What is a pony? After the Changeling invasion, debates rage across Equestria over that simple question. There is a follow up that nopony thinks to ask, however: what if they weren't the only ones hiding?
What is a pony? If asked that question the average citizen of Equestria would probably respond with a confused look and a mention of the three pony tribes. A particularly astute pony might reply with four tribes, remembering to include the Thestrals. A pony of a scholarly disposition may also add a list of characteristics as well - manes, cutie marks, some form of innate magic, hooves, vegetarian diet, etc. This is the answer that would have been received for thousands of years, from before the unification of the three tribes until very recently. Until the failed Changeling invasion. With the reveal of something so foreign, yet at the same time so familiar, what it means to be a pony is no longer quite so clear and obvious. And while professors and philosophers argue, another question is forgotten in the uproar: What if the Changelings weren't the only ones who were hiding?
* Always looking for proofreaders if anyone's interested! Current Proofreader(s): Icarus_Con_Queso
The moon shines brightly over Ponyville. The trees sway slightly in the breeze. A wind chime sings it's lonely tune into an empty night amidst the whispering of rustling leaves, for nopony still walks among the waking to hear it. Well, almost nopony…
"Could you please hurry up?" comes a voice from thin air.
"Hey," replies a second, higher pitched voice, "climbing is hard."
"No! It's not hard! You literally just have to stick your hooves to the side of the house and start walking," fumes the first speaker. A tense minute passes, barely audible taps nearing the roof as the owner of the second voice continues climbing.
"By the light of the Moon, finally. Could you possibly have been any slower?"
After a pause, a slight scraping sound comes from the side of the house as the invisible climber slowly begins to descend.
"Nononono… " a faint, hazy shadow forms in the air as the owner of the first voice quickly leans over the edge, at long last dragging their intransigent companion onto the roof.
"There we go," the shadow sighs, its shroud of darkness falling away to reveal a batpony mare with a midnight blue coat, a dark grey mane highlighted with various shades of lighter grey, and a cutie mark showing tendrils of light blue mist. Blood red irises surround her slitted pupils rather than a thestral's telltale yellow however, her slightly larger, fluff-tipped ears moving independently of each other to track the nighttime sounds surrounding her. After a few moments of quiet, her mouth opens as she prepares to speak once more, the brightness of the moon enough to make the pointed teeth lining her jaws easily visible, "Come on, Dawn, let's get this over with."
The shadows dissipate from the second figure, revealing a smaller not-quite-batpony filly – her coat the color of evenly roasted marshmallows and mane an off-white split cleanly into thirds by two pink stripes, a single stripe running the length of her tail, "You know, Midnight, you don't have to babysit me. I'm old enough to feed on my own!"
Midnight rolls her eyes, "You'd be a lot more convincing if I hadn't just waited half an hour for you to get up here. Besides, you're not even venomous yet. What are you gonna do, take a bite and hope they don't feel anything?"
"Why'd I even have to climb anyways?" Dawn asks, sticking out her tongue at her sister. "You got to fly, but I had to walk all the way here once we got out of the forest."
Midnight smirks, "Because your veil can't quite hide your wings when you flap yet, and you know it."
"Fine… " Dawn replies, letting out an exaggerated sigh. "I was just trying to help, since I know you'd rather be nibbling on your coltfriend… "
"C-coltfriend?!" Midnight sputters, a faint blush spreading across her face. "He's not-"
"Aww, really? But you just spend so much time together~" Dawn teases.
"He doesn't even know I exist! He doesn't even know our species exists! How could he possibly be-" Midnight closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "Look. He tastes good, and that's it. Now, are you hungry or not? Because if you're not, then I have other things I'd much rather be doing."
"Like nibbling on your-"
"No! Like… reading. Or, you know, hunting. Or… uh… " Midnight stares up at the distant night sky, "you know… other things."
I really need to find another hobby.
Dawn smirks, "Yeah, because Mom and Dad would love to know that you're still stealing books from-"
Midnight places a hoof on her sister's mouth, cutting her off, "I'm going inside now. If you want to drink, you can stop talking and follow me."
Without waiting for a reply, Midnight turns on her heel and walks several steps across the roof to a closed, round window. Looking through it, she sees a darkened room, though her eyes can still discern every detail clearly. It is a room full of nothing but wooden boxes.
Perfect. Now, let's see…
She grabs the window's horizontal crossbar in her mouth, pulling outward lightly, then harder as it starts to give. With a small amount of effort, the window swings wide open.
Midnight grins, I love it when ponies don't lock up at night. It makes this so much easier.
Donning the shadows once more, Midnight steps inside and onto one of the room's many crates, Dawn slipping in to stand beside her. From their place atop the crate, Midnight's gaze sweeps the empty room, her ears pricked and on full alert, listening for even the smallest sound. After several long moments however, she relaxes, hopping silently to the floor just as a sudden gust of wind slams shut the window they had entered through.
Dawn lets out a startled yelp, her wings snapping open as she jumps forward off the wooden box and onto her sister's back.
"Yeah, you are so ready to feed on your own, getting scared by windows," Midnight snickers.
"I wasn't – fear is an important part of hunting!" Dawn huffs, "It helps keep you alert. That's what Mom always says."
Midnight turns to look at her passenger, raising an eyebrow as the shadows fall away from her head, "Right, but when you're trying to be sneaky, making sudden moves because something surprised you is the exact opposite of what you're supposed to do and is a great way to get noticed by whatever you were sneaking up on."
Dawn opens her mouth to respond, but before she can do so, Midnight freezes, her ears swiveling towards the door leading out of the room, "Sh! Somepony's coming!"
Dawn drops to the floor at her sister's words, hiding behind one of the larger boxes while Midnight returns to full invisibility and scales the wall, crouching upside-down on the ceiling with her eyes locked on the door. A few seconds later, a grey pegasus with crossed golden eyes enters the room, yawning. The pegasus rubs her eyes sleepily once her yawn concludes, after a couple slow blinks her attention focusing more or less on the window – the force of the wind enough for it to have bounced back open. Starting forward, the oblivious pony navigates between the boxes like a pinball, only changing directions after bumping into an obstacle.
Upon reaching the window, she grabs its handle with her mouth, closing and locking it before letting her forehead rest against the cool glass with a sigh, a soft snore emanating from the mare mere moments later. Midnight snorts and silently walks across the ceiling until she's right above the snoring pony. Detaching her forehooves from the ceiling, she carefully stretches down and bops the mare on the head.
Jerking awake with a yell of "Muffins!" the pegasus rubs her head, glaring up at the ceiling angrily. Midnight stares back, a thrill of power rushing through her as the pony stares straight into her eyes, yet sees nothing. Said pony, seeing only moon-cast shadows, turns and eventually finds her way out of the room – though not before fishing a muffin from one of the many boxes. Midnight listens intently, a tense minute passing until a door is heard closing elsewhere in the house.
Letting out a sigh of relief, Midnight climbs down from the ceiling while Dawn comes out from behind her box. Both standing in front of the now open door, they move forward, following in the hoofsteps of their unsuspecting prey.
The two sisters silently move through the darkened home, pausing frequently to listen to the quiet creaks from the house shifting in the wind to be sure that it isn't somepony moving around instead. Midnight's heart beats faster, the sensation from the muffin storage room returning tenfold as they walk down lightless hallways to make their way deeper into the home, the thrill of the hunt sharpening her senses and keeping her body pleasantly on edge. She smiles darkly, licking her lips in anticipation of what is soon to come – then pauses, taking a moment to focus as they approach their first target.
Maintain control. Let your instincts guide you, but not control you. Losing control leads to… bad things.
Now somewhat calmer, Midnight exhales slowly and moves towards a door that's not quite closed all the way. Putting her ear to the crack between it and the floor, she hears faint snoring from somepony inside. She smiles.
Turning the knob all the way to the left and holding it there, she quietly pushes the door further open. Once clear of the frame, she carefully turns the knob back to its resting position, the door slowly swinging all the way open with a light push. Midnight's smile widens, the door's opening making no sound at all.
Unlocked windows, well greased doors… this is just too easy. Maybe I should feed here more often.
After they enter the room, Midnight closes the door, turning the knob before the latch hits the doorframe and then slowly releasing it when the door is flush with the wall.
Not great, but least we'll hear the door opening first if the other one decides to stop by.
Turning, Midnight and Dawn observe the pegasus laying spread-eagled on the bed before them. Moonlight shines through the window of her room brightly enough that even a normal pony wouldn't have much trouble seeing, giving the space an ethereal quality – though the many images of muffins covering her blanket, pillowcase, as well as nearly everything else in the room mutes the effect somewhat.
Midnight glances at a lamp with a muffin as a base and an upside-down muffin wrapper as the lampshade sitting on the nightstand next to the bed, chuckling inwardly while she and Dawn stand silently watching the pegasus for several minutes. Once it is clear she is truly asleep, the sisters let their shadows fall away, Midnight approaching the bed with Dawn following close on her heels.
"Let's see here… " Midnight murmurs to herself as she carefully inspects the closer of the mare's hind legs, her eyes glowing a soft red to reveal the bloody, pulsing lanes within – crisscrossing, merging, and splitting randomly like a Discordian super-highway.
Picking the right location is very important after all. Pick too small a vessel and my venom wouldn't spread fast enough. Pick too large of one and the pony might die, not to mention the mess blood spurting everywhere would cause.
And unlike those silly novels, killing this kind of prey unnecessarily is really stupid. It'd be like… like… harvesting apples by chopping down the tree. It just doesn't make any sense to waste a perfectly good tree like that. Hmm…
Her eyes shift between two possibilities, indecision creasing her brow until she settles on the one closer to her prey's barrel. Tapping Dawn on the shoulder, she bares her fangs and sinks them into the sleeping pony, sweet warmth flowing into her mouth as another warmth exits her two fangs into the appendage held by her jaws.
The mare gasps weakly at the pain before it gets numbed by the venom and stirs, adrenaline from the brief unpleasant sensation warring with the rapidly spreading numbness. However, after several moments of semi-conscious movement, she fades back to sleep mumbling, "Chocolate muffins… aren't supposed to bite… "
Feeling Dawn pressing up to her side, Midnight carefully removes her fangs from the wound while making sure to keep her lips sealed around it to prevent any blood from leaking onto the sheets. She pauses, then quickly releases her hold and moves out of the way. Dawn instantly latches onto the wound, letting no blood go to waste. Her task complete for the moment, Midnight sits back and savors the taste, though she is far from sated.
Well, at least two ponies live here, she thinks as an anticipatory grin spreads across her muzzle. I'll have my fill off this one's mate soon enough.
Dawn taps her sister on the chest once she finishes feeding, Midnight leaning back over as Dawn detaches herself from the mare. Her red eyes glowing faintly, Midnight lets out a deep breath onto the wound, the blood coagulating and hardening almost immediately. As soon as she finishes her breath, the newly formed scab flakes off and dissolves into dust, leaving nothing behind except for two small points of fresh skin.
"Good," Midnight says, looking over to Dawn, "now go back home, I still need to-"
She stops mid sentence, her ears swiveling towards the door and twitching slightly. Dawn opens her mouth to ask, but a glare from Midnight quiets her. Silence.
Then comes a nearly inaudible *clop* from the hallway just outside the door.
Quickly turning back to Dawn, she motions for her to hide underneath the bed, then once again fades into the shadows as she scales the wall and takes up a position crouching on the ceiling. Muscles throughout her body tense in preparation as the doorknob turns, the door swinging open to reveal a stallion standing in the doorway. At the sight of him however, an involuntary shiver ripples down her spine and she instead automatically takes a step away before catching herself, scowling to suppress the beginnings of a growl building in the back of her throat.
What was that? I'm the predator here!
Heedless of her stung pride, her instincts continue to insistently whisper in the back of her mind that there is something very wrong with this newcomer. She eyes him from her perch on the ceiling, examining him closely as he takes another step into the room while doing her best to silence the irritating uneasiness that his presence brings.
Earth pony, dull red coat and mane, cutie mark is a…
She squints at his flank, trying to make it out, but it's faded like chalk that's been through a storm – unrecognizable. He takes another step, licking his lips as he sees the mare out cold on the bed. The motion draws Midnight's focus to his mouth, her eyes widening.
Why does he have fangs? Is he a vampony too?
Her eyes skim his sides, but find nothing.
He can't be, he has no wings. And the rest of his teeth are flat. Is he some kind of mutant? His ears are wrong too, they're normal daypony ears. What's going on here?
The not-pony takes the remaining steps necessary to bring him next to the bed while Midnight attempts to unravel the mystery, his eyes locked on the unconscious mare. A trail of saliva trickles from between his lips as he looks down at her, the thin flow gathering into droplets beneath his chin before falling onto the blanket.
Midnight stares at him, dumbfounded, Please tell me he's not planning on-
The stallion bares his fangs with a growl and descends towards the sleeping pony's neck.
Midnight releases her grip on the ceiling, unfurling her wings and with one powerful flap ramming her whole body into the creepy pony. His mouth snaps shut from the sudden impact, barely missing the fortunate mare to instead pierce her muffin-y blanket. Falling on the other side of the bed, Midnight jumps to her hooves and skitters away from the stallion – said stallion spitting the blanket from his mouth and hissing at her before getting to his hooves as well.
Midnight glares at him, wings still flared, "What do you think you're doing?! You were going to kill her you-"
The rest of her exclamation dies in her throat, the pony across from her staring back with dead, empty eyes periodically pulsating a sickly shade of red.
A male voice calls out sleepily from elsewhere in the house, "Derpy? Are you alright?"
Midnight looks away, distracted by the voice, and with another hiss the stallion lunges at her.
"Midnight!" Dawn screams from under the bed.
With no time to dodge, Midnight braces herself and raises her forelegs. The attempted defense proves useless however, a solid crack resounding through the room as his hoof connects with her left foreleg. Midnight staggers, choking back a scream as she accidentally puts weight on her now broken limb.
Panicked hoofsteps of the house's only other occupant sound from near the now open door to the room, "Derpy! What's going on?!"
Panting from the pain, Midnight looks back at her attacker just in time to see him preparing to buck her in the side.
His hooves strike her like a pair of steel pistons, sending her flying across the room into a dresser, wings falling limply to the floor beside her. A half eaten muffin falls onto her barrel, sharp spikes of pain shooting across her body. Looking over towards the bed, she sees Dawn cowering underneath, seemingly unable to process what's going on.
"Dawn!" Midnight yells as loud as she can through the pain from her broken ribs. "What are you doing?! Run!"
Dawn's eyes refocus on her sister and she hesitantly starts moving towards the door.
Dawn jumps, startled, but then draws the shadows around her and dashes out the door into the hallway. Midnight coughs from the exertion, a few specks of blood hitting the floor while the bitter taste of it fills her mouth.
That can't be good. I need to get out of here, or else I'm gonna… I'm really gonna…
She swallows hard, cutting off that train of thought and struggles to her hooves, doing her best to ignore the pain from her broken bones and bruised wings.
The window's my best bet. I don't care what that other thing is, it doesn't have wings. It can't fly.
A split-second after Dawn escapes, another stallion enters the room, a worried expression on his face.
"Derpy, you didn't break the floor again… did you… " he trails off as he takes in the scene before him – an unknown pony limping, another unknown pony baring giant fangs at him, and his wife out cold between him and said fanged pony. He pauses, his mouth hanging open slightly as the cogs in his brain creak back to life, discarding all extraneous information being presented by his eyes in light of one simple fact. Letting out a roar that would've done a dragon proud, he charges the strange pony opposite him, executing a half spin as he passes over his wife, planting his front hooves as he lands, and bucking the fanged pony in the chest with all the strength he can muster.
Limping as quickly as she can while the two stallions stare at each other, Midnight approaches the window.
Alright, step one: get to window: check. Step two: break window…
A body collides with hers, breaking through the window and sending them both tumbling down into the street below. Her ears ring loudly and her vision goes completely white from the pain upon impacting the ground, all awareness of herself and her surroundings blissfully fading away into the numbed abyss of unconsciousness.
Elsewhere in Ponyville, a purple alicorn sits within her study, her eyes drifting across the words written within a well weathered tome.
"And then in 231 BNM… " Twilight murmurs to herself, a yawn interrupting her reading, "in 231 BNM… the Griffon… clans… "
Despite her best efforts, the words in front of her blur, then fade into nothingness, her eyelids drooping shut while her shoulders slump and her face slowly falls forward towards the musty pages. The instant her nose touches paper however, she jerks awake, rubbing the tiredness from her eyes and glancing around the otherwise unoccupied room.
Her gaze comes to a rest on a small clock hanging on the wall to her right, a wry smile crossing her muzzle, "Well… I guess it is pretty late, even for me."
She yawns again and stands, stretching through the kinks left in her joints from the long reading session, "Yeeeep-ahh, definitely time to get some sleep."
A magical glow engulfs her horn, and with a flash of magic, she vanishes, reappearing in another room only a few inches above her bed. Her legs offer no resistance upon landing, instead crumpling beneath her body to let her fall face first onto her pillow.
Moving as little as possible while keeping her eyes closed, she lifts herself up and slides beneath her blankets, letting out a contented sigh once she slips into their warm embrace, Mmm~ why do I always put this off for so long?
Suddenly, a weight lands on her back, two sets of claws grasping her barrel, "Hoo."
Twilight groans into her pillow, "Not now, Owlowiscious."
"Hoo hoo, hoo!"
"No, I am absolutely not getting back up," Twilight replies. "Whatever it is can wait until morn-ow! Hey!" She shifts just enough to give her nocturnal assistant a sleepy, one-eyed glare, the back of her head stinging from Owlowiscious' peck, "What was that for?"
"Hoo! Hoo!" Owlowiscious responds, insistently gesturing at her bedroom door with his wings.
Twilight sighs loudly, but nevertheless rises from her bed, reigniting her horn, "Fine, I'll go take a look. But this had better be important."
No sooner had she spoken than somepony knocks on the door to her home.
"Princess Twilight!" shouts the unknown pony, pausing briefly before knocking harder.
"Oh for the love of – I'm coming, I'm coming! Geez."
Spike stirs at her words, Twilight going completely still beside his basket, her eyes wide. However, after a few incomprehensible, murmured words, he relaxes, snuggling further into his blanket.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Twilight continues to the first floor of the library and towards the entrance to her house, the knocking resuming just as she reaches the front door. Grinding her teeth, Twilight grasps the doorknob in her magic and throws the door wide open, focusing all her tired frustration at the knocker.
The earth pony who had been knocking flinches, taking an involuntary step backwards, "Err, uhh, sorry for bothering you, Miss Princess Sparkle Twilight ma'am sir ma'am but uhh… but… "
Twilight closes her eyes for a long moment and takes a deep breath, shoving her irritation into a small box in the back of her mind then forcing a smile onto her face, "Sorry about that. Just Twilight is fine, Caramel. Now, what's the problem?"
"What?" Caramel asks, staring at her blankly for a split second before he recalls the purpose of his visit. "Oh! Right! The problem. Well, uh, you see, there was an attack just now at the Whooves' house and-"
"An attack?!" Twilight shouts, all tiredness forgotten. "Why didn't you just say so? Is it the changelings again?"
"Well, no, it's-"
"Discord? I should've known he'd snap eventually, keeping all that chaos bottled up."
"NO! Though actually that's-"
"Well, what happened then?" Twilight asks, tapping her hoof impatiently, "I need to know which backup plan to tell Spike to get!"
The top step to Twilight's bedroom creaks, Spike stretching as he descends the staircase, "Seriously, Twilight? You're making plans with Caramel at this hour? You know he already has a marefriend, right?"
"I am not 'making plans' with Caramel, Spike," Twilight responds, looking over her shoulder at him. "There's been an attack!"
"What?! An attack?!" Spike gasps, "Is it the Changelings again? I can take 'em; I've been practicing my fire breath!"
Twilight opens her mouth to reply, but seizing on the instant of silence, Caramel shouts, "IT'S NOT THE CHANGELINGS! IT'S VAMPONIES!"
Silence follows Caramel's outburst, both Twilight and Spike staring at him. Soon the shock of being shouted at wears off though, and Twilight slumps on the floor, rubbing her temples wearily. Spike, meanwhile, collapses in a fit of laughter, proceeding to roll the rest of the way down the stairs.
"You don't believe me," Caramel states flatly.
"Caramel… vamponies don't exist," Twilight explains as patiently as she can. "And while Thestrals may share certain anatomic similarities, they are much more closely related to ponies than any species of bat. In fact, they are most likely just a nocturnal offshoot of the pegasus family that branched off a long time ago."
"I know that, Twilight," Caramel sighs, his patience beginning to wear thin as well. "Half the town could probably tell you that word for word by now."
"Well if you already know that, then why are you here telling me about vamponies?!" Twilight demands exasperatedly.
"Because this time it really is a vampony!" Caramel insists, "And you know how I know?"
"By all means, enlighten me," Twilight deadpans.
Caramel gestures at his mouth, "Her teeth. They're all pointy, and she's got two fangs that are bigger and even pointier. And she did something to Derpy too – we can't get her to wake up, even with a whole batch of Pinkie-baked muffins!"
Twilight blinks a couple times, Caramel's final sentence giving her pause, then gives in with another sigh, "…Fine, I'll take a look. But if this turns out to be another Thestral, you're going to be the one babysitting Discord the next time he decides to stop by Ponyville."
Caramel gulps, paling slightly, but nods, "I'm sure."
Twilight frowns as they approach the Whooves' house, a group gathered outside large enough to block most of the street, ponies nervously milling about and whispering along with the occasional hoof pointing to a broken window on the second floor.
"There you are, darling!" a familiar voice calls out from the crowd, "Whatever took you so long to arrive?"
Twilight looks towards the source of the voice, surprise with a hint of frustration playing across her expression, "Rarity?"
"Yes?" Rarity asks as she approaches, frowning slightly at Twilight's bedraggled state, "Is something the matter?"
"No, nothing at all," Twilight replies sarcastically. "At least as long as you don't count getting dragged out in the middle of the night to deal with a supposed 'vampony' again."
"Now Twilight, I know there have been a lot of false alarms, especially recently, but-" Rarity winces under Twilight's accusatory glare, "But! This time it's the real deal; you have my word."
"Well, where is this 'vampony' of yours then?" Twilight queries.
"Oh, she's not here anymore," Rarity replies as she turns away, looking back after hearing a dull thump to see Twilight facehoofing with the ground. "She's… um, Twilight? What are you doing?"
Twilight mumbles incoherently into the earth, Rarity watching with a mixture of confusion and concern. Eventually she glances at Caramel, who simply shrugs. After a solid minute, Twilight finally raises her head.
"Anyway, as I was saying," Rarity continues, "the vampony is no longer here. She was rather badly injured, and was taken to the hospital along with Derpy."
Upon hearing this, Twilight's horn begins to glow. A couple seconds and a flash of purple later, the trio becomes a pair, Rarity and Caramel left staring at the empty space Twilight had recently occupied.
"So… " Caramel says, looking to Rarity after a moment, "should we… also go to the hospital? Or… ?"
Rarity taps her chin, "Hmm, I suppose we-"
"Hey!" a pony calls out, the crowd previously standing outside the Whooves' broken window now rapidly encircling them, "What did Princess Twilight say?"
"Is Ponyville safe?"
"Is it under attack?"
"Can I have the muffins Derpy didn't eat?"
"What's going on?!"
"Will Derpy be okay?"
Rarity attempts to back away, only to find herself already hemmed in, "Oh dear."
Twilight, meanwhile, reappears in front of the Ponyville hospital, the tired irritation embedded in her eyes broadcasting her intention to put her current problems to bed as quickly as possible, and to then follow them there as well very soon after.
Upon entering the interior of the hospital, Twilight looks around, observing the unusual number of ponies crowding the reception area, many of whom are whispering and casting nervous glances at the double doors leading to the patient rooms. The murmuring ceases for a brief moment when the assembled ponies notice her presence, then continues even more energetically than before, many now gesturing furtively towards her as well.
"Oh, hello, Twilight," a soft voice speaks up from directly behind her, Twilight starting in surprise. Turning, she sees Fluttershy fidgeting only a few steps behind her.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you," the yellow pegasus adds, doing her best to hide behind her pink mane.
Twilight lets out yet another large sigh, "You didn't scare me, Fluttershy, I just… wasn't expecting to see you here tonight. Why are you here, anyway?"
"Nurse Redheart asked me to help her look at the batpony that was injured," Fluttershy answers, leaving the sanctuary of her mane as she steps forward. "She isn't very knowledgeable about bats, and since I look after regular bats, she thought that I might be able to help."
Twilight allows a weary grin to grow upon her muzzle, relief seeping through her mind, "So you agree that the injured pony is just an ordinary Thestral and not a vampony? You have no idea how good it feels to hear somepony else say that, Fluttershy."
Fluttershy's eyes widen and she stumbles backwards, bumping into the wall, "V-V-Vampony? They want me to help treat a vampony? Oh… I don't know, Twilight. What if they bite me? I already turned into a vampire fruit bat, I don't want to turn into a vampire pony bat!"
Fluttershy cowers against the wall, hooves over her head.
Twilight moves forward, placing a reassuring hoof on her friend's shoulder, "Come on, Fluttershy, do you know how many false alarms there have been about 'vamponies' ever since Princess Luna returned and the Thestrals started to reintegrate into Equestrian society?"
Fluttershy nods mutely.
"Exactly. This is just another false alarm; there's nothing we need to worry about at all," Twilight states resolutely.
"Y-You're sure?" Fluttershy asks nervously.
Twilight smiles, "Positive. Now, let's go take a look at the patient, shall we?"
"O-Okay," Fluttershy replies as she gets to her hooves, following Twilight over to the receptionist's desk.
The receptionist looks up when Twilight clears her throat, exhaustion clearly apparent on her face combined with a spark of interest.
"Head on in," she says, gesturing to the double doors to her left. "Nurse Redheart is with the vamp-I mean patient in room 138."
With a nod and a quiet thanks, the two mares continue further into the hospital.
The chatter behind them cuts out abruptly as soon as the doors close, the deserted hall taking on something of an eerie quality – its unnatural silence and cleanliness amplified by the bleached white walls and tiled floor. Periodically placed flowers and pieces of art do little to dispel the heavy atmosphere, the aura of mystery in the dead of night making even such mundane decorations seem potentially sinister. Fluttershy hesitates, her eyes darting around the empty space while Twilight walks forward, unperturbed by the sound of her own echoing hoofsteps.
102… 104… 106… 108… she counts off in her head as she moves past the dark and empty rooms.
Approaching room 126 however, she sees light emanating from within. She glances inside as she passes, stopping when she recognizes the occupants. Fluttershy, who had been following closely behind her, bumps into Twilight with a surprised squeak.
"Um… is something wrong, Twilight?" Fluttershy asks tentatively, walking around her friend to look into the room as well, "Oh."
"You go ahead," Twilight says, her eyes flitting to Fluttershy before looking back into the room. "I'd like to talk with Time Turner about what happened, and see if there's anything I can do to help Derpy."
Fluttershy nods and cautiously continues on, Twilight meanwhile taking a calming breath and entering the room.
Time Turner tenses as he turns towards the Twilight-opened door, his burgeoning indignation at the intrusion quickly replaced by tired, worried smile and a glimmer of hope.
"Princess Twilight! I wasn't expecting you to be, well, here," he says, gesturing at the room.
Twilight returns the smile, "To be fair, I wasn't expecting to be here either."
They share a small laugh, however their eyes soon wander back to the unconscious mare lying in the room with them.
"So? Do you know what's wrong with her? Do you know how to cure her?" Time Turner asks, cautious optimism tingeing his words.
"I'm sorry," Twilight replies, shaking her head, "I don't. In fact, I'm still trying to catch up on what exactly happened. Everypony keeps going on about how it's 'vamponies' and other nonsense-"
"It was a vampony," Time Turner interrupts her, surprising Twilight with the surety in which he states it.
Twilight takes a deep breath, choosing her words carefully, "Turner, I know what it might have looked like, but-"
"I know what a Thestral looks like, Twilight, and believe me, this wasn't one of them," Time Turner interjects. Seeing Twilight open her mouth again, he quickly continues, "And I'm not talking about whatever they're treating down the hall, either."
"You're not?" Twilight frowns, "Alright, why don't you just tell me the whole story, so I don't have to keep feeling my way around what's going on like I'm half blind."
Time Turner nods, "I first woke up when I heard a window slam. I thought it had just been left unlocked and the wind had taken it. I heard Derpy get up to close it, and I started dozing back to sleep. Nothing happened for a bit, I was about to fall back asleep, and then I heard a noise from Derpy's room. I got up to see if she was alright; you know how she has a tendency to break things – you remember the Flying Bed incident."
Twilight snorts, "How can I forget? She somehow, while sleepwalking, managed to throw your entire alicorn size bed through your window – and a chunk of the wall – then flew down to where it had landed in the street and went right back to sleep. Rainbow even spent the next few weeks trying to convince her to hoof-wrestle Bulk Biceps until I convinced her to drop it."
"Heh, yeah, which is why we sleep in different rooms most of the time now too. Anyway," Time Turner continues, "I was honestly more worried about the room than her until I heard what sounded like somepony in pain. I ran out of my room, saw that her door was wide open, and heard a crash from inside. Then when I entered, I saw him. The one they have here was struggling to get up, looking like she had a broken leg, while he was just standing there opposite me with Derpy in-between us."
Time Turner's gaze grows distant, the memory playing out in his mind's eye, "I froze, I just… froze. There was just something so wrong about him. I don't know how else to put it. Physically he looked normal enough, right up until you realize ponies don't have glowing red eyes and fangs going down past their chin. Not that that wasn't weird, but he just… it just… it was wrong, very very wrong."
Time Turner stops speaking again, eyes unfocused and panting slightly. Twilight reaches out and puts a hoof on his shoulder, giving him a reassuring smile, "It's going to be alright. You're both safe, and I'm sure the nurses will be able to wake Derpy up once they've had a little time."
Time Turner nods jerkily, taking a quivering breath and pressing on, "Then that thing hissed at me. I don't know what happened after that. The world just got kind of hazy and the next thing I knew I was standing in front of a broken window, the mare unconscious on the ground outside and the other pony just gone."
He pauses, looking at his wife before staring at the floor, "After that, I went and tried to wake her, but… " he gestures helplessly at the mare on the hospital bed, "I couldn't. I tried shaking her, yelling, a kiss… everything. I even pulled out a half dozen banana-strawberry cheesecake muffins, Derpy's favorite, but she didn't even twitch."
Time Turner looks back up at Twilight, his eyes hopeful but also pleading, "You will be able to help her, right? The nurses examined her and are doing some tests and the results aren't back yet but they said they couldn't see anything overtly wrong with her and I just… I don't… " he trails off, blinking rapidly and staring at the floor again.
"Turner, look at me," Twilight states, an unusual air of command in her voice. Time Turner meets her eyes, surprise interrupting his blinking long enough to allow a few stray tears to run down his face.
"Dang it," he mutters, wiping them away before returning his gaze to Twilight.
"We will find out what's wrong with Derpy," Twilight promises, keeping her voice firm and level despite the uncertainty swirling in her gut. "You have my word as a Princess of Equestria."
Time Turner's lips wobble at her words, and in one swift motion he closes the gap between them to hug Twilight tightly – an action which she returns wholeheartedly.
"S-Sorry," Time Turner stutters, releasing the hug and stepping back after a long minute. "I'm probably not supposed to do that, what with you being a princess and all now."
"Don't worry about it," Twilight replies, smiling broadly at him. "Honestly I wish ponies would act a bit more at ease around me. I was just an ordinary unicorn until not that long ago, after all."
Time Turner snorts at that, Ordinary unicorn my flank.
"If you don't mind me asking though," Twilight says, returning to the matter at hoof, "what did you mean earlier when you said the nurses hadn't found anything overtly wrong with her?"
"Oh, well, they found nothing wrong except for what looked like a bite mark on one of her legs," Time Turner explains, "but it was completely healed. If it was venomous, it would have most likely affected her days ago. It could have infected her with some kind of disease, but 'suddenly puts the victim into a deep sleep and nothing else' isn't like any disease they had ever heard of."
Twilight eyes the sleeping mare curiously, "Do you mind if I have a look?"
"Not at all," Time Turner replies, moving to the bed and shifting the blanket off of Derpy's left hind leg. He points to a spot on her thigh, "It's right here."
Twilight looks at where he indicates, not seeing anything at first glance. Looking closer though, she notices two small circles where the hairs are thinner and shorter, revealing recently healed skin beneath, The nurses were right, it really doesn't look recent. If it hadn't been pointed out to me, I probably would have missed it entirely.
Lowering her horn to the pair of healed wounds, Twilight closes her eyes and focuses, her horn glowing weakly. As soon as her horn touches Derpy's leg, her senses expand, the pegasus' natural magical energy appearing in her mind's eye as clearly as the mare herself did to her physical eyes. Nothing unusual stands out. Twilight scrunches her eyes tighter, focusing further on the location of bite mark. Still nothing. Then, just as she is about to release the spell, something brushes on the edges of her perception. Focusing on the sensation's origin like a laser, she narrows down its location, pushing her spell to the limit in the hope of discovering something more. It does her little good, however – the leftover blemish on Derpy's aura fading beyond her ability to detect it even as she watches. Sighing, she releases the spell and opens her eyes.
"Anything?" Time Turner asks eagerly.
Twilight sits down and looks over at him, "Yes and no. I was able to detect some kind of magic on the wound, but it was too faint for me to do much of anything besides sense its existence."
Time Turner's expression falls, "Oh."
"I'm sorry, I wish I could say more than that," Twilight apologizes. "Once the tests come back, they should shed some more light on what happened."
Time Turner nods mutely, anxiety clear on his face.
"Don't worry," Twilight says encouragingly. "I'll inform the nurses of what I've found, and with the results from the tests we'll have a much clearer picture of what's going on."
With that, Twilight excuses herself, leaving Time Turner and Derpy to continue her journey to room 138, newfound curiosity quickening her steps.
Arriving at her destination, Twilight pushes on the door to room 138 with her magic. In her eagerness she puts far too much power into the spell however, and the door flies open as if a buffalo had headbutted it instead, slamming into the wall with a loud bang.
Looking around for the source of the sound as she enters, she sees Fluttershy gingerly picking herself up off the floor beside Nurse Redheart.
"This is a hospital, Princess, not a rodeo," Redheart states sternly, fixing Twilight with an irritated stare. "There is no need for such displays of force."
Twilight's gaze drifts over to the wall as she takes a few steps further into the room, blushing at the sight of several cracks spreading from a freshly made imprint of the door, "Oh, uh, sorry."
The door's battered knob falls to the floor with a clatter, Twilight wincing and Nurse Redheart's eyes narrowing.
"…Anyway, thank you for your assistance, Miss Fluttershy," Redheart says after a tense moment, addressing the newly standing pegasus. "Your input on her wing structure was very useful."
Fluttershy smiles nervously, "I'm just glad I could help."
"So, was there something you wanted, Princess?" Nurse Redheart asks, turning away to check the machines attached to the unconscious pony beside her. "I assume you didn't decide to stop by just to break down one of our doors."
"No, I um – I mean-" Twilight clears her throat, "I was hoping I could run some tests on your patient for a bit. Just for a bit!" she repeats defensively as Nurse Redheart rounds on her, the nurse's expression leaving little to the imagination as to her opinion of Twilight's request. "At the very least I'd like to be able to dispel the rumors that she's a vampony and that the vamponies are attacking."
Annoyance flickers across Redheart's face and she shakes her head, "This pony is badly injured, Princess Twilight; I can't allow you to start running tests on her like she's a new science project of yours – rumors or not."
"I wasn't planning anything like that!" Twilight protests.
Nurse Redheart raises an eyebrow, clearly not believing a word of it.
"I wasn't, really!" Twilight insists, "I was just going to run a magic signature analysis to compare her latent magic to the faint traces of magic I detected on Derpy's bite mark. I Pinkie Promise – cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye!"
Nurse Redheart watches Twilight closely, giving her a curt nod after she goes through the customary motions of a Pinkie Promise, "Very well. Be quick about it though, she's going into surgery in a few minutes. I wouldn't count on being able to disprove the 'vampony' business either."
Twilight frowns, "What do you mean?"
Nurse Redheart sighs as she walks past Twilight, "You'll see when you look at her teeth, and I need to get ready for the operation. Fluttershy, perhaps you could walk Twilight through what we discussed?"
Not waiting for an answer, Nurse Redheart leaves the room, the sound of her brisk hoofsteps on the tile floor quickly fading into nothing. A brief silence passes while the alicorn and pegasus remaining stare after her, Twilight eventually moving to stand beside Fluttershy and next to the bed, "So, what did you and Nurse Redheart find out about her?"
"Well… um… " Fluttershy replies, shuffling her hooves uncomfortably, "not a whole lot, really. Nurse Redheart did most of the work, I only checked her wings. Both are pretty badly bruised and one of them is fractured in a couple places. One of her forelegs is broken too, and she has several fractured or broken ribs along with some internal injuries. And we think… "
Twilight leans forward, but her friend's voice fades into a faint, indecipherable squeak. Fluttershy looks away nervously as Twilight raises an eyebrow at her.
"Fluttershy…" Twilight prods when the yellow pegasus' eyes continue to avoid her.
Gulping audibly, Fluttershy tries again.
"We think… we think… th-that she's a… a… carnivore," she finishes quietly.
"I-I… what?" Twilight stutters, the thought of a pony eating the dead flesh of what had once been another living creature sending shivers down her spine.
Composing herself, she clarifies her statement, "I mean, what makes you say that?"
"Well… " Fluttershy hesitates, then very carefully leans towards the unconscious mare and gently nudges her mouth open, revealing jaws lined with sharp teeth.
"Oh. Ohhhh. Yep, she's – carnivore, yep." Twilight manages, backing up a couple steps and chuckling nervously.
"And… that's what we know so far," Fluttershy says, swallowing and taking a step back as well.
"I… see." Twilight mumbles, still not quite recovered. Closing her eyes, she inhales deeply, pressing her right hoof lightly to her chest and then slowly letting it drift away as she exhales. Opening her eyes, she steps towards the sleeping mare with renewed focus, horn glowing softly.
"Twilight?" questions Fluttershy.
"I almost forgot that I came here to test something," Twilight explains. "Derpy had a bite wound, but it was healed and looked like it had happened days ago. However, I was able to detect a very faint magical signature on it. The magic was too weak to determine anything else, which would normally make identifying the caster rather difficult, but it had a very… unique feel to it compared to normal pony magic. So if the signature from the wound matches her latent magical signature," she gestures at the peacefully sleeping carnivore, "then that would mean she's very likely responsible for whatever is wrong with Derpy. Which would mean we can ask her how to fix it once she wakes up."
"Oh… okay," Fluttershy nods, backing up a few more steps back to give Twilight some space.
Twilight closes her eyes and focuses her magic, touching her horn to the sleeping mare. After several seconds, and several purple pulses from her horn, she breaks contact, ending the spell with a sigh, "Well, it was definitely her."
As if they had been waiting for her to finish, Nurse Redheart re-enters the room with two of her peers the instant the words leave Twilight's mouth. Seeing Twilight and Fluttershy are still in the room, the trio of nurses quickly shoo them out, reappearing moments later with the hospital bed between them as they wheel it off towards the hospital's operating theater.
Twilight and Fluttershy watch them vanish around a corner before Twilight stretches, letting loose an enormous yawn as sleepiness threatens to overtake the excitement of the last half hour.
"Aaand that's my cue to go back to bed," Twilight remarks, looking over at Fluttershy in time to see her friend stifle a yawn of her own. "Something tells me that tomorrow is going to be a looooong day."
Twilight snickers, turning towards the door, "You know, normally I'd disagree, but right now, that's good enough for me."
Leaving room 138 behind them, the pair of mares walk side by side as they make their way out of the hospital, their paths diverging once outside to head their separate ways home.
The welcome familiarity of the book-scented Golden Oaks Library greets Twilight the moment she opens her door, exhaustion weighing on her mind and body alike as she trudges up the stairs towards her waiting bed. A stray thought drifts unbidden to the front of her mind as soon as she steps into her bedroom, however.
I should probably write to Princess Celestia about what's happened.
Annoyed, she attempts to dislodge the thought with various excuses of rationalized procrastination – each one missing their mark to leave her responsibility to her fellow princesses untouched.
Her and Luna both, really. If there's a whole new tribe of pony out there, they need to know right away.
"Ughhh… " she groans, the comfort of her bed now out of reach despite its tempting sheets being right in front of her. Returning to the first floor, she picks up a quill and dips it into a nearby inkwell, the bleary-eyed purple alicorn staring blankly at the parchment in front of her while the creaking, grinding cogs of her mind attempt to restart.
How does one tell the Princess of the Sun that there's a probably carnivorous – and possibly vampiric – injured pony staying at the local hospital?
Twilight blinks, a simple revelation presenting itself to her like a light at the end of a tunnel.
Well, I could just say that…
"Dear Princess Celestia… " Twilight mutters as her quill begins to move.
There was an attack tonight. It did not involve any changelings. Possibly found a new pony tribe. Seem to be carnivorous, possibly vampiric. One currently unconscious in the hospital. Tired. Will send more information tomorrow.
Princess Twilight Sparkle
Twilight stretches and yawns, nearly succumbing to the siren's call of sleep where she stands, but she steadies herself.
A loud thump comes from upstairs, followed by the clicking of claws on wood as an annoyed and not quite entirely awake dragon toddles down the stairs.
"What now, Twilight?" the drake asks grumpily.
Twilight levitates the scroll over to him, "I need you to send this to… " she covers her mouth, a yawn forcing itself into the middle of her sentence, "to Princess Celestia".
Spike grumbles, but takes the scroll hovering in front of him and sends it off with his signature green flame. Not waiting for Twilight to think of something else for him to do, he stumbles back up the stairs and slumps onto his bed once more. Twilight follows on his heels, at last slipping beneath her blankets and into the welcoming dreamscape.
A swirl of green fire briefly illuminates the dim sleeping quarters of the solar princess, the flash of light reflecting off the various decorations and ornaments that adorn Celestia's chamber. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, it vanishes, leaving behind a scroll which promptly falls onto the sleeping pony below. Said pony remains unmoving for a long moment, however one eye does eventually open, groggily focusing on the offending piece of mail now laying upon her barrel.
Taking it in her magic, Princess Celestia observes the scroll floating in front of her, Why in the name of me is Twilight sending a scroll at night? I really need to teach Spike how to send these to Luna too…
A yawn punctuates her thoughts and she adjusts her head, the motion allowing her to focus her other eye on the rolled up parchment as well.
I suppose I could hoof this off to Luna myself tonight. She has been grumbling about not being able to take part in all the crazy events that have occurred the last few years… and she could really use some more hooves-on experience with her subjects still.
Nevertheless, she continues to eye the scroll, curiosity worming its way into her thoughts.
