

Rarity rolled her eyes, following the example of the female in front of her and pushed the branch aside with her magic. “Pinkie Pie loses her leg so often I’m pretty sure the guard have a pool on how she's going to lose it the next time.”

Rainbow Dash laughed in an oddly triumphant manner. “Yup! And I was the one who put her money on timberwolf and won big. Those big wigs had everyone convinced that it wouldn't be timberwolves again, but I just knew she'd run into more trouble.”

Fluttershy frowned, and shook her avian head. “That doesn't sound very nice, even if it's true…”

The other four beings chuckled at the spirit’s remark, Rainbow Dash a little harder than the rest only to stop suddenly, a curious expression on her face. “Hey, ya think if we found all her legs we could make a second Pinkie?”

Rarity gagged audibly. “Augh, why on earth would you think such a thing?”

“Yeah, and she'd be all leg so it wouldn't work,” Twilight remarked dryly.

“I don't know girls…” Rainbow Dash said, with the biggest shit-eating grin anyone had ever seen. “I think she'd be… all right! Bwaha!”

The rest of the party groaned in unison, with Rarity even massaging her temples and trying to work out the beginnings of a migraine.

Applejack snorted in annoyance, rolling her eyes at the dry pun. “I swear if you make one more pun, not even those leathery wings a yours are gonna save ya from these hooves!”

The thestral rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. You'd never catch me and even if you did, I am a guard. You ever trained for combat before, huh?”

The apple farmer stopped and looked up at the thestral, eyeing her up and down. “I could take her.”

Twilight giggled. “Yeah, I wouldn't piss her off if I were you, Rainbow Dash.”

Rarity hid a chuckle. “Her family is the toughest bunch around…”

Rainbow Dash flapped her wings and surged ahead of the group, looking over the line of ponies with a shocked expression. “What? None of you think I could take her? Come on Fluttershy, back me up here.”

The pigeon resting in the branches of Applejack’s tree looked away, hiding beneath a wing. “I don't want to think about my friends beating each other up.”

Rainbow Dash withered and landed before the group, walking backwards as she talked. “Sorry, Fluttershy. We’ll talk about this later, farmer.” The thestral spat, before launching back into the air and resuming her scouting.

Applejack merely rolled her eyes, much to Twilight’s confusion, who couldn't help but ask. “Why did she say farmer with such… vitriol?”

The apple farmer shrugged her massive shoulders, jostling the tree on her back. “She's from Cliffsdale, last I heard those folk don't much appreciate farmers. Something about it being unnatural and that hunting and foraging is the only way to live.”

Fluttershy sighed, flapping down from her perch and resting on Applejack’s hat. “It's true, a lot of thestrals and other creatures that live there don't think farming is a good thing.” She frowned, which was quite the accomplishment as her current body had a beak and no lips. “Some even go so far as to claim that any attempt at planting anything is going against the will of the forest.”

The unicorn trotted up next to the pair, sparing a glance at the pigeon. “What, so they never plant anything? How do they survive?”

“They hunt and forage,” Fluttershy remarked simply. “Cliffsdale gives you a good vantage point to survey miles of forest which makes it easy to find food.”

Twilight furrowed her brow at the remark, trying to imagine a massive cliff city, only to think of Canterlot. “I mean I guess, but this place sounds like there are a lot of pon- I mean beings that live there. Surely they don't all survive on hunting and foraging?”

“Oh, I know this one,” Rarity offered, skittering closer to the group. “Many different kinds of mushrooms grow naturally in the cave system deep inside Cliffsdale. It's also where this lovely kind of thread comes which is made from the cap of a sagarius mushroom.”

Twilight blinked. “Huh.”

“That about answer yer question?” Applejack asked.

Twilight thought about it, staring off into the darkness of the wood. “Sorta, but I’m more curious as to why some beings believe the forest is some sort of… god.”

Applejack hummed thoughtfully. “Well, most folk don't treat it like a god, more like a neighbor.”

“Or a spirit,” Rarity offered.

“Or a-” Fluttershy was about to say, only to be interrupted by the swooping form of Rainbow Dash landing in front of them, a strange look on her face.

“You guys are not gonna believe this,” she announced.

Rarity rolled her eyes. “What? Did you belch really loudly again?”

“What, no. I mean, yeah I did but that's not what I’m talking about.” The thestral pointed further up the path enthusiastically. “Come on, you’ll see.”

The four beings shared a glance, shrugged, and followed the excited thestral who had flown ahead, but never out of sight. Twilight shifted a little closer to the tree-bound pony, and the pigeon on her head. “Hey, uh Fluttershy? When is Owlicious going to come back?”

The pigeon turned and smiled at her friend. “He said he's going to be back this morning, he needs to catch a nap and some mice.”

Twilight nodded slowly, her gaze lingering in the direction she imaged the owl was.

After a few minutes of walking, they came upon a sudden crossroads, where the path diverged in two directions.

Applejack stopped first, her jaw falling open. “Well I’ll be… I’ve walked this trail a hundred times and never seen this before. The forest sure likes throwing curve balls at ya, don't it?” she asked, turning to Twilight.

The unicorn groaned and kicked the dirt. “I don't want more excitement! Just answers.” She growled and threw a rock, venting her rage by whipping the hoof sized chunk of stone into the woods with all the strength she could muster.

Rarity tapped her chin and walked towards the right path, only to stop and do the same to the left. “Interesting… I’ve seen the forest do this before, but usually the paths are the same, and end up leading to the same place. These however, are much different.”

Fluttershy inspected the paths as well. “That's really strange, I wonder what it means.”

Twilight followed the other two’s lead and inspected the trails. The one to the right seemed to extend almost straight out of the main path. It was also even, well cared for and had the symbols that Pinkie Pie said would ward off danger, which had so far been less than helpful. The other path was the polar opposite, it was narrow, dark, overgrown, and went almost completely straight left and up a hill.

“Which way did you say the castle was?” Twilight asked.

Rarity pointed almost perfectly down the right path. “I think it's that way.” Fluttershy nodded her ascent as did Rainbow Dash.

Applejack didn't seem so sure and had pushed her hat back to scratch her head. “It doesn't feel right.”

“Doesn't feel right? I do hope you have some sort of facts, darling.”

“I’m with Rarity on this one. This one seems to go right where we want to go,” Twilight added.

“Look. I can't really explain it, but I’m gonna need y'all to trust me on this. That right path doesn't go where you want it to go,” Applejack stated.

Rainbow Dash landed with a dull thud, staring the farm mare up and down with barely contained annoyance. “Really? That's the best line you got? Trust me?” The thestral rolled her eyes.

“What Rainbow is trying to say is that all the evidence points to this path. Why should we trust you, exactly?” Rarity asked, attempting to put it delicately.

“Ah know this forest, and ah got a feeling. My gut is telling me left,” Applejack stated, head held high.

Fluttershy shook her head. “But the right path goes straight towards the castle. Why would someone make a path that goes to where we want to go only to not end up going there?”

The conversation devolved into the group argument, while Twilight stood stock still, staring intently at the apple farmer and trying to read her intentions. The unicorn had never been the best with the more social areas of study, but something about the way the half plant, half pony spoke instilled a confidence in the unicorn. Those emerald orbs of her held within them the same honest purity that they did on the day they met and something about the way they twinkled told Twilight all she needed to know.

“Look, ah can't explain it, but-”

“I trust her,” Twilight interrupted.

“Wait, ya do?” Applejack asked, dumbfounded.

“You do? But why?” Rarity added.

The unicorn shook her head. “I don't know, but would Applejack knowingly lead us astray?”

“Well no…” Rarity admitted. “I may not know the Apples very well, but they have always been honest and kind whenever we had dealings in the past.”

Fluttershy looked from Rarity to Twilight and finally to Applejack. The pigeon nodded, flapping her wings and settling back into Applejack’s tree. “I trust her,” the bird stated.

“You can't be serious,” Rainbow Dash lamented, gesturing towards the right path with both forehooves. “Look at that path! It's perfect! I even took a look from above and it looks like it goes straight there.”

“But do you know it goes straight there and doesn't veer off?” Twilight asked.

The thestral frowned. “Well no, but neither do we know for sure that the left doesn't do that either!”

Applejack trundled toward the left path, ignoring the thestral’s comment. “Y’all coming?”

“Right behind you, darling.”

Twilight nodded, following the arachne.

Leaving Rainbow Dash to stand in the middle of the crossroads, shaking her head. “Stars above,” she muttered before reluctantly following the other four beings down the twisting, rocky path.

The tree cover was dense on the left path, forcing Rainbow Dash to walk with the rest of them or fear being split up by the chaotic and winding wood. The path only grew more winding, dense and rocky as time went on, forcing them to walk single file and slow to nearly a crawl as they dodged around rocky outcroppings, strange flowers and dense vegetation. All the while Rainbow Dash grumbled her annoyance every time she so much as bumped her hoof on a rock or nearly got her wing caught in a branch.

The thestral stumbled out of a thick bush that grew in the middle of the path, spitting leaves out of her mouth and trying to pull a branch that had somehow got lodged in her helmet. Only for the mare to run right into the back of the purple unicorn. “Hey, what's the big deal? Why did you stop?”

Twilight tugged the branch out of the thestral’s helmet and tossed it aside. “Look,” she said simply.

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes and looked around, only to notice the trail had suddenly gotten a lot wider. “What the..” she muttered, until finally seeing what exactly Twilight was pointing at.

There on the nearest tree was another charm of Pinkie’s design, glowing faintly in the moonlight. “What in Tartarus?” the guard muttered.

Applejack smirked, walking up to the thestral with a huge grin on her face. “Got anything to say now?”

The guard just shook her head. “I guess you were right.”

Applejack smiled. “Well maybe next-”

“This time anyway,” the guard added, before launching into the air with a smirk.

Applejack tore off her hat and stomped on the offending clothing until it was nearly invisible due to the sheer amount of mud and dirt on it. “Consarnit, Rainbow Dash, just admit you were wrong, you bull-headed mule!”

Twilight winced and draped a hoof over her friend’s shoulder. “You were right, Applejack.”

The apple farmer sighed, picking her hat off the ground and trying to knock off some of the dirt and mud that clung to it. “Thanks Twi, guess I let that featherbrain get to my head. No offence,” Applejack added, nodding to Fluttershy who merely shrugged.

“None taken.” The bird fluttered over to the tree on Applejack’s back and settled in. “I’m sure she didn't mean to be so rude.”

Rarity rolled her eyes. “It sure seemed like she did.”

The bird sighed, fluffing her wings. “I think work is putting more pressure on her again. She doesn't usually lash out like this.”

“What do you mean, Fluttershy?” Twilight asked.

The bird opened and closed its beak a few times, seemingly searching for what to say. “She has gotten in trouble with work before for helping beings that didn't think they needed the help.”

Applejack finished dusting her hat off and plunked it down on her head, choosing to ignore the fact that it was still covered in a fair amount dirt. “Well, she doesn't have to take it out on me. Come on y'all, were burning moonlight here.”

Twilight sighed, pulling back from the apple farmer and watching as her and Rarity continued down the path before joining them a few seconds later.

The next few hours of walking were surprisingly uninteresting, with Rainbow Dash only popping in every fifteen or so minutes in order give the four beings a brief scouting report before taking to the canopy once more. Twilight couldn't help but notice that Applejack’s anger bled off in a few minutes and by the second time Rainbow Dash flew back in, the apple farmer didn't even flinch or tense up. Which was encouraging to see, as Twilight was worried about their chances if their guide and their guard were suddenly at each other’s throats.

With such a lul in danger and the wide, even path, the unicorn was able to do her favorite thing in the world, studying. At first she stared intently at all the many types of flora and small fauna that crossed their paths, but quickly grew frustrated by just how truly chaotic the forest was.

Mushrooms grew on the sides of trees, despite the fact that such a thing should be impossible for that particular species. Small rabbits crossed their path, only to turn and look at the group and reveal the fact that they had fangs and horns. Birds Twilight knew belonged in much warmer climates shared branches with avians from colder climates, which was also ignoring the fact that the two were apex predators and should be at each other throats.

In the end Twilight gave up her meager attempt at studying the forest and instead turned to Rarity who was humming softly to herself as she weaved some sort of design with only a few threads of colored string. The spider pony twisted her hooves this way and that, moving them up and down at odd angles, somehow managing to weave a small cloth of some kind that appeared to have a spider web design. It was small, but getting larger every second as the arachne fed more string into her weaving, and as Twilight watched, it grew to become a moderately sized handkerchief in a matter of minutes.

“Wow Rarity, how do you do that?” Twilight asked, pointing to her creation.

“Oh, this little thing? A little magic, and a little dexterity is all.” With a flourish of her small horn, the strings all fed into the central mass, tying up all the loose ends and completing her handkerchief.

“That's quite impressive, such fine control is usually rare even amongst the most powerful unicorns,” Twilight remarked.

The arachne stiffened somewhat, unsure how to take the other being’s remark. In the end her shoulders relaxed at the sight of the childlike wonder in Twilight’s eyes. “Thank you, darling.”

“I wonder if we could-”

Applejack stopped suddenly and held up a hoof. “Whoa there girls, somethin’s off.”

Twilight looked around, noticing only that most of the trees growing around them were short, and rather stubby-looking. “What is it Applejack?” she whispered.

Rarity gulped, her eyes scanning their surroundings. “Please tell me it's not another timberwolf.”

The apple farmer shook her head. “Something feels off about the ground, like it's recently been disturbed. Don't move.”

Twilight glanced down nervously, noticing that Applejack was indeed telling the truth as the ground all around them seemed to have been dug up recently, the earth uneven and broken but done in such a way that they couldn't tell until they were right on top of it.

From atop her perch on Applejack’s hat, Fluttershy gulped and looked down. “Should I find Rainbow Dash?”

Applejack shook her head. “No, that would only make things worse, we need to move slowly to the edge of this pit one at a time. No sudden moves.” The other beings nodded and Applejack raised her hoof slowly, preparing to inch her way towards the edge of the disturbed earth.

Only to be interrupted by the swooping sound of a pair of batlike wings. “Hey girls, you’ll never believe what I found! There is a whole mess of rainberries a few minutes ahead!” Rainbow Dash broke through a hole in the canopy, landing with a thump in the center of the group and receiving a glare from everyone. “What?”

Before anyone had a chance to say anything, the ground beneath them gave out and all at once the five beings were suddenly airborne. For a moment the world became a mess of flailing limbs, dirt and screaming as every being tumbled end over end into the pit below. Wings got tangled, magic fizzled as the two horned beings were battered with falling earth.

Ground was suddenly under them once more, except it was not the soft flat earth they had been hoping for and with a chorus of cries they all bounced sideways as the tunnel bent to the right. Twilight for her part did everything she could think of to protect her horn and brace, not wanting to imagine just how much a horn repair or a replacement brace would cost her.

Then just as quickly as it had started, the five friends found themselves airborne once more. Twilight opened her eyes hesitantly, catching a few rays of moonlight before she landed in a heap in the dirt, her jaw bouncing off the cold hard ground.

The unicorn rubbed her chin lightly, her head swimming as her eyes seemed to roll around in their sockets. She could hear a chorus of groans all around her as the rest of her friends voiced their displeasure and she looked up just in time to see Applejack’s hat float down and land directly on her head.

Rarity was the first to rise, giving her entire arachnid body a once over, and silently cursing at the many scuffs she had suffered and dirt that clung to her. She turned to the rest of her friends, forcing down the voice in her head that raged at being dirty. “Is everyone alright?” she asked hesitantly, after giving her mane a brief comb.

Twilight groaned, placing a hoof against her head in a vane attempt to stop the pounding therein. “I think I’m alright,” she muttered.

The unicorn heard the pitter patter of many legs as the arachne made her way over to the unicorn, and extended a helping hoof to the fallen mare. “You look alright darling, let's get you standing and see if you are injured.”

Twilight nodded, reaching up to the hoof and allowing the surprisingly strong spider pony to hoist her to her hooves. A quick pat down revealed that her lanky body was exactly the same as it was, save for being covered in dirt and a suffering few bumps and scratches. “Yup, seems like it,” she answered, then pushed some power into her horn and watched as it lit up properly without causing her any discomfort.

They both glanced over to Applejack who lay in a heap off to the side, a pained expression on her face as she looked back to her tree. “Consarnit.” She cursed, reaching out and poking the broken branch and wincing.

“Is Fluttershy alright?” Twilight asked, her head spinning, unable to find a glimpse of the bird.

“I’m fine,” came a small voice from inside Applejack’s tree.

Twilight sighed and walked over to the tree-bound mare and peered within the mess of branches. She lit her horn and gently parted the branches, causing only a tiny wince from the apple farmer. There in the midst of the mess of branches and leaves was the bird, who was now thoroughly tangled, but did not seem to be any worse for wear.

The bird nodded slowly, her teal eyes filled not with pain or fear, but simple confusion. “I’m fine, but I seem to be a little stuck…”

Twilight chuckled at the oddly cute expression on the bird’s face. Using her magic, the unicorn tried to move as few of the tree’s limbs as possible while extracting the bird. Once free from her organic prison, the bird sighed before giving its feathers a fluff and picking out a clinging leaf. “Thanks ,Twilight,” Fluttershy said.

Twilight nodded, giving her companions another once over. Rarity seemed fine and was busy fussing over her frazzled mane while Applejack poked the semi-broken branch morosely. “Are you alright, Applejack?”

The farmer shrugged. “Need to break it the rest of the way or else it will only get worse.”

Twilight gulped. “Do you need help with that or-”

With a quick flick of her hoof the branch broke and clattered to the ground. The apple farmer grunted in pain, her jaw clenched tightly. “Nah, I’ve taken a tumble enough times to know what I’m doing. Thanks though.”

The unicorn nodded before suddenly realizing something. “Where is Rainbow Dash?”

Twilight spun suddenly, alerted by a mound of earth behind them shifting suddenly. With a mighty heave the dirt went flying in all directions as the thestral guard exploded from the small mound. Instantly she landed into a defensive posture, the one eye not obscured by her off-centered helmet scanning her surroundings. “What's going on, who’s there?”

The thestral blinked, suddenly realizing her helmet was skewed and fixing it with a grunt. Twilight rolled her eyes and gave the guard a look. “Are you alright, Rainbow Dash?”

The guard shifted from hoof to hoof, checking her limbs and armor. “Seems like it…”

Twilight nodded, looking around them and finding a sheer rock wall on one side and the forest on another. Along the wall about five feet off the ground was a large circular hole that they had no doubt emerged from. “Where are we?” she muttered.

Rainbow Dash looked up, trying to peer through the canopy. “We couldn't have gotten far, we were only falling for a few seconds.”

“Um, girls, I think we got bigger problems,” Fluttershy’s tiny voice pointed out.

The guard and the unicorn both turned as one, to where a large manticore had emerged from the tree cover. Twilight took a step back as Rainbow Dash flew forward. “Stay back Fluttershy, I can handle this.”

“Wait, Rainbow Dash, don't!” Fluttershy pleaded, only for the guard to whizz past her.

The maneless lion head swiveled to the sound of the voice, its eyes going wide for a moment before narrowing almost instantly. Its wings flared, making it appear much larger than it actually was. Its stinger pulled back, ready to strike. Rainbow Dash wasn't intimidated by the display however and barreled toward the manticore with all the speed she could muster. All in order to deliver a devastating punch to the manticore’s cheek, causing the beast to recoil backwards, surprised by the force behind its flying foe. She would have drawn her blade, but she knew well the ramifications that came with killing a creature of the forest.

Rarity, who had pulled back after the initial appearance of the yellow and red beast scurried forward the instant their guard had rushed in. The arachne threw a ball of web directly at the beast’s face, the ball unraveling mid flight and clinging to the creature, obscuring its vision. “Take that, you ruffian!”

“Come on girls, we gotta help Rainbow Dash!” Applejack announced, charging headlong into the fight.

Leaving behind a confused unicorn and an irate bird who fluttered angrily. “Wait, girls don't attack it, it's just-”

The bird was forced to duck suddenly as Rainbow Dash flew through the air, knocked aside by a wild backhand from the enraged beast. The manticore roared in pain and confusion, one paw swiping randomly while the other clawed at its face, trying to free its eyes from Rarity’s web. Applejack used the distraction to charge low, delivering a powerful buck to the creature’s back leg in an attempt to trip the great beast. Unfortunately for the apple farmer, the manticore was tougher than even the wild apple trees of her farm and it shrugged off the blow and forced the farmer back with a series of wild strikes with its tail.

“Whoa nelly,” the farmer muttered, taking a few quick steps back, narrowly dodging the poisonous stinger.

Rarity reluctantly skittered back as well, her second ball of web being knocked harmlessly aside by the beast’s thick paws before it ripped the entire netting from its face with a lucky swipe. With a triumphant roar the beast looked down, searching for its prey, quickly finding the five beings huddled back near the rock wall, trapped and defenceless.

“What do we do?” Rarity yelled, gripping a shaky Rainbow Dash by the shoulders and shaking her even more.

The thestral’s head lolled around on her shoudlers, her thoughts scrambled after her brain had been bounced around in her skull. “The snozzberries taste like snozzberries,” she muttered, a dumb expression on her fanged lips, as her eyes rolled around in her head.

Rarity sighed, only now noticing the dent in the thestral’s helmet. “Great, the one being who knows how to fight and she catches a rock to the head.”

Twilight rolled her eyes and lit her horn. The strange unlight flared to life briefly, causing the manticore to stop and stare in confusion. A second later a large domed shield made of deep grey light suddenly lit up, surrounding the five beings just in time to absorb a tail strike from the manticore. The unicorn winced, her legs nearly buckling under the recoil of the blow.

“I can't hold it for long! You girls better have a plan!” she cried, falling to one knee as the manticore slashed the shield with its enormous, dagger-like claws.

“Girls!” the bird screamed suddenly, getting the other beings’ attention just as they were about to launch into another argument. “Listen to me, I know a way out, but its going to sound crazy.”

Applejack looked from the bird to Twilight, an action the rest of the group mirrored as well. The unicorn grimaced, her expression darkening and her eyes beginning to glow with a black, aetherial light, which increased as she fed more and more power into her horn. “I don't know! Just listen to her!” she yelled, not noticing the grass around her hooves beginning to shrivel and die.

The thestral shook her head slowly, when she felt a strange warmth emanate from within her bag, she looked over just in time to see the gem her captain had given her change from a bright white to a deep black color, making Rainbow Dash’s worst fears come to light.

The bird nodded slowly, noticing that she had gotten the group’s attention. “Trust me, this will work, all you need to do is-”

Outside the shield, the manticore lifted both paws over its head and brought them down towards the shimmering globe, preparing for another titanic strike. The beast channelled all its rage and fear into a devastating attack that could knock down a fully grown oak tree.

The shield by then was already riddled with a spiderweb of cracks and the tiny pony with the weird horn looked ready to pass out. The manticore’s tree trunk-sized limbs slammed down with incredible speed, ready to destroy the pony’s shield and end this threat once and for all.

Or at least that's what it had tried to do.

Instead of feeling the crack as its paws shattered the pony’s shield, the dome instead grew brighter and brighter, expanding as it did. The manticore’s eyes went wide and it nearly tumbled backward out of confusion, trying to escape whatever magic the tiny creatures were trying to use against her. As the light cleared, the beast rubbed its eyes, searching for any sign of the creatures that had threatened her.

The manticore blinked suddenly, her eyes finding the five beings but instead of standing tall and resolute, they lay on their sides, unmoving. It sniffed the air, leaning close to the fallen beings cautiously. Its keen sense of smell could detect the food in their bags and the dirt covering them. It raised its paw to strike, only to catch a whiff of death on the wind. Its nose crinkled in disgust and some primal instinct told it that eating them would be more harm than good.

Its muscles relaxed, relieved the threat had been dealt with.

The manticore gave the five corpses one last look before huffing and making its way over to the tree line, where three tiny pairs of eyes peered out from behind a large spruce tree. When their eyes met, the large manticore relaxed completely, the last dregs of its maternal instincts blowing away.

Throwing one last glance over its shoulder, the great beast used its nose to push the young manticores into the tree line and away from the strange beings that had startled it.

After nearly a minute of tense silence, Rainbow Dash suddenly spoke up, “Is it gone?” only to receive a swift hoof to the gut from an annoyed Applejack. “Oof. What the hay, AJ?”

“You’re damn lucky it's gone, you moron,” the apple farmer remarked, casting a curious glance around the small clearing.

The lone avian perked up and looked around, wiping a bead of sweat from its brow. “Alright, I think she's gone.”

Twilight slowly looked around as well, breathing a sigh of relief when she noticed the coast was indeed clear. “That was quick thinking, Fluttershy.”

“Most ingenious darling, though I would rather do without another meeting with the dirt so soon,” the arachne griped, brushing off her many dirt covered legs.

The bird chuckled, shaking her head at the sight of the pernickety arachne having to wipe herself down twice in such a short amount of time. “I’m just glad no one got hurt.”

“Speak for yourself,” Rainbow Dash grouched, while clutching her stomach and shooting a glare at Applejack, who merely shrugged.

Twilight shook her head slowly, glaring at the thestral. “You should be more thankful, ya know. A hoof to the gut is the least of what you would have gotten if Fluttershy’s plan didn't work and you gave us away.”

The thestral merely shrugged. “If that thing mauled me, I would have just came back to haunt Fluttershy forever.”

The avian chuckled at her friend’s odd choice of words. “I would have appreciated the company.”

Rarity giggled as well, picking her bags from the ground and ensuring she hadn't dropped anything. “Has anyone seen my comb?” The other four all laughed at the sight of the arachne picking through the dirt, unfazed by her recent brush with death. “What?”

Rainbow Dash groaned. “Augh, I can't believe we still haven't gotten there yet. We should have been there like yesterday. Are you sure you are not lost?”

Applejack snorted. “It ain't mah fault the forest seems to be throwing us for a loop. It shouldn't be too much longer though, we just passed the big rock with the yellow squiggles in it.”

“Yellow squiggles?” Twilight asked.

The apple farmer nodded. “Yeah, you remember that huge rock on the left side of the path about five minutes ago?”

The unicorn blinked. “I think so. What does that have to do with anything?”

“Well, that means we ain't far away. Just got the twisty oak tree and that funny-looking hedge and we’re there!” she announced, much to the confusion of the rest of her group. “What?”

“It's just that your system of memory is a little unorthodox, is all,” Rarity offered, glancing at Twilight for support.

“Just a little bit,” the unicorn added.

Applejack huffed. “Well, you try navigatin’ these woods for over a decade and see if you can think of a better way of doin’ it.”

Rainbow rolled her eyes. “Whatever, I’m gonna go scout out the area.” The thestral leapt into the air, pumping her wings and dipping through a break in the canopy.

The unicorn shook her head and moved a little closer to the tree pony. “I trust you Applejack, it's just a little odd.”

“Aww shucks, I know how it sounds. Just wish I got a little more respect, is all,” she griped.

“Why of course we respect you, Applejack,” Rarity added, only to wince. “Well, the rest of us do anyway.”

Fluttershy sighed and was about to speak before her head suddenly jerked upwards and she raised a wing. “Did you girls hear that?”

Twilight blinked, straining her ears into the gloom. “No?”

Rarity followed suit, the whole group coming to an unsteady stop as they all scanned the forest as best they could. “I don't hear anything darling, what did it sound like?”

Fluttershy frowned and peered intently at a spot of darkness, only to shake her head. “I don't know…”

“Whatever it was, we better keep moving,” Applejack added, walking a little faster than usual.

The rest of the group followed closely, with Rarity almost walking directly behind the apple farmer, her forelegs held tight to her chest as her head twisted this way and that, in search of anything lurking within the forest. Twilight herself was a little put off, she had been trying to get a primitive scanning enchantment to work, but something about the way her magic now functioned seemed to make casting the spell impossible. Every time she tried to cast the relatively simple charm it merely fizzled, as if her new magic was simply incompatible with the divination spell.

With the forest growing darker by the minute and Fluttershy’s warning still fresh in her mind, Twilight tried the spell over and over until she finally gave up after the twentieth attempt. She looked around, shrinking slightly when she noticed that the tall broad limbs that lined the path had grown denser, blocking out almost all of the already faint moonlight. Ahead of her Rarity held Applejack’s tail in her hooves, her teeth chattering as she looked back and forth rapidly.

Applejack didn't seem to be faring much better either and she seemed to glare at every pocket of darkness that lined their path, as if she could intimidate whatever hid within. The only part of Fluttershy that could even be seen was her small white tail feathers poking out from under Applejack’s hat which trembled violently.

Rarity sniffed the air suddenly, gaining the attention of her friends. “What is it, Rarity?” Twilight whispered.

“I don't know… It smells awful though,” she remarked, scrunching her nose up in disgust.

Applejack sniffed as well, her own nose wrinkling, and the strange smell making her recoil, her stomach turning. “That's not good.”

Twilight smelled the air as well, only to find that the familiar scent of the forest was all she could smell. “What is it?” she whispered back.

“Smells like something died,” the apple farmer muttered, garnering a shriek of panic from the arachne who clutched Applejack’s tail to her chest.

“T-Timberwolves smell like death, you don't think?” The arachne gulped.

The farmer didn't seem to mind having her tail clutched, as she had backed up until she was mere inches away from the spider pony. While the three beings at the front of the line flinched at the slightest sound and seemed ready to bolt at a moments notice, Twilight on the other hoof didn't seem to mind at all. She looked around, noting that it did seem a little darker but that in itself wasn't that scary as the forest was always dark and her recent death seemed to have given her a measure of dark vision. She also couldn't seem to smell what they were smelling either, and each time the unicorn took a deep breath through her nose, the only thing she detected was the potent scent of wildflowers and the general smell of the forest.

“There it is again!” Fluttershy yelled, standing up inside Applejack’s hat.

Applejack yelped and spun around, glaring at a spot to her left. “Where? Where is it, Fluttershy?”

Rarity screamed, pointing to their right at a seemingly random spot in the line of trees. “There! To the right!”

Applejack spun around, ready to pounce on whatever it was only to see nothing but the dark limbs of another gnarled and twisted tree. “I don't see it.”

“It vanished. Oh stars above, it better not be another pack of timberwolves,” Rarity exclaimed through clattering teeth.

Applejack gulped, her head moving constantly, looking up and down the tree lines, her ears twitching with every minute sound. “Is it… is it gone?” she whispered.

Fluttershy poked out from under Applejack’s hat, peering into the woods along with two of her friends while Twilight just blinked, trying to figure out what they were hearing and seeing. The unicorn hadn't sensed any movement other than the odd bird and a squirrel that had ran across their path and even now she couldn't find anything that would explain her companions’ sudden bout of paranoia.

“The smell is getting worse, they must be close, get ready girls,” Applejack remarked, stopping completely and lowering her body, ready to pounce on any would-be attackers.

Rarity huddled close behind the apple farmer, lifting a small pair of sewing needles and brandishing them like tiny knives. “I can even taste it! It's in my mouth, Applejack!”

“I sure h-h-h-hope we haven't stumbled into another dead zone.” Fluttershy squeaked, gripping Applejack’s hat and covering her face with it.

“Sure seems like it, Fluttershy, keep your wits about you and we just might make it out of here in one piece,” Applejack announced, her voice filled with grim determination.

The spider pony took a hesitant step backward only to brush against something, eliciting a scream from the high strung being. Applejack spun around, instantly moving to cover her friend only to find that it was simply a gnarly branch sticking out from the side of the path. The apple farmer breathed a sigh of relief, but the familiar sound of cracking wood sprung up from all around them, the forest echoing strangely.

A second later Rainbow Dash landed in the center of the group with a massive thud, her eyes wide with panic as she brandished her weapon wildly. “Timberwolves!” she screamed.

Like a match thrown on a pile of timber, the entire group erupted in screams. Rarity ran around in circles, trying to dodge the tree she kept bumping into. Fluttershy was quivering underneath Applejack’s hat, only the tips of her tail feathers visible from under the stetson. Applejack herself had leapt onto a timberwolf and was viciously punching the plant with all her might while screaming. “You won't catch an apple unaware! Take that, you varmint!”

Rainbow Dash was flying around as fast as she could, kicking and hacking at any branch or bit of wood that even resembled a timberwolf, while yelling some thestral battle cry that Twilight only managed to hear bits and pieces of.

All while the unicorn stood there, utterly baffled by the strange turn of events. Applejack was attacking what looked like a bush, while Rarity had now resorted to quivering behind a tree, her hooves held over her head as she cried and muttered a prayer of some kind. Rainbow Dash was wrestling what looked like a large tree branch, biting and twisting as if she were fighting a great beast of some kind.

“Snap out of it girls!” she yelled, running over to the quivering Rarity and shaking her.

“Oh great moon above, please don't take me to the great beyond! I swear I’ll be twice as nice and three times as generous if you let me live! I’ll even build you a proper shrine!” the arachne screeched, staring upwards at the break in the canopy at the moon above.

“There are no timberwolves! Get ahold of yourself!” the unicorn yelled, shaking Rarity one last time before giving up and turning her attention to Applejack, whose hooves were covered in cuts due to the thorny bush she was viciously assaulting with her hooves.

Twilight lit her horn and tried to pull the powerfully built pony away, only for the farmer to lurch forward, breaking her control and leaping back on the bush, a battle cry on her lips. “For the Everfree!” she yelled.

She looked around, panic beginning to grip her unbeating heart. Maybe they are right, maybe there is something out there and I just can't see it. The unicorn spun around, hearing the crack of wood, only to for the image of Pinkie Pie to suddenly flash through her mind. The growing dread that threatened to grip her vanished, replaced by the same warmth the unicorn felt whenever she saw the pink troll’s familiar smile.

What would Pinkie do? she thought.

A smile slowly cracked her face and all of a sudden the unicorn burst into laughter, throwing her head back and laughing for all the world to hear.

Pinkie Pie stopped mid-mix, the large paddle-sized spoon suddenly still in her lone forehoof. Her mentor stopped her incantation, giving her student an odd look, a question on her lips.

Whatever she was about to say was cut off by an odd series of twitches that started with the troll’s mane going straight, then her back hooves shaking, ending with her half-grown right foreleg flailing in circles.

“That was quite the scene, whatever did that mean?” Zecora asked cautiously.

Pinkie Pie blinked, her gaze drawn to a seemingly random point along the wall of the hut, unaware that she was staring straight towards her five friends. “I don't know…” she whispered.

Twilight’s laugh echoed through the forest, animals big and small who heard the strange sound instantly leapt up, flying or running in the opposite direction of the laugh.

The unicorn laughed long and hard, the absurdness of the scenario striking her as bizarrely funny, despite the circumstances.

All around her friends stopped what they were doing, blinking owlishly and looking around with quizzical expressions on their faces. Rarity seemed the first to recover and she looked around slowly, seeing only the strange, unchanging forest and nothing out of the ordinary. She slowly rose up, looking over at the laughing unicorn who had doubled over and was pounding the ground with a hoof.

Applejack pulled her hoof back to deliver what she knew was going to be a devastating blow to the pinned timberwolf’s jaw, only to stop and blink as the wooden creature was replaced by a thoroughly crushed bush. “What the hay,” she muttered, only now noticing the many cuts that lined her hooves. The potent smell of death that had clung to her nostrils seemed to vanish as well and all at once she heard the oddly raspy sound of Twilight’s laughter.

The lone thestral of the group dove to the side, ducking out of the way of what she thought was the swipe of a timberwolf, only to roll and spin back around, her hoof cocked and ready to strike, her blade ineffective against the wooden creatures. Except there was no timberwolf following her.

She looked around, expecting to find the timberwolf nearby, only to see nothing of the sort. “Huh,” she muttered, baffled by the sudden turn of events.

The sound of Twilight’s sandpaper laughter suddenly reached her ears and she angled her body towards the source, confused by the odd burst of mirth amidst what the thestral had thought was a fight to the death.

The guard landed with a soft clank, looking around at her traveling companions who had the same baffled expression as her. “Twilight?” she asked, her hoof brushing the mare’s shoulder.

Twilight pounded her chest with a hoof, her laughter petering off as she struggled to catch her breath. After a few seconds of wheezing, she wiped away a tear and grinned up at her friends who looked down at her with mixed emotions.

“Oh thank goodness you girls are alright,” Twilight remarked, looking around at the mostly unhurt group of friends.

“Yeah,” Applejack muttered. “What happened back there?”

Rarity shook her head, looking around at the now normal looking forest. “It felt like a dream, there were timberwolves everywhere and one of them was standing right over me, its drool dripping into my mane.” The arachne shivered, her hooves running through her mane.

“I don't know, but all of a sudden you guys suddenly started acting like you were being attacked by timberwolves,” Twilight answered.

“Then what happened?” Rainbow Dash asked, moving closer and eyeing the unicorn with an odd look.

“Suddenly I thought of Pinkie and then I couldn't help but laugh,” Twilight remarked, a faint, wistful smile spreading across her face.

“Well, I don't rightly care what the hay happened, but we should get out of here before it has a chance of happening again,” Applejack remarked grimly.

Twilight nodded. “Good thinking. You girls coming?”

Rarity nodded. “Right behind you, darling.”

Rainbow Dash hesitated, glancing at the black gem she had been given before up at the smiling face of the unicorn who looked back at her. “Yeah, I’m coming.”

Rarity hummed in approval, tying a heavy wool scarf around her neck. “Thank goodness I brought a scarf, that wind can be biting at times,” she remarked.

Twilight nodded, not bothering to announce the fact that she didn't feel cold at all.

The arachne threw her stylish bag onto her back only for something shiny to fall out of it and clink on the ground. “Oh fiddlesticks,” she muttered, reaching for the object.

“Wow Rarity, that's the biggest ruby I’ve ever seen.” Fluttershy pointed out.

The arachne sighed. “I must have forgotten it at the bottom of my bag.” She stuffed it back into the bag and closed it more securely this time. “No wonder I couldn't find it.”

“Well, keep it secure this time, wouldn't want to lose it out here,” Applejack added.

“Of course darling, it is the centerpiece of my newest masterpiece after all.” The arachne giggled giddily. “Oh I cannot wait until I get back and finally finish that dress, it's going to be spectacular!”

Twilight couldn't help but smile, Rarity’s energy was truly infectious. “Well we better get moving then and find a good place to camp.”

Applejack nodded solemnly. “There should be a river up ahead, if we follow it along for a little while, we should come to a bridge, after that there is a good spot to set up camp.”

“Oh, I sure hope so, Roger is starting to get tired and I am going to need to find some animal else to borrow for tomorrow if Owlicious doesn't come back,” Fluttershy announced.

“Daw shucks, feels like we were just getting to know lil Roger here. Well, make sure to tell him he's welcome on the farm anytime.”

Fluttershy grinned and nodded eagerly. “I can tell he enjoyed riding your hat and I’m sure you’ll see more of him.”

“Do you hear that?” Rarity asked, her body tensing as she raised a hoof.

