It's been months since Nightmare Moon was banished, and things have started to settle down. Yet, mysterious things were still ahoof, when one night a stranger happens upon my door with something that will change my life forever.
It's been months since Nightmare Moon was banished, and things have started to settle down. Yet, mysterious things were still ahoof, when one night a stranger happens upon my door with something that will change my life forever.
The branches of my tree house shook as thunder rolled past it. The blankets around me were pulled tight as I twisted my body, turning to face away from the window—an icy wind trying to claw into my side. Darkness was almost upon me once again when I heard another boom, though this one was softer, and repeated several times.
“Excuse me!” a voice called from somewhere outside, nearly carried off by the wind. “I require immediate assistance!”
I sat up, the warmth sapped from my body as the blankets fell away. Wearily, I glanced out the window. No, I hadn’t just slept in, judging from the moonlight illuminating my room.
“Just a…” I yawned, moving off the bed and shuffling my hooves toward the door, “...minute.”
I jumped, my eyes now wide open.
“Will you hurry it up? My mane is already ruined, and you can bet I’ll be sending you the bill for a new treatment.”
Letting out a groan, I crept down the stairs, automatically moving around several tables in the dark. With a sigh, I eased the door open until I could just peer through the crack. Outside, heavy rain cascaded over a raspberry mane and slightly darker coat, barely visible beneath the mare’s gray cloak. Bright, emerald eyes narrowed, peering at me when I didn’t fully open the door.
I put on my best smile. “How may I help you?” Politeness is a two-way street.
The mare tossed her mane back with a sudden tilt of her head, which only succeeded in causing the hair to slap her neck with a heavy smack.
“I’m looking for Nightshade, the crackpot alchemist that insists on living in this wretched forest,” the mare said, causing me to roll my eyes as I stifled another yawn with a hoof. A tremor shook through the house as lightning flashed behind her. “Well?” An impatient frown formed across her face. “Can you go fetch him for me?”
I closed my eyes, and took a breath. One more try.
“Hello! My name is Nightshade. What can I possibly do to help you at this early hour?” The last bit was spoken between clenched teeth, but she didn’t seem to notice. Her eyes narrowed further as she looked me up and down, her head tilting to see the crystal flask that adorned my flank.
“Aren’t you a little young to be in this line of work?”
And I’m done. I forced a grin. “Aren’t you a bit out of your way—and too soaking wet—to complain about it?”
“Yes, yes, fine.” She turned and nodded outside. I peered around her, and spotted a pair of pegasi, who stood waiting beneath a tree in the distance. A small chariot was strapped behind them, the rain bouncing off the golden paint. I heard a nicker, and a stomp, but after one of them nodded back, she turned and came inside.
Those ponies need a raise.
I closed the door and moved to face the mare. “Is there some special reason you’re waking me this Celestia-damned early?”
“Well…” The mare moved her hoof to her stomach as she spoke. “I’m pregnant.”
I blinked and tilted my head as I stared out at her. “And you came all the way out here… in this weather….” Deep breaths. “Why not have the doctors at the castle help? You’re from there, right?”
The mare rolled her eyes before nodding. Steady drops of rain fell from over her hood as a frown grew across her face.
“I have plenty of bits for your assistance… and your silence. Double your regular rate should be sufficient, I take it?”
Suppressing a groan, I held a hoof out to her. Green magic from her horn pulled a sack of coins from her saddlebag that clinked as she passed it to me.
“Come on, then.” I turned and walked back through the center room of the carved tree that was my home, the sound of wet hooves following behind me. Stepping over to a small glass sphere which sat atop one table, I tapped it lightly with my hooves.
“Wakey wakey, little friends. I’m terribly sorry for the inconvenience, but I’m in need of some early morning light.” Tiny, bright green lights from the bottom of the glass floated up to meet me. I smiled at the fireflies before I trotted across the room, aware that the mare was watching me with a confused expression.
Resting on a windowsill near the front door was a particularly healthy vivian flower, the inner crimson bud reflecting the moon’s light. Carefully, I moved the potted flower next to a long, cushioned table that I reserved for this specific purpose. With a flick of my black tail, I lifted the glass sphere and whistled. The dozen or so little lights flittered over and swarmed above the flower, illuminating that side of the room.
“What a… novel form of lighting.” The mare stepped behind me as she grimaced at the flickering bugs. “How long is this going to take?”
“It takes as long as it takes.” Hopefully not that long.
“You have a horrible bedside manner.” She removed her cloak and carefully laid atop the table. Her cutie mark was a golden quill, dipping into a red vial of ink. The swell of her stomach stretched across the table, nearly falling over one side.
“You’ll just have to deal with it. Any number of doctors could have helped you, but instead, you came all the way here. Really, you did this to yourself.”
She huffed, but waved me on. A few quick checks later, which she fortunately didn’t complain about, and my eyebrow was already twitching in irritation.
“Y-your water hasn’t broken yet!”
Deep breaths. “Look, Ms…”
“My name is of no concern.” She saw my annoyed glare, then amended her statement. “You may address me as Starshine, if you must.”
“Look, Starshine.” My glare didn’t lessen. “I wouldn’t recommend forcing you into labor. It’s not healthy for you or the baby.”
Starshine scowled, narrowing her eyes. “You took my bits. Now, you will make this happen, or I’ll make sure you pay for it.”
I laughed as I pulled the sack of bits from where I had left it. “I honestly don’t care. You can take your money and go.” As I finished the sentence, there was a flash. Barely a second later, a huge crash of thunder rattled the various jars and bottles on the tables around me.
“You’re going to send a pregnant mare out into that weather?” She grinned wickedly. “I see the lives of foals hardly weigh on your conscience at all!”
She’s playing me. And she knows that I know she’s playing me. Just wrap me in poison joke and call me a bouquet. I moved along the table adjacent to her resting place, scooping up several jars and placing them on the center workplace. “There’s a special place in Tartarus for ponies like you.”
“You flatter me, Doctor Nightshade.”
“Go sit on a pinecone.”
It took several minutes to gather the correct herbs, grind them into powder, and then mix them into a small pot of bubbling, green liquid. The small wooden cup smelled strongly of old socks, mixed with dandelions and lemongrass. It bubbled and popped as I placed it next to her; Starshine’s nose crinkled in disgust.
“You don’t actually expect me to drink that, do you?”
“If you plan on staying for a few days, or maybe a week, then don’t.” I raised an eyebrow. “I’d prefer we didn’t spend more time together if possible, but if you’d rather wait…”
The cup floated into her hooves before she held it to her lips. A green aura closed her nostrils as she tilted her head back. I watched in mild amusement as a visible ripple of nausea moved from her head to her hooves.
She tossed the cup into the air before she turned to glare at me. “That’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever tasted. Do I even want to know?”
“Probably not.” I gestured with a hoof. “Just relax and give it a few minutes for the herbs to work through your system.”
While I waited, I set a pot of water to boil. After gathering as much clean fabric as I could find, I stopped and tried to relax. It’s not every day that you help bring life into the world. Not that it would be the first time. I’d helped a stray timberwolf that I’d come across. Needless to say, that was an extremely weird day.
Starshine squirmed on the table, gritting her teeth as the first contraction washed over her. And thus the most painful hours of both our lives had begun.
The lights of the fireflies danced about the room. I sat in the wooden chair that I had pulled alongside where Starshine was now resting, her snoring almost comical. Wrapped in my hooves was the fluffiest, most adorable filly I had ever laid eyes on. Tufted ears covered in dark fur, a tiny, wiggling nose, and finally, the surprising addition of a single fang—I just couldn’t look away.
The little bundle of warmth shifted slowly as I held her close, a smile on my face that was so huge it hurt. The overwhelming urge to prod her muzzle finally bested me as she yawned, her little hooves stretching out adorably.
The tiniest giggle filled the air, my smile growing wider as a result. The mare beside me stirred at the sound, shifting herself until she could stare in my direction.
“Is that it?” Her eyes locked onto the bundle of cloth that held the newborn filly. I managed to hold my smile as I held the filly up to her. Starshine took the foal into her grasp, turning her around until her face was visible. “Disgusting.”
Words failed me as she floated the filly back to me. She climbed down from the table, retrieving her cloak as she moved toward the door.
“W-wait!” I stood up, carefully cradling the foal with one hoof. “What about your filly?”
Starshine turned to glare at me, her hoof on the wooden handle. “I paid you to take care of a problem.” The door opened, the volume of the rain increasing several fold. Even still, there was no way to miss the sneering voice that crept across my fur. “I have no children.”
The slam of the door far exceeded the quake of any thunder. And so I stood there, the little filly still bundled in my hooves, my body frozen in place.
I looked down to see the filly open her eyes—radiant, turquoise spheres staring out into my soul. Then she turned and buried her head further into the cloth, leaving me alone to contemplate what had transpired.
The sound of wings beating drew my attention to my window. As I approached, I spotted the vague shape of the pegasus-pulled chariot flying towards the mountain where they were building the new castle. I wanted to run outside and try to call them back, rain and thunder be damned, but…
“Eee.” The muffled sound from the filly stopped me in my tracks, my head arching down to stare at her. This storm wasn’t letting up anytime soon, if my time in the Everfree had taught me anything.
“What am I going to do with you?” I gently brushed my hoof through a tiny tuft of purple mane. I received no response, of course. Celestia help me.
Thestrals were generally a pretty rare sight, even before Nightmare Moon had been banished less than a year ago. I’d only ever had a single one as a patient, and since the old castle was gone…
I looked over the filly, her leathery wing sticking out slightly as she turned.
She gave the tiniest little sneeze.
“I…” Pulling her close to me, I snuggled her against my chest. “...can’t believe she would give you up.”
I coaxed the fireflies back into their glass dome with the offering of a small sunflower before proceeding back to bed. The filly didn’t stir in the slightest as I carefully climbed back under my cozy blankets. Holding her close, I pulled the blankets over the pair of us, my eyes fixed on her snoozing face as I started to fall back into the void of unconsciousness.
“Save me… a rainbow~” Star-shaped petals twitched slightly, shifting towards me as I called out to it. “Won’t you take me… somewhere far away~” The melancauli flower reluctantly opened up to me, the green stem swaying along with my song. In the center of the opening was a small seed, glittering like a gemstone in the first light of the sun.
The small but swift flapping of wings was followed by a blurred shadow as it passed over my head. The seed was quickly snatched up, only an instant before the flower twisted shut. The plant waved the petals that protruded from its sides like angry hooves, possibly swearing its revenge against me.
Small hooves touched down upon my back, and I turned my head around to smile at the brave little gatherer. Moon Flower held the jewel-like seed lightly in her jaw, lowering her head to spit it into an open saddlebag pouch.
“Such a great helper you are, little flower.” Moon Flower scampered along my back and plopped down atop my head. Tiny nibbles went up and down my ear, and I had to fight hard not laugh from the sensation. “Hold tight now, it’s time to head home.” I waited until her little hooves had dug thoroughly into my mane, then turned and galloped towards the rising sun.
I smirked as I passed between the huge Everfree trees, the rays of orange light occasionally piercing down like spears of gold. Leathery wings beat against my neck as my little filly screeched in delight, her giggling pushing me faster and faster through the woods. Water splashed about as I crossed the creek that ran along the edge of the section of forest I’d made my own; many flowers had already opened towards the early morning sun.
I slowed to a canter, bouncing purposely to give my passenger a little extra fun. She jumped off, flapping her little wings as she flew towards the wide, stunted tree that I had fashioned into a home. The dark oak turned almost golden as the sun peeked through the trees, washing down over the open window that now held an impatient little filly.
She batted at the sunlight with her hooves, hissing softly as if it were an abomination that she could smite. Laughing, I moved inside and shrugged off my saddlebags.
“Now go wash up, little flower.” She beat her wings down against the table that rested beneath the window, her eyes getting round and watery. “Don’t even try it,” I said as I went to extract the ingredients we had gathered throughout the night. Opening the sack, I removed the seed we had obtained and went to work grinding it into powder in a clay bowl.
From the corner of my eye, I watched Moon Flower hesitantly place her hooves atop the rim of a large bucket of water. She tested it carefully with her hooves, then flinched back and gave me a glare that could curdle milk.
She shot me an adorably malevolent scowl before she turned and began climbing inside. As she got halfway in, her bottom end flopped over before falling in upside-down with a large splash.
I sighed, a sweet smile on my face as I trotted toward the bat bucket, grabbing a small bottle from the table as I moved. I pulled the cork with my teeth and dumped the purple fluid into the water just as a dark head of fur pushed out from the surface. Bubbles spread around as I reached my hooves inside, rubbing the cleansing liquid against her dirty coat.
Moon Flower only managed a single weak “Eee” of protest before my hooves moved over the sides of her head. Small turquoise eyes closed as I scrubbed her little ears and mane, humming softly as the sun began peeking through the window. The rays fell upon the bucket, eliciting a hiss from the bathing bat. I rolled my eyes and scooted over slightly so that my body blocked the incoming light.
When all the dirt had been banished and ears had been good and scrubbed, I pulled a soaking little thestral from the bucket and then rubbed her back dry with a towel. She flapped her wings, flinging small blips of water against me.
“Hey!” I teased. I held my hooves up to block the oncoming assault as she giggled at my misfortune. “Oh, I’ll get you for that one!”
I reached down and scooped her up in my hooves, rubbing my muzzle against her snout. She squirmed in my grasp, though eventually gave up and devolved into fits of laughter. I tossed her into the air, intent on catching her with the open cloth, but was foiled when little wings sprang open.
Around and around she zoomed, giving short little bursts of “Eee” every so often. Eventually, I managed to cut her off, a small thump echoing out as I caught her against my barrel.
“Alright, little one. It’s supper time, and then off to bed.” I set her down and walked to the circular table in the center of my house. A variety of vegetables and nuts were arranged in bowls, which I then sprinkled with powdered melancauli flower—good for congestion and a tasty topping.
Moon Flower, with a little effort and the light flutter of leathery wings, seated herself on the large cushion across the table. I pushed the seasoned broccoli and diced walnuts gently towards her, giving an encouraging smile as I watched.
She stuck her snout up at the food, turning her head away. “Humph.”
Sighing, I produced a lovely yellowish fruit from my saddlebag. Little eyes widened as I held the fruit in my hoof, a bit drool actually dripping down one fang. She reached for it, mouth hanging open as she leaned forward.
I pulled it away. “Nuh-uh, not until you finish dinner.” A big bottom lip thrust out towards me, water droplets already cascading from her turquoise eyes. “Don’t even try it, missy. You’re a growing filly, and you need to eat well if you want to grow big and strong like your daddy.”
The waterworks continued, an unrelenting force against an already unstable emotional dam. The final straw came when she twitched her muzzle, the single most adorably lethal technique in her arsenal. I fell, clutching my heart, and the mango rolled from my hooves and across the table.
Before I could even blink, her little fangs sank into the mango with a ferocity that could rival even a timber wolf. The fruit was sucked dry in mere moments, a shriveled husk of a delicious delicacy. She spat the core into a small sack that we kept for that purpose, to be buried later in the garden.
“Very well. It seems you win this round, little miss. But I’m not letting you leave the table unless you eat at least half of that bowl.” I gestured to the poison in front of her, my gaze gentle, but firm. She let out a small groan, looking up at me with annoyance as I held my ground. “But I’ll make you a deal, Moon Flower. You eat half, and I’ll read your favorite story for bedtime.”
Her batty eyes went wide as she dove into the bowl, suddenly having the appetite of a hungry minotaur. I chuckled as I focused on my own helping, munching contentedly.
Yes, I cheated, get over it.
Bowls, along with the other few cooking utensils, were stacked into a bucket to soak as we moved across the small house, climbing a set of stairs set into the inside of the tree. Moon Flower flew ahead of me, her wings grazing my side, which tickled a little. I followed at a leisurely pace, pulling large slabs of bark down over the windows.
She was already waiting inside, a cute frown on her face as she hung upside-down. This, funny enough, looked like a smile to me, and I couldn’t help but laugh. I settled myself comfortably atop the bed, the old blanket scratching against my coat. I selected the fabled tome from my bedside table before turning to face my anxious audience. “Beauty and the Bat, right?”
Moon Flower nodded rapidly.
“Can you say bat?”
Her head shook slowly, her eyes drooping.
“Buh-ah-te,” I said, smiling at her.
“B-- ba-,” she tried, wriggling her snout around as if the words tasted funny on her tongue.
“You can do it, sweetheart.” I pointed at the word on the title, then to the thestral that adorned it. “Buh-ah-te.”
“B-aht.” She blinked in surprise, then smiled. “Bat!”
“You did it!” I cheered, leaning forward and planting a small kiss on her snout. She squealed and moved away, giggling the entire time.
“Alright, let’s settle down and I’ll start. You deserve it tonight.”
A furious scowl, by which I mean an infectious grin, was plastered across her face as I opened the book.