Well… at the very least it couldn't hurt to take a peek…
And thus begins a great battle within Celestia's mind. The Shamans of Sleep urge her to let it go and continue her slumber, while the Warriors of Curiosity demand she take a look at what could have motivated Twilight to send her a letter this late at night. The battle rages for several minutes while Celestia lays staring at the unopened piece of parchment, neither side able to win out. Then on the 10th minute, out of the fog of war rises the Prophet of Patience and he says unto the masses below: 'Let us sleep, for we have great faith in Twilight Sparkle. She shall overcome any challenge that may confront her, and so we may rest for now'. The Warriors, unable to rebuke the truth spoken to them, slowly lower their voices and surrender to the Sleep.
I'll let Twilight handle it for now, Celestia decides, placing the scroll on her nightstand. She's grown so much the last few years, and I trust she can handle any issues that arise.
Her mind at last made up, she once more closes her eyes and returns to her rest. . . . Several hours later, the covers ripple as Celestia wakes, arching her back in a luxurious stretch after a good night's sleep. A mental tug from the east does not allow her to remain in bed any longer however, and she pushes her sheets aside, standing and stretching again before approaching her balcony. Focusing the solar magicks swirling deep within her essence, she gently lifts her Sun from behind the eastern horizon, a faint, familiar thrum of magic playing across her horn as Luna likewise lowers her Moon in the west. Celestia pauses once her duty is complete, basking in the warmth of the first rays of sunlight falling onto the waking world.
Some things never change, she thinks fondly. The feeling does not last long though, a mental itch making itself known. The feeling of something forgotten, something important…
Ah, right, the scroll.
Returning to the castle interior, Celestia sits back on her bed, pops open the scroll, and skims the words within, freezing on one in particular: vampiric.
Wasting no time, she leaps to her hooves… and flops onto the granite floor with an undignified yelp as she slips on a rogue blanket that had followed her a few feet out of bed. After incinerating the offending sheet with a frustrated thought, she rises to her hooves, vanishing in a flash of white light.
Nurse Redheart takes one last look at the medical machines in the room, their steady, periodic beeps and calmly blinking lights indicating a successful surgery and a stable patient.
Her eyes wander back to the mare, a thousand questions making themselves known before she silences them with an annoyed snort.
She is my patient and it's my job to help her get better. Full stop. End of story. To get distracted by pointless questions and random gossip is unprofessional.
With a satisfied nod, she turns to leave, but pauses after a single step towards the door, her ears twitching at the sound of shouting from the lobby followed by a tremor powerful enough to be felt through her hooves. Her eyes flick to the walls, but the shaking quickly dissipates and the building ceases moving. Instead, the tremors are followed by the loud, echoing hoofsteps of somepony galloping down the hallway.
And now there are crazies breaking into the hospital. Wonderful.
She takes another step towards the door, intending to lock it, but before she can take a third it's consumed by a golden aura and slams open – deepening the previous impression left by Twilight. Redheart flinches, then goes slack-jawed as a white Alicorn strides in.
"Stand aside, nurse," Princess Celestia commands. Redheart's body automatically begins to comply, however the shock wears off as she raises a hoof to move out of the way, her mental faculties restarting and returning control of her muscles. Hesitating, she looks at Celestia again, only now breaking into a cold sweat – the normally kind eyes of her daytime ruler glaring down at her like miniature suns while pure white lightning arcs from various points along the length of Celestia's horn and across her mane. Fear shoots through Redheart's body and she stands frozen, the aura of raw power and control radiating from Celestia battling with her sudden realization of what Celestia intends to do.
She's going to kill my patient!
Ignoring every instinct screaming at her to run and hide in the deepest, darkest place she can find, Nurse Redheart instead stiffly moves sideways to more fully place herself between Celestia and the helpless pony behind her.
Celestia's eyes widen, the terrible aura fading for an instant only to return anew – now also tainted by a simmering anger rolling off her like heat from a furnace.
"Very well," Celestia replies coldly, lifting Redheart bodily with her magic.
"I won't let you kill her!" Nurse Redheart shouts, flailing helplessly in the grasp of her Princess's spell.
"I'm not going to kill her," Celestia answers as she sidesteps the floating nurse, a strange calmness permeating her voice. "She's already dead."
Her horn flares even brighter, the tip shining like a fragment of the sun itself as she prepares to vaporize the pony before her.
"No she's not!" Redheart yells, desperately pointing at one of the machines, "Look!"
Celestia's eyes briefly leave her target to follow Nurse Redheart's outstretched hoof, after a moment returning her attention to the bed in front of her. She hesitates. Then looks back at the machine. With her focus ever so slightly broken, she now hears a sound over the hum and crackle of her magic…
Her eyes widen, recognizing both the heart monitor and what the sound means. Celestia allows her magic to fade as she takes her real first look at the pony she had been about to attack, observing her fluff-tipped ears and bat-like wings along with the pointed teeth and fangs just barely visible within the batpony's slightly open mouth. The overpowering aura vanishes. The arcing lightning ceases. Nurse Redheart stops floating.
And promptly falls to the floor in a jumble of hooves, quickly staggering upright and focusing a venomous glare at the invading Princess.
"I am truly sorry about this," Celestia apologizes. "Twilight sent me a short letter last night about what had happened, and I acted without fully understanding the situation."
Nurse Redheart continues to glare at Celestia, inhaling deeply, "GET OUT!!!"
Princess Celestia takes several steps back, stunned.
The two regard each other for several seconds more, neither moving a muscle until Nurse Redheart starts to sway, the magnitude of what had just happened finally sinking in, Oh sweet merciful Celestia! I just defied the Princess! I just yelled at her! I-I-
A lopsided smile spreads across her muzzle, disturbed giggles growing to maddened laughter in seconds, exhaustion and fear combining to drive her over the edge and into the sweet oblivion of unconsciousness. Celestia, meanwhile, stands perfectly still while watching the nurse's abrupt descent into insanity, glancing from side to side once Redheart collapses – the room's abused door likewise giving way to fall to the floor with a sharp bang in the silence that follows.
After taking a moment to calm herself, Celestia examines the scene surrounding her, One heavily damaged wall, one destroyed door, one nurse driven crazy, and one unknown pony who slept through the whole thing.
She sighs, I think I've caused enough damage for the time being.
Celestia slowly backs out of the room, each hoof placed carefully to avoid making the slightest sound. Once outside, she turns, and, gathering as much of her royal grace and poise as she can, quickly strides towards the reception area, possible ways of calming the rest of the terrified staff crowding her mind.
Following several heartfelt apologies and a solemn Pinkie Promise that the Crown would pay for the damage she'd caused, Celestia steps out of the hospital and into the open air of Ponyville's streets, the early morning sunlight bathing the town warming her coat as well as washing away her own embarrassment.
Putting the mistakes of the barely begun day behind her, she heads off into Ponyville, a familiar destination in mind, I think it's about time I heard all the details of this strange little mess.
She only manages to make it half the distance, however, until an annoyingly jovial voice speaks from directly overhead, "Oh, I'm just so proud of you right now. I knew you had it in you."
Celestia closes her eyes for a moment, bracing herself before glancing skyward. Discord's gleeful grin greets her, his mismatched body appearing even odder having been forced into the general shape of an alicorn. Rather than dignify his words with a response, Celestia stiffly returns her attention to the road ahead of her and continues walking forward.
Discord lands to walk beside her, all four of his feet somehow making a clopping sound despite only having a single hoof. "Oh come now, Celestia, you should be proud! That was a wonderful little display of chaos back there. Why, I'd probably have to think for a few whole minutes before I could come up with something better!"
"Why are you here, Discord?" Celestia asks, refusing to look over at him.
"Why am I here? Oh Celestia, how could you even ask such a thing?" he replies, swooning in a fair impression of Rarity complete with a couch appearing out of nowhere. "I thought you knew me better than that."
Celestia speeds up slightly as the Golden Oaks Library comes into sight, intently focusing on the library's door rather than the mismatched creature behind her.
Rather than get up to follow her, Discord opts to snap his fingers, a pulse of his magic causing the couch to drag itself along the ground, leaving small ruts in its wake.
"Why, I'm here for the chaos, of course!" Discord proclaims with a wave of his forelimbs. On cue, the couch's legs let out a grating mechanical sound and retract, a metallic steering wheel sprouting like a plant from the armrest nearest Celestia. Gunning the nonexistent engine with an invisible clutch, Discord and his chaos-driven couch putter along, matching Celestia's speed, "And also for one of Fluttershy's wonderful tea parties. It's been far too long since the last one I attended, really."
Celestia smiles faintly, at which Discord rolls his eyes, "Yes, yes, friendship is magic, etc and so forth."
"In any case, I have something very important to discuss with Twilight," Celestia states. "So if you'll excuse me."
"Ah yes, the 'vampony' you nearly disintegrated," Discord replies, smiling.
Celestia's eyes narrow, "What do you know of them, Discord?"
"Oh, not much more than you, unfortunately. Can you imagine the fun I could have with carnivorous ponies though? I bet I could make half the town pass out just by having one walk down main street eating a steak!" Discord cackles maniacally, lightning flashing ominously in the background.
"Discord!" Celestia glares at him reprovingly.
Discord shrugs, "What? Some species eat meat. It's your own fault for keeping your precious ponies so sheltered." He strokes his goatee, "Though, Fluttershy did mention that the whole town was thrown into a panic from a rabbit stampede once, so I suppose I really should aim higher, what with me being the Master of Chaos and all. Maybe if I made it rain raw steak instead… "
Celestia comes to an abrupt halt, rounding on the pondering draconequus, "Discord, whatever is going on here, you are not to interfere with it. If these so-called vamponies are in fact what Twilight suspects them to be, then the last thing anypony needs is you involving them in any of your games."
Discord gasps, placing a claw on his chest and giving Celestia a scandalized look, "What? Me? Manipulate others solely for the sake of my own entertainment? Why Celestia, I'm offended that you'd even think I'd be capable of such a thing, especially after I made a solemn vow to use my magic for good instead of evil."
Celestia rolls her eyes, "Discord, I was standing right in front of you, did you really think I didn't hear you slip in 'most of the time' at the end? Besides, don't you have that orange juice event to do in Vanhoover soon?"
"You mean that bout of chaos I wanted to do over a week ago, but then somepony got in the way and said I had to schedule it in advance?" Discord grumbles.
Celestia sighs, "Luna and I only said that you had to let us know about it, so we could prepare for the aftermath. Everypony in Vanhoover will still be quite surprised, I'm sure."
"But it's the principle of the thing!" Discord counters, throwing up his claws to summon a large cotton candy cloud, "Scheduled chaos! I ask you, what's the world coming to when a poor draconequus like myself can't even have a bit of fun on a whim?"
"It becomes a more harmonious world, where we're cooperating with each other rather than playing tug of war until something breaks," Celestia answers, ignoring the mass of cotton candy as it careens off over Ponyville to shouts of both terror and jubilation. "And for what it's worth, we are both very grateful for you being so considerate."
"I'm honestly not sure if that makes it better or worse," Discord huffs.
"And I'm not sure if I should be offended by that," Celestia replies, exhaling sharply. "Regardless, I'll make sure to mention it to Fluttershy the next time I see her."
Discord's ears prick, the draconequus glancing quickly at Celestia before averting his eyes, "And what would you do if I decide that what's going on here is far more interesting than some pre-planned event? Use those Elements you don't have anymore on me?"
"Luna and I were young those first times we fought," Celestia replies, her voice level. "And the second, I was unprepared while Luna was still greatly weakened. We would not need the Elements to be able to stand up to you again, if we had to. However, I'm confident it won't come to that. After all, just imagine how disappointed Fluttershy would be if instead she learned that you had decided to toy with a poor, defenseless, hospitalized pony?"
"That – well – I mean-" Discord sputters. "I never said I would do anything. It was a purely hypothetical question, of course."
Celestia raises an eyebrow, "Of course."
Somehow one shy pegasus mare has become far more useful in dealing with you than the Elements ever were anyways.
"I'm also sure the rest of the Element Bearers-"
"Former Element Bearers," Discord corrects.
"I'm sure the rest of the former Element Bearers," Celestia continues, "would be reassured to hear that you're willing to take the wishes of others into account as well."
Discord crosses his arms, with a snap of his claws teleporting them both into the dimly lit Golden Oaks Library, slivers of sunlight slipping in past drawn curtains, "Hmph. Fine. Have your little chat with Twilight then, but never let it be said that I'm not helpful. And I will be keeping an eye on Ponyville whether you like it or not, so make sure you don't go getting your orderliness all over them either."
Another flash of Discord's magic illuminates the library an instant later, Celestia alone in the room by the time the shadows reclaim it.
…well, that could've gone much worse, I suppose, Celestia muses, her thought punctuated by a soft snore emanating from the library's second floor. And I suppose Twilight's letter did say she was tired. I should probably leave Twilight a note and return later. I do have Day Court to oversee, after all, and nobles to endure and paperwork to fill out and… I wonder what kinds of tea Twilight has.
Having rationalized a reason to stay, Celestia clops quietly out of the main library and into the more brightly lit kitchen. Levitating a cup over to the sink, she fills it with water, heating it with a spell before beginning her search for Twilight's tea.
Her inquiry into the kitchen's various cabinets yields few discoveries however, by the end of her search only a few old, dusty teabags hovering in the air beside her. She frowns at the meager selection, distaste and disappointment swirling within her gut in equal measure. Turning back to the cabinets, she searches through them again, this time coming back completely empty hooved despite her best efforts. Sighing, she examines what tea she had managed to locate, washing the dust off the least stale one before lowering it into the heated water to steep.
Returning to the main library, Celestia lights several of the lanterns scattered throughout the room, setting down her cup as she peruses the diverse assortment of books lining the library shelves in search of something to occupy herself with. Finding a few that sound at least vaguely interesting, she sits beside her tea, cracking open the first book while she waits for Twilight to wake up.
Consciousness returns to Twilight slowly, her eyes finally opening to rest on the silent alarm clock beside her bed – panic gripping her for a instant when she sees the time, only for her to shrug it off a second later, instead choosing to roll over and remain in bed as memories of the previous night filter into her mind.
Something tells me I'm going to be glad I got the extra sleep by the time today is over.
Eventually however, she rises to face what remains of the morning, no longer able to the justify staying beneath her sheets.
First things first though, I should send a follow up letter to Princess Celestia with a more thorough explanation.
She descends the stairs, a yawn forming on her lips until a familiar voice reaches her ears.
"Good morning, Twilight. I trust you had a restful night's sleep?"
Twilight's mouth snaps shut with an audible click, her eyes wide as she turns her head to see her mentor looking up at her, a book surrounded by a golden glow held in front of Celestia while a cup of tea likewise floats off to her side.
"I-I-yes, of course, Princess Celestia," Twilight stutters. "I'm sorry; I wasn't expecting you to be here."
"It's quite alright, Twilight," Celestia replies, smiling. "I was dropped in here unannounced, after all. However, I do have some rather important questions regarding the letter you sent me last night, specifically it's distinct lack of details." She grimaces slightly, "As well as your choice of teas."
"There is nothing wrong with my tea," Twilight huffs, faking offense, then smirking. "You just didn't find where I hid them."
Celestia furrows her brow as she scans her memories. Coming up empty, she looks at Twilight curiously.
Swelling with no small amount of pride, Twilight answers the unspoken question, "A hidden panel under the third cabinet to the left from the door, which I enchanted with a minor illusion spell and an aversion ward. So unless you already knew where to look…"
"…you'd never examine it closely enough to know it was there in the first place," Celestia finishes, a smile returning to her face. "Well done. Few enough have managed to stand between me and a good cup of tea. I don't suppose you'd be willing to dip into your stash, so that we might enjoy some of it while we discuss recent events?"
"Not at all," Twilight responds, a spring in her step as she trots into the kitchen, returning a few minutes later with a pair of steaming cups hovering in front of her. Celestia sets down her first cup, levitating the second in front of her and cooling it with a breath. Lowering her muzzle to just above the tea's surface, she inhales deeply, only afterwards taking a small sip.
"One of Zecora's, I take it?" Celestia inquires.
"Mhm. Though to this day she still won't tell me the ingredients," Twilight replies. "I've been working on a chemical analysis to try and replicate it, but… it hasn't produced anything particularly edible as of yet."
A comfortable silence envelopes the pair, for a time both sitting quietly and enjoying the relaxing flavor of the tea. Eventually however, as the minutes tick by, Twilight ventures to speak, "So… you received my letter, Princess?"
Celestia nods, "Yes. Though the lack of information in it caused me to jump to a particularly incorrect conclusion, which resulted in a rather embarrassing confrontation at Ponyville's hospital. The reason for my visit, then, is that I would like you to tell me in detail what you know about what happened last night."
Twilight bobs her head once, and after taking another sip of tea begins recounting the events of the previous night. Celestia remains quiet throughout the entirety of the retelling – until Twilight describes the strange stallion Time Turner had bucked out Derpy's window. Upon hearing this, the cup floating next to her shatters into dust, its remaining liquid contents bursting outwards as well.
"Impossible," Celestia murmurs to herself. "There's no way… "
"Princess Celestia?" Twilight asks, glancing between her mentor and the droplets of tea now scattered across her floor.
Celestia does not move for several seconds, then lets out a deep sigh, "It is nothing, I'm sure; it's simply that your description of the second creature brought back memories of when vamponies did truly tread upon Equestrian soil."
Twilight frowns, "Wait, so what Time Turner saw was a vampony? Vamponies do actually exist?"
Celestia stares at Twilight without seeing her for a long moment before shaking her head, "No. While vamponies did once exist, it is impossible for any to have survived, much less into this era."
"But how have I not seen any mention of them or their magic in any of my books?" Twilight protests, "I've read dozens of books about all sorts of rare and not-so-mythical creatures, and vamponies never appeared even in passing!"
"As I intended," Celestia replies, for the barest moment her shoulders sagging as if the weight of the world rested upon them.
Twilight opens her mouth once more, however Celestia silences her with a raised hoof, "It is a very dark story, Twilight, one that I had hoped to erase from history entirely so that all knowledge of it would be forgotten."
Celestia moves to take another sip of tea, but instead begins coughing – her head moving through the dusty remains of her cup still hanging in the air beside her. Twilight jumps to her hooves and runs into the kitchen, quickly returning with a glass of water which Celestia gulps down gratefully.
After her coughing subsides, she clears her throat and takes a deep breath, "It all began in the Crystal Empire with a unicorn whose name you are, unfortunately, quite familiar with – Sombra. At the time, he was only a Royal Advisor, neither the wisest nor the kindest nor the most knowledgeable, but still well respected within the empire nonetheless. I myself had spoken with him on more than one occasion during various royal visits and diplomatic summits. However, something happened to him, something which changed him from the respected advisor that he had once been into a traitor and a tyrant."
Sadness creeps into her voice, her words slowing, "While what exactly happened to turn him into a pony capable of such evil and malevolence is unknown to this day, the eventual outcome is accurately recorded in the history books. The events which occurred afterwards, though, are not."
Celestia pauses, her eyes distant, Twilight shivering against a chill creeping through her body despite the comforting warmth of her tea, What could be so bad that the Princesses would try to erase it from history?
Closing her eyes for a moment, Celestia sighs deeply, looking to Twilight when she reopens them, "Sombra… knew that very soon Luna and I would attempt to remove the empire from his control. He also knew that he was no match for either one of us, much less both. Vamponies were his attempt to… even the odds."
Celestia shivers at this, the colors of her iridescent mane and tail fading along with the intangible wind flowing through them, "A Vampony, as created by Sombra, is a former pony whose body has been turned into an undead golem powered by the enslaved soul of its former owner. It uses the blood of living ponies – who also become similarly bound if the feeding kills them – to… I suppose refuel would be the best way to describe it. Needless to say, the spells and binding rituals he used to create the first vamponies were some of the most objectively evil pieces of magic Luna and I have ever encountered."
"Though perhaps to better put it in perspective," Celestia continues, looking deeply into Twilight's eyes, "I am to the Alicorn Amulet what the Alicorn Amulet is to Sombra's binding rituals."
Twilight stares at her, mouth hanging open slightly, "Oh… oh wow. That's… that's pretty bad."
Celestia nods, "Indeed. We were alerted to this particular activity by a high-ranking official who had somehow managed to smuggle himself out along with… with most of his family, but by then it was too late. Sombra had already sent a few dozen of his vamponies to infiltrate Equestria. He gave us an ultimatum: obey his conditions, or he would release his vamponies onto Equestrian civilians. Complying with even one of his depraved demands was unthinkable, and any attempt to stall or delay would merely give him time to create more of his vamponies, so we reinforced our cities as best we could before heading North to dethrone him. The battle was over quickly, and we headed home victorious, only to return to utter chaos."
Princess Celestia chuckles mirthlessly as she recalls the memory, "We had hoped that perhaps it would be like cutting the head from a serpent – without Sombra's control, the vamponies would be useless and easily dealt with. Instead it was quite the opposite – without his control they went berserk and simply attacked anypony that breathed. Their ferocity, combined with a golem's strength and immunity to pain, as well as being able to create new vamponies from their victims, meant that the battle was a bloodbath despite how severely outnumbered they were."
Her voice cracks and she pauses again, taking several deep breaths to calm herself, "Even after the initial battle was over, some managed to slip away and continued to spread their taint. It was… bad, Twilight. In all my time ruling, both before and since, I have never seen my ponies so twisted by fear and hate as the year following Sombra's attack. Neighbors accusing neighbors of being vamponies, of harboring vamponies, of setting vamponies on them… it would have almost been silly if not for the fact that they would have gladly watched each other burn."
She pauses once more, swallowing a lump in her throat as her eyes start to shimmer, "It was Luna who suffered most, though. Despite the fact that vamponies weren't actually hurt by the sun, my ponies clamored with me for its protection against the monsters that walked in the night. But as for my sister… rumors began spreading about how, as the Princess of the Night, she obviously had something to do with this waking nightmare, that she was somehow responsible for everything. It became not uncommon for her, a Princess of Equestria, to be harassed in the streets. When she entered ponies' dreams to aid them with their nightmares, they would become more afraid of her than the nightmare. Even her own guards began to fear her, and I… I was too caught up trying to keep Equestria from falling apart to realize how bad it had gotten. So when she came to me seeking solace and understanding, I instead became angry with her for thinking only of herself, for whining about trivialities while Equestria was in crisis, not seeing how much she was hurting. Not until it was too late."
"Nightmare Moon… " Twilight whispers, an awestruck look on her face as she makes the connection.
"Yes, Twilight. That is what truly drove my sister to become Nightmare Moon. Not some petty fit of jealousy!" Celestia spits out the last part as if the mere suggestion were the gravest of insults, a faint smell of ozone filling the room.
Twilight flinches away at this, nostrils flared and hair standing on end. Noticing the look on Twilight's face, Celestia reigns in her emotions – and her magic – though with only moderate success.
"I… I see," Twilight replies, swallowing loudly, "a-and the whole 'erasing from history' thing?"
Celestia sighs, "Fear has a mind of its own, Twilight, especially when combined with loss. I can't force ponies to think a certain way or believe a certain idea. And once Luna had all but validated every claim made against her by becoming Nightmare Moon, even as a Princess there was very little I could do to truly convince anypony that she was as worthy of their love as I. So I did the next best thing. I worked to destroy all knowledge of Sombra's dark magic – every book, every note, every scrap of paper. Everything. I then let vamponies fade from truth into rumors, and finally into myth as the centuries passed, so that my sister would not have to return to the same prejudices following a thousand years in exile. It is one of the benefits of agelessness, I suppose."
"And… Nightmare Night?" Twilight asks, still hesitant.
Celestia chuckles, "I had nothing to do with that, actually, though I am glad Luna has a widely accepted holiday of her own now. The festivities are certainly more enjoyable than the mess of bureaucracy and tradition the Summer Sun Celebration has become laden with. In fact, I've been considering abolishing the whole thing and simply taking the day off instead."
Twilight leans back, slowly processing the story she's been told.
Celestia watches her for a few moments before rising, "I know it's a lot to take in, Twilight, and if you have any questions at all I would of course be happy to answer them, but I must return to Canterlot. Vamponies may no longer exist, but the two ponies who snuck into Derpy and Time Turner's house most definitely do, and certain processes must be set in motion in order to accommodate knowledge of a new tribe's existence."
Twilight nods absently, her mind clearly still elsewhere.
Celestia smiles and raises her horn, the yellow glow of her magic surrounding it, but looks down again before casting her spell, "Oh, also, you should expect Luna to arrive in Ponyville by sundown."
"Huh? Why?" Twilight asks, waking from her reverie.
"The pony in the hospital may not be a vampony," Celestia explains, "however she is clearly a creature of the night, and therefore is my sister's responsibility."
"Ah, right. Of course," Twilight replies with a nod and a weary smile.
Raising her horn once more, Celestia vanishes in a flash of white light.
As soon as she disappears, Twilight slumps to the floor with a groan, I just woke up and I already feel exhausted again…
Twilight looks up at the entrance from where she had been sitting since Celestia left, lost in thought over the revelations that had been shared with her. She waits. Nothing happens.
"SPIKE!!!" Twilight shouts, annoyed.
Why is he still asleep? He went right back to bed after Caramel and I left.
She soon hears the telltale sound of claws on wood, Spike himself entering her view soon after.
"You called?" the purple dragon asks, yawning as he descends the stairs.
"I did," Twilight confirms. "Can you get the door?"
Spike looks at their front door, "That door?"
"The one you're sitting like 10 feet away from?"
"The one you could have opened with your magic?"
"The very same."
Spike pauses long enough to give her a flat look before finishing his descent and walking over to the door. Opening it, he sees three familiar filly faces looking back at him.
"Hi Spike!" they greet in unison.
"Hey girls, how's it going?" Spike replies, a smile managing to worm its way onto his face as the fillies' boundless enthusiasm eats away at his sleep-grumpiness.
"Pretty good," Scootaloo answers. "Can we talk to Twilight? Sweetie Belle wants to ask her something before we start crusading today."
"Yeah, sure." Spike opens the door fully and walks towards the kitchen, "You guys want anything?"
"No thank you."
Spike shrugs, vanishing into the kitchen as the Cutie Mark Crusaders enter the library.
Meanwhile, Twilight stands, walking over to meet the fillies as they cross the threshold, "Hello girls; I'm guessing you're looking for a book to help you with your newest crusade?"
Sweetie Belle shakes her head, "Actually, I was wondering if you knew what happened to my sister last night. She seemed pretty angry when I woke up. Something about one of her greatest dreams getting utterly crushed after being heartlessly abandoned by one of her best friends, and now she's laying around eating a bunch of ice cream. Again."
Scootaloo rolls her eyes, "It also probably didn't help that you told her she's going to get fat."
Sweetie Belle throws up her hooves, "But she is! She already ate all of our ice cream last week when that guy criticized her puppet theater, and now she's doing it again!"
"Hold on a second – abandoned? I didn't – I mean, I don't think… " Twilight pauses, confusion taking hold as her memories begin to conflict with themselves, It was just me and Fluttershy in the hospital room and in the hallway. I could have sworn Rarity entered with me though…
Twilight examines her memory of that instance through her mind's eye. However, with Rarity nowhere to be found, she continues to backtrack through her memories of the previous night, So she apparently didn't enter the hospital… but I know she was outside with me.
Yet as she checks that memory as well, she once again finds Rarity to be missing, Wait, if she's not there, then that means…
Going back further to the moment of teleportation, Twilight feels herself surrounded by the warm glow of her magic combined with the enhanced spatial awareness granted by the spell to avoid teleporting inside of other solid objects. And with that awareness, she feels nopony but herself.
…I didn't take Rarity with me when I teleported to the hospital. Shoot.
Twilight? Twiliiiight~ Equestria to Twilight!
I guess she's pretty mad that she didn't get to see the vampony. And probably also that I left her with a crowd of frightened ponies who most likely swarmed her asking what I said after I left. I suppose I should've gone back and said something to them before going back to sleep. Oh well. And I should definitely go apologize to Rarity, but… ugh, that's one more thing I have to do now… though I suppose all my plans for today are already out the window anyways.
Nothing. She's just standing there.
Ah wonder what happened. It seemed like such a simple thing ta ask…
Hang on, I have an idea.
Twilight's eyes refocus on reality, her mind returning to the present. Sweetie Belle and Applebloom are looking up at her worriedly, the latter waving a hoof in front of her face. Twilight blinks.
"TWILIGHT!!!" Scootaloo screams in her ear through a megaphone, having somehow procured one from somewhere nearby.
Twilight jumps several feet in the air, falling to the floor in an adrenaline infused heap of hooves and wings.
After a moment, Applebloom nudges the purple pile, "…are you alright, Twilight?"
Twilight groans in reply, muttering something incomprehensible under her breath as she clutches her head with her hooves. The Crusaders stand fidgeting in front of her in the meantime, the minutes slowly ticking by while Twilight lays on the floor, waiting for the ringing to fade from her ears. Eventually though, she raises her head, the Cutie Mark Crusaders watching her anxiously.
"Why did you do that?" Twilight demands, more than a touch of anger in her voice.
Twilight eyes the three fillies from her spot on the floor, switching her gaze between each of them while she waits for an explanation.
"Well, you were just kind of sitting there, and you weren't reacting to anything we said, so we thought that maybe we should… try to snap you out of it?" Sweetie Belle ventures.
"And the solution you came up with was to try to make me deaf?" Twilight deadpans.
"Yeah… uh… mayyybe not one of our brightest ideas," Scootaloo admits, rubbing the back of her head.
"We're sorry… " they apologize in unison, meeting Twilight's accusing gaze with wobbly lips and wide, shimmering eyes.
Twilight tries as best she can to hold her ground against the onslaught of cuteness, yet despite her efforts she feels her anger draining away, "I forgive you."
The fillies highhoof each other at this.
"But! On the condition you stop and take the time to think through what you're planning to do before actually doing it," she adds pointedly.
"We will!" they promise together.
Twilight nods, "Good. Now, regarding Rarity, she and I just had a bit of a misunderstanding, but I'll talk to her and clear everything up. It's nothing you girls need to worry about."
"Oh, great," Sweetie Belle replies. "Thanks, Twilight."
"Alright, now that we know that nopony's friendship is about to fall apart, it's time to start our next Crusade!" Scootaloo declares, she and her friends walking towards the library's entrance.
Once they're outside, a purple aura envelopes the door to push it shut behind them, Twilight's headache continuing to throb.
I really need to talk with Pinkie about her emergency stashing habits. She's like a manic pink squirrel. First though, I'm going to need some more tea.
Rather than shouting for Spike amid the pounding permeating her brain, she turns to the kitchen intending to brew it herself. Spike, however, is already standing there holding a cup. He raises an eyebrow, "Sooo, I see you closed the door with your magic."
Twilight groans, "Please, not now, Spike."
Spike chuckles, "Some tea then?"
"That would be wonderful," Twilight replies gratefully, levitating the cup from Spike's claws over to herself. "Thanks, Spike."
Spike waves it off as he returns to the kitchen, "Don't mention it. I made some sandwiches too, if you want any."
Twilight trots over to join him, And this is why you'll always be my number one assistant.
Now outside, the Cutie Mark Crusaders turn to face each other, forming a small circle.
"Y'all ready?" Applebloom asks. Her two friends nod excitedly, "Alright then, Cutie Mark Crusaders: Vampony Hunters is a go!"
"Yay!" Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle shout, both grinning widely while Scootaloo's wings buzz with excitement.
"And Ah think we'd better work out some sorta plan first, seein' as how we promised Twilight and all," Applebloom adds. She and Scootaloo look over at Sweetie Belle expectantly.
Sweetie Belle stares back at them, "What?"
"Well, we kind of thought that you'd know the most about vamponies since your sister is so obsessed with them," Scootaloo explains.
"She's not obsessed!" Sweetie Belle exclaims exasperatedly, stamping her hoof, "She just really likes those types of stories."
Applebloom and Scootaloo share a glance, an understanding passing between them, then look back to Sweetie Belle. After a moment of awkward silence, Applebloom speaks up, "You… haven't seen the ceiling in Rarity's room, have you?"
Sweetie Belle's brow knits, "No. What would I be looking at her ceiling for?"
Applebloom places a comforting hoof on Sweetie Belle's shoulder, "Next time yer in her room, look at the ceiling above her bed. If you can still tell me she's not obsessed with vamponies after that, then Ah'll believe you."
Sweetie Belle opens her mouth to retort, however Applebloom continues before she gets the chance, "But enough about Rarity, we're gettin' distracted! Do ya know anything about huntin' vamponies?"
"I know a little," Sweetie Belle admits, frowning at the sudden change in topic. "They get burned in sunlight or with solar water, they don't like the smell of garlic for some reason, and the only way to kill them is with a wooden stake through the heart."
Scootaloo groans, her hoof meeting her face, "That's it? I could have told you that."
Sweetie Belle frowns, "Hey, it's not my fault. Rarity won't even let me see most of her vampony stuff. Apparently it's for 'Mares Only', whatever that's supposed to mean."
The other two shrug, equally unsure as to what Rarity could want to keep hidden.
"We can investigate that tomorrow, Cutie Mark Crusaders: Secrets Finders or somethin'. Anyway, it's not like we can actually get any of that besides the stake." Applebloom taps her chin with a hoof, "Although… solar water burns them right? So we could just use acid instead! That burns everything! Though Ah don't know where we'd get any of that either… "
"What about some really hot, hot sauce?" Scootaloo suggests, "That stuff can burn, and Pinkie's always got plenty of it around for her cupcakes."
"I guess that could work," Sweetie Belle concedes, though clearly not very convinced of the potential efficacy of hot sauce on vamponies. "We're going to have to make up for not using solar water though, so we'll need something a lot smellier than garlic."
Applebloom's eyes light up, "What about manure? We got plenty a' that back at the farm, and it’s one of the smelliest things Ah know of. We can pick up one of those old pieces of wood lyin' around there for a stake too!"
Scootaloo jumps over to her scooter and revs up her wings, "Sounds like a plan! Hop on girls, let's go get that hot sauce!"
Wonderbolt Scootaloo speeds past her competition, weaving around them with practiced ease.
A grin spreads across her face at their helpless squawks, the wind streaming through her mane and caressing her heaving sides as she gains on the only flier still in front of her.
Putting on a final burst of speed, she closes the remaining distance to cross the finish line an instant before the other pegasus, beating her by a mere nose.
Scootaloo and her passengers crash through the front door of Sugarcube Corner, a mint green unicorn who had just nudged the door open only barely managing to jump out of their way. Any remaining semblance of control Scootaloo had over her scooter vanishes an instant later, the Cutie Mark Crusaders flying off the scooter and attached wagon to skid across the floor until they encounter the shop's main counter with a solid whump. Applebloom and Sweetie Belle lay on the floor groaning while Scootaloo immediately leaps to her hooves, taking a triumphant pose.
And the crowd goes wild! She continues on a victory lap, even as sweat drips from her face and barrel. Upon reaching the finish line again, she sees Rainbow Dash hovering in front of her. "That was amazing!" Rainbow Dash exclaims, "You might even be as awesome as me now!"
Sweetie Belle bops Scootaloo on the nose, breaking her friend out of her fantasy. Looking to her left, Scootaloo sees both her friends glaring at her.
"Don't do that!"
"How're we supposed to be huntin' vamponies if we end up in the hospital?"
Scootaloo taps her hooves together, looking back at them guiltily, "Err… sorry about that. I guess I got a little carried away."
The glaring pair roll their eyes at this.
"Is it safe to come in?" a nervous voice asks from the doorway.
Turning, the fillies see Lyra Heartstrings peeking around the doorframe at them.
"Of course it's safe in here!" a cheerful voice behind them giggles, "Why wouldn't it be?"
Lyra takes another wary look around before entering, her gaze lingering on the Cutie Mark Crusaders along with their immediate surroundings. Pinkie Pie meanwhile bounces happily next to the register, waiting for somepony to place their order.
Trotting past the CMC, Lyra stops in front of the register, "Hi Pinkie, I'd like a mint-vanilla-swirl cupcake and a slice of double chocolate fudge brownie cake."
Pinkie Pie hops away to retrieve the desired confections, "Coming right up!"
She returns several seconds later, a bag containing the treats bouncing on her back. With a gentle buck, she sends them flying to land on the counter in front of Lyra, "That'll be 3 bits."
Lyra levitates the bits over to Pinkie and the bag over to herself, "Thanks, Pinkie."
Having gotten what she came for, Lyra leaves the shop; the ringing of the doorbell marking her departure.
"So what can I getcha?" Pinkie inquires, leaning over the counter to look at the fillies, "I had an idea for a new type of cupcake if you want to taste test a few for me. I haven't decided what to call them yet though… do you girls think Volcanic Cupcake or Volcanicake sounds better?"
"Umm… Volcanicake?" Sweetie Belle offers.
Applebloom glances at Sweetie Belle, then back at Pinkie, "Ah dunno, Ah like Volcanic Cupcakes. It's more straightforward."
All eyes now turn to Scootaloo, awaiting the tie-breaking vote. She puts a hoof to her chin, considering her choices thoroughly – only reaching a decision after a full minute of careful deliberation, "I have to go with Volcanicakes. It sounds way cooler."
"Al~right! Volcanicakes it is!" Pinkie declares, hopping high enough in her excitement for her mane to dust the ceiling, "Wait right there, I'll go get some for you to try!"
The Crusaders place their forehooves on the front of the counter, looking over just in time to see Pinkie vanish into the kitchen. A cacophony of noise immediately emanates from behind the closed doors, an intervening lull of utter silence finally terminated by an ominous rumble. After a few seconds more, the kitchen doors ever so slowly reopen, Pinkie carrying two plates of her invented dessert on her back while another balances precariously on her head. Moving as slowly and gently as Fluttershy carrying a breezie, Pinkie eventually manages to make her way over to the nearest empty table, depositing the experimental cupcakes delicately.
As soon as the third plate makes its way onto the table however, she returns to her happy, hopping self, "Three freshly-baked Volcanicakes ready for testing!"
Applebloom, Scootaloo, and Sweetie Belle take a seat around the table, each in front of what may have been the most misshapen cupcake ever purposely made, appearing to have more in common with a mound of cooked dirt than anything particularly edible. Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo eye their demented pastry hesitantly, while Applebloom shrugs and leans in to take a bite.
Pinkie Pie instantly tackles Applebloom, a frantic look on her face, "WAIT!!! They're not ready yet!"
"They're not?" comes the muffled question from beneath Pinkie.
"Nope! I said ready for testing, not for eating, silly," Pinkie Pie says, popping back up off of Applebloom and kicking the table, causing the plates to clatter. The cupcakes respond instantly with a gurgle as the tops of the mounds crack open, releasing wisps of steam. Streams of molten caramel follows the steam out of the cracks, rivulets of the sweet liquid making their way down the sides and pooling at the base of the delicious volcanoes.
The fillies watch the display raptly, "Cool~"
Pinkie giggles at their reaction, "Now they're ready. Well maybe not now now. You should probably wait for them to cool off first. So they'll be ready more of a now later."
Hearing the doorbell ring, Pinkie leaves the fillies to greet her next customer. Said fillies quickly start blowing on the hot oozing mounds in front of them, eager to be able to dig into Pinkie's amazing treat.
Pinkie Pie hums happily as she trots over to the Cutie Mark Crusaders' table, her smile widening when she sees that their plates have quite literally been licked clean, "Sooo, anypony want seconds?"
"Can't. Too full," Scootaloo moans. Sweetie Belle and Applebloom groan in agreement, their heads resting face down on the table.
"Alright, but you don't know what you're missing~" Pinkie giggles, "Oh wait, yes you do."
Applebloom raises her head, crossing her forelegs under her chin to act as a makeshift pillow, "We would like a bottle or two of hot sauce though."
"Sure!" Pinkie replies cheerily, "I've got hundreds of them."
Sweetie Belle mumbles something into the table, however the obstructing wood prevents her words from making sense.
Applebloom pokes her, "What'd you say, Sweetie Belle?"
"I said, 'What could you possibly need that much hot sauce for?'" Sweetie Belle replies, this time rolling her head to the side before speaking.
"For the hot sauce cupcakes, of course! Or as I call them, Hotcakes! I had the idea a few years ago after Cheerilee said that my newest creations were 'selling like hotcakes'. But I had no idea what a hotcake even was! So I started thinking 'What is a hotcake?'. Well obviously it has to be a cake and it has to be hot and hot sauce is hot and cupcakes are a type of cake so if you put them together you get: Hotcakes!" Pinkie frowns at this, her mane deflating, "The hotcakes didn't sell like hotcakes though. I still don't know why, I mean they tasted great… "
She stares at the floor forlornly, remembering all the delicious pastries spit out amid cries for water. An awkward silence falls as the Crusaders glance at each other, unsure how to respond.
"Well… " Applebloom says, "if it makes you feel any better, Ah thought the Volcanicake was amazin'."
She looks over at Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo who quickly agree.
"They were awesome!"
Pinkie Pie looks up at the three of them, her normally cheerful demeanor quickly returning. Dashing around the table in a blur, she gathers her filly friends in a tight hug, "Oh thank you thank you!"
Pinkie immediately releases them, her smile not diminished in the slightest, "Oops, my bad."
While the Crusaders are still recovering from her surprise hug, Pinkie picks up their dirty yet sparkling plates, depositing them in the kitchen to be washed before returning with their bottle of hot sauce, "Here you go!"
"Thanks, Pinkie," Scootaloo replies. "We're going to stay for a bit longer and… digest. We're heading out to Sweet Apple Acres next, and I don't want to get cramps halfway there, you know?"
Pinkie shrugs, "Not really, but feel free to stay as long as you like!"
With that, Pinkie Pie takes her place behind the counter once again. The Cutie Mark Crusaders meanwhile slump onto the table and begin to doze…
Massive clouds of dust and smoke hang in the sky, blocking out much of the sun's light from reaching the desolate landscape below. Queen Sweetie Belle raises her hoof, signaling for silence from atop a large black hill rising above this otherwise featureless wasteland. The crowd beneath her immediately quiets, all eyes locked on her raised limb. A small, satisfied smile graces her lips as she regards her loyal subjects. Then, with one fluid motion she lowers her hoof, stamping it into the ground.
"LET THERE BE SWEETS!!!" she proclaims to the masses. Cheers go up as the earth shakes and rumbles ominously, the ground buckling beneath her hooves to leave her floating midair despite her lack of wings – cracks likewise shooting out from her position to spread beneath the celebrating ponies. Their revelry is short lived however as again the earth shakes violently, causing many to stumble and some to fall. Liquid caramel hisses angrily as it seeps out of the fractured ground surrounding the newly silent ponies, their faces now adorned with fear rather than joy. They attempt to back away, but the cracks have spread far and surrounded them all. There's nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. A grin spreads across Queen Sweetie's face as she watches her subjects with anticipation. Her horn glows and the ground heaves once more, forcing the trickling caramel to surge forward. Several ponies scream in agony… and then suddenly cease their noisemaking. Nopony moves. Nopony breathes. A hush has fallen over the world.
"Hey, it doesn't burn!" somepony shouts, said daring pony rolling onto their back to begin making a caramel angel in the viscous liquid. A murmur goes through the crowd upon realizing that they, too, are not being cooked alive.