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Come on, Rarity, it was funny the first time Rainbow Dash did it, but now it's just annoying.”

The aforementioned guard stopped as well, her ears twitching. “I hear it too, sounds like water ahead.”

“Nice going, Applejack,” Twilight complimented, shooting her friend a wide smile.

The farmer blushed, pawing the ground awkwardly. “Aww shucks, ain't nothin special.”

“Blech,” the thestral groused, sticking her tongue out. “I’m gonna go take a look around, try not to make out too much while I’m gone,” Rainbow Dash announced before leaping into the air and slipping through the canopy.

“What's eatin’ her?” Applejack asked, nodding towards the spot Rainbow had stood only moments before.

“I don't know…” Fluttershy answered sadly. “It's not like her to be this grouchy for this long.”

Twilight shook her head, a concerned look on her face as she watched the bat pony leave. Something about the way Rainbow Dash spoke, and the way she bit her lip whenever she thought no one was looking, had made Twilight begin to worry as well. The unicorn pushed off that worry for now though as she heard the faint sound of leathery wings that signalled the thestral’s surprisingly quick return.

The guard landed hard, skidding to a stop and kicking up a small plume of dust. Rarity and Applejack covered their mouths. “You were right,” Rainbow Dash remarked. “But this doesn't seem like a normal river.”

“What do you mean? Seemed pretty calm last time I was through these parts, was even a few spots to cross if the bridge is out.”

The thestral jerked her head towards the path. “It's not far, you’ll see.”

The four other beings followed the guard closely, the sound of water growing closer by the second, drawing a frown from the apple farmer. “That don't sound right, what the hay happened… Whoa nelly.”

As soon as the group emerged from the tree cover they were blasted by the sound of rushing water. Just ahead of them thousands of gallons of water flew past them, carrying various bits of debris in their clutches. Applejack walked ahead, leaning over the side of the river and giving the the raging water a quick inspection before backing up. “Musta flooded somewhere up stream, there's a whole mess of stuff caught up in it.”

Twilight leaned over as well, only to immediately step back when she realized just how close she had gotten when a splash of water hit her nose. “I sure hope that bridge is functional, because I don't think we are crossing this river anytime soon.”

Rarity sighed dramatically. “Why can't anything be easy for once!”

Rainbow Dash laughed. “Speak for yourself, ground walker.”

“Yeah, well, we can't all have wings,” Applejack groused. “Yo RD, mind making yourself useful and checking on the bridge? Should be a little further south.”

The guard crossed her hooves over her chest, hovering a few feet above the ground. “I don't take orders from you.”

“Would you please check the bridge, Rainbow Dash?” Fluttershy offered, batting her tiny avian eyes at the thestral.

A tiny smile slipped onto the edge of Rainbow Dash’s mouth, only to be swiftly wiped away. “Alright fine, but only ‘cause you asked nice.”

Fluttershy giggled at her friend’s antics. “Thank you, Rainbow Dash.”

With that, the thestral pumped her wings and rolled into a backflip before disappearing further down the trail. “Thanks Fluttershy, didn't think I'd be able to get that bird brain movin’ on my own. No offence Roger.”

“You shouldn't be mean to someone just because they aren't in a good mood. Sometimes all you need is a little kindness,” Fluttershy explained.

“True, I just hope she opens up about what's bothering her soon, I don't know how much more of her remarks I can stand,” Rarity added.

Twilight chose not to say anything, instead standing a little further back and looking around the river, scanning the small winding path they were walking on. It was just barely wide enough for two of them to walk abreast and still leave a couple feet between them and the edge of the raging river. Which still wasn't enough room for the unicorn’s liking and she walked as far to the right as possible, eyeing the river like it was some great serpent that was about to come to life and swallow her whole at a moment’s notice.

She only looked up from the river when she heard the distant wingbeats of their returning thestral guard. “Heads up, Rainbow Dash is back.”

The rest of the group looked up and sure enough a few seconds later the rainbow-maned thestral landed with a thump a few feet in front of the troupe. “I got good news and bad news,” she announced with a frown.

“What's the bad news?” Rarity asked hesitantly.

“Bad news is there is a troll by the bridge, I didn't catch a good look, but what I did saw wasn't good.” Rainbow Dash shrugged.

Twilight cocked her head. “And the good news?”

“At least the bridge is in one piece.”

“Well at least there's that,” Applejack remarked.

“Hopefully this troll can be dealt with diplomatically. I don't know how much magic I have left after that fight with the manticore,” Twilight said with a frown.

Applejack shrugged. “Don't you worry none, Twilight. Kicks Mcgee and Thunder still got plenty of oomph left in them.”

“Did you name your hooves?” Rainbow Dash asked, barely able to hold back a snicker.

Applejack blushed. “Err, maybe.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Come on you two. The longer we wait around, the longer it will take until we can set up camp.”

Rainbow Dash snorted as the unicorn passed, ready to launch into the most creative insult she could think of. Only for Fluttershy to glare at the thestral, making her mouth slam shut. “Fine,” she muttered. “But if this troll turns out to be a jerk, I’m not helping.”

“Pfft, like you help much anyhow,” Applejack murmured, brushing past the thestral.

Rainbow Dash hissed and launched back into the air, disappearing two seconds later when she slipped through the canopy once more. With the thestral gone, Applejack sighed and patted the bird’s head. “Sorry ‘bout that, Fluttershy.”

“Don't worry about it, Applejack. I’ll talk to her later and find out what's wrong.”

The rest of the trek was done so in silence and it didn't take them long to approach the site of the bridge. The path crested a brief hill, from which they could see the bridge below them. The wide stone arch crossed the river and despite the rapids mere feet below, it seemed unmarred by the fury of the current or the wooden debris caught in its grip. The group hesitated for a moment, all pairs of eyes scanning the bridge in search of the aforementioned troll. Other than a brief flash of movement from under the bridge, no one was able to detect anything of note, so after a moment to gather her courage, Twilight stepped forth.

“You girls coming?” she asked, hoping her voice sounded more confident than she felt.

Applejack nodded. “Better hurry up and get this over with.” Fluttershy gulped, ducking a little deeper into the top of Applejack’s hat until only her eyes and beak could be seen peeking out from beyond the rim.

Twilight’s confidence didn't last long and when she neared the bridge, she stopped altogether, scanning her surroundings. To the right, a wide road extended for only a few feet before it seemed to be swallowed by the forest. To her left the bridge sat silently, its sheer size striking Twilight as odd.

It was large, easily big enough for a carriage to cross on either side and still have enough room left over to do so with ease. Its stone structure was almost completely undamaged by the passage of time and the rigors of the rapids, though grime and mud clung to it in abundance, Twilight could not see a single stone out of place. Whatever this bridge was meant to connect, it had evidently been important enough to warrant a very sturdy construction.

The unicorn glanced over to her four friends, unsure of how to proceed. “What do we do?” she whispered.

Fluttershy shrugged, shaking so hard it made Applejack’s hat vibrate.

Applejack frowned, peering intently at the right side of the bridge. “Get ready for a fight y'all.”

Twilight gritted her teeth and lowered her horn, slowly walking forward. “Come out here and face us! We know you are there!”

The three beings all peered at the same side of the bridge for several long seconds before finally an enormous hoof emerged from the darkness, gripping the side of the bridge and hoisting up a truly massive troll. Its fur was almost completely replaced by craggy rock formations that were a slightly lighter color of grey than the few hairs that poked out around them. As it emerged from beneath the bridge, Twilight took a step back, her mouth hanging open at the sheer size of the being. It was easily twice the size of the already quite tall unicorn and no doubt weighed three to four times as much as even Applejack. In its left forehoof it dragged a massive club that seemed more like a tree it had ripped out of the ground rather than anything fashioned for combat.

A long tangled mess of a mane tumbled down the back of its bulky neck and two piercing blue eyes glared at the three. “If you want to pass, you will pay the toll,” it commanded, its voice so deep that it sounded like a group of boulders being rubbed together to produce sound.

Twilight gulped nervously, glancing over at Applejack who stared with wide eyes at the enormous being, her own confidence waning at the sheer size of the troll. Fluttershy was huddled in Applejack’s hat, her wings over her head as she trembled in fear. Rarity seemed to be the only one unaffected and was merely frowning at the sight of the creature, her eyes looking it up and down appraisingly.

“Do you not understand the common tongue?” the great troll asked, peering intently at the small group.

“Y-y-yes,” Twilight stammered, glancing at the tree trunk it had slung over one of its massive shoulders.

“Good, then you understand that this is my bridge and to cross you must pay a toll,” it pointed out, as if it were stating the simplest of facts.

“Hey now, no one owns this here bridge! Why I’ve been using it for years!” Applejack yelled angrily, only to shrink when the troll’s gaze fixated on her.

“The strong take, such is the way of the forest. Now hoof over your valuables before I crush your tiny bodies and pick the shiny bits out of the paste.” The troll shifted its weight slightly, gripping the makeshift club tightly.

Twilight turned to Rarity, only to cock her head at the sight of a smile on the arachne’s face.

Rarity pulled off her scarf and with the faint glow of her magic she floated it over to the troll who eyed it cautiously. “You looked a little cold, please, take my scarf. You need it more than me.”

The troll’s eyes narrowed, but it reluctantly took the offered scarf, draping it around its massive shoulders. “That is a good start, now hoof over… wait is that cashmere?” it asked suddenly.

Rarity’s eyes lit up. “Yes it is! It was quite hard to find all the way in Ponyville but it was worth it, no?”

The troll nodded slowly, rubbing its cheek against the fabric.

“But that simply won't do, that scarf is not nearly enough to cover those broad shoulders of yours.” Rarity reached back and rummaged in her bag before eventually pulling out a pair of mittens she had brought along.

“I think those are a might bit small,” the troll pointed out.

Rarity merely rolled her eyes. “Not to worry, give me but a moment.” The arachne gripped a mitten in both hooves, tugging hard on a section near the base of the mitt until it tore the stitching. She then tore the other one in a similar manner and with a swirl of magic, unraveled the two mittens and weaved them back together before levitating it over to the troll who took it and added it to the other scarf on his shoulders.

“That's very nice. I don't suppose you have a gem in there? I am rather hungry,” it remarked, peering inside Rarity’s open bag.

The arachne scoffed. “I bet you haven't had a home cooked meal in ages, staying way out here in the woods.”

“Well now that you mention it…” the troll remarked, tapping its chin with a hoof.

The arachne shook her head and tsked. “That simply won't do, Applejack be a dear and gather up some firewood, would you?”

“Err, sure thing Rarity.” The apple farmer turned, giving Twilight a small shrug before disappearing into the woods.

Twilight slipped a little closer to the spider pony as she fished through her bag. “Psst, what are you doing, Rarity?”

“Trying to find.. Oh here it is!” The arachne pulled the enormous ruby from her bag and held it triumphantly.

“Stars and sun,” the troll muttered, his eyes growing two sizes larger at the sight of the gem.

“Wasn't that important to your dress?” Twilight asked.

Rarity merely shrugged. “There are other gems out there.” The arachne clapped her hooves together. “Now then, where is our dear apple farmer?”

“Right here,” Applejack replied, heaving a small pile of dead wood before the spider pony.

Rarity nodded. “Excellent. Thank you, Applejack.” She turned to Twilight expectantly. “Would you mind lighting the fire?”

“Sure.” The unicorn lowered her horn and fired a small jet of sparks at the tinder which instantly lit.

The troll seemed to eye the unicorn cautiously, but took a small step forward. “What are you doing there, missy?” it rumbled.

“It's going to be rather primitive, but I thought a nice soup would warm that belly. It must get awful cold near the river,” Rarity stated simply, fishing out a large pot from her bag and placing it directly on the fire. “There we are, now we add the water, then a dash of this and a little of that…” the arachne added small shots of their already meagre supply of spices and was ready to add a drop of hot sauce when Rainbow Dash swooped down from a nearby branch and held her back.

“Not the hot sauce, that's all I brought!” the thestral cried.

Twilight let out a surprised yelp, nearly falling onto her butt from the sudden appearance of the guard. Rather than be surprised, the troll just rolled its massive eyes.

Rarity yanked the hot sauce away from the thestral and shot her a look. “I can buy you more hot sauce when we get back to Ponyville.”

“Aww, come on, Rarity you know I can't eat your cooking without my sauce,” Rainbow Dash griped, making another swipe at the bottle, only to come up empty-hoofed.

“Rainbow Dash, you are acting like a child! Now go stand over there with Applejack and I’ll pretend like you didn't just whine at me like a foal,” Rarity said sternly.

The thestral wilted slightly and plodded over to a spot next to a snickering Applejack, whom the guard shot a glare at.

“Now then.” The arachne gestured to the troll, levitating the gem over the boiling pot. “If you would do the honors of crushing it, I can finish your soup.”

The troll took a step forward, its club mysteriously absent from its shoulder. It reached out with a hoof, only to stop. “But crushing it makes it lose all the flavor.”

Rarity smiled confidently up at the enormous troll. “Trust me darling, this is going to taste even better.”

The troll stared into the arachne’s eyes for several long seconds before it reached forward and gripped the gem in both hooves, crushing the gem like it was little more than glass. The small rain of red shards falling into the soup joined the mixture, which began to take on a reddish hue.

Together they sat around the small fire, peering within and waiting as Rarity occasionally stirred the pot, humming softly to herself. After a few minutes of rather tense silence the arachne withdrew her spoon and smiled up at the troll. “Alright it's ready. Bon appetit!”

The troll licked its massive lips and grabbed the pot in both hooves and tossed it back.

“Watch out, it's rather… hot,” Rarity added, only to stare as the troll chugged the entire contents of the pot in one long pull, not even noticing the red hot metal it was gripping. “Huh,” she muttered.

The troll tipped back the last of the soup and wiped its lips before belching loudly, a small smile spreading across its lips. “That was simply divine, miss, uh?” ie asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Rarity,” the arachne replied, extending a hoof.

The troll took the spider pony’s hoof and gently bumped it. “Charmed. I’m Rolling Boulder and I must say that was the best soup I’ve had since my wife…” It coughed suddenly and stood off to the side, gesturing to the bridge. “Go on, sorry for keeping ya.”

Rarity merely shrugged. “Not to worry, my friend but you really should come by Ponyville sometime, I know this perfect little restaurant that I think you would love.”

The troll plopped down on its butt, an act that sent a small tremor that rattled the hooves of everypony around. It rubbed its chin with a hoof, staring up at the starry sky. “Well, my daughter has been bugging me to come see her fashion show, maybe...”

Rarity nodded, flashing the troll a winning smile. “Well, if she ever wants to show off her line in Ponyville, tell her to stop by my shop and I would be happy to work something out with her.”

A smile slowly spread across the troll’s face and he nodded. “That does sound awful kind of you. Maybe Inky is still in Cliffsdale…”

The arachne strutted across the bridge, followed closely by her stunned friends who gawked silently until they were over the bridge and out of sight of the mountainous troll. Rainbow Dash was the first to break the silence and she suddenly zoomed out in front, grabbing Rarity by the shoulders. “What the hay was that?”

“What?” Rarity asked sweetly. “Some beings just need a little helping hoof, is all.”

Applejack shook her head, tilting back her hat. “Slather me with butter and call me a biscuit. If that wasn't the most generous thing ah ever saw, then I don't know what was.”

Fluttershy took wing, hovering just in front of the spider pony, a huge smile on her beaked face. “Oh that was wonderful, Rarity!”

The arachne blushed, batting a hoof at the bird. “Oh stop, I just did what any being would do.”

The thestral landed next to the arachne, some of her anger dissipating. “I’m holding you to that promise about the hot sauce.”

Rarity rolled her eyes and patted the thestral on the withers. “I wouldn't have it any other way.”

The intrepid group of friends had established a camp despite the fact that they had yet to reach the castle, in stark contrast to the one hour estimation Pinkie had made before they left. A fact that was not lost on the five beings who were gathered around a small fire.

Rarity gagged, magically removing a thick clump of mud that had clung to the underside of her body. “Oh, I simply cannot wait to get to the castle, at least I won't have to worry about quite as much mud.”

Applejack snorted at the arachne, settling her weight into the dirt a little more and giving her butt a wiggle. “Oh come on, ain't mud good for the skin?”

Rarity looked down her nose at the plant-bound pony, whom was caked up to her shoulders in mud and dirt. “Well some of us don't have a tree growing out of our backs.”

“Fair,” Applejack muttered, setting her head down on the ground with a content sigh, not bothered in the slightest by the splash of mud that coated most of her muzzle.

Twilight chuckled at the display, wondering idly just how much of Applejack’s love of dirt was her own, only to be distracted by the sound of clinking armor as Rainbow Dash continued to pace.

“She’ll come back, she always does,” Twilight pointed out.

The thestral didn't seem to agree and bit her lip as she stared off into the growing light that peeked through the treetops. “You never know,” she muttered silently.

“Darling, please sit down, you’re giving me a migraine, pacing back and forth like that,” Rarity lamented.

The guard stopped briefly, reluctantly plunking her weight down on a log they had found. “Fine.”

Twilight placed a hoof on the worried thestral’s shoulder. “She said Owlicious was close, I’m sure she will be back any second.”

Rainbow Dash jerked her shoulder, removing Twilight’s hoof. “You don't know anything, outsider.”

The unicorn sighed and looked away.

“Well, seems like this is the perfect time to talk about it. Rarity, would you do the honors?” Applejack asked suddenly.

“Talk about what?” Rainbow asked defensively, glaring at each being in turn.

“You are awfully high strung lately and we all have been worrying about you, Fluttershy included,” Rarity added, emphasizing the spirit’s name.

“It's just…” The guard glanced around at the other three beings, sighing when she saw the worry in their eyes. “Work stuff. I got demoted, again.”

This time when Twilight wrapped a hoof around the thestral’s shoulders she didn't brush it off, even leaning a little closer to the unicorn. “Maybe if you just waited a little more and thought things out?” Twilight offered, already flinching for the incoming remark.

Only for it to never come.

The thestral merely sighed, shrinking slightly. “Maybe,” she muttered.

The unicorn blinked, looking around the circle at her other friends for support, only for them to both shrug, eliciting a groan from Twilight. Not really sure what to do, the unicorn merely patted Rainbow’s armored shoulders, hoping it gave her some sense of encouragement.

Thankfully the flutter of wings diverted everyone’s attention to the edge of the camp where a bright eyed Owlicious flew into view. The owl landed next to Twilight and let out a small hoot, nuzzling the unicorn’s side happily.

Twilight gently patted his head and looked around for their spirit friend. “Where's Fluttershy?”

The owl hooted and pointed a wing to where he had flown, from where a shimmer butter yellow aura was zipping through the trees. The group watched in awe as the shimmer flew over to them and then to the owl where it floated for a few seconds before the owl nodded. With the animal’s assent, the spirit flew into the owl, filling its body with light until its eyes fluttered open, revealing the bright teal orbs of Fluttershy.

“H-hi girls. Did I miss anything?” The owl asked nervously, looking around the circle at all the stunned expressions.

Rainbow Dash reacted first, leaping over and scooping up the owl into a tight hug. “Fluttershy! I’m so glad you are back, you had me worried there for a second.”

The owl hooted nervously, some of its animalistic instincts peeking through the spirit’s possession. “I’m fine, really!”

The guard gave one last squeeze before reluctantly releasing the owl and settling down next to it.

Applejack nodded to the bird. “Good to see you are back, hope you didn't run into any trouble.”

Fluttershy shook her head. “No, Owlicious just loaded up on a bit too many mice and was taking a nap when I found him.”

“That is good to hear, darling, I don't think any of us would be able to sleep knowing you were still out there.”

Fluttershy blushed somehow, covering her face with a wing. “Aww, thanks girls.”

Twilight smiled, sitting back and watching as Rainbow Dash doted over the owl. The guard had pulled a leaf from the owl’s wing and reprimanded Fluttershy on proper wing maintenance and was sternly demanding that the owl remember to check its wings before flying.

The unicorn was content to watch the scene play out around her, not really sure what she should do or say in the context of a social gathering, that was until a rather unfortunate subject was broached a few minutes later.

“Twilight, I must admit I am rather curious about your condition, and you did mention that you would explain it to us once you had a moment, so...” Rarity opened, eyeing the unicorn nervously.

“Yeah, what's with that weird light round yer horn anyhow?” Applejack added.

Rainbow Dash stayed remarkably silent, her hoof reaching into a bag as she stared at Twilight with a mixed expression.

The unicorn sighed, looking out over her friends with a sad look. “Do you really want to know?”

Applejack, Rainbow Dash and Rarity all nodded, but Fluttershy seemed to disagree and hopped over to the spot next to Twilight, extending a wing to the unicorn. “You don't have to if you don't want to, Twilight. We trust you.”

Applejack sighed. “Suppose it's only right to trust you after you trusted me. If you don't want to say anything, that's fine in my books.”

Twilight smiled brightly, overcome by emotion at such an outpouring of support. “Thank you, but I think I owe you girls a proper explanation.”

Rainbow Dash shifted closer, trying not to make it obvious just how intent she was.

“Really darling, if it hurts this much…”

Twilight shook her head. “It hurts to talk about, but it also hurts not to tell my only friends what I’m feeling.”

“Only friends?” Rainbow asked, lifting an eyebrow at the remark. “I thought you lived up in Canterwhatever all your life.”

“I did…”

Despite the lingering bit of xenophobia that still roiled in the thestral’s heart, she couldn't help but wince at the pain in the unicorn’s voice. “Sorry,” she muttered.

“It's okay.” Twilight shook her head. “Where do I start?”

“Well, why don't ya tell us a little more about yourself?” Applejack offered, steering the conversation in a somewhat nicer direction.

The unicorn smiled, her mind going back to her years of study at home with her family. “I’m a student of magic and I’ve been studying it and any other subject I could think of for as far back as I can remember.” Twilight chuckled suddenly, blushing as she thought of a rather embarrassing memory. “It may sound silly, but when I was little, I always thought that if I knew everything, I could raise the sun like Princess Celestia.”

The others laughed politely, with a particular thestral imagining the unicorn’s head becoming six times its regular size in order to contain all the information, causing her to laugh a little harder.

“It wasn't always easy though, I was born with a condition that made ponies fear me, which also made me clumsy in addition to making me a taller then normal.” The unicorn extended one of her limbs in emphasis and gestured to her horn. “It also curved my horn a little, which in Canterlot is an ill omen.”

“Why though? I think it makes you have a certain air of mystery and intrigue,” Rarity pointed out.

“Suits ya,” Applejack added.

Twilight giggled. “Thanks girls. In unicorn culture, a curved horn indicates that a ponies magic flows differently, this difference is usually perceived negatively.” She shrugged. “I didn't care though, I had my mom and my brother and my books which were all I needed in my life.”

The unicorn sighed heavily, her shoulders sagging. “Until Celestia came and offered me a chance to join her school.”

Rainbow Dash couldn't hold back a hiss at the name, a sentiment the rest of the group shared. Applejack gritted her teeth and snorted while Rarity remained perfectly still, and Fluttershy shivered in terror. The words of Shade flashed through Twilight’s mind, reminding her that these beings may well have suffered at the hooves of the dreaded alicorn.

“After that things got worse, in the middle of the night she struck, sicking one of her twisted enforcers on my family and killing my mother. My brother had tried to save us, but wasn't able to defend against that monster.” She gritted her teeth, flashes of the orange unicorn’s insane smile still pressed firmly in her memory. “In the end she accomplished her mission.”

The unicorn looked up, her gaze flickering among the stunned faces of her friends. Even Rainbow Dash seemed shocked, her jaw hanging open as she stared at Twilight. Twilight sighed a little deeper, knowing that the next part of her story may well make or break their friendship.

“What was her mission?” Rainbow Dash asked, in a volume barely above a whisper.

“She was sent there to kill me.”

“Then you are…” Rainbow muttered, her eyes growing wide.

Twilight nodded sadly. “Zecora helped me realize that I didn't really survive like I had thought. It turns out my condition made it so that my lambda system absorbed my soul, reanimating me. Sort of.”

Rarity recoiled slightly, only to cock her head and eye the unicorn up and down. “Shouldn't you be rotting, if you are dead? I mean you could use a long bath, but…”

Twilight shrugged. “I don't really know. Apparently I’m still sort of alive because of my condition? It's all so strange, which is one reason I wanted to go to the undertower.”

“Why is that?” Rainbow asked pointedly, her eyes narrowing.

“Zecora said it held the answers I seek.” The unicorn sighed suddenly, kicking a rock near her hoof. “But after getting to know all you girls, I don't know if I can go through with it.”

“Why not?” Fluttershy asked, squeaking under the sudden gaze of the rest of her friends. “If you don't mind me asking, that is…”

“It's just…” Twilight pawed the ground nervously, glancing over at each one of her friends in turn. “You girls mean so much to me and I don't know what I would do if you were to get hurt.” She shook her head suddenly, gaining determination. “My answers aren't worth that.”

Rainbow Dash glanced down at the bracelet she was given, thinking about the gem in her bag. With her own mind a whirl of confusion she looked over at the rest of her friends, gauging their reactions. Applejack seemed conflicted, as if she had a sour taste in her mouth, but was trying to swallow it anyway. Fluttershy was a difficult read due to the beak and the avian features, but when the thestral glanced into her eyes, all she could see was the same boundless kindness she always saw. With a resounding sigh the thestral dropped the near permanent frown she had held for what felt like days.

“Bullshit,” she announced proudly.

Twilight blinked, recoiling from the thestral. “What?”

“Bullshit. It's a minotaur term, means ‘screw that’,” Rainbow said with a smirk.

Rarity cleared her throat. “Although I don't agree with such uncouth language, I must confess that I feel similarly.”

Applejack nodded. “Exactly. If ya are out here for us, then it's only right that we do right by you.”

“But it's dangerous!” Twilight pulled out one of the books out of her bag and flipped it to a page that had a rather long list on it. “There are deadly traps, monsters, even the air on one of the levels is dangerous!”

Applejack merely shrugged. “So? We’ll get through it, like how we got through everything the forest threw at us today. Right girls?”

The other three all cheered, with Fluttershy raising a wing triumphantly and hooting.

Twilight shook her head, once more surprised by how far these four friends would go just for her. “Girls…”

Rainbow Dash gave the unicorn a lighthearted punch on the shoulder. “Aww, don't get sappy on us now. I was just startin’ to like ya.”

Twilight sniffed, wiping her eye and suddenly pulling the thestral into a tight hug. “Thank you,” she muttered into the thestral’s shoulder.

Rainbow Dash patted the unicorn’s back, gently pushing her back after a few seconds of awkward cry hugging. “That's quite enough of that for one day.”

Twilight nodded, tears building at the edge of her eyes.

“I feel like I’ve known you girls for years,” Twilight said with a smile.

Rarity nodded. “Me too. I may have known most of you in passing until now, but after these past few days I can't see going back to my normal life without you girls in it.” The arachne sniffed, pulling a hoofkerchief from the bag on her back and blowing into it.

Fluttershy nodded, along with Applejack and Rainbow Dash who all had wide, confident grins on their faces.

Twilight seemed on the verge of tears again and she spread her forelegs wide. “Can I get another hug from you girls, or would that be strange?”

“Of course you can.”

Fluttershy leapt into the unicorn’s embrace, followed closely by Rarity and Applejack who all squeezed her back. Twilight grinned from ear to ear, only to notice one of her friends was missing. Looking over Applejack’s shoulder, she saw Rainbow Dash at the edge of the fire, oddly hesitant.

“Come on, Rainbow Dash. Just one little iddy bitty hug?” Twilight asked with a pout.

“I don't know…” the thestral muttered, a small blush spreading across her face.

Twilight’s pout turned into an oddly impish smile and she leaned in, whispering to the other three. Rainbow Dash’s powerful ears could only hear snippets of the conversation and she leaned closer, curious as to what the unicorn was saying. The whispering stopped suddenly and all three turned to her with the same impish smile.

“What are you- nononono!” The thestral turned and tried flee.

Only to get tackled out of the air by an owl who was followed closely by the heavy form of Applejack and finally Rarity and Twilight who all eagerly hugged the groaning thestral. Eventually even she succumbed to the cuddle pile and together their laughter echoed throughout the forest.

Twilight smiled, feeling warmth and strength flowing from her friends and into her. “Is it just me or does it feel like Pinkie Pie is here with us?”

Rarity nodded eagerly. “It does feel like she's here, doesn't it?”

“Almost like she's right around the corner of that tree!” Rainbow yelled, pointing to a random tree. The other four all gasped, only to notice no one was there.

When they looked back they noticed the sneaky thestral had somehow managed to slip out from beneath their group hug.

“Get her girls!” Fluttershy yelled giddily, pointing to her. Rainbow Dash had flown across the camp and was busy dusting off her armor.

She gulped, her eyes going wide. “Oh fu-”

Much later and after a brief chase, the five friends had settled down for the day, all slipping into their tents, sleeping bags, or just the dirt in the middle of the camp as was the case with Applejack. After they had of course put up some defensive runes and cast a tripwire spell around their camp. With their camp secure, and the night having taken quite the toll on them, all five had slipped off to dreamland. All save Rainbow Dash who lay awake near the edge of the camp, her gaze drawn up to where the night sky was slowly being replaced by the light of day. The moon hung nearly perfectly above her head, in the same place it had been since as far back as anyone could remember and she couldn't help but feel like it was watching her.

With a sigh, the thestral sat up and slipped out of her sleeping bag, making her way over to the edge of the camp and staring out into the forest. A sudden grumble made her turn towards the fire pit where Applejack lay sprawled out on her belly, a healthy layer of dirt covering most of her.

“I don't wanna go to town Granny, Big Mac says he's gonna jump the shed,” she mumbled before thrusting her muzzle into the dirt and snoring loudly.

Rainbow Dash shook her head and started a small patrol, hoping that the burning questions that had been pestering her would leave after she calmed her nerves.

As she continued her impromptu patrol the questions returned, and with a vengeance. What does Twilight mean to her? She's a friend, that much is obvious, but she's also supposed to be spying on the unicorn. Can you spy on a friend and still be friends? The thestral felt strangely dirty about the whole idea and she couldn't help but feel as though she were betraying the newfound trust the unicorn had placed in her.

On the other hoof there was a promotion and potentially her job on the line if she failed.

Could she betray her adoptive home town for one random pony?

She shook her head and slapped herself. “Get it together, Dash,”

After giving her head a second firm shake she took a deep breath and continued her patrol, only making it a few feet until she heard a soft thunk come from a nearby tree. Instantly her training kicked in and she dropped low to the ground, her crescent blade in her mouth in the blink of an eye. After a brief look she leapt to the side, dodging behind the same tree she had heard the sound from and casting a glance around the trunk.

After seeing no one she looked up at the arrow, instantly recognizing a scroll tied to the end as it was bound by the night guard seal of a crescent blade across two batlike wings. Instantly she felt her body relax and with annoyed huff she reached up and plucked the arrow from the tree. “I swear to the moon that if this is another prank…”

Her words died in her throat.

Follow the archer, you will be debriefed by a field agent.
-By the light of the moon.

She looked up, scanning the treeline one last time before sighing and looking over her shoulder. None of her friends seemed to notice, with Rarity and Twilight’s shared tent having not moved an inch while Applejack’s snores still resounded through the small clearing they had made camp in.

Rainbow Dash couldn't help but gulp, the moment of truth coming faster than she had wanted. This is it, she thought glumly.

With a resounding sigh of defeat the thestral tossed the arrow aside, and stuffed the note into a pocket in her armor.

“Time to face the music,” she muttered darkly, her hooves carrying her deeper into the forest.


View Online

No leaves rustled at her passing, no twigs broke underhoof and to all but the most careful of observers the changeling was invisible. Decades of hard training and millennia of experience had long since made trekking through even the Everfree an easy task.

That was excluding the last few days, of course, they were a strange outlier. The path the five beings had chosen should have only taken them an hour or two to reach the castle and yet the forest had seemingly taken it upon itself to test the small group of friends.

Chrysalis didn't understand why or how the forest did it, but she could clearly tell that each test and obstacle the forest threw at them was meant for one of their party. Even then, after realizing that the forest had been testing them, she still didn't get the point of the dead zone the forest had thrown at them. Why would the forest do such a thing, if it was indeed a planned event at all?

She didn't know and though she made a note of it for her report, she pushed it out of her mind for now. Coming to a halt outside the group’s camp, Chrysalis stealthily climbed a tree that allowed her a perfect line of sight of all five of the group, while still offering her ample cover to hide. From her new vantage point she easily picked out the five shapes of the group.

Rainbow Dash seemed to be trying to sleep, but was merely tossing and turning beneath her sleeping bag. Inside the tent Chrysalis could detect the slumbering forms of Rarity and Twilight. Outside, in the center of the camp, Applejack lay sprawled out in the dirt, nearly covered in the stuff. Beyond that she could tell there was an owl hunting further to her right, but even its keen senses would be little help in finding the stealthy changeling.

As she watched, she couldn't help but feel, amusement? Mixed with an odd sensation of responsibility.

She wanted to go out there, to help the five beings and to guide them to their goal, but she had her orders. She paused, realizing just how foreign such a feeling truly was to the ancient queen.

“I’m spending too much time with Cadey,” she muttered, a smirk crossing her muzzle.

Still, even then she couldn't help but think of the five beings as little more than grubs, and something about that comparison seemed to urge her to go out there and help them. She sighed, silently wondering if she had perhaps put off birthing more drones for too long, as her motherly instincts were starting to overflow onto random ponies.

Even if they were adorable ponies.

The queen shook her head and forced herself to review what had happened after the last few hours before she had done a quick sweep and checked on the other group that was camped nearby.

She had heard the five beings talk, and had listened closely as Twilight had admitted some rather interesting news. Even the fact that she was a proto-lich was overshadowed by a different tidbit of information that the queen stumbled on, through what seemed like pure chance. When the five beings had drawn close, and had convinced Twilight to let them help her, Chrysalis had detected something strange.

Not with her eyes, ears or other normal senses, and not even with the emotional senses that all changelings had, but rather her finely tuned magical senses that only the oldest and most capable beings had. The sense itself allowed her to feel great stores of magic and if she focused, she could easily tell what school of magic the lingering originated from. And if she was lucky, even get a hint of its purpose. So when the five beings suddenly flared with magic, the queen had instantly focused her magical senses on the them, trying to figure out what exactly had happened.

Only to come up with… nothing.

She didn't know what school the magic was from, where it had originated, where it went or what its purpose was. It dissipated quickly, the five beings all disengaging from the hug pile they had briefly formed and sure enough by the time they stood apart, the magic was gone, as if it had never existed in the first place.

Chrysalis pushed the thoughts of the strange magic from her mind, there was no point dwelling on it now, especially with her quarry so close at hoof.

As if on cue, Chrysalis saw the thestral wiggle out from inside her sleeping bag and quickly don her armor. “What are you up to, little pony?” the queen whispered.

Chrysalis slithered down the tree, her eyes never leaving the pony as she strapped herself up and belted her sword to her side. The changeling watched as the thestral slowly began to circle the camp, her eyes scanning the treeline, though the sun shining overhead seemed to hinder her sight. Not like it would matter of course, Chrysalis was an expert infiltrator and she doubted the thestral would be able to see her even if the changeling were mere feet away.

The pony circled the camp a second time, her eyes flicking over the sight of her friends and lingering on the tent more often than not. Chrysalis could tell even from a distance that the thestral had some sort of conflict with one of the beings in the tent and by the third circle the changeling was sure it was Twilight.

But why? They had been so close only mere hours ago, was there something the changeling didn't notice?

Impossible, the changeling thought to herself.

As she watched and analyzed the bat pony’s emotion, the puzzle began to unravel and soon enough Chrysalis began to understand the thestral’s sudden about-face.

The thestral was obviously conflicted by the knowledge she had gained earlier, which would explain the small amount of fear she felt as it wasn't for her, but for Twilight. What would she have to fear though? Perhaps she feared what her fellow guards would do once they knew that they had a necromancer in their midst? They seemed reasonable though, but then again Chrysalis had to admit that if a day pony wandered into her camp and showed incredible power and questionable loyalty, the queen was likely to kill them just to be safe. Was that what this pony was about to do?

Chrysalis waited and watched as Rainbow Dash continued her patrol, never once getting closer to Twilight’s tent and never drawing her weapon. The changeling slowly slunk back down into her hiding spot, her muscles relaxing as evidently the thestral did not wish to at least directly harm the queen’s charge.

A sudden twang and the changeling was already on the ground less than a millisecond later. After a quick emotional scan of the surroundings, she felt a presence retreating into the forest, but far enough away that the queen was unlikely to have been the target. The changeling peeked around, quickly finding that the thestral had followed her lead, though of course she didn't know it.

Rainbow Dash’s head poked up and scowled at the arrow embedded in the tree beside her, making Chrysalis have to suppress a snicker. Evidently it wasn't just Cadence and her little resistance that had a flair for dramatic, but rather the night guard as well.

Her hooves pumped under her and within seconds she was already over the shoulder of the thestral, catching a brief glimpse at the paper in her hoof. Chrysalis had already drawn a blade when a sudden burst of emotion made her stop.

She had been seconds from dropping on the thestral and ending her before she had a chance to alert her fellow guard, only for a surge of panic to explode from the thestral. A would-be murderer did not fear the order to kill a sleeping pony, the guiltless did not fear the result of their actions, and this thestral was anything but guiltless.

Thinking quickly, Chrysalis stowed her blade and retreated higher up into the canopy, her spindly limbs carrying her soundlessly into the tree tops. Sure enough a few seconds later she heard the somber hoofsteps of the thestral guard as she stomped off into the woods. Not fly, not trot, but stomp, an act that further confused the changeling.

She decided to simply sit back and watch, hoping she didn't have to end this poor pony’s life quite yet. Chrysalis ignored the part of her that raged at the thought of pitying prey, but she stuffed that part of her down deep.

As the thestral stomped off towards her fellow guards’ camp, Chrysalis could feel her go through a variety of emotions. From fear, to confusion, to anger, the thestral ran the gamut of confused emotions as she walked ever closer.

All the while the changeling had no trouble staying up and out of sight, even slipping through a guard patrol of three thestrals that whizzed through the trees. In the distance she could see the glint of steel and a few tents standing in a small clearing, a large, rather imposing thestral looming at the center. The pony easily stood a foot taller than his fellow guards and his armor was significantly thicker. Most interesting of all was the small pair of wings on the back of his helm that indicated that he was the commander of this little operation.

Nestling into the crook of a large oak, the changeling hid herself well and lay in wait, extending her senses into the camp.

Below her, Rainbow Dash slipped through the ring of trees and winced at the light that shone through the break in the canopy. She shielded her eyes with a hoof and walked into the center, blinking rapidly in hope of her eyes adapting to the light.

She exchanged a brief word with a camp guard before being pointed towards the stallion at the center, whose frown seemed to grow even deeper at the sight of the rainbow-maned thestral. As she approached though, the captain seemed to stow such emotion down deep, replacing it with determination.