“Once upon a time, in the wonderful land of Equestria, there was a beautiful princess. She lived in a grand castle in the middle of a forest, and was surrounded by many that loved and adored her.”
Her eyelids were already beginning to sag, maybe from my boring story voice, or maybe just a full belly.
“One fateful eve, there was a mighty storm that crashed against the forest and the castle, though the princess was quite safe inside. Indeed they were in the process of celebrating the anniversary of the princess’s coronation, and the festivities were in full swing.
“Just before midnight, there was a large banging at the castle door. Soon, guards escorted a strange figure, cloaked in grey rags, before the princess.
“‘What is so important as to interrupt this wondrous night?’ the princess asked. The stranger pulled back the hood that covered him, revealing a pair of dirt-covered fluffy ears and teeth so razor sharp they could cut through stone.
“‘I am a traveler, Your Majesty, seeking shelter tonight from the wicked storm outside. Please, permit a vagabond such as myself to enjoy your company and the company of the fine ponies here.’
“‘Of course, my friend. All are welcome at my table.’”
I looked over to see a softly snoozing filly.
She drives me batty, she’s a right pain sometimes… but there’s nothing in the world that could take her place.
I carefully shut the book, setting it aside before brushing the filly’s mane back and giving her a soft kiss on the cheek. “Goodnight, my Moon Flower.”
“N--ight,” came soft words as I turned my head to lie down beneath her hanging perch. I fell asleep with the goofiest grin.
The forest awoke with the high-pitched song of insects, the sun setting past the trees outside my window. Slowly, I shifted to face the wall in an attempt to ignore the waning light.
And then she pounced.
I groaned as hooves pressed into my side, before they bounced up and repeated the process. Again. And again. Annnnnd again.
“Wake up, Daddy!”
“Nooooo!” I moaned, trying to bat her out of the air with a blind hoof, but to no avail. “Leave me alone, you flying menace!”
Bounce. Ow. Bounce. Ow.
“Wakey wakey, sleepy head.”
I turned just as she came back down for another bounce, my hooves open like a waiting trap. Moon Flower let out an ‘Eep’ of surprise as my forelegs pulled her in, before she was subjected to much snuggling and muzzle-booping.
After at least a minute of mad giggling and pleading, Moon Flower squirmed her way out of my hooves, darting across the room and then down the stairs.
“Come ooooooon!” she whined up at me.
I grumbled, pulling the blanket off and leaving it crumpled on the bed. Blinking, I looked into a small basin set into a concave stone. A frazzled black mane fell down across my matted fur, my dirty-brown coat borne from a healthy amount of living in the forest.
I scratched the top of my head with a hoof. “Bath first.”
My voice must have carried downstairs, because then I heard a bemoaning, “Nooooo!”
“I meant for me!”
I turned and trotted downstairs, watching a little blur dart across the house in rapid bursts. Two bowls sat upon the table, ready to be filled with something delicious or terribly insidious.
“Making breakfast, sweetheart?”
“Yep yep yep!” A small pot filled with fresh lettuce and assorted vegetables was tossed up and down, held gingerly in Moon Flower’s tail. Her hooves mixed a small pot of water with various spices into who-knows-what kind of dressing.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes. Can I trust you to not burn down the forest?” I couldn’t help but laugh at the strange look she gave me.
“How?” She gestured to the bowl of vegetables and the definitely-not-lit fire.
“It’s just a saying, you silly filly.” I smiled, turning to walk outside.
I chuckled as a ray of the sun grazed the back of my head. “I honestly have no idea, Moony.”
The sunsets were always beautiful in the Everfree, the bare earth becoming a golden, twisting path beneath the trees. I trotted past the garden where we kept the more practical plants like cabbage and carrots, broccoli and tomatoes, plucking a particularly round, red tomato for a pre-dinner snack.
I passed out of the small grove of our home, trotting for less than a minute before the sound of running water found its way to me. The small stream ran all the way from the old castle, right past our house, and out into an open field down the way. A worn bucket rested by a tree just off the stream, along with an herbal mixture that I used to help clean some of the more resistant substances off my coat.
The water was cool as usual as I stepped down carefully onto the slippery rocks, the area already getting dark around me.
Well, to business, then.
I was just beginning to shake myself dry when I heard it: a low, pained groan that couldn’t be too far off. I stopped, water still dripping from my coat as my ears perked up. There it was again, low, but still quite clear over the babbling of the stream.
Sounds like an ursa, or something just as big.
Crouching low, I crept up to the top of the small hill that ran adjacent to the stream, peeking down the slight slope. At the bottom, I spotted dark red, intermixed with a blueish tint. Carefully, I made my way down towards whatever it was, moving from tree to tree until the full shape of the beast came into view.
It was definitely an ursa, an ursa minor to be specific. The creature was still easily twice my size, and was bleeding from its side. A large, pointed spike that had once been a small tree was sticking into it. Blood dripped from the wound, slowly coating the wood a dark crimson.
At least it’s not arterial. But still…
Then I noticed it staring at me. The large, black eyes watched me carefully, the ursa’s claws motionless and non-threatening, not that I was eager to test that.
“I’m going to try to help you, friend,” I spoke slowly and softly, gesturing to the wound with a hoof. “I’ll just need a few things from home.”
As I started to move off, the bear didn’t have a word to say, because of course it didn’t. I didn’t make it ten paces before another roar nearly knocked me off my hooves. I turned, my eyes widening as the ground was coated in red. The damned ursa was trying to pull itself free right in front of me.
Celestia, help me.
My hooves hammered the ground as I rushed back to it, waving my forelegs desperately. “Stop, you idiot!”
A claw raked out towards me. I stumbled backwards, the swing missing me completely. The bear howled in pain from the exertion, the wound opening up even further.
“Serves you right.” I looked the wound over carefully. The bleeding had worsened, significantly, and now the time I might have had was reduced to a mere few minutes. “Now you just hold on and don’t move.” Turning and holding my hooves up to my muzzle, I poured everything I had into a shrill whistle. I held it as long as I could, about ten seconds or so, before I had to breathe.
“Now, let’s see what I can do.” I glanced around for something, anything, to work with. A small bush that held thick patches of dark berries caught my eye. After snagging a rather large leaf from a low-hanging branch, I scooped a hoofful of berries onto the leaf and carried them back.
“Here, these will help.” They’re poisonous in large enough doses, but with only this much, and with his size, they’ll just help dull the pain. The bear sniffed once before it pulled its head away. I guess I can’t blame him, but still…
“A little cooperation would be nice…” I sighed heavily. Then I heard the rapid flutter of wings from behind me, and as I turned around, I spotted Moon Flower searching frantically for me. “Over here!” I called out, watching her turn instantly.
She landed swiftly and safely, having had quite a bit of practice, especially in the waning light of the forest. It was almost dark now, but I could still see the small satchel that she’d placed on her back.
“I’m here, Daddy. I bwought the sack like you taught me.”
“I see that. You’re a smart filly and I love you, but now Daddy needs you to fetch the cooking pot and the striking rock from home, okay?”
She stood tall, dropping the saddlebag from her back before doing a small flip, her wings opening up as she flew upside-down back towards the house.
“That’s my filly.”
I turned back to the ursa minor, grabbing the bag and pulling it open. The pre-packed contents were still just as I’d left them, and though I would have trusted Moon Flower to be able to gather what I needed, it was easier and far safer to just be prepared.
The small bottle of greenish goo glistened in the rays of moonlight that now shone down through the trees. The loud hoots of owls sounded as I pulled the stopper with slight difficulty, before dipping the tips of my hooves into the ointment.
“This is a special recipe.” I held the goo up for the bear to see, dabbing a little on my forehead as a demonstration. “It promotes internal healing and will dull some of the pain.”
I reached slowly forward, waiting for the ursa to react negatively to being approached. It didn’t budge, perhaps now too tired to pay me any mind. Its dark pupils had begun to dilate in the darkening forest, and it didn’t so much as glance at me as I spread the goop across its forehead. The goop started glowing as it came into contact with the bear’s fur, a sure sign that the magic was working.
I turned back to the bag, searching for a few ingredients that I would need to properly clean the wound. Fast as a shadow, Moon Flower was already visible over the crest of the hill, flying down towards me as fast as she could will herself to move. I took the lidded pot, which had the striking stone inside, from her mouth and gestured to the bear.
“This Ursa is badly hurt, sweetheart. I’ve applied moonmoss already and had set aside some syckleberries to feed it, but it insisted on giving me a hard time.”
Moon Flower had already approached the large creature, the rise and fall of the ursa’s chest having slowed to a point that it was barely noticeable. “Aww, poor Mister Bear. I down’t like taking icky stuff, either.”
She picked up the leaf of berries and held them up to the bear. The bear moved its head away, still not interested in the offering. I started building a small fire as I watched, gathering branches as Moon Flower stared down a creature five times her size.
“They’re good for you!” She tried forcing them between the bear’s lips, only for them to fall to the ground. “Don’t make me get wuff.”
After a minute, I had piled leaves and dry sticks between several small rocks. I struck the black rock against a heavy stone, little sparkles flickering and dying in the cool wind. Even as a slight shiver ran through me, I couldn’t help but smile as Moon Flower tried again and again to get the bear to eat. Then a spark caught, a flicker of life that led me to bend down and gently blow, feeding life to the budding flame.
Then there was a loud groan. I turned to see that Moon Flower had bitten down on the ursa’s ear, its mouth opening in response to the pain. The berries, along with the entire leaf, were shoved into the bear’s mouth before it closed. She then pinched its nostrils closed and smiled.
“Swallow.” There was a long moment as the Ursa stared, dumbfounded, at this tiny, little batpony holding her hooves over its nose. Then it huffed, followed by a heavy swallow. The ursa smacked its lips, a slightly sour look across its face. “Good bear!” Moon Flower patted the bear’s head before flapping over to me.
“Where did you learn that?” I asked, grinning as I minded the fire.
Proud little eyes beamed up at me. “That’s how you got me to try caulifwower, remember, Daddy?”
I blinked a few times before nodding. “Of course.” I smiled brightly at her. “Seems you’re already smarter than me, sweetheart.” She stood proudly, glancing back occasionally at our newest patient. I held the pot out to her. “Fill this about halfway with water, then we get to do the hard part.”
Once the water was boiled, I added salt and crushed korren seeds and let it steep for a minute. Moon Flower had used a small empty jar to gently pour water into the bear’s mouth, the beast no longer giving her any resistance. She was the boss and the ursa knew it.
A hot cloth was steamed in the solution as I carried the pot and sat beside the gaping wound. A little thump on the dirt next to me signified my daughter’s location as I placed my hoof into the hot water. It burned slightly, but it was nothing to whatever pain this poor creature was in.
“Oooh.” Moon Flower looked at where the wooden spike had penetrated. “That’s a big owie.”
“Mmhm. And we’re going to have to move him before I can close the wound.” I slowly and very carefully rubbed the hot cloth against the outsides of the injury. The ursa let out a low moan, growling and groaning at me with teeth bared.
“It’s okay, Teddy.”
“You named it?” I raised an eyebrow at her.
“Yep! Do you like it?” Her eyes reflected the moon, creating a vibrant green aura in the darkness.
“It’s adorable,” I said, Moon Flower letting out a soft squee as I finished cleaning the wound. “Now hold this still as best you can.” I pointed to the chunk of tree that was sticking out of the ursa. After she was in place, her face scrunched up in determination as she held her hooves against the bark. I struck downward, snapping the wood just past her grip. There was a sharp snap, then a groan as the pressure was instantly removed from the wound. Only a little blood seeped out at this point, the liquid moonmoss having done its job.
“Now the stitches, sweetheart.”
A spool of treated horsehair was held up to me, along with a small open tin that contained an old sewing needle. It took quite a bit of time, and a lot more patience, but eventually I managed to sew the wound shut. A little coaxing from a fluffy, little bat filly made the work several degrees more… bearable.
“It’ll be okay, Teddy. Daddy will make you feel aaaall better.” She giggled and kissed the bear’s nose, the ursa looking rather uncomfortable.
“I’m done, Little Flower. Let’s clean up and let Mr. Teddy here rest for the night.”
“You heard me, filly.”
We departed soon after, having given the ursa a bit more water and a few more syckleberries, though without the ear nipping this time.
“That was fun, Daddy. Can I do the sewing next time?” She smiled and gave me those puffy bat eyes of hers that always seemed to mortally wound me.
“We’ll see,” I said. She jumped into the air, giving a happy flap of her wings. When I said we’ll see, it always meant she’d get her way eventually. She knew it, I knew it, heck, all of Equestria knew it.
Finally, we sat down to enjoy the lovely meal she’d prepared for us. No heat had been required, so everything was just as fresh as she’d left it. The cool, crisp night kept the dish at the perfect temperature as I added her homemade dressing. I dug in, finally noticing how hungry I was.
“Your best yet, Moon Flower. You’re already a better cook.” There was an adorable squee of happiness before she started into her own bowl.
And so we sat there, the light of the moon, adorned with the shadow of Nightmare Moon, shining down upon us. And I couldn’t have been happier.
I passed just beneath a tree branch, the bark brushing my mane.
Where? Where is he?
Flapping hard, I carefully scanned the trees for anything that might give me a clue.
“I know you’re around here somewhere,” I called out, hoping for… “Gotcha!” Something big moved out from behind a cluster of trees, loud pounding steps echoing out into the Everfree. “Oh no you don’t!”
There was a groan as I turned, and then spiraled downward. The tips of my wings curved as I dove, already in hot pursuit of my target. The big, blue backside of an ursa minor came into view as trees soared past me.
“I’m gonna getcha, Teddy!” He turned his head just slightly, pupils shrinking as I came into view. I winked at him, smiling as I crept ever closer. Then he turned hard to the left, and I was forced to dodge around a particularly large maple tree as I followed.
“Hey!” I whined, my wings burning as I strained to keep up. There was a series of low grunts. “You think that’s funny, fuzzy-butt?”
He pounded ahead of me, heading for a large opening in the hillside. The dark opening of the cave was nearly pitch-black, and I had to narrow my eyes to follow Teddy’s shape inside it. A wave of warmth pressed against my fur as the light of the moon disappeared. The steady drip of water played cadence to the heavy thumps of Teddy’s paws.
Following in the near-dark, I suddenly lost track of my prey as he turned sharply to the right. The luminescence of the moss that grew along the walls was enough to gauge just where to follow. I took a hard right, and was greeted by the sight of a split path, and no Teddy to be seen.
“Aw, that’s not fair!” I cried, my voice echoing around me. I smirked, unable to help it. “Echooo!” I waited, then held my hoof to my ear, grinning like a mad bat.
With a little giggle, I took the path to the right, wings beating hard to make up for lost time. Sweat started trickling down my forehead, the air thickening with hot moisture. My head turned left, then right, but found nothing but a simmering pool of water that popped and sizzled beneath me.
I screwed up my face in frustration just as a strange hissing came from beneath me. Then, without warning, I was blasted upwards as a wave of heat caught in my wings. A huge geyser of water sent me flying upwards, and as I turned my eyes towards the ceiling, I found a small passage leading up.
I didn’t beat my wings, instead holding them still as the rush of heat carried me faster and faster into the sky. Then a rush of cool air washed over me as the night sky came into view. I blinked as I stared up at the full moon, the strange shadow of a mare adorning one side. I’d asked Daddy about it before, but…
“I’ll tell you when you’re a little older, Moony.”
“I hate it when he does that,” I said to nopony. I turned, the tops of the trees spread out before me, all swaying in a loving breeze. As I tilted downwards, my eyes homedhoned in on a blue blur moving out from directly beneath me.
There’s no escape!
I dove, wings tucked in as I darted downwards like a falling star. My eyes narrowed as wind rushed past me, my fangs bared as I soared towards a now-startled ursa named Teddy. He immediately took off, but I was moving far too fast. Dodging and weaving between trees, I was on top of him in moments. I thumped down against him, and his legs fell out beneath him, his chest skidding across the leaves as my hooves gripped into his fur.
After we came to a stop, I jumped and twirled, then landed in front of him and pressed my hoof to his nose.
He grumbled, rolling his eyes as he stood up. “I win again!” Teddy groaned grumpily as he walked, still breathing heavily from the chase. I hopped up and onto his back, facing towards the sky with my wings splayed out. Each step Teddy took was like being gently rocked to sleep, and soon, as I watched the stars twinkle down at me, I dozed off for a little nap.
Mmmm, mango trees, as far as the eye can see…
Then something stopped and I hit the ground.
“Owie…” I turned to see Teddy sitting before a long, rickety bridge. “Oh. Where are we?”
Teddy started to move away, but I stared on, seeing the tops of some strange rocks a bit past the shadowy trees on the other side.
“Come on, Teddy. I want to see what’s over there!” He didn’t look thrilled at all, and when the bridge groaned dangerously at the weight of his paw, he moved back and shook his head. “Well, fine then, scaredy-bear, you just wait here then.”