The Queen collapses in a fit of laughter, falling into the pit of caramel beneath her as whatever magic was holding her aloft gives out, the faint sounds of her partying ponies nevertheless managing to make their way through the mass of sticky sugar submerging her. She focuses and listens, trying to make out their words.
"Hey Sweetie Belle, wake up!"
Sweetie Belle's world rocks again before melting away, her eyelids fluttering open.
"huwit?" she mumbles, a noisy, blurry blob nudging her repeatedly. She rubs her eyes and takes another look, the indistinct yellowish blur transforming into Applebloom.
"C'mon Sweetie Belle, we're burnin' daylight! We slept for three hours!" Applebloom shouts, frantically shaking her still waking friend.
Sweetie Belle jumps up at this, banging one of her knees on the underside of the table. Pains lances through her leg and she falls back to the ground clutching her throbbing limb, all traces of sleepiness banished from her mind, "OW!"
Applebloom, unwilling to wait for Sweetie Belle to recover, jumps over her friend and begins sliding her along the floor towards the door.
"Hey!" Sweetie Belle objects, raising her head, "I can walk you know!"
Upon hearing this, Applebloom stops pushing her and runs towards the door, "Then get up and start walkin'!"
Sweetie Belle grumbles, but rises to her hooves and limps towards the door, waving to Pinkie before leaving, "Bye Pinkie, thanks for the cupcakes!"
Pinkie returns the wave from behind a small line of customers, "You're welcome! Thanks for testing!"
Several pairs of ears perk up at this.
"You made a new cupcake?"
"Can I help test too?"
Scootaloo revs her wings impatiently as soon as Sweetie Belle leaves the shop, the trio shooting off down the street the moment she takes her seat in the wagon attached to the back of Scootaloo's scooter. Sweetie Belle holds onto the sides of the wagon as they skid around a corner, her surroundings reduced to a bright, multi-colored blur.
How can she go this fast on a scooter, but can't get enough lift to fly? she wonders briefly before another sharp turn banishes the thought in favor of more survival oriented ponderings.
"Head over to the apple fields," Applebloom says, pointing once Sweet Apple Acres comes into view. "We keep the manure all the way in the back."
Scootaloo and her wagon alter course to follow Applebloom's hoof, slowing down once they reach the orchard so as to avoid the roots and trunks of the apple trees that now surround them. As the minutes pass, Scootaloo's breathing becomes labored, the exertion from her mad dash earlier catching up with her.
"Are we… getting close… yet?" she asks, stopping beneath one of the orchard's many trees to turn and look back at Applebloom hopefully.
Applebloom sniffs the air, then shakes her head, "Not quite. Believe me, when we're close, you'll know."
Scootaloo slumps over her scooter's handles at this, groaning.
Applebloom rolls her eyes, "Look, if yer tired then we can take a break, no big deal."
"But we slept… for three hours… gotta make up the time… can rest when we… get there…" Scootaloo pants from her handlebars.
Sweetie Belle's eyes widen, filled with a mixture of fear and disgust, "You want to rest right next to a barn full of manure?"
"Well it's not a barn, really," Applebloom corrects her. "More like a large shack."
Sweetie Belle jumps from the wagon and sits, planting her butt on the ground defiantly, "I don't care what it is, I am not going to lay down next to it."
"Fine… if you insist…" Scootaloo replies, attempting to sound indifferent as she collapses off her scooter onto the soft ground. Applebloom snickers before laying down between Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo, the shade provided by the branches of the tree they had stopped under to a welcome respite from the glare of the sun. Eventually Scootaloo's breathing calms as they relax upon the grass, surrounded by the scent of earth, wood, and nearly ripe apples. She watches the clouds lazily drift across the sky, the wind peacefully rustling the leaves above her. Sighing contentedly, her eyelids begin to droop, mind drifting towards a new awesome dream…
Falling asleep on the job is not awesome, squirt, the voice of Rainbow Dash echoes in her head, a hint of disappointment lacing her words.
Scootaloo bolts upright, her heart hammering in her chest, I almost fell asleep again!
She frantically looks over at her friends, and to her horror she sees them snoozing next to her.
"Guys! Wake up!" Scootaloo shouts, running back to her scooter. The pair of sleepers stir at the noise and start to stretch, only to freeze as they realize what had nearly happened. Wasting not a second more, Applebloom and Sweetie Belle scramble to their hooves, quickly following Scootaloo to take their places in the wagon. As soon as their butts touch wood, Scootaloo flaps her wings, the trio continuing their trek deeper into the orchard.
Sweetie Belle sniffs the air, then scrunches her nose in disgust, "Is that what it smells like it is?"
"That is exactly what it smells like," Applebloom says as she looks around for the source of the odor, after a few seconds pointing off to her right. "Scootaloo, over there."
Scootaloo looks back and adjusts her course according to Applebloom's hoof, less than half a minute later the trio arriving in a small clearing with a foul smelling wooden shack in its center. The fillies cover their noses, breathing through their mouths in an attempt to lessen the stench, but instead simply trade the much reduced smell for a faint taste of the filth on their tongues. They hesitate, not wanting to get any closer to the repulsive building, yet at the same time unwilling to turn away and abandon their mission. Seconds turn into minutes as they slowly edge their way closer to the shack's entrance, all the while trying to breath in as little of the pungent air as possible.
After staring at the door from a few feet away for more than a minute, Scootaloo looks over at her friends, "Girls, we're only making this worse by taking it so slow. We need to just run in there, get the manure, and get out."
Applebloom nods, a resolute look on her face as she eyes the doorway that's now tantalizingly close. Sweetie Belle gulps nervously, but nods as well.
Scootaloo starts drawing in the dirt with her hoof, "Alright, here's the plan: Applebloom and I will get a running start. Sweetie Belle, you'll stay here and open the door for us with your magic."
Sweetie Belle lets out a relieved sigh, Scootaloo ignoring her and continuing with the explanation, "Once we're inside, I'll get something to scoop with, and Applebloom, you'll get a bucket. I'll put a few scoops into the bucket, and then you'll carry it out here to the wagon."
Applebloom and Sweetie Belle salute, "Yes, Sir!"
The three fillies face the shack once more, determination etched on their faces as they stare down their current obstacle. Scootaloo raises her hoof into the air, "On go. Three… Two… One… Go!"
Sweetie Belle's horn glows, focusing her magic to yank the door open. Scootaloo and Applebloom charge towards the now open doorway. Applejack stumbles as the door she was about to open suddenly glows and swings outwards all on its own. Looking up in surprise, she barely has time to widen her eyes at the sight of two filly-sized projectiles closing in.
Despite Applejack's larger size, the momentum of the two fillies carries them through the entrance as they bowl her over. The two buckets of manure Applejack had been carrying, one per side, go flying a short distance before succumbing to gravity, both miraculously landing a few feet away without spilling any of their contents.
Applejack shakes her head from her place on the floor, looking towards the two fillies lying in a daze just behind her, "What in tarnation – what're you two doin' here?" Her eyes dart around the room, "And where's Sweetie Belle?"
"I'm out here!" Sweetie Belle calls from outside. "Is everypony okay?"
"We're fine," Applejack replies after giving a recovering Applebloom and Scootaloo a quick look over, moving to pick up the two buckets and reattach them to hooks on either side of the vest she's wearing, "In which case, why are y'all all the way out here?"
Applebloom fidgets, avoiding her sister's eyes, "Uhh… well…"
Applejack raises an eyebrow, "And why are you huntin' fer vamponies in a shack fulla manure?"
"We're not hunting vamponies here," Scootaloo replies, rolling her eyes as though it should be obvious, "we're here getting supplies!"
Applejack's brow knits and she opens her mouth, but after a split second of hesitation merely sighs instead, Ah don't know why they think they need manure fer huntin' vamponies, but Ah don't have the time to deal with them right now either.
"Well, good luck with that, Ah guess," she says as she walks towards the door for a second time, stopping in the doorway. "But if word gets back to me that y'all've been dumpin' manure on somepony, there'll be a reckonin', ya hear?"
She looks at Applebloom and Scootaloo expectantly. They stare back at her blankly. Applejack narrows her eyes at them.
"Ah said, 'ya hear?'"
Their eyes widen and they start nodding rapidly. Applejack looks outside at Sweetie Belle who starts nodding as well. Satisfied with their responses, Applejack leaves without another word, her attention already returning to her own responsibilities around the farm.
Applebloom glances over to Scootaloo, "Huh. Ah didn't think she'd be okay with us takin' some manure for a Crusade that easily."
Scootaloo shrugs, picking up a bucket from a shelf, "Who knows. Let's just hurry up and get out of here."
Applebloom sniffs the air as she picks up a scoop, "Ah think Ah'm getting used to it now, actually. It doesn't smell quite as bad anymore."
"That just means we gotta get out of here even faster," Scootaloo jokes as they fill the bucket. "If we stay too much longer you might start to like it!"
"eww!" Sweetie Belle squeals in disgust.
Their task complete, the pair of Crusaders exit the seemingly-no-longer-quite-as-foul-smelling shack, Applebloom rolling her eyes, "Oh hush, Sweetie Belle, that'd never happen."
Returning to the wagon, Applebloom and Sweetie Belle take a seat, placing the smelly bucket behind them next to the bottle of hot sauce. Scootaloo, meanwhile, hops onto her scooter, "So, where to for the stake?"
"Just head over to the main barn, there's some left over fence posts behind it that we can use," Applebloom directs.
The Crusaders ride through the apple orchard in silence, each preoccupied with just how good the untainted air smells. Before long, the trees give way to open sky as they approach the center of Sweet Apple Acres – the Apple household deserted save for Granny Smith sleeping on the front porch, inching back and forth on her rocking chair.
"Quiet down, Scoots, we don't want to wake Granny," Applebloom whispers.
Scootaloo slows at this, the buzz of her wings fading to let each drawn out squeak of the wagon become all the more nerve wracking while they carefully pass the elder Apple. The Crusaders sigh in relief as soon as Granny Smith is a ways behind them, the ghost of a smile on Granny's lips the only indication of their complete lack of stealth.
With Granny apparently bypassed, the Crusaders eagerly approach the final stage of their preparations – the barn. Scootaloo wheels them around back, and they hop off to begin inspecting the various odds and ends left over from decades of unattended accumulation.
Sweetie Belle looks over the pile of junk critically, "I thought you said that the fence posts were behind the barn."
"They are," Applebloom replies as she starts sifting through the pile. "Lots of other stuff is here too though."
"Ugh, we don't have time for this, it's gonna start getting dark in a few hours!" Scootaloo complains.
Applebloom shrugs, "Well we're already here, so unless you'd rather waste more time goin' somewhere else-"
"Yeah, yeah, get looking, I got it…" Scootaloo mutters, beginning to poke through the debris as well.
Sweetie Belle quickly joins them, using her magic to delve into the remains of the many reconstruction projects the Apple farm had undergone in recent years. Several minutes pass while the trio searches for something stake-like, the pegasus and earth pony stymied by the prevalence of sharp edges and splinters, until a shout from Sweetie Belle signals her success.
"I found our stake!" she states proudly, magically grasping a long, thin, and very sharp wooden rod.
Applebloom and Scootaloo stop their search, looking over to examine Sweetie Belle's find.
Applebloom nods, satisfied, "Nice stake."
"Yeah," Scootaloo agrees after inspecting it a few moments longer, "but enough staring at wood, let's go get our Cutie Marks!"
The three fillies share a highhoof and, not wasting a second more, immediately set off for Ponyville to begin their hunt.
The Crusaders glide to a halt in the middle of one of Ponyville's many streets after a somewhat longer, yet significantly less terrifying, journey back.
"So, what now?" Scootaloo asks, panting from the exertion of the return trip, though nowhere near keeling over from exhaustion this time around.
Applebloom opens her mouth to answer, only to frown after a moment's hesitation, "Ah don't actually know. Any ideas, Sweetie Belle?"
"I think we need to find some vamponies first," Sweetie Belle suggests. "After all, we can't hunt them if we don't know where they are."
Scootaloo nods in agreement, winking and wiping her eye as the motion causes a bead of sweat to blur her vision, "That makes sense. How do we find them though? It's not like they're going to be just walking around."
"By investigating," Sweetie Belle replies. "You know, conducting interviews, gathering clues – like detectives, but we're looking for vamponies instead of normal ponies."
"Sounds like a Twilight-approved plan to me," Scootaloo says, her eyes tracking a fast-moving cloud trailing a rainbow, "and I think I know the first pony we should interview."
She waves her hooves at the cloud, "HEY RAINBOW DASH!"
Said cloud stops suddenly, Rainbow Dash's head appearing to one side as she searches for the source of the call – the motion of Scootaloo's flailing hooves quickly drawing her attention. Smiling and returning the wave, Rainbow Dash holds her wings still, allowing gravity to take hold and pull her towards the surface world. An instant before she impacts the ground however, she flaps hard, altering course to instead skim over the grassy road and hurtle towards the Crusaders. At the last possible moment, she plants her hooves, wings locked to her sides as she skids the last several feet to come to a stop just in front of the fillies, striking a pose to stand proudly with her wings spread wide and a cocky grin on her face. A faint breeze follows her arrival, ruffling their manes. Scootaloo squees.
"That was SO! AWESOME!"
Rainbow Dash folds her wings, puffing out her chest a little, "Yeah, I get that a lot. So what's up, little sis?"
A silly grin spreads across Scootaloo's face as a giddy warmth infuses her body, I still can't believe I have an older sister now and she's Rainbow Dash, even if it's not 'official' or whatever yet.
She shuffles her wings, preparing to answer her idol.
Applebloom, however, cuts her off before she even begins to speak, "We were wonderin' if you knew anythin' about the vampony attack last night."
"That? Yeah, everypony's heard about that by now," Rainbow Dash snickers. "I'm surprised I haven't seen Rarity around yet, usually she's all over this kind of thing."
"She's decided to eat all of our ice cream instead," Sweetie Belle grumbles.
Rainbow blinks, "Wait, what?"
Applebloom shrugs, "We asked Twilight about it earlier, and she said that she and Rarity just had some kinda misunderstandin', but in the meantime Rarity's been stress eatin' all the ice cream she can get her hooves on."
"Yeah, and Twilight spaced out for like a minute before she told us there was a misunderstanding," Scootaloo adds. "We were waving our hooves and saying her name and everything, and she just kinda stood there."
Rainbow Dash frowns, faint warning bells going off in the back of her head, "That's… usually not a good sign. Anyway, as for the attack," she shrugs, "there's really not much to tell. Derpy got hurt, so Turner's staying with her in the hospital, and they're keeping the vampony in the hospital too since it also got hurt."
"Wait, that's it?!" Sweetie Belle asks, voice cracking under the weight of her incredulity.
Rainbow Dash nods in agreement, "Yeah, it's pretty underwhelming. I mean, a real live bloodsucker attacks somepony and it's like nopony's even bothered about it. I expected some Guards to show up at least, ya know?"
Scootaloo salutes, followed by Sweetie Belle and Applebloom, "Have no fear, Rainbow Dash, the Cutie Mark Crusaders: Vampony Hunters are here!"
"Heck yeah!" Rainbow Dash laughs, raising a hoof, "C'mon, don't leave me hanging."
They all tap hooves and let out a cheer.
After a few carefree seconds however, Rainbow Dash's smile fades and she sighs, the chains of her responsibilities once more coiling around her mind, "Too bad I have to get back to work, otherwise I'd totally help you guys out."
"You could skip work and help us out anyway," Scootaloo suggests hopefully.
Rainbow Dash chuckles, "Sorry squirt, no can do. These clouds aren't going to move themselves and I'm not about to abandon my team during a job for anypony, mysterious vamponies included."
Scootaloo lowers her head, ears drooping as she stares at the ground, "Fine… "
Rainbow Dash tousles her mane, "Hey, you can tell me all about your awesome adventure tomorrow, alright?"
Scootaloo perks up at Rainbow's words and she nods excitedly.
Rainbow Dash smiles, then flexes her wings, "Great, I can't wait to hear about it! I really gotta get back to work though – nopony else on the weather team has ever rounded up clouds faster than me since I joined, and I'm not going to let anypony break my streak. See ya!"
With that, she shoots into the air to resume her assignment, trailing her signature array of colors. The Cutie Mark Crusaders meanwhile watch her speed away before jumping aboard their preferred method of transportation, a new destination in mind.
As soon as the hospital comes into view, Scootaloo abruptly brings her scooter to a stop and jumps into a nearby bush.
Peeking out from beneath her cover, she urgently motions for her passengers to follow, "Girls! Get over here!"
Applebloom and Sweetie Belle look at each other, then over at the rustling bush containing their frantically gesturing friend. Shrugging, they calmly climb out of the wagon and follow her into hiding.
"So, why're we in a bush?" Applebloom asks, peering from their shelter to examine the surrounding area.
Scootaloo scans the road outside their bush, eying every passing pony suspiciously, "I was thinking about what Rainbow Dash said, about how it's weird that nopony seems to care, and she's right. I mean, some ponies here faint from a rabbit stampede; there should be riots in the streets right about now! Even Twilight's just sitting around in her library doing nothing instead of going nuts about science and research like she usually does when new stuff shows up. Something is definitely not right in Ponyville."
Both turn to Sweetie Belle, the filly having somehow managed to become even paler despite her already nearly pure white coat.
"You alright?" Applebloom inquires, raising a hoof to block a branch caught in a stray breeze from poking at her.
"Thralls… " Sweetie Belle whispers. "They're all thralls."
Applebloom again looks out at the many ponies beyond the borders of their bush, then returns her gaze to Sweetie Belle, "They're what now?"
"They're thralls," she repeats. "Powerful vamponies can take control of the minds of normal ponies by looking into their eyes, enthralling them. Once that happens, they're servants to their vampony master until either the vampony is killed, the thrall is purified by solar magic, or the vampony willingly releases them."
Applebloom pats her on the back, "See? This is why you're the vampony expert."
Scootaloo continues watching the ponies outside their bush, "We'll need to sneak into the hospital then. If it already got to Twilight, there's no telling who could be under its control by now."
The trio bide their time until nopony is looking before rushing to another nearby subshrub, a blur of motion and a faint rustle of leaves the only indication of their presence. Peeking from their new hiding place, they wait patiently for the right moment to advance, incrementally approaching their goal over the course of an hour.
"Alright, almost there!" Scootaloo says, examining the final patch of ground separating them from the shrubs lining the west side of the hospital, "Ready, girls?"
"Ready!" Sweetie Belle and Applebloom reply in unison.
They take one last look around to make sure nopony is watching, then make a break for it, galloping as fast as their legs can carry them.
"We made it!" Sweetie Belle declares, grinning broadly as soon as she and her friends burst through the leaves of the shrubbery, "Now we just need to find out where it's hiding and-"
Sweetie Belle's voice is abruptly cut off as she trips over something lying in the bushes.
"Ow… what was that?"
She looks up to see her friends staring at whatever she had tripped over, eyes wide with fear. Following their gaze, she observes a yellow-brown filly lying next to her. A filly with bat wings, tufted ears, and sharp teeth visible inside her slightly open mouth. Sweetie Belle's eyes widen to match the other Crusaders' as she hastily scrambles away from the little vampony. Said vampony stirs, stretches, and opens her eyes, blearily scanning her surroundings for the source of the commotion. Sweetie Belle meanwhile desperately searches for the stake they'd taken from Sweet Apple Acres, to her horror finding nothing but air. Scootaloo and Applebloom likewise reach for the manure and hot sauce they'd procured earlier, only to turn up empty hooved as well. Realization simultaneously strikes the Crusaders like a bolt of chain lightning, three pairs of eyes snapping towards where they'd left the wagon over an hour ago.
"We forgot everything in the wagon!" Sweetie Belle screams, "What do we do?!"
Scootaloo jumps at the waking filly, "Get her!"
Sweetie Belle and Applebloom follow her lead, lunging at the vampony. With a startled hiss, the vampony dodges, spreading her wings and taking off into the sky with a couple quick flaps. Unable to change direction midair despite their frantic flailing, the Crusaders collide in a disorganized pile of limbs, manes, and tails. Dazed, they hear a screech immediately followed by another impact as the vampony falls back into the shrub, landing on top of them.
The Crusaders quickly disentangle themselves, pushing the vampony off in the process. Once again standing, they prepare for battle – only to find their target cowering on the ground with her hooves over her eyes.
"W-Who's there?" she asks, her voice quavering as she speaks.
"We're the Cutie Mark Crusaders: Vampony Hunters!" Scootaloo proclaims proudly, puffing out her chest in an imitation of Rainbow Dash.
The cowering filly starts visibly shaking at this, "V-Vampony h-hunters?"
"Hold on girls, this doesn't feel right," Applebloom says, pointing at the filly before them. "Ah mean look, she's absolutely terrified. Heck, she's even cryin'. Are we sure she's actually a vampony?"
The vampony bristles at this, fear forgotten in the face of righteous indignation, "I AM a vampony and I AM NOT crying! The sun just attacked my eyes causing water to come out."
"So you're crying," Sweetie Belle states flatly.
Scootaloo waves her hooves, "Girls! Focus! She just admitted to being a vampony, so we have to get her to de-enthrall everypony, remember?"
Once again united, the three fillies turn to face their vampiric counterpart.
Dawn risks removing her hooves from her stinging eyes to glare at the three ponies opposite her, the shifting speckles of pure sunlight filtering through the imperfect barrier of leaves and branches forcing her to narrow her eyes further.
I am not crying! she thinks angrily, deliberately ignoring the wet streaks running down her face.
The red and yellow one takes a step forward, "So are ya gonna free our friends or what?"
Dawn does her best to cast an annoyed look at the pony despite her eyes being almost completely shut, "What do you mean 'free your friends'?"
The orange pegasus glares back at her, "Don't play dumb with us; we know you've been brainwashing everypony with your vampony mind powers!"
Dawn gapes at her accuser, "I – wait, what? But-"
"You heard me," the pegasus cuts her off. "And we also know that you're using the hospital as your base as you slowly take over the town so that… so you can… uhh… "
"So that you can turn Ponyville into your own personal feeding ground while you build up your strength and amass an undead army of our friends and family with which to conquer all of Equestria!" the white unicorn finishes with a crescendo.
The other two ponies stare at their friend, stunned.
"Wow, Sweetie Belle, that was… dark," the orange one finally remarks.
Dawn stands perfectly still, dumbstruck by the absurdity of the unicorn filly's statement while the earth pony nods in agreement – a split second later her expression suddenly tainted by fear as a realization sets in.
"Wait, that's yer plan?!" she looks, horrified, at Dawn, then at Sweetie Belle, whom she begins to shake rapidly, "Oh my gosh we're DOOMED! DOOOOMED!!!"
"HOOOLD I~T!" Dawn yells above the screaming, interrupting the earth pony's panic attack and drawing all eyes to herself. She glares back at them, daring any of the fillies to start screaming again.
When they are not forthcoming, she continues, "Okay, first off, vamponies do NOT have any weird mind control powers like whatever you're freaking out about. There's no way I could mind control the whole town or anything like that. Second, we can't turn ponies into undead minions. Third, I haven't done anything to any of your friends. Well, unless you're friends with the muffin one, in which case I drank some of her blood. So I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I haven't hurt any of your friends. Fourth-"
"Hold on a second," the pegasus objects. "How can you drink somepony's blood without hurting them? Doesn't that involve, you know, biting? With fangs? Vamponies do have fangs at least, right?"
Dawn bares her teeth at them in a predatory grin, "Yup."
"Cool… " the orange one murmurs. Her friends appear much less impressed however, flinching away from the razor sharp teeth. Dawn pretends to snap at them, giggling as they scramble backwards.
"'Cool' is not the word Ah would use for that, Scootaloo," the earth pony mutters.
"Yeah, more like 'creepy'. And how can you possibly not hurt anypony when you bite them with teeth like," Sweetie Belle shivers, "those?”
"Well, see," Dawn lifts her upper lip to reveal one of her canines, "these aren't my full grown fangs. They'll be a lot longer when they come in, so I'll be able to feed without taking a chunk out of anypony, but that won't happen until I get my cutie mark."
She looks away sheepishly, scuffing the ground with a hoof, "Which… I don't have. So until then I have to hunt wi-"
"Wait wait wait," Scootaloo interrupts again, focusing on Dawn's flank. "You don't have your cutie mark?"
Dawn's ears droop dejectedly, "No… "
"Neither do we!" Scootaloo eagerly shows her own blank flank to Dawn, "You should totally become a Cutie Mark Crusader!"
"Now hold on just a minute," the earth filly interjects. "Ya can't just go and invite random ponies without consultin' with the rest of us."
"Oh come on, Applebloom, it'll be so awesome!" Scootaloo counters, practically vibrating with excitement.
Applebloom knits her eyebrows, clearly not convinced, "Ah dunno… Ah mean, we just met her like five minutes ago."
"And she drinks pony blood."
"Well duh, she's a vampony."
"And she's got teeth like a timberwolf."
"Applebloom. She is a vampony."
"Does none of that bother you at all?"
"Well… she hasn't tried to attack us or mind control us or turn us into undead abominations, so she's clearly not evil," Sweetie Belle interrupts to inject some of her own reasoning. "So I think we should give her a chance."
"Ah suppose yer right," Applebloom relents, cracking a small smile which quickly grows into a large one. "Everypony deserves a chance, even the creepy bloodsucking ones."
Scootaloo pumps her hoof, "Yes!"
The three fillies face their new potential recruit grinning widely, all fear now long since forgotten.
Scootaloo hops in place, buzzing her wings, "Well? Will you join?"
Dawn eyes the fillies, wary of their sudden shift in demeanor, "Uhm… I'm not saying no, but I mean, what even is a 'Cutie Mark Crusader'?"
"Well, ya see… uh… " Applebloom pauses, perplexion followed by embarrassment. "Ya know, Ah don't think we ever actually introduced ourselves. Ah'm Applebloom."
"I'm Sweetie Belle."
"And we're," they pause for dramatic effect, "THE CUTIE MARK CRUSADERS!! YAY!!!"
Dawn winces at the fresh bout of shouting, a faint headache making itself known, "OK, that's great, but what do you actually do?" She pauses, "Oh, and I'm Dawn."
"We come up with ideas for things that it would be awesome to have a special talent for, then we go try them out together to see if we get our cutie marks in them!" Scootaloo answers, still hopping, "We've tried bowling, pillow testing, critter sitting, potion making… all sorts of things!"
Dawn cocks an eyebrow, "Like vampony hunting?"
Applebloom, Scootaloo, and Sweetie Belle collectively wince.
"Yeah… about that, we kind of thought that vamponies were evil undead monsters and ya'll were set on takin' over Ponyville," Applebloom admits sheepishly.
"That's ridiculous," Dawn says, rolling her eyes before looking at them hopefully. "Do you really think you can help me get my cutie mark though? I've been trying to find my special talent for ages, but nothing ever seems to fit."
"Ah don't know," Applebloom replies, placing an encouraging hoof on her shoulder, "but what Ah do know is that it'll be a lot more fun tryin' to find it with some friends."
Dawn nibbles her bottom lip, many long and arduous years of practice allowing her to do so without drawing blood, "I guess that'd be nice. There aren't a whole lot of other vamponies living around here besides my family, so I've never had any friends my age before."
"It's settled then!" Scootaloo proclaims, "Welcome Dawn, to the Cutie Mark Crusaders!"
Dawn glances at her hooves, then back at her fellow Crusaders, a nervous smile working its way onto her face, "So… uhh… yay?"
Sweetie Belle shakes her head, disappointment consuming her expression, "Nonono, not like that."
"Yeah, you have to say it with dedication, with passion," Scootaloo chimes in. "For example… "
Sweetie Belle, Applebloom, and Scootaloo all take a deep breath, prompting Dawn to preemptively fall to the ground and cover her ears with her hooves.
Their shout goes off like a bomb, the branches of the shrub bending from the sheer force of it to momentarily reveal the dimming sky dominated by deep reds and oranges. Beneath the leaves, Dawn cringes against the onslaught of sound, her body sliding back several inches across the grass. Fortunately however, the blast ends as quickly as it began, Dawn standing and shaking her head a bit to clear it before looking up to find her new friends watching her expectantly.
"Alright, now you try," Scootaloo encourages her.
"Put your back into it!"
Dawn sucks in as much air as her lungs can hold, "Y-pffhaha."
An uncontrolled exhalation interrupts Dawn's attempt to improve her shout, leaving her shaking on the ground and struggling for air.
Scootaloo blinks, the unexpected reaction pulling her out of her drill sergeant impression. She glances at her other friends before returning her attention to Dawn, a confused and slightly miffed expression on her face, "Uhh… what's so funny?"
"That doesn't… doesn't make… any sense… " Dawn gasps out between residual giggles.
"Yeah, it really doesn't, Scoots," Applebloom agrees. "Ah mean you can put yer back into liftin' things and shiftin' things, but that doesn't really apply to shoutin'."
"Hmm," Sweetie Belle sits and taps her chin thoughtfully, "how about 'Put your lungs into it'?"
"I guess… I don't think it was that funny though." Scootaloo shrugs, quickly losing interest in the topic, "Anyway, you definitely need some practice, buuut I think you're good enough – for now at least."
Applebloom steps forward, helping a mostly recovered Dawn to her hooves, "Yeah, and we've got a whole bunch more important things to do now since yer joinin' the Crusaders! We need to get you yer Crusadin' cape, do the induction ceremony, endure Scootaloo's super-long initiation speech – which is the real test if you ask me-"
"Hey, I revised it!" Scootaloo interjects, "It's not that long anymore, less than a page!"
Applebloom fixes her with a flat stare, "Scootaloo, it's on a scroll; the entire thing is one long page."
Sweetie Belle sighs, rolling her eyes, "Can you two stop arguing? It's going to be dark soon, so if we're going to get any of that stuff done before bed, we need to head over to the clubhouse right away."
Scootaloo waves a hoof dismissively, "We don't have to leave right now. The clubhouse isn't that far."
"It's all the way back at Sweet Apple Acres!" Sweetie Belle exclaims, "And you'd be pulling a third pony!"
"Why would she be doin' that?" Applebloom asks, raising an eyebrow, "Dawn can fly, remember? Honestly Ah'm more worried about being able to get through the initiation in time. Ah don't wanna stop halfway through and have ta start again tomorrow."
"Plus, we don't even have her cape yet," Scootaloo points out, "so we'd need to somehow make her one before going to the clubhouse. We can't do the initiation without the cape after all, it just wouldn't feel right."
Sweetie Belle smiles, "Actually, I made some extras since they get ripped and dirty all the time, so we'd just have to stop by Rarity's on the way there."
"Hey!" Dawn waves her hooves to draw their attention, "I don't have time for any of that stuff, I need to get into the hospital to see if my sister is ok." She squints towards the leaf-obscured sky, "Besides, it's still way too bright to be going all the way out to that farm. My eyes would probably shrivel up before we got halfway there."
Applebloom pokes her head out of the shrub, the setting sun casting long shadows across the lawn in front of the hospital, "What're you talkin' about? It's not bright. Heck, the sun's goin' down, it's startin' to get dark."
Scootaloo lets out a long-suffering sigh, "Applebloom… "
"She is a vampony."
Applebloom casts a curious look at Dawn, "So yer nocturnal or somethin'?"
Dawn nods, "Yeah. I was sleeping when you found me, actually."
Applebloom frowns, the statement not sitting well with her, "But if yer sister's in the hospital, why're you sleepin' out here?"
Dawn lowers her head, fidgeting nervously, "I was… I was scared, ok? My sister had just been attacked and hurt and she wasn't moving and then she was taken away by some ponies but nopony is supposed to know we even exist and I didn't know what to do. So I thought maybe I could just wait here for it to be night again and then sneak in and rescue her. Or something. I kind of fell asleep halfway through coming up with a plan."
"Well come on then, let's go!" Scootaloo declares, circling around behind Dawn to begin pushing her out of the bush, "No friend of ours is gonna be kept from visiting her injured sister!"
Dawn however resists Scootaloo's good intentions by digging her hooves into the ground, though she still slowly inches forward anyway despite her best efforts.
Sweetie Belle blocks their path, placing a hoof on Dawn's chest to stop her movement entirely, "Knock it off, Scootaloo, she just said it was too bright out for her. And it's not like we could just walk in there anyway, we'd probably cause a panic. Or at least she would."
Scootaloo stops pushing to look around Dawn at Sweetie Belle, "I doubt it. It's not like anypony freaked out about the vampony attack last night, so why would they care about one walking into the hospital?"
"Hey, that wasn't us!" Dawn protests, using the opportunity to sidestep out from between the two fillies, "It was the other freaky pony who attacked my sister!"
"Wait, let me get this straight. There was another vampony involved in the attack?" Applebloom asks apprehensively, "So there's three vamponies in Ponyville and one of them really is evil?"
Dawn shakes her head, "I don't think any other vamponies besides me and my sister would be in Ponyville right now since the sun is still up, and the pony who attacked last night wasn't a vampony either. He was… something else." She shivers.
Applebloom scratches her head, "And y'all've been runnin' around Ponyville for how long?"
Dawn shrugs, "Well, I've been here my whole life, and the rest of my family has been here longer."
"How the heck have none of you been caught before now?" Applebloom inquires incredulously.
"We're really good at sneaking," Dawn answers with a hint of pride. "Plus, we're awake when you're asleep."
She grins, "And we can do this!"
Dawn closes her eyes and scrunches her face in concentration, her whole body tensing.
"You… can look constipated?" Scootaloo asks hesitantly after nothing happens.
Sweetie Belle facehoofs, "Really, Scootaloo?"
"Grrr… it's a lot harder when the sun's out," Dawn growls. She tries again, focusing every fiber of her being into her demonstration. Without warning, her body darkens and fades, vanishing into the ambient shadow cast by the shrubs.
"Whoa~" the three still visible fillies murmur in awe.
The spell doesn't last long though, and after a few seconds Dawn suddenly pops back into existence, panting heavily while small beads of sweat form across her body, "That's also how I was planning on sneaking into the hospital."
"And not to say that that's not cool and all," Applebloom says, "but Ah can't really imagine you sneakin' anywhere like that. You only lasted for a few seconds."
"It would be a lot easier if the sun wasn't out," Dawn grumbles, shooting an accusatory glare in the fiery light source's general direction.
"So we're gonna have to wait until it's night to help you sneak into the hospital?" Scootaloo groans, "There's got to be a better way. Preferably one where we don't have to wait… " she waves her hoof dismissively at the mostly hidden sky, "however long it is we'd have to wait."
Applebloom takes another look outside the shrub, squinting at the slowly lowering sun, "Looks like it's still over an hour till sundown."
"Why don't we go ask Twilight?" Sweetie Belle suggests, "I'm sure she'd be willing to help, and it would take a lot less time than waiting here for it to get dark."
Scootaloo nods enthusiastically at the timesaving idea, "All in favor say 'aye'."
"Uhh… " Dawn shifts back and forth uneasily.
"What's the matter, Dawn?" Sweetie Belle asks, the other Crusaders watching her curiously as well.
"It's just… " Dawn pauses for a moment, glancing between her newfound friends, "it's just that nopony else at all is supposed to know we exist, so I'm not sure that telling another pony about me is going to make things any better."
Scootaloo rolls her eyes, "The whole town already knows about your sister and we know about you."
"And you told us you've got other family around Ponyville too," Applebloom adds.
"Yeah, so it's a bit late to try to keep any of this a secret," Scootaloo finishes.
"Well, when you put it that way… " Dawn nibbles her bottom lip some more, "Are you really sure Twilight would be willing to help though?"
Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, and Applebloom nod confidently. Dawn's gaze flicks back and forth across the ground in front of her before she glances towards the hospital, letting out a sigh, "I guess… alright, aye. So how is this 'Twilight' going to be able to help anyway?"
The three other fillies look at her like she'd just asked why the sun rises every day.
"Be…cause she's a princess?" Sweetie Belle answers hesitantly, thrown off by the sheer oddity of the question.
Dawn tilts her head, "She is? So she's all important and powerful and stuff?"
Applebloom furrows her eyebrows, "Uhh, yeah. Yeah she is. Do you really not know who Twilight is?"
"But Ah thought you said you'd been here your whole life! How can you not know who Twilight is?!"
Dawn shakes her head, "I've been coming to Ponyville my whole life, but I live in the Everfree Forest."
"So you know Zecora at least, right?" Scootaloo asks.
Dawn frowns, "Who?"
Scootaloo sighs, "She lives in the Everfree too, she's a zebra."
Dawn's face lights up in recognition, "Oooh, I know her. Her rhyming is really annoying."
"So," Applebloom says, catching on, "if Ah said that Twilight is the alicorn who lives in a big tree, would that ring any bells?"
Dawn nods, "She is purple."
"She is lavender," Sweetie Belle corrects primly.
"Look, the point is, you know who we're talkin' about," Applebloom states, "'cause she's the one we're gonna ask for help."
Dawn again looks at them uneasily, "And you're sure she'll be willing to help?"
"She's the Princess of Friendship," Sweetie Belle reassures her. "She'll help anypony as long as they aren't plotting to take over Equestria. And even then all they have to do is apologize."
"Alright, so, I'll go get Twilight, bring her back here, and then we can all go in and meet your sister," Scootaloo says, walking off in the direction she had left her scooter.
"Wait!" Applebloom calls after her, "Yer goin' on yer own?"
"Yeah," Scootaloo replies from outside the shrub, "I'll be able to get there and back a lot faster if I don't have to pull you and Sweetie Belle along too."
Sweetie Belle's ears perk up, the proverbial light bulb flickering to life above her head, "Oh! And I'll go get a spare Crusader cape from Rarity's. You'll have your cape and you can use it to keep the sun out of your eyes!"
With that, the two fillies run off in different directions, leaving Applebloom and Dawn sitting in the shade of the shrub. An awkward silence falls between them, neither saying anything for a few minutes.
"So… " Applebloom ventures, "do vamponies like apples?"
"-and that's why Princess Luna is coming to Ponyville tonight," Twilight finishes. "Does anypony have any questions?"
She observes the crowd's reaction, the assembled ponies murmuring as they converse with their neighbors, sharing opinions and concerns, Nervous… annoyed… a lot of indifference… I suppose there's only so many crazy things that can happen before they all start to seem normal.
A hoof goes up in the crowd.
"How many of them are there?"
"I don't know."
Another hoof goes up.
"Are they friendly?"
"I don't know."
A third hoof appears, bouncing up and down with its owner.
Twilight sighs, "No, Pinkie, I don't know if they like parties."
Pinkie's hoof stays in the air, "You don't know if they do, or you don't know if they don't?"
Pinkie sits back down, eyes narrowing as she looks off into the distance, stroking her invisible mustache contemplatively.
Twilight scans the crowd again, speaking when no more hooves are raised, "Alright, if nopony has any other questions, then I hope you all have a pleasant night."
With her speech finished, the crowd quickly starts to disperse, ponies heading back to their homes and shops. Twilight steps away from the podium and takes a deep breath, doing her best to calm her frazzled nerves. Spike meanwhile picks up her stack of notecards and begins to retrieve the ones that had dropped, making sure to place them all in the correct order.
"I'd say that went over pretty well, all things considered," Mayor Mare says, joining Twilight behind the podium. "Are you sure we shouldn't make any preparations for Princess Luna's arrival though? I'm positive the whole town would love to help."
Twilight shakes her head, "It's too late to start, and given the current situation it would probably be more of a distraction anyway."
Mayor gives a short nod, "In that case, I'll be off as well. Good luck tonight, Princess."
Once Mayor Mare has left, Twilight leans back, closing her eyes and taking a moment to relax, the silence of the already nearly empty town square a welcome respite after a supremely hectic day. Her ears prick as a faint buzzing invades the calm atmosphere. It quickly grows louder, until it's punctuated by a yell.
Spike glances over as he picks up the final notecard, "Hey Twilight, CMC incoming."
Twilight scrunches her eyes tighter, trying to stay in her calm place, It's just my imagination, it's just my imagination, it's just my imagination…
Ignoring her better judgment, Twilight allows one eyelid to partially rise, taking a peak in the direction of the approaching sound only to see Scootaloo bearing down upon her. Groaning internally, Twilight resigns herself to her impending fate, standing to face Scootaloo as the filly screeches to a halt in front of her.
"Twilight! We need your help!"
Twilight sighs, "Scootaloo, I don't know what you girls are currently crusading about, but I really don't have time to help you with it. Princess Luna will be arriving soon and I need to be present when she does."
Scootaloo meets Twilight's eyes, the filly's normally cheerful face set in an unusually grave expression, "This is way more important than saying 'hello' to Princess Luna."
"What do you mean?" Twilight asks, a dark foreboding feeling building in her chest.
"Well," Scootaloo begins, "me and the girls were going to try and get our cutie marks in vampony hunting-"
"You what?" Twilight demands.
"Yeah… uhh… yeah," Scootaloo replies, her gaze darting towards the ground. "Anyway, we went to the hospital and found a vampony in one of the bushes, and we attacked her."
The foreboding feeling in Twilight's chest intensifies at this, her heart pounding, Oh sweet, sweet Celestia please tell me they didn't… they wouldn't… I mean, they're just fillies…
"But it turns out that she's actually really nice and just wanted to see if her sister was ok, so we became friends. But it was bright out and she was scared after what had happened, and we said that you'd be able to help get her into the hospital since you're a princess."
"Oh thank Celestia," Twilight replies, relief rushing through her as she releases a breath she didn't realize she was holding.
Scootaloo blinks, "Huh?"
"I mean, of course I'll help," Twilight quickly amends. "What kind of princess would I be if I didn't?"
Scootaloo gestures at the empty wagon trailing her, "Awesome! Hop on!"
Twilight takes a seat in the wagon, then turns to her assistant, "Spike, are you coming?"
"Umm… mayyybe I should go back to the library instead? You know, in case Luna arrives before you get back?" Spike asks, nervously eying the rolling safety hazard that Twilight is sitting in.
Twilight smiles appreciatively, "That's a great idea. In that case, I'll see you when I get back."
With that, Scootaloo buzzes her wings, accelerating in the direction she had arrived from. Spike waves until they are out of sight, wiping some imaginary sweat from his forehead once they are no longer within view.
With the setting sun starting to fall behind the horizon, Scootaloo and Twilight arrive at the vampony-containing shrub beside the hospital – Scootaloo immediately jumping off her scooter and heading into the shrubbery while Twilight stays put for a few moments longer, swaying slightly.
Why didn't I just teleport? I should have just teleported. Or flown! I could have flown! Or even walked. Urgh…
Once her stomach has mostly settled from its recent ordeal, Twilight steps off the wagon, following Scootaloo into the shrub only to pause, confused, its occupants seemingly limited to Applebloom animatedly whispering something to Scootaloo.
Twilight raises an eyebrow, "Well, I'm not seeing anypony else here."
Applebloom's lips wobble with barely contained laughter, "Well, ya see, Twilight, that's be-hehe-cause… she's right behind you!"
"Did you really think that I'd-" Twilight begins to ask, the rest of the question dying in her throat as something falls onto her back. Not a hair on her body moves nor a muscle twitches as the mystery attacker pulls itself forward towards her head. Hot breath on the back of her neck precedes a warm, wet feeling on the side of her throat accompanied by a light sucking sensation.