“Greetings, Private Dash, how goes your scouting mission?” he announced warmly.

The thestral didn't seem to be having any of it and snorted at the warm greeting. “Cut the crap, are you spying on me?”

The captain rolled his eyes. “No, we are merely your backup in case things hit the fan, as they say.”

Chrysalis could feel the thestral’s relief and her posture slumped slightly. “Good, ‘cause something tells me this whole expedition is only going to get more complicated from here.”

The captain nodded. “That may be. Now, have you discovered any information on our little visitor?”

Rainbow Dash tensed, and Chrysalis could feel the fear coming off of her all the way from her hiding spot. “Sort of.”

The captain nodded. “Anything you know about why she's here, anything strange she may have done, where she's from and who sent her would greatly help our investigation.”

The smaller thestral gulped at her captain’s commanding tone. “Yes, sir.” She breathed deeply, and suddenly the fear and confusion was washed away. “She is not here by choice, she just wants to go home, but does not know anything about the forest or its denizens.”

“Interesting. How did she end up here?”

Rainbow Dash hesitated. “It seems as though she had a mishap with the solar guard and fled.” Her confidence surged, an idea no doubt forming in her mind. “From there she rode the river into the forest, but lost consciousness.”

The captain was quiet for a long moment, his gaze distant. “What kind of mishap?”

“She was, vague. Sir.”


The younger guard’s stance wavered slightly. “Her and her family seemed to be at the wrong end of the law, but refused to say how exactly. I have been able to infer that it doesn't seem to be a law that we have, but rather one that's exclusive to the day realm.”

“The plot thickens,” the captain remarked.


The captain shook his head. “Nothing, merely the musings of an old soldier. Anything else to report?”

“Only that she intends to use this trip as a way to pay back the various debts she's accumulated over the time that she's been here,” Rainbow Dash added.

“Oh? Like what?”

“Applejack wants something from the castle, though I don't think she's stealing, rather she seems to be trying to find something presumed lost. The outsider seems confident she can help in this matter and is eager to do so as she has been receiving free room and board from the Apples.”

The captain nodded. “Go on.”

“Rarity seemed to have helped her find her way around town and bought her some food at a different occasion and she is here to study the banners in the main hall.”

The larger thestral tensed slightly. “She doesn't intent on taking them, correct?”

Rainbow shook her head. “No, she knows our laws and respects them. She just wishes to study the banners in hopes of replicating the fabric.”

“Good, and this forest spirit, Fluffershy?”

“Fluttershy, sir.”

“Why is she here?”

Rainbow rolled her eyes. “She's too kind for her own good.”

The captain cocked his head, only to burst into laughter. “That does sound like our resident spirit.” The larger thestral smiled suddenly, joy trickling out of him. “Good job, Private Dash. At this rate you may get your shadowbolts like you always wanted.”

The smaller thestral grinned. “Thank you, sir. Is that all?”

“Yes,” the guard captain said, only to trot after the mare. “Oh, I nearly forgot, do you still have the gem on you?”

The rainbow-maned pony gulped, a spike of fear emanating from her. “N-no. I’m sorry but it was lost during a fight with a manticore matron.”

The captain slumped slightly. “Too bad, that would have really helped us find out what kind of magic this unicorn has to offer.”

“I better get going sir, they might start wondering where I went off to.”

He nodded, giving the smaller thestral a clap on the back. “Good work, Rainbow Dash. Keep it up.”

Rainbow grinned from ear to ear and shot the captain a quick salute. “Thank you, sir!”

Then, before the captain could think of any other questions, the thestral opened her wings and shot off into the forest, leaving the guard captain to roll his eyes and cough as he was caught in her fleeting dust cloud. He turned, making his way back to the tent, only to be interrupted by another guard who approached, a nervous look on her face. She was smaller than the captain, much smaller and seemed so filled with fear that she would probably jump at the sight of her own shadow.

“Yes, Lieutenant Swift Shadow?” the captain asked, already annoyed.

The smaller pony gulped. “I was just wondering if you believe her, sir.”

The captain’s eyes narrowed and Chrysalis could feel a small spike of anger erupt from the stallion. “And why do you ask that?”

“Well, no offence to Rainbow Dash, but she isn't exactly the brightest and-”

“Let me stop you right there, lieutenant.” The captain’s eyes narrowed and he leaned closer. “I do not accept such talk under my command. If you have a problem with someone, then talk it out with them, do not let it color your perception. Am I understood?”

The poor little guard was shaking like a leaf by this point, barely able to keep a grip on her weapon. “Y-yes sir!”

The captain nodded. “Good, and though I know she isn't the brightest, she is smart in other ways and loyal to the core. Something I wish all of my guards emulated.”

Chrysalis ignored the rest of the conversation, opening her wings and propelling herself from her hiding spot and flying towards where she had seen Rainbow Dash go. The changeling had heard all she needed and though the jury was still out on this odd guard, Chrysalis felt a bit of relief after hearing what she had.

Despite losing sight of the thestral, Chrysalis had felt confident that she was heading back to their camp, only to stop suddenly mid-flight as she felt a burst of confusion and indecision from her right. The location was deeper in the woods and closer to a small creek that ran through the area. Intrigued by the emotions, the changeling shifted course and flew the treetops until a certain prismatic thestral came into view.

The guard stood above the ravine, her leathery wings holding her aloft as she gripped a small white gem in her hoof. She was staring into it, unaware of her surroundings as she peered within the gem, as if looking for the answer to some unasked question.

Didn't she lose that? Chrysalis thought, recalling those tumultuous few minutes after the group had fallen through that hole and accidentally evaded the queen.

The sound of the thestral’s voice drew the queen from her musings. “Is this really the right thing to do?” she asked the gem.

When the gem didn't answer, the thestral sighed. “She's my friend, but…”

Her shoulders sagged and she looked down at the gem in a new light. “Maybe I should give you to the captain.”

But instead of turning and heading back to the guard camp, she just hovered there, staring deep into the pure white gem. After almost a minute of silence she spoke, “No, I can't do that to her. Not after she trusted me to keep her secret.”

The gem slipped from her hoof and dropped into the ravine, quickly being carried away by the current. With her decision made, the thestral sped off towards the direction of their camp, leaving the queen behind.

Thinking quickly, the changeling raced down the side of the ravine, searching for the gem before it could get carried far. Sure enough, the queen found it within a few minutes, the gem having gotten tangled in a matt of weeds that grew near the water's edge.

With a deft hoof she scooped it out of the water and eyed it cautiously. Though she lacked a horn, she knew what this gem was supposed to do, but without a way of activating it she was forced to stow it away for now.

“Cadence is going to want to see this,” she muttered, before following after the thestral guard.

Sunset Shimmer was not a happy pony.

She wasn't a happy pony in general, and wasn't especially known for her being joyful even before her unfortunate arrest.

Still, even with all that in mind, today Sunset Shimmer was an exceptionally unhappy pony.

She stood at the edge of the Everfree, small twisted trees and bushes that dotted the lead up to the forest were now behind her and the central mass of the true Everfree lay just before her.

She could feel the commands placed inside her, urging her onwards, but she refused that call, at least for another few minutes. She couldn't help but idly muse at the fact that there was something completely different about knowing you are about to do something incredibly dangerous and most definitely life-threatening and actually doing it. Thus she stood sentinel, the river to her left being the only sound other than the thunderous beat of her own heart.

She had heard many stories about the history of the forest, read many tomes about the bizarre life within it and heard many tales of the horrors that awaited within this cursed wood and none of them could prepare her for this moment.

The sense of wrongness was the first thing that struck her, it was as if the forest itself wanted her gone and had made its displeasure known. The feeling of guilt was akin to being glared at by an older pony after Sunset had just done something she knew was wrong.

With great difficulty she pushed the feeling aside, reminding herself just how many of those stories, and books were probably just lies perpetuated by Celestia. The sentiment had weight in the unicorn’s mind and she did believe it and yet the feeling remained. She couldn't help but gulp as she lifted her hoof and took the first step into the Everfree Forest.

Instantly she was met with a sharp stinging sensation coming from her leg and she looked down to see a small bee, its stinger buried in her limb, its tiny wings buzzing furiously. With a groan of annoyance she plucked the bee out, using her magic and tossed it aside, only to see the tiny bug spin around in mid-air and come right back at her.

Her programming flared unexpectedly and her telekinetic aura squished the bee into a fine yellow paste.

The unicorn blinked, silently groaning at the very minor headache that washed over her. She hated that feeling, but despite this pain, she couldn't help but feel a little bad for the poor bug. She hadn't wanted to do that after all and the feeling of having her will torn away just to squish a bug seemed like overkill.

With a resounding sigh, the unicorn let her head fall and her hooves carry her into the forest, casting a glance over her shoulder at the shining city that was now little more than a speck in the distance. Even though much had changed and this Canterlot wasn't the one she knew, it still felt strange to leave the city of her birth behind her.

She turned back to the trail at head, oblivious to the fact that she would die before seeing that golden city again.

Sunset Shimmer was not a happy pony, this much was true, and though she thought she knew the bottom of the barrel, she would come to understand just how little she knew.

“Fuck!” she yelled, pulling another burr from her fur and tossing it aside with an angry burst of yellow magic.

With a grunt she looked down at her burr-free fur that was significantly more discolored than what she was used to suffering over the course of her missions. Numerous cuts, bruises and the former insides of many strange bugs now marred her coat. She sighed, noticing that at least there weren't anymore lance bugs jabbing their proboscides into her flesh.

The unicorn shivered at the thought, casting a wary eye on her surroundings and confirming that no more of the dreaded bloodsuckers had survived. With none of the horrid creatures in sight, she shook her head and looked up to the path ahead, only to groan.

The trees had moved since she had stopped to pick off the burrs and the already tight and winding path only grew even tighter and more winding. She took a step, only to stop, narrowing her eyes at a burr patch that hadn't been there a minute ago.

“I’m watching you,” she muttered, her eyes glued to the bush as she walked past, not noticing another lance bug that emerged from behind her.

“YOWCH!” she screamed, her head spinning to see the nasty critter eagerly drinking her blood with what she hesitated to call a smile on its tiny buggy face.

Her programming activated and for once she agreed, as she was happy to get rid of it with all due speed. The dull gold glow around her horn faded and she tossed aside the liquid remains of the lance bug, glaring at the mark that now besmirched her behind.

With a growl the unicorn turned, her every step causing her to wince in pain.

She had been tempted to stop and have a bite to eat, but the last time she had done so, a bird roughly the size of her head had swooped down and plucked the apple right out of her hoof before disappearing.

“How could this possibly get any worse?” she groaned, voicing her complete and utter discontent for the forest to hear.

A distant roar and the sound of a falling tree seemed to answer her question and the unicorn facehoofed so hard she almost gave herself a black eye. “Ouch,” she muttered.

She shook her head and kept walking, her ears up and alert, ready to detect any other movement coming from the direction of the roar. Seconds ticked past as she slowly, methodically, made her way through the underbrush.

There was no sound of snapping twigs or tumbling trees or roaring beasts, only the slightly distant sound of the river. It hadn't been far, maybe only a few hundred metres that she had heard the roar, though thankfully it sounded like it was on the other side of the river, granting her at least somewhat of a barrier.

With her attention drawn between ensuring that she didn't step in anymore poison ivy, while also listening for whatever had roared, her nerves were drawn thin. Her eyes frantically scanned the treeline as her ears twisted this way and that, desperate to find the source of the distant roar.

Seconds became minutes and still only the sound of water met her ears, the gentle lapping of the river her only companion. Then, out of nowhere a mighty roar erupted from her right, and from the sheer power and intensity it was obviously very, very close.

With a frightened squeak the unicorn bolted to her left, hoping to find someplace to cross the river and escape whatever great beast lurked nearby. Her programming pushed her and she was all too happy to obey the spell’s orders to flee.

She burst through a bush, using her magic to blast apart the vegetation and allowing her to pass. As if angered by the bush’s destruction, the creature roared again, this time much closer which had the unfortunate side effect of allowing Sunset Shimmer to hear that it was not just one roar, but rather a roar, a bleat of some sort of a goat and the hiss of a great snake.

The unicorn shivered in fear, her panic putting even more speed into her frantic hooves.

She leapt over a fallen log and skidded around an enormous willow, finally catching a glimpse of the rushing water just beyond. Her heart leapt in her chest and the mare put her head down, hoping to find someway across.

The creature wasn't far behind her now and despite it being large enough to make the ground rumble with each bounding step, she couldn't hear the snap of twigs or the toppling of trees. Whatever this creature was, it was agile enough to duck between bushes and trees that even Sunset had difficulty slipping past.

She threw a frantic glance ahead, her eyes lighting up as she saw the distinct form of a beaver dam several metres downstream. The sight seemed to elicit a different emotion in the creature and Sunset was once more beset by the thunderous cry of the three-voiced roar.

The spell inside her churned to life, her eye having caught a glimpse of a large tree near the water’s edge that lay just before her. With a blast of her horn the spell used the unicorn’s magic to perfectly weaken the aged tree. With a groan the tree began to list heavily, allowing Sunset mere milliseconds to sprint under it before it fell.

The creature let out an oddly mournful keen, its thunderous bulk stopping for a moment.

Sunset would have smiled at any other time, but with fear still pulsing in her heart, she dared not waste even a moment.

The unicorn leapt over a small bush before digging in her hooves and turning on a dime. With a quick spell to make her weigh less, she jumped out from the bank, her hooves landing gracefully on the enormous beaver dam that stretched the entire river.

The random bits of wood and debris groaned under her weight, but despite their protests they held, allowing the unicorn to cross unhindered. As she crossed the middle of the dam, she hazarded a glance over her shoulder and instantly wished she hadn't.

The creature sat impassive at the other end of the dam, its three heads all glaring at her with barely contained rage. It was large, easily over seven metres tall and almost as wide. One head was that of a sabre-toothed tiger, its colors a deep orange with black stripes. The other forward facing head was that of a great fanged ram, a large pair of horns spiralling out of either side of its head. From the rear of the creature loomed its third and final head, a great cobra-like snake that had large fangs jutting from its mouth.

Sunset Shimmer knew well the sight of a chimera, but whatever this creature was, a simple chimera it was not. Where the chimera had three different colored eyes, this creature had only only bright yellow sclera and blood red pupils, lacking irises entirely. Stranger still was the fact that instead of having two pawed feet on the front, it had a single pawed limb and a strangely clawed hand, like that of a griffon and on the back where there should be two hooved limbs was only a single hoofed leg and in addition scaled limb like that of a dragon.

With a terrified shriek, the unicorn bolted across the rest of the dam, only stopping when she had reached the other side. Sure enough the creature was wary of the beaver dam and eyed it cautiously.

With a sigh of relief, Sunset Shimmer picked up the pace, sprinting along the side of the river all the while keeping an eye on the creature. However she didn't make it far before she stopped, dumbstruck by what she saw.

The strange chimera had stepped out onto the dam, its horns glowing with the same color light that Sunset’s own horn had mere moments before. “Oh no,” she muttered.

The creature took a second step, then a third, its entire weight on the dam and still it held.

Before she could come up with a plan, her programming leapt to life, powering her horn with a catastrophic amount of energy, unleashing it in the form of an explosive burst of power that rocketed towards the dam. The shimmering sphere of energy slammed into the side of the dam and erupted into an enormous outpouring of force that tore through the beaver’s home like a thousand knives through hot butter.

With a strangled screech of panic, the dam gave way beneath the great creature and the ensuing flood of water carried it down the river and towards Sunset Shimmer.

Thinking quickly, the unicorn dove to her left, barely missing a panicked swipe from the twisted chimera as it was carried past her by the surge of water. Its frantic limbs pumped and for a second it looked like its limbs managed to find purchase on the riverbank, only for the branch to slip from its grasp. With one long, annoyed roar the creature disappeared from sight, vanishing along with several hundred pounds of wood that used to be a beaver dam.

“What was that?” the unicorn muttered.

The Castle

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“Finally! It's about time you showed up, you stupid castle!” Rainbow Dash yelled, shaking her hoof at the building.

Applejack rolled her eyes and stepped up beside the thestral. “I don't rightly think it's the castle’s fault there, RD.”

The thestral snorted. “Well, it's someone’s fault.”

Rarity peeked out from the bush she was only half hidden in, casting a wary eye about the area before stepping up next to her friends. “Well, I’m just glad we are finally here.” The arachne picked a branch out of her mane and disdainfully tossed it aside. “I’m almost out of foundation and all this moonlight is not doing my skin any favors.”

Fluttershy, who was currently inhabiting the body of Angel the bunny, hopped up onto Rarity’s back and peeked over her shoulder, gazing nervously at the ancient structure. “Oh, I hope there is some more moon carrots around here. They are Angel’s favorite.”

Twilight Sparkle was the last to emerge from the wall of trees, only to walk into another tree almost immediately.

“Whoa there, what's the rush?” Applejack remarked, turning around to find her unicorn friend still nose deep in a book.

“Yo Twi. Everfree to Twi.” Rainbow Dash tapped the mare’s head, finally knocking her out of her intense concentration.

“Oh uh, sorry about that.” Twilight blushed slightly, tucking the book back in her bag.

“What were ya reading so intensely that you tried to get familiar with my backside?” Applejack said with a snicker.

“The nightmare of the undertower.” The unicorn blushed awkwardly, lifting an eyebrow when she noticed the rest of the ponies all blanched. “I’m assuming you girls know something about it?”

Rarity shivered, holding herself tightly with her hooves. “My grandmother used to tell me that the nightmare was not a creature at all, but rather all the horrors of the war made real.”

Fluttershy cocked her head. “Strange, my father used to tell me that it was a guardian spirit that had been corrupted by the evil that was within the hearts of those that sought out the tower. Apparently those who desired the knowledge found in the undertower tended to not have the best of intentions.”

“I didn't think your parents would know anything about the undertower,” Rarity remarked.

The bunny shrugged. “My father liked to travel in his youth.”

“Well, I heard it was a pony that broke a contract with the forest and was cursed to the deepest depths of the old castle,” Applejack added.

Rainbow Dash snorted. “Fluttershy is the closest. The higher-ups say that the nightmare is some sort of guard that watches over the deepest levels of the undertower. No one knows how to get around it or what you need to appease it and worse still, it's incorporeal, but can still touch ya at the same time.” The thestral wiggled her hooves at the unicorn for dramatic affect.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Either way, we probably won't even go deep enough to run into this thing.”

Rainbow Dash laughed. “You big babies. All the areas the nightmare prowls are mapped and it never leaves those spots. It's not just gonna sneak up on us outta nowhere.”

“Rainbow Dash! You are going to jinx it!” Rarity hissed.

The thestral rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Let's go already, we’re burning moonlight out here.”

As the group crossed the craggy, rock strewn lawn that separated the forest from the castle, Twilight took the time to look around and really take in the new area. The first thing she noticed was that the rocks littering the ground were oddly uniform and levitating up one such object revealed that it most likely used to be a part of a wall. The chunk she was holding still had a bit of mortar stuck to the bottom. A glance at her surroundings told her that whatever had destroyed the top of the tower had to have had a lot of force behind it as it had managed to scatter rubble for hundreds of metres in seemingly every direction.

A glance up at the castle revealed it had been a rather simple structure, four towers with large walls connecting them surrounding an inner keep that rose above even the towers. At the centre of the wall directly before them a simple guardhouse stood, surprisingly undamaged, with even its large wooden entrance still on its hinges. The closest tower was easily the most destroyed part of the castle and the unicorn guessed that it must have been the source of the rubble. The entire structure was clearly ancient, judging from its rather rudimentary design and simplistic nature. It lacked what the good majority of modern defensive structures had and didn't even have a moat or anything to slow down any would-be attacker.

Yet despite just how ancient it was, it seemed as though the forest kept a respectful distance, no large trees growing within a hundred metre radius of the hill the castle stood on. Sure there were a few bushes here and there and Twilight could see some moss and vines growing on the structure, but nothing taller than her waist grew within this strange exclusion zone. Twilight made a note of coming back here and studying it in more detail, she was sure it would help shed light on early castle design.

The unicorn stopped and slapped a hoof to her forehead. “I almost forgot. Do you know what kind of bricks Pinkie Pie wanted or just any?” Twilight asked, turning to Fluttershy.

The bunny shrugged. “I’m not sure, but she did mention that you would know which ones she wanted if you felt them.”

“Right.” The unicorn turned and scanned the ground, seeking out any bricks that caught her eye.

As the rest of the group continued forward, Twilight hastily assembled a large mass of bricks. Levitating the collection in front of her, she reached out a hoof and touched one of them at random. Other than feeling cold, Twilight couldn't tell if it had any of the strange properties Pinkie Pie liked. Tossing it aside, she grabbed another, this one instantly making her eyes go wide. “Whoa,” she mumbled.

“Found some funny rocks, did ya?” Applejack asked.

Twilight nodded. “Yeah, this one feels strange, like it's hot and cold at the same time.” The unicorn shivered. “Weird.”

Rarity giggled. “I guess we finally figured out why Pinkie Pie is so different.”

Rainbow Dash scoffed. “Hah! Eating funny rocks ain't the half of it. Plus from the way I heard it, she came here already strange. She was odd well before she got to Ponyville.”

“Don't you think it's a little rude to talk about a being that isn't around?” Twilight asked rather pointedly.

“Are you alright, my young apprentice? Was there something in the lettuce?” Zecora asked, glancing down at the salad the two were eating.

Pinkie Pie wiped her nose of the snot a sudden sneezing fit had brought on. “No, I think it's gone now.”

“Odd,” Zecora remarked quietly, glancing at her pepper shaker before slowly pushing it away.

“Quite right,” Rarity agreed.

Twilight nodded, following along as the rest of the group made their way closer to the castle while she continued to inspect the bricks one by one. Eventually she had worked her way through the pile of stone, leaving her with four very strange and surprisingly light bricks that she tucked away in one of her bags.

Happy to not have to lug around a pile of heavy bricks for the rest of their little adventure, Twilight quickly caught up with the rest of her friends as they approached the entrance to the castle.

It was a tall and wide door, but not so much so that it would allow more than a small cart through. Probably due to the fact that any winged beings could simply lift everything over the walls, making the lack of a real gate a boon for defence and not a loss for the occupants of the castle. As Twilight looked around, she noted that defence was their primary worry as around the heavy iron wrought oak door were many arrow slits and even an opening several feet above the door that would allow the defenders to pour boiling oil from. The unicorn shivered at the thought, her imagination running wild with images of screaming ponies covered in burning pitch.

She pushed away the thoughts and approached her friends.

“Ready to go in?” Twilight asked.

Rainbow Dash shook her head. “Not yet. First we have to request the favor of the spirits. The castle can be a bit of a pain if they don't favor you.”

Twilight lifted an eyebrow, but a quick glance at the rest of her friends told her they all agreed, most nodding somberly along with Rainbow’s assertion. “Okay then,” Twilight muttered, reluctantly going along.

There was, after all, a spirit inhabiting a bunny right next to them, so the concept wasn't that farfetched.

Rainbow Dash bowed low towards the castle, her forehead nearly touching the ground, and her blade lying next to her in the dirt. The rest of her friends followed suit, with Applejack grunting as she bent as much as she could while Rarity ducked into an elaborate bow.

“Spirits of the Everfree Castle, we beseech you. We ask that you allow us safe passage through your home and if you are willing, protection. We promise to be respectful, and that we will not tarry in your hallowed home.” The thestral nodded her head, retrieved her blade and stood up. “Alright then, let's-”

Whatever she was about to say was interrupted by the door suddenly flying open, nearly knocked off its hinges by an incredibly cold wind that suddenly billowed out of it and over the four friends. The living beings all shivered, staring in awe at the empty doorway while Twilight simply let her horn dim and the power to fade.

“What was that?” She asked.

Rainbow Dash shook her head, placing her sword back in its place. “Never seen that happen before. The spirits must have taken a liking to us.”

“Odd. We didn't even make an offering,” Rarity added.

“Better to not question good luck, as Granny Smith always says.” Applejack motioned for her friends to keep moving. “Come on y'all, I wanna set up camp before dayfall.”

Fluttershy emerged from behind one of Rarity’s legs and let out a sigh of relief, glancing over at Rainbow Dash. “What do you think?”

The guard straightened her helmet and nodded. “Sounds like a plan. I’ll take point.”

“What are we keeping track of points for?” Applejack asked, much to the thestral’s amusement.

“It means I walk in front,” she corrected.

“Oh uh, I knew that,” Applejack muttered.

“Riight.” Rainbow Dash stepped to the fore of the group, keeping a hoof near her weapon as they trotted into the castle.

Next came Applejack, then Rarity and Fluttershy and last but not least, Twilight who took up the rear, her horn glowing faintly, ready to cast a defensive spell at any moment. Together the group entered the guardhouse, which was a simple square room large enough to fit thirty ponies with relative ease. The walls were dotted with arrow slits and the roof seemed carved with an ancient rune that had long since been rendered useless. To the right was an iron door that seemed warped, having been fused into the wall due to what looked like extreme heat. Across from them, a set of double doors hung half on their hinges, having been blown outwards and gotten lodged in the dirt of the courtyard.

Twilight couldn't help but realize that the breeze had to have been magical or supernatural in origin as there was no was nowhere it could have come from.

The group eyed the slits carefully, but despite their paranoia nothing moved, and no harm came to them as they passed through the room.

Beyond the entrance, the courtyard opened up and like the exterior, it was filled with debris and destruction that had rained down from the destroyed upper layers of the keep and the tower. Few of the minor structures not made of stone were left standing after all these years. Small barracks to the right seemed to have been partially crushed by a chunk of falling stone work as were most of the other buildings that hadn't simply rotted to nothing.

The keep itself loomed before them, rising several magnificent stories before shattering, its top forming a jagged crown that would have pierced the canopy.

The group, minus Rainbow Dash, all stopped and stared for a moment, distracted by the former majesty of the grand structure. They all gawked in silence, before following Rainbow Dash who kept a few feet in front of them, her gaze drawn down to the keep ahead.

“Hold up,” the guard commanded, raising a hoof and signalling a stop.

“What's the hold up?” Applejack asked, peering over the thestral’s shoulder.

“Look.” Rainbow pointed to a set of chalk markings next to the door.

One marking looked like a poorly drawn skull, the second was an S with several lines under it. “Strange, I’ve never seen this kind of markings before,” Rarity remarked.

Twilight walked to the forefront. “Looks like short script.”

Rainbow Dash nodded. “Good to know you are actually reading the important bits first. That is short script and it means danger.” She pointed to the skull. “And spiders.” She pointed to the S, then to the lines underneath. “Lots of spiders.”

“Lots of dangerous spiders.” Applejack shrugged. “So what? Either we ask ‘em nicely to leave or we squish ‘em.”

Rarity shivered, clutching her midsection. “Don't use the S-word please!”

“What, squish?” Applejack asked.

Rarity shivered again, her ears falling flat against her head. “Yes!”

Twilight ignored the two, turning to a pondering Rainbow Dash who stood next to the writing. “What do you make of this?” the unicorn asked.

“It looks new.” The thestral brushed her hoof across the chalk, noting that a bit of it stuck to her hoof. “Hasn't even had enough time to really adhere. Meaning it couldn't have been here for more than a few days.”

“That makes sense why we didn't get a warning about them,” Twilight added.

“Right,” Rainbow Dash agreed. “They must have arrived here just when we were leaving town.” She snorted. “Just our luck.”

“How dangerous are these spiders anyway? The book didn't have too many entries on them,” Twilight asked.

“I can answer that,” Rarity announced, stepping up beside the pair. “I am assuming that since a patrol came through and the spiders were not cleared out, they must be of the giant variety.”

Rainbow nodded. “If it was a minor infestation or a couple more animalistic spiders, they would have cleared them out and not bothered with a warning. The guard is probably mustering as we speak.”

“Exactly. Which means this is likely a group of wandering goliath spiders,” Rarity added.

“What are those?” Fluttershy asked nervously, peeking out from behind the arachne’s shoulders. “I have never heard of that kind of spider before.”

“They are rare. Tending to stick near burrows in the deep woods and rarely venturing forth.” Rarity glanced back to the warning, running a hoof over the stone. “They are intelligent, but incredibly superstitious.”

“So we can just talk to them, right?” Twilight asked hesitantly.

“Stars above, no.” Rarity scoffed. “They eat just about anything and the males are almost completely unintelligent. Plus they have their own language and most refuse to learn the common tongue.”

“And let me guess, you don't know their language?” Twilight asked.

Rarity sighed. “Yes, I’m afraid my Sissezeth is a little rusty. Mother forced me to attend a few lessons when I was young but I stopped after the first year.” She shrugged. “All I remember is sheeeshalana which means please, and kshashee, which means parlay.”

“That sounds like an odd set of words to remember,” Applejack remarked.

The arachne shrugged. “The mind remembers what it wants to.”

Twilight nodded. “That just might help us. At least we can ask to parlay if given the chance.”

Applejack shrugged. “How big are these things anyway, you sure we can't just sq- I mean, deal with them?”

Rainbow Dash shook her head. “They are fairly intelligent and if guided by a matron they may be outfitted with weapons and silversilk armor. She gestured to the castle. “Plus they have had days to set up traps and defences, lucky for us the castle’s traps have been disabled. They will however know the second we step inside, unless we are very careful where we step.”

“Oh that's right, they have silversilk!” Rarity clapped her hooves together happily. “Oh, to think I could learn the art of weaving such an amazing thread.” She sighed. “But that will never happen.”

“Alright, so if we ain't going in there, why don't we just wait for the guards to show up?” Applejack asked.

“I agree! We can just wait for those big strong guards to help us,” Fluttershy added.

“They might not even bother. Goliath spiders need a lot of food, which the castle doesn't have. They might just wait ‘em out and steer away any townsfolk in the meantime.” Rainbow Dash pointed out.

“Damn,” Applejack cursed.

“And we don't have the supplies to wait around.” The arachne sighed. “This entire trip has been a bust.”

“Not yet,” Twilight announced.

The other beings all stared at the unicorn.

“Err, why do you say that?” Fluttershy asked.

“We have to try. We couldn't have come all the way out here for nothing,” she exclaimed. “And there is a chance we can talk it out.”

Rainbow nodded. “I think we can take ‘em.”

Applejack stomped a hoof and snorted. “So long as we avoid the matron, we definitely can.”

“I would really like to meet the matron,” Rarity remarked, much to her friends’ chagrin. “But our original goal would be good too,” she added quickly.

“I think avoiding the spiders entirely would be our best bet as we don't have to fight,” Twilight added.

Fluttershy sighed. “That sounds like a much better plan.”

The unicorn grinned. “Right. So the plan is we avoid them as much as possible and if necessary, try to handle things diplomatically. How does that sound?”

The rest of her friends nodded back with mixed degrees of enthusiasm. “Fine, but I want you on point with me,” Rainbow Dash said sternly. “Rarity, I want you watching our backs, Applejack you’ll be in the middle, ready to back up Rarity or us when needed. Fluttershy, you can sit on Bloomberg and use those big ears of yours to let us know if you hear anything.”

Everyone nodded, save for Twilight who raised a hoof. “Wait, why am I on point?”

“Your night vision seems to be one of the best, plus I may need that fancy magic of yours. Just stand to the side of me and back a little. Alright?”

Twilight nodded slowly. “Alright, I’ll trust you.”

A wide smile crossed the guard’s face. “You girls ready for this?” The other four all nodded their assent. “Let's do this.”

The thestral turned and kicked open the door, which was exactly like the one they had passed through mere moments ago. Twilight rolled her eyes at the resounding bang that echoed through the castle walls. “Did you have to do that?” she asked incredulously.

Rainbow smirked, striding confidently into the room. “Goliath spiders may have great eyesight, but their hearing isn't very good and echoes easily confuse them. Just keep an eye out for any stray webs and we’ll be fine.”

Twilight sighed, following close behind the thestral as she walked deeper into the castle. The others all followed, with Rarity bringing up the rear.

Twilight paused, pointing towards something faint that had caught the light. “There, watch out.”

Rainbow Dash nodded, giving the almost completely invisible thread a wide berth and ensuring that the rest of their group did the same. “Good eye there, Twi.”

“Thanks. Apparently dying gives you night vision,” Twilight remarked morosely.

Rainbow Dash snorted. “And apparently gives you an appreciation for gallows humour.” She trotted a little faster, making her way back to the front of the group.

The halls had grown tight, rubble cluttering the corners not occupied by some ancient half destroyed statue or other art of some kind. A partially burnt carpet lay beneath their hooves, a carpet that Twilight noticed still felt quite comfortable even after all these years. Something about it made her stop and turn back, gazing to where the strand was. Sure enough the bit of webbing seemed anchored from the wall to the floor, but gave the furniture, including the carpet, a wide berth.

“Have you noticed that the webs don't touch anything other than the stonework?” Twilight asked.

The guard nodded. “They respect anything touched by the spirits. Though that respect apparently doesn't extend to the walls or floor.” She shook her head and continued on.

The group passed by more ruined furniture, a smashed statue and past a pair of rooms that had collapsed completely. “This place is like a maze,” Twilight remarked, glancing ahead where a staircase loomed.

“The castle is only partially restored, turning it into a bit of a labyrinth,” Rainbow Dash mentioned, gesturing behind them. “If we could get through the first doorway we saw when we entered the castle it would be a straight shot to the throne room. Unfortunately the pile of rubble that blocks that door is now load bearing. Meaning we gotta go up a flight of stairs, down another, up two and finally down through a hole that we added stairs to.”

Twilight glanced around nervously. “Are you sure it's safe to even be here?”

The thestral shrugged. “The guard spent a fortune to make sure it isn't about to collapse. So unless you plan on knocking over a bunch of support beams we should be fine.” Her eyes narrowed. “That isn't your plan, is it?”

Rolling her eyes, Twilight merely ignored the comment, noticing right away that the question wasn't actually a serious one. “Oh yes, you got me this time. Rainbow Dash. My plan was to go into the castle, then collapse it on myself all along.” She rolled her eyes and chuckled.

“Did someone say something about getting crushed by the castle?” Rarity asked, her voice raising a few octaves as she nervously looked around.

“No one is talking about getting smooshed, Rarity. Now keep an eye on our six.” Rainbow Dash chuckled, trotting ahead a few feet.

Twilight took up position just to her side, her horn no longer glowing.

The stairs just ahead would have been luxurious, but a gaping hole in one of the walls left it open to the elements and as such, the corridor was covered in a thin layer of mold. Climbing the stairs revealed another hallway in various states of dilapidation. Most rooms therein were either unaccessable or were filled with half rotten furniture and little else. Twilight’s heart lifted at the sight of a bookshelf in one of the rooms, only for a cursory glance to tell her that the books had all been thoroughly destroyed by the elements.

Continuing on, the group was forced to take a detour through a destroyed room as the main hall had been blocked off by a fallen set of support beams and a considerable amount of rubble. Skirting respectfully around a collapsed bed, they passed through a hole in the room’s wall and into the next room that was mercifuly lacking any moldy bedding. Turning back to the hall, they were able to come out on the other side of the rubble.

Fluttershy immediately jumped to attention, her long ears standing straight up. “Wait,” she whispered.

The group stopped, with everyone looking around, searching for the source of whatever Fluttershy had heard.

A second later the bunny slumped slightly, shaking her head. “It's gone.”

“What did you hear?” Twilight asked.

The bunny frowned, staring further down the hall. “I don't know. It sounded like a spider, but it was so distant that it could have been anything.”

Rainbow nodded grimly. “Be on the lookout and don't forget to watch overhead. They might not have set many traps so far, so they might be banking on ambushing us by dropping from the ceiling.”

Twilight glanced upwards, noting the vaulted ceiling was perfect for hiding any number of things. The unicorn gulped, silently rethinking her earlier confidence.

Together they crossed the hall and neared a second set of stairs, this one going back down to the floor they had just been on. On either side of the stairwell were a set of statues, one bronze, the other onyx, one a pegasus, the other a thestral. The bronze statue stood to the right, though it had an immense twinned scratch cleaving right through the centre, leaving the proud armored pegasus stallion nearly sliced in twain and barely upright. Whatever it had been holding had been removed and its face was a mess of scratches and holes.

“You've seen better days,” Twilight whispered, staring up at the scared and defaced statue that had once stood proudly over the stairwell.

Applejack snorted. “Ain't too many folk around here with love for her.” The pony horked and spat at the base of the statue.

Rainbow Dash stepped forward, peering intently at the twin scratches that went deeper than the thestral had first thought. “That's new.” Reaching out a hoof, she gently touched the edge of the sheared bronze. “Pretty clean too.”

“What could have done this?” Fluttershy asked nervously.

The thestral took a step back, wiping her hoof on the moldy carpet. “It looks like a spider claw, but they shouldn't be able to cut through bronze like this.”

The bunny whimpered, tucking her ears into Bloomberg’s bulk.

Twilight cast a curious glance at the other statue, noting that it appeared to be brand new, having been recently buffed to a shine. Without the plethora of scratches, dents and damage the other one had, the unicorn could actually tell more about the statue. It was as tall as its pegasus counterpart, only it actually still held the sword it was meant to, not the simple short gladius of the pegasus, but rather the long curved blade that Twilight had seen some of the night guards carry.

Its face was incredibly well detailed, to the point that if it wasn't all one color, Twilight could have sworn it would come alive at any moment.

The statue itself depicted a thestral clad in plate armor that covered nearly its entire body, save its head, missing ahelmet. Across its shoulders and dangling down to its knees was an odd scarf adorned with pins, medals, and a pair of moons at the end of each side, one waxing, one waning.

“Huh,” the unicorn muttered.

“Hey, you coming or what?” Rainbow Dash asked impatiently, jabbing the unicorn’s flank with an armored hoof.

Twilight huffed and turned back to the stairs. “I am sorry I took so long marveling at the art.”

“It really is something, isn't it?” Rarity added, gesturing to the statue. “I wonder if he had a name.”

Sighing, the guard pointed down to the plague that lay smashed next to the statue. “We’ll never know, one of that she-bitch’s slaves smashed it on their way out.”

The other beings all grimaced, with Applejack horking up another loogie at the mere mention of the solar alicorn.

“Either way, let's get moving. The sooner we get in, the sooner we can get out,” Twilight added.

Rainbow Dash nodded, taking a step down the stairs, only to stop and cock her head. “Did you hear that, Fluttershy?”

The bunny shook her head slowly. “There was something, but it's gone now.”

“Weird,” Applejack said with a shrug.

“Quite,” Rarity added.

Shaking her head, Rainbow Dash proceeded down the stairs, her ears swiveling atop her head.

Everyone else remained close behind, each glancing at their surroundings as if a spider was about to burst out of every nook and cranny. As they neared the bottom of the stairs, Rainbow Dash raised her hoof. “There it is again!”

Fluttershy nodded. “I think it was coming from below us.”