There was a grumble, and then Teddy turned around in a circle, stomping the leaves and ground before settling down with a comfy flop. I smiled and took to the air, landing on the other side of the bridge and giving a small wave before I continued.
The back of my neck itched as I passed chunks of square stone, crushed trees, and strange craters in the ground.
What happened here?
Eventually, I found myself standing before a huge, looming structure. Dark rocks stacked higher than the trees rose before me, the tops of several columns ending in pointed tips. An arch just past me crossed above what I guess was the opening. As I stepped towards it, an icy shiver crept down my spine, my fur standing on end.
I stood just beneath the archway, staring into the shadow that seemed to move and heave before my eyes.
“Hello?” I asked the darkness. No response. “Hellooooooo?” I asked again, straining my ears. Then, there was the faintest whistle. I thought it was coming from inside, my neck stretching forward in search for the source. Then I heard it again, though this time I got a fix on the direction—back towards the bridge, and in a pattern of high, then low, then high again.
“Daddy,” I whispered. Then I took off, leaving the structure behind. I quickly found myself back at the bridge, waving at Teddy as I flew past. “Let’s go, Teddy. Daddy needs me!”
The whistle came again, high, low, and high. Daddy had taught me a few different patterns so we could communicate across the forest.
“High, low, high…” That meant… I screwed my eyes up in thought, then they shot wide. “Come quick, Little Flower, I need help as quick as a shadow.”
I twirled between a pair of trees, heavy steps bounding from behind me as Teddy now struggled to keep up with me. I flapped hard to get above a large patch of bright blue flowers, then turned and headed towards the eastern end of the forest.
Placing the tips of my hooves at the either end of my mouth, I blew hard, giving two whistles as a return signal. I kept flying as fast as I could, ears perked for any response. Then I heard it, three short whistles relaying his answer: Understood.
There was a rustling as I watched a wooden creature, shaped with four legs and vicious, splintering teeth. It raced alongside me, and just before it leapt at me, I beat my wings hard and rose above it.
“Sorry, Mr. Timberwolf. I don’t have time to play right now.”
There was a heavy crunch as Teddy ran over it, paying the wolf no more mind than a stray twig on the forest floor. A couple minutes later, I found Daddy standing a cautious distance from a large manticore, the lion head watching him warily as its scorpion tail waited, poised for attack.
Daddy turned slowly, his leaf-filled mane shifting as he smiled at me. He kept one eye on the manticore before him, which was resting in a large pile of twigs, leaves and grass.
“Sweetheart,” he said slowly, “there’s a very irritable manticore between me and a very rare plant.”
“Okay…” I said, watching the beast carefully, and getting the stink eye in return.
“And she’s pregnant.”
I blinked several times. “What does that mean?”
“It means she’s going to be a mommy.” Daddy didn’t take his eyes off the beast’s tail, watching her intensely.
“What can I do to help?” I fluttered my wings as I looked behind the manticore. There, on a little ledge just above it, was a shining golden flower with bright orange petals. “Ooh, that’s pretty. What’s it called?”
“It’s called Breath of Celestia, and I need it to make a very expensive mixture. Now, when I distract it, scoop up the flower. And be careful.”
“I will, Daddy. She won’t get me.”
“I mean with the flower!” I turned and scowled at Daddy, and he stuck his tongue out at me. We laughed despite the danger, and I flapped to get myself above the manticore.
“Alright, three… two… one… go!” Then Daddy moved forward, the Manticore thrusting her tail at him. At the last second, he moved to the side, catching the tail between his hooves. With a firm pull, the beast was spun around and dragged backwards, and I flew up to the ledge. Carefully, I dug the plant up from beneath the roots, then turned and glided back down.
“I got it!”
Daddy let go, and the beast turned back around to face us. Fortunately, we had already backed away from the nest, giving it plenty of room before we looked away and ran.
“Amazing as always, Moony,” Daddy said as he scooped me up and nuzzled me.
“Hey! Don’t squish the flower!” I cried, giggling.
We both laughed as he plopped me onto his back, then set off towards home.
Crossing the stream near our house, I was suddenly flung forward as Daddy tripped. I opened my wings and glided down before turning to see his face buried in the mud.
“Daddy, it’s not time for a nap!”
He blinked up at me wearily. “Oh, it’s okay, little bat. I’ll just… doze off for a bit.”
I giggled before reaching down to pull at his mane with my teeth. Then I saw the blood. My eyes went wide as I saw purple fluid oozing from a single puncture wound.
“Daddy? Oh, no…” I looked around, my pupils dilating as my brain reeled. “Just… stay here, okay?”
A low moan was all the answer I needed as I took off towards home as fast as my wings could carry me. My eyes darted around, looking for anything that I could use when they fell upon an open book on the table before me: The Deadly Beauty of the Everfree. My Daddy’s hoofwriting was etched out before me, the page already open to Manticores and how to deal with them.
Oh, Daddy. Why didn’t you just make it ahead of time? I smiled sweetly before jumping for ingredients.
“Manticore poison… I… I need… red lotus petals.” I scooped up a pouch of small crimson leaves. “And… Moonmoss,” I said, grabbing the green jar of ooze. “Annnd crushed lightning dust.”
I dug around erratically, bottles and jars shifting as I looked for the final item. It took far longer than I was comfortable with, finding it on the top of a now formerly locked cabinet. It was a container of shimmering, blue powder.
I grabbed the cooking pot, placed all the jars and a striking rock inside it, then took to the air. The last ingredient was already there.
Daddy still lay where I had left him, and I had to bend down to press my ear to his chest to listen to his heartbeat. It was faint, and not quite keeping time.
“Don’t worry, Daddy. I-I’m gonna make you better.”
Sticks were gathered, a fire was started, and water was collected. Soon I was mixing ingredients together into the pot and letting them simmer. With a stray leaf, which I wet with boiling water, I collected trace amounts of poison from Daddy’s wound and transferred it to the pot. The mixture turned a bright purple, then I removed it from the flame.
As I let it cool, I bent over and kissed Daddy’s forehead. “I-I need you to drink this, okay?” There was a low moan as I lowered the pot, teasing his jaw open with a wing, and then poured half the contents into his mouth. In anticipation, I held his mouth and nose shut, tilting his head upwards so he didn’t spit it back out.
There was a hard swallow, a shudder, and then another groan.
I let him lie there for a while, tending the fire and watching him carefully. Eventually, I heard a soft pounding from behind me, and turned to see Teddy plop down beside me. The ground shook a little as I looked up at him and smiled.
“Hey, Teddy.” Then I pointed to Daddy. “He’s not feeling too good, but I gave him something that’ll fix him up.”
Teddy snorted as he watched us, maybe remembering the last time all three of us had been at the stream like this.
There was a groan, and then the scuffing of hooves against the dirt. I turned to see Daddy struggling to sit up, eyes opened only just.
“I’m here.” I trotted over and sat against him, supporting him in more ways than one.
“What… what happened?”
“You got stung, remember?” I smiled as he put his hoof around me. “By momma manticore?”
Daddy closed his eyes and exhaled deeply. “I couldn’t even make it home. Dang.”
“You knew you were stung… didn’t you?” I asked, my eyes narrowing slightly.
He paused before he spoke, “Yeah, you got me, Moony. I… I just didn’t want to worry you.”
I fluttered my wings and twirled around to whack him on the head.
“Don’t you ever do that again!” I growled at him, my face burning up. “Don’t scare me like that, stupid Daddy.”
His eyes dropped shamefully, then he snorted. “Did you just call me stupid?’
“Yes, Stupid!” I bonked him again. “Stupid, stupid, stupid—”
He held his hoof up to block my attacks, but then reached out and snagged me out of the air.
“Eep!” I said as he dragged me into a firm hug.
“You’re the best daughter I could have ever asked for.” A small trickle of water made me glance up to see Daddy looking down at me, crying and smiling at the same time.
“A-are you crying, Daddy?” I teased, knocking a hoof against his chest. “I thought stallions don’t cry?”
“It’s from the poison,” he claimed, looking away and out at the pink horizon, where the sun was just beginning to rise. We both fell over into snuggles and giggles.
It had been a while since we made it home. We’d stoked the fire and gathered whatever materials we hadn’t used, along with the leftover antidote I had brewed. Daddy had been almost glowing as we walked inside, though if that was just his mood or the lightning dust in the concoction, I didn’t know.
“I really don’t know what I’d do without you, Moony.”
I smiled as I put bottles away, but then a thought crossed my mind.
“Well... if you want to make it up to me.”
Daddy stopped, then looked at me worriedly. “Uh-oh.”
I frowned at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I whined.
He shook his head, smiling and closing his eyes. “What did you find?”
“I, uh…” I blinked. “How did you know?”
Daddy laughed and reached over to ruffle my mane. “I didn’t.” A cool breeze brushed past us. “But there’s always something in this forest, right?”
I facehoofed, scowling for a moment, but then gave in and let Daddy rub my ears. “Teddy and I found this cool stone house deep in the forest, just across an old bridge.”
Daddy raised an eyebrow. “Finally found the old castle, did you?”
I blinked, then nodded slowly. “Can we go explore it?”
“Hmm…” Daddy said, touching his hoof to his chin.
“Pleeeeeease,” I begged.
Then he grinned and booped me on the snout. “Alright, Moony. You’ve earned it.”
My wings nearly buzzed as I flew around the room, chanting repeatedly as Daddy gathered supplies.
“We’re gonna see the castle! We’re gonna see the castle!”
Daddy looked up at me, having packed everything but one small jar. “It’s fine to be excited, Moony, but we need to be careful once we get there.”
I stopped, hovering in place as I cocked my head. “Careful? More careful than dealing with manticores or poisonous plants?
He stopped and tapped his chin with a hoof. “I guess I don’t rightly know.”
A hoof wrapped around my neck and pulled me right out of the air. In an instant, I was subjected to a snuggie—that’s a snuggle and what daddy calls a noogie put together.
“Nooooooo!” I wailed, pushing myself away, laughing the entire time. He set me down, chuckling as he looked me right in the eyes.
“Just promise you won’t go off on your own. The castle was home to magic of all kinds before Princess Celestia left it to the forest.”
“Oh! Can you tell me about her, Daddy?” I had a goofy smile, which meant he had to say yes.
“Why not? It’ll be a good tale for the journey,” Daddy said without hesitation.
Well, that was easy. “Yay!” Then my eyes fell upon the last bottle that remained on the table. Two small glowing balls of yellow gel rested at the bottom, wobbling slightly as Daddy trotted around.
“That’s… catseye, right?” I pointed a hoof at the bottle.
A proud smile was flashed my way. “Indeed, little flower.” He picked up the jar and gave it a little shake. “Only a couple left,” he sighed. “Suppose I’ll need to make a trip soon; why is it so hard to find threshnettle in the forest?”
I shrugged. “I’ll ask Teddy.” Then I blinked. “A trip? Where are you going, Daddy?”
“I’ve heard it’s called Canterlot. And I suppose I’ll need an assistant to come with me, one who’s just a little batty.” There was a fun little grin on his face as my eyes widened.
“Oh, can I? Can I!?” I jumped around him as he nodded.
“Settle down, Moony. Let’s survive this trip first.”
I stopped jumping. “You’re really worried, aren’t you, Daddy?’
He chuckled. “Yeah, I don’t think I can survive all of your silliness for that long.” I frowned and put on my best weepy bat eyes. He gave up within seconds. “I’m just kidding, jeez. Put those things away!”
Giggling, I snuggled up next to him as he uncapped the bottle. “Why do you need catseye anyway? What about the firefly lamp?”
“I don’t want to take them to such a possibly dangerous place…” He looked over at a small bowl where the little bugs were snugly and soundly asleep. “I’d feel really bad if anything happened to them.”
“You’re such a softy, Daddy.” I nuzzled my nose against his, and he gave me a kiss on the forehead.
“I think I owe that to my darling daughter.” He popped the catseye into his mouth and smiled at me. “I used to be a bit of a grouch, you know?”
I watched as his blue eyes gained a yellow tint, the pupils stretching vertically as he winced slightly. “Cooooool.” Then I smiled. “A grouch? Daddy? Pffff…”
“Yeah, laugh it up.” Daddy picked up his saddlebag after placing the nearly empty jar inside, then swung it over his back. “Now let’s go! Only so much time before sunrise, right?”
I hissed and scrunched up my nose. “That’s a bad word, Daddy.”
“Heheheh.” Daddy pulled the door open, motioning for me to follow with a flick of his tail. “Forgive my terrible potty mouth.” He turned and grinned, making a grand sweeping gesture with his hooves. “Let us make haste, princess. Moonset grows closer by the second and a great adventure awaits us!”
Snorting, giggling, and eye rolling at the same time is definitely one of my greatest feats to date. I shrugged on my little saddlebag and flew after him, closing the door behind me with my tail.
A cute crescent moon looked down upon us as we crossed the edge of our home, my eyes automatically glancing at the growing fungi that sprouted there. Daddy had said that it protects us, that it keeps away the timberwolves; I think he called them Rotshrooms. All I know is that they smelled funny.
I flew up into the trees, Daddy’s hoofsteps still clueing me in to the path he was taking. Wonderfully crisp air brushed through my mane as I slowly crept higher and higher. Daddy’s voice came from below, muddled by the thick leaves and branches.
“How’s the weather up there?”
I rolled my eyes. “It’s raining colts and fillies,” I shouted downward.
“What?” he said, and judging by the lack of further hoofsteps, had stopped in place.
I grinned, then turned and angled my wings into a downward spiral. “Screeeeeeeee!” Within seconds, I was upon him, biting and tugging his ear as he gave a loud whinny of surprise.
Then, a hoof reached up and tossed my mane. “You are just absolutely batty, you know that?”
I fell back at the terrible joke, my wings splayed across Daddy’s withers. “That hurt… soooo much.”
“You’ll live,” Daddy chuckled. He slowed his pace, stepping more carefully to avoid shifting me from his back. “Besides, now you’re comfortable for story time.”
“Yay! Story time!” My wings buzzed, my smile so wide that moonlight reflected off my fangs.
“Settle down and quit squirming, Moony.” I stuck out my tongue, but did as asked. “Well now, let’s see… Ah yes, that’s a good place to start.”
“Come on already!” I whined.
“Hush now.” He flicked an ear back and bopped me on the forehead. “Storytelling is an art form. Alright, so in the past, the three major tribes have had… let’s call them disputes. The biggest of these was focused on the sun.”
Daddy gave a long, low chuckle, which tickled a bit. “The sun is good for some things, you know.”
“Like what?” I raised an eyebrow.
I breathed out a sigh like a deflating balloon. “Fine, the sun is allowed to live… for now.”
“Glad to hear it. Anyway, part of the reason the tribes had issues with the sun in the first place was the heavy toll it took on the unicorns to raise and lower it each day.”
“It can’t be heavier than you, Daddy.” I caught a bit of air as Daddy gave me a small toss from his back. “Oof.”
“I’m not that heavy, you silly filly.”
I giggled, pushing a bit of mane out of my face with a hoof.
“So the tribes fought over the sun, through blizzards and starvation, until they were cowed by two beautiful princesses.
“Lovely and powerful, they took hold of the sun, and the moon. The ponies of all tribes praised the wondrous divinity, holding them up as the unquestioned rulers of what is now known as Equestria.”
“So were they pegasi? Or maybe they were unicorns…”
Daddy nickered slightly. “What? Don’t think an earth pony could be a princess?”
“Mmm… too dirty to be a princess,” I teased. “So what were they?”
“The two princesses were alicorns, made of all three tribes.”
“What about bat ponies?”
Daddy stopped, turned his head and bit my wing playfully. “Their story is for another night, little bat.”
I huffed. “So there were two princesses? Celestia, right… and who?”
“Princess Luna. She controlled the—”
“Moon, Dad. I know what ‘luna’ means.”
“Alright, smarty pants, you tell the rest of the story.”
I squirmed forward a bit, snuggling my nose into his mane. “I’m sowwy…”
“Fine,” he huffed, though he didn’t really sound mad. “So the princesses, Luna and Celestia, ruled for years and years, living in the castle that you stumbled upon. That was, of course, until about seven years ago.”
“I’m seven years old!”
Daddy chuckled. “Indeed you are, but we’ll have to pause story time… We’re coming up on the bridge in a moment.”
I let myself fall sideways, flapping my wings as I landed next to Daddy. “I… just flew over it last time. Teddy was with me, and the bridge didn’t like him; it groaned and growled when he tried to step on it.”
“It doesn’t look like it’s been maintained at all since Princess Celestia vacated the castle. I’ll have to take it slow. Just… be ready to catch me, okay?”
“You’re too heavy for that!”
“Call me heavy one more time, and no mangos for a whole moon.” He turned and smiled. “Besides, you’re a lot stronger than you give yourself credit for.”
I bit my lip, then fluttered my wings. I kept myself just above Daddy as he crossed. The planks creaked and cracked as Daddy took slow, careful steps. Fortunately, we made it across without any problems.