Many sharp points slide across her skin, the vampony detaching itself from her neck to whisper softly in her ear, "Om nom nom nom."
"AAAAAAAAAHHH!!! Get it off! Get it off!" Twilight screams at the top of her lungs, bucking wildly in an attempt to dislodge her assailant who simply clutches tighter.
Once a few of her wits return, Twilight stops and teleports herself out of the shrub, leaving her attacker floating in the air for an instant before falling onto the grass with a soft thump. She pants as she frantically searches for the vampony, wild-eyed and horn glowing, only for the sound of the fillies' laughter to instead reach her ears.
"S-sorry, Twilight," Applebloom apologizes, wiping tears from her eyes as she, Scootaloo, and a squinting Dawn step out of the shrub. "It was just too temptin'."
Twilight takes several deep breaths to calm herself, the glow surrounding her horn fading away. With a grimace of disgust, she wipes the residual saliva from her neck, flicking it onto the ground. The fillies are likewise recovering, wide grins frequently interrupted by stray snorts and chuckles as they replay the scene in their heads.
Twilight looks at the fillies again, meeting the eyes of the unfamiliar face among them, "So, Scootaloo says that you're the sister of the other pony we took to the hospital last night?"
"Yup!" Scootaloo replies instead, jumping forward, "Twilight, meet Dawn, local vampony. Dawn, this is Twilight Sparkle, Ponyville's own Princess of Equestria!"
Dawn sits up and waves tiredly, her spell as well as the subsequent lack of oxygen due to laughter taking their toll, "H-hi. Um… sorry about… that. It wasn't my idea."
Twilight waves it away, choosing not to correct Scootaloo's use of 'vampony', After all, I don't know what to call them either, but that's really not important right now.
"Believe me, worse and weirder things have happened around here with surprising regularity. In any case, I take it that's a 'yes' to my previous question?"
Dawn nods, her grin sagging as amusement from their earlier prank fades into nervous fidgeting.
Twilight smiles gently, "Well I don't know about you, but I can't think of any reason to keep a family apart. We can go in whenever you're ready."
"I'm back!" Sweetie Belle announces, trotting up to the group, "Hi Twilight!"
Twilight returns the greeting as Sweetie Belle walks forward, magicking a cape around each member of the CMC.
"And the sun problem is solved!" she declares, flipping the cape over Dawn's head with a flourish.
"This is nice. Also sparkly." Dawn raises the cape to look at Twilight, "I think I'm ready now."
"Alright, in that case, follow me," Twilight says, turning from the CMC and their shrub to make her way towards the hospital's entrance. The Crusaders walk after her, Dawn by watching the hooves of those in front of her from beneath her improvised hood.
Twilight and the four fillies enter the hospital, the front area completely deserted save for the snoozing receptionist.
Approaching the desk, Twilight taps her hoof on the wooden frame, "Excuse me?"
The receptionist, however, doesn't budge, her only response a faint snore. The tip of Twilight's horn pulses, releasing a small spark which floats its way a couple feet above the receptionist's head. Twilight observes the sleeping mare for a moment more, then pulses her horn again. The spark detonates with a sharp bang, six purple streamers splitting off and falling a few inches before vanishing in a series of sparkling crackles.
The receptionist jerks awake, her sudden motion sending pencils, papers, and various other small items flying as she nearly slips off her chair. Catching herself just in time to avoid a complete wipeout, she blushes at the snickers from the younger members of her audience, "Princess Twilight! I uh – I didn't see you there."
"Don't worry about it," Twilight says, doing her best to keep a straight face. "I have a guest for the patient in room 138?"
"138? But that's… " the recently woken mare's eyes widen as they fall on the strange bat-winged filly with a sparkling gold cape over her head, "I see. Well, uh, go right on in."
Their request granted, the group leaves the flustered receptionist behind – the mare promptly starting to pick up and reorganize everything which had been knocked astray by her abrupt awakening.
As soon as they enter the inner hallway, Dawn peeks out from under her cape, flipping it over her head to lay across her back when the dimmed lights fail to cause any discomfort.
Twilight observes her curiously, "Are your eyes really that sensitive to light?"
"Yeah," Dawn replies, barely paying attention to the question as she anxiously scans each door they pass. Silence reigns for the remainder of their short journey.
Upon arriving at their destination though, that silence is broken.
Scootaloo pokes her head into room 138, her gaze held by the ruined section of wall next to where the door should have been, "Whoa, what happened here?"
"Princess Celestia happened," Nurse Sweetheart answers, suddenly appearing from room 139 across the hall. She half-bows half-nods to Twilight, "If you're looking for the vampony, she's been moved to this room."
Hearing this, the Crusaders immediately make for the door opposite them with Dawn in the lead.
Nurse Sweetheart blocks their way however, Twilight rapping her hoof on the tile floor before the fillies figure out a way to bypass her, "Sweetie Belle, Applebloom, Scootaloo – I want you to wait outside for now."
"What?!" Applebloom exclaims, the indignant expressions on her friends' faces mirroring her own.
Not giving them time to formulate a better argument, Twilight continues, "Their species was just revealed and there are probably some things they'd rather only talk to me, and Princess Luna when she arrives, about. If they're willing, and if you girls are still awake, you can ask them any questions you have afterwards – honestly I don't think I could stop you anyway."
And they'd probably somehow manage to coat most of the building in frosting or tree sap attempting to get in if I tried.
After a few moments, the three fillies nod, accepting the current situation though their faces give the appearance of having eaten something sour. With that matter settled, Twilight and Dawn follow the nurse into the dimly lit room.
Once inside, Dawn shoots forward, making a beeline for the bed. Twilight and Nurse Sweetheart hang back however, the former turning to direct a nearly transparent beam of purple energy at the door. A thin film of magical energy quickly expands from that point of contact, spreading to cover both the door as well as the entire rest of the room before disappearing completely from sight.
"Soundproofing spell," Twilight explains, prompted by an inquisitive look from the latter.
Dawn, meanwhile, stands next to the bed, shaking the pony lying on it, "Midnight! Midnight?"
When her sister doesn't respond, she faces the two adult ponies, her focus flipping between them, "What's wrong with her?"
Nurse Sweetheart joins Dawn by the bedside, "There's nothing horribly wrong with her. She does have some more serious injuries – broken bones, internal bruising, that sort of thing – but nothing life threatening or severe enough to keep her unconscious. We have been keeping her sedated since she came out of surgery as a precaution though, given the circumstances. We didn't want her to wake up and try to escape, which would definitely exacerbate her own condition as well as possibly cause others to get hurt in the process."
Twilight stands next to the nurse, scrutinizing the sleeping mare, She certainly looks better than when I last saw her. A lot more casts and bandages perhaps, but when you're injured that's probably a good thing.
"I understand. It should be fine now though – with Dawn here she hopefully won't react quite as badly, and even if she does I can restrain her with my magic."
Nurse Sweetheart nods, fiddling with the medical equipment before removing the breathing mask from Midnight's muzzle. Dawn maintains her position, watching anxiously for signs of movement from her sister immediately after the mask is removed.
Twilight watches for a moment as well, then turns to the nurse, "How long will it take for her to wake up?"
"I don't know. It can vary widely by race, gender, weight, build… " Nurse Sweetheart shrugs, "If I had to guess, I'd say she'll be conscious in about 15 minutes, though whether or not she'll be making any sense is another question entirely."
Twilight takes a seat on the floor to wait while Dawn remains standing with her forehooves on the bed, monitoring Midnight intently.
"You might want to sit down," Twilight suggests to Dawn after a few minutes have passed. "This could take some time, and staying on your hind legs like that can't be comfortable."
Dawn briefly considers ignoring the advice before stiffly sitting as well, her joints thanking her after being in such an unnatural pose for so long. Several seconds later though, Midnight stirs, Dawn instantly jumping back to her previous position. A few minutes more, and Midnight's eyes open.
She looks over at Dawn, blinking asynchronously, "Yerrr lookin' tashty~"
Reaching out with her good foreleg, Midnight takes Dawn in a clumsy hug, attempting to drag her onto the bed. Dawn struggles within her sister's embrace before finding a purchase, proceeding to pull herself the rest of the way up. The morsel now secure in her cuddle, Midnight contentedly chews on its mane – Nurse Sweetheart smiling and Twilight stifling a giggle while Dawn squirms, futilely trying to remove her hair from her sister's mouth.
Several minutes and a thoroughly mangled mouthful of hair later, the chewing stops, Midnight releasing her sister and spitting out her mane with a "pleh". Letting out a displeased groan, she tries to get the hair off of her tongue, first by wiping it on her foreleg and then on a sheet.
Once her mouth has been returned to its normal, hair-free state, she licks her lips a few times, finally taking note of her surroundings, This… isn't the Everfree.
She starts to sit up, but quickly stops after feeling a twinge in her barrel merely from tensing her muscles. Her eyes roam the room from where she's lying, her apprehension growing as she sees two ponies standing to her right, This is definitely not the Everfree.
Her gaze shifts to the form lying next to her, recognizing her little sister after a moment. She blinks, this time fully in sync, "Where… "
Suddenly the memories of the previous night come flooding back. Adrenaline rushes into her system – her pupils shrinking, heart pounding, and a growl rippling from her throat – until it's quashed by Dawn gently snuggling into her side.
A long moment passes while Midnight lays completely still, eventually releasing the remainder of her growl quietly as a heavy breath. She closes her eyes, panting, then takes another deep breath and slowly lets it out through her nose.
Opening her eyes again, she observes the two other ponies in the room as best she can from her position lying flat on the bed, her eyes resting on the closer of the pair with the glowing horn.
"Who are you?" she asks warily, "Where am I? What's going on?"
"I'm Twilight Sparkle and this is Nurse Sweetheart," Twilight answers, releasing her grasp on her magic and gesturing at the other mare. "You're at Ponyville Hospital. You were brought here after being found unconscious and injured following an attack on two of the townsponies last night."
"I see," Midnight replies stonily, her guarded expression unchanged. She shifts in her bed, tensing and flexing various muscles, all of which give similar results, Everything is sore.
She grits her teeth and tries to sit up once more, letting out a hiss of pain when her body protests the action, Yeah, I'm not going anywhere anytime soon.
Seeing Midnight's attempt, Nurse Sweetheart moves to her side and raises the back of the bed, "Better?"
Dawn grumbles, rolling onto her back to get comfortable again. Midnight however says nothing, her eyes flicking around the room from her improved vantage point – though never letting the nearby nurse out of her sight for more than an instant.
Satisfied that the room contains no immediate danger, she turns her attention to her dozing sister, "And why are you here? I thought I told you to run."
"Well I did," Dawn mumbles without opening her eyes, "but I got scared about what happened to you. So I followed them taking you here and I was going to sneak in and rescue you but some fillies found me but they were nice and we're friends now and Twilight helped me get in and now I'm here and you're here and everything… everything is going to be okay."
Dawn finishes the explanation with a yawn, stretching contentedly and burrowing her way under the sheet. The show of adorableness cracks Midnight's facade, a small smile tugging at the sides of her mouth.
She returns her softened gaze to the princess and nurse, "I guess I should thank you. For helping us. So… yeah. Thanks."
Nurse Sweetheart smiles warmly, "You're welcome."
She turns to Twilight, dipping her head respectfully, "Everything looks fine here, so I'll leave her with you, Princess Twilight. If you need anything, either shout really loudly or hit the emergency buzzer."
Twilight and Midnight watch Nurse Sweetheart take her leave, the soundproofing spell breaking with a quiet pop as soon as she opens the door. Before Twilight is able to close the door after her however, Scootaloo sticks her head through the gap.
"Hey Twilight, can we come in yet?"
Scootaloo withdraws her head, "Aww… "
Twilight finishes magicking the door shut, quickly recasting the soundproofing spell before returning her focus to Midnight. Another flash of magic, and an inkless quill accompanied by a sizable stack of papers is hovering next to her, "Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to ask you some questions."
"About what happened?" Midnight asks.
"Hm?" Twilight shakes her head distractedly as she levitates the stack around her in a whirlwind of paper, "Oh, no, not yet. We'll get to that when Princess Luna gets here. Whenever that happens to be. Which is hopefully not too soon. Mmm… "
I need to talk to Spike when I get back; he ordered these according to guidelines 7-E when he clearly should have used 15-H.
She pulls a sheet out of the maelstrom, "Aha! There you are. So then this goes here and this goes here… "
As quickly as the mini tornado had arrived, it dissipates, reforming into its original neat stack without a single page wrinkled or folded.
Twilight prances in place, prefilling the first few sections while casting cursory glances at Midnight, "What I want to know about is you, your species, your magic, your habitat… oh this is so exciting! It's not every day I get to be the first to document a brand new tribe of ponies!"
Midnight tilts her head, "Wasn't there that whole Changeling thing recently though?"
The description draws a snort from Twilight, "'Changeling thing'? There was an invasion of at least several hundred Changelings, all of whom were repulsed, resulting in a grand total of zero Changelings captured."
Midnight exhales sharply through her nose, "Wait, really? Don't you have guards or soldiers or something to chase them down?"
"Yes, well, given that Equestria has been at peace for centuries, it's a small miracle they didn't just panic and run away when flaming green bugponies started falling from the sky. Now stop distracting me, we've got a lot of questions to get through and not a lot of time. Ok, gender… female. Age…?" she looks at Midnight questioningly.
Twilight opens her mouth to object, but restrains herself, Focus, Twilight, now is not the time.
Wait, what am I thinking, now is exactly the time.
Twilight sighs, "Look, I know this is probably really scary and weird, but I'd appreciate it if you either answer honestly or just say you don't want to answer."
A pause follows as Midnight's expression morphs into one of confusion and annoyance, "Umm… okay? And I'm not scared by the way."
"So, what species are you?"
Twilight glares at her in frustration, "No, you're not. Princess Celestia already explained to me what vamponies are, and you're not one of them."
Midnight glares right back, red eyes glowing faintly, "You don't get to tell me what species I am."
Twilight fights to hold the stare as the world fades to just the two of them, however a growing part of her mind refuses to obey, desperately seeking to avert her eyes and look at something – anything – else.
After what feels like an eternity, Twilight breaks off the conflict, glancing down and shuffling her hooves uncomfortably, "Sorry."
Bracing herself, she looks back up to find Midnight regarding her calmly, a victorious glint in her eyes, "I am a vampony."
Twilight shivers, though her magic allows her to carefully record Midnight's response, "O-okay."
"Is it alright if I continue?" she asks nervously. A small part of her mind rebels against the question, appalled that it was asked, I am a Princess of Equestria, the embodiment of the Element of Magic, and one of the most powerful ponies to have ever existed. Why do I need to ask her for permission? If she doesn't want to answer, that's fine, but I don't need her permission just to continue!
However, the echoes of that thought fade to nothing even before leaving her subconscious.
Midnight nods her assent.
"Alright, uh, thanks," Twilight says, clearing her throat in preparation to ask the next question on her list, however a flash of moonlight from across the room grabs her attention.
Princess Luna steps forward from the lingering aura, "Greetings Princess Twilight, we see that you have already begun the interrogation."
Princess Twilight smiles, inclining her head slightly, "It's good to see you, Princess Luna. This isn't an interrogation though, this is… uh… a survey."
Her smile fades as she shoots a nervous glance at Midnight, the vampony watching Luna warily, "Also, the correct pronoun is 'I', not 'we'."
"Ou-My apologies, Princess Twilight," Princess Luna corrects herself with a hint of embarrassment. "W-I should have chosen my words more carefully."
"And there's no need to call me 'princess'," Twilight replies, her smile returning. "We're friends; you don't have to be so formal."
Luna nods, adopting a small smile of her own, "We accept your proposal, Twilight Sparkle, but only if you extend the same favor to us as well."
Twilight facehoofs with an exaggerated groan of frustration at the fresh pronoun errors, shaking her head in mock disappointment.
A purple blush spreads across Luna's face, "And by 'us' we meant 'me'. 'I', we mean 'I'. I mean… "
Twilight lowers her hoof, chuckling, "Don't worry about it, Luna. As much as I hate to admit it, we do have more important issues than correct grammar at the moment."
Luna stomps carefully on the tile floor, mindful not to make the crown liable for any further damage, "Tarts! One day I will get used to speaking like this."
"Er, 'tarts'?" Twilight asks uncertainly.
Luna pauses at the unexpected question, then grins widely, pride at being able to instruct Twilight on any aspect of modern Equestria sending a tingling thrill across her skin, "Indeed! Our sister informed us that it is the common term for 'Tartaurus', which has occasionally led to some unfortunate situations when confused with the pastry. She has thus far refused to elaborate on what those situations were, however."
"Your hair is amazing~," Midnight murmurs, catching the distracted pair of alicorns by surprise as she stares, mesmerized, at Luna's ethereal mane.
"Right. So." Twilight shuffles her wings uneasily, "Luna, this is Midnight, who I'm sure Princess Celestia has told you about, and her little sister Dawn, who was found earlier today by the Cutie Mark Crusaders."
Luna turns, focusing on the reason for her arrival in Ponyville for the first time, "We thank you for the compliment, Midnight."
Her attention, however, is quickly drawn from the vampony and back to the alicorn fidgeting in her peripheral vision. Striding across the room, she lowers her head to Twilight's level, their eyes only inches apart. Twilight pulls back slightly at the sudden invasion of her personal space, but otherwise remains still as Luna searches for something within her eyeballs.
Raising her head slightly, a blue spark arcs between the tips of their horns. Twilight's irises briefly tint the color of the night sky and she jerks back, her papers and quill falling to the floor as she stumbles clumsily into a sitting position.
"What… what was that?" Twilight manages, raising a hoof to the side of her head as a weight is lifted from her mind, glancing around the room and then up at Luna.
Rather than answer, Luna stares crossly at Midnight, "I may not know anything about your people, but in Equestrian society at least, it is considered both highly rude and highly criminal to cast Domination magic on others."
Midnight points at Twilight, "She started it."
Twilight glares indignantly at her accuser, "I did not! I was just trying to get you to tell me the name of your species!"
"I did tell you, and then you called me a liar!"
"That's because you did lie! And that doesn't give you the right to mind control me regardless!"
"Alright, alright, calm down children… " Luna says placatingly. "What seems to be the problem?"
She snickers as both Midnight and Twilight direct their glares towards her.
Midnight opens her mouth to respond, however Twilight manages to speak first, "I was trying to find out what her species is called, but she keeps saying she's a vampony. Except she can't be a vampony because according to Celestia, vamponies are undead abominations spawned of dark magic and Midnight is very definitely alive."
Luna raises an eyebrow, clearly unimpressed by the argument, "So what you are saying is that there are both living vamponies and undead vamponies?"
Twilight frowns, "Well, I suppose, but-"
"Then I am afraid we do not see the issue," Luna interjects, nodding towards Midnight. "It is not up to us to decide what they can and cannot call themselves."
Midnight sticks her tongue out at Twilight, the latter grumbling discontentedly.
"In any case, there are far more important questions that need to be answered right now," Luna continues, addressing Midnight. "For example, where do you and your sister live? You certainly do not reside in Ponyville."
Midnight tilts her head from side to side, considering both Luna and her question for several seconds, "…We live in the Everfree, though we usually stay at least a few miles in."
"Twilight, there is a friend of yours who makes her home within the Everfree as well, correct?" Luna queries. "Would she not have encountered them?"
Twilight shrugs, "You'd have to ask her. I don't know how far into the forest she goes, but it's the Everfree; it's more than possible they never crossed paths."
"If you're talking about the striped one-" Midnight begins.
"Her name is Zecora," Twilight interrupts.
Midnight rolls her eyes, "Yeah, that sounds right. Anyway, she's known about us pretty much since she moved in." Midnight laughs, "You should've heard her screaming when she stumbled on us eating the first time. You wouldn't think somepony with such a low voice could make such a high pitched sound."
"Wait what?!" Twilight exclaims, "If she knew about you, why didn't she tell anypony?"
"Well, she ran off," Midnight says with an amused snort, "but after we caught her, my parents offered her a deal – as long as she didn't tell anypony about our existence, she stayed off the menu."
"You eat other ponies?" Luna asks sharply, Twilight shuddering at the thought.
Midnight's eyes widen, "What? No! We're not cannibals! If we were, we would've eaten her there and been done with it. I just meant we wouldn't sneak into her tree-hut-thing and feed off of her. We only eat snakes, bears, cockatrices, manticores, the odd chimera or cragadile… took down a hydra once."
She licks her lips, "That was a good night."
Luna's nose wrinkles ever so slightly, "So, from the sound of it, you only eat meat?"
Midnight nods, "Yup. I tried a few leaves once, didn't really see the appeal."
"You mean besides not killing other living things?" Twilight mutters to herself loudly enough for everypony else in the room to hear.
Midnight shoots her another glare, "Well excuuuuse me, princess."
"Would I be correct in assuming that there are more vamponies around?" Luna cuts in before a new argument can escalate. "Unless you want us to believe that only a few of you were able to take down a hydra."
"There… are," Midnight answers hesitantly. "Dawn wasn't involved, but the rest of my family plus the other clans from around here all came together for that hunt."
"Nearby Ponyville then, how many vamponies are there?" Luna asks.
"Thirty… ish? I think? Once in a while another will wander through, but for the most part we all stick to our own territory." Midnight smiles smugly, "We have the territory closest to town though. Everypony else's is around ours."
"Perhaps it would be a good idea to be writing this information down?" Luna suggests pointedly to Twilight.
Twilight lets out an irritated grunt, nonetheless levitating her quill and scattered stack of papers to form a thin, purple-glowing wall between herself and the other ponies in the room while she fills out multiple hovering pages.
Luna sends a reproving glance at the floating barrier before returning her gaze to the subject of her questions, "You also mentioned feeding, that is, you all drink pony blood?"
"Yep," Midnight confirms.
Luna's eyebrows knit together, her eyes lingering on Midnight's pair of protruding fangs, "Why?"
"Well, if we don't, we age through our entire lifespan over the course of a couple months," Midnight replies, shrugging nonchalantly. "Or at least that's what my parents say happens. I've never actually done that, obviously, but I did put off feeding for an extra night once, and it was… not fun. Felt like there was a dull, throbbing ache coming from everywhere and constantly getting worse."
"I see," Luna states carefully, her tone neutral. "And if you do drink pony blood regularly, then it prevents this rapid aging and you live for a normal lifespan?"
"I'm pretty sure we live for longer, but that would depend on what you mean by a 'normal lifespan'," Midnight answers.
"Unicorns, pegasi, and earth ponies who die of natural causes generally live between 100 and 150 years," Twilight recites monotonously from behind her floating pages. "Unicorns are usually closer to 150 while earth ponies tend towards 100, with pegasi in the middle but closer to earth ponies than unicorns – though occasionally an earth pony can live to be multiple centuries old. Insufficient recent and reliable data exists for thestrals and crystal ponies."
Midnight blinks in surprise, "Oh. Then yeah, we live for a lot longer. Or we can at least, it's… well it's a bit complicated."
She looks at the ceiling, eyes flicking back and forth as she draws a mental image for herself, "Okay, imagine there's this jug. When we feed, blood goes in the jug and as long as the jug isn't empty, we don't really age. Whenever it does get empty though, even if only for a second, it starts to crack and fall apart and we start aging rapidly. Our physical 'age', and how long we can go between feeding, is based on how damaged the jug happens to be."
"Fascinating," Twilight murmurs, a small hole appearing in her paper wall through which she stares at Midnight intently. "So the age you appear to be is completely unrelated to your actual age and technically, assuming a perfect feeding schedule, vamponies are ageless?"
"Mostly, and I don't know," Midnight answers hesitantly. "Maybe? Nopony's ever perfect though, so what really ends up happening is that damage from the jug being empty for seconds or minutes accumulates over the years until it becomes too damaged and we die. And unlike in a lot of those books, we don't magically 'un-age' after feeding either. Any damage caused by not feeding is permanent."
"'those books'?," Twilight asks, a hint of surprise in her voice. "You can read?"
"Yes, I can read," Midnight replies exasperatedly.
"Sorry," Twilight apologizes, "I didn't mean to imply that you were stupid. It's just, well, you live in the Everfree Forest. Where exactly do you get books from?"
Midnight doesn't respond, her gaze sliding off to the right.
Twilight sighs, "You take them from Golden Oaks, don't you?"
"I might," Midnight hedges.
"…Three recently. Currently I only have one, though."
Twilight raises an eyebrow, "What happened to the two?"
Midnight stifles a chuckle, "A dragon ate them."
"Ate them? As in…?"
"Swallowed them whole."
Twilight sits back on her haunches, "Huh."
"So I'm guessing you're a Daring Do fan too, based on some of the books that've gone missing," Twilight comments after a short mental eulogy for the stories that had been digested.
"Meh," Midnight mutters noncommittally. "They're alright. Eternal City and Ruby Chalice were really good, but I've been having a hard time getting through Shadow Veil – which wasn't eaten, by the way. Her portrayal of vamponies is just so… so… inaccurate. There are all these scenes that are supposed to be serious or ominous and I just end up laughing instead. Like in Chapter 7-"
"Aht!" Twilight interrupts, raising a hoof, "No spoilers. You somehow managed to get to the book I ordered before either me or Rainbow Dash, and everywhere I've looked for another copy is sold out for at least another month."
Luna clears her throat, "While I am happy that you two have overcome your initial enmity and found some common ground, perhaps we should return to more relevant questions."
"Speaking of which, why are you answering our questions?" Twilight asks. "I was expecting you to be a lot more secretive, seeing as your species' entire existence has been kept, well, a secret, until now."
"You found me at the scene of an attack and brought me to a hospital, you found my sister and brought her back to me," Midnight says, looking tenderly at her sleeping sibling, "you're taking the whole 'blood-sucking carnivore' thing really well, and at this point there's no way for us to keep hiding anymore… "
She looks back up, first meeting Twilight's eyes, then Luna's, "You could have done a lot of things, and you chose to help us. I trust you."
Luna smiles, "We are glad that you trust us, and we will do our best to be worthy of that trust."
"How have you managed to stay hidden for so long anyway?" Twilight queries. "You're not exactly inconspicuous, especially since Thestrals all but vanished from most of Equestria for the last thousand years, and I can't imagine everypony just 'never noticed' you guys flying around breaking into ponies' homes to suck their blood."
"Well, we can use shadowmagic," Midnight demonstrates, raising her unbroken foreleg. She focuses, and after a moment the leg fades into the dim light of the room, "Plus there's really-"
"Hold on, hold on," Twilight interrupts, scribbling madly. More than a minute ticks by, the scratching of quill on paper the only sound filling the otherwise silent room.
Finishing with a flourish, Twilight looks up from her notes, "Alright, go on."
"As I was going to say," Midnight continues, "there's also just not that many of us to find in the first place. I've lived in the Everfree Forest my whole life, and besides my family, I've only ever met ponies from around here plus a few wanderers who passed through. My parents say there's actually a couple hundred of us around the Everfree, but it's a big place and there never seemed to be any point in running around trying to find them all."
Twilight frowns, "That doesn't make any sense. The Everfree is teeming with creatures you can hunt, plus there are several thousand ponies living in the various towns along the border of the forest to fulfill your… other needs. And even if in reality you aren't ageless, you're still apparently very long-lived by comparison. There should be a lot more of you than just a couple hundred."
"I don't know," Midnight replies, shrugging. "My parents have only ever said that we were almost wiped out about a thousand years ago. Other than that, I have no idea."
"It would seem that Sombra's abominations inflicted a great deal of suffering on your people as well," Luna says, sadness tingeing her words. "Even more than they caused the ponies of Equestria, by the sound of it."
Twilight's frown deepens at this, "That makes even less sense."
"What do you mean?" Luna asks, looking to Twilight curiously.
"It's something that's been bothering me ever since Princess Celestia told me what really happened," Twilight explains. "The vamponies were under Sombra's control, and when he was defeated they went berserk. But she also said that some escaped and continued to hide, killing and turning ponies."
Luna raises an eyebrow, "And? We do not see the issue."
"If the undead vamponies went berserk, they wouldn't have had the presence of mind to flee, much less hide and plan well enough to take almost a year to finish off," Twilight clarifies. "That's kind of the opposite of what it means to go berserk."
Luna sighs, "We can assure you, Twilight Sparkle, some did escape. While my sister and I had to govern Equestria and did not participate directly in this phase, the Guard alone hunted down and ended nearly two thousand vampony spawn. Many cities and towns also formed their own militias to deal with the threat."
She smiles wryly, "My sister tells me it was quite an achievement convincing them to disarm afterwards."
"Two thousand?!" Twilight exclaims, "There's no way there were that many!"
Luna's eyes narrow and she stands a little taller, "As I said, Twilight Sparkle, we can assure-"
"So two thousand ponies died the following year from vampony attacks?" Twilight inquires sharply.
Luna hesitates, her mouth hanging open for a split second, "Well… not directly, to our knowledge, but-"
"Then how did the Guard hunt down and end two thousand undead vamponies, if that many ponies couldn't have been turned first?" Twilight demands, stamping a hoof, "The exact number may not be perfectly accurate and Sombra's vamponies may have been able to bolster their numbers somewhat by going after the living vamponies, but assuming that Sombra even knew they existed, and that he told the undead vamponies about them, and that once the undead ones went berserk they had enough intelligence left to flee as well as make long term strategic plans, AND that they would have been able to find any of the living vamponies given their apparent proficiency with shadowmagic, according to Celestia, the Guard had trouble dealing with just a few dozen of the undead ones."
Twilight takes a deep breath, continuing more quietly, "To reach two thousand in a year, over five ponies would have to be turned every single day on average. If that's what actually happened, the Guard would have been annihilated."
A heavy silence fills the room. Luna gulps audibly, then speaks softly, "What are you suggesting?"
"Celestia said that after the initial attack, the entire nation was in a panic," Twilight states slowly. "Assuming the rest of Equestrian history is correct, this would have been the first attack on Equestria in centuries. Ponies who had known only peace their entire lives would have woken up to find blood in the streets and corpses walking. They were terrified, neighbors were turning on neighbors, friends on friends… "
"You said that the Guard hunted down the ones that escaped, but are you sure… " her voice wavers, "are you sure they were hunting the undead vamponies? Or did they just look for them in the shadows, and start attacking the first thing they found?"
Luna flinches as if Twilight had struck her, "No! No, we would have known! There may be some similarities between them, but we… but… "
"But after what happened, did anypony bother to look?" Twilight asks gently, "Did you?"
Luna raises her head to stare at the ceiling for a long moment, her eyes distant, "I… no. We didn't. As we said before, the Guard was doing the hunting, and standard procedure was to destroy the bodies of both guards and vamponies alike with magical fire. Not even bones remained to examine afterwards, so that there would be absolutely nothing left from which Sombra's spells could be recreated."
The two alicorns face the injured vampony, pained expressions on their faces. Midnight stares back at them blankly, "So… wait. What you're saying is… you… you killed us all off… you… "
Her eyes widen as the statement sinks in, her breathing rapidly degenerating into ragged pants, And I just told them about our home, our feeding, our magic… I told them everything. Oh shit. Oooh shit shit shit.
Luna raises a hoof to take a step forward, then halts, her eyes shifting back and forth as if having an internal debate. Coming to a decision, she walks over to the vampony's bedside, looking down at her stoically. Midnight looks up at the Alicorn of the Night, doing her best to suppress the shivers running through her body.
Luna extends a leg, "You trusted us, now I am going to trust you. Here."
Midnight glances at the offered leg, then back at Luna, "I don't… what?"
Despite the situation, Luna manages a small smile, "You said you drink blood, correct?"
A bolt of lightning couldn't have caused a more dramatic response, Twilight's jaw dropping along with her papers and quill as her mind locks up, unable to maintain the necessary processing power even for a basic levitation spell. Midnight's eyes become as large as saucers, her gaze drifting down until it settles on Luna's leg. Luna simply smiles, waiting.
Midnight licks her lips and, following a moment's hesitation, leans forward, ignoring the pain in her abdomen as her eyes glow a faint crimson. After a brief examination, she closes her mouth around the offered leg, fangs sinking into Luna's flesh with ease.
She grunts in surprise as soon as blood touches her tongue, her taste buds registering twin flavors – the first a soft spiciness which calls forth images of the full moon nestled between the winking stars; the second a calming sweetness dimming the moon and blotting out the stars to bring near total darkness. The two currents dance across her tongue, their strength waxing and waning with the other in perfect harmony.
After half a minute of eternity, Midnight withdraws her fangs, lapping up a rivulet of blood that had escaped, then healing the wound.
She licks her lips and swallows one last time, "You taste delicious."
Luna blushes, pulling her leg off the bed to hang limply below her.
Twilight eyes Luna's leg nervously, "Are you alright, Luna?"
Luna's horn glows, moonlight encasing her leg and part of her torso for a moment. After it fades, she lifts her leg, flexing it experimentally, "It was just a little venom, Twilight Sparkle, we are fine."
Midnight shifts uncomfortably, "I feel odd… "
Suddenly she stiffens, slowly levitating as first her eyes, then the rest of her body are consumed by an expanding sphere of darkness that seems to drain the light from the rest of room. Dawn wakes and jumps out of bed with a yelp, scrambling away from her sister with a mixture of fear and awe on her face. Luna also steps back, watching the sphere tensely while staying just outside its surface.
Within the total blackness, a dim light flashes, then grows, consuming the darkness entirely to shine like a miniature moon for a split second before vanishing, leaving only a fading translucent haze behind.
Midnight falls from the haze to land on her bed, casts and bandages gone, eyes wide as she glances around the room before lowering her gaze to examine her formerly broken leg. She bounces experimentally, stretches, then vanishes – reappearing on the ceiling seconds later. Releasing her hold on the ceiling, she twists like a cat, landing lithely on her hooves, "I feel awesome!"
She fully spreads her wings, flapping experimentally a few times to send a weak breeze across the room.
Twilight merely stares, speechless once again.
Dawn's eyes latch onto her big sister's flank, "Your cutie mark… "
Midnight twists her head around, blinking in surprise at the new addition – a full moon now illuminating the blue mist of her original cutie mark.
Luna raises a hoof to feel Midnight's forehead. Finding nothing, she lets out a relieved sigh, "For a moment, w-I thought I'd created another alicorn."
A nearly full moon shines down upon the Everfree, not even the thinnest wisp of cloud or mist hiding the forest below from its view. Wind whistles between the trees, leaves rustling while wooden limbs creak and bend to cast an ever changing pattern of light and shadow onto the forest floor.
Beneath the groaning branches, a zebra mare carefully makes her way through the underbrush, eyes peeled and ears on alert for the slightest indication of any of the many monsters known to roam the darkened woods. Without warning, the wind suddenly shifts direction, Zecora ducking her head to help brace herself against the onslaught of air while her mane whips around her head as if possessed. The branches overhead protest loudly in the chaotic gale, a crack echoing as somewhere nearby a tree loses a limb. The sharp noise draws Zecora's attention and she automatically drops into a defensive posture, eyes darting towards the source of the sound. Instead of a broken branch or a prowling predator however, she notices a luminescent light coming to life amid the shifting shadows, its glow waxing and waning in time with it entering and leaving the moon's gaze.
Slowly making her way over the source of the light despite the windstorm attempting to push her in all directions at once, she lowers her head to examine her discovery, "Moonbloom is quite a find indeed; such an herb is just what I need."
Waiting to delicately nip at the flowers' stems during the occasional split second pause between gusts, Zecora removes two of the three blossoms from the plant, leaving the third as she stashes her discovery into one of the many small pouches hanging from her sides.
Task complete, her eyes wander over the rest of her pouches, the warmth of pride spreading across her chest as she views the many samples of plants taken from her new home – most of which she knew not even the wisest of the tribal shamans from her native land would recognize. For a brief moment, the dark forest fades from her vision, replaced by images in her mind's eye of sweltering desert sparsely populated by cacti, of endless savanna littered with trees and covered by grasses, of refreshing oases ringed by lush green plant life, and finally of her tribe and family who would travel all three together. Shaking herself from her reverie, she quickly surveys her surroundings, letting out a sigh of relief that nothing had decided to take advantage of her lowered guard.
Perhaps I should return to visit when the season becomes fall; I have been living here for very nearly a year after all. My family does worry if my travels have left me well; and once I tell them where I’m living, it may be a tough sell!
Lowering her head against the buffeting winds, Zecora presses onwards, another half hour of difficult searching amid the weakening storm passing until a small clearing opens up in front of her. Just before entering however, she pauses, wet squelching sounds making their way to her pricked ears along with indistinct murmuring. Glancing to each side, she hides beneath the leaves of a large shrub on her right, cautiously peering out from her cover towards the source of the voices – the strong breeze carrying their indecipherable words towards her now the only remnant of the earlier vicious winds.
Illuminated by the clear light of the moon, she sees four pony-like figures tearing into the body of a much larger animal which lays beneath them, unmoving apart from the occasional shake or jiggle caused by the frenzied consumption of its flesh. While she watches, one of the creatures yanks repeatedly on a particularly stubborn piece of the unfortunate beast, each tug lasting longer and becoming more violent than the last as its frustration grows. Unsuccessful in its efforts to remove the unyielding morsel, the predator plants its hooves and with a faint growl finally manages to tear its prize from the manticore corpse's side, tumbling over backwards from the effort – the chosen piece of meat and bone flying from its mouth to land on the ground a few feet behind it. Several droplets fall from the sky a split second later, and while the shrub shields her from most of them, a single drop of still-warm liquid impacts the side of her muzzle. Zecora flinches, time seeming to slow as she feels it dribble down into her slightly open mouth, leaving behind a bitter, metallic taste.
I should leave these monstrous ponies be, else they may make a meal out of me!
Suppressing the urge to immediately start spitting onto the ground, she slowly takes a step back.
Instantly, the sounds from the clearing stop. Her breath catches in her chest, small beads of cold sweat forming across her body as Zecora watches the monsters turn to stare directly at her hiding place.
The vampony male sighs through a mouthful of meat, swallowing before looking across the corpse of their most recent kill at his young daughter, "Midnight, stop jumping on the intestines."
Mini-Midnight glances up at him, giggling, "But it makes such a funny noise!"
Rearing, she brings her forehooves down on the abused digestive tunnels once more.
The larger vampony closes his eyes and sighs again as the organ finally ruptures from the assault, a spray of blood and internal slime hiding his sky blue coat and lime green, turquoise striped mane under a thin speckling of red. A piece of intestine slides down his left hind leg and falls to the ground, leaving behind a semi-transparent trail of residue over his cutie mark – a series of dark red hoofprints traveling diagonally from the lower left of his flank to the upper right.
"Ehehe… sorry~" Midnight apologizes, ears splaying back as she removes her hooves from the dead beast's insides.
Wiping the spray from his eyes, her father blinks several times to clear his vision completely, but before he can say anything else, something warm and wet moves upwards from his jaw and across his cheek.
He rolls his eyes at the mare next to him, "Don't you start too, Eclipse, you're encouraging her."
Eclipse rubs up against her mate, the bloody residue smearing across her coal grey coat, pure white mane, and cutie mark of a shattered vertebra, "Oh lighten up, Wisp, you have to admit it was pretty funny."
"I admit nothing," Wisp huffs, successfully hiding his own amusement by taking another bite from their prey's shoulder.
"I see," Eclipse replies with a knowing smirk. "In that case, what do you think, Dusk?"
The young stallion sitting calmly next to Midnight looks up from his meal, shrugging indifferently before returning to eating, his brown mane, dark red coat, and unobscured cutie mark of a plant sprout giving him the deceptive appearance of being covered in significantly less blood than the rest of his family.
"There, you're overruled two to one: it was funny," Eclipse teases.
Ignoring her clearly flawed interpretation of the vote, Wisp raises an eyebrow at his son, "Having a bit of trouble there?"
Dusk responds with a growl, yanking repeatedly on a particularly stubborn rib. Planting his hooves, he pulls as hard as he can, only to have it easily detach from the manticore's spine with a quiet crack. The rib and chunk of attached meat fly from his mouth to land a few feet behind him, Dusk meanwhile flailing desperately before falling over backwards from the lack of expected resistance.
Grumbling as his family shares a laugh at his expense, Dusk gets to his hooves to retrieve his hard won food.
Four pairs of ears perk up at the sound, the entire family turning to stare at its source. For a moment, nothing else happens, nopony moving as they watch the shrub the noise came from. Then the shrub rustles, followed by the faint sound of retreating hoofsteps. Eclipse immediately lets out a piercing screech, charging after whoever had been hiding beneath the leaves with Midnight and Dusk eagerly following in their mother's wake. Wisp, meanwhile, disappears into the sky, homing in on the terrified shriek coming from their newest prey as it gallops away from his mate under the trees.
With Wisp flying above them, Eclipse allows the chase to stretch on, several times lunging towards her target as if to end it only to instead nip at her fleeing prey's legs or bat at her tail. When her quarry begins to tire and slow however, she sighs in disappointment, surging forward once more to grab the striped creature's tail in her mouth and yank backwards.
The attached mare yelps in surprise and aims a panicked kick at Eclipse, said vampony dodging the hasty blow easily, though in doing so releases the tail in her mouth. The mare stumbles away as the force pulling on her suddenly vanishes, but before she can regain her balance and continue with her escape, Wisp lands heavily in front of her. Ramming into the staggering mare's chest, he flips her over onto her back, knocking the air from her lungs. As the she lays on the ground momentarily stunned, Wisp places a hoof on her chest, leaning down to clamp his teeth around her throat. He feels his prey stiffen as he holds her pinned to the ground, though not enough to hide her trembling.
However, after holding her there for a moment, Wisp releases her, lips leaving behind an outline of leftover blood on her coat as well as faint welts from where his teeth had nearly penetrated her skin. He backs away from the captured mare, and after a few seconds she warily glances first at him, then at Eclipse, then behind them at Midnight and Dusk as they catch up to their parents.
Seeing their quarry laying defenseless on the forest floor, Midnight runs past her mother to rear and stomp the ground, "Raaarr!"
The recently released mare flinches at this, the innate adorableness of the filly overwhelmed by both the situation and the half dried blood from the beast she had been eating matting the hair on the front half of her body.
Wisp looks at his daughter reprovingly, "Stop trying to scare her, Midnight. We need to talk with her, not give her a heart attack."
Dusk raises his hoof, "Dibs on first drink."
Wisp gives his son a flat stare, "There will be no 'dibs' on anything."
Dusk rolls his eyes and looks away, quickly losing interest in the situation.
"Sorry about that," Eclipse says, smiling as she takes a step forward. "Kids will be kids, after all. But that aside, we do have something we need to discuss with you regarding this whole 'knowing we exist' thing."
"I'm Eclipse by the way. That over there is Wisp, Dusk, and Midnight," she continues, pointing to each in turn. An expectant pause follows.
"And you are… ?"
Zecora gulps, rubbing her throat before answering, "My sincere apologies for the wait; I’ve never met any like you to date. I am still new to these woods and my name is Zecora; I seek only to gather some of this forest's flora."
"And we have no problem with that," Wisp replies, "but we can't exactly have you going off to tell the townsponies about us either. Your own reaction to finding us explains 'why' well enough."