“Why would it be coming… Everyone run!” Rainbow Dash made it a half step before the ground suddenly gave out, sending everyone falling into a deep pit.

Twilight poured magic into her horn, but the sudden fall robbed her of the concentration needed to finishing casting her teleportation spell. Rarity scrambled uselessly, her many limbs scratching at the wall as she fell along with her friends. Applejack just sighed, and did not resist, determined to at least land on her hooves.

Their fall was mercifully short, with the entire group landing in something soft and clingy. Twilight tried to wrench her foreleg from whatever she was stuck in, only to find she was unable to move more than an inch. Looking around, she found the rest of her friends in a similar situation, with Applejack standing there in the centre of the web with an annoyed expression on her face. The farm mare hardly struggled, merely tugging at each of her limbs independently before sighing and resuming her angry pouting.

Fluttershy lay on her back just beside the tree-bound mare, her limbs tucked tight against her body as she shivered in fear. Rainbow Dash had managed to react the quickest, but had still gotten a hind leg firmly tangled in the webbing. Her wings pumped uselessly as she tried to escape the webbing, tugging on the limb to no avail. Rarity on the other hoof had just realized she had managed to land on her six spidery limbs and breathed a sigh of relief.

The spider pony looked around. “Is everyone alright?” she asked.

“Just peachy,” Applejack grouched.

“F-f-f-fine!” Fluttershy yelled.

Twilight sighed, giving up her attempt to remove herself from the webbing. “I’m okay.”

Glancing over at the struggling and cursing Rainbow Dash told the arachne all she needed to know. “Don't worry girls, I’ll get out of here and get help.” The fashionista did just that, climbing her way up the side of the web and towards the bottom of the stairs, only to shrink back down, a look of fear plastered on her face. “Nevermind.”

“What did you-... oh,” Twilight muttered, looking up at the many, many eyes that now looked down on them. “I thought you said the castle’s traps had been disabled.”

Rainbow Dash grunted, yanking at her leg once more. “They were!”

“Then how are we down here?” Applejack yelled, lifting a webbed leg in emphasis.

“I -umf- don't know!” Rainbow yelled back.

“Girls. What do we do?” Rarity asked nervously, glancing up to where the spiders were creeping closer, their jaws open and spit dripping down upon them.

Twilight’s mind whirled with possibilities, as her horn glowed faintly, her power fluctuating as various spells flashed through her mind. She could teleport out, but that would leave her friends behind. A fireball spell could potentially light the web on fire as well, dropping them to wherever the trap had originally intended to put them. Numerous spells and combinations flashed through her mind before she suddenly stopped, her eyes going wide. “Sheeeshalana, kshashee!” she yelled.

The spiders stopped suddenly, each one glancing at another in confusion. Near the back a larger one bumped another expectantly, gesturing further down the hall and whispering something. The smaller one rolled its eyes and did as it was told, skittering off into the darkness. The rest of the spiders glanced up to the larger one, who shook its head and took a step back.

“Quick thinking, Twi,” Applejack congratulated.

“Thank Rarity, she's the one that remembered,” Twilight replied.

“I never thought that would ever come in handy… maybe I should brush up on my Sissezeth.” Rarity tapped her chin and frowned. “Then again, it uses gendered nouns and that's just gross.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “How are you holding up, Fluttershy?”

The bunny shivered. “G-g-good.”

The unicorn sighed, leaning down and gently nosing the bunny. “It's going to be alright.”

Fluttershy’s shivers abated and she peeked out from behind a paw. “Are you s-s-ure?”

“Absolutely,” Twilight reassured.

The spiders shifted around, parting down the middle and drawing the unicorn’s attention upward to where she heard a strangely equine voice speak. “What's this? Didst thee finally catcheth something worthy of being a meal for mother?”

The larger spider stepped aside, nodding its head and pointing a hairy leg down at the five stuck beings.

A blue equine head peaked out over the lip of the trap, its wide purple eyes gazing down at the trapped beings. A horn rose out of the center of the pony’s head, only it was slightly longer and sharper than any unicorn Twilight had not seen in a mirror. The strange unicorn had a wild unkempt two toned light blue mane that was tied tightly together and bound across her neck and side, nearly touching the ground. Her fur was just as wild, and was also longer and thicker than what Twilight had ever seen before. Her ears and nose had several large piercings and a heavy necklace sat around her neck.

The pony’s eyes narrowed and she glared down at the trapped beings. “Not very big, art they? Oh well, they shall have to do, mother is filled with pangs of hunger and needeth to consume.”

“W-wait!” Twilight called. “Sheeeshalana, kshashee!”

The blue pony recoiled, covering her ears with her hooves. “What a truly horrid accent, and that wasn't even close! It's pronounced, sheeshala, kashee.” The pony stuck out her tongue in disgust. “How any of mine own brothers understood thee is a miracle.”

“Wait, brothers?” Applejack wondered aloud.

The pony rolled her eyes and struck a pose. “Don't thee seeth the family resemblance?”

The farm pony raised an eyebrow and shrugged. “Err yeah, totally.”

“Regardless, thee has begged for safe passage and I am honor-bound to giveth thee such.” The pony turned to the larger spider, and began speaking in a low hushed tone. The fast, foreign words blended together into a stream of S’s and H’s that had Twilight captivated. To hear such a foreign language used with such ease was strangely fascinating and if she stopped paying attention, it almost sounded like one long hiss occasionally broken up by occasional l’s and N’s, but little else.

The large spider nodded before crawling down the wall and making its way over to Twilight, who gulped and looked up at the scraggly unicorn. “Thee doubteth mine own honor? Fi! I am the most wondrous and powerful Trixie and mine own word is mine own bond.”

Twilight pushed down the feeling of panic and stood patiently as the spider made its way over to her before kneeling down and gently plucking the mare’s hooves from the webs before unceremoniously picking her up and carrying her back to the edge of the trap. “H-hey, watch the appendages!”

The pony rolled her eyes and frowned as Twilight was placed back down on her hooves. “Cometh, we wilt speaketh with mother, the matron shall knoweth what to doth with thee.”

“Wait! What about my friends, we can't leave them down there!” Twilight pleaded.

“Yeah, get me out of here, you overgrown pests!” Rainbow Dash yelled, shaking her hoof up at them.

A few of the spiders hissed in response, but were rendered silent when Rarity cuffed the thestral across the back of the head.

Trixie nodded. “I liketh her.”

The arachne bowed slightly, as Rainbow Dash grumbled, trying to fix her helmet that was askew once more.

“Thy friends shall be hither at which hour thy talk with mother is over,” the unicorn announced before turning and walking towards a collapsed section of wall.

Twilight received a jab to her back, prompting her to trot after the unicorn, and shoot a glare at the large spider following close behind. Whom merely rolled all eight of his eyes and walked silently behind her.

Twilight looked around, noticing that the collapsed archway before her must be the one Rainbow Dash had mentioned earlier. Which meant that she was nearing the throne room.

The unicorn looked around, only noticing now that there seemed to be two halls, one that had a golden sun above it and the other, a full moon. The average sized door to sun hall hung open and a glance through it told Twilight that it didn't go far before collapsing as well, a small shaft of light coming from the left telling her that it must be the usual way they used to circumvent their way to the throne room.

To the right, where the strange unicorn was standing, was the moon hall, the entrance to which was large enough to admit a dragon, now unfortunately blocked by what looked like several tons of debris. As they approached the moon hall, the blue unicorn’s horn began to glow briefly before the debris disappeared. It caused Twilight to stumble for a moment and receive another jab to the back, which she ignored.

“How did you do that?” Twilight asked.

The blue unicorn struck a haughty pose, her nose raised high in the air. “Dideth we impress? We art a most proficient illusionist after all.”

The pose had the unintended side effect of showing off the mare’s cutie mark which was of a blue crescent moon that had a star wand over it. “Most impressive,” Twilight remarked, tearing her eyes from the mare’s flank and up to her raised head.

“I knoweth. Cometh, we shouldst maketh mother to wait.” The strange unicorn turned and marched down the hallway that had appeared.

The mare nodded, giving one last glance over her shoulder before following close behind, not wanting to receive another jab to her spine.

Walking into the new hall, Twilight was instantly hit by a sense of strangeness that took a second to process. She lifted a hoof and glanced down to the fresh, unmarred carpet beneath her hooves. “Woah, that's strange.”

“Thee must cometh from a strange house if thee doth not knoweth what clean looks like,” the blue unicorn announced with a snort.

Twilight stowed her coming remark and merely looked around the hall as she continued to follow the mare. The hall itself was immaculately restored, with only the ancient stonework not receiving the love and care the rest of the room did. Paintings that had been covered in grime and almost completely destroyed were returned to as nice of a condition as possible. Suits of plate mail were polished to a shine and stood at even intervals on either side of the hall. The carpet kept the same color and appearance that it had in the rest of the hall, yet looked brand new. Even the chandelier above them sparkled with life, a plethora of candles glowing faintly.

“Whoah,” Twilight muttered.

In this new light the castle looked every bit the refined house of nobility that it was seemingly intended to be.

So enraptured was the unicorn that she almost ran into the back of a smirking illusionist when she stopped.

The teal unicorn gestured to the enormous double doors that lay before them, her chest puffing out pridefully as she waved a hoof.

Twilight’s jaw hung open as she beheld the sight of the door itself, silently kicking herself for having been so hyper focused on the things along the wall and floor to not look ahead.

The doors were massive and spanned nearly the entire breadth of the hall, nearly touching the ceiling. The entire surface of which was covered from top to bottom in various scenes that Twilight assumed were historical. She could hardly see the top of the door from her current position, but something told her that it would have the most recent history depicted there. From what she could see there were two alicorns meeting at the centre of the door, their wings were flared and their horns ablaze, the beams from which meeting at the centre and forming a single circle that was half moon, half sun.

Twilight was captivated by the scenes depicted on the doors and was eagerly scanning upwards when suddenly the massive portals parted, obscuring the rest of the scene. She frowned, reluctantly stowing away her complaints and watching as the doors parted completely, revealing a surprisingly personal throne room. A simple blue carpet led from the door, to a relatively simple chair that sat at the centre of the room. The chair itself was a dark obsidian, with a waxing moon atop the back, adding a small amount of artistic flair to the otherwise simple object.

To the right of the chair were several others, all of which were the same obsidian, merely lacking the moon that the first chair had. To the left was a simple looking iron door covered in webbing.

Twilight paused, realizing there was no one here and her guide had stopped, merely standing in the centre of the room and tapping her hoof impatiently. “Cometh out mother, I knoweth thou art hither.”

“You are no fun, my child,” whispered a surprisingly deep, yet distinctly feminine voice.

“Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you,” the teal unicorn muttered.

The voice laughed a strange, raspy laugh, seemingly coming from all directions at once. “You have learned well, my child.”

A shape suddenly bulged out of the darkness of the roof, and the form of an enormous spider descended from on high. Twilight was tempted to light her horn, to prepare a defensive spell or think of a way out, but some instinct told her that she was already much too close and any fight would be as brief as it was one sided.

The spider’s body was massive, easily bigger than even the manticore she had seen earlier. Yet despite the creature’s size and the fact that it was heavily scarred, it was also strangely lithe, its form clearly a feminine one. Her eyes were keen and bright, eight orbs of the deepest blue that peered into Twilight’s soul and showed a terrifying intelligence. The spider’s form had several patches of a strange off-white armor that resembled plate, with the only real clothing being a single long scarf that draped over its midsection and hung to the floor, the ends of which had a waxing and waning moon upon them.

Instantly something clicked in Twilight’s mind and she nodded her head, her hoof placed over her heart, mimicking a greeting she had seen Rainbow Dash do when meeting a fellow guard. “Greetings, matron.”

“Dignity and respect. Truly you are a strange sun spawn, aren't you?” The spider tittered, walking closer to the bowing unicorn and inspecting her closely. “And to think my own daughter does not give me such respect.”

Trixie rolled her eyes. “Thee knoweth very well I love and respect thee.”

The spider laughed its strange laugh, brushing a long furry limb across Trixie’s cheek. “And I you, my child. Now tell me, where did you find the sun spawn?”

Trixie blushed, before coughing and brushing aside the spider’s leg. “Mine brothers hath found these creatures in the trap thee setteth near the halls.”

The spider seemed to snort, or at least as close to such an action that a spider could reproduce. “Good. It's about time they earned their place.”

The spider turned to Twilight, and nodded. “I have not seen such a greeting in hundreds of years. You are a strange sun spawn indeed. Tell me.” The spider leaned in, her many eyes narrowing. “How did you came to learn of such an action?”

Twilight gulped. “My friend, Rainbow Dash. She's a guard in Ponyville, I saw her do it a few times and assumed it was an act of respect.”

The spider continued to stare for a moment longer before backing up a few feet. “It is indeed. Back in my day it served as a quick honorific to give someone you respected. Much faster than a bow, and easier for those of us that can't perform such an act.”

Trixie trotted off before plunking down in one of the chairs and watching from the side lines.

Twilight blinked. “That must make you over a thousand years old.” She shook her head. “I didn't know your kind were capable of such a feat.”

The spider laughed, this time it seemed to lack some of the raspiness that it had before, instantly striking Twilight as more genuine. “I am a surprised a sunspawn would know anything of my kind, interesting. To answer your question, we may live a century or two if we are lucky. I however, am a servant of the mistress, and as such live as long as I am useful. And I am very, very useful.”

“Sorry to interrupt, but may I ask why you keep calling me sun spawn?” Twilight asked nervously.

“You were born of the light, though I feel like that connection to your birthright is dwindling by the night.” The spider twisted this way and that, peering down at the unicorn from various angles. “I wonder what will happen when your connection fades completely. Will you become a night born, or perhaps something else?” The spider twisted in one final direction before settling back down. “Curious.”

The spider turned suddenly, looking over to an unamused Trixie who was picking at her hoof with a splinter. “Tell me, child,” the spider boomed, “did these creatures mention why they sulley her tomb?”

“Neigh,” the illusionist replied simply, extending her hoof and frowning before continuing to pick at it.

The spider turned back around, her eyes gaining a dangerous light. “So tell me, sun spawn, why do you come to the mistress’ tomb?”

“I…” Twilight’s mind whirled with possibilities as she desperately thought of how to talk her way out of this one.

She doubted that admitting she was here to plunder secrets based on the whims of a zebra shaman were going to get her anywhere other than a second death. Wait, why is she here then? Is she just guarding the castle? If so, why bother restoring it, what point was there in guarding a corpse? Unless she intended for this mistress to come back and she is restoring her ancient home?

“I am a necromancer,” Twilight announced.

The spider blinked. “Interesting.” She leaned in closer. “I knew you were some form of undead, but to know you can command the dead as well...” The spider cast a sidelong glance at Trixie, whom had dropped her splinter and gaped silently at the other pony.

The teal pony leapt from her chair and trotted up to the other unicorn. “Truly thee can bringeth back the dead? Thee wilt teachest me this art!” Trixie gripped the other mare’s hoof in her own, peering intently into Twilight’s eyes. “Mother hast-” She looked up to the spider and clamped her mouth shut, taking a step back and releasing Twilight’s hoof.

“So you are a necromancer, that does not explain your purpose here,” the spider stated evenly, skittering around the dead unicorn. “Tell us honestly what your plans are and you may just avoid your final death this night.”

Twilight clenched her jaw and forced her stance tall and proud. “I am here to bring back the Mistress of the Night.”

The spider stopped suddenly, her body remaining stock still before suddenly exploding in a shrill, harsh laughter. “I doubted your resolve little spawn, yet here you are, aiming for the truly impossible.”

The unicorn watched as the spider skittered before her once more before sitting as much as a spider could, a smile crossing what passed for a face. “Do you know how long I have waited for this moment, little sun spawn?”

“No,” Twilight admitted.

“Over one thousand years I have searched.” A shuddering sigh ran through the spider, drawing a wince from Trixie who ran to her side and gently ran a hoof down one leg. “I have suffered much in my service, it is good to finally have hope once more.”

“I cannot promise anything.” Twilight winced as Trixie turned and glared at her, hate in her eyes. The spider however remained silent, her expression calm. “I have the ability to use necromancy, but Celestia has done all she could to stomp out knowledge of soul magic.”

“Then you will need guidance and the proper literature,” the spider announced, tapping a limb against the ground. “You will find both in the catacombs beneath us.”

“Surely you jest, mother. We cannot trust this outsider with such an important task! Let Trixie study these texts,” Trixie exclaimed, jabbing her hoof at the dead mare.

The spider nodded slowly. “Soul magic is not something you can simply study. At one time such a thing was possible, but that time has long passed. There is hope that you will one day become adept at the art, though even then you will not be able to reach the heights of mastery that this gifted mare is capable of.”

The teal unicorn huffed, stomping her hoof, a cry of condemnation already on her lips. The spider’s long limb pulled her out of it before she could begin, squeezing her tightly against the spider’s side. “Worry not for your pride, my child. She is talented in the art but she will never be able to touch your skill in illusions.”

“But mother, I-!” Trixie began.

The spider fixed her with a stern glare. “We are all unique, little one. Would you measure yourself against my ability to spin thread and bemoan your inability?”

The teal mare shrunk. “I would not.”

“And you will not measure yourself against one who has a different kind of gift.” The spider rose once more, giving Trixie one last squeeze. “I will hear no more on this subject.”

“Does that mean you are letting me go?” Twilight asked nervously, glancing over her shoulder.

“It does indeed,” the spider matron replied.

“And my friends?” Twilight asked.

The spider laughed. “A bunny and a crunchy pony would make for poor meals. The thestral is a fellow servant of the night, and our cousins are never food.” The spider gained a bemused expression and leaned in close to the baffled unicorn. “And we do not eat the dead.”

Trixie smirked, pointing at Twilight and giggling. “Didst thee think we were going to consume thee? Don't be absurd.”

“B-but,” Twilight stammered.

“Fear is a powerful weapon and a potent motivator.” The spider chuckled, skittering her way past the stunned unicorn and over to the doors. “It has a habit of producing the truth without the need for violence.”

Twilight sighed, running a hoof down her face, groaning. “Of course you wouldn't eat us.”

Trixie trotted up beside her, casting the dead mare a smirk. “Cometh, allow us to retrieve thy associates.”

“Are you not coming with us?” Twilight asked, glancing to the spider who stood sentinel by the massive doors.

“I have other projects to attend to. It would be ill-fitting for the mistress to return and her home to still lie in ruins.” The spider smiled and gently ran a limb against the underside of Trixie’s jaw, making the unicorn blush. “My most treasured daughter will accompany you in this endeavor while I focus my efforts elsewhere.” The spider smiled and gave one last touch to the teal mare’s chin. “Come back to me, my child.”

Trixie nodded back. “I will, mother.”

The great spider smiled faintly, retracting her limb and ushering the pair towards the door. “Oh and if you do succeed, tell the mistress Nebula is still waiting for that treat!”

The pair both nodded before beginning the short trot back to Twilight’s friends. As they walked, Twilight felt her fear and anxiety slowly begin to lift, and the realization of what just happened to settle in. “Wow,” she muttered to herself.

Trixie smirked and bumped the unicorn with her hip. “Still awestruck by our beauty, I see. Or perhaps our mother’s?”

Twilight chuckled and shook her head. “I'm just amazed how well this all is turning out. I was just kind of winging it there for a bit.”

“And without wings nay less, impressive,” Trixie quipped.

Twilight smiled faintly. “Yeah.”

“Oh thank the stars, Twilight is back,” Applejack remarked.

Looking ahead, Twilight saw her friends standing off to the side of the hall, no longer trapped in the web but still surrounded by the male spiders, whom seemed more bored than anything. Applejack and Fluttershy stood at the forefront, with the bunny perched on the pony’s shoulder, a huge smile crossing her face.

“Oh, thank goodness,” Fluttershy said with a sigh.

Rainbow Dash stood next to the pair, one hoof on the hilt of her blade, her gaze lingering on the nearest spider. Beside her stood Rarity, who was peering intently into the eyes of the larger spider from before. “Sheeshala, kashee?” she asked nervously.

The spider nodded slowly, a blush spreading across his features. He mumbled something no one seemed to understand, his forelimbs covering his face.

“I’m sorry, I didn't quite catch that darling, what did you say?” Rarity asked.

“He said you did well, and he thinks you are pretty,” Trixie said with a smirk, earning herself a glare and a hiss from the larger spider. “Oh, hush you.”

Rarity blushed, batting her eyes at the enormous spider. “Tell him he can be quite dashing when he wants to be.”

Trixie rolled her eyes. “I am not saying that.”

“Augh, who cares about Rarity’s weird crush?” Rainbow Dash blurted out. “Are we going to have to fight our way out or what?”

Twilight placed a calming hoof on the mare’s shoulder. “No. In fact they are going to help us and even gave us a guide.” The unicorn pointed to Trixie, whom had already struck a proud pose.

“The most wondrous and powerful Trixie hath spent days fixing up the catacombs and will help you find what you require,” she announced proudly.

Applejack whistled. “Hoo doggy, things are really looking up now.” She bumped the bunny on her shoulder and smirked. “And you were worried Twilight was gonna get eaten.”

The bunny smiled softly. “I am glad you are okay.”

“I am more than okay,” Twilight announced before turning to the rest of her friends. “Is everyone ready?”

Her companions all nodded, with Rainbow Dash finally relinquishing the grip she had held on her sword.

Trixie turned and made a few commands to her brothers who nodded back before skittering away, all save the largest who hesitated, casting Rarity one last sidelong glance before reluctantly returning to his duties.

Trixie nodded. “Ready.”

A Spooky Interlude

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Oh, hello there, sorry if this is a little startling, me speaking directly to you that is, but I felt the need to offer a sort of disclaimer before this particular story could begin. First off, I would like to thank the hundreds of you that have come to hear a silly old bat’s stories. The fact that you all come back month after month to hear more about Twilight and her adventures keeps me going sometimes.

But enough about that.

I know you want to hear more about your favorite necromancer, but I thought that in honor of your universe’s Nightmare Night, I would share with you a story about this universe’s Halloween. Now I know you have many questions, like what my identity is, but unfortunately the barrier between realities ensures that the only thing you are able to perceive is my voice as text.

So with that in mind, allow me to introduce myself properly, get into my storytelling chair and I can help you see what I see.

Before you was a humble room, barely large enough to contain a piano, a couch, a chair, numerous curios and pictures and a single mare seated upon the aforementioned chair. She was old, easily into her sixties, yet despite her advanced age she noticed your almost imperceptible presence instantly, cracking a wide smile at your appearance.

“Ahh, good. There we are,” she said, chuckling slightly as your eyes meet.

Her eyes were strange, the twin pools lacking anything distinctive, merely being two orbs of swirling darkness. The longer you stared into them, the more you realized just how truly strange they were. The darkness you thought you saw was actually tinged with flecks of white, as if the mare’s eyes were windows into the void between stars, reflecting the images of the great beyond.

“I suppose you are wondering about these peepers of mine, eh?” The mare chuckled, leaning back in her chair.

“When I was young, probably younger than most of you, I looked up at the moon and was fascinated by what I saw. So fascinated that young me wouldn't look away, not for hours, or even days.” She sighed faintly, a smile crossing her lips.

“My world is a strange one. The moon does not move in the sky, and in some places deep inside the Everfree, there are spots where night is forever. Which is a good segue to where I grew up.” The mare stood slowly, slipping down from the chair and walking over to a large painting on one wall that you hadn't noticed until now.

The painting was of a town or village nestled in a small valley, a large white moon hanging overhead. In the streets many creatures are walking to and fro, every single one sporting a pair of bat wings on their back. The town is a simple one, and just off to the side, nestled between two houses built into massive fungi, is standing a filly, barely older than ten. She is small, clearly awestruck, and has a trio of bubbles on her grey flank. Her body is tense, her gaze upward, staring in awe at the moon, her mouth hanging open, her eyes wide.

“As you may have realized, that is me. And the astute among you may realize my name already.”

The mare smiled and ducked into a short bow, her knees cracking audibly as she did. “If you do not already know, allow me to introduce myself. I am Ditzy Doo, but my friends just call me Derpy.

“Oh, and the painting was merely a coincidence by the way. Found it at a thrift store a number of years ago, turns out a handsome young stallion was painting my town just as I realized my special talent, and was gifted with my special sight.” She gestured to her strange eyes.

“The night mistress is a strange and fickle being, and I had apparently pleased her so much with my childlike fascination that she gifted me with sight beyond sight. Alas,” she sighed, “the only beings that believe me are you, because you are the only one I am able to prove my powers to.”

She shook her head and made her way over to the chair before slipping back into its warm embrace. “But I’m sure you didn't come here to watch an old mare ramble about her youth. No, you are here for a story.” She tapped the side of her head and grinned, revealing a wide toothy smile. “And I got just such a story for you.”

She leaned back in her chair, sighing contently as the plush piece of furniture supported her aged joints perfectly. “Now before I begin, I must forewarn you that this may be an alternate reality, or perhaps something far in the future.” She shook her head slowly. “I do not know if this will come to pass. Only that it happened somewhere, at some time, so take what you hear with a grain of salt.”

“Now.” She clapped her hooves and sat up, eagerly staring into your eyes with her night filled orbs. “Let me tell you of a fun little story, of when Twilight Sparkle tried to scare her dear friend Pinkie Pie.”

The mare smiled and flashed you a wink.

Twilight Sparkle walked down the main thoroughfare of Ponyville, her eyes wide and filled with wonder as she looked around, taking in the sight of just about everyone she knew all dressed up for the holiday. She watched as a young thestral disguised as a snake crept up behind an arachni dressed like a knight, then, when she was close, the thestral leapt on the spider pony’s back and hissed in her ear. The arachni shouted, trying to spin around and find whatever had made the noise, only for the thestral to begin to giggle, alerting the knight that there was no danger. Looking over her shoulder, the arachni shook her head and laughed as well.

The dead mare grinned to herself, endlessly amazed by this strange and wonderful holiday.

Trotting deeper into the town Twilight watched as children of all shape, size, and race scampered about in costumes, going from house to house. The sheer joy in the air energized the lich, making her feel more alive than she had in a long time. She suddenly didn't regret leaving Spike behind to watch the tower as she was sure he was enjoying handing out candy almost as much as the children enjoyed receiving it.

A part of her still felt a little bad for leaving the young drake behind, and she decided then and there to make it up to him. “Maybe Bon Bon has some candy with gems in it,” she wondered aloud.

She shook her head and continued walking. “I’ll wait for the sale in a few days and get him a whole bunch, right now I got a bug to find.” She stopped and nearly facehoofed, mentally berating herself for talking to herself again. Remember to get out of the tower more, she thought to herself.

Glancing further down the street, Twilight could see a group of minotaur foals, children, she wasn't sure what the proper name was, only that they were young and minotaurs. Either way, the group was standing near a coffee shop, and were all wearing various armors ranging from simple cardboard and paper to all the way up to sets that looked completely real. Each one was different and Twilight could tell even at a distance that they were from different time periods, and armies.

The young minotaurs were all gathered around a table near the edge of the coffee shop and were in what looked like a heated debate of some kind. Straining her hearing, Twilight could tell that it seemed to be about which minotaur king or queen from throughout history could win in a fight and, judging from the pile of candy in the center, they were betting the most precious resource of all, sugary treats.

Rolling her eyes, Twilight was about to continue walking, but something made her look up, to where she saw numerous dark shapes descending from on high, their forms obscured by the darkness of the canopy. Focusing her magic into her gaze, the mare’s eyes glowed a faint white before returning to their normal subtle purple glow.

After a few rapid blinks she looked up at the shapes, instantly recognizing them as goliath spiders, accompanied by what looked like a young matron, though Twilight’s enhanced senses knew better.

She stood by and watched as the spiders landed all around the minotaur children, leaping at the now terrified youngsters. They in turn screamed and ran out the small opening the spiders had left for them. The scared minotaurs sprinted past her, a few of them screaming as they did, most having wide smiles on their face.

Twilight ignored it all and approached the table that was now occupied by spiders, one of whom had tossed back a bunch of sweets and was chewing loudly. As she got closer, one of the spiders ran up at her and hissed, baring it's fangs and raising its forelegs high above its head.

“Hello Pupa,” Twilight greeted.

The spider blinked, before disappearing in a flash of green. “No fair, Auntie Twilight!” The changeling pouted before plunking down on the ground and crossing her hooves.

Twilight rolled her eyes and approached the table, ignoring the rest of the ‘spiders’ that gave her a respectful berth. As she approached the table, the young matron she had seen earlier flashed a brilliant green before revealing the form of a familiar changeling queen. “You know Pupa’s got a point,” Chrysalis remarked, her mouth still full of partially chewed candy.

“It's a part of who I am,” Twilight stated. “It would be as much cheating as your ability to disguise yourself.”

The changeling queen shrugged dismissively. “What do you want anyway, Sparkle?”

“I was just wondering where Cadence was, a messenger said she wanted to-”

The unicorn’s train of thought was interrupted by the queen suddenly lunging right up to her and hissing, spittle flying all over the mare’s face. Twilight sighed, and closed her eyes, waiting until the hissing finally died down.

“Are you done?” she asked.

The queen hissed one last time for good measure before stepping back. “Yes.”

The dead pony ran a hoof down her face, wiping the spit that had accumulated there. “I’m dead, remember, I don't even experience that. Nevermind, she's my sister, sort of.”

The bug queen shrugged, tossing back another hoofful of stolen candy. “Can never be too careful.”

“I would understand the first time, but we've known each other for years.” The queen stifled a giggle, a laugh that was shared by the other changelings who quickly joined in.

Twilight sighed. “Let me guess, this is an excuse to spit on me.”

“Maaaybe,” Chrysalis said teasingly.

Twilight groaned. “Look, are you going to tell me where she is or not?”

Chrysalis shrugged. “Yeah sure, she's in the hive with our newest clutch.” The changeling’s eyes glazed over slightly, gaining a wispish expression as she stared off into the night. “She's knitting our grubs tiny sweaters for winter.” She giggled. “Isn't it the cutest?”

A chuckle from the changeling to her right brought Chrysalis out of her daze and she smacked the disguised changeling off the chair, regaining her hard expression in an instant. “Hey, I didn't say you lot could laze around! Fear may not taste the best, but it's still food and we got quotas to meet.” The queen pointed dramatically towards the town. “Now go and feed, my children!”

The changelings all scuttled off, giggling like a pack of hyenas.

Chrysalis was about to join them when she suddenly turned to Twilight with a deadly serious expression. “I would change if I were you.”

Twilight blinked, looking down at the red and black cape she wore. “What, why?”

“Vampires are beings too, ya know, and you dressing up like them is kinda disrespectful. They are a people, Twilight, not a costume,” the queen pointed out.

Twilight wilted and began to unbuckle the cape she wore, only to stop and suddenly glare at the queen. “Hey! Vampires aren't real. I should know, I’m a lich!”

The queen’s hard expression lasted a second longer before she suddenly exploded with laughter. “Oh, you are too easy! Your confusion is just-” The changeling ran her tongue along her lips. “Delectable.”

Twilight rolled her eyes and slapped the queen’s hoof away. “Yeah yeah, now why don't you just bugger off already.”

Chrysalis’ eyes narrowed. “Not funny, Sparkle.”

“Oh I beg to differ, bugging you is very funny.”

Chrysalis groaned. “Augh, puns.” The queen disappeared in a flash of green fire, being replaced by the same matron spider form from a moment earlier. She cast one last amused glance over her shoulder before skittering off after her brood.

Leaving Twilight to shake her head and chuckle, a smile growing across her face.

Twilight nodded to the two old changelings standing outside the chamber, who in turn both smiled and nodded back, one even lowering themselves in a deep bow.

The unicorn blushed, trotting into the next room in order to hide her embarrassment. Something about the respect of the changelings always bothered her. Sure, she had helped ensure their race survived and that whole business with restoring order to the world, oh and stopping that doomsday plot a few months ago.

She shook her head, reminding herself the price of ego.

She smiled, instantly finding a heavily pregnant Cadence leaning on a small mound of carefully placed pillows, a changeling servant close at hoof and oddly enough, Rarity, Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash. “Look who came to join us,” Cadence announced. “Come, sit. We were just talking about special someponies.”

Rainbow Dash, who sat next to her, blushed and awkwardly looked away, sipping her tea and trying to avoid eye contact.

Pinkie Pie, who sat next to the thestral, smirked and elbowed her friend in the midsection. “What, cat got your tongue, or should I say bunny got your tongue?”

The thestral slurped her tea audibly, using her leathery wings to hide her face.

Rarity scoffed. “Well, I for one am proud to say that our anniversary gift is coming along nicely. Trixie even said that I am learning faster than anyone she's ever taught.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “She's never taught anyone to speak a different language before.”

The arachni shrunk slightly. “Oh poo, I knew she looked a little too happy while giving out that compliment.”

Cadence stifled a giggle, turning to Twilight. “Oh and what about you? How goes your foray into the world of love?”

The lich blinked slowly. “I’m dead, Cadence.”

The alicorn shrugged. “And Chrysalis is a bug. Love knows no bounds, Twilight.”

Twilight sighed. “Regardless, I was informed you were looking for me.”

Cadence nodded slowly, gesturing to a spare pile of pillows she had already neatly arranged. Twilight obliged, sitting down and grabbing a teacup for herself before magically retrieving her own special blend and adding it to the boiling water.

With her guest now comfortable, the alicorn smiled and leaned in as much as possible, which meant she hardly moved. “You are probably wondering why I summoned you all here.”

“I thought it was for tea and gossip,” Rarity admitted.

“That is partly the reason, but first.” She turned to Pinkie Pie. “Shouldn't you be setting up the party?”

The troll shrugged. “I got time.” Cadence’s eyes narrowed, making the troll squirm. “Or I could start right now.” The pink troll hopped up. “See ya later, girls!” she called, before trotting out the door, the rest of her friends saying their own goodbyes as she did.

Cadence nodded to her attendant, who in turn left the room, sealing the door behind her.

“Now for the real reason you are here.” She leaned in with a devilish smile on her face. “We are going to scare Pinkie Pie.”

Rainbow Dash snorted. “Yeah, that's not happening. She didn't even flinch when staring down that she-bitch. I don't think we are gonna manage something scarier than her.”

Cadence frowned. “True, but there has to be something she's afraid of.”

“Can I ask a question first?” Twilight asked.

Cadence nodded. “Of course.”

“Why exactly does this holiday exist, exactly?” Twilight asked, looking around at the stunned faces. “What? No one ever gives me a straight answer.”

“It's to celebrate the return of the night mistress’ soldiers!” Rarity exclaimed. “When they returned after a battle, they were afflicted with nightmares so everyone dressed up and showed them there was nothing to fear!”

“Then where does the candy come from?” Twilight replied.

Rainbow Dash snorted again, crossing her hooves over her chest. “It's the greeting card companies trying to make more money. First valentines, now Nightmare Night.”

Rarity frowned. “But I thought candy was started after one of the soldiers was so happy that he made everyone candy, and then it became part of the tradition.”

The guard jabbed a hoof into the arachni’s chest. “That's just what they want you to believe.”

“Girls please, I think we answered Twilight’s question well enough,” Cadence remarked pleadingly.

The lich nodded. “Quite.”

“Now then, Twilight I want you to bring Pinkie Pie to the castle tonight. I got the whole hive working on making it as scary as possible, so when you two show up, be ready for the scare of your life!”

Twilight just rolled her eyes. “You really think some disguised changelings are going to scare us? After everything we went through?”

Rarity placed a hoof on the lich’s shoulder, smiling faintly. “Sometimes it's nice to be scared, it reminds us we are alive.”

“Yeah, go with the flow, Twi,” Rainbow Dash added.

The lich sighed. “I suppose you are right.”

Cadence grinned. “Of course we are. So are you girls in?”

Rarity nodded. “Though I doubt our success, I must admit I would very much like to see Pinkie Pie scared for once.”

Rainbow Dash smirked. “Same here. But if we are going to do this, we are going to have to break out the big guns.”

“Any idea how to get around her Pinkie sense?” Twilight asked, sipping her tea.

The alicorn nodded slowly, motioning for the other beings to gather round.

“I got a few tricks up my sleeve.” She leaned closer, pulling the other beings close and whispering quietly.

“Thanks for inviting me to this spooky Nightmare Night date party, but are you sure we will have enough time for both this and the one I was planning back at the hive?” Pinkie Pie asked nervously, glancing over her shoulder to where the hive was slowly disappearing in the distance.

“It's not a date, just a fun time going through a haunted house together, remember?” Twilight deflected, a slight blush coloring her cheeks.

The troll smirked, bumping Twilight’s midsection with an elbow. “Suuure.”

The lich shook her head. “Like I said, Pinkie. This also isn't a party.”

Pinkie Pie frowned. “Strange, my Pinkie sense says it's a party.”

“Well, it's not,” Twilight declared.

“Fine, Miss Grumpy Pants,” Pinkie Pie muttered, sticking her tongue out at the lich.

“Hey look, the road is back!” Twilight said.

Pinkie Pie rolled her eyes, but reluctantly allowed the dead mare to change the topic. “Yeah, it's super nice that the forest finally let us build a road straight to the castle.”

“Quite,” Twilight agreed.

Together the pair trotted down the wide, long road that lead directly to the old castle. It took a little while but the beings made good time, reaching the castle within twenty minutes of leaving for their destination. The castle itself stood tall and proud, its ramparts buffed to a sparkle only to have pumpkins placed atop them, most of which had some sort of face carved into them, and a candle inside their hollow interiors. Fake bats and spiders were plastered all over the walls, along with other intimidating and equally as fake insects. Streamers and candles dotted the battlements, punctuated by the occasional scare crow or gargoyle.

“Oooh, neat!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed.

Twilight nodded. “They really outdid themselves this year,” the lich remarked, her gaze lingering over the numerous decorations placed all over the exterior of the castle.

Two enormous black shapes swooped down from the canopy, landing with a heavy thump before the pair, revealing two mountains of muscle in the shape of lunar guards. The one to the right drew his sword and pointed it at them. “Halt!”

Twilight rolled her eyes, as did Pinkie Pie, who stifled a giggle. The second guard leaned forward, his heavy plate armor clanking as he did, his slitted eyes narrowing as he glared at the pair. “And where are you two going at such an hour?”

“Yeah!” the first one added, leaning in exactly the same way his counterpart had. “Where are you going?”

Pinkie Pie pointed towards the castle. “We are going to a party.” She gasped suddenly. “Do you guys wanna come to?”

The guards shared a look, one about to agree before the other glared at him. “No. We wanna not,” the first one announced before drawing his own sword and pointing it at the troll. “And you need to give me some sort of identification!”

“Yeah!” the second one added, jabbing his sword at the troll. “And hurry!”

Twilight sighed. “We don't have any identification. We haven't even worked out the process to obtain such an ID with the princess yet.”