Daddy breathed a big sigh of relief as his hoof touched solid earth. “Maybe I could lose a couple of pounds after all.”
“You could join me on my hunts!”
“I’d rather not.”
There was a moment of shared laughter before we turned back towards the woods. The moon shone down just ahead of the archway that formed the entranceway into the castle area. Passing into the near darkness shouldn’t have bothered me, but a small shiver passed down my spine regardless.
Daddy scooped me up once again, setting me carefully onto his back. “Stay close, and if I say so, fly home as fast as you can.”
“I-I’m not scared.” I bit my lip.
“There’s nothing wrong with a healthy bit of fear. It keeps you ready, so long as you don’t let it overtake you.” We had stopped right at the main entrance, the old castle door hanging open eerily before us. “Tell me, little shadow, what can you see from here?”
I squinted, peering down what seemed to be a long hallway. Small figures stood on either side, unmoving, while ragged cloth twitched in the breeze. I described what I’d seen to Daddy, and he nodded.
“Give it a pulse, just in case.”
I gave a small smile. I didn’t get to do it that much, seeing as it typically attracted the larger critters. I opened my mouth wide, pushed my head past Daddy’s ears, and unleashed the bat.
“Screeeeeeeeee!” I waited, and listened. Closing my eyes, I felt the vibrations return to me, relaying multiple openings in the hallway that I had missed. The figures I’d seen were particularly dense, and probably not living things. Finally, satisfied, I opened my eyes and gestured forward with a hoof. “It looks safe from here, Daddy.”
“That’s my filly.” He reached up and rubbed my mane with a hoof. A soft eeee escaped me before he started moving, pushing the door open with a hoof. The wood creaked, echoing creepily throughout the dusty hallway. Strong wind pushed past us, blasting the doors completely open which drove a heavy cloud of dust into the air.
“Ack,” Daddy coughed. “This place needs a serious cleaning.”
“Not it!” I called instantly. Daddy chuckled, stepping forward after the dust had mostly settled. “It’s so quiet, and dark… like a cave or something.”
“So I’m guessing that means you like it?” Daddy turned his head to gaze at me with one eye.
“No,” I started. “I love it!”
“Of course you do,” he said, reached back and ruffling my mane. “You can hop down if you want, but stay where I can see you.”
I smiled and got up, stretching my wings. “Don’t worry, I will.” We had made it halfway down the hallway when I turned and looked through one of the doorways to spot something amazing. “Look, Daddy, there’s books! Lots and lots of books!”
He turned just in time to snag my tail between his teeth as I attempted to rush towards the delicious words of wisdom. “Down’t jus go runnin oph.” With just a hint of embarrassment, I nodded. “Sorry, it’s just… look at all the books!”
Daddy let me go and smiled. “I’m curious, too… and a little surprised they’re still here after all this time. I wonder why they didn’t take these when the castle was abandoned…”
We trotted slowly towards the small library, spooked only once or twice by the occasional squirrel. When we crossed the threshold, I couldn’t stand it anymore and lunged at the nearest bookshelf.
“Look at this! One Thousand and One Uses for Horseradishes by Infalle Solair. And this one! A Beginners Guide to the Stars by Lunoe Starcaller.”
Daddy pulled a particularly thick book from the shelf and blew the dust off it. “Hmm… Super Naturals.” He flipped it open and flipped through the pages. An eyebrow raised as he smiled. “Yep, that’s a keeper.”
“Can we take a few of these home?” I whipped a hoof across my muzzle where just a bit of drool had collected.
He smiled and seemed to think for a moment, then nodded. “They’re not getting any use here, and honestly—” He looked around before continuing, “—they’ll eventually deteriorate if we leave them be.”
“I’ll start picking out the good ones!”
“Let’s save that for later, Moony. I’d like to explore a bit more before we load ourselves down.”
“Aww, but boooooks!”
“They’ve waited this long, they can wait a bit longer.”
I huffed, but stood up and followed, giving a disappointed look backwards as we exited the library.
The castle seemed a lot bigger on the inside than the outside. There were secret passages, little slides and tunnels that had us turning and winding around for hours. As promised, I stayed close to Daddy the best I could. It didn’t help, though, that my mind kept wandering back to all those lonely books that were just waiting for me to devour them.
“Eeeeeeee!” My voice filled the narrow passage as we descended yet another slide. This one had been behind a strange statue that seemed to be winking at us. Pulling down on its horn had activated a small trapdoor, sending us cruising through a series of loops and turns. The first time this had happened, Daddy had nearly fainted, but now even he was smiling as we came to the end of the ride.
“So they’re not traps,” Daddy said with a silly smile. “No way anything that fun could be meant to harm intruders.”
I stared forward, hearing but not really listening. Before me was a strange… thing, with long metal cylinders running up from a beautiful wooden base. Dusty white and black rectangles ran down perpendicular to the height of the structure, and before I knew it, my hooves were running along its smooth surface.
“Daddy, what’s this?” My hoof pushed down, a long, low sound blasting through me, and out into the quiet castle. “Woah!”
Daddy let out an appreciative whistle as he trotted up beside me. “That’s quite a nice organ.”
“What? Is the castle alive… Is this its heart!?” I pulled my hoof from it, my eyes darting around wildly.
There was a soft chuckle as Daddy shook his head. “No, my silly filly. This is a type of instrument, used to make music.”
“Oh… I guess that makes a bit more sense.” I blushed slightly, tapping the ‘organ’ again. The further to the right I went, the higher the frequency of the sound rose. “Do you know how to work it?”
A slow, wistful smile crossed Daddy’s face as he pulled something out from beneath the noise-making white and black things. He moved around and then sat upon a small wooden bench, his hooves poised over the musical marvel.
“I do… and it’s one your favorites, too.”
I blinked for a moment, then grinned. Fluttering my wings, I joined Daddy on the bench, ready and waiting.
A quiet, but playful melody danced out as Daddy’s hooves pranced before me. The powerful hum of the organ filled my bones, each note tickling my ears as we opened our mouths together to sing.
“She came to me that night for, to set upon my life, the great and wondrous magic of the night.
The world, and all that life has, made clear inside my mind, and now here I stand bathed in crystal light.”
We turned and smiled at each other, the magic of the collected sound seeming to brighten the gloom around us. He nodded to me, and I took the lead, the lyrics as familiar as the feathers in my wings.
“A wondrous soul that’s thrust into never-ending sky, a light to behold, descending from above. I have all the power of the world at my hooves, a magic that comes only from love.”
Together in harmony once more, we sang out the final bit.
“Hear us, all that truly matters, unto the world we bring. That is why we open wide our hearts, close our eyes, and sing.”
Daddy finished with a little trail of sounds for the instrument, slowing gradually until he finally turned to smile at me. “You’ve really improved, Moony.”
I giggled and jumped down from the seat. “I’ve been practicing with Teddy in secret. He moaned about it for a bit, but he’s been a big help.”
“Heh-heh, I bet.”
“How did you learn to play, Daddy?”
He blinked and looked back at the organ as he swung his hooves around. “My mother had played, and I took a bit of interest when I was your age.”
My smile slowly sank back. I scuffed the ground with my hoof, and took a slow, deep breath. Finally, I spoke, “Dad…”
He stepped away from the organ, and looked me right in the eyes. The changing expression on his face told me he suspected what was coming.
“Can you… tell me about my mom?” I asked. He closed his eyes and breathed in heavily as well. “I-I know you’ve said you’ll tell me when I’m older, but—”
He held out a hoof, shaking his head slowly. I sighed, trying to stop an argument I felt coming to my lips. Finally, Daddy surprised me. He sat down, gesturing me to him. After a moment, I obliged, sitting between his hooves, my mane brushing against his barrel as he held me.
“Starshine was truly a unique soul, Moon Flower.” My ears perked, though I remained silent, not wanting to interrupt. “It’s because of her that my life is what it is now.”
There was a moment afterwards that was long enough that it drove me to speak. “What happened to her?”
“Everything good about her was put into performing a single, beautiful miracle.” He pulled me closer, nuzzling my ear as I held my breath. “She gave birth to you, and then she left us… forever.”
A small shiver passed through me, and I turned and snuggled against Daddy’s warm chest. “Do you think mom would have liked me?”
Daddy ran a hoof through my mane before he whispered, ever so softly, “Yes, Moony. I think she would have adored the filly you turned out to be.”
My tongue lolled out as I beat my wings, eyes locked upon that beautiful green-yellow piece of perfection. The clouds beneath me transformed into small, wizzing, white raindrops as the wind blasted past me. Closer and closer I got, licking my fangs in anticipation.
I swayed as a huge gust hit me, my wings having to flap even harder to correct my course. I was soooo close I could taste it.
My hoof stretched out, just grazing the shining beacon of tastiness. The world turned upside-down as I found myself falling down into the cloud, just short of my prize. I fought against the air, the gleaming fruit falling away from me. The last thing I saw before the world faded to black was the full moon above me. The mare in the moon shifted as my vision faded, and if I’m not mistaken, gave me a little wink.
I snorted hard, sputtering awake as the high ceiling of the castle came into view. Blinking blearily, I turned to face Daddy, who wore an amused smile.
“But mango…” I moaned, slumping back against the saddlebag I’d used as my pillow. “It’s not fair!”
“Dream-based desserts are the worst… because in the end, your stomach is still empty.” Daddy stepped over, brushing my mane as I sat up. He held a small cloth up to me and chuckled. “Must have looked delicious, though, because that’s quite a bit of drool there.”
Blushing slightly, I took the cloth and wiped below my fangs. Jeez, do I always wet the bed?
The crackle of a dying fire drew my attention, and I found myself sagging my wings. “I fell asleep again, didn’t I?”
There was a warm chuckle before Daddy rubbed my ears with a hoof. “Like a light.” He stepped back toward the small fire, pushing in a few twigs we had gathered ahead of time to feed the flame. When the crackle was once again merry, he settled down against his saddlebags. “Moonrise is in a few hours. Daddy… needs to… slee…”
And just like that, Daddy had dropped off into dreamland. Looking around the throne room, I spotted the hated symbol of the sun etched into many walls, ratty tapestries, and even the seat of the throne itself. I had been listening to Daddy finish his story of the two princesses, and well… story time just had this way of helping me find the magical land of shadows and dreams… and mangos.
Words floated back to me as I stood and stretched, reverberating off the walls of my mind like the echo of the castle itself.
“And the younger of the sisters fell into the shadows of jealousy and despair, neglected by both the world and her older sibling.”
I closed my eyes briefly, frowning as I thought back to my response. “I knew the sun was evil, stealing all the glory that belongs to the night!”
There had been laughter, but… it hadn’t felt like the good kind.
We had set up our little camp just after moonset, and if Daddy’s internal clock was wound correctly, I’d been out for a long while. I turned and watched the rise and fall of Daddy’s chest, his dark coat blending almost perfectly into the dust-coated marble.
“You could’ve waked me up, silly Daddy.”
He turned over, moaning slightly as his hooves gripped around his pillow. A moment later, the sound of the entire forest being cut down escaped his mouth.
Okay, it was almost that bad. I smiled and shook my head, turning in search of something to do. I knew I wasn’t supposed to go far, but like sleep, boredom comes fairly quickly to me.
“To the library!” I let out, spreading my wings. There was a heavy grunt behind me. I glanced backward, cringing as I watched Daddy shift once… twice… then resume his impressive snoring. “To the library,” I said again, much more quietly.
Just in and out. I flapped my wings as I flew down the familiar hallway, empty save for the dusty pony statues. I just had to grab a couple of books and then I’d be right ba--
Something floated past me in a small, glowing field. Squinting against the light that invaded from several nearby windows and cracks in the huge castle, I made out the shape of a large book bobbing through the air.
“What?” I blinked, then blinked again. “What!?” I flapped hard, sailing towards the levitating literature. “Hey!” I shouted, hooves out to grab the hard-cover tome.
As if sensing its imminent capture, the book dipped below me, flying away towards an open doorway. I gave a low growl, then screeched into the halls.
“That’s my book!” My fangs glistened in a stray beam of light. “And I’m going to read it!”
The chase was on.
It must have been a book on some crazy form of magic. It had to be!
I dipped, ducked, twirled and flung myself over old furniture, through hallways and up and down at least two flights of stairs before falling to the ground. I gasped for breath, my wings beating weakly as I watched the book bob up and down towards some uncertain area of the castle.
“You… You’re not a very nice book,” I snarled, struggling to my hooves. “I bet you’re not even educational!”
The book paid me little if any attention as it passed over a banister, flying silently down into a chasm of light. I hissed, my eyes following along the amber light that flowed through the top of the broken tower. Grunting heavily, I wrapped my hooves around the wooden railing, pulling myself up, and then over.
Down the pit of hellish light I flew, wings spread as my shadow fell upon the fleeing book. I stretched my hooves forward. Closer. Closer… “Gotcha!” My hoof smacked the corner, sending the cover spinning onwards even faster.
“Gahhhh!” Pulling up a moment before I hit the ground, I leveled out just parallel to the cracked stone floor. The book was still on the move. I beat my wings ever faster, pushing through what looked like an old kitchen all while ducking and diving past old barrels and cooking pots. The tome of how-to-tease-a-bat ducked through a hole in a door on the far side, though I only noticed the door just before I plowed through it.
“Owie! Splinter! Owie!”
With no time to cry over my dire wounds, I pressed forward. The old basement kitchen led out into a cave, one that I found rather comforting even as my heart pounded. Soon I found myself having to squint. Not from lack of light, but from the abundance of it as the tail end of the wretched day destroyed my night vision.
“Screeep!” I finally caught sight of the elusive book as I averted my eyes from the dusky horizon, the tome having followed a steep drop off almost perfectly. And so I dove, my wings pulled against my coat, a smile a mile wide upon my face.
Faster and faster. Closer and closer. My hooves closed around it, sliding on the smooth cover as I tried to pull it to my chest. Then it slipped free, and I screamed into the wind.
The forest quickly approached, and I leveled out, still in hot fursuit. It wasn’t long before we passed over a familiar stream, catching sight of the my tree house in the distance. I turned and waved as I passed. “Hey, house!” Then I flapped hard, closing the distance the best I could.
“You. Will. Be. Mine!”
A shard of light pierced through the leaves above me, and I had to do a mid-air roll to the side to avoid being shot down. Twist, dive and dodge, I spun past a gnarl of tree branches, only a few hooves away from ultimate knowledge.
Then the trees stopped.
I landed abruptly on the last branch that stretched into open air, a wide-open field of strange emptiness before me. Leaning forward, I spotted the elusive tome floating towards a small figure that stood glistening in the orange light . The figure reached up, and I saw the outline of hooves take hold of the book--my book.
Stretching out my hooves, the soft glow of the moon illuminated my fur and I instinctively jerked back. The pony looked up, and I saw the glow of light shimmering around a small horn. He took a step towards me, and I dipped back into the shadows.
There are many dangers in this world, Moony, and most of them reside outside of this forest.
With one last glance at the potential learning that was denied me, I turned and flew back towards the castle. It’s going to be a long fly.
A noise sounded out from behind me, perhaps the voice of that pony that had taunted and teased me with tantalising knowledge. I flapped my wings hard, and focused ahead when I heard the sound of approaching hooves. Splaying my ears against the side of my head, I redoubled my speed, kicking from branch to branch in a zigzag while glancing out of the corner of my eye.
I was… the prey.
Harder. Faster. I dodged the beams of moonlight, my body just another shadow in the forest. Then I heard it. The oddest sound, like a rock smacking the ground repeatedly, which was followed by a heavy smack.
I stopped, my wings beating in a hover, little birds and critters fleeing from the source of the sound. Looking back the way I came, I bit my lip, and moved slowly towards the silence of the forest.
This is a bad idea, Moony. I shook my head, moving from tree to tree until I finally spotted it. Blood, tree bark and dirt all mixed with the bright white fur of a unicorn. He, at least I was pretty sure it was a he, was slumped against one of the thicker trees, and didn’t move in the slightest as I landed one branch closer.
Still nothing, only the sound of the nearby stream stirring the silence. Frowning, I let the wind carry me down towards the unmoving pony. As I approached, I noticed his mane was a bit off from the color of his coat, silver instead of white, and also severely matted with blood. There was a nasty gash along the top of his head, and a spattering of ick on the tree he lay against.
“Uh-oh…” His breath was steady, if a bit ragged, but that wound looked pretty bad. “Daddy?” I turned around, but of course he wasn’t there. “Oh… right.” I looked around for anything that would be of use, my back feeling particularly empty of the supplies we had packed. I just had to run off chasing forbidden knowledge, didn’t I?I could have at least grabbed my saddlebags.