"I can understand very well others’ desire to be left alone; it is why I myself chose to live within the Everfree on my own. But to say that is the only reason I am growing my home here is most untrue, as there is another unfortunate reason that I settled here out of the blue," Zecora states. "For whenever I don my cloak and attempt to draw near, the ponies of Ponyville always run away in fear. So no matter what I may have come to say, they would not listen to my words anyway. Therefore in summary you need not fret; I can tell nopony of your secret."
Wisp cocks his head in confusion, "Why would they be scared of you? You're not exactly terrifying. Or intimidating. No offense."
Zecora sits up and shrugs, "Why they are so terrified of me, I cannot say for sure; whenever I enter town, I do try to act most demure. Yet while my only goal this past year has simply been to shop and trade, they all still avoid me as though a pact with a demon I have made."
"Huh. Well… I… guess that solves this rather nicely, regardless," Wisp says, his attempt at a reassuring smile revealing a mouthful of pointed teeth. "And… honestly I was expecting there to be a lot more coercion needed on your part, but seeing as you’ve been so calm and reasonable about this… "
Wisp pauses, sending Eclipse a questioning look. Eclipse hesitates, then nods sadly.
"…we won't sneak into your home and drink your blood anymore," he finishes.
Zecora blinks, then narrows her eyes, "By choosing to use the word 'anymore', that would imply you have done so before."
"Well yeah, it's a lot easier to fly over to your tree than to sneak into Ponyville," Wisp explains matter-of-factly.
"And the flavor of your blood is just so… exotic," Eclipse adds wistfully. "It was a nice treat every once in a while. Though I suppose nothing lasts forever. Or in this case barely a year."
She sighs dejectedly.
"It's not fair!" Midnight complains, "I never got to taste her!"
Zecora coughs at this, getting to her hooves, "While I do not wish to make light of the flattery you proffer, I will very gladly take you up on your generous offer. But unless there is more you wish to say of this, I must make haste; the night is no longer young, and I have little time left to waste."
With that, she quickly dips her head, then turns and canters into the forest away from the family of bloodsuckers. After watching her vanish between the trees, the vamponies leave as well, heading back to finish their meal.
Growling greets the family as soon as they re-enter the clearing containing the carcass of their most recent kill, a trio of scavenging timberwolves contesting the vamponies’ previous claim on the still fresh meat. Wisp trots towards their meal unperturbed, the timberwolves meanwhile spreading out from the corpse to flank him on either side, their growling growing louder the closer he approaches. Without warning, Eclipse drops from the sky, shattering the middle wolf beneath her hooves. Before the other two can react, she springs back into the air, her shadowmagic not quite compensating for her speed as she flies up and circles around, a nearly invisible dark blur flitting between the stars. Bounding forward when the remaining pair of wolves make the mistake of looking towards their broken comrade, Wisp bucks one of them to pieces. Suddenly alone, the last of the interlopers takes a step back, then turns, attempting to flee along with the weakly floating remains of its two comrades. It gets halfway across the clearing before Eclipse descends on it as well, the magic holding it's form together easily overwhelmed.
Midnight cheers, running beside her mother to flare her wings and hiss enthusiastically at the retreating remains. Eclipse giggles at the display, tousling her daughter's mane affectionately. After the last of the sticks vanish into the woods, they turn to rejoin Wisp and Dusk at the dead manticore just in time to see Dusk pull out what remains of the liver.
"Hey!" Midnight shouts, running up to her older brother and biting into it as well.
"Mine!" she growls through the chunk of meat, eyes momentarily flashing bright red.
Dusk drops the contested food instinctively, staggering back a couple steps while his sister happily scampers away with her prize.
"Midnight… " Wisp says, eyes glowing softly as he draws her attention, "stop intimidating your brother."
Midnight mutinously meets his gaze for several seconds before breaking off the contest and lowering her head.
"Fine… " she grumbles through a mouthful of liver, retreating further from the group to consume her food in peace.
Eclipse bumps flanks with Wisp, grinning as she watches their daughter lay down to gnaw on the organ, "Looks like you've got some competition, Wispy. She doesn't even know what she's doing and she's already almost matching you."
Wisp's dimly lit eyes meet his mate's, raising an eyebrow as he starts to circle her, "'Almost'? I don't know what you were watching, but that was clearly a complete victory on my part."
Eclipse begins circling as well, eyes glowing to match the pair looking into her own. On the third cycle, they close the gap between them, eyelids drifting shut just as their lips meet. After a short while, Eclipse breaks the kiss to nip playfully at Wisp's ear.
Noisily wolfing down a mouthful of liver, Midnight voices her opinion of their actions, "Ewww!"
"'ew'?" Wisp asks, sauntering over to his daughter, "You thought that was gross? Well then, what do you think-"
Without warning he pounces on Midnight, "-about this!"
They roll over several times before coming to a rest with Wisp on his back and Midnight upside-down on his belly, pinned by his legs. Midnight struggles fiercely to free herself from her father's embrace, though to no avail – Wisp managing to keep hold of her while his wings slowly spread wide. Then, when his wings reach full extension he suddenly brings them back in, using the claw tipping each wing to mercilessly tickle Midnight's sides.
"Stooo-ooop!" Midnight protests, giggling and wriggling in her father's grasp.
Her father ignores her plea however, continuing his relentless assault. Finally, when Midnight lays exhausted and defeated on his belly, gasping for breath while her lungs fight with the spasms of laughter for air, the tickling ceases. Before her mind fully registers the missing sensation, Wisp’s legs gather beneath her and he throws her into the air, her wings and limbs flailing wildly until her short flight ends with a squelch as she lands in the remains of the manticore's chest cavity.
Wisp punches his hoof into the air, "YES!"
Dusk spares a glance for his recently airborne sister from the other side of the manticore's ribcage, opting to continue polishing off another rib rather than become involved.
Midnight meanwhile lays unmoving amid the leftover blood and guts except for her heaving chest, rogue giggles exiting her system as she recovers from the ordeal. After more than a minute, she gets to her hooves and clambers out of the corpse's insides, shaking her body in a vain attempt to remove the coat of red now covering her from head to toe.
Eclipse raises a hoof to shield her eyes from the stray droplets flying off of Midnight, blinking in surprise as from behind her leg she notices the barest hint of dawn tipping the treetops.
Fighting a sudden urge to yawn, she stretches and stands, "Time to head home, kids; the sun's going to rise soon and we all need to take a bath. I don't want anypony tracking blood everywhere. Again."
She casts a pointed look at one of her children in particular, "Dusk."
Dusk rolls his eyes before taking off into the night sky. Midnight attempts to follow him, but fails to get more than a few feet into the air, descending back to the ground amid the tired beating of her wings. Her second attempt goes little better, and she kicks a tuft of grass in frustration.
"Dusk!" Wisp calls out, gesturing at Midnight once he has his son's attention, "Make sure your sister gets home safely."
"Fiiiine… " Dusk groans loudly, the weight of this responsibility clearly almost too much for his young shoulders to bear.
Landing beside his sister, he nudges her out of her wanton assault on the innocent blades of grass, "Alright, c'mon, let's go."
"You know, you don't have to walk me home," Midnight offers once they leave the clearing. "I can totally make it back on my own."
Dusk snorts, "That's funny, coming from the one who was almost tickled to death. Plus if anything happened to you, Mom and Dad would probably kick me out of the cave in the middle of the day or something."
With their kids finally out of earshot, Wisp bounds over to the dead manticore and pulls out the remains of its heart, which despite being nearly half gone is still larger than his hoof. Switching gears smoothly, he strides over towards his mate to offer her a piece of the organ held in his mouth.
Eclipse observes his approach wearing a faintly amused expression, and rather than take it, she instead raises an eyebrow quizzically. Undeterred, Wisp shakes the meat, then boops her nose with it. Like a waiting trap, Eclipse's jaws snap open and shut on the heart, their noses briefly touching before they both pull away from the other, attempting to split the piece between them.
Damaged as it is, the dense muscle nevertheless manages to hold firm for a few seconds, but ultimately gives in to the determined pair. Once separated, Eclipse turns and flicks Wisp with her tail, hips swaying as she takes a few steps before spreading her wings and leaping into the sky, leaving in a distinctly different direction than their children.
Wisp chews for a moment, watching her rise towards the twinkling stars until he takes off as well, following the wingbeats of the one to whom he'd given the other half of his heart.
The door to Zecora's hut slams open, another source of early morning light joining the windows until the one who entered kicks it closed. Zecora sits tiredly on her wooden floor, waiting for her breathing to calm before standing and removing her pouches. Once they are all laying on the table in front of her, she makes her way over to her bed for some well-deserved rest, only to pause as a metallic glint catches her eye. After a moment's thought, she lifts each of five neck rings laying on the nearby shelf and, with some difficulty, slips them on.
While these may be annoying as heck, never again shall they leave my neck.
Luna pats around Midnight's forehead a few more times, finally lowering her hoof when all she feels is smooth skin, "I am not sure what has occurred, but to change a cutie mark is no small matter. Do you have any thoughts on the subject, Twilight?"
She looks away from the healed vampony when a purple glow answers her question rather than words, a translucent beam shooting from the horn of the other alicorn in the room, "Twilight."
Twilight continues to magically scan Midnight, for several seconds giving no indication she had heard other than a twitch of her ears.
"While we certainly agree that a thorough examination should be done, we believe it should be done later. By a medical. Professional," Luna states pointedly, rapping a hoof on the room's tile floor when Twilight's only response is to start taking notes in the margins of her survey.
Twilight's ears twitch again at the sharp sound, this time followed by a blink. Not taking her eyes from the subject of her interest, she smiles and nods, "That sounds like a good idea, Luna; I'll get right on it."
A light giggle echoes in Luna's ears, She really is quite the 'egghead' as they would say today, is she not? Perhaps even more so in the real world than in her dreams.
Luna suppresses the urge to chuckle at the truth of her friend's words, a smile tugging at the sides of her mouth nonetheless.
We should come back and visit once this situation is dealt with. Our sister is much more of a diplomat and philosopher than a researcher, and it would be refreshing to be able to talk with somepony who might truly understand the complexities of our theories of mind and magic.
The voice gives a mental nudge, Maybe even teach her a bit of Dream magic along the way, hm?
Luna fights to keep from snorting, instead turning it into a forceful exhalation, For all our sakes, I think not. I can only imagine what would happen if she were to try to enforce her degree of order and categorization onto the Dreamscape. Besides, there is still much work to be done with the thestral reintegration, and I don't even want to think about the headache adding vamponies into the mix will cause.
A deep sigh emanates from the companion in her mind, Honestly, Lulu, we go crazy with anger and jealousy, return after a thousand years in exile to ponies that, with a bit of coaxing, are actually happy to have us around and what do you do? Bury yourself in work.
A hint of bitterness creeps into the mind mare's voice, Of course, waking up screaming from your own personally inflicted nightmare half the time hardly helps ponies feel at ease around us. The guards might not say anything, but they're getting nervous and it's only a matter of time until rumors start to spread that perhaps Nightmare Moon isn't quite as gone as they've been led to believe – if they haven't already.
Luna's small smile fades into a frown at her other’s words, then a grimace, ENOUGH! As I have told you before, it is penance for the suffering that I caused – that we caused – as Nightmare Moon.
The voice sighs, And as I have said before, tormenting yourself out of guilt is not penance, Luna. You need-
With an irritated flick of her ear, Luna blocks out the rest of the disembodied words, instead refocusing on the ponies in front of her to find Midnight again staring at the stars flowing within her mane. Twilight meanwhile forges ahead with her examination completely unaware of her surroundings – now scanning Midnight's cutie mark while Dawn's eyes roam between the trio curiously.
"Don't move," Twilight immediately reprimands without looking away from her scan. "I need you to keep 110 percent still for this."
Luna slowly releases the breath she had been holding throughout her silent argument and with some effort forces a smile back onto her face, "That is quite enough, Twilight Sparkle."
Her horn glows to life with a directed thought, encasing Twilight's in a deep blue aura to disrupt her analysis.
"Hey!" Twilight shakes her head at the unfamiliar sensation, turning to Luna in frustration when her attempt to remove the blocking spell merely causes the tip of her horn to spark.
"Twilight," Luna admonishes as she releases her hold on both their magic, "while I can certainly appreciate your enthusiasm for discovery, I need to ask Midnight a very important question regarding the previous night."
"It is also required that she be able to move her mouth to answer said question," Luna interrupts, raising an eyebrow.
"…I suppose," Twilight acquiesces reluctantly, her ears drooping momentarily before perking up again. "I can keep studying her afterwards though, right?"
Luna shrugs, "I am not the one you should be asking that."
"In any case," she continues, turning back to catch the vampony stretching, "my question for you, Midnight, is: What happened last night? According to my sister, who spoke with Twilight, who spoke with the husband of the mare whose home you were in, who was half asleep when he walked into the bedroom and emotionally distraught afterwards, there was another male vampony in the room with you. I assume that he is the pony who injured you, but we would like to hear your account of what happened first hoof."
"The other pony last night wasn't a vampony," Dawn pipes up instead while her sister completes her stretch. "But he was really weird."
"I was just there to help Dawn feed," Midnight replies once her stretch ends, "but yeah, he wasn't a vampony – or at least, not a vampony like us. He did have huge fangs though – even larger than mine – and he was about to take a bite out of the neck of the pony I had just helped Dawn feed from when I attacked him."
"Wait," Twilight says, holding up a hoof to point at Midnight, "you attacked him?"
Midnight nods, "Well, yeah, she wasn't going to wake up and there wasn't anypony else around, so I wasn't about to sit back and watch her get murdered. Besides, she tastes pretty good."
"We thank you for your intervention, Midnight," Luna states, focusing on said vampony as if she were the only other pony in the room, "but is there anything else you can tell us about him?"
"He had a red mane, coat, and eyes," Midnight elaborates, unfazed by Luna's attention. "He was red, basically. The really weird part though was his teeth; like I said, his fangs were even larger than mine – they went past his chin – but the rest of his teeth were flat like yours. He didn't have any wings either. And… there was just something really, really wrong about him. I don’t know how else to describe it, but even being in the same room with him made my hair stand on end."
No… the other voice in Luna's head murmurs, that – there's no way.
There shouldn't be, Luna replies, a cold pit forming in her stomach, and yet…
"I see." Luna swallows, her throat tightening, "And his cutie mark?"
"It was… " Midnight hesitates, recalling the oddity, "Well it was there, but it was really faded. I couldn't tell what it was supposed to be."
Luna loudly sucks in a breath through her nose, eyes widening and nostrils flaring.
"Luna?" Twilight queries, the sudden noise drawing her attention away from Midnight.
"A cutie mark is a representation of the one thing that most makes a pony special, and as such is intimately linked to one's identity, to one's sense of self," Luna explains tensely. "However, anypony controlled by Sombra's corruption would cease to exist as an independent 'self'. There is no longer anything that makes them special – they are just one more slave to his magic, thus we theorized their cutie mark would slowly fade and perhaps even vanish entirely given enough time. We never saw such fading one thousand years ago since the initial attack occurred far too swiftly for it to have been noticeable, and after that, well… "
She sighs, "After that, we simply assumed that we had been wrong about cutie mark fading rather than searching for another explanation. But if this pony's cutie mark was truly faded, and if the rest of Midnight's description is accurate, then there can be no doubt as to what he is."
"Nopony has died or gone permanently missing in Ponyville since I arrived though," Twilight points out. "If he's existed long enough for his cutie mark to have almost entirely disappeared, what's he been doing all this time?"
Luna straightens, "I cannot say, but if nopony has gone missing, then perhaps this attack was in fact the first and there is still time to catch him before he is able to turn anypony."
She clears her throat, "GUARDS!"
Twilight, along with the vamponies and most of the furniture, jump at the sudden use of the restrained Royal Canterlot Voice, "Luna, there's a-"
The doorknob rattles, then turns, the door slamming open with a loud bang followed by Applebloom, Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Spike, and three Lunar Guards trying to simultaneously pile into the room.
"-sound… proofing… spell… " she finishes lamely amid groans from the mass of ponies stuck partially through the doorway.
Whatever happened to Midnight must have disrupted the spell. Or maybe Luna shouting just rattled the door. I should really make a hardier version that doesn't break so easily, but only after performing a comprehensive examination of Midnight. And writing a paper on my discoveries. And submitting it for review and publishing in the Equestrian Journal of Magic! And… I'll just have Spike put it on my Todo List.
With a grunt, Applejack manages to extricate herself from the pony pile, picking up her Stetson from where it had fallen to the floor and returning it to its rightful place on her head, "Hey Twi, Ah think it's about time you filled the rest of us in on what exactly's been goin' on around here."
The rest of her friends voice their agreement as they stand.
"As long as it wouldn't be too much of a bother."
Twilight hesitates, glancing at Luna to find her already quietly discussing with her guards off to the side.
What do I tell them? Luna hasn't made public what really led her to become Nightmare Moon and Princess Celestia went to great lengths to hide what happened… would they be mad at me for revealing it? How would my friends react? The rest of Ponyville would definitely panic if this got out. And if they panic then word will spread to nearby towns and they'll panic which will spread to the towns nearby those towns and eventually all of Equestria will be panicking and then civilization will crumble and Celestia and Luna will be angry with me and it will be all my fault because I-
Spike snaps a claw in front of her glazed over eyes, "Twilight! Stop doing that slippery slope thing you told me not to let you do."
Twilight clears her head with a few shakes and smiles weakly at her worried friends, "Thanks, Spike. It's just… really… complicated."
"Oh… alright then," Fluttershy murmurs demurely, turning as if to leave.
Applejack rolls her eyes, blocking Fluttershy's retreat with a raised foreleg, "You ain't gettin' off that easy, sugarcube. If anythin', that's all the more reason for us ta know about it."
Rainbow Dash flaps her wings to hover a few feet off the ground, "What I want to know is: Are there or are there not any vamponies? At first I figured everypony was just freaking out because of the attack, but the Crusaders have been saying they found one."
Twilight opens her mouth to respond, then looks around in surprise, "Uhh… yeah, yeah there are. Dawn? Midnight?"
At her words, Dawn fades into view, quickly lowering her head and taking a few nervous steps away from the shocked group of larger ponies staring at her. The faces of her fellow fillies brighten at her appearance though, Scootaloo, Applebloom, and Sweetie Bell running over to their recently made friend.
"See? Ah told y'all we found a vampony!" Applebloom declares proudly.
Applejack eyes the fourth filly warily, lingering on her Crusader cape, "Ah suppose you did."
Scootaloo’s wings flutter in excitement, her whole body very nearly vibrating in place, "You stayed invisible a lot longer than last time!"
"Well yeah," Dawn replies uneasily, shifting slightly to try and hide behind her friends, "there's no sun in here."
Sweetie Belle spins around, pointing an accusatory hoof at her elders, "Stop staring at her like that, you're scaring her!"
Rarity awkwardly lowers her gaze to watch her fidgeting hooves, Rainbow Dash inspecting a corner of the ceiling while Applejack decides to examine the hospital bed, their uncomfortable apologies jumbling together. Pinkie Pie on the other hoof continues to look at Dawn as though nothing had been said, her head tilted and expression unreadable.
"Um… Twilight… ?" Fluttershy asks, uneasily eying a point on the ceiling a few feet in front of her, "Y-You mentioned two names, right?"
"Hold i~t!" Pinkie Pie yells, stealing the center of attention as she pounces over to grab Twilight. Locking narrowed eyes with her, Pinkie leans in until they are nose to nose, "Are you telling me that there's not one, but two new ponies in Ponyville?"
"Well… " Twilight answers calmly, barely surprised by the party pony's intensity, "technically they aren't new ponies; they've probably been here even longer than you have, Pinkie."
Pinkie Pie stares at her for another moment, gasping in horror once she fully grasps the situation, "This is awful!"
Dropping Twilight like a rock, she dashes over and grabs Dawn, "Quick! What do vamponies do for parties? What do you eat? What do you drink? Wait that's a silly question you're a vampony you drink blood of course. I don't know where I'd get enough on such short notice though so would punch work? It could be cherry punch or strawberry punch or - oh! Do vamponies like cupcakes?"
Pinkie giggles, "What am I saying, of course you like cupcakes everypony likes cupcakes. Maybe I could use blood instead of frosting for them though – ooor I could mix the blood into the frosting. That would be a lot more efficient than having blood drinks so I think I could pull it off. I'll call them 'High Blood Sugar Cupcakes'! Now I just need to find a couple donors…"
Having facehoofed halfway through Pinkie's barrage of words, Twilight raises her head to see Dawn desperately trying to squirm free of the crazy pink pony holding her. However, before she can react, a menacing growl ripples through the room. Luna's guards immediately whirl with practiced precision to face the source of the threatening sound while forming a protective half-circle – blades attached to each side of their armored hoofshoes flipping down and locking into place with a series of very audible clicks – only to halt at a sharp word from their princess.
Twilight hastily engulfs Pinkie with her purple magic, levitating her away from Dawn and depositing her near the door, "Sorry about that."
She glances towards the source of the growl, "Midnight, if you could please stop being invisible as well?"
After a short pause, Midnight reappears hanging crouched on the ceiling between her sister and Twilight's friends, eyes locked on the pink pony now sheepishly staring up at her. Relaxing ever so slightly at her appearance, the trio of guards return to their discussion with Luna, occasionally peeking warily or pointing with metal claws at the upside-down vampony.
"Everypony, this is Midnight and Dawn," Twilight says, pointing at each in turn. "Midnight and Dawn, this is Applejack, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Spike, Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, and Applebloom."
Ignoring the rather muted responses from the other ponies in the room, Pinkie Pie hops over right next to the hanging vampony, the top of her mane periodically flattening against the ceiling, "Hello! Sorry about earlier, I was just so excited to throw a party for two ponies I've never even met before! Not that parties for ponies that I do know aren't exciting too, because they are, but it's just so much fun to learn about new ponies and where they're from and what they like and you're an entirely new species which doubles the fun. Or maybe even triples the fun, I don't know, which is what makes it so great!"
A second, softer growl rumbles in Midnight's throat, head bobbing almost imperceptibly as she tracks each bounce of the pony invading her personal space.
Rainbow shoots over at this, inserting herself between Midnight and Pinkie, "Hey! I know Pinkie can be a bit hyper and weird, but you better not hurt her or any of my other friends, ya got that?"
Midnight tenses at the fresh intrusion, eyes flicking over the pony in front of her, "Rainbow Dash, right?"
Twilight watches the trio carefully, magical current tingling along the spiral of her horn as she once more prepares to intervene.
"Mhm," Rainbow replies shortly, continuing to hover protectively in front of Pinkie who bounces worriedly behind her.
Midnight's unlit eyes meet Rainbow's, "Twilight mentioned earlier that you like Daring Do."
Annoyance bleeds into Rainbow Dash's determined expression, "Like? Anypony can like Daring Do, but I'm her number one fan! There's a reason she put me on the cover of The Ring of Destiny."
Behind her, five ponies and a dragon simultaneously roll their eyes – Applejack groaning audibly.
The ends of Midnight's mouth curl up in a small, knowing smile, "She also said that you hadn't read the latest book yet, since it had gone missing."
"Yeah," Rainbow grumbles, "some jerk stole it."
"Actually, I borrowed it," Midnight corrects her.
Rainbow Dash's eyes narrow, "Wait. You took it?"
"No, I borrowed it," Midnight repeats, her smile widening into a grin. "I also read it."
She pauses to let her words sink in, her growing grin parting her lips to reveal the tips of her teeth, "Would you like to know how it ends?"
Rainbow Dash's flaps become momentarily uneven as she hovers away from the vampony, "You wouldn't… "
Raising an eyebrow, Midnight slowly draws in a lungful of air – Rainbow wavering for an instant before dashing from the room as fast as her wings can take her.
Midnight cups her hooves around her mouth, allowing gravity to pull her into an upright-side-down position, "AHUIZOTL KILLS DARING DO!!!"
A despairing scream echoes down the hallway, "NNOOoooooo-"
The faint slamming of a door abruptly cuts off Rainbow's cry, Midnight's last two hooves disconnecting from the ceiling to let her fall to the floor in a heap of laughter.
Nurse Sweetheart rubs her temples, leaning against the receptionist's desk, "I'm just saying, Holly, what are we supposed to feed her? From the looks of things she'll be here for a couple weeks at least, and it's not like we have dead animals just lying around here that we can stick on a plate."
Holly Dash sighs from behind her exquisitely organized desk, swiping at a stray tendril of pale yellow hair hanging in front of her face with a pink hoof, "I don't know; I'm sure Princess Twilight will be able come up with a plan. Maybe she can get a few chickens from Fluttershy or something."
Her ears perk up, "What's that sound?"
Before Nurse Sweetheart can reply, the double doors leading to the hospital rooms burst open, a cyan blur trailing a rainbow shooting across the lobby and out the exit.
The pair stare at the outer doors in shocked silence, sharing a bewildered look with each other when they close before returning to watching the exit.
"Do you think we should see what's going on?" Holly asks more than a minute of wordlessness later, front hooves tapping restlessly, "I could definitely go for a run after sitting here forever."
Nurse Sweetheart rolls her eyes, "You've been here for barely two hours."
Holly stretches her forehooves forlornly across the desk, her gaze roaming the otherwise ponyless room, "Yeah. Forever."
For a while neither speak, the only sound the tapping of Holly's hooves in time with the ticking of the clock behind her.
"Do you really think Fluttershy would give us some of her chickens though?" Sweetheart asks, breaking the increasingly awkward silence.
Holly giggles, "No, of course not. She names her chickens and everything – she'd probably kick you out for even suggesting it, assuming she doesn't faint from imagining her chickens getting devoured first."
Twilight's magic sputters out, Equestria's newest princess numbly watching Midnight laugh while her fleeing friend's wail echoes in her ears, "Daring… Daring Do… died… ?"
Midnight wipes tears from her eyes, still chuckling, "No, of course not. Daring Do is the main character; she'd never die. She and Ahuizotl actually team up to fight the 'vamponies'."
Twilight freezes, staring blankly at Midnight for a split-second before her horn glows to life once more, rolling up a few unused sheets from her unfinished survey into short paper rods.
"I! Said! No! Spoilers!" she half yells, emphasizing each annoyed word with a whack on the head.
Midnight retreats under the assault, however her surprise is rapidly replaced by frustration, "Hey – what the – stop – that!"
Taking the offensive, she jumps forward, biting into one of the rods and tearing it to shreds.
Rarity taps her chin with a hoof as she observes Twilight roll up more rods to replace the ones being ripped apart by Midnight, "I suppose that does explain all those strange Daring Do-Ahuizotl crack shipping fanfics that came out following the most recent book."
Applejack looks at her, eyebrows raised, "You read Daring Do?"
"I do not normally read such stories," Rarity admits, raising a hoof to her mouth to stifle a giggle at the scene unfolding before her. "I much prefer a good romance or drama. Nevertheless, knowing that the novels actually involve real ponies and monsters piqued my interest. The first few books have been quite good I would say, though I haven't been able to devote much time to reading them, what with writing my own story now."
"Huh. Ah wouldn't've pegged you for a writer neither," Applejack comments, Twilight meanwhile summoning another large stack of paper to weaponize.
"Yes, well, it has been a nice change of pace to try something new," Rarity replies, sighing as Pinkie exuberantly enters the growing maelstrom. "Though I'm having the hardest time coming up with a good title. Currently it's 'Forty-Two Bales of Hay', but I don't know, it just sounds… bad."
Applejack chuckles, the Cutie Mark Crusaders led by Dawn entering the fray as well, mobbing Twilight from behind, "Well Ah'm not really one to be givin' you writin' advise or nothin', but what Ah can say is that as long as you like what you wrote, it's a fine story, regardless of what anypony else may say about it."
Rarity smiles warmly, "Aww, thanks Applejack."
"Don't mention it," Applejack replies, returning the smile. Facing the battling ponies after a moment, she clears her throat loudly, "Twilight!"
Her voice cuts through the melee like a knife through water – all participants pausing to pay attention.
"While Ah hate spoilers as much as the next pony and Ah'm sure what yer doin' now is plenty fun, can you please explain what's been goin' on over the last twenty four hours?"
"Oh. Right. Of course," Twilight concedes, carefully levitating the four fillies off of her and unrolling the few rods she has remaining. "Last night – well technically I suppose it was all started a thousand years ago by Sombra – though obviously they existed prior to that, so-"
"My apologies for interrupting, Twilight," Luna says as she turns from her guards, the trio saluting and quickly cantering from the room, "but time is of the essence and since you apparently haven't already explained to them what has occurred, a simplified overview will have to do for now."
Twilight's ears fold down, a blush of embarrassment heating her face, "Sorry. I got a little distracted."
"So it would seem," Luna deadpans. "Regardless, the situation is that a very dangerous criminal is currently hiding in Ponyville and we require your help to ensure that everypony is safe and unharmed."
"Well, you can certainly count on my assistance in this matter," Rarity says with a toss of her mane.
"M~hm!" Pinkie agrees enthusiastically.
Applejack pushes her Stetson up, "Count me in."
"I'll help. And… um… " Fluttershy glances towards to door, "I'm sure you can count on Rainbow Dash too! You know, wherever she is… "
Apprehension flits across Luna's face, "I must warn you, this pony is nothing like any of the enemies you have faced previously. He will not try to tempt you as I did, nor play with your minds like Discord, nor manipulate you like the Changeling Queen. Mare or stallion, filly or colt, he will try to kill you – without hesitation."
Fluttershy gulps fearfully, her friends exchanging nervous glances.
Luna pauses for a few seconds, allowing her words to sink in before continuing, "The criminal in question is an earth pony with a red mane and coat along with a faded cutie mark. If you catch even the slightest glimpse of him, do not try to attack or reason with him, just come and alert either Twilight or I. Your job is simply to wake up every pony in town and have them report to the town square so we can make sure nopony is missing."
Applejack frowns, "Hold on, he has a faded cutie mark?"
Luna nods, "Yes. I understand how strange that must sound, and I promise everything will be explained later, but for now we must hurry – lives are in danger every moment we continue to delay."
"Alright girls, let's go wake everypony in town!" Scootaloo declares. "Cutie Mark Crusaders Disaster Alerters is a go!"
Each letting out a 'yay', the four fillies run towards the door only to find it blocked by their older sisters.
"Oh no you don't," Applejack says from her place between them and the door. "Wakin' up the town is our job. You three – err, four, are goin' straight to the town square and waitin' for this ta be over, not runnin' around Ponyville while there's a murderer on the loose."
"But-" Applebloom tries to protest.
"Besides, as… interesting… of a cutie mark as I'm sure that would be, Ponyville already has an alarm siren for that sort of thing," Rarity points out.
"Had an alarm siren," Sweetie Belle reminds her. "It was never replaced after Spike stole it."
Spike laughs awkwardly, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Girls," Twilight says, drawing the fillies' attention, "I know you really want your cutie marks, but right now we all have a job to do and your job is to stay safe. Besides," she adds knowingly, "you'll be the first ones in the town square, so it'll be up to you to keep everypony calm until Luna or I get there. Who knows, maybe you'll get your cutie marks in disaster management."
Applebloom shares a glance with the other Crusaders, "Ah never thought a' that."
Rarity and Applejack step aside to let the fillies pass, however Midnight doesn't budge, her eyes locked on her little sister.
"Follow them straight there," she says after making sure she has Dawn's full attention. "No sidetracking and no adventures, got it?"
"Y-yeah, got it," Dawn replies, Midnight's seriousness eating into her brief burst of enthusiasm.
Satisfied, Midnight steps aside as well. With all obstacles now removed, the Crusaders run past their sisters and down the hall, any hesitation promptly lost amid a cry of "Cutie Mark Crusaders Disaster Management Team YAY!"
Those remaining watch the doorway the Crusaders had left through, a pregnant pause following as each imagines a different potential outcome of putting the group of fillies in charge of managing something they normally create. The moment passes quickly however, any possible mischief the Crusaders could get up to dismissed as the older ponies plus Spike follow them out of the room and towards the exit.
"Excuse me," Twilight says, stopping at the receptionist's desk. Nurse Sweetheart and Holly Dash stop talking to look at her, a blush of embarrassment creeping onto the receptionist's face. "Can you both find anypony else that's still in the building and bring them to the town square? It's an emergency and we need everypony there."
"Of course, Princess," Sweetheart replies, looking over at Holly. "I'll get Redheart, and you can tell Tenderheart and Rhyme?"
Holly nods and stands only to trip over her chair and fall to the floor with a crash, once again upsetting her carefully organized desk. Jumping to her hooves in an instant, she dashes off, her face a deep crimson. The nurse ponies alerted, Twilight follows the rest of the group out of the building.
Applejack stops just outside the doors, "Do y'all hear that?"
As everypony listens, the sound of faint sobbing makes its way to down to them, their heads swiveling simultaneously to stare at nearby dark grey cloud releasing an occasional drop of water.
Twilight walks below the cloud, "Rainbow?"
"Go away," the cloud containing the sobbing pegasus responds.
Undeterred, she encompasses the cloud in her magic, dragging both it and Rainbow Dash to ground level, "Come on, Rainbow, Ponyville is in danger and we need your help."
Rainbow Dash avoids her gaze, eyes red and wet from crying, "B-but Twilight…"
Twilight sighs, "Daring Do isn't dead, Midnight made that up. Besides, how could she have written a book that she died in?"
Rainbow Dash swallows and rubs the remaining tears from her eyes, "O-oh… t-that makes sense, I guess. So, uh, why is Ponyville in danger?"
"Turns out there's some kinda murderer skulkin' around town, so we need ta round everypony up and send 'em off to the town square to make sure everypony's still alright," Applejack explains.
Rainbow Dash sniffles and salutes, "Well you can count on me. What's the plan, egghead?"
"We will take the southwestern part of Ponyville," Luna states, laying claim to the most densely populated area.
Twilight nods, placing Luna on a mental map of the town, "Alright, in that case… Rarity, you take the immediate area around here. Pinkie, you take the western part of town around Golden Oaks. Applejack, you should go get your family. Rainbow, you take the southeastern area; I'll take the eastern; and Fluttershy, you help Rarity here in the north. Oh and Spike, you're with me."
"So… I should sit here then?" Midnight asks just before they disperse.
"Oh! Right. Uhh…" Twilight glances questioningly at Luna.
"We think it would be best for you to join my guards and search for the murderer from the sky," Luna suggests. "After all, you are the only pony here to have seen him first hoof. Also we doubt that you would be particularly successful in convincing anypony to leave their home – quite the opposite, in fact."
Midnight gives a short nod and disappears into the sky, everyone else quickly heading to their assigned destination as well.
As the Crusaders make their way towards the town square, a voice booms behind them in the distance.
"CITIZENS OF PONYVILLE! ARISE FROM YOUR SLUMBER!"
Glancing over her shoulder in the direction of Luna's voice, Applebloom changes course, instead running up to one of the houses lining the street to bang on the front door with her forehooves, "HEY WAKE UP! THERE'S AN EMERGENCY!"
"What are you doing?" Dawn shouts back at her wayward friend, stopping along with Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo a couple houses away, "We're supposed to be going straight there!"
"Well, we're passing by these houses anyway, so really we're still goin' straight there – we just won't get there quite as fast as we possibly could," Applebloom reasons, dropping her hooves from the door. "Plus it'd be downright irresponsible of us to not wake them up when we're runnin' right by already. Ah mean what kind a' managers would we be if we just let everypony else do all the work?"
"That makes sense," Sweetie Belle concurs, Scootaloo bobbing her head in agreement.
Catching movement in her peripheral vision, Scootaloo looks down an alley between a pair of houses just in time to see a hoof vanish behind one of them.
"Hey!" she calls after the hoof, "Everypony needs to head to the town square, it's an emergency!"
Scootaloo trots over to the gap between the houses, Sweetie Belle and Dawn following her while Applebloom hops off the porch of the house she had been assaulting to join them.
"Didja see somepony down there?" Applebloom asks, scanning the empty alleyway in search of whoever her friend had been yelling at.
"Yeah," Scootaloo confirms, pointing to the corner the hoof had vanished behind, "he walked away though."
Applebloom steps into the alley, "Well? What're we waitin' for? Twilight said to get everypony to the town square and there's a pony here who needs to be told that."
Scootaloo joins her, the pair looking back at Sweetie Belle and Dawn once halfway to the corner.
Applebloom raises an eyebrow, "Are you two comin', or are ya just gonna stand there?"
"We're supposed to be going straight to the town square," Dawn reiterates, though less certainly.
Applebloom rolls her eyes, "Fine, it's a slight detour, but it's not like we're runnin' across town or anything."
"But what if it's the pony who attacked Dawn's sister?" Sweetie Belle asks, an edge of fear in her voice. "I mean, think about it. A few fillies walk into a dark alley at night following a mysterious figure only to turn a corner to find the monster standing right there waiting for them; it's the opening to practically every horror story ever!"
Scootaloo takes a turn rolling her eyes, "Yeah, but this is real life, not a story. What are the chances we'd actually run into him? He might not even be in town anymore for all we know."
Sweetie Belle and Dawn share a nervous look, however they nevertheless enter the alley after their friends. Reaching an intersection with a second alley running behind the houses, the four turn left – and come face to face with a red pony grinning maliciously at them, his razor sharp fangs glistening clearly in the moonlight. The fillies freeze, time seeming to stop with them until he licks his lips and takes a step forward, the movement setting their world in motion once more.
"I TOLD YOU!" Sweetie Belle screeches, the Crusaders backpedaling frantically across the intersection away from the monster – only to hit a solid wall. A quick inspection reveals the dead end for what it is, but before the Crusaders can correct their mistake, the fanged pony crosses the intersection as well, cornering them. A droplet of saliva travels down his left fang, combining with a black fluid gathering at its tip to fall to the ground. Stopping to sniff the air, the monster licks his lips once more, seeming to savor the scent of their fear.
Applebloom smooshes herself into the obstructing wall as if hoping she would somehow be able to phase through it, "Uh-oh."
The others bunch around her when the monster starts walking forward again, sliding along the wall and into a corner in an effort to keep as much distance as possible between them.
"Girls," Scootaloo says, looking over to meet each of her friends' eyes, "I have a crazy idea."
"Awesome! Because I have no ideas at all!" Sweetie Belle yells, panic rising in her cracking voice.
Scootaloo lets out a scared laugh, "OK, on the count of three, shout 'yay' as loud as you possibly can."
Applebloom gawks at her incredulously, "That's your-"
All four Crusaders simultaneously clench their eyes shut and take a deep breath.
The monstrous pony lunges.
A powerful wave of sound crashes into the charging monster, the force of it lifting him off his hooves and throwing him clear across the intersection to glance off the alley wall before landing in a crumpled heap. After a tense moment, the Crusaders carefully crack open their eyes to observe their surroundings, caution transforming into awe as they examine the shallow quarter-circle crater they're now standing in.
"Whoa…" Applebloom murmurs, slowly walking a few steps away from their corner as she takes in the destruction.
Sweetie Belle presses a hoof to one of the damaged walls, fresh cracks emanating from the corner they had backed into leading up to a shattered window, "I can't believe that actually worked."
Scootaloo grins, "Good job putting your lungs into it, Dawn! We couldn't have done it without you!"
The four gather together again, this time in a group hug. Their celebration is short lived however – the fanged pony rising and shaking his head, though staggering slightly off-balance. The moon's light reflects weakly off a thin stream of blood trickling out of each ear from an injury otherwise invisible against his similarly colored coat.
"I think we should run now," Dawn suggests.
Hastily disengaging from their hug, they race towards the intersection, their still dazed attacker stumbling forward as well. However, mere steps away from safety, they skid to a halt, Rainbow Dash landing heavily in the center of the intersection to put herself between them and the nearly recovered red pony.
She looks over her shoulder, "Are you girls okay?"
"We're fine," Sweetie Belle assures her.
Rainbow flares her wings, returning her attention to the pony with a faded cutie mark, "Good. Now get out of here!"
"Already on it!" Scootaloo yells, she and her friends charging past Rainbow Dash and towards the street.
The red pony hisses angrily at the sight of his escaping victims, any unsteadiness now gone as he gallops at the meddling pegasus. Rainbow Dash simply raises an eyebrow, an amused smile playing across her lips. He lunges, but just as his hooves are about to make contact she falls onto her back and kicks up, all four of her hooves connecting with her attacker's barrel to easily propel him over her and into another wall.
"Is that the best you got?" she taunts, jumping to her hooves.
Her opponent stands as well, unfazed.
Closing the distance between them once more, he stops short of another full body assault, instead this time his head shooting forward towards her neck. Despite his change in tactics however, all he gets between his teeth is air, Rainbow nimbly dodging his attacks and each time landing a solid punch on his jaws after they audibly snap shut. Her fifth blow knocks a tooth loose and she smirks at him, confidence swelling until she takes another step back to dodge his next attack – and slips on her own tail.
With a victorious snarl the fanged pony lunges forward once more, Rainbow Dash frantically spreading her wings and taking to the air, only to jerk to a stop a couple feet off the ground. Looking below, she sees the fanged pony digging his hooves into the dirt, her traitorous tail gripped in his mouth. He grins at her, eyes gleaming, and in one swift motion reaches up, grabs her tail with his forehooves, and yanks her towards him. Rainbow yelps at her sudden descent, automatically aiming a kick at his muzzle, but he calmly spits out her tail and tilts his head to the side, allowing the limb to shoot past his jaw – and into reach.
Rainbow Dash cries out in pain as his fangs sink into her leg, her wings momentarily faltering, then beating even faster than before to no avail. The undead vampony groans passionately at her obvious suffering and closes his eyes, the glow of his irises still visible through his eyelids as the blood flowing across his tongue is replaced by another liquid leaving his fangs. Rainbow yells again, redoubling her efforts to escape though the one drinking her blood barely notices, effortlessly maintaining his grip on her leg while he's dragged across the ground by his struggling victim.
His victory does not last long, however. Without warning, Midnight drops from the sky onto the oblivious earth pony, the speed of her descent partially stripping away her invisibility and the impact dispelling it completely – a sharp crack echoing down the alley the moment her forehooves connect with the base of the undead pony's skull, shattering vertebrae and severing his spinal cord. A pair of pops immediately follow as his shoulders dislocate, a series of splintering snaps coming from his barrel a split second later when the momentum from her dive bears his body into the ground.
The grip on her leg vanishing as the vampony's body breaks, Rainbow Dash shoots into the air like a multi-colored spell bolt before bringing herself under control and returning to land on a thatch roof overlooking the alley.
Pushing off from her prey's unmoving form with an unhealthy squelch, Midnight takes to the air as well, landing on the roof opposite the shocked pegasus.
"H-hey!" Rainbow sputters, her wide-eyed stare moving from her attacker's broken form to Midnight, then back to her attacker, "You-you just killed him you-"
She fails to finish her sentence however, the not-dead pony drawing a gurgling breath and staggering to his hooves only to fall down again – his crippled body barely capable of standing, let alone walking.