The guards blinked owlishly, before exchanging a look. The first one’s eyes narrowed and he glared at the lich. “All I hear are excuses.”

“Yeah, excuses!” the other one added, earning himself an elbow from the first guard who shot him a glare.

Pinkie Pie poked the first guard’s sword. “Oooh, foamy.”

The guards both sighed, with the first one grumbling silently. “I knew we should have gotten wooden ones.”

“Plan B, Hack?” the second guard asked, sheathing his foam sword.

“Yes Slash, plan B.” With a nod, both guards reached into their bags and threw a hoofful of something long and wiggly at the pair.

“Eat worms, evil doers!” they both yelled before running off.

Twilight sighed, letting the rain of worms fall over her before she used her magic to pick the wriggling invertebrates from her body and tossed them to the side.

PInkie Pie was similarly unfazed, giving her entire body a good shake before giggling. “Ooh, that was new.”

“Come on, Pinkie, let's go,” Twilight remarked.

She only made it a few feet before she noticed that Pinkie Pie wasn't following her, so she turned around and was about to ask what the hold up was before her jaw hung open.

“What?” Pinkie asked, a half eaten worm hanging out of her mouth. “It's a gummy, see?”

Twilight just shook her head. “I don't want to know.”

Twilight pulled open the door to the castle, bowing slightly to Pinkie Pie. “After you, madame.”

The troll blushed and slipped inside. “Oh, why thank you, garcon. Oooh.” The troll gaped, looking around the spider web filled room.

Webs covered everything from top to bottom, blocking off the staircases on either side while the archway to the throne room was similarly blocked, except this time by a blue wall of magic. Before the arch was a small stand from which a board was nailed.

“Oooh, what's this?” Pinkie asked, bouncing over to the board. “Oooh, a riddle. I love riddles!”

Twilight trotted up beside the troll, barely noticing as the door slammed behind them. “What does it say?”

“Poor people have it. Rich people need it. If you eat it, you die. What is it? Answer the riddle to proceed!” Pinkie Pie paused, scratching her chin with a hoof. “Hmm, this one is a toughy.”

Twilight kept her mouth shut, having already guessed the answer.

As the troll pondered it, Twilight sat still, wondering what the point of the room was. Until her new senses alerted her to something above her. Trusting that it was not dangerous, the lich sat there quietly, pretending to think on the riddle as well.

Just as whatever was mere feet over their head Pinkie suddenly shot up, her mane going straight, then her hooves shaking. Faster than what should be physically possible the troll rolled forward and pointed up to where she had just been. “Aha!”

Twilight looked up to find a rather defeated goliath spider hanging above where Pinkie Pie had been. Looking straight up, she saw Rarity hanging from a similar thread.

The spider muttered in his native tongue under his breath, slowly landing on the ground and letting go of the thread he had been holding onto. Rarity quickly skittered up beside him, placing a hoof on the spider’s back.

“Shhh darling, it's okay,” the arachni whispered, rubbing the spider’s back.

The spider sighed in defeat, making Pinkie Pie wince. “Sorry,” the troll muttered.

Rarity pulled the spider away, whispering assurances in her friend’s ear.

Twilight shook her head and made her way over to the blue wall of magic. “Nothing.”

“Wait, what?” Pinkie Pie muttered. The magic shimmered briefly before dissipating, breaking away to nothing. “Ooooh, it's the answer,” the troll muttered.

Twilight nodded. “Come on, there's more where that came from.”

The troll winced, glancing back at the spider. “I hope not, Steve looked awful sad.”

“That's not his-” Twilight chuckled. “You know what, nevermind. Let's just keep going.”

Pinkie Pie perked up and hopped forward, bounding up the stairs, pausing midway. “Hey, Twilight, remember when we got caught by Nebula’s kids?”

Twilight nodded. “It was right here.” The lich tapped her hoof against the stairs she stood on.

The troll sighed. “Good times.”

Twilight rolled her eyes and chuckled.

Several minutes and many failed attempts at scaring later the pair entered another room, this one resembling a barracks filled with zombies, some of which moved while others simply lay there. Twilight glanced at the nearest one and raised an eyebrow before shaking her head. “That's not what a zombie looks like at all,” she remarked.

Pinkie Pie rolled her eyes and kept walking. “Don't think about it so much, Twilight, besides, listen to that ambiance!”

Twilight paused, listening to the unearthly wails that echoed throughout the long room. “Well, at least they got the moaning down pat.”

Pinkie Pie giggled and hopped over to her friend. “Ready to escape the barracks of the dead? OOooooooOO.”

“You know it, Pinkie Pie,” Twilight announced, trotting deeper into the room and hopping over a fallen zombie.

The troll trotted just behind her, hanging back slightly.

The pair ducked under a partially collapsed bunk bed, narrowly avoiding the hoof of one of the zombies. Twilight giggled and made her way around another undead pony that reached out in an attempt to grab her. “Hey, this is pretty fun. We should do this every year,” she remarked.

“Yeah…” Pinkie Pie announced morosely.

“What's wrong, Pinkie?” Twilight asked, dodging out of the way of a rotten limb swiping for her head.

The troll sighed. “I know you girls are trying to scare me. Ever since spider Steve looked all saddy waddy, I can't help but feel baddy waddy.”

“Oh, Pinkie Pie.” Twilight placed a hoof over the other being’s shoulders, pulling her in close. “It's fun just trying to scare people, even if we don't always succeed.”

“I guess…”

“Chin up, Pinkie Pie.” Twilight squeezed the other mare. “Surely you are having some fun.”

The troll nodded, a small smile creeping across her face. “They have done a really good job setting everything up.”

“See, there you go.” Twilight was about to keep going, but an odd look from Pinkie, coupled with a sudden twitch of the mare’s knees made the lich stop. “What was-”

The troll leapt forward out of nowhere, narrowly dodging the hooves of a now partially invisible mare.

“What the hay?!” Twilight yelled, toppling backwards.

A pair of hooves landed on the floor, dispelling the enchantment and revealing the grinning form of Rainbow Dash clad in a strange black bodysuit. “Ha! I may not have scared Pinkie, but I got you good, Twilight!”

The lich placed a hoof over where her heart should be. “I’ll say. How did you do that? I didn't even sense you coming at all.”

The thestral struck a pose, showing off her muscled form as well as the black suit she wore. “Like it? Chrysy says it stops me from being seen by anything, including spells, enchantments, and whatever.”

Twilight slowly stood back up, shaking her head at the sight of such a strange set of clothing. “Wow, remind me to ask Chrysalis about it next time. That's fascinating.”

Pinkie Pie rolled her eyes. “Are you two done eggheading? There are scares to be had and parties to go to!”

“Hey, I’m not eggheading!”

“You kinda were, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight pointed out.

The thestral crossed her hooves over chest. “Hmph!” Rainbow Dash leapt into the air, vanishing from sight once more, leaving behind two giggling beings who both shook their head.

“Shall we?” Twilight offered, gesturing to the exit.

Pinkie nodded. “We shall.”

Twilight staggered into the hall, small plumes of smoke still drifting from her burnt fur. “That was crazy!” She lit her horn and quickly patted out the flames.

Pinkie Pie gave her mane a shake, dislodging the soot that had collected in it. “How did they talk a dragon into doing that?”

“I do not know Pinkie. I do not know.” As they approached the next door, Twilight hesitated. “Would you mind waiting here for a second, Pinkie?”

The troll nodded. “Sure, but why?”

The lich hesitated. “I just need to talk to the performers in the next room.”

“Okay dokie lokie.”

Twilight nodded. “Thanks Pinkie, I’ll be right back.”

Ducking into the room, the lich left Pinkie Pie behind.

The troll, now without anything to do, plunked down on the floor and began humming to herself. “Guffaw at the grossly. Crack up at the creepy. Hmmm hmm.”

Unfortunately for her, the pink troll’s attention span ran thin rather quickly, causing her to fall forward and land on her belly with a sigh. “I sure hope they aren't switching things around just to try and scare me.”

She let out a sigh, letting her chin rest against the cold stone floor. “‘Cause I don't know if I can see another sad spider face today.”

The troll lay on the floor, pouting and sighing until Twilight came back a minute later, a huge smile on her face. “It's just going to be a few minutes.”

The pink troll leapt back up, slapping a grin on her face. “Great. What is it this time? Another dragon? More spiders?” She gasped, her eyes going wide. “A spider dragon?”

Twilight chuckled. “No Pinkie, it is not a spider dragon. Though that would be pretty freaky. Eight furry legs and scales and a giant dragon’s head.” The lich shivered.

“Yeah that would be pretty good,” Pinkie Pie remarked, already deep in thought as to what creature combination would be the scariest.

The minutes flew by and the two debated the hotly contested topic of what two animals would make for the scariest combination. By the end Twilight had settled on spider millipedes because the legs would freak her out, but Pinkie was convinced that monkey minotaurs would be the scariest thing imaginable. Twilight didn't quite understand what was scary about a minotaur with feet and no horns, but Pinkie Pie assured her it was terrifying.

Just as the argument seemed to be starting back up again, with Twilight denying that a monkey taur was scary, the door cracked open to reveal the wide eyes of a young changeling staring up at her. “We’re ready, auntie Twilight!”

“Great! We’ll be right in.”

The changeling nodded before closing the door.

“Ready for some more fun, Pinkie Pie?” the lich asked.

The troll shrugged. “I guess. I just hope I don't disappoint anyone when I don't get scared.”

“Trust me, you won't be disappointed,” Twilight said cryptically before opening the door and bowing slightly. “After you, madam.”

“Why thank you, garcon?” Pinkie Pie stopped halfway through the door.

All around her were the various trappings of a great party, yet the room was silent. She looked around, finding that there were indeed many beings of all shapes and sizes seated about the room. There was a long refreshment table stocked to the gills with every snack, dessert, and sugary thing Pinkie Pie could imagine, along with drinks both alcoholic and not. Decorations hung from every perceivable surface, yet it wasn't overwhelming and seemed to work well, giving off the perfect amount of festive flair.

“Why is everyone so quiet?” Pinkie Pie asked nervously, glancing over the numerous changelings, minotaurs, dragons, and other beings that littered the grand hall.

Twilight yawned, plunking down in a nearby chair and resting her head on the table. “What are you talking about, Pinkie Pie?”

The troll gasped. “No, not you too, Twilight! Don't worry, I’ll get this party hopping in a second!” The troll turned this way and that, desperately scanning the room for something to play music on. “Aha!”

Pinkie Pie sprinted over to a table in the corner that had a record player on it, glancing down the troll could instantly tell it already had the perfect party tunes ready to go. With a nod, she set the needle and turned it up, smiling contently as the upbeat tunes belted out of the machine.

“Alright, now let's get this…” She spun around and blinked, a growing sense of dread building deep inside her.

All around her the beings sat in the same state of lethargy that they had been in moments ago. “How?” Pinkie Pie muttered.

She ran over to a nearby elder changeling, shaking his hoof. “What's wrong with you guys? This party is hopping!”

The changeling sighed, and slowly fell back to the table before closing his eyes and beginning to snore loudly.

Pinkie Pie stood there, momentarily stunned by the reaction she had gotten. With all due haste the mare sprinted around the room, trying to urge everyone to get up until she worked her way back to Twilight, who was now joined by the rest of their friends.

“Twilight!” The troll grabbed her friend in both hooves, shaking her vigorously. “I think everyone has been replaced with body doubles that don't like parties! Or maybe there is an evil curse placed on this room where no fun can occur. Unless...” She gasped again, spinning around in circles.

At about the fourth spin, the party pony gasped suddenly. “I got it!” she announced.

“You have all been replaced by evil space ghosts from the red spider nebula!” The troll’s eyes went wide. “Which means I’m next!”

With an ear splitting cry of terror, the troll bolted out of the room on only her back legs, her forelimbs waving in the air.

Her cry slowly dissipated until vanishing entirely, leaving the room in dead silence. “Okay, guys, I think we got her,” Twilight announced, getting up and smiling.

“Oh, thank the stars,” Rainbow Dash grouched, stretching her neck. “I don't know if I could stay sitting for even a moment longer.

Chrysalis walked up to the lich, a disbelieving look on her face. “How did you do it, Sparkle? Even my best shapeshifters couldn't get a peep out of her and you managed to give me such a surge of fear that I can still sort of taste it.”

Twilight shrugged. “Her Pinkie sense detects anything trying to sneak up on her and helps her differentiate danger. But.” She held up a smug hoof. “What if I let her think there was danger where there was not?”

“Her weird senses wouldn't warn her of that,” Chrysalis finished, nodding slowly. “Impressive work, Sparkle.”

“Exactly, now without further ado.” Twilight turned to a banner that had yet to be unfurled. With a yank of her magic the banner unfurled, revealing two giant words.

Got ya!

Chrysalis raised a nonexistent eyebrow and looked down at the lich. “Are you sure she's just going to come rushing back? We did scare her pretty good.”

Twilight smirked. “Three, two, one and-”

“Hey guys, my party senses were tingling. Are you still possessed by evil fun hating alien ghosts from Xenu?” Pinkie Pie asked nervously, peeking in from the side of the door.

Twilight shook her head and pointed up to the banner.

Following the lich’s hoof the party troll looked up, her jaw falling open. “Woah, did you do all this for me?”

Twilight nodded. “Yup! I got Chrysalis and everyone to move the party you set up at the hive to here.”

“Really?” the troll asked, slowly walking into the room.

Rainbow Dash nodded. “Really really, now let's get this party started!”

A watery eyed look from Pinkie made Twilight roll her eyes and giggle. “Come here you.”

The troll leapt into Twilight’s forelegs, squeezing her tightly. “Oh, thank you so much! This is the best scare ever!”

Cadence hobbled up next to Pinkie. “So, did we get ya?”

The pink troll nodded. “You guys sure did. Oh, I can't wait to see what happens next year!”

The alicorn chuckled, placing a hoof on the other female’s shoulder. “Don't get too far ahead of yourself. Now, what do you say we get this party really started?”

“You can count on me!” The pink troll sprinted across the room and cracked up the volume on the record player before bumping aside several tables, creating an impromptu dance floor.

In the span of a few seconds Pinkie had already managed to fill the dance floor with beings that were eagerly dancing away, drawn into the spirit of the party by the energetic troll.

The party troll was a blur of movement and in no time at all everyone in the room was moving and having fun, either by dancing, partaking in several games, or merely enjoying an animated conversation with snacks.

With a content sigh, the pink troll settled back into the table Twilight, Cadence, Chrysalis and Rainbow Dash were seated at. “I love the sound of fun in the evening.”

Rainbow Dash threw back a mouthful of cider and grinned. “You are telling me, Pinkie Pie. It seems like we got just about everyone here!”

Twilight smiled, munching on some cookies of her own creation. “The others should be here in a few minutes, though I wonder if-”

“What's this? A party and I wasn't even invited?” a regal voice asked.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “You were invited, I gave it to you this morning. Remember princess-”

The Library

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The five friends and one accomplice marched silently down the stairs, making their way deeper into the catacombs. Twilight and Rainbow Dash walked at the forefront, keeping their eyes peeled and their senses sharp, followed close behind by Trixie, who was quietly humming a tune no one could place. Behind her, Applejack and Fluttershy trotted, with the treebound mare occasionally grunting and complaining about all the stairs. Fluttershy did her best to assuage her friend’s pain, but there was only so much a single bunny could do. Rarity hung at the back, her wider body and many legs making it necessary for her to walk alone.

The stairs were wide, easily enough for three ponies to walk abreast if they didn't mind walking shoulder to shoulder. The stone beneath their hooves, though ancient, had clearly been swept and cared for recently, something Trixie eagerly took credit for and Rarity appreciated. The fashionable spider pony’s whining having finally relented after learning that at least the first floor, which encompassed a few rooms and the library, would be free of the dust and clutter that she so detested.

“How long is this going to take?” Rarity asked, breaking the relative silence that had settled over them.

“I’m not sure.” Rainbow Dash shrugged. “It could take days to reach the bottom, if we are being careful, or mere hours if we weren't worried about surviving the journey.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Well, I don't know about you girls, but I am quite done with dying for awhile.”

Applejack chuckled. “With Trixie’s mom helping us out, our supply issue shouldn't be a problem for much longer, so I say we take this nice and slow. Ain't no reason to go rushing into trouble.”

“That sounds like a great idea,” Fluttershy added. “The undertower is not something you want to rush through.”

“Fi! Where is the glory in taking forever?” Trixie complained.

“We are not going to risk our lives for glory,” Twilight pointed out.

The teal mare rolled her eyes. “Still, ‘twould be a most glowing accolade if we had delved such a depth in little time.”

Rainbow Dash groaned. “Why do you keep talking like that? I mean really, who says fi?”

Trixie huffed. “I don't knoweth what thou art talking about.”

“Does everyone speak in old Equish where you come from?” Fluttershy asked, leaning forward on the branch she was standing on.

“Old Equish? We art just speaking Equish, it is thee who art speaking in tongues.” Trixie recoiled in disgust, sticking out her tongue. “Thy words art blunt and inelegant, like a mere foal’s.”

“Wait a second,” Rarity butted in. “Are you telling me you've never heard anyone speaking modern Equish?”

“No, that can't be true, the matron spoke modern Equish,” Twilight pointed out.

“True, mother occasionally speaks in a less intelligent tongue, but it is only at which hour she doth speaketh to outsiders,” Trixie remarked. “At which hour mother is high-lone we speaketh in our native tongue. Besides, our mother only learned such blasphemous speak from a friend who doth visits occasionally.”

“Hold on a minute.” Twilight stopped, turning back and looking up at the teal mare. “I knew I saw those styles of piercings somewhere. What year do you think it is?”

Trixie scoffed once more. “Wherefore doest it matter? The forest twists all things, time included. To tryeth and track it is a fool’s errand.”

“You mean to tell me you are from the past or something?” Rainbow Dash asked, while scratching her head. “‘Cause that's just ridiculous. I know time can get distorted in here, but I very much doubt you were from the original Ponyville.”

“Yond hamlet at the edge of the woods?” Trixie rolled her eyes. “I may originally beest from thither, but it holds not mine own allegiance.”

“Excuse me,” Fluttershy interrupted, “I think this is a fascinating conversation, but can we finish this at the bottom? Applejack is in a lot of pain.”

The farmer grunted. “I wasn't gonna say anything, but these stairs and me don't mix.”

“I’m terribly sorry, Applejack, why don't we finish this later?” Rarity added.

Trixie shrugged and motioned for Twilight and Rainbow Dash to turn back around. “What art thee waiting for?”

“Err, right.” Twilight began walking down the stairs, following close behind Rainbow Dash, who held no qualms with abandoning the rather boring discussion.

The thestral bumped shoulders with the undead mare. “So, oh fearless leader, what's the plan?”

“There are a few rooms we can set up camp, then I thought we could go to the library.” Twilight paused. “Wait, since when am I the leader?”

Trixie nodded. “Forsooth, I knoweth mine own way around, so it is only natural that I leadeth.”

“Actually, I agree with Rainbow Dash on this one,” Applejack muttered, grunting as a particularly bad step jostled the tree in her back.

“Me as well, darling,” Rarity added, while Fluttershy nodded.

“See? We all agree,” Rainbow Dash added, ignoring the glare coming from Trixie.

“Why though? Shouldn't you lead?” Twilight remarked. “You are the guard after all, if anyone should be making decisions, it's the one of us who is trained to deal with this sort of situations.”

“True.” Rainbow Dash smirked. “But, I admit I ain't much of a plan ahead type of thestral.” She jumped into the air and used her wings to hold her up while boxing with some unseen opponent. “I’m more of a fighter than a planner.”

“Err, I guess that makes sense but what about-” Twilight began, only to be interrupted by a bunny landing on her back and placing a paw on her shoulder.

“Twilight, we trust you to keep things organized and make sure we don't get mixed up.” Fluttershy smiled. “It's a compliment.”

The undead unicorn grinned, feeling the trickle of positive energy flowing into her. “That's really nice of you girls. Thanks.”

“No problem, now can we please pick this up? Bloomberg is killing me,” Applejack griped.

“Agreed,” Rarity added, wincing as her own back cracked in several places.

Trixie grunted and rolled her eyes. “I still think I would be the most wondrous choice to leadeth.”

The group of beings all shuffled out of the stairwell, assembling near the bottom and stretching their many and varied limbs. “Oh, thank the stars,” Applejack muttered, stretching her legs and making her joints pop in several places.

“How many stairs were there? It feels like I walked across the whole of Ponyville,” Rarity lamented.

“There are quite a few sub levels that are only traversable via magic, as well as several secret floors that don't show up on any blueprints and have only been theorized of,” Twilight pointed out.

“Plus this is the quickest and easiest way through the catacombs to the library and undertower. Meaning we had to bypass all the rest of that stuff,” Rainbow Dash added.

“Well still.” Applejack grunted, giving her back a shake. “You think they could have installed some sorta magic door or something.”

Trixie rolled her eyes. “Enough whining, let's findeth the camping spot and setteth it up already. I wanteth to receiveth an early start tomorrow night.”

“Trixie does have a point,” Rarity agreed. “It would behoove us to get the camp set up and maybe take a peek into the library before we start going deeper into the tower.”

“Fine, but I want to get AJ’s thing out of the way before we bed down for the night,” Rainbow Dash added.

“Err alright,” Applejack murmured, glancing over at Twilight who nodded her assent.

Fluttershy hopped down from her perch on Applejack’s shoulder. “Let's get going please. I need to let Angel bunny have his body back soon.”

“Right.” Twilight nodded, gesturing for Rainbow Dash to lead the way, something she eagerly did.

Looking around, Twilight found that the stonework was much more detailed and seemed to have survived surprisingly well under the grueling touch of past ages. There were few cobwebs this deep, and even less dust and dirt marred the long, nearly immaculate hall that lay before them. She could easily see from her position at the bottom of the stairs that numerous rooms opened up around them, and a hallway could be seen further up, one that ran through the one they were already standing in.

Walking deeper, the dead unicorn could tell that many of the rooms they had passed hadn't survived as well as the halls had, and some were either filled with the smell of rot, or had partially or totally collapsed. Though it made sense now that she thought about it, as the thestrals must have spent their effort in maintaining a path into the deepest reaches of the undertower, and not nearly as much on the more mundane aspects of the side rooms that were less important.

The entire area was poorly lit, and though Twilight could see a few magical torches burning at random intervals, most of the halls and rooms were pitch black. Not like that bothered her or her friends, as all of them seemed to have at least somewhat decent night vision, including Trixie, somehow. The unicorn sniffed the air, the scent of hundreds of years worth of dust tickling her nose.

Glancing at her friends, and Trixie, they all seemed relatively relaxed, as if they weren't plumbing the depths of a spooky half abandoned castle deep in the Everfree. The unicorn shrugged, reasoning that if they weren't upset by this, then why should she?

Together they walked deeper into the winding depths of the castle, with Rainbow Dash taking a right after the intersection. “The library is straight, by the way, the other direction just has some musty old rooms and a few barrels of cider that went bad a few centuries ago.”

Twilight peered into the darkness, staring down the path ahead of them and finding that she could just barely see a statue of a pony with both wings and what looked like a horn standing inside. “Huh,” Twilight muttered, her curiosity piqued at the thought of ancient and forgotten knowledge being so close at hoof.

Trixie sighed. “The most wondrous and powerful Trixie hast not the time to restore any other functions or rooms of the catacombs, I’m afraid.”

Fluttershy smiled, patting the unicorn on the fetlock. “That's okay, Trixie, I’m sure you’ve done a great job.”

“Thank thee, dear Fluttershy.” Trixie smiled, picking her head up. “I admit, this hast been tougher than I bethought. So much debris and so many walls, ceilings and floors to fix. I am an illusionist, not a mason.”

“Perfect, they even left the torch behind,” Rainbow Dash announced suddenly, trotting a little faster and making her way over to a seemingly random side room that had a large torch sitting in a holder just outside it.

“What does this torch do anyway?” Twilight asked, lighting her horn and turning the torch about in its holder, only to find that it seemed like a perfectly normal, everyday torch. “It doesn't look very special.”

“It wards off most of the creatures found in the lower levels, and ensures that none follow you back up to the surface or surprise you while you make camp,” Rainbow Dash pointed out, hefting the torch and blowing against it.

“Whoa,” Applejack muttered.

“Whoa indeed,” Twilight agreed, watching as the torch lit with a strange purple light, before flickering a moment, burning brighter.

“Doesn't last forever though, so don't use it unless we are bedding down for the day.” Rainbow Dash turned it upside down, the flames instantly snuffing themselves out.

“Aye, aye, let's start making camp already. Trixie doth requires her beauty sleep as well as ample time to practice my illusions,” Trixie announced, stepping into the room and looking around. “That corner shalt be mine.”

The rest of the group filled in after the unicorn, picking out spots and starting to lay down bed rolls and other camping equipment. Twilight walked in last, instantly noticing that this room seemed off, almost special in a way. Though there were several arches along the wall, indicating that there had been several other adjoining rooms, they had all collapsed, leaving only this single wide area accessible. The floors, ceiling and walls were all wooden, though parts had rotted through and revealed the stone behind. The room itself had no door, but there were large hinges still hanging on the frame, indicating that only a single door had spanned the wide opening.

“Hey Rainbow Dash. Do you know anything about this room?” Twilight asked, a hoof brushing across the hinges that were left behind.

“Not really.” The thestral shrugged, spreading out her bed roll and placing her bags against the wall near the door. “We suspect that it was a visiting dignitaries’ room or perhaps a royal librarian’s. It was clearly important, and relatively deep into the lunar wing of the castle, making some suspect that it was specifically tied to the moon princess and not her.”

“‘Tis a most peculiar lodging.” Trixie agreed, setting her own meagre possessions in her corner. “The colors are different from both the mistress’ as well as the nemesis’.”

“Nemesis?” Applejack frowned. “What nemesis?”

“Thee knoweth her. She who shalt not be named.”

“Celestia?” Twilight asked.

The teal unicorn’s eyes went wide and she sprinted across the room, closing the dead unicorn’s mouth with a hoof. “Forgive her, she knoweth not what she speaketh.” The unicorn made a symbol in the air before relinquishing her hoof from the other mare’s jaw. “Stayeth thy tongue, naive. To utter her name in the mistress’ hallowed halls is a grave insult.”

“Err alright.” Twilight relented, exchanging a glance with her slight less confused friends.

“I know it's not nice to bring her up, but is it really that big of a deal?” Rarity asked, while absentmindedly fiddling with a surprisingly lavish tarp she drew across her area, giving the arachne a small amount of privacy.

“Would thee bringeth up the being that hath killed thy grandmother in her own home?” Trixie questioned, eyes narrowing.

Rarity paused, wincing as she realized the depth of her words. “Point taken.”

Twilight winced as well, rubbing the back of her neck awkwardly. “Sorry Trixie, I didn't think of it that way.”

The unicorn sighed and nodded. “It's fine, just be more mindful, thou art running of valorous graces, sunspawn.”

With that the unicorn turned, and marched over to her corner, before throwing up a thin barrier and applying an illusion that made it perfectly resemble wooden walls, complete with door, which Trixie opened and disappeared into. Leaving a rather confused Twilight to stand there, twiddling her hooves.

“Don't worry about her, sugarcube. She just seems to worship ol’ moon a little more than most, is all,” Applejack added before tossing her stuff in the shallow hole in the floor.

“I have to agree with Trixie, unfortunately.” Rainbow Dash frowned. “It would be kind of rude to bring up my killer back in my own house.” The thestral scratched her head. “Though I would be dead so…” She shrugged and went back to pulling out her supplies and strapping her armor back on.

“Anyway.” Applejack trotted up to the entrance. “Who is all coming with me to the library?”

“I am,” Rainbow Dash announced, tightening the strap of her sword and straightening her helmet. “Someone’s gotta keep an eye on you lot, I’ll leave the torch here just in case.”

“Good thinking,” Rarity remarked, peeking out of her makeshift tent house. “I will be remaining here in order to set up our camp and to hopefully bother Trixie into teaching me a few things about weaving.”

The unicorn popped out of her room and pointed at the arachne. “I shall doth so, merely allow me mine own beauty sleep first.” Her eyes narrowed. “And doth not wake me, lest thee shalt knoweth mine own wrath.”

Rarity gulped. “Yes ma’am.”

Trixie ducked back into her room, slamming her magical door behind her.

Fluttershy chuckled. “I need to let Angel have his body back in a few minutes, so I’ll be staying here as well.”

“I think I’ll go with you.” Twilight grinned, rubbing her hooves together excitedly. “I can't wait to read some of the books they have down here.” She stopped and frowned, looking over at Rainbow Dash. “I’m allowed to read them, right?”

The thestral snickered. “Yes, egghead, you are allowed to read them. Just be careful, don't leave with any books and you’ll be fine.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “I knew that much at least.”

“Good,” Rainbow Dash remarked. “Oh and don't touch anything unless I say you can. There are a few priceless artifacts stored in the library, either because they are too heavy or too brittle to move.”

“Yes, Captain Rainbow Dash,” Twilight replied back with a salute.

“Captain Rainbow Dash…” The thestral paused, tapping her chin. “That has a nice ring to it.”

“Would you two quit lollygagging?” Applejack yelled from down the hall. “There ain't many hours left in the night and I want my sleep too, ya know.”

“Last one there's a rotten egg!” the thestral announced before shooting out the door, leaving a prismatic trail in her wake.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “That girl is gonna run into a wall one of these days.”

“Oh, she has,” Rarity added.

“Many times,” Fluttershy remarked sadly. “I sure hope she doesn't run into anything down here though, I don't think stone is quite as forgiving as wood.”

Twilight leaned down and rubbed the bunny’s head. “Don't worry, I’ll keep an eye on her.”

Fluttershy beamed up at her friend. “Thanks.”

The dead unicorn straightened her back and turned towards the door, making her way down the hall at a brisk trot while taking in all the sights and sounds along the way. Including a large double door bound by an enormous set of chains that wound through the handles, which were in turn secured by a large padlock.

“Huh,” Twilight muttered, pulling on the doors and noting that she couldn't even open them enough to glimpse what lay beyond. “Must be how the lower levels are accessed.”

Turning back, Twilight trotted the last of the way to the library, where she was able to get a much better look at the statue she had seen earlier. The first thing that struck her was just how tall it was, as it easily stood several feet over her head and if the statue was real, would easily be the tallest pony, or even being, Twilight knew of. The second thing that struck her was just how featureless it was, sure she could tell it had a horn, wings and a flowing mane, but the finer details of the face, the eyes, and several other key points were lacking.

It was clearly feminine, that much was obvious but it seemed like most of the truly distinguishing features had been scrubbed away. Was this a purposeful act to make sure the mare was forgotten? Or had it been exposed to the elements before being moved down here? Twilight wasn't sure, and she put that question out of her mind for now, focusing on the fact that the statue had the wings of a thestral, and a horn that resembled her scimitar shaped one.

The alicorns were supposed to be sisters, so did that mean they had different fathers because Celestia did not have leathery wings or a horn like Twilight’s? Or perhaps they had different mothers? Or perhaps this was an artist’s impression? Or there was the possibility that the darker sister had undergone a magical transformation to further differentiate herself from Celestia. Again, Twilight wasn't sure which was right, and she was forced to set that aside, along with the multitude of other mysteries that had plagued her since she came to this place.

The statue itself was sitting on the ground, its mane and tail close to its body as its wings were partially extended, its eyes peering upwards as if gazing into the night sky. It had an almost contemplative expression that was partially marred by whatever damage it had received. Though Twilight had initially been put off by its sharp horn and sheer size, the longer she looked the more she felt a sense of calm radiating from the statue, as if the stone mare was inviting her to gaze out into the cosmos with her.

“Took you long enough.”

“Bwah!” Twilight yelled, nearly tumbling sideways in her attempt to get away from a smirking thestral.

“And I wasn't even trying to scare you.” Rainbow Dash brushed some invisible dirt from her shoulder. “Damn, I’m good.”

The unicorn tried to calm her breathing, placing a hoof over her thundering heart, only to realize that her body didn't actually need to do either of those functions. “Warn me next time. If I had a functional heart, I’m pretty sure it would have flown through my chest cavity.”

The thestral rolled her eyes. “Oh, it wasn't that bad.”

“Still…” Twilight perked up suddenly, looking around the library. “Where's Applejack?”

“The farmer wanted to figure out this riddle all by her lonesome.” Rainbow Dash turned her towards the back of the library and yelled. “Like an idiot!”

A grunt from somewhere in the back was all the answer she received.

“Right.” Twilight chuckled. “She can do it alone if she wants to Rainbow Dash, I’m sure she can figure it out.”

“I guess, but it's going to take forever, and why bother when you got a walking library right here.” The thestral gestured toward Twilight.

“Very funny, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight groused.

Rainbow Dash smirked. “I know.”

Rolling her eyes, the unicorn pushed past her friend and walked deeper into the library. “If you don't mind, I’m going to find the history section.”

“What a snoozefest,” Rainbow Dash whined before leaping into the air. “I’m gonna find a spot to nap, err that has a better vantage point.”

Twilight chuckled, watching the thestral as she flew up over the stacks and disappeared into the gloom.

The unicorn shrugged and began to wander the stacks of the library, only to quickly realize that the organizational method was not the one she was normally used to. Leaning in, she noticed that the books themselves also didn't come with the handy magical stickers that enabled easy locating and worse yet the stacks as well were without identification. With a sigh, she began to wander at random, occasionally catching a glimpse of a sleeping Rainbow Dash napping on top of a stack or a suspicious looking Applejack who always pretended to be doing something else when Twilight wandered by.

After about an hour of wandering around, Twilight had come to several conclusions, with the first being that this library was enormous. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the placement of the stacks, and the sight lines were short, narrow and sometimes ended suddenly and without warning. It was strange, to say the least, but despite Twilight’s frustration at the sheer chaos of the library, it was hard to stay mad as it was uniquely beautiful.

Small things, like the book ends were not the simple metal holders that ensured a row of books didn't fall over but an intricate pieces of art. Some stacks of books were held back by comically small statuettes that were pictured struggling against the mountain of knowledge they held back while others were of stylized moons, or of proud thestrals. And the artwork didn't end there, as the small spaces between the stacks always seemed to be occupied by some piece of art, either a faded painting or ancient statue.

The entire thing struck Twilight as more of a museum or art installation that just happened to have books in it, rather than a structure that was merely intended to hold books. Something the high vaulted ceilings and numerous and oftentimes hidden reading areas seemed to indicate.

Twilight’s mind went back to the one time she had been allowed into Celestia’s royal library, before she accidentally caused one of the old librarians to have a heart attack and was banned. The golden structure had been utilitarian to a fault, and though everything was easily found, and was perfectly preserved, every minute spent in those long, perfectly straight halls were a minute that Twilight felt like she was in a prison, rather than a library.

The mare wondered if this strange castle that had two separate yet close throne rooms also had two different libraries hidden beneath them or if this facet was unique to the lunar section.

“Just another mystery,” Twilight muttered to herself.

As she continued to wander, so did her mind, only for the mare to quickly realize a fact that made her laugh out loud. “Of course, it all makes sense!” The mare doubled over, using a nearby stack to keep from tipping over completely. “One is too ordered while the other too chaotic. They truly were polar opposites.”

Twilight shook her head, the last of her laughter petering out as she made her way deeper into the winding labrinth that held a surprising amount of books. Eventually she managed to find the section she was looking for, the pony having gotten used to the fact that there weren't any indicators as to where one section started and another ended. Making it so Twilight was forced to judge sections based on a glimpse at their spines and hoping that at least one of them had a title printed therein.

“Ahh, The History and Foundation of Modern Equestria by Night Wing,” Twilight muttered. “Sounds like a thestral name, maybe this retelling will be a little different.”

Flipping it open, Twilight began to read a few lines before stopping and blinking. “Wait, what?”

Shaking her head, the mare closed the book and trotted over to one of the reading nooks she had spotted earlier. Plunking down in one of the aged chairs, Twilight placed the book on the reading desk before her and started back up in the same place she had left off.

The solar princess has shown her true colors today and broken away from the Everfree kingdom her and her sister made. She took what races she deemed ‘pure’ and made for the Canterhorn, claiming that she was going to build her own kingdom away from the ‘corrupting’ influence of the forest. Though initially this self imposed exile began peacefully, blood was spilled when a large group of the solar princess’ soldiers raided a guard depot for weapons and supplies. They claimed it was theirs by right, and that they had negotiated for the contents of the depot to be sold, but when the local guard captain was informed of this event he claimed no knowledge of the sale. This would be the spark that started the first battle of Ponyville and it would be first time the Everfree monarchy fought against the new Solar Empire and it would not be the last.

Recoiling from the book, Twilight couldn't help but wonder the implications of what she had discovered. “Is he merely biased? Or were both retellings incorrect? Perhaps neither is true…” the unicorn muttered to herself, remembering well how the history books she had read referenced that ‘the darker sister’ had gone mad and left, not the other way around.

Shaking her head, Twilight read on, becoming increasingly confused as time passed.

Setting down the book, Twilight placed a hoof against her head, the warring pieces of information roiling about in her mind. She glanced over to the piece of paper she had managed to find underneath a stack, which now contained a list of her thoughts that had come up during her reading.

  1. The Everfree Castle is definitely older than the Canterlot Castle.
  2. This means the Everfree kingdom is possibly older.
  3. Celestia was the one who left, which means she either annexed the Canterlot Castle from Luna, or built it shortly after she seceded.
  4. This is all very confusing.

There were several other numbered lines beneath that, but all of them were crossed out or were otherwise covered in corrections, rendered illegible.

Tapping the quill she had summoned against the page, Twilight pondered the deeper implications of the book’s meaning and mused on just what it meant for the history of the world. It was clear they had fought more than a single battle like Celestia seemed to want her ponies to believe and it was obviously not quite as black and white either.

“Augh,” Twilight groaned, slamming her head against the history book. “This isn't what history is supposed to be like. It's about facts and evidence, not opinions and lies.”

“Well, you know what they say, sugarcube. History is written by the victors.”

“Applejack?” Twilight blinked, peeling her face from the book and turning to see that it was indeed her farmer friend. “What are you doing here? Did you find what you were looking for?”

The farm pony winced, rubbing the back of her neck. “Not exactly. It seems like things are a little muddier than I remembered.”

“What do you mean?” Twilight asked, getting up, and only now noticing the small piece of paper Applejack clutched in a hoof.

The farm pony pressed the piece of paper against her chest and winced. “Look, I kind of need yours and RD’s help.”

“Of course Applejack, do you want to find her before you explain or?”

“If you wouldn't mind finding her first, I’d appreciate it.” The farmer pony smirked. “Don't rightly enjoy repeating myself much, to be honest.”

“Fair enough.” Twilight took a step forward, only to stop and look around. “On second thought, why don't you lead the way?”

Applejack chuckled. “Forgot how you got here?”

“Maybe,” Twilight muttered.