I huffed, then narrowed my eyes as I refocused on the colt in front of me. He was wearing a small pack of his own, and I carefully teased it open with my wing. There was a scattering of items, mostly wrapped food and some bits, and of course, the book I’d sought. I scowled for a moment, but shook my head. Then I found something I could use as I pulled a wrapped blanket from the bottom. Bits and bobs fell out as I let the cloth unwrap to reveal a beautiful night sky, complete with a lovely moon at the center. I cringed as I sucked in a breath, pulling at the corner and tearing it with my teeth.
“There we go!” I wrapped a line of cloth along the back of his head, coming up just past his horn. My eyes lingered on it for a long moment, the strange spiraled piece of bone that ended in a sharp point. “I need to be careful… ‘don’t wanna poke an eye out,’ Daddy would probably say.” Taking my time, I hoisted the colt onto my back, and began a slow trot towards the house. I wobbled a bit, but eventually steadied under the added weight.
“You’re not as heavy as I thought you’d be.” My hooves carried me past the rotshroom circle that marked our yard, looking back to stare into the face my passenger. His silver mane fell over the cutest little muzzle, and I just wanted to reach forward and…
“Focus, Moon Flower. You’ve got a little pony to save.”
Dust and cold stone greeted me as I opened my eyes. The throne room seemed particularly empty as I searched quickly for little Moon Flower, and came up blank.
“Moony?” I asked the old castle, and received no response. I shook my head and turned towards the central doorway. “The castle can’t answer you, Nightshade…”
The first stop was the library, of course.
“Moony?” I turned the corner and poked my head inside, but there wasn’t a little batty to be found. “She is sooo grounded.” I plucked a few tomes she’d seemed interested in reading before returning to collect our things. I finished packing up the saddlebags and had just been about to leave when I felt a cool draft against my withers.
“Hmm?” I turned and followed, sniffing at the moist air. “Moon Flower? Where…” I had found my way into an old kitchen, my eyes narrowing at the splintered door. Picking up a piece of wood, I found that only parts of it were covered in dust.
Down through the ‘doorway’ and out into an old servants’ tunnel, I found myself in a cave that led to a near dead drop that overlooked most of the Everfree. The view was quite lovely, though the sudden vertigo made appreciating it difficult. After a moment to steady myself, I lifted my head to the stars, the moon now well on its way towards the center of the sky.
Flocks of Nightingales scattered to the wind like, well, a flock of birds. I held my ear to the wind and closed my eyes. Moments passed and still, there was nothing but disappointment in the air.
“Sweet little Moony, I’ll find you… sure as the moon rises each night.”
And so I took the fastest route down the mountain, by which I mean the old rocky path that ran along the cliffside because I’m not quite that insane. My hooves compacted the dirt with the one true purpose of a father that was either going to hug his daughter to pieces, or paddle her until she couldn’t bear to sit down.
Just halfway there and I was already heaving.
“I… need… to… exercise… more… Gah!” I tripped on a root and face-planted into a tree. Leaves shook, branches rattled, and as I removed my muzzle from its embarkment, an acorn thwopped me on the head. Looking up, I found myself eying a razzmatazz-colored squirrel, gibbering at me at insane speeds.
“Ah, hello, Pinkie!” After a moment, Pinkie stopped and turned slightly away from me, little arms crossed. “Alright, alright, I’m sorry for waking you… I’m just in a bit of a hur--”
Pinkie glared fiercely down at me, tapping her paw in rapid annoyance.
“I know that’s no excuse for rudeness,” I sighed. “Moon Flower is missing… Have you seen her?”
Pinkie instantly straightened and gibbered something, pointing towards the top of the tree. After a moment, there was a response back and she pointed in the general direction of my house.
“Thanks, Pinkie,” I groaned as I stood up. “I’ll make sure to send Moony over with some salted nuts… after she’s done being grounded, that is.”
She chittered, yawned, and then crept back up into the foliage. I trotted until I found the bent grass and snapped twigs that led a path to the house before switching to a full gallop.
“Only a short way now…”
The particular smell of treated rotshrooms reached my nose before my tree house came into view. A pillar of moonlight struck down to highlight the front door, which was slightly ajar.
“Moon Flower?” I stepped through the circle of shrooms, a shiver passing through me. Leaves crunched beneath my hooves as I trotted, then cantered, then sprung towards the door. “Moony!” I shouted, then kicked the door open with all my might. For effect.
The poor wooden door nearly broke off its hinges as I burst inside. My eyes widened as the sight of knocked over chairs, broken jars, and finally a trickling trail of blood led me to what I sought. The thick crimson droplets traced towards the center of the room where something squirmed and hissed quietly from atop the long table.
“Poison Joke curse me!” The sound of small metal instruments falling into a pan snapped my focus. I stepped to the side and the moonlight shot out from behind me to reveal my little Moon Flower, bits of blood splattered against her coat, a cloth tied around her muzzle and hooves. The pale light from outside shined brilliantly off the silver and white colors of an unconscious colt, who was laid carefully across my medical examination table.
Moon Flower turned, slowly, and squeaked when she saw me, wings shooting wide. The crash of several jars wasn’t enough to break our stare as I narrowed my eyes.
“Daddy! I can explain… I was just… ”
I straightened, took a deep breath, and then pointed upstairs with a hoof. “You are grounded, little Moony. Get your little flank upstairs before I have to get the baddl— I mean the paddle.”
Moon Flower sniffed once, then turned and glanced behind her. There was a long moment before she turned back, her own eyes narrowed. “I need to finish this first, Daddy.”
“Excuse me?” I cocked my head to the side.
“I-I-I started this… I need to finish helping him. He’s my—” She choked back a gulp. “—my charge, my patient.”
Taking a long breath, I blinked slowly for a moment, and then… I nodded. “Okay.”
“I don’t care how long you ground me, I need to sa—” She stopped, and when she looked up at me, she saw the crack of my smile. “Okay?”
“You’re still grounded for going off on your own, but…” I shook my head. “We’ll talk about that later.” I stepped up, dipping my hooves in a dark solution of fish oil and smoked salt. Honestly, walking in on your daughter and a colt alone with the lights off… at least she used protection.
I turned to face her, blood smeared across her fur in dark, almost ritualistic markings. I couldn’t help but smile. “Alright, Doctor Moon Flower, what’s the situation?”
A stifled giggle later and she turned around to observe the patient. “Severe bruising, cracked ribs, and a concussion, with a bit of swelling from what I can tell.”
I got a better look as I stepped close, our bodies moving to allow more light to filter in on the foal. The slow rise and fall of his chest was uplifting, but then, as I moved my hoof across his chest, I found…
“His heartbeat is a bit erratic, Daddy,” Moon Flower continued, and I nodded. “I figured it was part of the blood swelling in his skull, but I… ” She looked down and picked up a scalpel. “I couldn’t hold my grip still, I just can’t stop shaking.”
I walked around the table and sat beside her, the foal’s head centered on the table before us. My hoof pressed against hers as she held the scalpel and I gave her my best ‘I believe in you’ face. In a motion that felt almost nostalgic, I moved her hoof towards the unicorn’s head.
“Remember, for cranial swelling in unicorns…” I started.
“Make a small incision near the base of the horn, as blood tends to pool there if the target has high magical tendencies.”
“That’s my filly.”
We shared a brief smile before she made the cut. There was a weak groan from the colt; when he stopped shifting, we continued. It was messy work, but we continued through the night as Moony cleaned and tended to the head wound. Healing salve was pressed against his ribs and the more severe bruises, before we wrapped him in a blanket to rest in the guest bedroom upstairs.
I crushed silverleaf and rosemary with a pestle grinder as Moony measured moonlight water into a wooden cup. We worked in relative silence, save for the soft snoring that carried from upstairs.
“I’m sorry, Daddy.”
A moment passed.
“For what, exactly? Leaving without permission? Or accidentally getting this colt hurt?” I raised an eyebrow, but kept grinding.
“Yes.” She waited. I waited. Then there was a shared laugh as we turned to each other.
“You did good, Moony, aside from leaving me to sleep in. You know how bad I can get if my sleep schedule falls out of whack.”
“But there was this book, and…” She gave an exaggerated, quiet groan.
“Yes, yes,” I murmured, a grin on my face. “And you shouldn’t have used the fish oil. You never know when a patient might be allergic.”
“I couldn’t find the striking stone for a cooking fire,” Moon Flower lamented. “Oh, right, we had it back at camp…”
I sighed. “You did the best you could, though I would have prefered you wake me, Moony.” I set the bowl aside and pulled her close with a hoof. She snuggled into my side, muzzle buried into my thick fur.
“Am I still grounded?” Her voice was soft, meek, and had just the tiniest waver.
I turned and looked down into those watery, turquoise eyes. “Of course you are.”
A frown formed instantly on her face. “Aw, come on!”
We shared another round of laughter before I tackled her to the ground, buzzing my lips against her tummy and hoofing at her sides.
“Nooooooooooo,” she screed. “S-stop it!”
This, of course, was only an invitation for more extreme forms of tickle torture as I rediscovered every little spot that elicited a laugh, a giggle, or a squirm from my batty little blossom. Eventually, though, we both tired, already mostly spent from our journey and the following procedure.
“Let’s go check up on your first patient, shall we?” I nodded towards the stairs.
Moon Flower stopped at the base, looking up before she cocked her head at me. With a wing, she waved me forward. “After you, nurse.”
I rolled my eyes so hard I thought one was going to pop out of its socket.
“If your head gets any bigger, you won’t be able to get it off the ground, Doctor Loony.”
“Hah!” she belted as we climbed. “Show a batmare some respect, nurse, or I might sneak some blue weed into your salad again.”
I huffed, pausing at the bedroom door. “You promised you wouldn’t do that again, Moony. I had polka dots for a week.”
“Well, I mean, it might happen again… by accident.”
“You’re the worst, you know that?” I rubbed her ears with a hoof.
She giggled giggily. Jumping into the air, she wrapped her hoof around me. “I love you, Daddy.”
I squeezed her back. “I love you too, little Moon.”
Opening the door, my eyes were instantly drawn to the colt’s silver mane; a sliver of moonlight refracted off the colt’s sweat-soaked mane, giving the whole room a star-littered light show. We stepped slowly inside, the silence of the night feeling particularly loud.
Then the colt stirred. Sitting up, he pushed his mane back and looked around at his strange surroundings. His brown eyes fixated on me after a moment, and he started to open his mouth to speak when a little bat popped down from the ceiling, hanging upside-down right in front of him.
A repeating whine from two minutes prior invaded my ears. I set down the mortar and pestle, and smiled down at my poor, tortured bat of a daughter.
“You’ll let me go in first, Moon Flower, or it might be nights before you get a chance. Fainting is not good for the heart, little bat.”
Watery eyes looked back up from the chair beside me; Moony had stuck out her bottom lip with a practiced quiver. “But… I was the one rescued him.” A scowl formed across her face. “I even cleaned him up and everything! He’s my patient!”
Scooping a bowl from the table into my hooves, I dusted some salad greens with powdered horsenettle and shredded lemongrass. “Let me see how he’s feeling first; if he’s up for a visitor, I’ll call you in.” I reached over and rubbed her between her ears.
“Fine.” She struggled not to mew as I stood up. Trotting up the stairs, the medicinal salad balanced atop my back, I smirked at the flap of wings from behind me.
I knocked on the door to the small spare bedroom opposite to my own, then waited. And waited…
“I’m coming in.” My voice was a tranquil pool. The door creaked as I looked inside, seeing the colt peeking from over the covers with watchful eyes. “Good evening, my little pony.”
He didn’t shrink back and scream, but he did pull the covers more snuggly against his chest.
“My name is Nightshade. I am a doctor of sorts, and…”
“Is it g-gone?” His voice was a little high, but gentle like the tinkling of silver bells.
“Is what gone?” My muscles tensed as I held my breath.
I could feel Moon Flower’s heart break from behind the closed door. I did my best not to scowl out of reflex. “That’s no way to talk about your rescuer.”
“B-but aren’t you the one—” He raised a hoof to point at me, but I shook my head.
“My daughter found you just inside the forest. You’re lucky she brought you home and treated your injuries or else we might not be having this conversation.”
“No, no. You owe her an apology for that night, and for ten seconds ago. Consider it payment for your treatment.” I turned on my ‘or else’ face and he nodded. “Good. Now eat this before it gets soggy; it’ll help with the replenishment of blood and the bruising.”
I stepped up to the side of the bed and passed him the bowl. He made no complaints as he took the wooden fork and munched on the shredded spinach and herbs. After a moment, he smiled. “Thank you, Sir.”
I smiled back and nodded. “You are quite welcome, and you can call me Nightshade if you want.” He nodded back and kept eating. “Now, if you think you can handle it, I’ll be sending in the monster for you to apologize to, and perhaps, make friends with.” I glowered at him. “If you upset her, I’ve always wanted to test the properties of powdered unicorn horn in some of my recipes.”
He gulped and I stepped back. After I left the room, the door clicking behind me, I found Moon Flower staring back at me. There was a mixture of annoyance and laughter on her face, but as I met her eyes and held out my hooves, she leapt straight at me.
“Daddy, you’re the worst; powdered unicorn horn, really?”
I caught her, and she nuzzled against my neck as we both laughed. “A father must lay down the law.” I ruffled her mane before setting her down. “Now, play nice, and no screeing—that might actually upset his constitution.”
“Aw…” she said, but was smiling nonetheless. “I won’t bite… hard.” There was a shared chuckle between us before she put a hoof to the door. “Daddy? What’s his name?”
I blinked for a second. “Oh, I thought it might be fun to leave that for you to figure out.”
She rolled her eyes, and I gave her a little shove through the door.
“Hey!” But it was too late as she turned to face the now wide-eyed unicorn. “Oh, uh… Hi, there?”
I held the door ajar to peek inside, watching as Moon Flower slowly stepped closer. He watched her every move, and Moony was surprisingly reserved in how she approached him.
“I’m Moon Flower,” she started to say, but as a glint of moonlight crossed through the window and reflected off her fangs, her little patient took cover. “Oh, come on!” With a scowl and a heavy step forward, she yanked the blanket right off.
“D-don’t eat me!” He shrank back, hooves in front of his face. “I don’t even taste good!”
I chuckled as Moon Flower adopted the perfect, mischievous grin before sauntering right up to him. His back was already against the wall and thus, he had nowhere to go. She got right up into his face, opening her mouth wide to reveal all of her teeth.
He screamed. I facehooved.
Moony had licked him from the tip of his chin, up the side and all the way to the top of his forehead. There was a long pause afterwards.
“Tastes pretty good to me.” Moony licked her lips and I think the little pony almost died on the spot.
I opened the door a mare’s hair. “Moon Flower, that’s not funny!” It totally was.
“But, Daddy!” She started to apply the pouty lip, but stopped and turned back to face the poor, confused unicorn. “I’m Doctor Moon Flower.” I snorted, but was ignored. “And I am, in fact, not a monster.” She pressed her hoof against his foreleg before he could pull away from her. “And today, you’re my patient.”
His eyes flicked from her fangs, to her thick wings, to her big, turquoise eyes, and finally nodded. “I’m Starbright. A-and I’m sorry.”
Moon Flower was silent as she felt and timed his pulse. “And what exactly are you sorry for?” There was a no-nonsense tone to her voice and I felt a burst of pride.
“I’m sorry for calling you a… a monster.” He managed to stop shaking and look her in the eyes. “Thank you for saving me.”
Finally, Doctor Moon Flower went on a break and my daughter came back to play.
“You’re so super welcome!” She jumped from the bed and flapped her wings around the room before plopping back with an oof. “Can we be friends? I hardly ever get to meet other ponies.”
“I wonder why.” It was quiet, but I still caught a bit of uncertainty in his voice. I coughed, and then stepped inside.
“Moony, we’re going to be having dinner later at the hot springs; they do wonders for recovery.” When she nodded, I waved at the door. “I would love if you collected lavender and honeysuckle for tea while I attend to young Starbright here.”
Moon Flower opened her mouth to protest, but stopped and shrugged. “Okay!”
When she had left, and I heard the front door shut, I turned back to face Starbright. “I take it you know what a thestral is?”
He gulped, pulled the covers off the floor and back over himself. “Yes, Si—Mr. Nightshade. My papa told me they were evil monsters that attacked the sun.”
Sighing, I sat on the edge of the bed. “That’s not… entirely wrong.” I turned and looked out into the moonlit forest. “But hear this: Moon Flower is the brightest light in the night sky. Whatever happened between the Princesses at the old castle was before she was even born…” I scowled. “And you will not judge her for it, understand?”
This time, he was fast to answer. “Yes, Sir.”
“Now get up—the hot springs await.”
‘Yaaaaaay! Hot, steamy, bubbly water, here I come!”
The soft clop of my hooves through the dirt provided the percussion to Moony’s whimsical, spontaneous melody. Little Starbright bounced and bobbed lightly on my back as we made progress towards one of the larger hillsides in the Everfree.
Looking back, I caught Starbright staring up at Moony, his eyes doing loops in time with hers. After a moment, he had to catch his head with his hoof as his vision swam.