Rainbow's eyes nearly bulge out of their sockets as she gapes at him, closing her mouth just in time to keep her dinner from spilling down the side of the house and following up with an audible swallow, "-you didn't kill him. Sweet Celestia, how is he still alive!?"
Midnight disregards the exclaimed question, scrutinizing Rainbow after sniffing the air, "Are you alright?"
"Huh?" Rainbow Dash asks, distracted by a fresh attempt to stand by the pony below, "Yeah yeah I'm fine."
"I smell blood," Midnight states calmly, still watching her.
Rainbow gestures at the crippled pony as he falls once again, "Gee, I wonder why."
Midnight smells her hooves, wrinkling her nose, "It's definitely not his; his smells terrible."
Rainbow glances at her injury and shifts slightly, as if keeping it out of sight would somehow hide the scent, "He got me a bit before you… uhh… " the pony stands again, "broke him."
"I can heal it," Midnight offers, spreading her wings. The pony falls once more.
"No!" Rainbow declines loudly, nerves tingling uncomfortably up her leg as she takes a couple steps away, "I mean, uh, no thanks. He only nicked me and I'm barely bleeding so you can stay. Over there."
Midnight hesitates for a moment, then shrugs and folds her wings, settling down to keep an eye on the pony she had landed on.
"ARISE, CITIZENS! I REALIZE IT IS LATE, BUT PLEASE HURRY!"
Looking down, Luna sees the Crusaders frantically waving at her.
Frowning, she descends to the street, "WHY ARE – sorry, why are you not at the town square?"
An indecipherable stream of words answers her inquiry, all four fillies speaking at once.
Raising a hoof for silence, she points to one of them, "Applebloom, why are you here?"
"We found him!" her chosen Crusader responds immediately.
"Yeah!" Scootaloo adds, "Rainbow Dash held him off so we could escape."
Horror spreads across Luna's face, "Take me to where you found him! NOW!"
The Crusaders flinch at her tone, immediately turning on their hooves and running back the direction they had come, now with Luna flying just behind them.
Sweetie Belle points to the alley they had recently fled from, "Over there!"
Luna lands in front of them just in time for a red pony to stagger out and fall to the ground at the mouth of the alley. She freezes, eyes wide, but only for the barest moment – her horn shining to life to seal the fallen pony inside an iridescent sphere floating a few feet off the ground.
Barely managing to stand on the curved floor of the sphere, the undead pony steadies himself and bucks the barrier with his hind legs. Twin *cracks* sound as his ankles bend at unnatural angles and several small fractures appear on the shield's otherwise smooth surface, the force of his kick propelling him face first into the other side of the shield. Luna's horn flares brighter, the damage to the sphere disappearing in seconds while her prisoner's smushed face glares at her malevolently.
The immediate threat contained, Luna scans the alley worriedly, "RAINBOW DASH!"
"Up here, Princess Luna," Rainbow responds as she gingerly walks towards the street across the roof of one of the houses overlooking the alley, Midnight matching Rainbow's movement on the roof of the house making up the alley's other wall.
A sigh of relief builds in Luna's chest, however before she can release it, a purple flash from a nearby window draws her attention.
"Huh? How did I-"
A piercing scream cuts off the muffled words followed by a series of crashes, the commotion ending with Twilight teleporting into the alley.
"Is everypony okay?" she inquires, surveying the area as she levitates the back of a chair from around her neck and brushes a few splinters of wood from her mane, "I heard screaming."
Rainbow Dash snickers, "Uhh… yeah, we're fine. …Are you alright?"
"Hm?" Twilight's gaze flicks from the captured pony to her amused friend, then back to the sphere, "Yep I'm totally fine, just a small teleportation misunderstanding."
Scootaloo contorts her body, attempting to mimic the pose of the pony inside the barrier, "I don't think you're supposed to be able to bend that way."
"Midnight, is this the pony who attacked you?" Luna asks, ignoring Scootaloo's observation.
"Yes," Midnight confirms.
Twilight inspects the undead pony, her eyes narrowing, "It seems decidedly not berserk though…"
She squints at his flank, the light from Luna's barrier allowing her to just barely make out the faded image of a stepped pyramid with a bamboo tree on either side, "And based on what's left of his cutie mark, it appears he's from the Tenochtitlan Basin? That's odd."
Rainbow stamps her hoof angrily, "I bet Ahuizotl sent him here to get revenge for when we helped Daring Do."
Twilight's eyes widen at her friend's words, the last pieces of the puzzle falling into place, "Midnight, you mentioned earlier that in the most recent Daring Do book vamponies were described very inaccurately, and that she and Ahuizotl teamed up. Was that really what happened?"
Midnight smirks down at Twilight from her perch, "I thought you didn't want any spoilers."
"Just tell me," Twilight demands.
Midnight rolls her eyes, "Yes, yes, that's really what happened."
"And," Twilight continues, "did they team up because one of Ahuizotl's minions became an undead vampony and started turning his other minions into undead vamponies, so in order to save his remaining minions as well as to have any chance of ever taking full control of the Basin he teamed up with his mortal enemy?"
Midnight opens her mouth to answer, but Twilight cuts her off with a raised a hoof, "And! Was the leader of the undead vamponies described to look like," she points at the sphere, "him?"
Midnight stares at her, perplexed, then at the undead pony. Then back at Twilight, then back to the pony, each time her confusion further replaced by shock.
"Daring Do is real?!" she half asks half exclaims once her brain starts working again.
Twilight snorts, "Daring Do is very real. Was my summary accurate?"
Midnight nods mutely, eyes unfocused as she peers off into space.
"Which leaves only one explanation for why this undead vampony seems to have intelligence," Twilight concludes. "Well no, there are at least seven other possible explanations, but this one is the most likely."
She faces the undead vampony once more, "Isn't that right, Sombra?"
A cruel smile twists the captured monster's face as he regards the accusing alicorn, lips parting to release a choking, guttural laugh.
Luna stabs her horn towards the sky at his response, her moon rapidly moving across the heavens to reach its zenith before blazing like a second pure white sun. Darkness reclaims the night sky after only a moment however, all of the moonlight focused entirely into a single thin beam intersecting the barrier she had created. While the magical light from the beam disappears as quickly as it had been summoned, its whiteness does not leave entirely – the intense magical energy having scorched the color from everything beneath and around the now ponyless prison.
Luna's eyes lock onto the one thing remaining inside – a unicorn horn, dark grey at the base transitioning to a bright reddish-orange at the tip. After hovering for a split second, it falls, hitting the bottom of the barrier with a soft yet resounding *clink*.
Silence reigns as Luna, Twilight, Midnight, and Rainbow Dash stare at the horn, all of them starting when it emits a sharp, snake-like hiss before dissolving into thick black smoke. The dark mass quickly expands to fill the entirety of the shield, tendrils forming to press and prod at various parts of its prison in search of a weakness to exploit.
"Huh. Well that's definitely unexpected," Applebloom comments.
Twilight's ears stand straight up, the voice of the Apple family's youngest member dragging her attention from the newly filled barrier to the Crusaders standing just a few steps behind her. Closing her eyes for a moment, she mentally kicks herself, Great, just great, not only was I actually right about Sombra, but I let four fillies watch Luna kill another pony. Or whatever this would count as. Annihilate another pony? End another pony? Well, in any case…
"Girls," Twilight says, turning to sternly address the still gawking fillies, "you need to go to the town square right now. And I mean actually go there this time."
While she speaks, magic crackles across Sombra's prison accompanied by an incomprehensible, echoing whisper as he continues testing the limits of the spell containing him.
Flinching at Twilight's tone as much as the remnants of the deposed tyrant, Scootaloo nervously salutes along with Sweetie Belle and Applebloom, "You got it, Twilight."
The trio makes a hasty retreat in the direction of the town square, however Applebloom suddenly stops and turns around after passing only a single house, "Hey Dawn, you comin'?"
Dawn glances at the waiting fillies, then uncertainly back at her sister.
Midnight tilts her head towards the other fillies, "Go on."
Casting one last worried look at her sister, Dawn joins her friends and they soon vanish around a corner as they head to their original destination.
Watching the four complications leave her sight, Twilight closes her eyes and fills her lungs with air, placing a hoof to her chest. After holding that pose for several seconds, she moves her hoof away and slowly exhales, though what little stress the action manages to relieve is instantly replaced as soon as she reopens her eyes.
"Luna," Twilight says, returning to the matter at hoof, "this whole 'Sombra getting destroyed and transforming into smoke' thing is very similar to what happened last time you and Celestia defeated him, right?"
"It is," Luna confirms.
"And last time, according to Princess Celestia, it caused any remaining undead vamponies to go berserk, right?"
"That… " Luna's eyes widen, "Oh."
As if on cue, her three guards land behind the pair of alicorns, each bowing quickly to their princess, "Your Highness, we have found no trace of the pony you described anywhere in Ponyville."
"He is no longer of any concern," Luna replies, dismissing their outdated information. "Have you seen any other similarly suspicious characters or activities?"
The lead guard shakes his head, his eyes occasionally darting from Princess Luna to the swirling shadow captured at the alley's mouth, "We have not. With the exception of one house blasting some sort of strange classical-electronic music, the entire town was completely silent until a couple minutes ago, and this is the last section we have yet to sweep."
Luna nods, relief washing over her at their words, "Good. Continue searching and report back to me if you find anything."
The guards salute, then take to the air once more.
Luna turns to the other fliers, "Rainbow Dash, Midnight – I want both of you to continue searching as well. You both know this town far better than my guards and may think to look in places they would not."
Midnight sends Rainbow a concerned glance, but nevertheless jumps into the night sky and vanishes.
Rainbow Dash stands as Midnight takes off, gritting her teeth and shifting her weight onto her good legs to ease the growing pain spreading through her bitten one. Meanwhile thin arcs of lightning travel across Luna's shield as the smoke once again tries – and fails – to escape, a familiar pair of green eyes with red pupils forming in it after the attempt.
"Twilight," Luna grunts, breathing heavily, "we cast this spell quickly in order to contain the undead vampony, but it is highly inefficient and therefore very difficult to maintain for any length of time, especially against somepony with Sombra's abilities. Therefore we require your assistance in creating a more permanent solution."
While Luna speaks, the pair of floating eyes wander from the two alicorns to settle on Rainbow Dash, the pegasus' leg beginning to throb in time with her heartbeat.
Rainbow gulps, averting her gaze from the eyes, "So, uh, Twilight, what was that about the undead? Why is Sombra here? What the hay is going on!?"
"Not now, Dash," Twilight replies without even glancing up at her friend. "What did you have in mind, Luna?"
Rainbow's vision blurs and she rubs her eyes, "But it's kinda important-"
Twilight sighs, massaging the bridge of her nose, "Look, I know this seems really strange right now but believe me, everything is going to be fine. Sombra's been captured and he's going to stay captured."
"We were thinking one of Starswirl's ambiance-sustained containment barriers, if you have the materials available," Luna suggests, likewise paying the pegasus little mind. Twilight taps her chin while she mentally runs through her inventory of magical supplies, "Hmm, I should have everything on hoof. If not, I can definitely pull whatever else we need from some of my past experiments."
Rainbow frowns and again opens her mouth to speak, however Twilight disappears in a purple flash before she can get a word in edgewise.
"Was there something you wished to say?" Luna asks, glancing up at Rainbow Dash – though only for a fraction of a second, her attention diverted as Sombra once more strains against his prison. Small cracks form in multiple places on the sphere, Luna's horn flaring brighter and beads of sweat forming on her face while she struggles to keep the shield from shattering. Once Sombra's attack subsides, she sits heavily, her head lowered as she pants from the exertion.
"Uhh… no, it's fine, it can wait until after you and Twilight make that ambi-whatever," Rainbow replies uneasily. As soon as she speaks, her vision swims and nausea rises in her stomach, "I think… "
A minute later, Twilight reappears in another flash of purple with a lumpy bag held in her telekinetic grasp. Rainbow Dash sways, blinking away the lingering afterimage as Twilight places the bag next to Luna and unloads several blank runestones, transparent focus crystals, and deep blue amplification gems.
Luna nods tiredly, "That should suffice. We will need you to take over containing Sombra while I set up."
"Of course," Twilight walks over to stand next to Luna, the shield glowing purple as the pair touch horns.
"Oof, you weren't kidding about it being inefficient," Twilight jokes once they separate. However her attempt at humor is lost on Luna who sighs with relief at the removal of her arcane burden, closing her eyes for a few seconds to rest and refocus on her new task.
Levitating four of the runestones to lay on the grass in front of her, she lowers her glowing horn to the closest of the set for several seconds, dim white lines originating from their meeting point to move seemingly at random across its smooth surface. As Luna moves on to the next runestone, the white lines fade from the first, thin strands of smoke rising from the fresh engravings now etched into its surface. Once identical runes have been carved onto all four stones, she embeds them in the ground to form a square around Sombra's purple prison. Eight of the focus crystals follow, Luna carefully placing a single crystal on either side of each runestone one quarter of the way along an arc to form part of a circle. The amplification gems complete the circle, one centered between each pair of focus crystals.
Unnoticed while Twilight concentrates on maintaining the current shield and Luna works to create a new one, Rainbow Dash slumps to the rooftop, the world bending and twisting before her eyes as a haze fills her mind.
After walking a lap around her circle to examine her work, a ball of energy gathers at the tip of Luna's horn. Closing her eyes and taking a deep, slow breath, she lowers her horn nearly to the ground, the rings of her horn glowing as four beams of white light simultaneously shoot out to hit each of the runestones. Tendrils grow like roots from their surfaces, digging into the earth and air before fading from view to leave the runestones thrumming with magical energy. As soon as Luna ceases her magical injection, the air chills, twin beams shooting from each runestone to pass through the focus crystals which narrow the beam and direct it at the amplification gems. The brightly glowing blue gems rise to float just above the ground, an identically colored beam of energy arcing from each to strike the existing barrier containing Sombra. A second layer of magic grows from those four points, quickly merging with each other to complete the new shield.
"You may release your spell now, Twilight," Luna says once the air begins to warm.
Twilight does so immediately, her shoulders sagging tiredly as Luna's original barrier disintegrates. The smoke pushes against its newly constructed prison, though nothing happens apart from a slight drop in temperature, the air warming again as soon as the escape attempt ends.
Luna allows herself a weary but satisfied smile before she begins another lap around her activated spell circle, horn pulsing dimly against the thrumming backdrop of magical current as she probes for any slight defects.
Sighing, Twilight rubs her eyes, the enveloping darkness along with the slow, circular motions of her hooves providing a welcome respite. Eventually though, she lowers her hooves, a pink blur blocking her vision when she reopens her eyes – a few blinks revealing Pinkie's smiling face mere inches from her own.
Twilight jumps nearly a foot into the air, her wings snapping open to slow her short descent. Heart pounding in her ears, she forces herself to take several long, deep breaths, the mad beating in her chest gradually calming, "Pinkie! Please don't do that. Tonight of all nights."
"Okie-dokie-loki," Pinkie replies. Turning, she takes in the rest of the scene, her smile shrinking at the sight of Sombra.
"What are you doing here anyway?" Twilight asks quizzically, "You couldn't possibly have woken everypony up yet."
"Weellll… most of the ponies I woke up were pretty annoyed about it, seeing as it's late and all, but once I explained what was going on they were really understanding and some even started helping out! So when the moon suddenly got super bright I told told them to finish up and I'd investigate. So here I am!" Concern fully replaces Pinkie's smile as her eyes move from Sombra to the adjacent roof, "By the way, what's wrong with Dash?"
Twilight blinks in confusion, finally looking up at her many-colored friend, "What do you mean what's wrong with – Dash!"
"'s fine," Rainbow slurs from her perch, "'m totly fin"
"No you are NOT fine. Now get down here so I can see what's wrong," Twilight demands, faint warning bells going off in the back of her mind.
When Rainbow's only answer is a gurgling groan, Twilight lifts her friend from the roof with her magic, gently lowering the pegasus to the ground. Her jaw drops as soon as she sees the rest of Rainbow's body, jagged black lines of lumpy flesh stretching the length of her leg and beginning to spread across her barrel as if fire flowed through her veins instead of blood, burning her from within, "Lunaaa!"
Luna glances up from her examination, "We are standing right here, Twilight; there is no need to yell."
Twilight paws at the ground, "What… does it look like when a pony gets bitten?"
Luna is beside Twilight fast enough to have teleported, the lack of a telltale flash the only indication she hadn't done so. She gasps when she sees Rainbow's injury, "It can appear similar to that."
"Nooo nonono," Twilight murmurs, backing a step away and turning in a circle, "how do we fix her? Cure her?" She looks up hopefully, "Luna?"
Fear twists in Luna's gut, but with a grimace she forces the unhelpful emotion into the background, "I… we do not know. Never before have we seen it behave with such… virulence. In our limited experience with the turning process, it only ever succeeded when the pony bitten was near death already, in which case there was little point in trying to save them and even then the scarring was nowhere near this severe. In a healthy pony it should be almost indistinguishable from a common cold, and should disappear on its own after a few days."
Twilight whirls to glare at Sombra, "What did you do to her?!"
The tyrant's shadow merely laughs, Rainbow Dash simultaneously yelling in pain as the lines of corrupted flesh pulse and spread further across her body. Pinkie watches the exchange expressionlessly, her mane flattening to reach her knees in time with her friend relaxing once the flare of pain subsides.
Luna places a hoof on Twilight's shoulder, "Perhaps the Elements would be of use? They were able to purge me of the corruption which led to my becoming Nightmare Moon after all, and what is happening here is as disharmonious as anything I've ever encountered."
"Twilight! Whatever is making that absolutely awful noise?" a familiar voice calls from behind them, "And where did that disgusting smoke monster come from? Though I suppose that probably answers my first question, doesn't it?"
Relief rushes through Twilight at the sound of Rarity's voice, the sight of Fluttershy trotting beside her drawing forth a weak smile despite the situation, "Have either of you seen Applejack?"
Rarity shakes her head, "No, we haven't. She ran all the way out to Sweet Apple Acres, remember? Is something the matter?" She pauses, "Also, is that thing… staring at me?"
Fluttershy's eyes widen upon seeing Rainbow Dash and she raises a hoof to her mouth, "Oh my… "
Rarity's gaze shifts back and forth between the smoke and Rainbow, "Twilight, dear, what in the world is going on?"
Her query bounces impotently off of Twilight's stress-muddled mind, Twilight instead focusing on a different question, How do I find Applejack? How do I find Applejack? How do I-
"Hey girls, Ah came as fast as Ah could. What's goin' on? Why'd the moon get bright all of a sudden?" Applejack asks, galloping towards the group from the opposite direction as Fluttershy and Rarity. Her ears lower as soon as she sees Rainbow lying on the ground, "Scratch that, what's wrong with Dash? She don't look right."
A sensation of displacement answers her questions rather than words, Twilight pulling her five friends along into a group teleport.
For a long minute, Luna stares at the place they had been, at last raising her gaze to the full moon still shining overhead, Good luck, Twilight Sparkle.
Unable to sit still any longer, Luna resumes her examination of her circle only for Spike to run up several seconds later.
"Princess… Luna… have you seen… Twilight?" Spike asks between pants, falling first to his hands and knees then onto his side as he gasps for breath.
Luna nods, "I have. They just left, in fact. I do not know precisely where to for certain, though I would expect them to be entering the Everfree Forest as we speak."
Spike groans at the thought, his already burning lungs like a weight filling his chest, holding him to the ground. The door to the house Twilight had teleported into opens as he lays there, Berryshine peeking out with a fresh chair clutched in her hooves. She jumps at the sight of Luna, dropping her chair and falling into a bow, "P-Princess!"
Spike raises his head and waves, "Hey, Berry."
"Since neither of you are doing anything else at the moment, could you both begin waking the ponies on this street and directing them to go to the town square?" Luna requests.
Spike grunts, but after a few more deep breaths gets to his feet, "Sure."
Berryshine rises from her bow, "Of course, Princess Luna."
Sombra struggles to break free once more, dark whispers at his failure finally drawing the attention of Spike and Berryshine. They stare at the shadow. The shadow stares back.
Chaos explodes through the Golden Oak Library as soon as Twilight and her friends appear – books, chairs, and all manner of other movable objects flying through the air at random while Twilight frantically darts around her home, skimming through the moving projectiles.
"So Twilight-" Applejack ducks, a lamp just barely missing her hat, "-are ya gonna explain why we're here? Or what's wrong with Rainbow Dash?"
"Or what that awful smoke creature was?" Fluttershy adds as she pulls a slowly tumbling Owlowiscious from Twilight's magic and into the relative safety of an empty bookshelf.
Fluttershy smiles, "You're very welcome."
Rarity steps aside to dodge a slow-moving table bearing Pinkie Pie, "Or perhaps you could start with why you're trying to smash us to bits with this maelstrom?"
"QUIET!!!" Twilight shouts, the floating objects abruptly ceasing their movement. "I need to find where I put the Elements so we can cure Rainbow Dash and all your talking isn't making it any easier!"
"Then why are we here?" Pinkie queries monotonously from beneath her still flat mane, the rest of her friends sharing an uncomfortable look, "We gave the Elements back to the Tree of Harmony, remember?"
Twilight's right eye twitches and several tufts of hair pop out from her well-combed mane, everything falling to the floor along with several of the more delicate objects shattering as her magic cuts out, "But that – but we – we need the Elements to fix Rainbow, and if they aren't here, if they're in the Everfree Forest, teleporting myself that far through so much chaotic magic is already incredibly dangerous and teleporting all six of us is impossible but if we don't get there, if we don't-"
A scream interrupts her, Rainbow Dash's corruption spreading again to reach halfway up her barrel. Twilight's mouth hangs open as she stares at her dying friend, her mind both trying, yet unwilling, to go any further down that path.
Applejack walks over, snapping Twilight out of her daze with a light punch to her chest, "Hey, now Ah may have absolutely no idea what's goin' on right now, but what Ah do know is that we still represent the Elements even if we don't got those fancy necklaces or crown anymore. So what do we need to do to save Rainbow Dash?"
Twilight swallows and shakes her head, the motion reorganizing her jumbled thoughts, "Right… you're right, Applejack; we do still represent the Elements, so we should be able to channel them at least a little bit. Okay, everypony form a circle with Rainbow."
I just hope it'll be enough.
Twilight, Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and Rarity arrange themselves in a circle to include a barely conscious Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie's mane re-poofing to its usual curly style despite Pinkie's own determined frown. Closing their eyes, each of the five focus on their element, a light breeze swirling around them as they levitate a couple inches above the floor – all aside from Rainbow beginning to glow a faint white while two translucent rainbows arc out to connect each of them to their neighbors. Their unity does not last however, black wisps leeching out of Rainbow Dash's body to surround her in a thickening haze, the shadow absorbing the two rainbows linking her with Twilight and Rarity to prevent them from reaching their friend. The other connecting rainbows begin to flicker at the interruption as well, and after a few seconds the channel abruptly ends, dropping them all back to the floor.
"What happened?" Rarity asks worriedly, "Twilight, why didn't it work?"
"I… I don't know," Twilight replies, cold tendrils of dread sinking into her heart. "It should have worked. The entire purpose of the Elements is to spread harmony, so the only reason I can think of that it wouldn't have worked is it's become too ingrained to be removed without the actual Elements of Harmony."
Applejack shivers despite the room's warmth, shifting shakily from hoof to hoof, "So what's gonna happen to RD?"
Twilight blinks away tears, "She's going to die."
Well, not quite, a part of herself whispers unbidden from a dark corner of her mind. It's your job to grant her that luxury now.
Taking one last look at her friend, Twilight charges her horn, Rainbow Dash spasming as the corruption spreads again.
"Um… I have an idea… "
Four pairs of eyes meet Fluttershy's.
"W-Well… I was just thinking… m-maybe if we tried making a circle around Rainbow Dash instead of with her it might work better, since she'd be connected to all five of us instead of just two?"
Twilight stares at Fluttershy dumbly for a split second, then grins widely, gleefully letting the magic leave her horn, "Fluttershy, you're a genius!"
Their hope rekindled, Rainbow's five friends gather around her and focus on the elements they embody once more. Levitating a couple inches from the ground, a faint rainbow again passes between Twilight, Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and Rarity – strengthening when the circle is completed. They rise a further few inches as the breeze swirling around them intensifies and they start to glow, Rainbow Dash also beginning to be drawn up as five rainbows arc down from her friends to struggle against the black haze forming around her. This time however the unity of her friends holds firm, the shadow surrounding her losing ground until one, then two, then all of her friends connect.
A brilliant white cocoon envelopes Rainbow, an eerie screech echoing around Twilight's library as Sombra's poison is purged from her body. Finally free of the corruption, Rainbow Dash rises to join her friends, the light of the cocoon spreading throughout the entire room before the six slowly descend to the floor.
As soon as the magic fades, Rainbow Dash crumples to the ground with a soft thump. Groaning contentedly at the sudden lack of pain, she tiredly opens her eyes to observe her surroundings, though her head remains on the pleasantly cool wood floor. Her moment of rest does not last long however, Twilight anxiously levitating the weakly protesting pegasus into the air to slowly spin her around in search of any remaining black markings. Finding nothing more than a twisted, but perfectly normal, scar just beneath her cutie mark, Twilight gently sets Rainbow Dash back on the ground and looks up at the ceiling as waves of happiness wash away her fear.
She's… she's okay. Whatever Sombra did to her, it's gone. She's going to be okay!
Rarity runs her eyes over Rainbow's mostly unmarred body while Twilight cheerfully stares off into space, "Are you alright, darling?"
"What the hay happened to ya?"
"Quick, Dashie, how many hooves am I holding up?"
Fluttershy draws in a lungful of air, "Everypony SHUT UP and BACK UP!"
Obeying her command with looks of mild surprise, Applejack, Rarity, and Pinkie cease their verbal bombardment and take a step away, Twilight following suit a second later. Moving forward, Fluttershy lowers her head next to Rainbow's, speaking gently, "Is there anything you need?"
"Water," Rainbow rasps softly, a hacking cough following her request.
"On it," Twilight replies, darting into her mostly undamaged kitchen and returning with a large glass of water seconds later.
Rainbow Dash snatches the offered glass from Twilight's magic as soon as it comes within reach and eagerly gulps it all down, the cool liquid soothing her parched throat. Lowering the empty cup from her lips, she coughs to scratch the last persistent itch from the back of her throat before glancing around again, panting slightly and swallowing several times to clear accumulated phlegm from her airway.
"So… um… if you don't mind me asking, that is, if you're feeling better now, what happened to you?" Fluttershy asks, the uncertainty in her voice wavering close to fear.
"I-" Rainbow swallows once more, "I'm not really sure. I was flying to where Twilight said I should go, but just before I got there I heard the Crusaders shouting. When I found them, they were huddled in a dead end across from some red stallion. He attacked me while the Crusaders escaped, and I was totally kicking his flank until I… uh… tripped. And then the freak bit me, but-"
More coughs interrupt her, prompting Twilight to quickly fetch a refilled glass which Rainbow Dash gratefully drinks from before continuing.
"But then what's-her-name, the vampony, just broke the guy. Not like knocked him out, like, I'm pretty sure she broke his spine. And a bunch of other things. And then she just sniffed the air and could smell the blood from where I'd been bitten. It was preeetty creepy. Anyway, me and her watched him stagger around for a while until Princess Luna got there, she hit him with the moon, which somehow made King Sombra's horn appear and… it all gets kinda hazy after that. I think there was an ambivalent something or other?" she shrugs, sipping at her remaining water.
"So Twi," Applejack says, an edge of anger barely hidden beneath her words, "Ah think you owe us all an explanation as ta what's really goin' on here. For example, why King Sombra is in Ponyville."
Twilight winces, "Um… well… I think it would be better to wait until Princess Luna is here. She knows a lot more of the history behind everything and could probably-"
Applejack steps up to Twilight, the pair nose to nose, "Ahm sorry, let me restate that. Derpy got sent to the hospital, Midnight got sent to the hospital, mah sister and her friends got attacked, and Rainbow Dash almost died. Start. Explainin'. NOW."
Six pairs of eyes snap towards the door to find Mayor Mare slowly inching her head into the library, the mayor nervously scanning the demolished room, "Um… is this a bad time?"
Twilight attempts to formulate a response, but before she can get her tongue to cooperate, Applejack glares at the interruption, "Yes. Now is a very bad time."
"Oh," Mayor replies, her eyes darting between Applejack and Twilight. "Well, everypony has made it to the town square except for a few stragglers still trickling in, so whenever you're ready, Princess."
Twilight forces a smile onto her face, "Thanks Mayor, we won't keep everypony waiting for too long."
Mayor Mare nods and quickly shuts the door, leaving Applejack to return her furious gaze to Twilight.
Twilight retreats a couple steps and takes a deep breath, unused to the weight behind her friends' stares, "Alright, explaining, okay… um… I don't know everything, but I based on what I do know, it all really started about one thousand years ago… "
"and that's why we needed to use the Elements to save Rainbow Dash," Twilight finishes, licking her dried lips and glancing around at her friends. The only sound to greet her completed explanation is the quiet ticking of a clock from somewhere beneath the debris scattered about the room. Pinkie Pie opens her mouth as if to say something, however for perhaps the first time since Twilight had met her, no noise of any kind comes out – her mouth instead closing wordlessly after a few seconds as she lowers her eyes to examine her hooves.
"Wow," Rainbow Dash finally speaks up from her spot on the floor, "that's some seriously messed up stuff, Twilight."
"Which you didn't tell us," Applejack says.
Twilight flinches and lowers her head, ears splayed back, Applejack's steady calmness somehow cutting much deeper than her earlier anger.
A lump forms in her throat as she stares at the floor, tears gathering in her eyes, "I-I meant to tell you, really, but then I got distracted and Luna said we needed to get going and I just… but that's no excuse. I didn't tell you and it nearly cost ponies their lives. I failed, both as a princess and as a friend and… and I'm sorry."
The clock takes over the conversation again, its faint ticking echoing loudly through the room.
After a minute, Applejack's stony expression softens and she sighs, "Look, Twi, you screwed up somethin' fierce. There's no nicer way a' sayin' it. But after hearin' everything that happened, Ah can… understand why you did what you did. Ah still think it was a stupid, foal-headed-"
She cuts herself off and takes a deep breath, "Look, if Rainbow had died, if any of our sisters had died, we'd be havin' a very different conversation right now. One that probably wouldn't involve all that many words. But they didn't. Somehow, everything managed ta work itself out. Ah'm gonna need some time to get over what happened, we all will Ah think, but Ah also know that you're not the type of pony to do somethin' like this on purpose. So Ah forgive you – on the condition that you never leave us out of the loop like this ever again."
Twilight sniffles and raises her head, going through a familiar set of motions, "Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in both my eyes."
Lowering one hoof, she uses the other to wipe away her tears.
"Well, that's good enough for me!" Pinkie declares, a shadow of her usual happiness returning. Trotting over to Twilight, Pinkie embraces her, "Group hug time!"
"Now that sounds like a wonderful idea," Rarity agrees.
"Mmm-hm," Fluttershy adds wholeheartedly, the pair contributing their hooves to the hug.
Applejack and Rainbow Dash share a smile before joining in as well, the shared heat of the six friends matching the warmth beating in each of their hearts.
Luna's horn pulses one last time at the end of her inspection before winking out, a small, satisfied smile on her face as she raises her head to view the quietly humming beams of energy forming her circle. Seconds later a dim glow appears in her peripheral vision and she frowns, turning to watch it grow in strength then just as quickly fade into nothing.
That felt like the Elements of Harmony.
Strange… what are they doing in Ponyville?
The pair's ponderings are interrupted by a persistent crackle from their shield while Sombra wastes the next minute desperately struggling to free himself, his eventual failure leaving him no other recourse but to angrily swirl in place.
Luna smirks, the slightly chilled air left over from his escape attempt little more than a refreshing breeze against her body, "Your plan for Rainbow Dash failed, we assume?"
She feels a slight tickle at the edges of her mind as Sombra meets her eyes, silently staring back at her.
Is he… ?
Her other voice snickers, Indeed he is.
Luna holds the stare for a moment longer, then breaks it with a roll of her eyes, turning her back to him and instead sitting to watch the last few sleepily unaware ponies stumble past them towards the town square.
"Oh, the horror, the horror!" Roseluck proclaims from the ground, Daisy's leg twitching for added emphasis while Lily Valley lays perfectly still beside them.
Heavy hoofsteps approach the flower ponies, coming to a stop just in front of them. Lily's curiosity grows steadily in the ensuing silence, eventually convincing her to crack open an eye. A maliciously grinning Nightmare Moon fills her vision, the dark creature's intimidating visage mere inches from her own.
Like a vampire fruit bat out of Sweet Apple Acres before Fluttershy came along, Lily races away, Roseluck and Daisy hot on her tail after their own glimpse of Nightmare.
Spike and Berryshine approach Princess Luna as the trio flee, Berry bowing and Spike saluting, "All done, Princess Luna."
Luna nods, shifting back into her usual form, "Good. Berry, was it? Please follow them to the town square as well."
Berryshine rises, quickly cantering away.
"I have another task for you, Spike," Luna says, extending a hoof to block him from leaving with Berryshine. "I must speak with my sister about everything that has happened here tonight, however I also cannot leave this monster unattended. Therefore, I will enter into my sister's dream while you remain here to keep watch." A line of moonlight begins to trace its way along the groove of her horn, "If anything happens, anything at all, wake me by hitting my horn."
Not waiting for him to say a word, the tip of Luna's horn glows and she closes her eyes, a thin strand of magic extending a short distance before abruptly fading out of the waking world.
"And how exactly am I supposed to do that?" Spike asks himself aloud, looking up at the alicorn princess towering over him. Glancing around, he walks past Luna to pick up a moon-bleached rock, "Better than trying with my fire, I guess."
He stiffens as a nearly inaudible whisper makes its way to his ears, slowly raising his head to look up at the barrier – and straight into Sombra's unblinking gaze, "Whoa! That was… creepy… "
He sways, his attempts to look away becoming increasingly half-hearted as his eyes gradually change color to match the pair staring into them.
And why would I want… to look away… such pretty eyes… like emeralds… and… rubies…
Pain suddenly lances through his tail and he staggers back, jerking his left claw away from one of the runestones.
Spike rubs his pounding head, feeling moisture coating his scales, "Ugh… what happened?"
"You weren't answering me, so I bit you," Midnight replies, licking her fangs. "You taste spicy."
Spike winces as he flexes his tail, "Um, thanks?"
"I think I can heal it, if you want," Midnight offers. "Never tried on a dragon before though."
Spike waves her offer away, "I'm fine, it barely even hurts. Though next time maybe try not biting?"
Midnight shrugs, "Well I tried asking you and poking you, which didn't work."
Spike rubs his head again, flicking his wrist to send more of the clear fluid onto the ground.
"And when licking didn't work either, I figured I had to try something more drastic."
Spike freezes at her words, then slowly removes his claw from his head to stare at it, a strand of saliva stretching between two digits, "Eww, gross!"
A gout of green fire engulfs his claw, instantly drying it of the liquid from Midnight's mouth. Closing his right eye, he cups both his claws to redirect a second burst of flame at his wet scales.
Midnight meanwhile walks up to Luna, poking a leg experimentally.
"Hey!" Spike shouts, wedging himself between the two mares. "No biting the Princess!"
Midnight looks down at the determined drake, raising an eyebrow. Spike swallows nervously, his eyes drawn to her protruding fangs, but he holds his ground.
Turning away with a roll of her eyes, Midnight steps around him to take a seat next to Luna, "I wasn't going to bite her, I was just curious what she was doing."
"Oh," Spike says, sitting and leaning back against Luna's left leg. "She's talking to Princess Celestia in her dreams about all the crazy stuff that's been going on. And she left me in charge of waking her up in case Sombrero over there tries anything."
Midnight frowns, idly batting at a stray lock of Luna's ethereal mane floating tantalizingly over her head, "I thought his name was Sombra."
Spike sighs, "It was a joke. You know, Sombra, sombrero? They sound similar but they're totally different things."
Midnight continues playing with Luna's hair, the motions pulling a few more locks over to her, "What's a sombrero?"
"It's this hat they wear down in Mexicolt. It has a big bump in the middle for your head, the brim comes out really far, and then it curves back up a bit at the edge," Spike describes, his claws following an invisible outline in the air. "Sometimes there's things hanging down off the bottom too."
Midnight pauses mid-rear, her eyes following an imaginary sombrero-topped Sombra floating above Ponyville. She snickers, "You're right, that is pretty funny."
Luna smiles as she steps from the real world into the world of dreams, watching the myriad doors to the nighttime fantasies of her ponies tumble through space seemingly at random against a backdrop of ever-shifting blues, blacks, whites, and purples. Off to her right, two doors collide to temporarily fuse into a natural shared dream, the colors of each bleeding into the frame of the other. A mote of light floats up to her from below, tittering a question to which she responds in kind, pointing at a nearby ornate doorway of diamond encrusted platinum.
I thought you were in a hurry, a familiar voice echoes from out of sight.
Following the words to their source, Luna finds a nondescript wooden doorway marked only by the carving of a small sun at the top of the frame. Another alicorn stands next to it, her coat and eyes the same deep blue as an ocean lit by the full moon while her undulating mane and tail hug her form, both as pitch black as the void between stars. An all but invisible inky splotch adorns her flank, the gibbous moon at its center completing Luna's crescent.
My thanks, Selena, Luna replies once she reaches the entrance to Celestia's dream.
Selena smiles and bobs her head, transforming into a cloud of dimly sparkling smoke to join with Luna's shadow as she steps through their sister's doorway, the mystic background of the collective dreamscape instantly transforming into a wide open meadow dotted by the occasional tree.
"Princess Celestia, look!" a young Twilight calls out from nearby, eagerly running around a particularly large oak to smash face first into a reclining Celestia's side. A pair of flowers fall to the ground, the sudden impact disrupting the telekinesis keeping them afloat.
Twilight staggers backwards, tripping after a step to fall on her butt. Celestia opens her eyes and smiles at the small filly looking up at her sheepishly, "Was there something you wanted to show me, Twilight?"
"Oh! Right!" Quickly locating the fallen flowers, Twilight levitates them back up, "I-I found these and I thought they would – I mean, you would – n-not that you aren't already-"
Gently taking over for the stammering filly, Celestia winds the stem of one of the flowers into her own mane and the other into Twilight's, watching her young student beam happily and hug the leg of another Celestia from a short distance away. Princess Celestia blinks, glancing around in confusion to find her sister standing next to her.
"My apologies for interrupting," Luna says, managing a soft smile as she watches the dream Twilight and Celestia cuddle, "but we must speak with you regarding the situation in Ponyville."
Celestia watches her other self wistfully for another moment, then turns, a dirt path appearing under her hooves as she walks sedately in the opposite direction, "What has happened to prompt this visit? I wasn't expecting to hear from you until tomorrow night, and certainly not in this manner."
"Well… " Luna replies hesitantly, searching for the right words as she matches her sister's measured pace, "to borrow a modern phrase, we have some good news, some bad news, and some worse news."
Celestia sighs, any hope for her next day being a simple one vanishing before her eyes, "I see. Let's start with the good news then."
"As you wish," Luna says. "The good news is that, all things considered, my meeting with what is most certainly a new tribe went fairly well. They appear to be physically similar to our Thestrals in many ways, and also seem to have a natural affinity for shadow magic; the two I met were able to rather skillfully use a somewhat basic form to briefly evade detection even by me. I cannot say whether such a talent extends to their entire race, but given that one of the ponies capable of using it was only a filly, it seems likely to be a common ability at the very least."
Celestia pauses, tapping her chin thoughtfully, "Interesting. Their proficiency with shadow magic will likely cause some concern amongst our subjects, particularly given the increased suspicion of deceptive magics ever since the Changelings were revealed via their attempted invasion. The Thestral reintegration has been picking up steam recently though, so perhaps they can simply follow in the hoofsteps of the gains being made there, at least to some extent."
Luna shakes her head, "We highly doubt that will be possible, unfortunately. While they do share some similarities, there are more than enough differences as well, even without taking into consideration their use of shadow magic. They make their home within the Everfree for one, which automatically means any kind of integration or exchange is… not impossible, perhaps, but certainly difficult. Their diet is my main concern, however. Twilight's letter to you was correct – they are entirely carnivorous, and while completely unrelated to Sombra, they are vampiric in nature as well, requiring pony blood in order to survive. They even call themselves 'Vamponies', in fact."
Celestia looks at Luna flatly, "So what you're saying is that there is a previously unknown species of carnivorous pony living in the Everfree Forest next to Ponyville and they periodically break into ponies' homes to suck their blood."
"That… is an accurate summary, yes," Luna replies. "Though there are likely more of them in other parts of the Everfree as well, since while Ponyville is easily the town closest to the forest, it is also not the only town within flying distance of it."
"I thought this was supposed to be the good news," Celestia objects, a note of incredulity in her voice.
"I may have been somewhat generous in my definition of 'good news'," Luna admits.
Celestia's horn glows and she pinches herself several times.
"A valiant effort, but we cannot allow you to wake up just yet," Luna says amusedly.
Defeated, Celestia rubs her temples, "Very well, continue."
Luna nods, bracing herself, "Sombra is in Ponyville."
Celestia's head jerks up, "WHAmmph."
"And he has been dealt with, sister," Luna continues, removing her hoof from Celestia's mouth. "I did not come here speaking pleasantries while letting him roam free. Rainbow Dash and the older vampony, Midnight, were able to damage the body he was possessing enough to subdue him, and Twilight and I were able to contain him. No lasting harm has been done to Ponyville or any of its inhabitants. He did manage to infect Rainbow Dash, however-" she cuts off another exclamation from Celestia with a look, "however, she has been cured by the Elements. The only problem Sombra still poses is deciding what to do with him now."
Celestia breathes in deeply, then exhales slowly, staring up at her dream's sun for a long minute before speaking again, "We need to move him out of Ponyville as soon as possible. I can be there with a platoon of Guards by sunrise and we can move him here to Canterlot to hold him indefinitely beneath the Canterhorn, but something doesn't add up. He should be dead two times over by now, from us the first time and from the Crystal Heart the second."
"Unfortunately we have no more of an idea as to how he has managed to survive than you." Luna shrugs, "I shall prepare for your arrival though."
Celestia nods, "So, what was the 'bad news'?"
Luna winces, "That was the bad news, actually."
Celestia gapes at her, "Pray tell, dear sister, if Sombra being alive is the bad news, then what in Tartaurus is the worse news?"
"Well… " Luna stares down at her fidgeting hooves, "one of the questions that came up when I was speaking with Midnight was how many vamponies there are, to which she responded that there are only a couple hundred in the entirety of the Everfree since most of them had been killed about one thousand years ago."
Celestia's eyes harden, "Sombra."
Luna's ears lower, her fidgeting intensifying, "That is what we thought at first as well, however Twilight Sparkle made some observations which cast doubt on that assumption. Observations that, in hindsight, seem rather painfully obvious."
Celestia's brow knits at Luna's words, "I don't understand. Who or what else could have done such a thing?"