The farm pony shrugged. “You live here long enough and I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Now come on, ain't much time left in the night and I want this done before we hit the hay.”

It didn't take long for the two ponies to find the lazy thestral, as her hooves were dangling off the edge of one of the stacks, her helmet and sword lying next to her while her wings covered her head. The two ponies exchanged a brief glance and a chuckle at the sight, with Twilight baffled by the thestral’s apparent ability to fall asleep anywhere without issue.

“Hey Rainbow Dash!” Twilight yelled, lobbing her ball of paper at the slumbering pony. “Wake up!”

Rainbow Dash’s head jerked and her wings recoiled with the mare looking about in confusion only to look down and notice the two ponies looking up at her. “I wasn't asleep, I just closed my eyes for a like... an hour.”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Well, come on down for a moment, I wanted to talk to ya.”

“We’re talking right now, aren't we?” Rainbow Dash shot back.

“Oh just get your lazy carcass down here already, wouldja?” Applejack snapped.

“Oh alright,” the thestral whined, plunking her helmet back on her head before strapping her sword onto her side and gliding down. “Alright, now what are we doing again? Please tell me it's not cataloguing.”

“I hope not,” Twilight remarked, a shiver running down her spine.

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Nah, it's a riddle or something, but first y'all have to swear you won't tell anyone of what happens here. Got it?”

“Err, sure thing, Applejack,” Rainbow Dash responded.

“This is serious, you have to swear you won't tell anyone.” Applejack’s eyes narrowed. “Ever.”

“I swear I won't tell anyone,” Twilight said, hoof over her heart.

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes, reluctantly putting her hoof over her heart. “I swear I won't tell anyone. Now will you tell us what this is all about?”

The treebound pony sighed. “Mah family owned a lot of land in and around Ponyville, even where we’re standing right now used to be owned by mah family.”

“Really?” Twilight blinked. “Wow, you must have been quite wealthy way back then.”

Applejack shrugged. “Sorta, the family was bigger back then, had a lot of cousins and whatnot living on the land, so it's not like we made a lot off it.” She shook her head. “That's not the point though. The point is we gave the land up voluntarily, and in return we asked that our family be granted a vault in the castle.”

“So you did have a ton of gems!” Rainbow Dash smirked. “You sly dog you.”

“That ain't…” Applejack sighed. “We had a little, but that's not the point. We wanted a place where the whole family could keep stuff that meant something without having to worry about it none.”

“I’m assuming this is before the invention or wide spread use of banks?” Twilight offered.

Applejack shrugged. “I don't rightly know but that was before even the castle was built, Equestria was like three towns big about that time. Regardless, the sisters let mah family have our vault, but she worried it might be a target so she had it hidden from her sister so only she and mah family would know about it.”

“You’re telling me your family was that close to her?” Rainbow Dash asked pointedly, eyebrow raised. “Really?”

“Wait, her? You mean Lu-” Twilight shrunk when they both glared at her. “I get it, don't speak the name of the pony in their tomb.”

Applejack nodded slowly. “Eeyup.”

“Okay, so they hid this vault in her library, then what?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“Well…” Applejack frowned. “The few of my kind that knew where it was and how to get into it kicked the bucket during the war.” Her frown deepened. “By the time anyone remembered it even existed the whole damn forest was still a mess, the castle was in pieces and no one even knew how to get into it. So we just kinda, didn't bother doing anything about it.”

“So we are trying to find it then?” Twilight asked.

“Yeah pretty much, there's something mighty important in there,” Applejack answered.

“Like what?” Rainbow asked eagerly, a wide grin spreading across her face. “Is it your family’s lost treasure or maybe some kind of artifact from before the war?”

“What?” Applejack scoffed. “Nothing like that.”

“Then like what?”

Applejack frowned. “I’ll tell ya if we manage to open it. Till then all you need to know is it ain't worth nothing to nobody but mah family.”

“Fine, keep your secrets.” Rainbow Dash scowled.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “I’m assuming you have something to go on at least?”

Applejack nodded. “Yeah.” She opened her hoof, revealing a thin slice of paper with a seemingly random assortment of numbers and letters on it. “My great uncle was supposedly the last one of our family to get into the vault, may his soul rot in Tartarus.” The farm pony turned and nearly spat before she caught herself, leaving her to reluctantly swallow the glob of spit. “Left behind this, said it would be all we need to find it eventually.” She scratched her head. “Except I can't make heads or tails of it.”

“Odd,” Twilight muttered, grabbing the paper and bringing it close to her face. “It almost looks like a classification number, but not one that I recognize.”

“Really?” Rainbow Dash asked, leaning over the unicorn’s shoulder and chuckled. “Here I thought you were a library nerd.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “I have studied library classification systems before, but this is not one I’ve ever seen used in Canterlot.”

Rainbow Dash’s gaze narrowed and she leaned closer. “Wait a second.” She swiped the paper from Twilight’s magic, peering intently at it. “This is the same classification system we use for the guard’s library.”

“Wait, you have a library?” Twilight asked skeptically.

“Well yeah, there are tons of things out there that we've found that would be dangerous if ithey got out to the public, but could also be useful to the right type of beings,” Rainbow Dash pointed out. “Where do you think we put all the books too important to just leave in here?”

“I never thought of it like that…” Twilight muttered, her gaze lingering on the many shelves, only now noticing that none of them were full.

“It took a lot of offers to convince the spirits to give up the books, but in the end even they understood that there are some things that need to be under lock and key.” Rainbow Dash shrugged.

Applejack’s eyes lit up and she leaned in, grabbing the thestral by the shoulder. “So you know where this book is?”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Sure, I mean it would take awhile to figure out where this section is, as there are tons that aren't labeled, but I’m pretty sure I could find it given a few hours.”

“Wait, what section is it in?” Twilight asked.

“Non-fiction, journals and compilations of written accounts,” Rainbow Dash responded mechanically.

“That's really specific,” Twilight muttered.

“I guess.” Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Don't suppose you found the non fiction section by chance, did ya?”

“Actually, I did,” Twilight announced happily, only to stop and stare at the thestral. “Wait, since when did you know anything about cataloguing systems?”

The thestral rolled her eyes. “Since the day I passed basic. Every recruit has to know how to find stuff in the archive.”

“I suppose that makes sense.”

“Well, what are we dawdling for?” Applejack asked. “Let's get moving already.”

“Right. It's this way.” Twilight turned, leading them deeper into the library.

“Here we are.” Twilight gestured to the section. “This is where I found that history book I was reading earlier.”

“Which means it should be over here,” Rainbow Dash muttered, eyes scanning the wall of books. “Aha!”

“Where is it?” Applejack asked nervously, trying to follow Rainbow’s gaze.

“Right here.” Rainbow Dash reached forward to grab a slim, black spined leather book that had neither title nor author, only for Applejack to leap forward and grab it out of her hooves. “Whoa, watch it.”

Rainbow Dash and Twilight watched as Applejack tore through the book, flipping through pages before turning the whole thing upside down and giving it a shake. “No keys or nothing. Damnit, I really thought this was it.”

“It might be a clue.” Twilight pointed out. “Is there anything else on that piece of paper not used to identify this book?”

Rainbow Dash glanced down. “Yeah, there's an extra number three at the end of it.”

“Maybe that's a chapter.” Twilight’s eyes lit up. “Can I see it?”

“Sure.” Applejack gave her the book. “Though I’m not sure what you are going to find in some book.” She frowned. “It's not like reading it is gonna make the vault pop out of nowhere.” Her eyes went wide. “Twilight, is the book magical?”

“It seems like a plain old book to me.” She lit her horn, running a scanning spell over the book before shaking her head. “Nope, just a light preservation spell.”

Rainbow Dash swiped the book out of Twilight’s magic. “Quit lollygagging and let's find out what this book is even about… Stories of the first settlers and tales of the Everfree, huh.”

Applejack jabbed her hoof at the book. “Turn to chapter three.”

Rainbow Dash did just that. “Accepting the unacceptable, by her.”

“Wait her?” Twilight gazed over the mare’s shoulder. “Oh wow, it is by her.”

“Would you look at that,” Applejack muttered, pushing her hat up. “Well, what are we waiting for? Read it.”

“Err alright, but it's all in old Equish. Guess I’ll just translate it so I don't sound like that stuck up Trixie.” Rainbow Dash stuck out her tongue in disgust.

“Oh this is so exciting. A tale written by one of the two sisters, I wonder what wisdom it might hold.” Twilight’s eyes shone as she gazed at the page in wonder. “Do you think it has some sort of hidden meaning or spell coded into the story?”

“I don't rightly care one way or the other, just read it already and let's get this over with.” Applejack grouched.

“Alright alright, sheesh.” Rainbow Dash cleared her throat. “It all began when I was traveling back to the quaint little hamlet of Ponyville. Sir Night Song told me of this wonderful little bakery that had just opened and I had to see it for myself...”

“Ahh, what a wonderful day for a walk in the woods,” Luna said with a smile, breathing deeply of the fresh spring air. “It's enough to make an old mare feel young again.”

With a smile still plastered firmly on her face, the alicorn trotted further down the well manicured trail, glancing occasionally at the passing trees and other vegetation that dotted the edge of the path. Having abandoned her usual escort of guards, Luna was free to linger at any flower that caught her attention and generally spent as much time as she wanted trotting to town, something she eagerly partook in.

With a sigh, the alicorn turned away from the rose she had been smelling and began to trot towards town at a more determined pace, her stomach having rumbled, alerting her to just how much she was looking forward to the bakery her friend had mentioned. “I wonder if our dear Twilight will be able to join me?”

Shrugging off the question, Luna trotted a little faster, easily managing to reach the end of the path in no time, Ponyville appearing slightly to her right. “Wait, that's not right…”

Trotting a little further, the alicorn broke from the tree line before turning back around and noticing the path was exactly where it was a moment ago, which was not where it should be. “The last time I used this path I could see the whole of Ponyville open up before me.”

She glanced to her right, where Ponyville now stood. “What in the world is going on?” she muttered.

Looking around, the alicorn saw no obvious reason to explain how this had happened and sprinting to her left revealed another path, this one identical to the one she had just exited. Looking down it revealed a nearly perfect copy of the path she had just walked, though there were a few things that were slightly off, like a small row of orchids that grew near the path’s end. Walking into the path and turning around confirmed this was indeed where she had exited before, further confusing the alicorn.

“How?” she muttered.

Scratching her head, the alicorn pondered her predicament, only to shrug and turn away, walking towards the town of Ponyville and the bakery therein. Though even with her stomach rumbling and her brain telling her to simply forget the path and get food, she could do no such thing and with a regretful sigh she turned back to the path.

“This is going to bother me to no end,” she muttered before teleporting back to the castle.

Several minutes later, the alicorn began to walk the same path, starting from where it emerged behind an old red wood that seemed to grow randomly at the edge of the treeline near the castle. With a small book, quill and ink pot now in her possession, the alicorn levitated these objects, taking notes as she walked. Over time her irritation at the forest seemed to dull and she began to enjoy the closeness of nature, until she turned the last corner and saw Ponyville.

Her eye twitched dangerously and she very nearly crushed the ink pot in her magical grip. “HOW?!” she yelled.

The source of her ire was the fact that Ponyville did not appear directly before her, or to her right, but rather to her left, a small bush of roses marking this end of the path as different from the other two. Through gritted teeth she marked this down before spinning on her heel and trotting back down the path, only to repeat the process.

Over and over she went, walking the path back and forth, getting different results each and every time, and by the time the sun began to dip low on the horizon she had emerged from over twenty different exits. She had found no break in the path, though the turn seemed to signal a transition, as everything after that was slightly different. The only visually distinct thing she could notice was the different kinds of flowering plants found near the end of each path.

With her heart thundering in her chest, the alicorn turned down path number twenty two, noting the familiar low hanging branch that signalled the turn towards town. Her steps slowed, her eyes widened, and with fumbling, awkward steps she fell to the dirt, her ink pot, which had run low, tumbling from her grasp as did her now nearly full book and nearly blunt quill.

“How?” she muttered weakly.

As she lay there, staring at the small birch sapling that grew at the end of the path, Luna pondered if she was, perhaps, going completely mad. The mare lay there for a few minutes, contemplating the possibility of her madness, until a bunny hopped past her, undeterred by the sight of the alicorn and only stopping to give her a sidelong glance before continuing down the path.

Luna couldn't help but watch the small creature as it hopped down the trail, only to stop when it reached the end, where it looked around in apparent confusion. Then, with a shrug of its tiny shoulders it turned to its right and continued to hop away, unperturbed by the realization that it was not where it was supposed to be.

“Ha.” What began as a single syllable turned into a deep, irritation fueled laugh that saw the alicorn rolling around on the forest floor, tears staining her cheeks.

Eventually, when her laughter finally petered out, the alicorn now lying on her back and gazing up at the twilight sky. “I guess I’m not crazy.”

The mare shook her head and turned herself over, stood up, and with all the strength she could muster, whipped the book into the woods, following it closely with the quill and now empty ink pot.

“To think, a rabbit could lead me to an epiphany. Celestia is going to find this hilarious.” The alicorn shook the twigs from her mane, and after a second of consideration, turned to follow the rabbit, giving herself over to the whims of the woods.

“Huh,” Twilight muttered. “That certainly was… interesting.”

“I wouldn't go that far,” Rainbow Dash added.

“What do you suppose it means?” Applejack asked.

“I don't know, but the bunny clearly has some sort of significance,” Twilight offered. “Is there a rabbit statue, or painting in the library?”

“Well, that's just silly,” Applejack pointed out. “Why in the world would there be a statue of a bunny in a library?”

“Normally I would agree with you Applejack, but this is her were talking about. This entire library is kind of well… random,” Rainbow Dash remarked with a shrug.

Applejack sighed. “Fair enough.”

Rainbow Dash’s eyes suddenly lit up. “Wait! I think I remember seeing a rabbit statue when I was nap- I mean watching for danger.”


“It's peering over the side of one of the stacks near the entrance to the library.” Rainbow Dash turned and leapt off the ground, flying in the direction of the entrance. “Come on!”

Applejack and Twilight shared a look before they began to trot after their friend, quickly re-emerging into the entrance of the library and finding Rainbow Dash gazing up at a small bunny statue that was indeed peering over the side of the stack. “See, look? I told you.”

“How didn't we see that earlier?” Applejack asked incredulously while scratching her head.

“I don't know,” Twilight muttered.

“Well. Now what?” Applejack remarked.

“I don't know,” Twilight repeated.

“Wait a second,” Rainbow Dash whispered. “Shouldn't there be a button or something? Maybe it's looking at a switch or lever.”

The thestral spun in a circle, following the statue’s gaze down towards the base of the Luna statue. “Huh… nothing.” She was about to poke the part of the statue the bunny was looking at, only to slowly pull her hoof back, thinking better of it.

“What was that last thing she said in the story?” Applejack asked suddenly.

“Celestia is going to find this hilarious?” Rainbow Dash offered.

“No not that. The one before.”

“To think, a rabbit could lead me to an epiphany,” Twilight added.

“Yeah, that's it!” Applejack turned and looked up at the bunny statue. “What's the most forward facing part of a bunny?”

“Its nose?” Twilight asked.

“Exactly, which means that would be the part of it that would lead. Maybe that line was a clue,” Applejack added.

“Good thinking!” Rainbow Dash remarked, flying up to the statue and hovering a hoof over its nose. “Wait. What if this unleashes some sort of trap or something?”

“I very much doubt they would tie a trap to the opening of the vault,” Twilight muttered dryly.

“I guess, but how can we be sure?” Rainbow Dash glanced over at the bunny warrily. “Maybe it's tied to some sort of gas trap or maybe-”

Twilight shook her head, letting her horn dim. “It's tied to a mechanism, but as far as I can tell it doesn't seem like it has any spells tied to it. If there is a trap, it's purely mechanical.”

“See? Now stop lollygaggin’ and boop that snoot.” Applejack remarked angrily.

“Fine. But if something goes wrong, I’m blaming it on you.” Rainbow Dash huffed, turning back to the bunny and after a moment of hesitation, pressing her hoof against its nose.

For a second nothing happened, then a click could be heard from within the wall, followed by the whir of gears that ended near the base of the statue, followed by the grinding of stone against stone. The three ran over to the statue, noticing now that the space directly before it had a small two foot by two foot, half completed picture made up of various blocks. Over three dozen blocks made up a half completed picture of the castle at night, the top half of the simple puzzle not yet complete.

“Wow, that's… obvious,” Rainbow Dash muttered.

“There has to be more to it,” Twilight remarked. “It can't just be a simple picture puzzle. Can it?”

“There’s only one way to find out.” Applejack bent down, laying on the floor next to the puzzle and beginning the slow process of finishing it.

Within minutes she had moved nearly all the blocks into place, leaving one final block out of position. “Ready?”

Twilight lit her horn while Rainbow Dash nodded, a hoof over the hilt of her blade. Noticing her friends were braced and ready for anything, Applejack pushed the last block into place before jumping back up, her ears up and alert.

After a tense moment of silence the trio looked around in confusion. “Did anything happen?” Applejack muttered.

Twilight shook her head. “I didn't notice anything, what about you, Rainbow Dash?”

“Nothing,” the thestral answered.

“Weird.” Applejack scratched her head. “I guess it wasn't that simple after all.”

“That's weird.” Rainbow Dash rolled her shoulders, forcing her muscles to relax. “Why lead us to a puzzle if we aren't supposed to solve it?”

“I don't know.” Twilight muttered while staring at the puzzle, noting that it did indeed look exactly like the castle at midnight, with a large full moon hanging overhead.

Peering closer, Twilight didn't notice anything out of the ordinary, the picture itself not detailed enough to gleam any potential clues from. The trees were three simple colors and even the castle itself was rendered rather simplistic, along with the sky, with only the moon being out of the ordinary, its surface and many craters drawn in considerable detail.

“Huh.” Twilight leaned down, tapping the moon block absently. “Everything else is pretty plain other than the moon.”

“Do you think it's a clue?” Applejack asked.

“I don't know.” Twilight shrugged. “But it's gotta mean something, right?”

“Unless it's a red herring,” Rainbow Dash pointed out.

“True.” Twilight stood slowly, tapping her chin as she began to pace.

For a long while the three ponies all stood, paced or lay on the floor, contemplating the deeper meaning of what had looked like a simple puzzle before Rainbow Dash suddenly spoke up. “Maybe it opened something somewhere in the library but doesn't have an auditory clue?”

“Might as well do a flyby,” Applejack pointed out.

“Right.” The mare put her helmet on the floor next to the door. “I’m on it.”

Then, in a burst of wind the thestral was gone, flying off into the crowded stacks and deeper into the library, leaving the other two ponies to continue pondering the mystery that was this strange puzzle. After a few more minutes Rainbow Dash returned, shaking her head. “Nothing.”

“Consarnit,” Applejack cursed, taking off her hat and giving it a good stomp. “What in the hay is the point of a picture puzzle if not to complete it?”

“Wait.” Twilight’s eyes widened and she suddenly sprinted over to the picture. “This is exactly like the moral of the story!”

“Wait, what?” Applejack asked, plunking her now slightly dustier hat back on her head.

“Lu-she, expected one result, but got another and-”

“Only when she accepted the chaotic nature of the forest was she happy,” Rainbow Dash finished. “That's brilliant.”

“So all we gotta do is mix it up?” Applejack asked, glancing down at the picture puzzle quizzically. “That doesn't seem right, but that might be the whole point.”

Twilight lit her horn and began scrambling the puzzle, in minutes the entire thing was unrecognizable, and only then did something strange happen. Applejack took a step forward, placing a hoof against the unicorn’s shoulder. “Wait, stop. Go back.”

The unicorn did just that, shifting the last block she had moved back into position. “See that?” Applejack pointed to the two blocks closest to the one Twilight had just moved. “It's like a design or something, the trees fit together.”

“You are right.”

“Move the top left one down, I think I see a pattern start to form,” Rainbow Dash added.

Twilight nodded, doing as she was told and finding there did indeed seem to be a pattern. The edges of the moon piece were a faint black, and after locking in the rest of the sky pieces around it, the pattern became more evident. Within minutes Twilight had managed to assemble nearly the entire thing, with the castle pieces somehow fitting in around the sky pieces, followed by the tree and grass pieces that made up the last layer.

“Wow.” Applejack muttered, noticing how the entire thing was like someone was looking at the castle through the reflection of a puddle.

“Agreed,” Twilight added.

“Hurry up and put the last few pieces in!” Rainbow Dash complained. “I want to see if this will work!”

Twilight nodded. “Right.” With a flick of her horn the last few pieces were moved into place, the entire picture now becoming complete.

For a moment nothing happened, and just when it seemed like Applejack was about to say something, a sudden click drew her attention down. The ground shook as massive hidden gears began to grind, crushing the decades of dust and dirt that had fallen between the cracks. The grinding continued, as the puzzle slid into the ground, revealing a hole that began to open up beneath where the picture had been only a moment earlier.

The trio stood in shocked silence, watching as more and more of the blocks slid out of the way, until a shaft, complete with ladder, now loomed below them. The grinding stopped, and light flickered below them, several blue torches appearing along the side of the tunnel, revealing a short drop that opened up into a larger area.

“Wow,” Rainbow Dash muttered.


“You girls watch up here, I’m going in,” Applejack announced only to stop as she realized just how impossible that action was due to the tree that grew on her back. “Oh, for shitsake.” The farmer sighed, turning to Twilight. “Can I trust you to go in there and get what I need?”

Rainbow Dash frowned. “Hey, I could do that too, ya know.”

“Ah know, and don't think ah don't trust ya. It's just, Twilight here has magic, which will make hauling up whatever’s down there mighty easy,” Applejack pointed out.

The thestral wilted. “Fair enough.”

Twilight made her way over to the farm pony, placing a hoof on her shoulder. “Is there anything I should know before I go down there?”

“Be careful, for one.” Applejack smirked. “There should be a deed down there, it's old, so be gentle with it. Other then that we might as well clear out the vault so grab everything else you find. I’ll wait up here and catch whatever you pass up.”

Twilight nodded. “Alright, and don't worry, I’ll be as careful as possible.”

“I know you will.” Applejack smiled.

The unicorn turned, noting the way her heart seemed to flutter for a moment after parting. Glancing down the shaft, Twilight quickly realized that her leg brace was no longer lit up. The unicorn leaned down, prodding the brace with her magic, only to recognize that it was merely an inert hunk of metal, having lost all charge. “How long has it been like this?” she muttered.

“Awhile.” Rainbow Dash cocked her head. “Wait, you didn't know?”

The unicorn blushed slightly. “I didn't really think about it after the first day out.”

“Can we deal with this later please?” Applejack asked anxiously. “I really want to know if it's still there.”

“Right, of course.” Twilight shook her head and began descending the ladder, quickly finding that her normally clumsy and useless hooves now had absolutely no trouble utilizing the metal ladder that was bolted to the tunnel wall.

The mare shook her head. “Just another mystery,” she muttered.

Focusing on the task at hoof, Twilight slowly descended down into the vault, tentatively stepping onto the hard stone floor and looking around. The area was small, and was brightly lit by a trio of torches that illuminated the well fortified vault. Even after a single glance Twilight could tell for certain that whomever had built it was well versed in magic as she could feel several different protection spells thrum in the back of her mind, protecting the vault from being pierced by any who did not come from the shaft above her.

Beyond that, the vault was only sparsely populated, with only a two bags of something sitting in the corner. Making her way over, Twilight quickly noticed that a small book was half hidden behind a bag and a single rolled up piece of paper bound by a royal blue bow was wedged between the bags.

Pulling out the book, Twilight realized from the look of it that must be a scrapbook of some kind and flipping it open, her assumption was validated when she beheld a simple and rather grainy picture of a black and white apple tree. Below it, the words ‘The Apple Family’ were printed.

Flipping past, Twilight found herself looking upon what must have been the earliest picture of the Apple family, as there were only several members standing proudly beside a tall apple tree, one and all wearing a beaming smile. As she continued to flip through the book she noticed the family grew and grew, as did the orchard, until all of a sudden the orchard was being slowly overtaken with other trees, the smiles having vanished from the faces of the family members.

At first the trees in the background still resembled an orchard, albeit one that was surrounded and being slowly infiltrated by other trees but after a few more pages the pristine farm began to resemble the orchard Twilight had seen only a few days ago. By then the faces of the family members’ were downcast, none of them sporting the wide smiles they had only a few pages ago.

Twilight flipped the page, only to stop dead in her tracks, her jaw hanging open. She had noticed that the last few pages had shown the family beginning to have the familiar signs of what could only be described as ‘corruption’. Small sections of fur had been replaced by bark, and small branches had begun to poke out from some of their manes. During this time the family seemed to have stopped growing, appearing to stay at about the same number of members. Then suddenly the corruption was gone, just like that.

Flipping back Twilight could tell the signs of corruption were there on the page before, then she flipped back, all signs of the forest’s influence were completely gone. Their happy smiles returned, and for a few more pages they seemed to grow in number, before the pictures stopped entirely. Flipping through the rest of the book revealed nothing of interest, with every page being completely blank. Turning back to the last occupied page, Twilight realized several pages had been torn from the book, leaving behind no indication of what they had once contained. Turning to the last page one final time, Twilight stared a little closer at each member of the family in turn, finding nothing out of the ordinary until her gaze lingered on the fetlock of a well built mare who had, what Twilight assumed was moss growing up her leg. It was only a few inches, but Twilight could tell something was off, though it didn't look like the signs of ‘corruption’ she saw earlier in the scrapbook.

“Huh,” the unicorn muttered.

“Y'all right down there?” Applejack yelled.

Twilight shook her head. “Yeah! Just got distracted. The spellwork is amazing down here.”

She could hear Rainbow Dash snicker from above, but the unicorn brushed that aside, placing the book next to the bottom of the stairs before noticing a piece of paper that had fallen out of it. Picking up the folded piece of paper Twilight was tempted to open it, but the words printed on the front made her stop.

To my family.

She figured she had snooped enough and tucked it back into the front of the book, making sure it poked out the side slightly. Turning her attention down to the scroll bound by the blue ribbon, Twilight grabbed it, turning the paper over in her hoof.

“Interesting,” she muttered, noticing that it was stamped by the seal of the moon, and that the relatively simple piece of paper carried with it a powerful spell placed within.

Placing it on top of the book, Twilight put the scroll out of her mind and glanced down to the two bags she had noticed earlier. Pulling one of them open, the mare’s eyes went wide, the familiar gleam of gold coins instantly captivating her. Grabbing one of them, the unicorn brought it up to the light, noticing that it wasn't a bit, but rather some other, more ancient coin. One that had Luna’s face on one side and Celestia’s on the other.

Dropping the coin back into the bag, Twilight sifted through the container for a moment before determining it was completely filled with the old coins. Turning to the other one revealed another bag that was filled with identical coins, and from her brief inspection, Twilight figured there must be at least several thousands of the things.

Shaking her head, Twilight walked back over to the shaft and looked up, noticing the worried Applejack looking down on her. “There were two bags of really old coins, a scrap book with a note in it, and some scroll with a blue seal. Is that what you were looking for?”

“You betcha! Now be careful with that scroll. That there is probably the deed to the farm,” Applejack remarked.

“Will do,” Twilight responded, before lighting her horn, and creating a bubble around the scroll.

She then took the bubble in her magic and gently levitated it up to a waiting Applejack who only seemed to relax when the bubble was in her hooves. “Alright now, I got it.”

Twilight dismissed the bubble, and drew a sigh from Applejack who placed the deed aside with all the care of a mother placing a newborn in the crib. Levitating the rest of the items took little time, and Twilight quickly followed after, climbing the ladder and emerging once more into the library.

The second she stepped away from the vault, the familiar sound of gears could be heard, and in a few seconds the vault sealed itself once more. The floor where the shaft had just been appeared as if nothing had even happened, with even the dirt and dust returning to where it had been moments earlier.

Rainbow Dash peered over the farmer’s shoulder. “So, what is all this stuff?”

Applejack pushed the eager thestral away. “Hold on a second, I don't remember Granny ever talking about a note.”

The apple farmer flipped the piece of paper open and read quickly, steadily becoming more and more angry as time passed until finally she threw the paper on the ground and began stomping on it as hard as she could. “That no good, rotten piece of… augh! I’m so mad I can't even think of a curse.”

“No good rotten piece of guano, that deserves not even the air it breathes?” Rainbow Dash offered.

“Where did you even learn such a foul saying?” Twilight asked.

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “There are a lot of stallions in the guard.”

Applejack finally stopped stomping on the piece of paper and sighed heavily. “If that no good slime ball is still alive, I am gonna hunt him down and change that.” The treebound pony breathed deeply before placing a hoof against her heart, forcing her muscles to relax.

“What did it say, anway?” Twilight asked.

“That great uncle I mentioned cleaned out the vault and used all the money to fuck off to Cliffsdale with some thestral hussy.” Applejack turned to Rainbow Dash. “No offence.”

“None taken.”

“Anyway, he left this note, ‘apologizing’ and mentioning that he didn't bother taking the deed as it wasn't worth anything on account of the curse that came with it.” Applejack sighed suddenly, placing a hoof against her forehead. “Granny ain't gonna like this, she always did think the world of him.”

“Are you alright?” Twilight asked, leaning close to the still fuming mare.

“I will be… oh and thanks.”

Twilight blinked “For what?”

“Helping, keeping this all a secret and whatnot.” She shoved a bag of the old coins at the unicorn. “I’d like you to have this, it ain't worth much nowadays, and think of it as a way of me saying thanks for keeping all these secrets, including the one about this scrapbook.”

“Why does that matter? It's just a scrapbook,” Twilight asked curiously.

“Yeah that, and where's my bits?” Rainbow Dash added.

Applejack rolled her eyes and thrust the other bag at the thestral. “That book has evidence that this ‘curse’ can be beaten and I don't want that getting out quite yet. Not everybody is gonna think beating this thing is a good thing.”

“That makes sense… I guess. What exactly is going on in those pictures anyway?”

Applejack sighed. “Guess I might as well tell ya the story.” The farm pony stood a little straighter. “It all started back when my family first made a deal with the forest. We worked the land, and in turn we avoided the changes that afflicted other farmers at about that time. Apparently we did some ritual or something that appeased the forest and allowed us to go without the issues others did.”

“Obviously that didn't work,” Rainbow Dash added, earning her a hoof upside the head.

“I was getting there!” Applejack grunted. “What I was gonna say was that was how it worked until the war started, and everything went down the crapper.”

“Did the orchard get attacked?” Twilight asked.

“Well yeah, but that's not the real problem here.” She shook her head. “No, what the real problem was that everyone who knew the details of this agreement we had with the forest went and kicked the bucket. Leaving us without a way to keep up our side of the arrangement.”

“That does seem like a problem,” Twilight remarked. “I suppose that is why your family is so… different?”

Rainbow Dash chuckled. “That's one way of putting it.”

Applejack raised her hoof menacingly, shaking it at the thestral. “Yes, that is the reason for our changes, and why my family is considered cursed by some folk out there.”

“I know this isn't going to sound very nice, but have you thought of…” Twilight winced. “Following the story now?”

“What do you mean?” Applejack asked flatly.

“Well... In the story she stops worrying and trusts in the chaotic nature of the forest. That story brought us to the vault, helped us open the vault and seems to be linked in some way with your family,” Twilight pointed out.

Applejack scratched her head. “I’m not sure I follow.”

“Well.. How do you farm your apples?”

“What in the…” The farmer’s eyes narrowed. “Are you trying to tell me I’ve been doing it wrong?”

“Not cool, Twilight,” Rainbow Dash added.

Twilight winced. “Just hear me out. If that deed doesn't have the information, then maybe what you did for the forest wasn't a ritual but an attitude. Maybe you should let the forest do more.” She sighed. “I’m just trying to say that maybe there is a way you can harvest apples that follows the message of the story.”

“That's…” The apple farmer frowned for a moment before looking up. “Actually a good idea. Maybe there is something to what you are saying.” Applejack shook her head. “All I know is that we need to get back to the farm before any of this can be put to the test.”

“Right.” Twilight gulped. “I hope you are not mad at me.”

Applejack shook her head and smiled. “I could never be mad at someone because they were trying to help.” The farmer turned and trotted to the door. “Now come on, we better get back before I fall asleep standing up.”

Rainbow Dash groaned. “Finally!” The thestral trotted ahead without looking back.

The two non-winged beings took up the rear, until Applejack turned suddenly, pulling the unicorn into a bone crushing hug. “Thanks for all the help, partner.”

Twilight smiled, hugging the tree pony back, the exhaustion that hung over her until now suddenly lifting. “Don't thank just me, Rainbow Dash was a surprisingly big help.”

“I know.” Applejack pulled back. “She ain't the huggin type though.”

Twilight giggled. “Fair enough.”

“Oh and don't worry about that hole in the ground none.” Applejack shrugged. “Far as I’m concerned we’re square and well if this whole idea of yours works, well, we'd be more than square.”

“I wouldn't go that far, I’m sure anyone of our friends would do the same if they could,” Twilight responded.

Applejack shook her head. “But they didn't and ain't, you are. If we are able to fix this thing that's hung over my family for generations, then I figure we'd owe you about as much as we owe the forest. And that ain't a debt that can be repaid.”

Twilight sighed. “I’m not going to be able to talk you out of this, am I?”

“Nope!” Applejack proclaimed proudly. “Oh and if this works, be prepared to have the life squeezed out of you by Big Mac. He doesn't look it, but he's quite the hugger.”

“Oh joy,” Twilight muttered, imagining the enormous half tree half pony squeezing the soul out of her body.

“Hey, you two coming or what?” shouted Rainbow Dash.

“Yeah, we’re coming!” Applejack hollered back. “Best get going, we can talk more about this whole mess later.” The farm pony slipped the deed under her hat before tucking the book into the crook of a branch, while Twilight levitated her bag of coins.

Together the pair trotted the last little bit back to their camp, instantly noticing that a lot had changed during the last few hours. Balls of web now lay tossed about everywhere, with Rarity and Trixie in the middle of what looked like a heated exchange, the arachne waving her hooves in the air as she spoke animatedly.

Rainbow Dash had tossed her bag of coins in a corner before piling her stuff over top of it, trying to hide the bag of money to the best of her ability. Upon seeing that the last two members of their party had returned, Rarity sighed, putting away the thread she had been holding and ignoring Trixie. “Hello darlings, welcome back.”

The teal unicorn merely grunted before making her way over to her makeshift house in the corner, slamming the door shut behind her.

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Trouble in paradise?”

Rarity sighed, running a hoof through her messy mane. “You could say that again. Trixie seems to be opposed to my method of weaving and has vehemently claimed I need to forget everything.” The arachne rolled her eyes. “As if that would solve anything.”

“Well, she is the expert,” Applejack pointed out.

“I know.” Rarity sighed. “It's just easier said than done. How would you like it if someone told you to forget everything you knew about apple farming?”

Applejack and Twilight exchanged an amused glance before they both erupted in laughter, causing Rarity to glance at Rainbow Dash. “Was it something I said?”

“Something like that.” Rainbow Dash shook her head. “We’ll tell you later. Right now I’m tuckered out.” The thestral trotted over to the door, before lighting the torch, putting it in its place and making her way over to her bedroll. “Hey, where is Fluttershy?”

“She was helping Angel back to where she found those carrots he liked, she’ll be back in the morning with a new animal friend,” Rarity answered.

Applejack wiped a tear from her eye and gave Twilight a pat on the shoulder. “Speaking of which, we should probably turn in. I bet it's mighty early by now.”

Twilight nodded. “Agreed, I’m exhausted.”

The dead unicorn settled into her own bed, snuggling into the overly fluffy pillow Rarity had provided her days earlier. Silence settled over the room quickly, with exhaustion quickly claiming the room’s occupants who fell asleep in mere minutes. Just as Twilight was about to follow them into the realm of dreams, she noticed something moving at the edge of her perception.

Looking up, Twilight saw a vaguely equine shape slip through the wall of their room. Her eyes widening, Twilight lit her horn and hopped up, following the shape until she was looking over at a sleeping Rainbow Dash whom the butter yellow ghost was floating overtop of.

Just as Twilight was about to unleash a bolt of magic, the shape turned to her, revealing it to be what looked like a pegasus with deep teal eyes. The aetherial pegasus was young, probably not more than a teenager, her limbs still long and gangly and her eyes a little too big for her face. A smile began to cross the ghost’s face, only for her brow to crease when their eyes met and panic began to replace the mirth Twilight had seen a second earlier.


Dreams, and Memories

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“Fluttershy?” Twilight blinked, staring down at the now terrified looking ghost. “Is that you?”

Rainbow Dash groaned, rolling over and looking up at Twilight with a tired and utterly unamused expression. “Who are you talking to?”

“Fluttershy, she's floating just over you.” Twilight frowned. “Can't you see her?”

Rainbow Dash turned and looked past Twilight’s hoof and to where the aetherial pegasus was floating. The thestral groaned once more, turning over in her bed. “Give it a rest, Twilight, she's not here.”

The ghost seemed to relax slightly, only to meet Twilight’s gaze once more, causing it to panic and fly through the roof, vanishing in an instant. The dead unicorn’s frown deepened, and she rubbed her eyes. “I could have sworn she was floating right there. She looked really young though…”

Rainbow Dash stiffened suddenly, turning towards the unicorn. “What did you just say?”

“I said she looked young, a teenager maybe, tall too.” Twilight shrugged, and turned away. “Great, now I can add waking hallucinations to the list of things wrong with me.”

“Wait, hold on.” Rainbow Dash shrugged free of her blanket and grabbed Twilight’s shoulder.

Twilight turned, a frown on her face. “Don't tell me you could see her this whole time and this is some dumb joke?”

“No, and keep your voice down,” Rainbow Dash hissed.

Twilight raised an eyebrow, glancing around the quiet room and noting that only Applejack seemed halfway interested, eying them curiously from her bed of dirt. “What's going on, Twi?” she asked, glancing at Rainbow Dash. “Did ya hear something?”

Rainbow Dash shook her head. “It's nothing. I just wanted to talk to Twilight about something.”

Twilight opened her mouth to speak, only to find Rainbow Dash’s hoof jammed into her noise hole. “Something private.”

The unicorn rolled her eyes and pulled the thestral’s hoof from her mouth. “Why don't we do that outside then?”

“Well alright, I’ll keep watch till you are back,” Applejack remarked, getting out of her dirt bed and trundling over to the door.

“Thanks,” Rainbow Dash mumbled, before turning and grabbing Twilight. “Now you are coming with me.”

“I’m already walking, yeesh,” the unicorn whined as she was dragged from the room and into the hall.

Rainbow Dash didn't stop there though, and the dead mare found herself dragged bodily down the hall and into the sole room that had a mostly intact door. A door that was quickly slammed shut behind them. The room itself was almost completely full of debris, with only a small area cleared near the door where they could stand comfortably.