“Careful, Starbright. You couldn’t pin that one down if you tried.” I chuckled, making the little bits and bobs in my saddlebag tinkle merrily. He rubbed the back of his head out of embarrassment, or to alleviate the headache, perhaps.
“I wonder what it’s like to fly.” A little smile crossed his face as we both looked up. Moon Flower flapped hard, twirling between branches and knocking leaves down around us like something out of a painting. She seemed completely unaware of our fixation on her, or perhaps not, as she turned and stuck out her tongue at us before zooping off.
“I’ve wondered the same myself, little colt.” Then I turned and gave him a wide grin. “I bet she’d give you a lift if you asked her.”
The result was an immediate mix of purple and red on his face as he stuttered, “Oh-h, I, uh, don’t know if I could, uh…”
“Are you still afraid of her? Or is it the heights?” We had almost arrived at the crack in the hillside, and I had to stop to extract the lantern from my saddlebag and Starbright gently climbed down.
“Both, I guess…” He gave a sheepish smile as I raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t know fillies were so… ferocious.”
My laugh boomed into the cave, and then out again in a wave of echoes. A variety of birds scurried from the nearby trees, and even Moon Flower stopped to stare.
“What’s so funny, Daddy?”
Fighting the laughter, I waved her down to join us. “I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
“Ugh!” She flopped over with a plop. “I hate when you say that!”
Starbright was watching the exchange, struggling to contain his own giggles. “My parents say that, too.”
A length of silence followed as I gently woke the fireflies from their nap. Once I was sure they were fed and the light was sufficient, we started inside.
“So, Starbright? Why don’t you tell us about your parents?”
Moon Flower sprung onto my back, her head sticking out right beside mine. “Yeah! Yeah! Tell us! Did you have a mommy? I never got to meet mine, so I really want to know what it’s like, and…” She looked at my expression and settled back down. “And, uh, yeah.”
Starbright shuffled his hooves next to us as we proceeded into the darkness, the soft, golden glow only just illuminating the path.
“Well… My mom is nice, I guess.” His voice softly echoed through the cave, mellow, but not somber. “She’s a unicorn like me, and she’s kinda pretty, I guess.” He looked back and reeled back as Moon Flower had fluttered off my back and was now inches from him, her eyes wide as silver plates.
“And? And!?” As her fangs started to show with the wideness of her grin, I had to snag her tail with my teeth and pull.
“Thaft’s enuff, Moony.” I pulled her into the air and felt her plop back on my back. “Let him talk.”
“Sowwy,” she murmured, sagging down against my saddlebag.
After a moment, Starbright turned and continued walking with the lantern’s guiding light. We turned right, the head of the hot springs dampening our coats.
“My dad is nice, too, I guess…” There was a long pause. “When he wants to be.”
“Ooh?” We passed a big geyser that Moon Flower gave a fond wave and smile. “Need to talk about it?”
“Well…” Starbright started to say, but was nearly blown off his hooves by a screech.
“Hot Springs!” She jumped off my back and blew past us, diving right in with a plunk. “Yaaaaay! Come on, you slow pones, water’s great!”
I looked down at Starbright and shook my head. “We’ll talk about it later, if you want.” He nodded and I nudged him forward. “Just try to relax, you need a few more days to recover, and this will help.”
“Yes, Sir. I mean, Mr. Nightshade.” He trotted slowly to the water, stuck a hoof in, then nearly turned red. “Hot! Hot! Hot!” He shook his hoof frantically while Moon Flower and I filled the cave with laughter.
I settled into the water with a bit more care than Moony, watching as she did the batstroke in front of a shaken Starbright. There was a little scuttling behind him, causing him to jump right in with an ‘eep.’
“Look, Daddy!” A pony-sized creature with chitin black as smoke had come in from behind us, with antennae-like antlers and four, rather skinny legs that ended in points. “What is it?”
I blinked as it came closer into the light, then lowered itself into the same large pool we were in. “It’s an Antelope.” I watched as it floated, belly up, to Moony’s delight. She swam over and gave the creature’s chitinous chest a rub, and I swear it cooed in response.
Poor Starbright just watched with a strange mix of fascination and horror. “Who are you ponies?”
Shing. Shing. The moderate amount of coins gave a comforting chinkle as I finished packing. The moon was just starting to peek over the treeline as a shuffle of hooves from upstairs made me sigh.
By the time my little moon could see the big moon, I was packed and ready to go. Moving carefully down the stairs behind her, hooves against the wall for support, was our— I mean her patient.
“Moony, Starbright, I’m heading for the new castle.”
“Oh, Canterlot!” Little blue eyes lit up as Starbright spoke. “But that’s we--” He stopped, shaking his head. “I mean, how come?”
I raised an eyebrow, but continued anyway, “Out of stock of a few more mundane ingredients. You can find the craziest things around here, but you try to grow marigolds without the forest turning them purple just because it feels like it.” I shook my head and grinned at Moon Flower. “The forest messes with me more than you do.”
She giggled as I booped her nose. “I learned from the best, Daddy! Oh! Do I get to come with you this time? Pweeeeeese! You promised!”
I clutched my heart in an overblown gesture as the waterworks began. “Oh, my poor little princess!” Then I straightened. “Doctor Moon Flower needs to tend to her patient while I’m gone. Annnnnd,” I interrupted her groan with a raised hoof, “if she does a good job, I’ll bring back a bag of something sweet for you two to share.”
She looked pointedly away while trying to smile. “It better be a big bag.”
Snorting, I reached forward and brushed her mane back, looking into her big, turquoise eyes. “Be safe, Moony. I love you.”
We hugged tight, her wings pressing against my shoulders. “I love you too, Daddy. Please come back soon.”
I kept the embrace for a few seconds longer before pulling away to look at Starbright. “You focus on getting better. Do everything your doctor tells you, okay? 'Cause if you don’t, well…”
Moon Flower developed the most mischievous grin. “Oh, I have my ways, Daddy…” The evil giggling was my signal to head out, a little smirk on my face as I crossed the line of toadstools that bordered my yard.
Taking a deep breath, and with only a small glance backwards, I moved into the forest proper. The lovely rain of autumn leaves almost felt like the forest crying, in its own way. A while later, with my steady pace and whimsical mood, I found myself talking to the Everfree.
“You know, I always love strolling this time of year. The air feels great, everything is calm and quiet… even the Timberwolves are settling down for the winter.” The subtle creek of trees in the wind was my only answer. I chuckled. “Yeah, I know some herbs can be harder to grow in the colder weather, but there’s just something… magical about this time of year. Really, I just wish more ponies could see it.”
Crack! A branch snapped and I nearly lost my fur before seeing the squirrel scampering back up a nearby tree. Rolling my eyes at my own jumpiness, I resumed my slow trot.
“It’d probably be a bad idea, though, bringing more ponies. You don’t like a lot of company, do you?” A soft whistle through the branches brought a little smile to my lips. “Me neither… Although, maybe just for Moony’s sake.”
I stepped lightly through a patch of flora, stepping only on the solid stones I could see. “Moving things around on me again?” I looked up and shook my head. “I know full well that prickly poppies settle on the other side of the forest. This your way of saying you’ll miss me?” An acorn fell on my head with a thunk, and as I massaged the spot with a hoof, it fell on the patch of poppies.
“Oh, no. No, no, no,” I grumbled as I jumped clear over the rest of the stones onto solid grass. There was a hiss as the little devils popped up, before puffing up great plumes of green smoke where I had just been. “Fine, I’ll miss you, too. Don’t worry, I won’t be long.”
The rest of the trip out was less exciting, and less deadly, thankfully. Down and out through the thinning trees, I found myself in a big, open valley. The rather quaint pasture was set out beneath the far peak of the most ridiculous structure I’d ever laid eyes on.
“Why is the bloody city suspended off the side of the mountain!? Who’s responsible for that level of absurdity? Is the god of chaos back already?”
With a heavy sigh, I stepped forwards. It was going to be a long walk.
“Well, this is something.”
The city turned out to be quite a bit more than the former castle in both size and form. Indeed, a palace did sit looming above the rest on the highest, grandest parts of the structure, but there was so much more. Unicorns and pegasi trotted out and about, heading to little shops or elsewhere. A few earth ponies made their way through the streets, many with carts of either ponies or supplies, but less free-roaming than their counterparts.
Heads seemed to turn towards me in particular, and it didn’t take long to figure out why. Almost everypony was wearing clothes, many of fine materials. Even the earth ponies were mostly garbed, the working ones included. My healthy coat of earth and a few twigs and leaves in my mane apparently weren’t part of the acceptable ‘attire.’
I gave a little wave and a polite smile to the more curious ponies, but only a few waved back. Shrugging, I moved forward as I tried to get a feel for the city. Small, wooden posts named sections of paths, roads, or streets… What’s a parkway?
Then my eyes alighted upon a cozy looking building; old shaved wood carved from a majestic oak with a hoof-lacquered sign, firefly lamps hanging outside with what looked like snap-dragons on the windowsill. The whole place warmed my heart.
“Cozy Little Canterlot, eh?” The particular glow of a hearthfire tinted the windows with inviting hues. I pulled at the old brass handle. The smell of slow-cooked stew, the warm colors of timber, and the cheery, but not overly loud sitting area melted the stress from my body like butter. A little wave attracted my attention to a long wooden bar.
“Heyo! Welcome to the Cozy Canterlot!” A mare of lovely blue and silver shading gestured me over. Not one to ignore such an enthusiastic reception, I made my way past the tables of drinking, chatting, or otherwise relaxing ponies to sit on the long, wooden bench before the bar. A familiar aroma drifted from the mare before me, and I couldn’t help but smile.
“Lotus Blossom?” I cocked my head at her. She stopped as she was about to speak, then blinked.
“Have we met?” She wore a rather confused half-smile as she cocked her head back at me. “I’m very sorry, but I seem to have…”
I waved my hoof. “No, no, I mean the scent. Lotus blossoms are particularly common in the northern part of the forest, along the cliffsi…”
She snorted, shaking her head as the biggest smile crossed her lips. “Oh, pony, you got me gooood!” Now it was my turn to look confused, but she was ready for that. “My name is Lotus Blossom… I just thought it might be funny to wear perfume that, well… Nopony has ever actually called me on it.”
I couldn’t help but give a good-natured roll of my eyes as she fixed me a drink. An interesting blend of apple butter, lemon, and sage with… “Is that kelp water?”
“Hah!” Her laugh was as infectious as it was hearty. “I knew you’d figure it out. Now, let me guess: Hyacinth?” She gestured at me, all of me.
It took me a second, but I got it. I shook my head at her.
“Harabell?” Her giant grin turned to a frown of determination. “Amaranth?
“Nope.” The chuckling was starting to hurt.
“Larkspur!” I shook my head; she groaned. “Gardenia?” Another head shake met her frustrated moan. “Pansy!”
“No!” My indignant snort startled her back to Equestria. Finally, I turned and gave her a nice look at my flank.
“Oh, Nightshade! Isn’t that poisonous?” She gave a little chuckle.
“Only if you don’t know how to handle it.” I blew a tuft of mane out of my face. “Not many ponies can.”
She started to reply when a yell came from a side door which I hadn’t noticed. “Lotus, stop flirting with the customers or I’ll let you do all the cooking tonight!”
A little pink tinged her cheeks as she turned and yelled back, “Sorry, Snap Dragon. I promise I’ll send the next one your way.”
There was a round of laughter throughout the inn and Lotus shook her head. “Anyway, never mind that. You said you were from the forest? Like the Everfree Forest?” The room seemed to still at that. “Isn’t it really dangerous?”
I nodded after a moment. “If one is not prepared and doesn’t pay the proper respect, yes.” A couple ponies turned and listened in. “I’ve been there awhile, and I used to get quite a few visitors... Though, there has been a great lapse of traffic since the castle was abandoned.”
The life seemed to be pulled out of the room as if a stray windigo had passed by. To break the silence, I drank from the concoction, which somehow also tasted a little less cheery.
Lotus leaned forward and whispered across the bar. “We try not to talk about that stuff here… It tends to upset a few folks.”
I slowly started to nod. “Okay, I guess I understand.” I pulled out my coin pouch to pay for the drink. “How much?”
She shook herself of the chill that had settled in the room, but stopped as she saw the sterling silver and glimmering gold coins I had. As I started setting them down on the counter, she held out her hoof to stop me.
“Those coins are illegal, Nightshade. We can’t take them.”
My mouth fell open. “Well burn me a book.”
After a minor panic attack, Lotus had explained where I could safely exchange my coins for the current currency, something called ‘bits.’ She had also answered a few other general questions about the layout of the city, given directions to my points of interest, and assuaged any anxiety that had built up in my stomach.
“Really, though… Did they have to change the currency?” I slid the Lunare and Solare back into my pouch, tilting the little silver moon pieces one last time in my hoof. “Anyway, thanks for the help.”
Lotus waved, her hoof clutching some of the powdered lemongrass I’d brought to sell as payment for the drink. “Come back soon!”
I headed outside, the blinding sun seeming almost like a barrier beneath the inn’s door. I glanced back with a little smile, raising a hoof to shield my eyes, only to glimpse Lotus’s own smile. She shook herself as she noticed me watching, then turned away.
Stepping outside, the sun pouring down on me, I found myself talking aloud again. “Wonder what that was about.” That goofy little smile still on my face, I found my way to the local depository of currency, apparently called a bank now. “You stay away in the forest for just a bit and they go and change everything!”
Nopony paid me any mind, caught up in whatever business they had as they trotted along. Thankfully, the currency exchange was relatively painless, with the simple explanation that I had been out of the country for a long expedition. Apparently the rough state of my appearance, relative to theirs, and the various strange herbs I was carrying was enough that they didn’t ask any questions.
Next time, bring the rest, Nightshade. The mental checklist scrolled down for me as I headed for the next item. “Apothecary, here we go!” I started towards the west side of town with a little pep in my trot. “Now, I think Lotus said it was this way.”
I hadn’t talked to myself this much since before little Moon Flower, really. Can you feel it, Nightshade: the loneliness is creeping in… Giving myself a shake and a smirk at my own silliness, I resumed my walk. Down and to the right… first left after the little bakery.
“Ooh, that smells good.” My grumbling stomach agreed. “Afterwards, okay?” I patted my belly before heading into the much richer and familiar-smelling shop just down a little alley. An old metal cauldron was just outside; a burning mix of lavender and something else I couldn’t place made it feel like I was stepping right back into the forest.
“Hello?” I pushed the door open and immediately took to looking around. Nopony came at my first call, so I called again and resumed my child-like wonder. Fresh coriander, snips of infused wolfsbane, and even an encased bit of poison joke. The blue plant seemed to perk up as I approached, but before I could even get a closer look, something else pulled me away.
“They have electric honey? Ohhh! I need to get some for Moony.”
“Five bits a comb, youngster.” I turned away from the ooey, gooey goodness in a jar to find an old unicorn stallion looking at me through a pair of large lenses. “Well? You gonna buy some? Or just stare at this old coot ‘til Celestia puts the sun away?”
Brushing the back of my mane with a hoof, I stepped forward and we exchanged a proper hoofshake.
“Teakettle.” His grey eyes seemed to search me over, before a smile formed around them. “Now, how can this old pot help you today?”
With a chuckle, I produced a small, ragged book from my pack and turned about halfway through it. “Marigolds, Willowtails, dried Sunflower petals, and—” A hoof touched the page I was reading, and looking up, I let it slip into Teakettle’s grasp.
“Go on, sonny. Take a look around while I get this together.” He pushed his glasses further up his nose as he looked down. “You remind me of when I was a wide-eyed buck.”
The warm chuckle was contagious. Down the well-maintained aisles of wonder I went, examining each and every item like it was a long-lost treasure.
“You know, it’s rare to meet ponies that enjoy such things even more than I do.” I picked up a sleek mortar and pestle. “These made of dragon bones?”
Teakettle looked over and chuckled before shaking his head. “Hydra, actually. Haven’t seen any draconian bits since the Princess signed the new treaty.” He moved with a slow, but sure pace around the store, collecting the ingredients from my list.
“What? They’re not gonna raid for pony snacks anymore?” I blinked, watching him shrug before going back to looking around. “That’s a surprise.”
Teakettle set the basket that he’d placed all my ingredients in onto the counter and gave a soft smile. “After Prince-- I mean, Nightmare Moon’s attack, Princess Celestia seemed to turn her focus inwards. I don’t think she had it in her to fight a war with the dragons.”
I stopped, turned, and slowly, our eyes met. “Do you miss the Moon Princess, Teakettle?”
All he did was lower his head and take a long breath. “We don’t talk about that, Mr. Nightshade.” Turning around to face an old tapestry I hadn’t noticed, he reached up and gently touched it. “The nights haven’t been the same since that day.”
A long silence hung in the air before either of us spoke.
“Anyway, here you are; that’ll be twenty-three bits.” He pushed the basket towards me. “And yes, that includes the basket. Bring it back next time and it’ll be cheaper.”