Luna takes a deep breath, "We could have." When Celestia doesn't respond, she continues, "The most damning, and at the same time the most obvious, discrepancy is the number of undead vamponies claimed to have been killed versus the number of ponies turned. They do not even remotely match up. Sombra's vamponies could have used these other vamponies as fodder to boost their numbers, but given their ability to remain unseen combined with the undead vamponies' loss of higher mental functions upon Sombra's defeat, such a possibility is exceedingly unlikely. Even less so when you consider that such a massive influx of turned ponies would have inevitably overrun even our unified Guard."
She looks up, a pained expression on her face, "However, if you recall-"
"I try not to," Celestia interrupts tersely.
Luna nods, meeting Celestia's eyes, "I know, but you do recall what our ponies were like in the aftermath. Combine that state of mind with the fact that these 'living vamponies' require our blood to survive and therefore would have been forced to sneak into our towns in order to feed… "
Celestia gazes blankly at Luna for a time, her mind slowly processing the implications of her sister's words, "You are saying that we… that we accidentally committed genocide?"
"It is impossible to know for certain anymore as it occurred so long ago," Luna replies. "But, yes. That would seem to be the most likely explanation."
"What – I don't – but – I-" Celestia stares at the dirt beneath her hooves, then plaintively at her sister, "I don't know what to say. What to do. I just – I don't… dealing with Sombra is at least straightforward, but this… what do we do? What can we do?"
Luna sighs, "We do not know. I believe I have made some progress in making amends, but we still know so little about them that any particular plan we could come up with at this point would be mostly guesswork at best."
"Maybe, maybe not," Celestia says hopefully, "how did you start making amends? Perhaps we can build on that."
"We let Midnight drink some of my blood," Luna states matter-of-factly.
Celestia recoils in shock, "You what?"
Luna taps her chin thoughtfully, "It was rather fascinating. Alicorn blood, or my blood at least, seems to not only have some sort of powerful healing effect, but apparently altered Midnight's cutie mark as well. Oh! That reminds us, Everfree vamponies are also able to inject a numbing venom through their fangs. It is quite potent too; had I not been able to purge it with magic, even I as an alicorn would have been unconscious in under half a minute."
Celestia's mouth opens and closes several times, no sound coming out. Eventually her wits return however and she sighs, rubbing her temples again, "Alright, I'm going to wake up now and head out to Ponyville. Hopefully I'll be able to come up with some kind of plan before I get there."
"Very well," Luna says with a nod. "We will maintain our watch over Sombra until your arrival."
As soon as the words leave Luna's mouth, the dream begins to collapse, its colors and landscape swirling and merging together until they abruptly vanish, leaving Celestia lying in her luxurious bed. Groaning, she rolls to one side, falling onto the floor with a heavy thump.
Immediately the doors to her room slam open, a burly, heavily armored Thestral running to her side, "Are you alright, your Highness? Does it hurt anywhere?"
Celestia fights the urge to roll her eyes, failing magnificently, "I am fine, however I have spoken with my sister and the Guard's presence is required in Ponyville. I need you to gather a hundred soldiers, half of them unicorns with at least moderate knowledge of containment spells, and meet me by the chariots. You have half an hour."
Twilight and her friends scan the dark, empty buildings on either side of the road as they pass them, Ponyville's apparent desertion all the more unnerving after the night's events. Fluttershy shivers and walks faster, her imagination conjuring ghostly images of the living dead staring at them with vacant yet hungry eyes. Crippled earth ponies and broken unicorns watch from within the shadows left by the full moon while battered pegasi prowl the roofs, saliva dripping from their hanging maws and all waiting for the opportune moment to pounce. Her hoof hits an unexpected object in front of her and she trips, squeaking all the way down until the ground cuts her off.
Twilight stops to turn and look at her, rubbing the hind leg Fluttershy had stepped on, "Err… Fluttershy? Are you okay?"
"I've been better," Fluttershy admits, determinedly keeping her eyes focused straight ahead as she gingerly gets to her hooves. "Sorry."
Twilight shakes her head, remorse flashing across her face for an instant, "It's fine."
"Everypony alright?" Applejack asks.
Fluttershy nods, "I just let my imagination get the best of me, that's all."
"Well, try to hold it together just a little longer," Applejack says encouragingly. "We're almost there."
Rarity, Applejack, and Rainbow Dash trot ahead of the other half of their group as soon as they round the final corner, Ponyville's town square coming into view at last.
"Hey Applebloom, ya here?" Applejack calls out.
Rarity scans the quieting crowd as they approach, "Has anypony seen Sweetie Belle?"
Rainbow cups her hooves, "Scootalooo~, where aaarrre youu~?"
"We're over here!"
Turning around, the two groups of three see Sweetie Belle waving at them from several houses down, Scootaloo and Applebloom beside her.
Applejack narrows her eyes suspiciously at Applebloom as the fillies walk up to them, "Y'all left way before we did, so how'd we beat you here? What've you been up to now?"
"Well, we couldn't just leave our vampony hunting gear lying around town, so we dropped all of that stuff plus my scooter off at Rarity's," Scootaloo explains.
"Yeah," Sweetie Belle continues, "and we thought maybe we could get a treat from Sugarcube Corner since everypony is awake now and especially after Dawn said she hadn't ever had any before, but by the time we got there the Cakes were already gone, so we came here."
Applejack gives them a flat look, "So it sounds ta me like you only did what we told you to do once you couldn't think of anythin' else to do instead."
The fillies fidget, eyes roaming while they attempt to rationalize their actions.
"I mean, you had already caught the bad guy, so it's not like we were in danger anymore," Scootaloo reasons.
"And besides, we shouldn't just leave our stuff lying around; it would be very inconsiderate to everypony else who would have to walk by it," Sweetie Belle points out.
"And honestly, Ah thought we kinda deserved a treat after everythin' we've been through tonight," Applebloom adds. "Also, Dawn has never had a donut-"
Applebloom nods, "Ah know, right? How could we not try to fix that?"
"Anyway, speaking of Dawn, where is she?" Twilight interjects, preemptively cutting off Applejack's imminent scolding, "Did she head back to the Everfree Forest?"
Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, and Applebloom blink in unison, glancing first at each other then at their surroundings only to find no trace of their vampony friend.
Applebloom frowns, "Huh, that's odd. She was just here with us a minute ago."
"Hey Dawn!" Scootaloo shouts, "Where'd you go?"
"I'm up here… " a small voice replies from a nearby tree.
Squinting towards the source of the voice, Scootaloo sees no sign of Dawn – until a tiny movement draws her attention to a dim, filly-sized silhouette hiding amongst the upper branches, "Well come on down! Nopony here bites. Well, except you, but it wouldn't make any sense for you to bite yourself so it's fine!"
Scootaloo sighs, "Yes, I'm sure."
After a moment's hesitation, Dawn walks down the side of the tree, doing her best to stay hidden behind its trunk upon reaching the ground. Taking another moment to gather her courage, she holds her breath and peeks around the tree at the crowd only a short distance from her cover. Tens of ponies stare back at her, a few whispering and pointing as nearly a thousand more jostle behind them.
"Great! Now that yer down here, we can start introducin' you. Everypony else is already here too, so we can begin with all our classmates for when you show up at school and then the Cakes of course since we need to get you one of their desserts and-" Applebloom pauses as Dawn's head whips back behind the trunk, her ears pinned to her skull and pupils like needles as she flattens herself against the tree, "What's wrong?"
"T-There's s-so many ponies w-w-watching," Dawn pants. Closing her eyes, she attempts to disappear into the tree's shadow, the bottom half of her body vanishing before her magic sputters and fails. Trembling, she stares at her hooves in horror, random parts of her body fading in and out of sight while stray wisps of magic seemingly bend the air around her.
A pair of hooves suddenly draw her into a hug, Dawn stiffening as feathery wings complete the unexpected embrace – all at once her world reduced to shadow, warmth, and quiet.
After a few minutes her shivering stops and she pushes away from Fluttershy, leaving two small wet spots on the pegasus' chest, "I'm… um… I'm good now."
Looking up, Dawn starts at the sight of eight other ponies forming a half-circle around her side of the trunk.
"We're sorry," Scootaloo apologizes. "With all the things we've done to try and get our cutie marks, we end up at the center of attention so much that we didn't think about how you would feel to be put in the same situation."
"Do you… always end up with tons of ponies staring at you after trying to get your cutie marks?" Dawn asks apprehensively, rubbing the last of the excess water from her redder than normal eyes.
"Ummm… " Sweetie Belle stares at the sky, tapping her chin while she mentally runs through their many adventures, "not usually."
"Not as often as we get covered in tree sap," Scootaloo adds, shrugging when Dawn gives her a strange look. "What? It happens more often than you'd think."
"We'll try not to do any a' that stuff when you're around though," Applebloom says. "The starin', Ah mean. No promises on the tree sap."
Dawn sniffles and swallows, a weak smile spreading across her face, "T-Thanks. I think I'll, uh, stay here for now though."
Her ears twitch and stand taller at the sound of approaching hoofsteps as soon as the words leave her mouth, the rest of the group looking towards the now entirely silent crowd.
Applejack smiles, "Heya Granny, Big Mac, Cheerilee."
"Applejack," Cheerilee replies, returning the smile, "I'm glad you're alright. We woke up to you yelling about a murderer and then you ran out as soon as we came downstairs."
A hint of embarrassment creeps onto Applejack's face, "Yeah, sorry about that; Ah was in a bit of a rush. Didn't even realize you were over, actually." She raises an eyebrow at her brother, diverting her gaze for an instant to flit over the elderly pony leaning into his side, "Ah don't suppose the fact that Applebloom and Ah were out and Granny sleeps like a half-deaf rock had anythin' to do with that, would it?"
Big Mac shakes his head, "Jus' watchin' the moon, Applejack. We fell asleep in each others hooves."
He leans over to nuzzle the closer of Cheerilee's ears, forcing a snoring Granny Smith to stand upright sandwiched between them. Cheerilee's ear flicks at his touch and she blushes, "More in your hooves than in mine, but in any case, we're glad you're all safe."
She sends an amused but pointed look at the Cutie Mark Crusaders, "You three especially; I half expected one of your crusades to be mixed up in this somehow. Anyway, I take it you've made a new-"
Cheerilee stands stock still, staring at the vampony filly, "Dawn?!"
"Y-Yeah uh… hi, Cheerilee," Dawn replies, giving her a nervous wave.
Applebloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo glance at each other, then at Dawn.
"Hold on a minute," Sweetie Belle says suspiciously. "You didn't know Zecora's name even though you live in the Everfree with her and you didn't know Twilight's even though she's a princess. So how do you and Miss Cheerilee know each other?"
Dawn's eyes widen, meeting Cheerilee's while she stalls for time, "Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh… "
"I-I, uh, stumbled on her feeding a few ni – I mean years – uh a year ago," Cheerilee offers, tripping over her own words as logic struggles to keep up with her mouth.
"Y-Yeah," Dawn confirms.
"That," Applejack says, looking at the two flatly, "is one of the worst lies Ah've ever heard."
Big Mac frowns down at Cheerilee, "Eeyup."
Twilight's eyes glaze over, Cheerilee's stuttering response fading into the background as a million half-baked thoughts ricochet off the walls of her increasingly frazzled brain.
She closes her eyes, drawing a deep breath.
Allowing her lungs to slowly empty, she opens the borders of her mind, letting all other thoughts fly off into the infinite void of non-existence.
Start over. Okay, now, what do I know?
Fact 0: Nopony previously knew about living vamponies aside from, apparently, Zecora. And thanks to Princess Celestia, what little 'lore' that survived, if it can even be called that, is wildly inaccurate at best and only covers Sombra's undead anyway.
Fact 1: Cheerilee knows about Dawn, and based both on their reaction to and cooperation with each other, they are on friendly terms.
Implication: Friendship requires trust, trust takes time, therefore this relationship is not new.
Fact 2: As evidenced by her lie, Cheerilee did not 'stumble on' their existence accidentally.
Implication: If she did not find them accidentally, then she had to have prior knowledge of them which originated from an outside source.
Further Implication: Fact 0 states that no known lore of Everfree vamponies exists, therefore Cheerilee's knowledge couldn't have come from a written source. Also, had her knowledge somehow come from such a source, she could have simply stated that rather than lying. So there must be others who also know of vamponies.
Conclusion: Fatal conflict exists between known data. Either Fact 0 is incorrect and there are multiple ponies who know about vamponies which, aside from the laughable likelihood of Cheerilee being part of some sort of cabal of vampony sympathizers, simply circles back around to how they would have known about them thereby solving nothing. She herself can't be a vampony in disguise either, since she is quite obviously a pony and vamponies aren't shapeshifters like the Changelings-
Twilight's eyes snap open, not wanting to consider the possibility – yet unable to deny the powerful explanation it provides.
Two species, both of which feed on ponies, both of which are skilled at hiding… it wouldn't be so unusual for them to know of each other…
She resists the urge to stare at Cheerilee, forcing herself to remain impassive.
Well then, let's put that theory to the test.
Continuing to maintain a neutral expression, Twilight dredges up the worst memories of her brother's wedding, focusing all her feelings of suspicion, anger, and betrayal at her suspect.
For a moment, nothing happens. Then suddenly Cheerilee's pupils shrink to pinpricks, her head jerking to look at Twilight.
Twilight ceases her painful recall, allowing a less than pleasant grin to make its way onto her face.
Cheerilee only manages to back up a few steps, Granny Smith slumping sideways to the ground in her place, "Twilight, wait a-"
A wide purple beam engulfs her body, cutting her off. After a second, the beam fades – a dazed changeling with a dull yellow shell dropping to the grass in Cheerilee's stead. Her unperforated, membranous mane collects limply on the ground around her head while her tail rests behind her like a leaf, both matching her shell's color. Twilight's horn pulses again and a magic barrier engulfs the fallen changeling, lifting her a few feet into the air. Still dazed, the changeling attempts to stand – falling several times as her hooves slide along the perfectly smooth and sharply curved walls of the small sphere until she manages to press her head to its ceiling, using the added friction to stabilize her stance.
Twilight glares at the trapped changeling, "Alright, where's the real Cheerilee?"
"I am the real Cheerilee!" the changeling protests, delicately shifting two hooves at a time in order to turn to face Twilight.
"Right, and I'm your queen," Twilight replies with a snort. "Now either tell us-"
A hoof lands gently on her shoulder, drawing her attention to the large stallion standing next to her, "Ah'd like ta speak with her, Princess Twilight, if that's alright."
Sympathy quickly overwhelms a fleeting moment of irritation and she nods, "Of course, go right ahead."
Big Mac shakes his head, "Ah mean face to face, not with her in some magical ball."
Twilight gives him a hard stare, searching his eyes for any sign of the changeling influence she had noticed on her brother. Finding nothing, she drops her barrier to the ground, the sudden motion causing the captured changeling to topple once more.
"Alright," Twilight says as the barrier disappears, moving several steps away to keep both of them easily within her view, "but if either one of you try anything, I'm blasting both of you."
The changeling stands, starting to stretch her holeless wings before snapping them to her shell when Twilight's horn glows dangerously. The faintly hopeful expression on her face becomes pained as she turns to Big Mac, the weight of his suspicion forcing her back to the ground.
Several seconds of silence pass between the two, Big Mac finally speaking up, "Where's the real Cheerilee?"
"I-I am the real-" the changeling stammers, her yellow, pupilless eyes blinking rapidly to hold back tears.
"Ah see," Big Mac interrupts, his stony expression unchanging. "So then this whole time you've been lyin' ta me, and usin' mah love for those lies as a convenient source a' food, like some kinda parasite? Is that it? Is that all Ah am to you? Dinner?"
"NO!" she shakes her head, sincerity interweaving with desperation, "I mean, sort of, I mean… I-I'm not… "
"Well?" Big Mac takes a heavy step forward, eyes narrowing, "We don't have all night. What do you mean?"
"I… I mean… " the changeling gulps loudly, searching the grass stretching between them for any hint to help explain, "I mean, I am a changeling, I did eat some of your love, but I'm not a parasite and I never lied about anything! My favorite color really is green, I really do enjoy walking through the orchard at dusk and watching the night sky with you and I think your singing is amazing and… " she meets his eyes again, her own glistening, "and I love you. Not just as food, but as a pony, as… as… "
She trails off as Big Mac steps forward again, stopping inches from where she lays to tower above her like an icy mountain, the chill winds of his anger washing over her. The changeling shivers and covers her eyes with a whimper, waiting for the blows to start landing. Instead after a moment all she feels is a light touch under her chin, lifting her head from the ground. Before she can react to the unexpected sensation, another follows, a familiar pair of lips meeting her own. Her eyes shoot open at this, her tongue automatically flicking forward in search of a familiar taste. For an instant it finds nothing but emptiness, then she moans, deepening the kiss as delicious warmth floods her senses.
After a time, Big Mac breaks the kiss to turn to Twilight, leaving Cheerilee to dazedly stare up at him, "It's her, Princess."
His words pull Cheerilee out of her trance. Tears spilling from her eyes at last, she attempts to glomp the larger pony, burying her head in his mane as she tightly wraps all four of her hooves around his barrel.
Big Mac staggers backwards under the loving assault, a calm smile on his face.
"You do realize that nothing she said actually proves anything, right?" Twilight points out, breaking the couple out of their moment, "She could have just as easily gotten all of that information from brainwashing the real Cheerilee, or even just from stalking you both for a while."
"Ah know, Ah wasn't interested in any a' that." He rolls a shoulder, nudging the mare on his back, "There's a thing she's always done with her tongue when we kiss that Ah like. That's what Ah was lookin' for."
His mane emits an embarrassed chirp at his words, Cheerilee's translucent wings rising several inches from her body, "Y-You do? I thought you didn't even notice – you never said anything before."
"Well Ah thought you might get embarrassed about it," Big Mac replies nonchalantly.
Cheerilee withdraws from his mane to smack one of his ears, "You thought I'd get embarrassed, so now you tell the entire town?!"
Big Mac chuckles, "Ah had ta prove to everypony that yer you and hadn't ponynapped the real Cheerilee, didn't Ah? Speakin' a' which… "
He turns to face the rest of the town, his lips bending into a frown, "ANYPONY THAT'S GOT A PROBLEM WITH CHEERILEE, HAD BETTER BE PREPARED TA GO THROUGH ME!"
His booming declaration reverberates across the town square, faint echoes bouncing off the surrounding buildings. The crowd, meanwhile, remains almost entirely still, nopony daring to take him up on his offer, though many fearful stares and angry glares nevertheless meet his own roaming gaze.
Twilight stares exhaustedly at the defiant stallion and the changeling still gripping him, her head and shoulders slumping as she turns to face the crowd as well.
I should have just blasted them.
Letting out a regretful sigh, she forces herself to stand taller, "Alright, are there any other changelings here?"
A murmur ripples through the gathered ponies, furtive and not-so-furtive glances cast in all directions.
Twilight languidly raises her head to the night sky, Please nopony answer, please nopony answer, please-
However, despite her heartfelt requests, a loud whisper carries over the background hum.
"Hey Bon Bon, I think the Princess is asking for you!"
The ponies surrounding the pair immediately pull away, clearing a path between them and their princess. Lyra happily trots forward through the gap with Bon Bon following just behind her, the latter nervously glancing at their friends and neighbors standing to either side.
Coming to a halt just inside the empty circle surrounding Twilight, Big Mac, and their assorted friends and family, Lyra waves, "Hi Twilight."
"S – oh, uh, hi, Lyra," Twilight replies, sparing a moment for the cheerful, minty green unicorn. "So anyway, you're also a changeling, Bon Bon?"
Bon Bon nods.
Twilight sighs deeply once more, "I see. Could you please take your natural form then?"
Bon Bon hesitates, but after an encouraging nudge from Lyra acquiesces, a flash of green flame washing over her to reveal a changeling with eyes the color of dry sand, her mane, tail, and shell identical to her eyes in color though similar to Cheerilee in form.
"Thank you." Twilight turns to Lyra, "And you knew she was a changeling?"
"Yep!" Lyra hugs her favorite mare, wrapping her hooves just above Bon Bon's wing joints, "She told me everything after I got back from the wedding since she felt really bad about the whole brainwashing-invading-ponynapping thing. And I kinda freaked out a bit after that, but then I realized that the fact that she risked everything revealing herself to me just goes to show how much she values our friendship."
"Oh for the love of – just call her your marefriend already!" Golden Harvest calls out from the front of the crowd.
Lyra rolls her eyes, "Well yeah, what kind of friendship did you think I meant? I mean we share a house, hay, we sleep together for pony's sake. Just normal friendly friends don't do those sorts of things with each other." She grins, "At least, I sure hope they don't do the things we do."
A green tint appears on Bon Bon's face, her wings snapping open while Golden Harvest facehoofs.
Spoiled Rich takes the opportunity to step forward, dragging Filthy Rich and Diamond Tiara along with her, "Well I for one don't understand why we're even listening to them. They're disgusting bugs that attacked Equestria after having spent their entire lives parasitizing and lying to everypony around them and that one," she points at Bon Bon, "just admitted to brainwashing somepony!"
"Hey, we never attacked anypony," Bon Bon protests, "and I would never brainwash Lyra!"
"It's true, I'm totally not brainwashed anymore," Lyra agrees.
Applejack rolls her eyes, "A'course you wouldn't know if you were brainwashed, that kinda defeats the whole point of brainwashin' ya. That bein' said," she sends a stern look Spoiled's way, "there's no reason we can't be civil until we know fer sure."
Deigning not to reply to the apple farmer, Spoiled's lip curls derisively.
"Also I'm pretty sure I didn't imagine a swarm of flaming bugacorns falling from the sky," Pinkie adds. She taps her chin, "Though I was surprised they didn't trigger my Pinkie sense."
Rarity shivers, "And who could forget that awful queen ponynapping Princess Cadence, defeating Princess Celestia, and outright mind controlling Twilight's brother! Those aren't the kinds of things one can simply claim didn't happen, you know."
The entire town collectively jumps into the air at the cannon-like detonation, its shock wave rattling the windows of nearby buildings and bouncing increasingly weak echoes across the town square.
"Wonderful," Twilight says as those closest to her recover, an overly wide smile stretching her lips. "Now that I have your attention again, perhaps you can clarify something for me. You apparently said that you felt bad about what happened, Bon Bon, but if you really did feel bad about it then why did it happen? Do you really expect me to believe that you didn't know your queen was going to lead a full scale invasion of Canterlot?"
"Chrysalis is not my queen!" Bon Bon spits out venomously, the loud noise having barely phased her.
"So you're some kind of renegade?" Rainbow asks, still rubbing her ears. "That's pretty cool."
Bon Bon glares at Rainbow Dash, "No! I'm not some selfish deserter and it wouldn't be 'cool' even if I was!"
"Look, this ain't complicated," Applejack interjects. "The 'Queen of the Changelings' invaded Canterlot, so either yer loyal to her or yer not."
"That's-" Bon Bon hesitates, looking over to meet Cheerilee's eyes.
Cheerilee hesitates as well, then sighs, "That's because the queen who invaded Canterlot, Queen Chrysalis, isn't the Queen of the Changelings – she's a Queen of the Changelings."
A strong breeze makes its way through the town square in the ensuing silence, loudly rustling the leaves of the trees and bushes as everypony stares at Cheerilee – some with fear, many with uncertainty, and all others with the utter calm which comes from accepting that they no longer have any idea what's going on.
Twilight's eyes spasm while Cheerilee's words bounce around her brain, her mane rapidly turning into a chaotic mess as it responds to the random pulses of magic coming from her sparking horn – sparks that soon become short arcs of purple energy.
Barely managing to pull herself together with the last pieces of her rational mind, Twilight giggles, bringing her magic back under control and smoothing her mane, "Nope. Nope, nope, nope!"
She points a hoof at Cheerilee, "You will not tell me that until tomorrow."
Applejack eyes her friend warily, "Um… Twilight, Ah'm not tryin' ta nitpick or anythin', but… how can she not tell you somethin' that she's already told you?"
Twilight's neck ticks to the side, her gaze not moving from Cheerilee, "You will not tell me that until tomorrow. Right?"
Cheerilee nods rapidly.
Twilight claps her hooves together, "Wonderful! And if you haven't told me yet, that means it's Future Twilight's problem!"
Without warning she teleports to the platform encircling the railing of the second floor of the town hall, a mote of light drifting from her horn to her throat.
"So! I'm sure everypony is wondering why I called you out here tonight. The first reason, and the reason you were all woken up in the middle of the night, is that there was a potential MURDERER on the loose. As it turns out, this pony was in fact KING SOMBRA and-" she giggles, raising a hoof to quiet the townsponies, "and everything is completely fine. Sombra was captured, nopony was permanently hurt, and he's being guarded by Princess Luna, so there is absolutely no reason to panic. And, while everypony's already here, I might as well address the vampony rumors: they are true! Vamponies exist and have apparently been living in the Everfree nearby Ponyville for a long time now. One of them even saved Derpy from Sombra and aided in capturing him, so, you know, they're good ponies and stuff. And lastly, as you may have noticed, Cheerilee and Bon Bon are changelings and, from the sound of things, they did not replace anypony thereby making them the same ponies you've all known for years."
Twilight licks her dried lips and takes another breath, "Now, I know that's quite a bit to take in and I myself am half a hoof away from LOSING MY MIND, but! So far they all seem to be relatively harmless. To ponies, at least. Anyway! The point is, I'm here, Princess Luna is here, I would imagine Princess Celestia will be returning soon as well, and who knows, Princess Cadence may very well come riding in on the Crystal Express in a couple days, so please hold off on judging them until we are able to learn more. I think I speak for all of us when I say we wouldn't want another Zecora incident, now would we?"
"Honestly, getting all worked up over somepony having stripes," she leans back, a second bout of giggling nearly growing into all out laughter until she suddenly cuts herself off. "Oh, also, Cheeriling, Bon Bon, please go to your homes and stay there until I or another princess asks for you. If you're not there when we come to get you, we'll simply assume that you've been lying this whole time and all changelings will be declared enemies of Equestria which, as a Princess of Equestria, I will be able to actually do this time around."
Her eyes roll across the night sky, trying to chase down any stray thoughts, "Nope, that's it, I'm done. Have a good night and pleasant dreams everypony!"
With a wave, Twilight vanishes from the town hall.
Pinkie Pie vaults the railing to take her place after a few seconds, megaphone in hoof, "Okay everypony, I don't know about the rest of you but there is no way I'm going back to sleep after everything that's happened. The solution, I think, is obvious: let's have an I-have-absolutely-no-idea-what's-going-on-but-if-I-went-back-to-bed-now-I'd-probably-have-nightmares-anyway party!"
The crowd murmurs noncommittally.
Pinkie jumps off the second floor, landing in a bush, "Vinyl and Octavia will be providing the music~"
Standing near the edge of the crowd closest to the town hall, Octavia raises a hoof to her chest, "We are?"
Vinyl lays a foreleg across Octavia's shoulders, pumping her other foreleg.
Octavia facehoofs, "Vinyl, when – why? Just, why?"
Vinyl gestures with her hooves, ears flicking rapidly.
"Yes I know we were already awake and playing anyway," Octavia replies, "but you're supposed to ask the people you volunteer for things."
Vinyl pauses for a split second, then quickly makes a few more gestures.
Octavia rolls her eyes, "Before you volunteer them, Vinyl."
Vinyl tilts her head to the side.
Octavia sighs, "No, no, I'll do it…"
Vinyl grins, embracing Octavia in a hug.
The crowd's murmuring meanwhile grows louder, a few groans joining in.
Undeterred, Pinkie hops away towards Sugarcube Corner, "There'll be lots of sugar and free~ coffee~"
Lyra's magic engulfs the doorknob to their house, twisting and pushing to allow her entrance. Happily humming to herself, she flicks a switch next to the door with her magic, a pair of ceiling lights illuminating the room to reveal a stairway immediately to her right and a collection of photos a few steps ahead to her left – each picture showing her and Bon Bon sitting on one of Ponyville's many benches. Her gaze lingers on one in particular showing the pair perched on either end of a bench with a game of checkers between them, photo-Lyra staring through narrowed eyes at a sheet of graphing paper covered in equations and mathematical symbols while Bon Bon, her face scrunched in concentration, manipulates an abacus balanced on the slatted wooden backrest.
Beyond the photos, a small round table made of rich mahogany sits next to a window looking out into the grassy alley spanning the gap between their neighbor's house and their own, a chair on either side and a single potted orchid placed between them on its sill. The plant's blooming flowers only barely overhang the table at eye level, its light purple petals laced with veins of deeper purple. Trotting onward, she reaches a black granite counter speckled with white spanning most of the width of the room, the smooth stone making one right angle turn to follow the alabaster wall to her left and then another to follow the back wall. Walking through a pony-wide gap in the middle of its closest side and into their kitchen area, she scans the row of wooden cabinets now surrounding her upon which the countertop rests, quickly locating the one containing their plates next to a large sink embedded in the stone.
Bon Bon finally enters their home as Lyra pulls out a knife from another cabinet, stumbling over the threshold though she manages to stay upright. Taking a few steps further inside, she sits beside the staircase leading to the second floor, absently magicking the door shut while she stares unseeingly at the room in front of her.
"Hey Bon Bon, do you want a sandwich?" Lyra asks, coming out of the pantry conveniently located in the one wall of the kitchen not lined by the counter and cabinets. "Fresh honey and prairie grasses~."
Bon Bon blinks, trembling as Lyra's voice draws her back to reality, "How… how can you think of food right now?"
"It is kind of early," Lyra admits, pausing with her knife buried in the honey jar. "What's wrong?"
Bon Bon glares at Lyra, "What's wrong? What's wrong?! You just told the entire town that I'm a changeling and you want to know what's WRONG?! I disobeyed my Queen to reveal myself to you and to stay with you, and I thought you understood how much that meant. How much I trusted you. But apparently I was wrong. Apparently the only reason you haven't gone around shouting my secrets from the rooftops is because nopony happened to ask the right question! Apparently, everything I've risked to keep us together means so little to you that you couldn't be bothered to stop for even a second to think that maybe, just maybe, I wasn't saying anything because I didn't want everypony to know! Imagine that, actually taking the time to think through something that doesn't involve creatures which don't exist; what a novel idea. Then again I don't know what I was expecting, seeing as you're stupid enough to think humans are real."
Bon Bon pauses for a moment, catching her breath while Lyra stares back at her dumbly, "Or, maybe I've been deluding myself this whole time and you just don't care. Is that it? Finally decided you'd had enough of living with a 'cursed parasite of a pony' and you'd rather try to make a show of having me run out of town?"
Bon Bon stomps up the stairs, "Well congratulations, I may not be able to leave right now, but as soon as the meeting with the princesses is over tomorrow I'll make sure to never darken your doorstep again."
Bon Bon's words pierce Lyra like a frozen lance, ice spreading from her chest with each pulse of her heart, "W… What a-are you-"
Bon Bon's face warps into a hideous snarl, "Oh for once in your life, just. Shut. UP!"
Bon Bon cuts her off again, this time baring her fangs in a venomous hiss – Lyra flinching away to bump into the row of cabinets lining the wall behind her. Walking heavily up the rest of the stairs, Bon Bon makes her way to their bedroom and falls limply onto their bed, using her magic to wrap herself in a cocoon of blankets.
For several minutes Lyra simply stares at the stairs, the last dregs of her previous happiness replaced by cold dread as Bon Bon's words echo through her mind. Eventually however, her gaze drifts to the jar of honey still held in her magical aura, its sweet scent no longer at all appetizing. Lowering it to the counter, she looks at the stairs again, trotting over only to halt at the first step despite her heart screaming at her to follow her marefriend and make things right. Instead, she waits, forcing herself to slowly pace around the edges of the first floor, glancing up at a clock hanging on the wall above the sink every time she reaches the front door.
After half an hour passes, Lyra once more stops at the bottom of the stairs; however this time she begins to ascend, carefully placing each hoof to muffle her steps and avoid known squeaky spots. Their bedroom lies only a few short steps from the top of the staircase, its door fully ajar and the room within bathed in total darkness. Lighting her horn, Lyra walks quietly to the foot of their bed, standing silently for a few seconds before speaking, "…Bon Bon?"
The tip of the cocoon near the pillowed end of the bed moves ever so slightly at the sound of her voice, however no other response is forthcoming. Lyra shifts back and forth on her hooves, after a long moment taking a deep breath.
Her ears splay back and she sits heavily, eyes roaming the empty space between the bed frame and the floor, "I shouldn't have done what I did earlier. I shouldn't have forced you to reveal yourself. I didn't mean to hurt you or betray you or-or anything like that and I don't want you gone, I just… "
Lyra swallows, her eyes moistening, "You've been different, ever since the wedding. Not most of the time, but there are little things, like how you lock the door at night every time the Wonderbolts or some Guards are in town, or how you tense up whenever Princess Twilight is nearby, and I-I thought if everypony could see that even though you're a changeling you're still a wonderful mare, then maybe you could stop being scared."
Lyra wipes her eyes and looks at the bed, but the cocoon remains unmoving, silent and impassive. Standing, Lyra backs up a few steps and turns toward the door, "I'll um… leave, then. Sorry."
Beneath her blankets, Bon Bon shifts slightly as she examines the emotions permeating the room, Lyra's sadness, regret, and fear compounding with her own turbulent feelings.
Lyra halts abruptly, looking back to see the wrapped blankets glow with green magic and partially unfurl themselves to reveal Bon Bon's head. Bon Bon sniffles and dries her eyes on the blankets still covering her shoulders. Rolling over to face Lyra, she takes another taste, a faint yet warm ray of hope now cutting through the fog of negative emotions.
"I… may have overreacted a little bit," Bon Bon says, lighting her own horn to further drive back the room's shadows. "I shouldn't have said some of those things. Or hissed at you."
Lyra shakes her head emphatically, "No, this should have been your decision to make, not mine. I totally deserved it."
"Yes," Bon Bon agrees flatly, "you did. But that doesn't mean I should just go off on you – I know you well enough to know you would never mean to hurt me like that."
Lyra rubs the back of her neck, "Still, I really screwed this up, probably more than I've ever screwed up anything in my entire life. I want to make it up to you, and I have a couple ideas, but… well… none of them are possible at the moment, so!" Lyra throws her hooves wide, "What do you want me to do? Name absolutely anything."
"Hmm… " Bon Bon murmurs thoughtfully, looking at the ceiling while she runs through a steadily growing list of possibilities. Out of habit she takes another sample of the room's emotions, the bitter mix from earlier now replaced by a bit of happiness, a lot of relief, and-
Lyra blushes, "What?"
Bon Bon groans, amusement mixing with incredulity, "You were thinking about angry makeup sex."
"No I-" Lyra catches herself, "Yes, that is exactly what I was thinking about."
Bon Bon's eyes narrow suspiciously.
Lyra averts her gaze to the suddenly very interesting wall to her left, tapping her hooves together nervously.
"How about this then," Bon Bon says after a few seconds, "you can start making it up to me by being honest about what you were just thinking about."
Lyra fidgets, "Look, Bon Bon, you know how there are sometimes things that you're better off not knowing?"
Bon Bon stares her down, "Lyraaaa… "
"I – alright, fine," Lyra says with a resigned sigh. "It just kind of popped into my head, but um, seeing as everypony knows you're a changeling now, maybe… we could try to have kids?"
The weight vanishes from Bon Bon's gaze and she simply watches Lyra, only distantly aware of her marefriend's existence as her mind grinds to a halt.
"I-It really just popped into my head, and you know that's kind of my thing," Lyra says defensively. "Besides, I mean, do you not want a bunch of cute little changelings running around?"
"I – that – you… " Bon Bon takes a deep breath, "Just, really? Now of all times?"
"Like I said, it just kind of popped into my head and I couldn't make it go away." Lyra blinks and shakes her head, her blush deepening, "Bad thoughts."
"Just… just… get out," Bon Bon says exasperatedly, freeing a hoof to point at the door. "And don't come back until you've made breakfast."
"Yes, ma'am!" Lyra salutes before hastily retreating from the room.
"I have returned!" Lyra proclaims, flicking the light switch upon re-entering the bedroom a short time later. Bon Bon wakes from a light doze at her words, squinting against the sudden brightness. Waiting until her marefriend unmakes her cocoon of blankets, Lyra lays beside her on the bed, lowering one of the plates to land in front of herself, "A chopped prairie grass sandwich glazed with honey for me." She lands the second plate in front of Bon Bon with a flourish, "And a chopped prairie grass sandwich with extra honey and a surprise on the side for you."
Looking down at her plate curiously, Bon Bon's tubular ears fold back nearly to her skull, her head lowering as she glances between Lyra and her food.
"Is something wrong?" Lyra asks, noisily wolfing down the first few bites of her sandwich.
"No, well, kind of?" Bon Bon replies, holding up one of the mini sausage links, "I didn't know that you knew I had these. You're not – I mean, you're alright if I eat them?"
"Hey, give me some credit," Lyra says, leaning over to nuzzle her marefriend. "I may not think things through as much as I should, but I love you for who you are, not what you eat." She pulls away and takes another bite of her sandwich, "Just, you know, don't expect me to try any."
Bon Bon exhales sharply through her nose and smiles, "Fair enough."
The rest of their meal passes in relative silence, Lyra gobbling down her sandwich while Bon Bon savors her physical food, mixing it with an occasional sip of the positive energy flowing towards her from Lyra. As she eats however, a growing sense of unease emerges, spiking when she raises the second to last sausage to her mouth.
Bon Bon sighs, lowering it to her plate, "Lyra, I can not eat these if it makes you uncomfortable."
"Huh? Oh. No, it's not that," Lyra says, meeting Bon Bon's eyes for a moment then looking away, her ears lowered. "It's what you said earlier, the 'cursed parasite of a pony' thing. I know I said that when you first showed yourself to me, but… you know I don't actually think you're a parasite, right?"
Bon Bon gently turns Lyra's head back to her, booping Lyra's nose with her own to leave behind a smudge of honey, "Lyra, I eat your emotions, I would know if you felt that way about me."
Lyra chuckles, relief seeping through her, "I guess you're right."
Returning to her plate, Bon Bon levitates the sausage to her mouth, shearing off the closer half of it with her sharp incisors. Lyra meanwhile licks at her nose intently, slowly cleaning off the sticky sweetness left behind. After a few more minutes, Bon Bon finishes, taking both their plates and levitating them to the nightstand next to her side of the bed.
"What now?" Lyra asks, one final, determined lick removing the last of the honey from her nose.
"Now… " Bon Bon says, her front and back hooves nearly reaching either end of the bed in a luxurious stretch, "I'd like a massage."
Lyra glances to the bedroom door, then back at Bon Bon, "Uhm… I don't think Lotus and Aloe are open right now."
"Oh I'm sure they're not," Bon Bon replies, watching Lyra expectantly. "And even if they were, I don't think they know enough about changelings to give me a massage anyway."
Lyra's ears perk up, "Ah."
Shifting to face Bon Bon's side, Lyra delicately raises the closer of Bon Bon's holeless wings with her magic, slowly moving it in a wide circle while she gently kneads the small bump of muscle and connective tissue at the wing's base. Lowering the wing to Bon Bon's shell after a few minutes, Lyra quickly rises from the bed and switches sides, repeating the process with the other wing. Bon Bon's breathing slows and deepens while Lyra works, her eyelids drooping until they hide her light brown eyes completely. Returning the second wing to its resting place, Lyra moves upward, doing her best to work the tension from Bon Bon's neck though the chitin's toughness compared to skin does much to stymie her efforts. She perseveres however, her dedication eventually eliciting a soft groan of satisfaction from the mare below her. After continuing for another several minutes, Lyra pulls away and examines her marefriend's prone form, Bon Bon's shell blocking any further attempts at relaxation. While Lyra thinks, Bon Bon's horn glows to life and she rolls over, grabbing Lyra and pulling her close as their bed's blankets rise together to engulf the pair and reform Bon Bon's cocoon.
Lyra wriggles against the surprise glomp, but Bon Bon simply holds her tighter, whispering in her ear, "Shh… tonight, you're little spoon."
Suppressing a giggle, Lyra relaxes into Bon Bon's embrace, both drifting off to sleep as the first rays of sunlight paint a beautiful dawn upon the night sky.
The door to Cheerilee's home glows green, swinging open to allow Cheerilee and Big Mac entrance. Once inside the darkened house, Cheerilee's horn glows again from her place on Big Mac's back, first flicking the light switch next to the door to bring visibility to the room around them and then shutting the door behind them.
Big Mac stops in the middle of the room, smiling as he turns his head to look at the changeling still holding on to him, "So are you gonna get off, or were ya plannin' on ridin' me all the way to yer bed?"
Cheerilee blushes at his words and allows her grip to loosen, sliding down the left side of his barrel to land sprawled on the floor next to him. Big Mac watches her stretch and let loose an enormous yawn, though after a moment his amused smile fades into neutrality, the ends of his mouth sloping faintly downwards. Standing, Cheerilee attempts to meet his eyes, however, he glances away, instead looking at the photos adorning the wall to his right – many of which include the two of them.
"Mac?" Cheerilee asks, a cold pit forming in her stomach, "Is something wrong?"
Big Mac's gaze flicks to the floor then back to her, "Ah was just thinkin'. You know, with everything that's happened and how our relationship has been progressin', maybe… maybe it would be a good idea if we took a bit of a break."
Cheerilee's chest tightens, her ears drooping along with her mood, "I-I guess… if that's what you want… " She pokes at the floor, "Do you know how long you'll need before you decide if-"
"Wait, err, hold on," Big Mac interrupts embarrassedly, waving his hooves in front of his chest, "that uh… Ah may have chosen mah words poorly." He takes a deep breath, "What Ah mean is, we've been movin' forward with our relationship and Ah'm fine with that, but things are different now what with you turnin' out to be a bugpony and all. And Ah don't mean to say anythin' about that one way or another; what Ah mean to say is that there's a whole 'nother side to you that Ah didn't even know existed, and Ah want to learn about that part a' you before anythin' else happens."
Relieved, Cheerilee smiles and nods, "Alright, what do you want to know?"
Big Mac shrugs, a yawn of his own forcing its way out, "Ah'm not even sure yet, but what Ah do know is that Ah'm dead tired and we're gonna need as much rest as we can get before meetin' with the Princesses. Speakin' a' which," he gestures at the green loveseat along the wall behind Cheerilee, "d'ya mind if Ah take over yer couch for the night?"
"Err… why?" Cheerilee asks, her brow managing to knit ever so slightly despite the stiffness of her chitin. "I mean, it's not a problem, but wouldn't you rather sleep on your own bed at Sweet Apple Acres?"
Big Mac's eyes harden, "Because Ah saw how some ponies were lookin' at you when we were leavin', and it wasn't too friendly – kinda the opposite in fact."
"I didn't notice," Cheerilee says sadly, glancing out at the town through her front window. "You can use my bed instead of the couch if you want."
Big Mac shakes his head, "No, this is your house; you should sleep in yer own bed."
"I don't actually use it much anymore," Cheerilee replies. "Would-um… would you like to see where I really sleep?"
"Well… " Big Mac yawns again and rolls his shoulders, curiosity taking the opportunity to overrule his exhaustion. "Sure, why not? Ah figure Ah've got about half an hour before Ah keel over and start snorin' on yer floor, might as well use it."