“What is this all about, Rainbow Dash?” Twilight asked hesitantly.

“Just, describe what you saw again, please.”

Twilight paused, noting just how tense and serious Rainbow Dash had become. “Okay then.” Twilight tapped her chin. “She was young, probably a teenager. I’d say around thirteen or so, but with long lanky legs and big eyes. She had yellow fur, and was looking down at you fondly, as if watching you fall asleep.”

Rainbow Dash paused, a slight tint of red coloring her cheeks. “That is…” She shook her head, the serious expression she wore returning with a vengeance. “Please don't bring this up with the others.”

“Why?” Twilight winced when Rainbow Dash’s eyes gained an almost cruel sheen. “I won’t say a word, but I am curious as to what's going on. Up until a week ago I wouldn't have thought necromancy was a thing, and now I find out ghosts are real too? It's a lot to take in.”

The thestral sighed. “She's not a ghost, she's a spirit. I know it sounds like a small semantic
difference, but that small difference changes everything.”

“Err, okay. How so?”

“A ghost is a tortured soul that died with such an intense longing for something that they linger, their own negative emotions turning them into little more than mindless creatures that hate the living.” Rainbow Dash sighed. “Spirits are semi-living apparitions born from strange circumstances, they remain sane and can interact with the living world.”

“Wow. I didn't know your knowledge on the subject was so… complete,” Twilight remarked.

“Yeah well, when you are friends with a spirit, it pays to know.” She sighed. “And I ask you not to tell the others because well… Fluttershy doesn't want anyone to know. She wants everyone to think of her as the animals she possesses and not some floating spirit that may or may not be spying on them.”

“That's… odd,” Twilight muttered, “but if it's what Fluttershy wants, I guess I can understand that.”

The thestral sighed heavily, her shoulders visibly sagging. “Thank you. I know this entire situation is odd, but it's not my place to give out any information and I’m sure Fluttershy will want to talk to you now. Or whenever she musters the courage to come back to us.”

“Don't worry, Rainbow Dash, I promise not to tell anyone.” Twilight smiled. “Fluttershy must be happy to have such a good friend like you.”

The thestral blushed, rubbing the back of her neck. “She would do the same for me, probably.” She suddenly inhaled, slamming her hooves into the ground. “Now then, enough of this mushy garbage. We got a big night tomorrow, and I refuse to get moving before I’ve had my eight hours.”

Twilight chuckled. “You and me both. I may be dead, but that doesn't seem to have changed my need for a good, long rest.”

“You know I was gonna ask about that. I know you don't have to eat, but do you still have to breathe and stuff?” Rainbow Dash asked, holding open the door for Twilight.

“Hmm, let me see.” The unicorn inhaled, only to stop herself and simply hold her breath.

Together they walked back to camp, with Twilight pinching her nose shut the entire way there. When they reached the door, Twilight released the hold she had, shaking her head. “Nope. I guess breathing is just a force of habit now.”

“Weird. And you still get tired?” Rainbow Dash asked, turning and locking the door behind them.

“Oh yeah, I’m dead tired,” Twilight replied with a snicker.

Which drew a groan from both Applejack and Rainbow Dash. “Augh. That was terrible,” Applejack remarked, before turning and lying back down in her bed of dirt. “Wake me up when you get some new material.”

“Yeah, Twilight, at this point you are just beating a dead horse,” Rainbow Dash added.

“Yeah, I guess I…” Twilight grinned and looked over to Rainbow Dash, who had the exact same shit-eating grin on her face.

“Augh!” Applejack planted her face in the dirt. “Would you two stop already, you are killing me here!” The apple farmer blinked. “Damn, now I’m doing it.”

“I’d love to keep this alive, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to call it quits.” Rainbow Dash chuckled. “Goodnight, everybody.”

“Goodnight, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight replied, slipping into her own less than comfortable bed on the floor and pulling her meagre blankets up to her chin.

The room quickly grew quiet, with everybody quickly finding the most comfortable position possible before nodding off, with Twilight falling asleep surprisingly quickly. The mare lulled into a state of serenity from just how good it felt to be surrounded by friends who genuinely cared for her.

Twilight woke with a start, sitting bolt upright in her bed. “What, where-”

The mare was forced back into the confines of her comfortable sheets by a patient purple aura of magic that gently pushed her down, holding her there. “I swear to the stars, if you do that again, I am going to have a heart attack,” an irritated voice remarked.

Twilight turned, relaxing in her bed as she looked up to the stern face of her friend and confidant. “Oh, Luna.” She sighed. “Where am I?”

“At the apothecary's.” She gestured a hoof towards the other occupants of the room.

“Hey, Twilight! I’m glad you are finally awake,” a rather nervous purple dragon commented, smiling down at her.

“My sentiments exactly, young Spike,” the aged apothecary remarked, shuffling over to the corner of the room and snuffing out a candle. “I suppose we don't need this anymore.”

Luna turned and smiled. “Thank you, Miss Mortar.”

The grey maned and white furred earth pony chuckled, trotting slowly over to the door. “Think nothing of it, child. I will give you three some space.”

Twilight blinked, watching the old mare go before turning back to Luna and allowing herself to relax more fully. “What happened?”

Spike frowned, gripping the blanket he held in his claws a little tighter. “You just fell all of a sudden. You were making weird noises while you were out, after that I sent your letter and Luna showed up within an hour.” His big eyes grew even larger and he nervously shuffled forward. “Are you… Are you going to be okay, mom?”

“I…” Twilight hesitated.

“She's going to be just fine, Spike,” Luna remarked, stepping in. “We’re going to get to the bottom of this and make sure your mom lives a long, long life.”

Twilight smiled. “Exactly.” She reached out a hoof and ruffled the dragon’s scales, making him huff in irritation. “You can't get rid of me that easily.”

“Now then.” Luna turned, placing a hoof on Spike’s shoulder. “If you wouldn't mind waiting outside, I need to have a conversation with your mom real quick.”

“Okay…” Spike sighed, allowing Luna to gently push him from the room, only stopping at the door and grabbing the alicorn’s hoof. “Just make sure to give her a good talking to, okay?”

Luna chuckled. “Just try and stop me.”

The door closed behind the drake, Luna’s shoulders sagging the instant it did. With great reluctance she turned back to Twilight and looked down at her with concern. “How bad was it?”

“Fainting spell, extreme weakness.” The unicorn sighed. “No pain, thankfully, but it did feel, incredibly uncomfortable.”

“Any pinching or other sensations?” Luna asked.

Twilight shook her head. “No, other than some lingering fatigue I feel fine.”

“Twilight, I…” Luna caught herself, a small smile spreading across her face. “I’m glad you are okay.”

“Thank you, Luna.” The unicorn smiled. “Did Celestia stop by at all? We were going to go over a few things before I took a surprise nap.”

The alicorn’s face tightened for a moment. “No, I’m afraid she was busy with her most recent attempt to drive back the forest.” The alicorn shook her head slowly. “She still seems to believe it's possible to fight it.”

Twilight sighed. “Don't tell me she tried to use fire again.”

Luna snorted. “Don't worry, Twilight, this time it's super fire. It will toootally work.”

The pair snickered, before falling into an uncomfortable silence.

Twilight suddenly blinked, pushing herself up onto her elbows. “We need to stop by the tower, I left several important experiments running.” She stopped. “Wait, how long have I been out?”

“Two days,” Luna remarked. “And don't worry, I got Beaker to look after your tests.”

“Augh, Beaker.” The unicorn blinked. “Wait! Two days? But it felt like…” She slumped into her bed, staring up at the ceiling in shock. “How could this have happened?”

“I don't know,” Luna remarked sadly. “All we could really discover was that something was keeping you asleep.” The alicorn shrugged. “After that it was just a matter of keeping you hydrated and full while we kept trying to wake you up.”

“That explains the whisper herb I smell,” Twilight pointed out. “Did… did Celestia come and see me?”

Luna’s features darkened, and her jaw clenched, forcing the mare to turn to the sole window in the room in order to hide her dour expression. “She did, briefly.” She sighed. “She tried to blame me for what happened, saying it was due to our study of the forest.”

“That's crazy.” Twilight pushed herself back up. “Don't worry, Luna, I’ll talk to her and get this all cleared up.”

“I hope you are right, for all our sakes.” The alicorn turned and smiled. “Even still, I would not take back even a single minute of our studies.”

Twilight smiled back, accepting the offered hoof Luna produced, helping her to the ground. “Me neither. I’m sure Celestia will calm down after I explain what happened.” She winced suddenly, rubbing her right foreleg. “Ouch, muscle cramp.”

Luna chuckled. “Two days of lying in bed, dead to the world and the worst you suffer is a leg cramp.” She snorted. “You are a tougher mare than you look.”

“And what do I look like?” Twilight frowned. “On second thought, don't answer that.”

“Oh, come now, you must admit you look and act the part of a librarian to a T,” Luna pointed out, helping said librarian up and to the door. “Now then, where would you like to go? Perhaps some nice sandwiches while you catch up with your friends, or-”

Twilight shook her head. “I’m afraid there was a very important experiment I had running that I must check. That cannot wait.” She sighed, a frown creasing her lips. “I’ll have to catch up with the girls later I’m afraid.”

Luna raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure? They have been most attentive, taking shifts staying outside your door both day and night.”

The unicorn smiled sadly. “That's sweet, but I’m afraid this can't wait.”

“Alright, but you must at least inform the friends waiting outside this door,” Luna remarked pointedly. “They have earned that much.”

Twilight sighed. “I suppose you are right. Just- just stay with me, please.”

Luna nodded, a small blush crossing her face. “Of course. Take all the time you need.”

The alicorn pushed open the door, revealing a small room with two ponies and a dragon waiting patiently. The first pony was a pegasus with grizzled features, and one eye hidden behind an eyepatch while the other was staring intently at the unicorn. Several teeth were missing, but that didn't seem to bother her as she sat there, tapping her hoof impatiently. Next to her was a taller, larger built earth pony with copper colored fur and a two toned red and orange mane that was tied back into pigtails that were mostly hidden by a wide straw hat.

Beside them was an even more nervous Spike, who immediately jumped up at the sight of the two mares. “Mom!” He sprinted up to the unicorn, throwing his arms around her and squeezing tightly. “Does this mean you are coming home today?”

Twilight winced, rubbing her adopted son’s back. “Whoah, ease up for a second.”

“S-sorry.” He gulped, tapping his claws together. “So, does it?”

“Yes, I am coming home today. I just have something urgent I need to deal with first.” Twilight turned to her friends, only to get a face full of angry pegasus.

“And what have I told you about keeping secrets from your friends?” the pegasus all but shouted in her face. “I swear, if this is going to be a repeat of the doll incident, I am going to draft you for the sole purpose of enabling me to court martial your sorry butt!”

“H-hey now ,Gale,” the earth pony remarked, getting up and putting a hoof on the angry pegasus’ shoulder. “I’m sure she's got a good reason, ain't that right, Twilight?”

“This did happen before.” Twilight raised a hoof, cutting off Gale’s angry tirade before it began. “But it only lasted a few seconds and just made me feel a little lightheaded. I thought I had it under control when I increased my fibre and started getting more exercise,” Twilight lied. “It is not a repeat of the doll incident.”

The pegasus wilted slightly, taking a step back and running a hoof through her mane. “Fine. You are off the hook this time, but don't expect me to be so nice next time.”

Twilight smiled. “Trust me. There won't be a next time.”

Gale snorted. “I’m holding you to that.”

The earth pony sighed. “I'm just glad you are alright. Sterling and Shutter just about had a conniption when they heard ya fell like that.” She perked up suddenly. “Speaking of which, we better go give ‘em the good news, eh?”

“About that…” Twilight winced, rubbing her leg awkwardly, unable to meet her friend’s gaze. “I have something I need to do first. Don't worry, it won't take long. This is just really important.”

“You are serious, ain’tcha?” The earth pony leaned in, eyebrow raised. “Alright. I don't like it, but I suppose me an’ Gale can go tell the others what happened.” She frowned. “You are better now, right?”

Twilight gulped. “I don't know. Me and Luna are going to work on it though.”

“Quite right, my friend,” Luna announced proudly. “There shall be no expense spared to cure our friend of whatever dare harm her.”

“Should I meet you at home then?” Spike asked cautiously, taking a small step forward.

“Don't worry, Spike. We will be going home first, so we can walk together,” Twilight replied.

“Oh, thank goodness,” he exclaimed.

Luna smiled, walking over to the exit of the small waiting area. “Well, we better get going. Oh and don't worry, I’ll drag her back home after we get a firmer grasp on what's happening.”

The pegasus sighed. “Thank you, Princess.”

“Y'all know where to find me. Best of luck,” the earth pony added.

With that, the two ponies and one dragon stepped through the door and into the world beyond, beginning their journey back to the library. All around them ponies of all shapes and sizes went about their day, with most hardly giving them more than a glance before continuing on their way, though even then there were a few who lingered, casting cautious, side-long glances at the trio.

“Did you maintain the array?” Twilight asked suddenly, drawing Luna from her thoughts.

“Of course. In fact I fitted it with a rather powerful crystal that should keep it fed for a few centuries, potentially.” Luna smirked. “That is not an excuse to spend all day and night in your tower though. You are still the town’s only librarian.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “I trained Spike how to handle all the day to day things, you hardly even need me there anymore.”

“If you are putting me in charge of the library, can I at least get a raise on my allowance?” Spike shot back, crossing his arms over his chest.

“I…” Twilight chuckled. “We can talk about that when I get back from the castle.”

“You are going to the castle? Can I come?”

“I’m afraid I just have to check on something, we will be back in a few hours.” Twilight smiled. “Do you think you can watch the library for just a little bit longer?”

“I guess…” Spike frowned. “But you have to bring me back some dessert from the kitchens!”

“That sounds like a fair trade,” Luna added. “What do you think, Twilight?”

“Augh, fine.” She pointed at her assistant with an accusatory hoof. “But you are going to actually take a crack on that return pile, mister.”

The little drake frowned. “Alright, alright. Sheesh.”

The trio turned down a side road, going around a large covered wagon pulled by a duo of powerfully built earth ponies.

“I don't suppose you could just teleport us the rest of the way?” Twilight asked hesitantly, looking up at Luna. “I would do it myself, but I don't want to push it too much.”

“Twilight, think about what you just said. If you are worried about pushing your magic, then maybe you should also consider the possibility that teleporting so soon would also raise similar possibilities,” Luna pointed out.

“Yeah!” Spike agreed.

The unicorn sighed. “I suppose you are right. At least the array is grounded, so there won't be any issue.”

“Exactly.” Luna clapped her friend on the back, grinning widely. “No need to rush quite yet. Besides, Celestia has given us an acceptable afternoon. It would be a shame if we didn't enjoy it.”

“True.” Twilight looked up, noting the few stray puffy white clouds scattered across the sky.

The trio sighed, collectively looking up at the bright afternoon sky and watching as pegasi flitted this way and that, a few pushing around the odd cloud while another collection was sitting around laughing and talking from atop a bulbous cumulus. Luna’s eyes met one of the pegasi’s, causing a commotion as they all shifted a little closer, ensuring no ground-bound pony could see what they were doing.

The alicorn frowned, pushing that small nugget of irritation to the back of her mind.

Together, they rounded a corner, the tree coming to view at the end of the long road.

“Sooo,” Twilight muttered, “what was Celestia trying this time? Other than super fire?”

Luna snorted. “Fire infused with power of law. Or so she said anyway. To be honest, she could be making the entire thing up, it does sound rather ridiculous when I say it out loud.”

“The power of law?” Spike’s eyes went wide. “Is that anything like Dungeons and Dragons and the plane of Law?”

“I suppose that's one way of looking at it,” Luna remarked. “Celestia has claimed to have gained the ability to ‘align’ magic with the concept of law itself.” The mare rolled her eyes. “More than likely this is just some slightly more powerful fire spell that she's selling in order to make this particular attempt seem less useless than the last.”

“That is Celestia for you. As stubborn and unyielding as ever.” Twilight shook her head. “It would be a more helpful set of traits if she focused that energy on researching the cause for this strange predicament, rather than charging headlong into it.”

“True,” Luna remarked with a sigh. “But it's like you said, that's just who she is.”

“Yeesh,” Spike remarked. “What did Celestia ever do to you?”

“Oh, Spike,” Twilight began, “we can talk about a pony’s personality traits without hating the pony herself. Right, Luna?”

“Er, of course.” Luna smirked. “Like how I am just so beautiful that most ponies are intimidated by my awe-inspiring presence.” The alicorn struck a brief pose, extending one forehoof skyward.

Twilight rolled her eyes, and opened the door to her tree home. “Nevermind just how incredibly humble you are.”

“Oh indeed,” Luna agreed, strutting into the tree library and standing a little taller. “I am the most humble pony to have ever lived.”

“Would you two stop flirting all the time?” Spike whined, plunking down behind the desk next to the door. “We are still in public, you know.”

“I- we-” Twilight groaned, “we were not flirting.”

“Speak for yourself,” Luna remarked with a smirk.

The unicorn sighed, rolling her eyes. “Regardless, I have an experiment that I absolutely must check in. So if you don't mind.”

Luna followed close behind the mare, making their way towards the basement. “Yes, I suppose we should get going.” She scowled. “Spoilsport.”

“Hush you,” Twilight shot, before slipping down the stairs

The alicorn rolled her eyes, huffing silently to herself as they descended deeper down the winding steps that clung to the walls of the basement. Together they slowly circled the entirety of the room before finally reaching the basement floor some thirty feet below the entrance to the room. This space had several doors that lead to unseen rooms, while the area they now stood in served as a repository for damaged and unwanted books that seemed to fill every square inch of the room not given over to thin paths that allowed you to walk from one point to another.

“Sorry about the mess, I’ll get around to finding a home for them…” Twilight frowned, looking around the room. “Eventually.”

Luna shrugged. “It's no trouble, my friend. I can tell you have a system of some kind going on here.”

“Exactly!’ Twilight exclaimed. “No one seems to understand that just because it doesn't look like it, I know what I’m doing.”

“Still.” Luna kicked a box at random. “You could do for a little tidying.”

“Augh, not you too,” Twilight whined. “It's bad enough from Celestia.”

Luna shrugged, making her way over to the door beside which Twilight stood. “Oh, don't get me wrong. I think it's fine, I would just hate to hear you tripped and knocked yourself out on a box.” She smirked. “I’d rather see it for myself.”

“You are the worst,” Twilight lamented.

“-at being the worst,” Luna added, sticking her tongue out.

Twilight groaned, muttering something about being surrounded by foals while fiddling with the lock on the door. Eventually she gave up with a second groan. “Stupid lock,” she cursed.

“Is this that magical field identifying whatchamajigger?” Luna asked, peering down at the rather complicated looking door handle that had a large dull grey crystal embedded into it.

“It is a thaumatic field identifier,” Twilight remarked with a hint of pride. “Or TFI for short.”

“That's not actually much shorter,” Luna pointed out.

“Hush, you,” Twilight silenced, summoning her magic once more and pushing it into the crystal.

After several quiet moments the crystal flashed a bright purple before the door cracked open. “Huzzah!” Twilight yelled.

“Fascinating,” Luna exclaimed, staring intently at the door handle. “I assume it's affixed to your own thaumatic field, allowing only you to pass?”

“Exactly.” Some of Twilight’s bravado seemed to bleed away, her shoulders slumping. “Though it seems to be getting more and more finicky as time passes.” She paused, tapping her chin as she stared down at the lock. “Perhaps there are some bugs to work out after all.”

Luna shrugged. “Regardless, we have a job to do first, yes?”


The pair turned back to the room, with Luna pausing mid-step, realizing that she had only ever been on this side once. She was amazed by the strange, circular room, as the wall was a simple mix of roots, dirt and a few supports that crisscrossed between them. At the centre of the room was an elaborate series of painted lines that came together to look like a slightly mutated pentagram that had tall braziers affixed with crystals instead of torches standing at regular intervals around its edges.

“Interesting…” she remarked quietly.

“That's right, you’ve only seen this side once, haven't you?” Twilight smiled proudly, trotting to the centre of the circle. “The next time we get a minute, I can tell you how it was made if you’d like.”

“I would enjoy that.” Luna shook her head. “But for now we should go see how this mystery experiment of yours is doing.”

“Of course.” The unicorn maneuvered her hooves into specific places, ensuring she wasn't touching any of the lines. “Do you remember the rules?”

“Don't touch the lines, keep your back straight, eyes forward and above all, don't move.” Luna frowned, scratching her head. “That was all of them, right?”

“And keep your wings at your sides,” Twilight added.

“Right.” Luna nodded. “I’m ready to cast the spell whenever you are ready.”

Twilight took a deep, calming breath after placing a hoof against her heart. With her breathing under control she placed her hoof down and nodded confidently. “Ready.”

Luna eyed her cautiously, before lighting her horn and going through the motions of casting the familiar part of the spell. From there her horn grew brighter as she changed from simply readying a teleportation spell, to instead casting the necessary additions to the spell that would ensure they ended up where they wanted to go.

Twilight meanwhile, remained stock still, watching as Luna moved from one part of the spell to the next, her horn glowing brighter and brighter before becoming nearly blinding. Twilight’s experience with the spell being so immense that as she watched she could recall each individual piece of the spell based solely on the energy she could see being emitted. She would have laughed at the absurdity of it all, but she dared not move, knowing full well that the spell had only just enough safety precautions to allow her to simply breathe.

Slowly, cautiously, the spell was completed, and right before it was released, Luna looked down into the other mare’s eyes. With only a slight movement of her head, Twilight nodded, conveying through her eyes that the spell was perfect. Confidence now surging, Luna cast the spell, and in the same second that the light of her spell exploded throughout the room, it was simultaneously eaten by the crystals and their vision blurred.

For a split second there was nothing, and then they returned to reality with a jolt, reappearing in an empty, nearly identical square stone room. Twilight nearly toppled over, only barely able to stay standing, her legs shaking as she struggled to stay vertical. Luna was there in an instant, a comforting hoof on the back of her friend. “Are you alright?” she whispered, her horn already alight with a diagnostic spell.

“I’m fine.” Twilight breathed slowly, before nodding. “I’m fine,” she repeated.

The alicorn frowned, and removed her hoof, but kept up the diagnostic spell until it was done. “The spell says you are fine as well but if you fall over on me again, I will put you in a wheelchair.”

Twilight chuckled, bumping her hip against her friend’s. “Are you threatening me, Miss Luna?”

The alicorn rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean. Now c'mon, before I change my mind and chain you to your bed.”

Luna took the lead, opening the door and trotting out into the long stone hall dotted with familiar looking archways. After taking a right Twilight suddenly perked up, stopping in the middle of the hall. “Wait here a sec, I want to grab something.”

Luna frowned, glancing to her left where she saw the familiar door to Twilight’s room. “What, pray tell, do you have in your quarters that needs such attention?”

“Just a little side project I had cooking up, the ingredients of which should finally be set.” The unicorn slipped into her room without another word, leaving Luna standing there in the hall, forced to tap her hoof and watch the odd, batwinged servant pass her by.

After a few minutes the door reopened, admitting a grinning Twilight back into the hall. “It worked!” she announced triumphantly, holding aloft a strange, blue flamed torch.

“Great…” Luna cocked her head. “What does it do?”

“Well, you know how there are so many monsters in the forest, and traditional walls and whatnot wouldn't exactly work for a forest settlement?” She paused. “You know what I mean.”

“Right.” Luna raised an eyebrow. “And?”

“And this would allow us to have a wall without ever laying a brick.” She raised the torch a little higher, placing it in the sconce next to her door. “The blue flame should drive away most monsters, and other strange creatures due to emitting a low grade fear aura.”

“Interesting. I don't feel a thing,” Luna remarked.

“You shouldn't. In fact it should only be noticeable to animals and maybe foals.” Twilight shrugged. “It might need more testing.”

“Of course.”

Twilight turned and they took another right, the library opening up before them. “I still can't believe you brought that thing inside,” Twilight lamented.

Luna gasped dramatically, extending a hoof towards the statue that stood just inside. “I will have you know that it is an ancient statue made by a world famous sculptor and I would not part with it for the world.”

“A, the forest did a number on it, B, you sculpted it, and C, why the library?” Twilight asked incredulously.

“Hey, so what if it's a little banged up, and I sculpted it?” The mare frowned dramatically.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “I guess you have a point there, but you really shouldn't refer to yourself as a world famous sculptor.”

“I am the princess of a country, and a sculptor.” Luna smirked, leaning in close. “Quid pro quo, I’m a world famous sculptor.”

Twilight opened her mouth to speak, only to stop and frown. “Fine, but you didn't answer the last part of my question. Why the library? Doesn't it look out of place?”

“It's the only place that had space,” Luna remarked, lying through her teeth.

“Huh.” Twilight smiled. “You know, I think it's growing on me.”

“Good, because I am not teleporting it ever again.” She snorted. “As far as I am concerned, they are going to have to shrink the damn thing if someone wants to move it.”

Twilight shook her head. “Well, are you ready to-”

“Mistress Luna,” a short, teal furred earth pony interrupted. “I am sorry to butt in, but I thought it prudent to inform you that Celestia’s attempt to hold back the forest has failed and she has retreated to her room. I was informed that she wishes to speak with you in a few hours.”

“Probably after she's had some time to cool down,” Luna added, sighing. “I will speak to her during supper, until then I will be looking after Twilight here.”

“I do not need to be looked after,” Twilight hissed.

“Says the mare who nearly fell over only five minutes ago,” Luna shot back.

The unicorn wilted. “Fair point.”

The alicorn nodded to the still bowing earth pony. “Thank you for the message.”

“By your will.” With that the earth pony was gone.

Luna let out a long sigh, her shoulders sagging as she shook her head. “Sometimes I feel like we aren't even related.”

Twilight opened the lock to the double doors before pushing them open. “I think you two are more alike than you realize. Even if you fall on opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to a lot of things.”

The alicorn snorted derisively, trotting past her friend and down the short hallway. “I am less certain. It seems like she is always ready to dive headfirst into anything, while stubbornly clinging to this frankly bizarre idea that she can simply force things to go her way.”

“Well, you must admit it has worked rather well for her for the most part,” Twilight pointed out.

“Only because I’m there to ensure her social blunders don't cause an international incident,” Luna hissed. “That mare nearly started butting litteral heads with the last zebra ambassador to show up.”

Twilight refrained from mentioning the time when Luna’s subtlety nearly caused an incident with a certain yak queen, though only barely. Instead she decided to shake her head and continue down the long winding staircase, trotting briskly from one staircase to another, crossing certain floors while breezing past many of the wards she had placed, using only her memory to guide her. “That's one reason you two make such a good team. You are the subtle one, while she is the obvious one. The dagger and the sword as uncle Steel Horn would say.”

“That's an interesting way of looking at it,” Luna admitted. “Though I agree with you, partially, I would rather we not bash our heads against the wall that is the Everfree.”

“Fair,” Twilight relented.

Walking deeper into the undertower, both ponies casually passed by a few research assistants, librarians and the odd guard. Though other ponies were uncommon in the depths of Twilight’s tower, the pair knew every pony’s name and took the time to say a brief greeting before continuing deeper.

“So, what kind of experiment could be so pressing as to get you out of bed before you were healed?” Luna asked as they turned the corner and began to descend another set of spiral staircases.

“Well…” Twilight paused, pushing her way through another door and nodding to the guard standing on the other side. “You know how timberwolves aren't alive in the traditional sense, but neither are they dead?”

Luna frowned. “Yes, it is most vexing.”

“I established a series of wards that should be able to analyze the wood and tell me exactly what type of magic is animating it,” Twilight explained. “My end goal is miniaturizing it in order to make it easier for other unicorns to cast or maintain, but that's a bit far off.”

“Fascinating,” Luna remarked. “Would you be able to find out the identity of the one who cast the spell in the first place?”

Twilight stopped suddenly. “Potentially. It would take a good deal more work but it's certainly not impossible,” she continued, making her way down the last hall and towards a solid steel door laden with over a dozen wards, before which a simple halberd wielding guard stood with a bored expression on her face.

“Greetings, Princess,” the guard said, standing a little taller while nodding to the alicorn, and the unicorn in turn. “And to you as well, head researcher.”

“Good afternoon, Sharp Eye.” Twilight smiled. “How have things been in my absence? Beaker didn't blow anything up again, did he?”

The guard winced, rubbing a patch of missing tan fur around her right foreleg. “No. Thankfully.”

“Good,” Luna remarked, gesturing to the door. “If you would be so kind.”

“Of course.” The guard turned and lit her horn and began the process of interlocking her magic with the wards, deactivating them one by one. “There we are,” she remarked, pushing the door open and allowing the pair access to the deepest and second most well guarded section of Twilight’s tower.

The unicorn researcher breathed deep of the chemical-tinged air, trotting slowly into the room and allowing herself to relax in the presence of her many projects. “I love the smell of science in the morning.”

“Afternoon,” Luna added, quite unhelpfully.

“Whatever,” Twilight grumbled.

Luna stood by the door, watching as Twilight moved around the large open room, going from one table to another and checking in on the many, many experiments that littered the open room. Beakers boiling with unpleasant blackish liquid sat beside glowing runic circles in which several crystals sat motionless, after glancing over the first few experiments Luna’s eyes began to glaze over and she settled on watching Twilight. Over the course of the first fifteen minutes Twilight had managed to check on over a dozen of her experiments and still more required her attention, causing the researcher to flit this way and that, stopping, starting or otherwise maintaining her many important studies.

After nearly a half hour spent checking her experiments, during which time Luna had grown bored and had taken up reading Twilight’s notes, the unicorn returned, a confident smile on her face. “Well, nothing bad happened while I was gone, though I’m going to have to redo the thaumetic contamination study I had going.”

“Beaker did his job?” Luna asked, incredulously. “Impressive.”

“Yes.” Twilight scowled. “Impressive.”

The unicorn winced suddenly, rubbing a hoof over her right foreleg just below the knee. In an instant Luna was on her, horn alight and worry evident on her face. “Is the timberwolf bite still bothering you?” she asked.

“No.” Twilight chuckled, only to stop and wince as the limb began to throb with pain. “You two pumped me with enough healing magic to make even the scar tissue vanish. I don't know what this is, but I’m sure it's not from that.”

“We should probably get it checked regardless.” Luna frowned, poking the mare’s limb with a hoof. “Body parts don't just hurt for no reason, you know.”

“Fine.” Twilight sighed, standing fully upright once more. “There is just one last experiment I was hoping to check up on, and it's one I figured you'd be interested in.”

“The timberwolf one?” Luna asked.

“The very same.”

Together they turned toward the back of the room where several large bookcases obscured a section of the room not visible from the door. This second area wasn't quite as large as the first and was dominated by several writing desks littered with books, scrolls and notes. In the corner was one such paper strewn desk that was dominated by a complicated, floating array of crystals bound together with copper wire and spell matrices. Below it was a small piece of what looked like ordinary wood at the centre of another set of runes, the centre of which was glowing a soft purple.

“Here,” Twilight said, indicating the desk.

Luna raised an eyebrow, noting the nearly two foot tall floating mass of crystals and copper. “How long does it take to analyze?”

Twilight walked over to the table and grabbed a pile of paper above which a self levitating quill stood sentinel over. “I don't know, but it must not have been long,” she remarked, reading the paper and growing increasingly confused. “This must be wrong.”

“What does it say?” Luna asked, leaning over the unicorn’s shoulder.

“It says that the magic used to animate the wood was necromancy, but that's impossible. Only you and Celestia know how to use necromancy,” Twilight remarked with a gasp. “How is this possible?”

“I don't actually know how to use necromancy, only Celestia does. I know the signs and some defence techniques, that's it,” Luna replied, extending a hoof. “Do you mind if I take a look?”

“Of course.” Twilight hoofed over the paper and watched as the alicorn’s expression turned from one of curiosity, to one of confusion and back again. “This is… baffling.”

“Let me guess, you got the same result as I did?” Twilight asked, already dreading the response.

“Pretty much.” Luna shook her head and handed the sheet of paper back to Twilight. “Celestia has always disliked necromancy and has made it somewhat of a personal mission of hers to ensure no one knows how to use it. I can't imagine who, or what, had the knowledge to even complete a spell complicated enough to animate dead wood.”

“And with a soul no less,” Twilight pointed out.

They both shuddered at the thought, standing there in silence as they both complicated this strange turn of events. Twilight’s thoughts were drawn to the specifics of the circumstance, wondering what kind of components and matrices would be necessary to accomplish something so complicated. Luna meanwhile, was more baffled by how the knowledge of necromancy had even gotten out, her sister had destroyed most records of it, not even trusting their staff to safeguard it and instead burnt all record on the spot.

Both of their musings were interrupted by the sound of the door opening and a young stallion yelling, “Hello? Are you here, Twilight? I’m sorry about the thamatic field experiment!”

The unicorn sighed, running a hoof down her face. “Luna, would you mind dealing with him? I really don't have the patience right now.”

“Augh, why do I have to?” Luna grouched. “Can't I just teleport him away?”

Twilight seemed to consider it a second before chuckling. “No, we better not. Otherwise I’ll never hear the end of it.”

“That sounds more like your problem,” Luna pointed out.

Twilight rolled her eyes and shoved the mare towards the door. “Go on, before he breaks something else.”

“I’m going, I’m going,” Luna whined, sulking away.

Twilight rolled her eyes and waited, listening to the two ponies talking, with Luna politely attempting to get the stallion to leave, failing utterly. Now alone, the smile fell from the unicorn’s face and she turned and swept aside the wood, placing her own foreleg under the large crystal array. With a small pulse of magic the array was activated and a soft purple glow encapsulated the mare’s limb.

Twilight winced at the slight pinching sensation she felt from within her leg, trying to keep her attention glued on the sound of Luna and Beaker talking. “Come on, come on,” Twilight whispered, urging the inanimate object to move faster.

She could tell from the ink alone that it hadn't taken nearly as long to analyze the wood than she had first thought. Judging from the speed at which the spells were being completed, Twilight guessed it would take little more than a matter of minutes if her calculations were correct. As time ticked by, her blood pressure rose and she found herself growing increasingly nervous. The sight of the quill suddenly moving on its own was like a breath of fresh air and she watched with bated breath as ink met page and the results were delivered.

“Yes, that's very nice, Beaker, but I would really like it if you-” Luna sighed. “No, I do not know if he is interested in you like that, I-what? Fine, but-”

Twilight would have laughed at her assistant’s antics if her eyes weren't glued to the readout. Information slowly crawled down the page, most of which she could tell was simply a long description of her own body’s internal magic. “Just a little further now,” she whispered.

She could hear the conversation between Luna and Beaker begin to die down, their hooves clopping against the cold stone floor as they made their way to the door. With bated breath Twilight watched every twitch of the quill as it moved this way and that, filling the page with more and more numbers that would have been nonsensical to anyone else but her and Luna.

Then, just when she dared hope that there was nothing wrong with her, she saw it. A string of numbers and words that indicated that there was magic within her limb that was not hers. It didn't seem to be anybody’s, yet despite its lack of a caster it was undoubtedly-


The mare wrenched her limb away, her horn turning off the contraption while her hoof grabbed the sheet of paper and tucked it away between the pages of a random book on the wall. She turned around just in time to see a rather irritated Luna stomp back into the back half of Twilight’s laboratory. “How'd it go?” she asked, a little too loudly.

Luna snorted irritably. “The buffoon somehow managed to convince me to find out if Star Crossed has a thing for him.” The alicorn shook her head and sighed. “How a schmuck like him managed to acquire such a silver tongue is beyond me.”

“That is weird!” Twilight yelled, only to gulp and take a step back. “I mean, he is a strange one, haha.”

The alicorn raised an eyebrow, gazing down at her friend in concern. “Err, is something wrong?”

“Me?” Twilight scoffed. “No, just want to get back and talk to my friends.”

“Are you sure? You are doing that weird thing you always do when you are trying to hide something,” Luna pointed out, gesturing to Twilight’s face and more specifically the eyebrow that was now twitching wildly. “Seriously, it's freaking me out.”

The unicorn used a hoof to hold her eyebrow in place. “I uh…” she gulped, “I’m just worried, is all.”

The alicorn trotted beside her friend and extended a wing over her back, pulling her close. “Don't worry, Twilight, well figure this out. Besides, if you and your friends can kill Discord, what's a little illness like this?”

“Yeah, totally,” Twilight remarked with little enthusiasm.

“No frowns allowed, missy.” Luna chuckled, giving her friend one last squeeze before trotting forward, pulling Twilight along for the ride. “Come on, I know just the thing that will cheer you up.”

“I swear to the stars if you say quesadillas, I will banish you to the moon,” Twilight deadpanned.

“But Twilight! Think of the cheese!” Luna exclaimed with mock shock. “The cheese-y cheese.”

The unicorn shuddered. “The horror.”

Snickering all the way, Luna pulled her friend from the back of her lab and in the direction of the kitchens, unaware of the dark thoughts now swirling within the unicorn’s mind.

Level Nine

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Twilight groaned groggily, her hooves flailing weakly in the air as her eyelids flickered at random. Consciousness returned slowly to the dead mare, with her brain, or whatever part of her that was in charge of making thoughts happen, struggling to keep up with the sensory information her body was feeding it. Eventually Twilight managed to awaken completely, the mare relaxing when she noticed she was back in the dark, dusty room beneath the ancient Everfree castle.

The unicorn lit her horn and conjured a small mirror that allowed her to look back into her own odd visage in order to further ascertain where, or perhaps when, she was. Thankfully whatever power enabled her to see well in the dark, also enabled her to see her own reflection well, and what she saw made her pause.

The swirling mass of energy that seemed to emit from the tip of her horn was as odd as ever, the weird unlight almost obscuring the what little specks of magenta still swirled within her magic. The sight made her pause and smile, the unicorn happy that at least some of her old color was still in her magic, small thought it was. The horn itself was intimidating as always, something not improved by the fact that she had gone too long without a filing. A thought that made her blink, her mind trying to go back in order to figure out if her horn had continued to grow after her death, and if such a thing was possible. With a shake of her head the unicorn dismissed the thought, realizing that her horn had been a little unkempt before her death, but she couldn't be completely certain of that fact.

“I’ll have to file you and see what happens after that,” she muttered to her horn.

Turning her attention down, she noted that her dark, nearly black purple fur seemed to have gained a slight shimmer to it, though she wasn't sure if this was an effect of her new night vision, or if her coat had somehow been rejuvenated by her death and the adventure that happened after that. She snorted mirthlessly, wondering what her mother would say to the fact that after years of being told she needed to take better care of her fur, Twilight had only done so after she died.

The unicorn quickly pushed thoughts of her mother from her mind and dismissed the temporary mirror after noting that the rest of her seemed as normal as ever. Or at least as normal as my life now is, she thought to herself.

She looked around the room and quickly found that despite the circumstances, she couldn't muster the needed negative energy to be sad or even angry. She just felt nervous, partly because what was coming, and partly because of the many, many questions she had yet to answer.