I cocked my head at him. “That’s still pretty cheap.” Counting out the coins, I couldn’t help but smile. “Neat way to sell baskets, though.” With a glance inside, my smile grew even wider. “And you threw in some fresh Horsenettle.”
“Just makin’ sure you come back, youngster.” Teakettle was returning to his previous work when I suddenly held out a hoof.
“Wait, for Celestia’s sake, I almost forgot something.” He rolled his eyes at my profanity, but waited as I pulled out a golden vial from my bag.
“Breath of Celestia.” He whistled. “How much you want for it?”
I chuckled as I set the vial into his hooves. “I’m trying to drum back up some business. After the castle and everything, I’ve sort of run low on funds. Let’s say you can have the vial, and instead, let ponies know I’m still around and selling.”
Teakettle set the vial gently into a collection of other potions before returning to me. “I like the cut of your jib, Nightshade. There’s always a market for such things. Come see me next time you’re in town.”
With a nod, I took the basket and proceeded to exit the wonderfully aromatic shop. “I wouldn’t dream of skipping it.”
Back outside and basking in the warmth and cool colors of dusk, I started back towards the forest. The busy ponies seemed to be heading outward from the city center, and from what I could see, going back to their places of residence. Many seemed hurried: mothers ushering their children with a hoof, cart vendors packing up their wares, and finally, the low tone of a bell echoing out into the town from high above.
As I trotted around, ponies rushed past me, giving me even less of a glance than earlier. Nearing the town’s perimeter, a mare’s voice caught my attention.
“Nightshade! What are you— Get inside already!” Turning, I was assaulted by the hoof of Lotus Blossom, hauling me back into The Cozy Canterlot. “Are you out of your mind, colt?”
I stared at her for a long moment, and then she blinked and finally removed her hoof from my own. A little red tint crept up her cheek as she pointedly looked away.
“So… what’s the problem?” I looked around at the formerly merry inn, many of the ponies with their heads down, bubbly mugs untouched. “I was just going home and—”
“Curfew, Nightshade. Don’t you know?” She watched as I shook my head, then facehooved. “Right, right, you’re new to town, ugh.” Again, she dragged me by my hoof to the bar I’d rested at earlier. “Look, here’s the nail in the horseshoe: after the sun sets, any pony caught roaming around is dragged into the castle and questioned…”
I tilted my head. “And?”
“And!?” Lotus screwed up her face in response. “Some never come back!” She pushed a filled glass across the counter to me. “Seriously! Stop laughing at me.”
I’d been biting my lip for a little while. “That’s crazy, Lotus. The Princess can’t kidnap ponies, just like that… Can she?” From the glances and grimaces the rest of the ponies were giving me, I got my answer. “That’s, well, insane.”
Lotus finally released a long sigh. “From what I’ve heard, there’s claims of night cultists in the area.” She poured herself a glass of something bubbly. “Apparently they’re trying to bring back her.”
“You mean Nightm--”
“Shhhhhh!” The entire inn turned ‘stern librarian’ for a second.
Snorting, I nodded to Lotus. “Alright, so I guess… How much for a room?”
“For you…” She gave me a long, long look. “…ten bits. Five for the room and five for saving your flank.”
“And here I thought I might get a friends discount.” I chuckled, giving her a warm smile.
“Friendship, huh?” She took my bits and refilled my drink. “I was hoping for a bit more.”
I sputtered in my drink, spraying foam all over the counter. “W-what?”
“Oh, nothing, nothing at all~” She began cleaning the mess with a rag before tossing me my room key. “If you get up early enough, maybe I’ll make you some breakfast on the house… maybe.” As I picked up the keys, she gave me a wave, pointing up the stairs with a hoof. “Third door on the left.”
“What a day.” With a slow trot, I found my room. Then head met pillow and I was out.
Stiff legs, and a bit of drool; that’s what greeted me in the morning. I looked around, muscles tense as I waited for a batty dive to the chest, but none came.
“Good morning,” I said to nopony. “Readjusting sleep is the worst.” The small room silently agreed with me as I slid off the bed. Without ceremony, I collected my bags, brushed my mane with a hoof and a bucket of clean water beside the door, and trotted out.
“Mornin’,” I yawned as I slowly made my way to the bar. Lotus was there waiting, a plate of hot eggs and a pair of potato logs with cheese. “Wow.” My eyes flicked from her to the food, and back again.
“That’s some good timing. How did you…”
“Definitely wasn’t listening for you, nope.” She slid a glass of water over to me.
Sitting down, I took a fork in my hoof. “Thank you for the meal, Ms. Blossom.” I started chowing down, but still caught the frown she shot my way. After making sure to swallow, I looked up. “What?”
“It’s just Lotus, okay? Ms. Blossom sounds so stiff and formal.” She looked away, her silver bangs covering her eyes like her namesake.
“Okay then, Lotus. Thank you for the food.” I resumed eating, albeit a little slower. “I guess Ms. Snap Dragon is still asleep?
“You’re very welcome, Nightshade. And yeah, she does lunch and dinner.” She watched me eat for a moment before returning to serve a few other customers who had also risen early. Before long, I had finished my plate and put a couple bits down for good service.
As I started to leave, she called out to me, “When are you coming back?”
Stopping, I touched a hoof to my chin. “Soon, I suppose. I promised my daughter she could come, after all.”
As I slid out the door, waving a friendly goodbye, I thought I heard something delicate shatter from inside. Shrugging, I continued on. Once again, I resumed my journey towards the forest, but then something else caught my attention.
Near the outskirts of town was a billboard, probably for posting wanted ads for goods and services. Before the billboard stood a panicked and stressed-looking earth pony stallion, his dark coat and hooves caked in dirt. “Have you seen my son?! Has anypony seen my son?!”
Something nibbled at the back of my head, and so I trotted towards him.
“Excuse me, Sir, but is his name by chance, Starbright?”
With a flick, I released my tail from my hanging spot next to Daddy's bed and moved towards the door. Like a fluffy shadow, I pulled it open without a creak, peering down the stairs as an eager grin crossed my face.
"I'm coming for you, Starbright… I'm coming…” I jumped, gliding down the stairs like an owl upon its unfortunate prey. "…for your blood!"
Nothing moved, even as my hooves thumped the floor for effect. Searching, I turned my head with painful slowness. The obvious spots turned up empty, nothing under the table, chairs, or clinic bed. With a huff, I checked every corner, forcing my eyes open wide to smite the darkness.
"Come out, come out, wherever you are!" I added a little hiss at the end. With short work made of the downstairs, I cocked my head and moved to the upstairs. With a little push, I opened the guest bedroom. "No way you'd be silly enough to hide in here, right?"
Glancing under the bed, a big, big smile across my muzzle, I threw my hoof forward and yelled, "Gotcha!" Pulling back, I was rewarded with an old pillow, along with a moderate amount of dust. "Aww, come on!" With a huff, and a puff, I blew my way back downstairs like a flying thing out of someplace hot. Out the front door, I roared like a tiny teddy out into the woods. Birds scattered, leaves fell, and all that happened was me turning my face into a big pout.
"Going outside the shroom circle is cheating!" With a snarl, I pumped my wings and took to the air. I squinted down, pretending my target was a mobile mango and licking my lips.
Ah, sometimes it’s just too easy. Down, down, down the wind carried me to the base of our tree house, where I found a patch of leaves behaving oddly at my approach. It… wasn’t moving.
“Hah!” Pounding forward, I scattered the camouflage and revealed the annoyed frown of one Starbright pony. “Found you.” I reached forward with my hoof. “Boop.”
With a huff, he aleafed himself and stepped forward. “That’s the third time in a row. I bet you’re cheating!”
I clutched my heart like Daddy did whenever I used my super batty pout. “Oh, my feelings!” Then a long grin spread across my muzzle.
“No…” He held his hooves up. “No to whatever you’re thinking right now.”
I lunged, hooves outstretched as he tried to turn away. The tickle tackle connected, and he was helpless beneath my practiced onslaught.
“S-stop!” His laughter ruffled the trees, bushes, and especially the animals. Even from my position atop him, I could see curious eyes watching over us from outside our protective circle. “I-I can’t breathe!”
With a sigh, I climbed off and reached down to help him up. “You’re such a litt—Waah!” Yanking my hoof, Starbright pulled me down to his level and swapped places as he climbed atop me instead.
“Gotcha, you little monster!” He poked and prodded me, but stopped as he saw my eyes glaze over. “Hey… you alright?”
I sat up, closing my eyes even as he moved over to sit beside me. “Monster, huh?”
I could feel the air currents as he frantically moved his hooves. “I-I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it, y’know?”
Slowly, I nodded at him, then fell back against the cool grass. “I’m not that scary, am I?” There was a flop as he joined me. Finally looking up, I watched the Mare in the Moon stare down at me, pretending she was winking at me.
“No, you’re not… Well, not now that I know you.” There was a sureness in his voice that made my heart warm.
“But I was?” I rolled over to face him, not scowling, but a sadness touching my eyes.
He raised a hoof, then stopped. “Yeah, there was a book I read in school. It said ponies with bat wings were evil, and they wanted to make the world dark forever.”
I frowned at him. “I’ve never seen any book like that… And I even own a library now.”
Huge eyes stared back at me. “What? You… What!?” He snorted and hit me with his hoof. “What a load of fertilizer.”
I puffed up my cheeks; it probably looked annoyingly cute. “I do! Well, no one else lives there, so I’m volunteering to take care of all those poor, lonely books.”
Starbright cocked his head. “You mean… at the old castle?” When I nodded, he lit his horn, and, after a few seconds, a book came floating out of the house. “That’s where I think this one came from.” He stood up and blew the remaining dust off the cover. Magia Practicarum Volume I.” He clutched it to his chest with a smile.
“You’ve been to the Sisters’ castle?” I eyed him, frowning. “That big, scary old castle, all by yourself?”
Pink tinged his cheeks as he shook his head. “No, I just, well, I stood by the edge of the Everfree, and just focused on finding something to help me. I was there for hours, or it felt like it…”
“That’s pretty amazing!” I got up and tapped the book with my hoof. “I can’t do anything like that… but at least I got to enjoy the hardest hunt ever, eheh.”
He looked down, kicking at the ground with his hoof. “Sorry ‘bout that,” he murmured. Then, with a shy smile, he looked up with stars in his eyes. “What’s flying like?”
The grin that overcame me scarcely fit my little face. Springing upon him once more, my hooves locked into place around his barrel, and up we went; my batty wings beat with sheer joy and adrenaline as the clouds quickly descended towards us.
“Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeep!” Even as his voice attempted to penetrate the cloud layer, the winds nearly buffeted the sound right out of the sky. Starbright looked frantically left and right, and I could feel his heart pounding against my chest. “M-Moony! D-don’t drop me!”
“What!? You want me to drop you!?” The wind smothered our voices, but I definitely heard when he screamed ‘no’ at the top of his lungs. “Just kidding!” With a chuckle I bopped the top of his head with my chin. After riding a particularly lovely thermal, my eyes set upon the old castle.
“Here we go!” I screed at the top of my lungs as I turned with the wind. Like a leaf guided by nature itself, I circled the old bridge until coming down cleanly and slowly down on the castle side.
With a dizzy trot, Starbright ran forward and kissed the dirty stone. “Oh, thank Celestia!”
“Pffft, it wasn’t that bad, you little filly.” I inspected my wings, then gave a few flaps before settling them back down. “Now, you wanna go explore or what?
He was already trotting inside, and I had to sprint to catch up with him.
“Hey! Daddy says you’re supposed to let the mare go first!”
He snorted and continued on anyways. “My dad says that was all nonsense. A stallion should always go first, in case of danger or something like that.”
With a little giggle, I stepped up and nudged up against him, purring. “Oh, are you going to be my guiding Starbright? How cute.”
He jumped so high that the flying lessons must have paid off. “I… If that’s what you want.”
I gave him a little push forward with my wing. “Lead on, oh brave knight.”
We grinned like loons as the cool dampness of the castle surrounded us, the near-perfect darkness only interrupted by the occasional slice of moonlight. I found my hooves leading me towards the library on impulse. Nothing like the feeling of old book paper against your frogs.
“Ow!” I turned to see Starbright attempting to phase through a solid wall. He rubbed his poor horn with a hoof before I laughed, trotted over, and wrapped a wing around him. “Thanks…” he grumbled.
“Hey! I can’t have you getting injured on my watch! That’s patient negligence!” He snorted as we found our way down the old hall, past the kitchen with the bat-sized hole in the door, and into the small, yet comfortable library. “Here we are!”
“Wooooh!” His eyes grew bright as suns, his magic lighting up to brush across the old books. They shifted out of the shelves and floated in front of him one by one. “Golden Tail and the Three Timberwolves, The Changing of Hearts, and oh!” His mouth grew into a huge grin. “Beauty and the Bat! One of my favorites!”
I pounced upon him, wings wide and teeth bared in a huge grin. “Oh! Mine too!” Looking down, I found Starbright trying his best not to squirm; as his reward, I bent down and nipped his ear.
“Eeep!” He skittered away faster than a particularly tasty-looking bug. “T-that’s not funny!”
I snorted, scooping up several of the books and flocking out towards the throne room. “Come on! I know the spot that gets the best moonlight!” His groan wobbled low as it echoed throughout the castle, and I couldn’t help but giggle. “Oh, come on! I’m not that batty!”
His answer was to distractedly run into another wall, his hooves in the air as he felt for anything solid. With another laugh, I pulled him by the foreleg through the comfort of darkness, thinking nothing of the surprising warmth of his hoof.
The throne sat as silent as ever, but there was something waiting for us.
"Daddy left us pillows!" Several bundles of fluffy goodness sat piled upon the throne, plump and ready for dive bombing. “Weeee!” With a flip and a twist, I landed with a poof of feathers and a giant smile on my face.
“How did he know—” A pillow smacked him right in the face, books scattering about the throne room as I grinned down at him.
“Daddy knows things, Starbright. He just knows.” We laughed as he moved out from beneath me, grabbing the pillow and making himself comfy. I pulled down the rest and plopped beside him.
In his soft magical glow, he picked up one of the books at random; without even reading the title, he flipped to the first chapter and started reading.
“‘And so, it was on that day that I, Ichorous of the Great Hive, fell to the radiance of the sun.’” He looked up with a cute smile just in time to see me stick my tongue out at him.
“The sun burns all that live beneath it… I wonder why they don’t smell like burnt wood.” I tapped my hoof against the stone while Starbright just stared. I waited another moment, then he just smiled and shook his head at me.
“‘For none who had dared to get so close had come out unscathed, but We were strong, in our knowledge, and in our collective selves. Perhaps, I might survive. Together, I soared with a ray of sunlight, her beauty so blinding, yet We remained transfixed.’”
“Oh, sappy romance! Daddy always tries to read them to me, but I thought they were gross!”
Starbright lowered the book, gazing at me from over the thick pages with a raised eyebrow. “You want me to pick another? There’s no reason to—”
I waved, then coughed into my hoof. “No, no, go ahead. I, uh, never really gave them a chance.” I looked away, my cheeks tingling strangely before I snuggled down on the pillow.
“‘And together, she and I soared, our worldly concerns beneath, the wind our very breath as she stared into me, into Us.’”
“How old is that book?” I tilted my head, and Starbright gave a shrug. He examined the spine before smiling at me.
“It’s like old Equish, but still modern enough to be readable… I’ve never read any of his work… ‘Changing Times.’”
“‘And so, the love that was so strong to bond us, tore at Our very being as We drank both halves of the love poison. For her, and only for her, I shall become something that We are not. Love changes you, for better, or for worse, even after you part.’”
Starbright closed the book reverently. His eyes were closed, and his breathing focused until he finally spoke, “That was a bit more than a bit of light reading.”
I laughed, tears at the corners of my eyes. “I’m not sad… I’m not! That was great, and… and…” Smacking the pillow, I shouted to nopony in particular. “Why! How come they didn’t get to live happily ever after?”
A few more smacks followed before I felt the gentle touch of Starbright’s hoof; I lifted my gaze, and met his twinkling eyes and bright smile. We hugged, my wings wrapped around him. It was quite warm.
As we broke apart, I questioned him. “Seriously, though. Beauty and the Bat is so bright and cheerful. I thought that stories were supposed to be nice and happy!”
Starbright tilted his head at me. “I don’t think there’s a set rule or… How is Beauty and the Bat cheerful? That story is almost as depressing as this one.” He held up the book he had just finished, an odd bug-like creature upon the cover. “It’s been a while since I read it, but I’m sure…”
I frowned, ears splayed. “It’s a happy story! That’s why Daddy always read it to me.” I batted his head with my wing. “I think I would know. It’s my favorite, remember?”
Starbright blinked, then picked up the story that was the center of our debate. “Shall we?”
I was open-mouthed, ready for his arguments when that stopped me. “Okay…” I pulled out some of the packed food we had prepared. “I’ll fix our meal. Go ahead.”
“‘Once upon a time, in the wonderful land of Equestria, there was a beautiful princess…’”
“No! No! No!!” I stomped my hooves against the dusty castle stone, my lips puffed out towards Starbright. “That’s not how it goes!” I paced back and forth, my wings twitching right along with my right eyelid.
Starbright, who had been scooting further away with each passing sentence, pointed his hoof at the book. “So, what’s more likely, Moon Flower: that I can’t read? Or that I’m lying?” He didn’t even budge when I hissed at him. “Well?”
I slumped, wingtips dragging against the floor. “But… that’s not how it goes when Daddy tells it.” I turned and felt a smile grow across my muzzle. “That princess of the castle invites the poor, lonely bat into her castle. They get to know each other, and well, fall in love.” I closed my eyes, the moonlight bright against my face within the throne room.
“I’ve never read that ver-—”
I stomped a hoof. “The princess does not try to throw the nice batpony out! And so he doesn’t curse her forever, because he wouldn’t have wanted to!” As he started speaking again, I puffed out my cheeks like a bat eating a mango two sizes too big. He waved his hooves, closed the book with his magic, and finally shrugged.
“You win, I guess…” His eyes kept tracing along the book’s title. “I just wonder why your dad’s version is different.”
“Better,” I growled. “Better, not different. Get it right!” He shrugged at me, not arguing, but not admitting to my superior choice in adjectives. Finally, I took a long breath and smiled at him. “Wanna go explore a bit?”
“Why? We have all the books right here!” His horn lit to levitate the books, but they all fell back down as I grabbed his hoof. “Wait! Nooooo!” He squeaked as I flapped wherever the wind took me, dragging him along through the air. “I’m too young to die!”
We tore past a series of doorways, finally turning right, then up into an old tower. The tower was cracked, blasted, and nearly ruined far more than the rest of the castle. That being said, there were the remnants of an old bedroom at the top that greeted us as we touched back down.
“Can you…” He wheezed, hoof on a wall as he caught his breath. “…give me a little warning next time?”
“What fun would that be?” We stopped as we stepped onto a woolen rug shaped into a crescent moon. A chilly breeze blew in through a large hole in the wall, drawing our gaze up and out. The Mare in the Moon looked down on us with her pearlescent glow, and then it clicked.
“This was her room, Starbright. The Luna of the Moona!” I jumped and squeed all the way onto her regal bed, which was only a little messy despite my enthusiasm. He nodded, a smile crossing his muzzle as he moved past me. His eyes locked onto a small bookcase beside the bed, his hoof tipping out a title seemingly at random.
“One-thousand and one cake recipes…” His hoof pulled out another. “The Graceful Lily… It’s a book about how to brew tea, from the looks of it.”
“Do you like tea?” I jumped up and down on the bed, my wings flapping in perfect time. “My favorite’s Butterfly Lemongrass, even if it doesn’t actually have any butterflies in it.”
Starbright blinked, one eyebrow going up. “My mom likes it. She always said the better tea was too much money.” He looked down, scuffing a hoof across the tile. “I want to buy it for her.”
I cocked my head, settling down on the bed upside down, staring at him. “My daddy always says the best gifts come from the heart.” I stopped, then stammered, “N-not blood or anything inside, I mean.” My cheeks heated to a brisk simmer. “I—”
“Stop.” He held a hoof out as his face cracked into a grin. “I know what you meant.” A heartbeat later, he continued, “Thanks, Moony.” He reached down with his magic, pulled several volumes out, then hauled himself up alongside me. My eyes opened a bit wider as he snuggled close enough for me to feel the heat from his coat. “Do you know about Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns?”
I blinked. “Um, I don’t think so?”
He nodded, shuffling the books around idly as he closed his eyes in thought. “It’s why I came here, well, sort of.” I nodded back, and waited. “I heard a royal magician could make a lot of bits, but they needed to go to school and stuff.”
“For magic thingies? Like floating things?” I pointed at the buoyant books above. “Looks like you don’t need any school, especially something by the witchy princess of the sun.”
His eyes widened to the size of plates, then he snickered. I pushed him a little, and he pushed back. “Sure, I can float things… Pretty much any unicorn can. No, the school is for harder things, like turning a teacup into a frog, or making a pumpkin explode.”
I tilted my head. “Neither of those sounds useful in the least. And I like pumpkin, so you better not explode any of mine.” I gave him a rather firm boop, and he sneezed.
“Those are just examples. Anyway, I went to the school to sign up, but they said I needed bits and stuff. I told them that’s what I needed the school for, but they just kicked me out and laughed.” He rubbed his backside with a hoof. “Then they said if I could at least bring them something worth a bunch of bits, they’d see what they could do.”
“And that’s what you were doing with the library book when I met you?” My eyes widened, then he smiled and nodded.
“Then I chased you down like a loony hornhead, and got myself hurt.” His cheeks turned an adorable shade of pink. “Still don’t know why I did… Something just pulled me toward you.”
I giggled, then, as he hid his face with his hooves, the giggling intensified. “I’m glad you came. It’s made the last few days a lot more interesting.” I took a long breath as we settled back down. “What do your parents think of all this?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he looked at the books still afloat before spreading them in front of us on the bed. “Pick one. I want to know more about your ‘Luna of the Moona.’”
I nearly burned a hole in the bed, turning my head down to look over the books, and definitely not to hide my face. “How about this one?” I pulled over a book with a quite worn binding, thick fog, a crescent moon, and a pair of yellow eyes on the cover. “Eh-Waggen-Nock?”
“Ewigenacht,” Starbright corrected, then he reached forward and booped my snoot. I nearly fell off the bed. Wait, no, there’s the ground, cold and solid. A second later, his head popped out and stared down at me. “You really are batty.” Then he laughed, and I followed a beat later. He reached his hoof down and I took it, pulling myself back up.
“What language is that? I’ve never seen it.” I snuggled back down, just a tiny bit closer than I had been. If he noticed, he didn’t show it.
“Germaine. I took a peek while you were sweeping the floor with your chest floof.” I stuck out my tongue, but he just smirked. “It’s just the title that’s like that. The rest is in Equish if you want to take turns reading.”
I shifted a little as we opened the cover, reading the opening lines together. “‘And lo, we were the mightiest hunters of the land, and we needed neither sun nor food nor magic. We hunted easily, the land beneath the pale moon defined with our echoes. They thought us monsters, and we thought ourselves their betters.’”
We both drew in a breath. “‘Such t’was both our follies.’” One of us pressed closer to the other, I couldn’t remember who it was.
The chamber of the Lunar Princess was filled with laughter, snorts and giggles for the first time in Daddy knows how long.
“‘And it was her, her majesty of the stars above, that guided us together, beneath the cool warmth of her wings. We pledged ourselves to her moon and stars, and all she was. Thus, the three races became four beneath the grand lights of our world.’”
We closed the book, our hooves touching and our breath visible in the cool night beneath the moon.
“I didn’t know… There’s so much I never knew about you, Moony.” His eyes reflected the moon’s liquid light into mine. “I’ve never heard anything but nasty things from adults…” He held the book up as if it were some sort of righteous, glowing weapon. “Maybe I could show my folks… maybe they’d be okay with y— with thestrals.”
His eyes didn’t quite meet mine, but I smiled at his energy. “I don’t get to go outside of the forest much.” I couldn’t keep a hopeful edge out of my voice. “Take me to see your place? Meet your mother?”
His ears sagged as his hoof lowered the book. “I’m sure my mother would like you… But my father, well…”
The sound of hoofsteps up the tower made my head tilt towards the open door. Before I could call out, I heard Dad’s voice.
“Moony, it’s me. We’re coming up.”
I blinked, looking from the door to Starbright’s confused face and back to the door. “We?”
My daddy stepped up, then over as a dark-brown stallion walked up onto the landing. His heavy blue eyes locked on me, a little sneer on his lips before his gaze moved to Starbright.
“Time to go, Starbright. You’re grounded. For life.”
“P-Papa!” Starbright pressed quickly back against the cold stone wall of the tower. “I…”
A hard, firm slap exploded out, reverberating down the tower like an old tuning fork. Starbright fell back, hitting his head against the wall. I took a step towards him, but Daddy’s hoof was out against my chest before I could blink.
“Do you have any idea how worried you’ve made your mother?!” The older stallion stormed close enough to loom over Starbright, the poor colt quivering. “And now I’ve wasted time better spent elsewhere. You know this hasn’t been a good harvest, and the crop needs my constant attention if we’re to survive the winter.
“What do you have to say for yourself, Starbright?” He shook his head before regarding his son with a sadness that seemed worse than any amount of anger. As he looked over to where I stood, Daddy’s hoof curled protectively, pulling me close to him. “I find you around with the likes of that? And next you’ll tell me you were trying to go to that ridiculous magic school again.”
“Uhh…” Starbright turned beet red, even as he risked a glance at me. I could see tears in his eyes as he looked between me and his father. “No, I…” He closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, then glared at his father. “Yes. Yes, I did.”
The rather large earth pony stomped a hoof closer, grabbed Starbright by his ear and promptly dragged him like a sack of potatoes towards the exit. With only minimal effort, he was nearly through the door with his son before looking at Daddy.
“Thank you for caring for my son, alchemist. I’ll remember this.” With a yank, he brought his son to his hooves, shoving him out and down the stairs.
We waited until the sound of them descending had faded into distant echoes. I hugged tighter to Daddy’s leg, taking long breaths until I was able to speak.
“What… just happened?”
Daddy looked up and smiled at nothing in particular. “And the plot thickens.”
He extracted himself from my grip. “Oh, nothing, Moony. For now, let’s go home.”
As we entered our tree house, I shivered. Blinking, I stood at the threshold as Daddy moved inside. “Why does it feel colder?”
Daddy stepped past his pack of Canterlot supplies that must have been dropped off in a hurry. He looked from the stairs, to the fireplace, and then past me to the forest beyond. “Hearts and hearths, my Moon Flower. Come now, let’s settle our stomachs. You can tell me of your adventure while we eat.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but a rumbling in my tummy held off any more questions. Daddy smiled and so I moved to set the table. Soon the whole tree was oozing an aroma that made my knees weak. Creeping and crawling, I made my way next to Daddy as he stirred the cauldron of deliciousness. I was nearly close enough to see over the lip of the pot when Daddy spoke.
“No spoilers, little Moony. I got a few special things tonight, and well, of course for your special day next week.” Daddy bent over and kissed my snoot. He grinned as I jokingly wrinkled my nose in annoyance. Then I blinked.
“What? Next week…” I stopped, thinking over the number of passing moons and seasons. “Oh, it’s my birthday! How did I forget…”
Daddy set the stirring stick aside before giving me a knowing look. “Oh, my daughter must have been getting up to some real mischief lately if she’s forgotten such an important day.” He followed this statement with a firm ruffling of my mane; his eyes closed as my face burned and I squirmed beneath his hoof.
“That’s not— We were just—” The wood beneath my hooves vibrated as I stomped. I pressed my lips together as Daddy simply raised an eyebrow. He didn’t laugh. He wasn’t laughing at me. His cheeks started to pucker. “Stop laughing!”
With an eep from me, Daddy swooped me up into his hooves, his face melting into an absolutely true smile. “I’m so happy you’ve made a friend, my filly. Real friendship can be quite magical if you give it the chance.” He reached forward, his hoof connecting with my snoot like a bee to a needing flower bud.
I growled just a tad as I was subjected to more fatherly boops before I was set down. With routine ease, we were at the table with lovely bowls of bubbly goodness. The smell was something that defied explanation. It was as if rotted cabbage had been mixed with milk that had been left to ferment for at least ten moons. It was glorious, utterly amazing hot garbage.
“Duriana Dumpling Stew!” Daddy banged his bowl down on the table, licking his lips as his eyes dilated rapidly. “Only the tastiest treats for the most wonderful filly in Equestria.” His fur was damp, like he’d just taken a quick dip in our stream.
“Daddy?” I raised a hoof as he nearly fell out of his chair, then excused himself outside, knocking over a jar of amberosia, that was, liquified amber mixed with tree sap. I picked it up out of habit as I started after him. Then I heard the unfortunate sound of Daddy regifting his dinner to the forest spirits from around the side of the tree house. “Daddy?!”
“I’m—” Intense hurling noises filled the woods once again. “—fine!”
It was a while before he was ready to come back inside. He held his hoof against the bark wall, shuddering as he walked inside. I held up a wooden bowl of water I’d filled only minutes ago. Gratefully, he swallowed half of it, then used the rest to wash his mouth and face. He pointedly did not look towards the dinner table.
“I’m glad at least you seemed to like it, Moony.”
I hugged his leg, my head pressed against his chest. “I loved it, but please don’t do that again. I thought you were going to throw up a lung, daddy.” He wheezed as I hugged him, but smiled and reached down to ruffle my mane.
“Soooo…” I shifted, rubbing one hoof with the other. “When are we going to get Starbright?”
I think I heard a small, thin piece of something fall far in the forest.
“Tomorrow, my Moon Flower. Sleep now, if you can. We’ll be traveling as the sun rises.
My wings buzzed so happily that I didn’t even hear the part of traveling during the day. “Woooooo!”
With a wiggle of my rump and a flex of my wings, I leapt from my high perch atop a tree branch and pounced upon the poor critter that was my prey. The first rays of torturous light were just beginning to seep through the trees as we trotted along through the Everfree. Daddy was pointedly whistling loudly as he ignored my hunt. Well, more for me!
Biting and tearing, I ate my fill of meaty goodness before flapping wildly to catch up. I crept the last ten or so paces before asking the question that always prickled Daddy’s fur. “Are we there yet?”
He turned his head towards me, eyes closed and teeth tight. “No. No we’re not, Moony.” He took a deep breath, then turned forward. “Anyway, we’ve got one stop first. On the rush back, I spotted something I know you’ll enjoy.”
I flapped and hopped up onto his back, looking over his head with one wing pressed against my forehead. “What? Where is it?”
Daddy chuckled, which tickled my hoofsies. “Just a bit near the edge of the northern woods. You’re in for a real treat.”
It was about an hour before we came to the entrance to a large cave tucked inside a grass hill. It sloped downward quite steeply, and the strange scent of night air and dew grass drifted up to my snoot. Daddy went first, his hooves finding grooves in the slope that looked like they were trod often.
I glided down as soon as Daddy was safely at the bottom. When he didn’t immediately light a torch or bring out the firefly lantern, I gazed further down into the darkness. Soft lights, hundreds of them, shifted towards us slowly. I blinked, then blinked again until the stars got close enough for a shape to be revealed by the tiny amount of light from above.
“Teddy!” I jumped at him, grabbing a hold of his fur with glee. He grumbled and batted at me without any actual effort. Then I heard scraping against the ground and looked down to see something far more adorable. “Tiny Teddy!” The baby ursa was barely smaller than me, and was easily the fuzziest and most amazingly huggable thing I’d ever hugged.
“He’ssofluffyandsquishyandwarmcanIkeephim!” My mouth ran faster than my brain, and Daddy laughed as he sat down, keeping a respectful distance as momma bear finally came to see what the ruckus was. She looked at me wrestling with her cub, then at Teddy. Then she snorted, and just went back to bed.
“I guess you’re just… unbearable.” Daddy’s smile was practically oozing cheese. Then he snorted, and I snorted, and then I redoubled my tickling of the tiny cub. The little stars within his coat were mesmerizing, and he snuggled against me like a warm pillow.
“I suppose we can’t keep him, can we?” I looked up, eyes watering.
Daddy looked at me with a cocked eyebrow. “I didn’t think I’d be having this conversation with you for at least five more years, ten more if I could help it.”
“Huh?” I blinked, unfurling myself from little Teddy as Daddy pressed a hoof against his face.
“Nevermind, Moony. Now, we can’t stray for too long. Starbright’s father said he was only in town looking for some extra help for the farm. I doubt he’ll stay longer than a day. Come along.”
I gave Little Teddy a few ear scritchings, then gave Big Teddy a hug, which he returned this time. “I’ll come again soon. Don’t eat any ponies without their permission, okay?” He grumbled at me, and I glared for a second longer before Daddy pulled me out by my tail. Together, we trotted out from the fuzzy heaven and back out into the night. I hopped, screed and flapped until I was nestled on Daddy’s pack. He didn’t even grunt from my weight, because Daddy’s back was stronger than the sturdiest Emberbark trees.
“Canterlot! Canterlot~! I wanna visit you… a lot.”
The silence that cut through the forest around us made me stop only a moment after I had started singing. Daddy looked back at me over his shoulder. “That was terrible, Moony.” My face fell, but I looked back up when bounced once to wake me. “Keep going! We’ll make a songbird out of you yet!” His beaming smile poured liquid gold down my throat, filling me to the brim with confidence.
“Canter! Canterlot! Here we trot! Let’s see the best you’ve got!”