Twilight shook her head and rolled over, looking around the room once more and really allowing her eyes to take things in this time. A smile bloomed across her face and she waved a hoof towards the yawning tree-bound earth pony who was now smacking her lips as she struggled to wake up. “Good morning,” Twilight greeted.

Applejack blinked in shock. “Well I’ll be,” she muttered. “What are you doing up so early?”

Twilight shrugged. “Had a weird dream.”

“Really, darling?” Rarity asked, peeking out of her curtained off area and lifting an eyebrow. “I don't think I heard you move the entire night.”

“How would you know?” Twilight asked back, rather confused.

The arachne shrugged. “It's a talent of my race. The faintest of tremors feel like tiny earthquakes. It's one reason I usually sleep on such a soft bed as it's the only thing that can absorb the vibrations well enough to sleep.”

“Huh,” Twilight muttered.

“Neat,” Applejack added as she began to do a series of stretches that mainly focused on her back and legs before gulping down several buckets of water.

Rarity had opened wide the flap to her private abode, and was busy doing her makeup, right now in the middle of applying a liberal application of lipstick. Twilight shook her head at the sight, amazed that the arachne would try to keep up her appearances even while in such a place.

“So,” Applejack began, only to stop and belch loudly. “What was this dream about?”

“It's rude to pry, you know,” Rarity replied without looking down.

The farmer shrugged. “I’m just asking. Granny always used to say the moon can give you visions in your dreams. If’n it has a grand purpose in mind for ya.”

The arachne raised an eyebrow. “Really now? My grandmother had a similar tale, only the way she told it was the nightmare and she gave all the evil boys and girls terrible dreams.”

“Well I don't know about a nightmare, but it was certainly odd,” Twilight began, tapping her chin as she tried to recall the details of the strangely realistic dream. “It was just so… real.”

“Now you gotta tell us,” Applejack implored.

“Well alright,” Twilight began with a shrug. “A little while ago I had another weird dream like this, and this one seemed to pick up where that one left off. In this dream I woke up, and was in a sort of old timey apothecary and there was a different version of Applejack and Rainbow Dash there.”

“Whoa,” Applejack muttered. “What did I look like?”

“Kinda like you are now, only you were taller, bigger, and had different colors. Also you wore a big straw hat,” Twilight replied.

The apple farmer hummed thoughtfully to herself, imagining what that might look like and considering the possibility of changing up her style.

“And Rainbow Dash?” Rarity asked, having stepped closer and abandoned her routine.

“She was older, gruffer, and in some sort of military and had plenty of scars.”

“That certainly is believable,” Rarity responded. “Did you meet any other alternative versions of us?”

“Not really, but I heard some names that kinda sounded like you guys. Like Shutter and Sterling.” Twilight pursed her lips and tapped her chin. “Though I can't remember a different version of Pinkie Pie.”

“That's kinda spooky,” Applejack muttered. “What happened next?”

“Luna and a dragon named Spike, who was apparently my son, were there too and they were worried about me.”

“Luna? You mean the Night Mistress was in your dream?” Applejack asked, her eyes growing wide as she stepped closer to the unicorn. “What was she like?”

“Wait just a moment, darling, you had a dragon for a child?” Rarity asked, scratching her cheek with a hoof. “How exactly does that work anyway?”

“It felt like he was adopted at a young age,” Twilight replied with a shrug. “But that wasn't explicitly spelt out, so I am not sure. As for Luna, she was an alicorn with deep blue fur and stark teal eyes. Her mane and tail flowed behind her in a wavy mass of stars that swirled within . It was almost ethereal.”

Twilight stopped a moment, noticing that the two beings were staring intently at her, having edged their way within several feet. “What did her cutie mark look like?” Applejack asked.

“Or did she even have one?” Rarity added with a gasp.

“She did,” Twilight began, pausing to think back and really focus on the image of the mare’s flank, only to realize that in the dream she had actually spent a lot of time looking there, even when the situation did not warrant such a gaze. “It was of a crescent moon on a dark background of a cloudless night sky.”

Both creatures nodded slowly, with Applejack sporting a wide, knowing grin. “Ha. I always told Granny it would be a crescent moon, but she always said it was a full moon.”

“Twilight’s vision is interesting, but I doubt we can quite take it as gospel yet,” Rarity admonished.

“I don't even know if it was a vision anyway.” Twilight shrugged. “Maybe the dead just have weird dreams.”

“Or haply, thy is just weird,” Trixie added, groggily glaring down the end of her nose at the unicorn with an irritated look on her face.

Rather than be insulted Twilight merely shrugged. “I mean you're not wrong. How many dead ponies do you know?”

“Too many,” Trixie replied with a snort.

Applejack’s excitement was so palpable at this point that Twilight could hear her leaves trembling as she nearly shook with barely contained energy. “What happened next?” she asked eagerly.

“I uh, think I came here, to the undertower.” Twilight gestured all around her. “This room was apparently my home away from the library and this blue torch was created by me, I mean, the other Twilight.”

“What did she say it was used for?” Rarity suddenly inquired. “I don't think I’ve heard of the reason for its creation before.”

“The other Twilight was trying to make a bunch of them to create a sort of wall around a forest settlement in order to keep out monsters and such,” Twilight replied. “I’m not sure how it was all made, but I feel like I might be able to figure it out now that I saw some of her notes.” The unicorn blushed, scratching the back of her neck. “I mean, if this dream wasn't nonsense, of course.”

Trixie snorted in irritation but said nothing.

Twilight shook off the blush that colored her cheeks. “At least with that I’ll be able to test if it was real, right?”

Rarity and Applejack nodded while Trixie groaned and rolled onto her back, looking at the unicorn from upside down. “Poppycock.”

Applejack shushed her. “Let the girl speak.”

“Yes, do go on, darling,” Rarity added.

Twilight looked at each of her companions in turn before slapping a hoof to her head. “I forgot to mention that we walked back to this big library in a tree where-”

“You saw the Tree of Knowledge?” Applejack muttered, her jaw hanging open.

“I mean it was a tree with books in it, so uh, yes?” Twilight replied weakly.

“Wow,” Applejack whispered.

“That is quite fascinating,” Rarity replied in a slightly less shocked tone of voice. “Tell me, did anyone tell you the legend of the Tree of Knowledge before tonight?”

The dead unicorn shrugged. “I didn't even know it was a thing that existed until thirty seconds ago.”

“Curious and curiouser,” Rarity mused.

“So where is it then?” Trixie inquired, pointing an accusatory hoof at the other unicorn. “If it be true that thee truly did see the tree, then thy should know where it lies.”

Twilight sighed. “I mean I could try, but the dream really didn't focus on that. Plus even if I did I would only know how to get there from an apothecary that may or may not exist anymore. And that's ignoring the fact that all the landmarks are different.”

Trixie rolled back over and frowned. “Fair enough.”

“So what happened next, darling?” Rarity asked.

“Well, after we teleported from the library to the castle, we went down to the bottom of the undertower where the other me was running all these experiments,” Twilight continued, suddenly remembering tidbits of information she thought she forgot. “There was this enormous door at the bottom, and a mare named Sharp Eye that guarded it. Once inside the other me checked up on all her experiments that were kept running by a queer stallion named Beaker who was apparently not the best at his job.”

Rarity giggled to herself. “Oh, that is too cute.”

“Shh,” Applejack whispered harshly. “She's telling us about her vision.”

“That's quite alright, Applejack,” Twilight admonished.

“Sorry, this is just really fascinatin’.”

“As I was saying,” Twilight continued, clearing her throat. “I went from table to table, checking up on all of the experiments before going to the back and finding the one experiment I cared about most which was a test to figure out what was animating the timberwolves as apparently that hadn't been figured out back then.

“It was necromancy, obviously, but from the way they talked about it made it seem like this was the first time anypony had studied a timberwolf before. After that I, er the other Twilight, scanned her leg where she was bitten by a timberwolf and found out that she had necromantic energy inside her. Information she hid from Luna, who I felt like was one of her closest friends.” Twilight sighed. “After that, I woke up.”

Her friends were silent, with Applejack sitting there and slowly shaking her head in shock. Rarity was distant, her gaze lingering on something unseen as she pondered an unspoken question. Trixie on the other hoof had the strangest reaction, her gaze piercing, her eyes glued to Twilight’s face as she seemed to scan the other unicorn for something only she could see.

All that came to a close when Rainbow Dash suddenly sat bolt upright and yawned loudly, stretching her limbs to the heavens, her forelegs cracking and popping. The mare shook her head vigorously, only to realize that everyone in the room was staring at Twilight with mixed expressions. “What did I miss?” the guard asked, her voice several octaves lower than normal.

“Twilight just got a vision of the past where she saw the Tree of Knowledge, was friends with the night mistress, traversed all the way to the bottom of the undertower after teleporting here where she found out that her former self was infected with necromantic energy,” Applejack blurted out.

“Huh,” Rainbow Dash muttered.

“It was a dream,” Twilight elaborated.

“‘Kay,” the thestral muttered before winding up and smacking herself across the face. “Well would you look at that, this is a not a dream.”

Trixie chuckled. “Thee should tryeth it again, this just might beeth another dream.”

“Right,” Rainbow Dash muttered, lifting her hoof only to have it forcefully placed back at her side by a glaring Twilight and her magic.

“This is not a dream, Rainbow Dash,” she stated.

The thestral eyed her friend carefully. “Are you sure about that?” The room was quiet for a few seconds before Rainbow Dash frowned. “You know it could very well be a vision. We should find a way to prove it.”

Twilight crossed her hooves over her chest. “Don't tell me dream visions are a normal thing around here.”

“I mean, did you learn anything you didn't already know?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“She didn't know how to make this blue torch ‘till now!” Applejack pointed out.

“I would still need to do a lot of gathering to verify some things, nevermind a lot of research before I could even do that much,” Twilight replied with a frown.

“Hmmm.” Rainbow Dash got up and trotted over to a small table they had erected in the corner of the room, wherein a small map had been placed. “You said you made it all the way to the bottom of the undertower, right?”

“Uh yeah. Why do you ask?” Twilight responded.

“There are ten floors, almost all of which are being watched over by a group of golems. Do you know how to get past them?” Rainbow asked.

Twilight frowned. “There weren't any golems in my dream.”

“What about the layout of the tower? Do you remember that?” Rarity offered, stepping up beside her friends.

Again, Twilight frowned, this time even deeper. “We went through it so quick I couldn't commit it to memory.”

“I toldeth thee,” Trixie interrupted. “‘Tis a fool’s errand.”

Rainbow Dash pointed to the floor immediately below them, which was helpfully labeled as nine, beside which there was a single skull out of a possible five, the rest being greyed out. “The golems only come up here every few days, so it shouldn't be too dangerous. But it also means going through a gas filled chamber that would require us to don masks. Do you know of any way around it?”

Twilight peered down at the map, noting that there used to be a straight hallway through the center with two large oval rooms on either side, one of which was broken up into two smaller halves. Now however, things were different and the entire layout had changed as the center part of the floor had collapsed, necessitating any travelers to go through the right-most room in order to reach the stairs down. The furthest room to the left had no obvious method of entrance either, making Twilight stop and wonder if it had simply been left out of the drawing or if there was some secret in the other half of the room.

“How do you get into this room?” Twilight asked, pointing to the one that looked blocked off from one side, but was accessible from the other side due to a collapsed wall.

“We don't know. Current thoughts are that it was either a secret room, or the door is simply buried under the rubble,” Rainbow Dash replied.

“That's strange,” Rarity muttered, peering down at the map. “It's too obvious and large to be a secret room. What used to be in it?”

The lone thestral shrugged. “I’m not sure to be honest. It was empty when we first found it, and other than some residual magical energy there really weren't any clues to its origin or purpose.”

Trixie snorted. “Or the golems did geteth there first.”

“That is a possibility,” Twilight concluded. “Regardless, nothing is coming to mind. Maybe a visual inspection will help me remember.”

Rainbow Dash stared into her friend’s eyes, searching for some sign of duplicity, only to shrug after she could find nothing to insinuate such a thing. “You really are committed to this vision thing, aren't you?”

Twilight sighed. “I’m going to be honest, I don't know what to believe. A few months ago I didn't think anyone lived here, or that ponies could come back from the dead, or even that Celestia had a sister. Impossible is the new normal, maybe this is possible too?”

“‘Sides, plenty of weird stuff happens down here,” Applejack added.

Rainbow Dash pursed her lips and sighed. “I suppose the manual did mention that the nightmare does sometimes send people weird dreams.”

Rarity shuddered. “Well let's just hope we don't run into that… nightmare thing.”

“I agree,” Trixie added.

“Wait, I thought you two were staying up here to work on your weaving?” Rainbow Dash asked.

Trixie shrugged nonchalantly. “I gaveth some thought and I cannot in valorous conscience alloweth a day walker to traipse around her majesty’s castle without an escort.”

“I was going to mention this later, but I feel like it would be safer beside you girls than up here, especially if I was going to stay up here alone,” Rarity added, shivering at the mere thought.

Rainbow Dash ground her teeth together, glaring at each of the beings in turn. “Fine, but remember, follow my rules and do as I say or you may be dead before you can even whine about being bossed around. Got it?”

Both beings nodded dutifully, though Trixie seemed to do so only reluctantly.

“What about Fluttershy?” Twilight asked.

Rainbow Dash shrugged nonchalantly. “I wouldn't worry about her, she knows the dangers and the golems for the first few levels largely ignore animals.”

Applejack righted her hat and nodded. “Alright, we ready to go?”

“Err just give me a second,” Twilight muttered, turning and packing up her miniscule amount of supplies.

Just about everyone else was doing something similar, save for Applejack, who seemed to only be bringing water, a bunch of apples, and her hat. Rainbow Dash was all ready to go and was standing next to the door, staring off into the distance as if looking for something. Twilight tucked away the last of her belongings before closing her eyes and checking her internal energy supply.

She had only done it a few times, but it seemed to come naturally to her, allowing the dead unicorn to figure out that she had plenty of energy left inside her. She smiled as she thought about it, reasoning that her friends’ closeness was giving her the power she needed without having to actively feed on anything. The mare shuddered at the thought, making a note to come up with a better way to express that thought, as feed made it sound strangely visceral, as if she was some sort of vampire or monster.

When Twilight opened her eyes, everyone seemed ready to go, with Rarity being the last to join, as she had finally been convinced by a stern Rainbow Dash that she could not, in fact, bring her makeup bag deeper into the undertower. Though this did earn her a generous amount of pouting, something the guard was quite easily ignoring.

“Okay, marching order is me, Twilight, Applejack, Trixie, and then Rarity,” Rainbow Dash announced.

Twilight and Applejack nodded, while Trixie was busy staring at her hoof, which she was filing absently, while Rarity seemed nervous, and raised a hoof. “Why must I stay in the back?”

“You are taller, and you’d break line of sight if you were in the middle,” Rainbow Dash pointed out. “Plus your night vision is one of the best so it makes sense to leave you to watch our rear.”

Rarity crossed her hooves over her chest and pouted. “I suppose I can't argue with you on that.”

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “Alright everyone, fall in.”

The beings all assembled into the line Rainbow Dash had devised, with Twilight nervously looking down at the thestral as they began to trot out into the hall. “Um, why did you put me second?”

“Your knowledge of magic is going to be important.” Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Plus I am kinda curious if this vision thing of yours is real or not.”

“I suppose…” Twilight muttered, only for a hoof against her shoulder to bring her attention down to a smiling Applejack.

“Don't worry about it, Twi. RD may not be the smartest bat around, but if there is one thing she does know, it's dangerous stuff like this,” Applejack announced.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Rainbow Dash replied, rolling her eyes.

The troop fell into a sort of comfortable silence, with Rainbow Dash occasionally stopping them while she listened or checked on something. In no time at all they were back in front of the chained off door, which Rainbow Dash quickly discarded after pulling out an aged key from one of her many pockets. With the chain and lock now resting on the ground next to the door, the thestral pulled the door open wide, allowing a strange surge of dank, musty air to rush out.

The company shuddered in unison, the gust carrying a waft of dust and something far fouler into the surprised beings’ faces. Twilight’s entire face crinkled in disgust and she recoiled, holding her nose shut, only for the smell to have already invaded her nostrils.

“Ugh, what is that dreadful aroma?” Rarity whined.

“Get used to it, the first three floors reek of this stuff,” Rainbow Dash replied, while trotting through the door and the hallway beyond.

Applejack shrugged. “It ain't as bad as a timberwolf.”

“True,” Twilight agreed, the comparison having robbed the stench of some of its power.

The thestral strode forward confidently, trotting down the hall, and into a large spiral staircase wide enough for three ponies to walk abreast with ease. The thestral paused after a few steps, raising her hoof and signalling that her troop should stop. Once the order was followed, the mare’s ears rotated forward, straining to hear something from deeper in.

After several silent moments she nodded. “I don't hear the golems, it should be clear.”

“Oh, thank goodness.” Rarity sighed.

Trixie shrugged. “How tough can they be?”

Rainbow Dash stopped and turned around, facing the unicorn, a grim expression on her face. “Were you not there when I explained this?” Trixie shook her head, prompting Rainbow Dash to sigh. “They are eight feet tall, weigh over a ton, are resistant to almost all forms of damage and worse yet they can rebuild themselves using nearby rock.”

Trixie frowned. “That is most distressing.”

The thestral snorted and turned around, taking her place back at the front of the pack. “They are fast on top of being capable fighters. The only reason we've explored at all is due to their programming weaknesses, and the fact that they don't seem to recognize the new layout of the tower.”

“Interesting,” Twilight mused.

Applejack, however, frowned. “Well I for one find it a might bit offensive. We should do something about these damnable things.”

“I agree with you, but you have to realize that we don't even know what's in the bottom of the undertower. The golems might very well be the only thing keeping the nightmare restrained,” Rainbow Dash replied.

The five friends continued the rest of the way in silence, descending the long, winding staircase. The stone walls, floor and ceiling were dirty, dusty and in some spots even had roots poking out from between the cracks. Though that was thankfully an uncommon occurrence, the fact that it was happening at all was distressing to Twilight. She knew little of masonry, but she didn't need to be an expert to know that having roots poking out of the sides of the stairwell was not a good sign. The floor was also covered in a thin layer of dust, dirt and debris. The troop occasionally passed by some discarded item left behind by a past group.

Broken swords were heaped in a small pile near the third turn, discarded flasks, bottles, and other minor items were dropped sporadically throughout the winding staircase. Making Twilight’s inner OCD begin to flare up and make her want to stop and pick up the trash, or at least put it in one central pile. The unicorn dismissed such a silly thought quickly however, reminding herself to keep her eyes open and her magic ready.

Thankfully they reached the bottom without incident or even having to stop, something they only did when they all assembled near the bottom of the staircase. “Wait a second,” Rainbow Dash whispered, holding up a hoof.

“What is it?” Twilight whispered back, looking around the room, noting that the area appeared to be just as Rainbow Dash’s maps had indicated.

To the left was a small library, or at least what had been a library many centuries ago, the books having rotted or burnt away, as had the couches and even the shelves. The only thing that seemed to indicate that it had been a library at all was the way the piles of ash and rot were spaced, indicating that at one time the outermost circle had been dominated by a large piece of furniture. In front of them was a short hall, that went for all of fifteen feet before ending abruptly, a pile of rubble from the ceiling having fallen in. To the right was the gas filled room that Rainbow Dash had mentioned, the entrance to which was a shimmering wall of blue force that held back the swirling mass of green smoke that lay just beyond.

Twilight didn't know what the gas did, but in every Daring Do book ever written, green smoke was never a good thing.

Rainbow Dash relaxed and gestured to the small library to the left. “We should be safe up here if you want to check out the library, or what's left of it.”

“Right,” Twilight muttered, looking down at the piles of ash and rotted wood that had once been a small, but respectful library. “I’ll get right on that.”

“The rest of you feel free to wander around, just do not, under any circumstances, go beyond this door without first getting the safety equipment from me,” Rainbow Dash announced sternly, meeting the gaze of each of her party member’s in turn. “Got it?”

A chorus of acknowledgements, or murmurs of agreement met the mare, who nodded. “I’ll be readying the equipment just in case.”

Applejack took a step forward. “Need any help?”

Rainbow Dash nodded, unslinging a pack from her armor. “Sure, if you don't mind holding some stuff for me.”

Trixie and Rarity quickly involved themselves in their own conversation that mainly centered around the weaving of more complicated webs, with the unicorn offering the arachne some rather pointed criticisms. Rarity seemed to take this in stride however, and Twilight watched the pair for several more seconds before shaking her head and turning to the remains of the library.

“Now how in the heck am I going to do this?” she muttered to herself, gazing at the piles of debris in irritation.

She had expected more than this, though now that she thought about it, it made sense that there was nothing left, as it had been several hundred years since this place had been properly maintained. Add to that the fact that there was apparently deadly gas, powerful golems, and a powerful magical creature still stalking the halls and Twilight reasoned she should be happy there was anything left behind at all.

With a frown she walked up and down the rows, looking down at the piles and trying to find something, anything for her memory to go off. Her magic sifted through the piles at random, hoping to find something that had survived the destruction. It took several long minutes, and in the end though Twilight had not come up empty hooved though she may as well have, considering the fact that she now held only several paper clips, half a stapler, and what looked like the rings of a binder.

With a growl of irritation she tossed the junk into a nearby pile of ash, her thoughts returning to the idea that this entire thing may very well have been a fool’s errand. No, there has to be something. The dream was too real to just be made up, right? She frowned, glancing down at the piles and trying to imagine what they once held.

Across the room she could hear that her companions had relaxed, and were chatting animatedly about several topics. A fact that Twilight pushed from her mind, trying and failing to focus on the task at hoof.

With a frown now plastered firmly to her face, Twilight plunked down in the middle of what must have been a row of books, the mare crossing her hooves over her chest. “Come on, brain, think of something,” she muttered to herself.

Closing her eyes, Twilight wondered what spell might help her, only to come up with nothing, having realized that she could no longer use the one school of magic that may assist her here. Divination had never been her strong suit, but she would have gladly given just about anything to use even a simple detection magic spell. She sighed, her shoulders slumping, and her spell fizzling, the relatively simple cantrip falling apart after only a few seconds of concentration, her magic no longer flowing like it once did.

The unicorn frowned, and simply stared at the piles of detritus that littered the floor, imagining what they must have looked like in their hay day. Sure the area itself wasn't terrible large, but it seemed to be structured with love, and careful attention, the rows narrow, but not so close as to become claustrophobic. The reading areas were small, tucked away between the rows and primarily being made up of what must have been simple cushions, as the small mounds of ash and dust were surprisingly small, meaning they likely weren't chairs or couches.

She imaged the tall, proud rows of cedar built shelves holding numerous books on a variety of topics ranging from the mundane, like cooking and carpentry, to more esoteric, though still base level things like rudimentary magic, or astrology. Twilight stood up suddenly, walking down the row and extending a hoof, imagining that she was running the limb across the many spines of the books, caressing their aged exteriors lovingly, a smile crossing her face.

It felt good to touch the books, the simple tactile feel reminding the unicorn of her younger days which were spent under the moon or sun, being trained by the two sisters for the vaunted position of vizier. They had been demanding back then, buying her books on what felt like hundreds of topics and expecting her to master each in turn. Sure it had been hard, but it had also been worth it and in the end Twilight had become the advisor they so needed. Successfully managing to bridge the divide not only between each other, but between them and the public they had become so alienated from.

She breathed deep of the scent of the books that had come from those first years of study and testing. The creation of this small library was not as big a deal as her other contributions like the various labs below her, or the small museum she had established across from the library, but it meant a lot to her. In a way this very library was a museum, one to herself, and the studies and interests she held in her younger years.

Still, her inner librarian couldn't help but want to share these books with the world, even though only castle staff could check them out, it was still nice that she could at least do that much. Her hooves trotted down the well-maintained isles of her semi-private library, her eyes drawn to the small section of wall devoid of all poster or shelf.

Lifting a hoof, the mare gently touched the wall, noting that the wards lit up properly, scanning her mana signature and allowing her access to the reserved section of the castle library. She stayed there a moment, wondering if she should go inside and look around as it had been a while since she had checked the stacks. Never mind the fact that the restacking golem she had designed to maintain the library had already shown that its programming was not perfect, making her wonder if the reserved room was as messed up as the rest of the library had been last she checked.

Smiling faintly to herself, the mare trailed her hoof lower until she reached the spot where the matrices overlapped, allowing the magic to scan her hoof and allow her to push open the less than secret door. As she did she smiled faintly, remembering all the times Celestia and Luna had teased her about her hidden library which was contained in the very design documents of the library, and was plainly obvious to any outside observer. She had been resolute in her design however, as Twilight had always wanted to make a secret fake wall, and this seemed like the perfect excuse.

The stone wall ground a little harder than usual, something having gotten stuck between it and the floor, a fact that made Twilight pause. Only for a strange and foreign voice to startle her out of contemplation.

“What in the hay?” Applejack muttered.

“Look! Twilight found the door!” Rarity announced excitedly, her many legs carrying her closer to the dead mare.

Twilight paused, looking forward into the neat, short rows of books beyond the door, only to blink and realize they weren't there at all. In fact there was nothing there but rubble and ash, everything within her beloved ‘secret’ library having long since been turned to dust.

By the time the mare returned to reality she was surrounded by her friends, all of whom were asking her a variety of questions. “Hold on a second, what just happened?” Twilight exclaimed, raising a hoof and silencing her companions.

“You just walked over to the wall and suddenly pushed it open,” Rainbow Dash explained, cocking her head. “What did you think happened?”

“I thought I was in a library, and was going into the less than well hidden secret area,” Twilight muttered, gazing down at her hoof in disbelief. “I was going to check on the golem I placed in charge of maintaining the stacks then all of a sudden I was back here.”

“Hmm, most interesting,” Trixie murmured, staring up and down the mare, eyebrow raised.

“Is something the matter, darling?” Rarity asked, placing the back of her hoof on Twilight’s forehead, a concerned expression crossing her face. “You are oddly warm, all of a sudden.”

“I am?” Twilight brushed off her friend’s hoof and placed the back of her own limb where Rarity’s had been, only to find that she was indeed far warmer than she had been since her death. “Odd.”

Applejack shrugged. “So you are not quite so cold, what's the big deal?”

“I don't know,” Twilight murmured, letting her hoof return to the floor.

“Regardless, the way is cleareth, shouldst we not conintueth?” Trixie offered, gesturing to the now open door.

Rainbow Dash grumbled silently, stuffing back all the enchanted face masks she had pulled out of her bag. “Just gimme a second.”

Twilight looked down at her hoof, then back to the library behind her, only to find that it was all little more than ash and dust once more. As the seconds ticked by, reality seemed to assert itself completely, and the strange alien feeling of displacement vanished as the unicorn seemed to settle back into her own body.

Shaking her head once more, Twilight noticed that Rainbow Dash had stowed her gear once more, and was now just beyond the door, peering within, her ears standing up and at the ready. After several more seconds, she nodded and stepped through the portal. “I think we should be good,” she mentioned.

“How disappointing to loseth so many over such foolishness,” Trixie remarked sadly.

“Indeed,” Rarity agreed.

Applejack shrugged, and followed after. “Maybe they managed to get all the books out before the fire?”

Twilight shook her head. “There is a sadness that hangs over this room like a fog. I don't think they did.”

Rainbow Dash stepped forward, hefting her bag onto her shoulder and taking point. “The stairs down are broken in certain spots, do not fall down. The golems may not be able to hear, but they can see just fine and if they so much as catch a glimpse of you, run and don't look back.”

Twilight gulped. “Is there a point that they stop chasing?”

“They usually only go so far as the first floor, but sometimes they will go all the way outside the castle.”

Applejack gulped, looking down the stairs with newfound apprehension. “Well I don't know about y'all, but I say we take this nice and slow like.”

The rest of the companions all nodded, with Rainbow Dash taking the first step down the stairs before them. Following the lead set by the thestral, everyone else resumed the same marching order as before, with Twilight taking a nervous second place behind the guard pony.

Sure enough, the ground was as uneven as the mare had mentioned, with entire stairs missing, and chunks of the wall having vanished entirely. Leaving behind holes that sometimes went so deep that dirt would trickle out and onto the staircase. With Rainbow Dash’s guidance it didn't take them long to reach the next flight of stairs with no one even so much as tripping. The next floor was much different, and seemed to have suffered much more damage than the first. Rubble was strewn everywhere across the area. The sight made Twilight wonder, not for the first time, how this entire place was still standing at this point.

Rainbow Dash kneeled down next to a pile of rocks and motioned for everyone to come in close. “Now I need you guys to do exactly as I tell you, when I tell you. There is a golem just beyond the first pile of rocks.” The thestral raised a hoof, silencing Rarity’s concerned comment before it could even be spoken. “This one is easy, it just walks back and forth in a straight line and all we have to do is move while its back is turned.”

“We going one by one or what?” Applejack whispered, glancing out from behind the pile and trying to catch a glimpse of the thing, only for Rainbow Dash to pull her back.

“Did I tell you to reveal yourself?” she hissed, her face pressed nearly against the farmer’s.

“Err, no ma’am,” Applejack muttered weakly.

“That's what I thought.” Rainbow Dash relaxed slightly and pulled back, revealing that she held a simple mirror on a stick. “For some reason the golems can't see reflections. I don't know why, but it will help us get around them.” She pointed at herself and then Twilight. “We will be going first, after that I want Applejack and Trixie to come together. Rarity, you will be going last, by yourself.”

Applejack and Trixie nodded resolutely, while Rarity seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown before suddenly pressing a hoof against her chest and breathing deeply. “Okay, darling. I’ll trust you.”

Rainbow Dash nodded. “Good. Ready?”

Everyone nodded, prompting Rainbow Dash to lean a little closer to the mound of rocks and peek the mirror around the side. Twilight had taken up position just behind the thestral, allowing her a good view of the golem stomping down the hall. Its head nearly scraped the ceiling, and its shoulders nearly brushed the walls, though the strangest part by far was the fact that it had two arms that stuck out from the front of its body as well as a mere two legs.

It's bipedal? Twilight thought to herself, shocked to see such a strange golem. Was it even made by ponies?

The mare shook off the questions running around in her head for now, and merely watched as the bipedal golem walked closer and closer. Its footsteps, which had been distant at first, now thundered ever closer. Its huge granite body was made up of hundreds of smaller rocks and boulders, all held together by glowing lines of golden light. The strange thing had no face or distinguishing features whatsoever, with only a single golden sunburst emblazoned on its chest, allowing Twilight to differentiate it from just another pile of rocks.

Twilight glanced to the side, noticing that at about the midway point of the golem’s path there was a relatively large section of wall that was still partially standing, the base of which was surrounded by loose rocks. Whatever had been in the rooms had been lost to history, and there existed nothing but piles of loose stones and small sections of walls to even differentiate between where one room started and the other ended.

The golem’s heavy footsteps boomed in the mare’s ears, the inanimate creature drawing closer and closer. The rest of the group looked nervously at Rainbow Dash, who had not moved an inch the entire time. Noticing that their leader had not so much as flinched, Twilight relaxed and waited a few more seconds.

Sure enough, the golem stopped a few steps from the pile of rubble they hid behind, paused, looked around, and then turned right back around, beginning its slow, ponderous pace back towards the other side of the room. Rarity and Applejack breathed a sigh of relief, while Trixie remained strangely nonplussed by the entire encounter, her gaze lingering on the golem’s backside.

Rainbow Dash placed the mirror stick on the floor before pointing to Applejack. “Use it, but leave it for Rarity who will be bringing it with her.”

Applejack quickly snatched up the stick and nodded, with Rarity mirroring the movement a second later.

The thestral glanced one last time at Twilight before breathing deeply and dashing around the corner, sprinting towards the pile of rubble at the centre of the hall. Twilight scrambled to keep up a second later, the lanky unicorn nearly tripping over a loose rock. The sprint was short, but terrifying, with Twilight’s eyes firmly latched onto the golem’s back as it made its way back down the hall. A hoof gripped the mare’s leg and pulled her in behind the pile of rubble, where Rainbow Dash was waiting with a glare.

“Eyes on your goal,” she hissed, pointing from Twilight’s face to the pile of rubble they were now using as cover.

Twilight gulped awkwardly and nodded. “S-sorry.”

“Don't apologize to me, it would have been your funeral and something tells me you wouldn't exactly hop back up after being pounded into paste,” Rainbow Dash whispered.

Twilight tried not to image what she would look like after being pounded into the dirt by a massive pile of semi-sentient rocks only to fail and shudder at the thought.

The golem stopped, and after a second turned and began its arduous trek back up the hall. The two creatures pushed themselves against the pile of rubble, not trusting their safety to the meagre pile of stone. Thunderous, monotonous footsteps came closer and closer until they passed them by completely, allowing Rainbow Dash the opening she needed to dash out from behind the rocks and towards the end of the room which lead to a staircase which in turn led down to the floor below.

This time Twilight had no distractions to get in her way and she followed close behind the thestral as she sprinted across the room and ducked into the stairwell. For the next few minutes the two would remain there, pressed against the wall as they listened and waited. A little while later two terrified creatures all but leapt into the stairwell, landing in a panting heap of tangled limbs. The sight of two of her friends unharmed helped to alleviate a bit of Twilight’s worry, but that didn't help the fact that the one party member she worried about the most had yet to arrive.

Conjuring a magical mirror of her own, Twilight peered around the corner, and what she saw nearly made her heart stop again. Rarity was larger than the rest of her friends, easily towering over even Twilight, meaning the pile of rocks and debris that easily hid them, could barely obscure the arachne’s larger form. The fashionista was awkwardly bent behind the cover, her eyes wide with fear.

The golem was fast approaching, its footsteps thumping in the distance, growing ever closer to the cowering form of the spider pony. Then, just when Twilight was convinced she was going to see something terrible happen, the golem passed Rarity by without pause. The arachne looked up, noticed she was still alive, and sprinted with all haste towards the stairwell at the end of the room.

Noticing that her friend was terrified and not slowing down, Twilight took several hastey steps back and lit her horn, allowing her to catch the terrified arachne as she ran screeching into the stairwell. Muffled cries of panic of surprise could be heard in all directions as the larger creature came barrelling into the awaiting group, Twilight’s magic keeping her upright but not stopping her momentum. Limbs slammed against stone and each other equally, metal clanged metal, and after several short, painful seconds the group landed in a heap at the bottom of the stairwell, all save for a certain arachne who was wincing and looking down at the moaning pile of ponies now lying on the floor.

“Sorry,” she muttered weakly, extending a hoof to Twilight who eagerly accepted the assistance, allowing the creature to hoist her into a standing position.

“Don't worry about it, Rarity,” Twilight replied, dusting herself off.

Applejack groaned, righting her hat and stumbling awkwardly into a standing position. “Well, that certainly could have gone better,” she muttered.

Trixie grumbled curses under her breath, gripping either side of her head to stop her eyeballs from rolling around in their sockets. “Agreed.”

Rainbow Dash was the only one unharmed, the thestral having somehow managed to twist out of the way and dodge the ball of flailing spider pony limbs. She walked calmly down the last of the stairs, a sigh on her lips. “I knew this was a bad idea.”

The arachne rubbed her hooves together nervously. “I really am sorry, darling. I just saw the golem right there and I-”

The thestral reached up and placed a calming hoof on the arachne’s side. “It's alright, really. It just means you are in it for real. There's no going back now.”

“Fiddlesticks,” Rarity cursed.

“This floor is the safe one, right?” Twilight asked, looking around the small room they now found themselves in. The walls were painted to resemble wood and two large doors barely hung onto their hinges, barring access to what lay beyond.

“There are no golems, but there are plenty of traps,” Rainbow Dash replied with a shrug. “So don't touch anything.”

“Got it.” Applejack saluted, tucking the last of their scattered supplies back into her bags.

“Good. Now, we are going to have to go even slower than we did before if we are going to make it out of here. The first trap is going to be a simple sound detecting spell attached to a mana bolt spell matrix, so we have to-” Rainbow Dash began, only for Twilight to take a step forward and light her horn.

“I don't mean to interrupt you, Rainbow Dash, but do you mind if I ask you a quick question?” Twilight inquired.

The thestral shrugged. “Sure, fire away.”

“Are all of the traps magical?”

“More or less, if they aren't completely magical, they are triggered by magic. It's how they are able to keep operating after all this time. The golems simply walk through them, or are unharmed by them, and the traps reset themselves shortly after,” Rainbow Dash explained.

“Why haven't they been dispelled?” Twilight asked as she gently pushed one of the more intact doors open.

“No one knows how to,” Rainbow Dash replied with a shrug. “Most creatures don't have the magical capacity necessary to take them down, and the few we could destroy haven't changed things much.”

“I’m gonna give it a shot,” Twilight announced suddenly, her jaw set, and a look of determination crossing her face.

“Are you sure that's wise, darling?” Rarity interjected, stepping forward and placing a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. “I know you are a powerful mare, but these traps were made by someone very, very powerful.”

“I have a good feeling,” Twilight replied confidently, placing a hoof on Rarity’s.

“Wonderful,” Trixie muttered, before turning and finding a corner to sit in while she read a large black tome she had pulled from one of her saddlebags.

Applejack merely shrugged, and looked over at Rainbow Dash, whose lips were pursed, her gaze distant as she stared at the glowing hallway just beyond. “What do you think, boss?” Applejack asked.

The thestral shook her head and sighed. “I don't like it. But it would make it safer and quicker.” She stood suddenly, and trotted over to the dead unicorn. “You can try, but the second I see things starting to go south you pull out ASAP. Got it?”

Twilight nodded. “Thank you, for trusting me.”

Rainbow Dash shrugged nonchalantly, hiding a small blush by turning and pushing Rarity away. “That's enough chatter, you guys sit back and give the mare some room to work, I’ll keep eyes on the hall.”

Rarity smiled faintly. “Do be careful, darling.”

“I will, Rarity,” Twilight replied, before turning to the hall just beyond.

It was long, unnaturally so, to the point that Twilight realized it was probably an illusion, which would explain how it was able to twist her perceptions. Closing her eyes, Twilight tried to reach down inside herself, calming her muscles and allowing her mind to flow down towards the strange paths that had allowed her to glimpse at the library that was no longer there.

She was hesitant to do this, but the dream had breezed through this floor so quickly that she had no real memory of it. Luna’s smile, and conversation they had were the only things she remembered from this area other than simply walking down a single short passage.

Breathing deeply, the mare tried to ignore the logical part of her mind that reminded her that the act of doing so was largely pointless, and instead focused on the feelings she had experienced when she had fallen into this sort of state back in the library. When she opened her eyes once more, the dust, debris and detritus that clung to every surface was gone, and the long expanse was gone, replaced by a short tunnel that twisted to the right.

Twilight smiled as she lit her horn, happy that her complicated s