Cheerilee giggles, "It won't take half an hour, I promise."
Trailing Cheerilee into her sparsely decorated bedroom, which otherwise contains little more than a neatly made bed, a nightstand, and a lamp, Big Mac stands with her in front of her closet. Cheerilee's horn glows green for a few seconds along with the closet door, the two sources of magical light vanishing after a heavy clunk signals the closet has been unlocked. With that, the door swings open and the pair walk inside, the unusually large closet housing a couple dresses, two sets of three horseshoes, a few pairs of earrings in an open jewelry box, a necklace hanging from a pants hanger, and a tunnel big enough to fit a pony in the center of it all.
Big Mac blinks, staring down the hole, "Huh."
Cheerilee laughs, "Yeah, not exactly what you were expecting, I'd imagine."
Big Mac chuckles, "Eenope."
"Well, come on," Cheerilee says, entering the tunnel with ease.
Following her, Big Mac lowers his head and bends his knees so he can fit, though his hooves provide him only minimal traction on the smooth black surface of the tunnel – his face sliding dangerously close to Cheerilee's hindquarters until he pushes himself against the ceiling. Almost immediately after he fully enters the tunnel it turns sharply to the left, sloping steeply down for a short distance before turning left again and opening up into a decent sized room made from the same dark material as the tunnel.
Big Mac carefully stands and decompresses himself, the tips of his ears bending against the ceiling as he looks around. A weak breeze moves across his body and pushes at his mane, the gently flowing air cool, but not unpleasantly so. Four glowing green globs of goo draw his immediate attention however, the luminescent material wedged into the seam between the wall and ceiling to provide the circular room with warmth and a dim light, each one placed at precisely 90-degree intervals. Against the wall to his right are two plain black jars seemingly made from the same material as the floor, walls, and ceiling, the elongated cubes a little wider than his hoof and as tall as Cheerilee's shoulders. A large, pod-like bump rises from the room's center, the protrusion covered in the same black material as the floor with the exception of a deep slice down its middle revealing a soft, green interior.
"Kinda dark," Big Mac comments, his wandering gaze finally coming to a halt on a small alcove built into the opposite wall – a table made seemingly as a flowing extension of the floor and a pair of shelves holding several books lit by two smaller green blobs. "And… green."
Cheerilee exhales sharply, "Yeah, we can see better in the dark than most non–bat-ponies, and I was the only one who was ever meant to be down here. Green is also almost every changeling's favorite color, for some reason."
"Interestin'." Big Mac taps the floor experimentally, "Did ya make this all yerself?"
Cheerilee shakes her head, "No, I got it as a reward for… uh… " she glances away, "for being a very successful gatherer. B-But I wasn't using you for the reward or anything, e-even in the beginning! We just started seeing each other, a-and that was wonderful, and then the builders just showed up one day and they were half done before I even got back from the schoolhouse and-"
Big Mac raises a hoof to her lips, "Ah understand. Well, kinda. Honestly though, if Ah was gonna be upset about the whole emotion eatin' thing Ah already woulda been." He chuckles, lowering his hoof, "Ah'm a bit flattered, actually. Ah really made so much of a difference that they sent some ponies to dig out this room for ya?"
"Oh, um, yeah," Cheerilee replies, restlessly twirling a lock of her mane. "We can feed on ambient emotions well enough, but emotions that are specifically directed at us, that are… for us, are much more potent."
Her mouth opens as if to say something else; however after a moment it closes instead and she frowns. Big Mac raises an eyebrow, waiting patiently.
"How are you so… okay… with this?" Cheerilee asks eventually, waving a hoof at the room, "All of this. I mean you've just found out your marefriend is secretly a changeling who's been feeding on your emotions to the point that she even got a whole room built for her as a reward, and you're just so… calm."
"Well," Big Mac says, sitting down, "the way Ah figure it, ever since you came into mah life Ah've felt a lot of things that Ah wouldn't a' felt otherwise, and Ah'm happier for it. Wouldn't trade it fer anythin'. So if you need to take a bit a' that back so you and yer family can survive, then Ah can't rightly think of a reason to object. Ah am-" a yawn breaks into his sentence, and he stretches before continuing, "Ah am a bit disappointed you didn't feel like you could tell me, but we can talk about that another time. Ah may have over-estimated myself when Ah said half an hour."
Cheerilee nods, "Right. Good night, McIntosh."
"Night, Cheerilee," Big Mac replies, stepping up to the tunnel only to pause. "…Ah might need some help gettin' back up."
Cheerilee looks to Big Mac, then to the tunnel as well, a faint blush tinting her cheeks, "Oh, sorry, I forgot about that. Um… give me a few seconds, I have an idea. It might, uh, feel a little weird though."
Big Mac bobs his head once, "Ah'm ready."
Cheerilee closes her eyes, her brow knitting as her horn first glows, then glows brighter, shining like a beacon as a ring of green fire surrounds Big Mac – his hooves sinking into the floor as if it were suddenly made of quicksand instead, the rest of his body rapidly following suit.
"Big… Mac?" Cheerilee calls up the tunnel between panting breaths as soon as the spell completes, her horn winking out.
"Eeyup," comes his reply a moment later. "Thanks!"
Stumbling over to her pod on shaky legs, Cheerilee's hooves sink into its soft insides, the surface glowing and warming slightly to the pressure. With a sigh she lowers herself into its gentle embrace, pushing her shell into one side while the other holds her hooves snug against her barrel, its soothing heat seeping through her chitin as she drifts off to sleep.
Consciousness returns to Cheerilee seemingly an instant later and she rolls in place onto her back, stretching towards the ceiling and letting out a contented chirp as cool air passes through the holes in her legs. After lying there for a few minutes more dozing on the edge of sleep, she rolls over again and stands, a shiver passing through her upon leaving the warmth of her pod behind. Making her way to her pony bedroom, she cocks her head at the sight of her empty bed then rolls her eyes, continuing on to the main room of her house. Emptiness is all she finds there as well, however. Big Mac is nowhere to be found and her couch is entirely unoccupied, its cushions lacking so much as an indentation to indicate he had ever lain there. She frowns, faint alarm bells going off in the back of her mind though her legs carry her onward anyway, a push all it takes to open her front door and leave her squinting in the bright light of the noonday sun.
Desertion greets her once her eyes adjust, not a soul in sight as she scans the small part of Ponyville in front of her – the road empty, houses dark, and the sky a single, unbroken, unmoving sea of blue. Tasting the ambient emotions of the town goes no better, an utter void greeting her instead of the usual pleasant background emanations. A chill tingles its way down her neck and across her shell, her eyes closing and horn glowing as she attempts to forcibly drain any residual emotions towards her. And yet, she finds nothing. Opening her eyes, she scans the town again, a sense of foreboding settling inside her. Ponyville is empty.
And silent. She stiffens and stands taller, fear coursing through her as she realizes the quiet of her own mind, the constant background hum of her distant brothers and sisters only now unmistakably missing.
The word forces itself unbidden into her mind, reverberating through her thoughts like a roll of thunder.
Suddenly, a cloyingly sweet voice calls out from her left, "Hey look, it's the bug!"
Her head jerks towards the source of the voice, Silver Spoon now standing not ten feet from her.
The door to her house slams shut behind her and she jumps nearly a foot into the air, whirling around just in time to hear its deadbolt slide into place with a heavy thunk. Trembling, Cheerilee turns back to Silver Spoon, only to instead find a large crowd forming a half circle in front of her. Screeching in surprise, she stumbles back, however instead of falling against her front door she passes through empty air. Looking up at where her house should be, she finds the rest of the circle, a wall of ponies now surrounding her entirely. She reaches out once more, attempting to taste their emotions, but again she finds nothing. Then, for the first time, she notices their faces.
In unison they step forward, shrinking the circle as they unblinkingly focus on one thing.
Cheerilee's breath hitches as she waits for them to advance further, however they simply stand there like statues, not a single hair of their manes or tails moving. A cinder of hatred appears behind her as if on cue, no more than a spark, yet blazing like a star within the pitch black of an empty universe. She gulps, the sensation of the poison burning at her mind disturbingly pleasant against the backdrop of the void surrounding her. Slowly, she turns around, her eyes resting on its source.
"Hi, Cheerilee!" Diamond Tiara greets her, grinning maliciously, "I just thought you'd like to know that the Cutie Mark Crusaders finally got their cutie marks."
Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, and Applebloom fade in from the crowd to flank Diamond Tiara, her grin becoming impossibly wide, "And would you look at that, they fit the situationperfectly."
Cheerilee's gaze slowly moves to Applebloom's flank, flicking next to Scootaloo's, then Sweetie Belle's, each one emblazoned with the cutie mark of a pest pony.
The three fillies walk towards her, as emotionless as the rest of the crowd as they pull out their gear – Applebloom a can of bug spray, Scootaloo a bug zapper light, and Sweetie Belle a finely woven net.
Diamond Tiara facehoofs, shaking her head, "No, no, no! That won't do at all!"
The Cutie Mark Crusaders' equipment fades and warps at her words, Applebloom's bug spray turning into a pressurized canister of acid, Scootaloo's bug zapper transforming into a branding iron, and rusted barbed wire snaking itself into Sweetie Belle's net.
"Much better!" Diamond Tiara says gleefully, clapping her hooves together. She points at Cheerilee, "Get her."
The crowd jerks into motion, closing in on her just behind the Cutie Mark Crusaders.
"Sorry, Miss Cheerilee," Sweetie Belle apologizes.
"Yeah," Applebloom continues, "but unfortunately we can't just let bugs like yerself infest our town."
"And this will hurt you a lot more than it will hurt us," Scootaloo finishes.
As soon as the words leave Scootaloo's mouth, the situation finally, truly, registers in Cheerilee's brain and she screams. Bending her knees she jumps into the air, however instead of feeling the wind rushing against her face she crashes to the ground, her wings missing. Switching gears, she attempts to transform, focusing with all her might on the form of Rainbow Dash, however the encircling green flames flicker and die rather than consuming her body to leave her crumpled and flightless on the ground. The Crusaders stand impossibly tall above her and raise their weapons, smiles flitting across their faces as they watch Cheerilee's mouth gape in silent terror.
Pure white light blazes across her nightmare, annihilating everything and everyone to leave her floating in a sea of ethereal calm. As her awareness fades, she vaguely feels another presence hovering next to her while something else looses a horrible, alien wail, the sound shoving her over the edge and into oblivion.
Cheerilee's eyes snap open and her coiled legs thrash about, popping her out of her pod and onto the floor. No longer trapped between her shell and the inside of the pod, her freed wings automatically buzz to life and she quickly rises into the air – only to smack into the low ceiling, the blow dazing her further and upsetting her already tenuous balance. Swerving to her right she careens straight into the wall, the impact stopping her wings cold and letting her crash back to the ground.
Lying panting on the floor, rationality finally manages to reassert itself and she takes stock of her surroundings, the utter calm of her room a welcome change from the nightmarish scene she had just escaped. Listening carefully, she can once more hear the hum of her family as well, their worry obvious. An electric tingle spreads through her body as she feels her queen also take notice.
I am fine, Cheerilee thinks to herself, doing her best to send calmness back across the link.
Her queen's attention lingers, clearly not convinced, but eventually Cheerilee feels her queen's focus shift elsewhere even though her confusion remains.
Raising herself into a sitting position, Cheerilee reaches out to sample the emotions in the air, a sigh of relief escaping her when the leftover feelings of the town's inhabitants flow across her senses. As she sits basking in the joy of normalcy, a stronger emotion rises to the top of the thin soup and she draws on it greedily, the familiar love a delightful counter to her fading memories of the nightmare.
Standing unsteadily, she follows the feeling up the tunnel, fear pulsing through her when she sees her bed is again empty. However as she continues into the main living area her fear subsides, her gaze resting on the couch bearing Big Mac's softly snoring form. Buzzing her wings, she rises into the air to hover over him, gently worming her right front and back hooves between him and the couch as she carefully lowers herself onto his barrel. Her cuddling maneuver successful, she rests her head on his neck just above his shoulder and closes her eyes.
One of Big Mac's eyes opens after a minute and he glances back to watch Cheerilee's breathing calm and deepen, a small smile dancing on his lips before his barrel expands in a deep sigh and he shifts slightly, his eye closing as sleep claims him once again.
Big Mac's ears twitch, the telltale slap of two thick liquids impacting each other drawing him from his dreamless slumber. His eyelids rise lethargically and he glances around the room, unable to even work up the motivation to raise his head to better survey his surroundings, the grey and washed out colors of the world around him matching his state of mind perfectly. The noise repeats itself, though the spark of curiosity it brings is quickly buried under vague concern as he notices the late morning sunlight cast across the rest of the room, dawn long since having come and gone. Force of habit alone gets him off the couch, and once standing he pauses before languidly making his way towards the only other place his clouded mind can think to go.
Following the source of the noise to the kitchen, Big Mac's eyes drift over to rest on Cheerilee, disinterestedly observing her head hanging over a black jar identical to the ones from her underground room. Cheerilee eventually looks up, attempting to speak, however her body interrupts her and she again clutches the jar tighter as more fluid is ejected from her mouth to join her previous upheavals.
Once she finishes with the latest round of vomiting, she rests her head on the rim of the jar, light glinting off fresh tears, "Mac… I'm s-so sorry."
Big Mac frowns, the colors of the room around him seeming to brighten ever so slightly as worry filters through his sluggish mind, "Do you… need anythin'… ?"
"Water," Cheerilee croaks, her throat parched despite liquid having recently passed through it.
Big Mac nods, trudging over to right a large cup lying toppled on the counter beside her from which water drips down the cabinets and onto the floor, refilling it to the brim before offering it to Cheerilee. Unable to maintain enough concentration to hold the cup in her magic, Cheerilee grabs it desperately with her hooves, water sloshing over the sides as it trembles in her grasp followed by even more overflowing from her mouth while she chugs the entire thing. Dropping the cup to the floor, she immediately begins puking again, more green slime leaving her to join the rest at the bottom of the jar while Big Mac refills her cup and holds her mane out of the way.
After nearly 20 minutes Cheerilee's symptoms ease and she leans back tiredly, panting and surrounded by puddles of splashed water as she rests against the cabinet, eyes closed. Big Mac, meanwhile, sits calmly next to her, exploring his newfound state of emotional numbness.
A few minutes later Cheerilee inhales deeply and opens her eyes, the resulting sigh interrupted by a wet cough as she stands and expels strands of green-tinged phlegm into the sink.
Sitting heavily, she turns to Big Mac, glancing at him then dropping her gaze to the floor, "H-How… how do you feel?"
Big Mac blinks slowly, his brow knitting, "Ah feel… less. Like a sponge that's been squeezed too many times."
"I-I'm sorry," Cheerilee apologizes, her ears splaying. "I-I didn't – I never m-meant to… "
Big Mac waits expectantly, voicing his unasked question when it remains unanswered, "What happened?"
"I had a nightmare. At least, I think I did; it matches what I've read about them but I've never had a dream before, I shouldn't be able to, but I don't know what else it could have been," Cheerilee replies, shivering as bits and pieces filter through her hazy memory.
Big Mac looks at her oddly, "You've never had a dream before? Ever?"
Cheerilee swallows, shaking her head, "I-I – we – that is, Changelings, have a link we share with each other. We can't send words or thoughts or anything like that, but we can always feel what the rest of the hive is feeling, we know that our Queen is watching over us, and when we sleep we kind of… it's like the hive is an ocean, and I'm submerged just below the surface. There's no light though, or sound, or anything, but there's still… something. Something really important. I'm not sure how else to describe it. This though, this was horrible. I thought I had woken up, but the house was empty and the town was empty, and then I realized I couldn't feel the hive anymore and I couldn't feel anypony's emotions either and I was so alone." Tremors wrack Cheerilee's body, tears streaming down her face, "And then ponies started showing up, but I still couldn't feel their emotions and you still weren't there, and then there was… something… hatred… but everything else I-I don't… I don't… "
Big Mac attempts to put a leg around her shoulders, but she shrugs him off. He persists however, embracing the smaller pony and pulling her up against his chest while she sobs, the colors of the room around him seeming to warm as he comforts her.
"And then… I woke up," Cheerilee eventually manages to continue. "Really woke up, and I could feel the hive again and I could sense your love and I just wanted to feel something else, anything else. A-And I didn't mean to, but I took more than I should have. More than either of us could handle. I'm sorry."
"So, the way Ah am now, is it permanent?" Big Mac asks after a moment.
"No," Cheerilee replies, sniffling. "It'll get better over time, and strong emotional triggers help. You should be fine after bucking apple trees for a few hours and some sleep."
Big Mac nods and sighs, relieved.
Gently extracting herself from Big Mac's forelegs, Cheerilee returns to the black jar, putting its lid on and shoving it into the cabinet under the sink with a grunt.
Big Mac watches her curiously, "So what're you plannin' on doing with all a' that anyway?"
"It'll be picked up and sent back to my hive at some point," Cheerilee replies, the cabinet door clicking shut. "In about a week, I think."
Big Mac gestures at the closed cabinet, "So the green stuff you were pukin' up, that was all the emotions you took while Ah was asleep?"
"Well, not all of them," Cheerilee answers, wincing but silently grateful for the lack of accusation in his voice. "It's kind of similar to bees, if that helps. I'm a gatherer, so I eat some of the emotions I collect, but everything extra gets digested and stored in my second stomach. Then every day or so I uh… regurgitate it into one of these jars, which is then picked up and sent back to the hive."
"Huh," Big Mac says simply, after a few seconds giving her a once over then exhaling sharply, smiling.
Cheerilee frowns, "I'm serious, that's what happens."
"Wasn't that," Big Mac replies, shaking his head. "Ah was just thinkin'. So goin' with yer bee analogy, you're the bee."
"Yes," Cheerilee confirms.
"And mah emotions are the nectar."
"Which would make me the flower."
"That's uh… not a word I would usually use to describe you, but I suppose."
A snicker worms its way from Big Mac's mouth, "So, Ah feel Ah have to ask; you aren't plannin' on coverin' yerself in mah 'pollen' and spreadin' it around to other 'flowers', are you?"
Cheerilee slowly blinks once, then again, her entire face lighting up a bright green by the third blink as the pieces of Big Mac's question fall into place. She shakes her head rapidly and crosses her forelegs to form an X in front of her chest, embarrassed chittering making its way out of her mouth instead of intelligible words. Big Mac's laughter meanwhile reverberates through the house, a grin remaining plastered across his face even after it fades to an occasional chuckle.
"The similarities don't go that far," Cheerilee eventually manages once she recovers enough to speak Equestrian. Delicately, she absorbs a small amount of his emotional outburst, "How are you feeling?"
"Better," Big Mac responds, wiping leftover tears from his eyes. "Tired, but better. Ah guess laughter sometimes really is the best medicine. Still," his smile fades somewhat, "this isn't somethin' that's gonna keep happening, right?"
Cheerilee straightens, "No! No. Never again. It should never have happened in the first place, for a couple of reasons, but it'll absolutely never happen again and I'm really sorry that it happened this time."
"Ah'm glad to hear it," Big Mac says with a nod, his smile growing again. "You can stop apologizing though. We both learned from it, it won't happen again, and honestly, it seems like you were worse off than Ah was – Ah just had ta laugh a bit ta get better."
Rather than argue with him, Cheerilee simply bobs her head in reply, one of her hooves restlessly tapping the floor, What did I ever do to deserve a stallion like you?
Standing resolutely, Cheerilee lights her horn, a couple cabinets, a drawer, and her refrigerator opening from which she pulls various ingredients and places them on the counter.
"Ah'm not sure what all that's for, but shouldn't we-" Big Mac yawns, "shouldn't we be headin' back to bed? Ah feel like Ah barely got any rest at all, and we both went to bed pretty late last night even without considerin' everything that's happened."
"You've done more for me in the last 12 hours than I ever expected anypony to do in my entire life," Cheerilee states, pausing to survey her retrieved supplies, "so I'm going to do something for you, even if I can't do a whole lot right now. Besides, I have so much energy at the moment that I don't think I could lie still long enough to fall asleep anyways."
Rather than press the issue, Big Mac leans back against the cabinets and watches her fill a mug with milk. Levitating the mug above her, Cheerilee warms it with a small green flame before stirring in a small amount of cinnamon, a pinch of nutmeg, and some sugar. Several squares of milk chocolate follow, each one held over the mug and melted into the spiced milk below, the thick concoction floating over to Big Mac once she stirs it all together.
"Fancy," Big Mac comments, another yawn escaping him as he holds the beverage in his hooves. "Smells nice though." He takes a sip, "Tastes good too."
"Thanks," Cheerilee replies, a fresh blush creeping across her cheeks. As Big Mac takes a second sip of his hot chocolate, Cheerilee looks out the kitchen doorway and through her front windows into the town beyond. A group of Royal Guards marches past while she watches, their presence reminding her of what difficulties the day ahead still holds. Thoughts of what questions the Princesses might ask or demands they might make and how she should answer them play out in her head, increasing in complexity to form the theoretical basis of entire imaginary conversations – all of which she eventually dismisses as either unrealistic or unhelpful.
She sighs, I don't… I just don't know. I don't want to get kicked out of Ponyville or put in a dungeon, but… I don't know. Whatever happens though, I know that together we'll be able to make it work. Somehow…
Waking from her internal deliberations, she glances at Big Mac, the slumbering stallion leaning lopsidedly to his left with the now empty cup of hot chocolate resting on the floor between his hooves. She opens her mouth to wake him; however, she catches herself, his name held on the very tip of her tongue. After several more seconds of consideration, she instead grits her teeth, drawing on her overflowing magical reserves to lift Big Mac a few inches into the air. Moving slowly, she carefully floats him through the kitchen doorway and over to the couch, her horn sparking as she raises him a few more inches then gently lowers him onto the green cushions. Turning, she heads to her bedroom, coming back with a blanket that she draws up over his shoulders and a pillow which she sneaks under his head.
Movement in her peripheral vision draws her attention and she looks up from her sleeping coltfriend to see another group of guards marching past. As she watches, one member of the group glances directly at her then does a double take, anger and disgust twisting his features. Breaking formation, he begins to walk towards her, but before the guard makes it two steps the rest of the unit stops and an older stallion shouts at him. The younger guard points at her and attempts to say something, only for the older one to talk over him. After a heated, though one-sided, exchange, the younger guard stiffly returns to his position and the rest of the guards continue towards their original destination. The leader of the unit pauses for a moment – just long enough to shoot Cheerilee a withering glare before turning on his heel as well.
Shakily taking a step away from her front window, Cheerilee releases a breath she hadn't realized she was holding and retreats to her kitchen, all of her earlier worries revived and then some.
The pounding on the door wakes Big Mac and he stretches, forgetting the fact that he's not in his own bed just long enough for the motion to push him off the couch and onto the floor.
Cheerilee exits the kitchen as Big Mac stands only to freeze halfway between the kitchen and the front door, her eyes flicking to the windows and then back to the door. She gulps and lights her horn, the door opening to reveal one Royal Guard standing in her doorway – and another ten flanking him. Big Mac is beside her immediately, all sleepiness banished as he watches the guards warily.
"Princesses Celestia and Twilight Sparkle have requested the presence of the Changeling Cheerilee and her… coltfriend… McIntosh Apple," The guard says disdainfully, standing aside. "We will escort you to them. This way."
Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she squints at her shadowy surroundings, her focus quickly flicking between each of her windows – every one of them covered by a blackout curtain and faintly outlined by sunlight. Shifting on her bed of books to look behind her, Twilight blinks in surprise at the sight of Luna lying asleep on what appears to be a jumbo version of Rarity's fainting couch, her gently flowing mane and tail casting a dim blue light a few inches in all directions.
For a time, Twilight simply stares, unwilling to look away from the soothing dance of the sparkling pseudo-stars within Luna's mane. However, after several minutes something above her creaks and she glances up – letting out a shocked yelp as she sees the silhouettes of three figures hanging above her. Covering her mouth with her hooves, she glances around frantically then looks at the figures again, renewed scrutiny revealing them to be the three thestral guards who had accompanied Luna, each of them hanging by their tail from newly embedded hooks in her ceiling. The guard closest to her sways slightly, another creak following as his legs shift beneath the wings wrapping his body.
Panting, Twilight closes her eyes and draws in a deep breath, bringing her right hoof to her chest. After counting to ten she exhales slowly, moving her hoof away as she does so until her leg is fully extended and her lungs are empty.
Twilight's ears prick at the sound of Celestia's whispered voice and she opens her eyes, following a thin shaft of light to a gap in the black curtains blockading the entrance to her kitchen. Celestia's head pokes out from between them, and she motions for Twilight to join her before withdrawing from the room.
Squinting and shielding her eyes against the sudden brightness, Twilight makes her way over to her kitchen table, taking a seat at the side to Celestia's left.
"You have noticed your new house guests, I assume?" Celestia queries, a small, amused smile on her lips as she sips her tea. Pouring a second cup, she offers it to Twilight, "I hope it's alright that I dipped into your stash on my own rather than waking you, given the circumstances."
"Uhh, yes, it is; and yes, I have," Twilight replies, carefully lowering her hoof from her eyes while taking the proffered beverage in her magic. "And despite all the weird and crazy things that've happened in the last 48 hours, I still was not expecting to see ponies hanging from hooks in my ceiling."
Celestia giggles, "So I heard."
"The vamponies are in the basement too," Spike adds helpfully over sudden sizzling from his place at the stove.
"Of course they are… " Twilight sighs, leaning back and taking a long sip from her cup. "Thank you, Spike, that is very good to know."
Note to self, do not go into the basement until the vamponies are awake. Also, find a new hiding place for my tea.
She yawns, looking over at the stove, "Please tell me that's breakfast."
"Lunch, actually," Spike replies enthusiastically. "I'm making waffles!"
Twilight glances at the white alicorn sitting at the table with her, pausing as she notices the slight discoloration beneath Celestia's eyes, then back to their draconic cook, "Spike. Princess Celestia is here, and you're making waffles? For lunch?"
Spike rolls his eyes, "Hey, don't look at me; she's the one who requested it."
Twilight returns her bewildered gaze to Celestia, who nods, "And I have to say, they do smell quite delicious, Spike."
"Thank you, Princess," Spike replies, removing another waffle from the iron and adding it to the top of a huge interleaved stack of both plain and chocolate chip waffles beside him.
Carefully lifting the large plate upon which the waffles rest, Spike makes his way over to the table, pushing the stack into its center before returning first to the pantry and then to the fridge beside it, "Available toppings include chocolate chips, oats, strawberries, blueberries, syrup, whipped cream, and powdered rubies."
"I think I'll pass on the rubies," Twilight says amusedly, levitating the toppings over to the table as Spike pulls them out.
Spike shrugs, walking back and taking his seat, "Eh, figured I'd ask."
With an eagerness unbecoming of a princess, Celestia grabs three of the chocolate chip waffles and thoroughly covers them with whipped cream, the ensuing bombardment of strawberries and even more chocolate chips leaving the white landscape of her plate pockmarked and discolored. Her meal thus prepared, she digs in, Spike snickering at the sight while he uses the last of the whipped cream on his waffles before covering them in ruby dust. Twilight quietly watches the pair decorate their meal, rolling her eyes and opting instead for the simplicity of syrup to cover her own waffles.
Silence envelopes the trio while they eat, the tower of waffles quickly falling before them, its only remnants destined to be the crumbs and leftover toppings on each of the eaters' smaller plates. However, as Spike reaches for the fourth to last waffle, a golden shield appears around the plate to block his outstretched claw.
"Sorry Spike," Celestia apologizes, "but we do need to save a few for my sister."
"I guess… " Spike replies regretfully, withdrawing his claw. "Isn't she going to be asleep for, like, the rest of the day though?"
"Normally you would be correct; however, she did not wish to be left out of any discussion regarding the vamponies. She seems quite fascinated by them," Celestia answers, her gaze shifting from Spike to Twilight. "Unfortunately I had to raise the sun mid-trip and have not been able to meet them in person yet, so I am curious as to what your impression of them has been thus far as well, Twilight."
"They're different," Twilight states simply. "Not different like Zecora; I mean really, fundamentally different; but similar, too. They eat meat and drink blood, and yet at the same time at least one of them has apparently been breaking into Golden Oaks because she wants to read and is even a fan of Daring Do. It's… kind of disconcerting, to be honest. The same applies to the changelings as well, in a way. Neither of them are at all what I would have expected. Or who."
"I'm glad to hear you've found some common ground with the vamponies," Celestia replies, frowning slightly. "The changelings are a different matter, however. Perhaps you could give me a quick summary of how they came to be involved before we wake Luna? The vamponies and Sombra she was well aware of, but much of the information we received about the two changelings came from rather… caffeinated townsponies, and was somewhat conflicting to say the least."
Twilight's ears perk up and she straightens, "Alright, um… I became suspicious of Cheerilee, Ponyville's schoolteacher, after she and Dawn, one of the vamponies, seemed to know each other much better than they should have. So I cast the changeling revealing spell on her, and it turned out she actually was a changeling and I wasn't just being paranoid. Then Big Mac, her coltfriend and Applejack's brother, showed up and they had a big romantic scene where she convinced him, and then he convinced me, that she actually was Cheerilee and hadn't replaced anypony. I'm not entirely sure how the town is going to react once everypony realizes their kids are being given a basic education by a changeling, buuut… we'll cross that bridge when we come to it, I suppose. Anyway! Then Lyra, Ponyville's… resident lyricist? I think? I'm not actually sure what she does for a living, but regardless, she revealed that her marefriend, Bon Bon, is also a changeling."
Twilight sighs, "And then Bon Bon denied that they had anything to do with the Canterlot invasion because there are actually multiple changeling queens in Equestria, at which point I was just… I couldn't handle it anymore, so I told the changelings to go home and stay there until one of us called for them and if they didn't do so I'd have all changelings declared enemies of Equestria. After that I teleported back here, went to sleep, woke up, and then we ate waffles.
"I see. Multiple changeling queens… that is indeed worrisome." Princess Celestia raises an eyebrow, "Did you learn anything else about these queens or their hives? Such as where they are located, what their intentions might be now that they've been discovered, why these two changelings are in Ponyville, or what their goals are?"
Twilight shakes her head, "No, I-"
"Why not?" Celestia interjects, her frown deepening.
"W-Well," Twilight replies, "I… like I said, I was at the end of my rope, and decided we could ask them more questions today once you and Luna were here and awake?"
Celestia leans down and stares into Twilight's eyes, concern clearly present in her own.
Celestia watches her intently for another few seconds, then straightens and sighs, "No, nothing is wrong. I just had to be sure. It isn't like you to let such an opportunity to gather new knowledge pass you by."
Twilight shifts uncomfortably, "I mean, I guess that's true. And you thought the changelings might've influenced me somehow to avoid having to answer those kinds of questions?"
"It certainly seemed like a possibility, given the circumstances, though I am glad that my concerns appear to be unfounded," Celestia replies, grasping her now empty teacup in her magic and tapping one of the kitchen windows.
A grey flash following the third tap heralds the arrival of a Royal Guard, the stallion bowing deeply, "Princess?"
Celestia places her teacup on the table, "Lieutenant Double Time, please escort the two changelings living in Ponyville here so that we may speak with them. Princess Twilight can tell you where they are located."
"They should both be in their homes," Twilight supplies to a stoic Double Time. "If they aren't, then they're probably long gone by now. Assuming they're still here though, one of them lives northeast of the schoolhouse near Quills and Sofas – it's the shop with a sign hanging off it containing the image of a quill, a plus sign, and the image of a sofa – and her name is Cheerilee. The other lives about a block south of Sugarcube Corner, and her name is Bon Bon. Sugarcube Corner is the giant house which looks like it's made of candy, so one of the pegasus guards should be able to find it pretty easily. Ponyville doesn't have house numbers though, or printed names on most of the stores, so those are the best directions I can give you, but their neighbors should be able to point you at the right house."
"By your command," Double Time replies, briskly saluting and horn glowing grey as he prepares to leave the way he came.
"Bring the other Elements as well," Twilight adds quickly. "Lyra Heartstrings and McIntosh Apple too. Lyra's a mint green unicorn with a lyre cutie mark, and she lives with Bon Bon. Big Mac is a large red earth pony with a green apple cutie mark and he lives at Sweet Apple Acres, though after what happened he also may have gone with Cheerilee to her home."
"Lyra Heartstrings and McIntosh Apple, they are involved with the changelings?" Double Time asks, his tone carefully neutral.
"They are romantically involved, yes," Twilight clarifies pointedly.
Double Time nods stiffly, "I understand. Thank you, Princess Twilight."
Princess Celestia stands as soon as the guard disappears in another flash of grey, pouring herself a fresh cup of tea and levitating the plate of four waffles to her side along with the bowl of remaining blueberries.
Pausing with a hoof raised to the curtains shrouding the library's doorway, she glances back at the dragon gathering their dirty plates, "Spike, could you put a pot of coffee on? At this hour I doubt we'll be able to keep Luna awake for long otherwise – don't bother with a cup once it's ready either, just bring the pot. Also a fruit bowl, if possible; from what I hear, Luna's guards have become quite fond of the Apples' apples."
"Of course," Spike replies, offering a quick salute as he carries their dishes to the sink.
Celestia smiles, "Thank you, Spike."
Pushing the curtains aside, Celestia enters the main library followed closely by Twilight, the pair waiting for their eyes to adjust to the darkness within.
Walking over to Luna once she can see well enough to not trip on any debris, Celestia nudges her sister gently, "Luna, it is time to wake up."
Princess Luna groans and stretches, her hooves not quite reaching either end of the couch, "…Tis too early, sister."
"I know, however you were the one who wished to-" a snore interrupts her, Luna's eyelids sagging shut as she slips back out of the waking world. Clearing her throat, Celestia glances at Twilight, "You may wish to cover your ears."
Twilight's eyes widen in understanding and she pulls her ears down, pressing them flat to her head as Celestia takes a deep breath.
Triple thumps sound off behind her, Luna's guards dropping like rocks from their hooks. They leap to their hooves with trained speed however, two standing at attention while the third instead slips on one of the many books strewn about the floor. A disgruntled Luna meanwhile rolls over to stare up at her smugly grinning sister, the shadows beneath her eyes as prominent as Celestia's despite her darker coat, "You enjoyed that entirely too much."
Celestia giggles, "What goes around, comes around; you have done the same to me often enough. Besides, you were the one who asked me to wake you."
Luna groans again, rolling further until she falls from the couch to lay sprawled on the floor, "We demand coffee."
Celestia places the plate and bowl in front of her, "I have waffles and blueberries."
"Coffee," Luna repeats, glaring tiredly at her sister.
Celestia lets out a long suffering sigh, "I asked Spike to make a pot. Though how you can stand to drink the stuff is, as always, beyond me."
Luna snorts, taking a bite out of the top waffle in the stack and popping a pair of blueberries into her mouth while she chews, "At least we did not spend the better part of five decades negotiating and renegotiating for trade rights to a few plants from nearly every tribe in the Zebrican Confederation."
"I will have you know, my efforts in those trade agreements covered far more than my tea leaves and they set the stage for centuries of peaceful relations between our peoples," Celestia sniffs, raising her nose in mock offense.
After several seconds she glances down, the two Alicorns holding each other's gaze for a split second before dissolving into a fit of giggles.
"Coffee and a bunch of apples, as requested," Spike announces, stopping in his tracks as soon as the curtain behind him cuts off the kitchen's light. "Wow, it's really dark in here."
The faintly steaming pot of coffee in his left claw glows blue, yanking itself from his grasp and shooting across the room to stop in front of Princess Luna who immediately drinks from it. The entire room watches in silence while she drains the dark liquid, only pausing to take a breath once half the coffee is gone.
"Aaahh~" Luna sighs contentedly, shivering as the welcome dose of caffeine enters her system.
"Isn't that hot?" Twilight queries.
"Extremely," Luna replies.
"Um, your highness," one of the thestral guards says, looking hopefully from Luna to the large bowl of apples, then back to Luna, "may we… ?"
Luna dismisses them with a wave of her hoof, "Consider yourselves off duty until tonight."
The three bow and trot towards Spike, the drake placing the bowl on the floor before carefully making his way over to Twilight.
"Kinda loud, aren't they?" Spike mutters rhetorically as the sound of apples having their vital juices drained fills the room, Twilight giving him a disapproving nudge in response.
A few seconds later, Spike taps her shoulder, "Hey… Twilight?"
"Has anypony gone into the basement since the vamponies went down there?"
"I don't think so," Twilight answers, only now glancing at the ominous gap in the curtains blocking the tunnel to her basement. "Celestia and I didn't at least. Luna?"
Luna shakes her head, "Neither my guards nor I have entered your basement."
The gathered alicorns, thestrals, and dragon peer around the room, all nervous to varying degrees. Eventually Luna's gaze falls on Twilight, her apprehensive frown fading to be replaced by a mischievous smile.
Twilight looks back at Luna questioningly, however her confusion quickly transforms into terror as a wave of hot, moist air rolls across the left side of her neck.
Whirling 180 degrees, Twilight's magic surges into her horn, its tip glowing like a beacon in the darkened room. However, as her eyes dart from point to point, her horn's light reveals nothing but shadows cast by the wreckage leftover from the previous night. While she examines the area before her for any sign or discrepancy to indicate the vampony's location, something smacks her tail and she spins around again, only to once more be greeted by empty space. Muffled laughter sounds off vaguely to her right and she automatically glances towards it, instead finding Celestia with a hoof raised to shield her eyes from Twilight's hornlight rather than a vampony.
A couple seconds later, the guards squint at something just over her shoulder, the three tensing in unison as if to rush towards her despite the painfully bright purple light. Against her better judgment, Twilight turns around one last time – a mouthful of pointed teeth and fangs a mere inch from her muzzle greeting her while glowing red eyes with slitted pupils stare into her very soul.
Twilight's breath hitches and she prepares to scream – just in time for a smaller body to impact the base of her neck, small hooves gently wrapping themselves around her throat and a filly's voice whispering in her ear.
Midnight holds a leg over her eyes and takes a few unsteady steps away from Twilight as the light from the alicorn's horn flares before fading to nothing, her ears splaying back, "Ow-ow-ow-ow… "
"Midnight?" Dawn calls out, slipping off Twilight's barrel with a quiet thud.
"I can't see! Everything's green!"
Midnight carefully lowers her leg, blinking rapidly while she waits for her vision to return, "Mhm."
"I think they will make a wonderful addition to Nightmare Night, don't you?" Luna amusedly queries Celestia.
"I… suppose… " Celestia concedes hesitantly. "So the larger one is Midnight?"
"Yes, and the younger one is Dawn," Luna confirms after draining the last of her coffee.
Celestia clears her throat sharply, "Midnight. Dawn. I am not sure what you meant to do to Twilight, but will she be alright?"
"What?" Midnight asks, glancing at Celestia then back to Twilight, her eyes narrowing to peer through the green haze still clouding her sight. "Oh. Yeah, she'll be fine."
Midnight waves a hoof in front of the frozen mare, however her thousand yard stare remains unchanged, pupils refusing to even twitch. Frowning, Midnight boops Twilight's nose. The poked princess leaps into the air with a yelp as though Midnight's touch had opened the pressure release valve in her brain, her limbs flailing randomly until she falls to the floor in a panting heap.
"Don't… do… that… " Twilight gasps, her heart hammering in her chest.
Midnight grins in response, though her amusement fades as she watches Twilight shiver, "You are going to be alright, right?"
"Yes, I will be fine," Twilight replies, taking several deep breaths and offering a wan smile. "That was pure nightmare fuel though."
"It was supposed to be fun," Dawn says abashedly.
Midnight nods, "You were supposed to strike back or run around or, you know, do something that involved moving."
"Regardless, if you're quite finished terrifying my former student into a stupor," Celestia interjects, a hint of acid leaking into her voice, "I have managed to obtain some food for you and your sister."
Raising her horn, magic surges through it to briefly bathe the room in a brilliant, yellow light.
"Seriously, why are we even keeping it so dark in here if everypony is just going to keep making it bright anyway?" Spike asks, rubbing his eyes and watching the blinded bat ponies stare aimlessly at their surroundings.
"He makes an excellent point," Luna agrees, giving her sister a flat look.
Celestia deigns not to respond, her golden magical aura now casting a relatively dim light as it engulfs the cloche covering a large silver platter. Midnight's and Dawn's ears simultaneously stand straight up the instant Celestia lifts the food cover, both raising their noses to sniff the air before turning towards the platter.
"Ce… Celestia?" Twilight stammers, "W-Where did you even get all that?!"
Luna raises an eyebrow, "Ozymandias?"
Celestia sighs, massaging the bridge of her nose, "Ozymandias."
"He will probably be angry."
"Maybe even enough to leave?"
Celestia sends a resigned look in Canterlot's direction, "One can only hope… "
"I'm sorry, who?" Twilight squeaks out, her and the thestrals' eyes still locked onto the freshly teleported pile of cooked meat and bone.
"High Lord Ozymandias of Griffonstone, as he likes to call himself," Luna answers derisively. "His people are starving while his city is falling apart around him, yet he still manages to find time to abuse an emergency diplomatic provision in our treaty with the Griffon clans to 'grace the lesser plant-eating species with his presence' as he likes to so succinctly put it. He is an arrogant bastard of a griffon, and the world will be well served by his departure from it."
"Oh," Twilight replies simply, her focus shifting from the full platter to the vamponies now standing in front of it.
Midnight and Dawn lean down and sniff the meat suspiciously, trading each other a confused look before Midnight extends her tongue to lick the nearest sausage link. Instantly her head shoots up and she unsteadily backpedals a few steps, her eyes crossing to stare at her muzzle while her tongue hangs out of her mouth.
Dawn snickers, Midnight glaring at her indignantly and pointing at the offending piece of meat, "You try it then."
Obliging with a roll of her eyes, Dawn sinks her teeth into the sausage only to leap back as if it had bit her instead, narrowing her eyes at it warily from a couple feet away.
"Perhaps it is spoiled?" Luna suggests, "It does not appear so to us, however our knowledge on the subject is quite limited."
"No, I mean it's cooked, which is different, but there's something else there too," Midnight explains, gesturing at the platter. "Something sharp, and tingly."
Dawn nods in agreement, "And hot."
A long, uncertain pause meets their description until Twilight starts to giggle, apologetically waving away an annoyed glare from Midnight, "Sorry, but what you're saying is it's a little spicy."
Midnight looks at her questioningly, "And that's… normal?"
"I don't know," Twilight replies with a shrug, focusing on the wall just over Midnight's head to keep the pile of flesh at the edge of her peripheral vision, "but spices have been put on literally everything at some point or another, so it isn't too surprising that griffons put it on their food as well."
"Oh," Midnight replies, examining the surrounding food with her nose before pulling a chunk of meat off a femur. "Weird."
"Gross, more like," one of Luna's guards mutters, his muzzle twisted in distaste.
The two ends of the bone clatter to the floor, Midnight giving the offending guard an unamused look as she pops the center piece from between the sides of her upper jaw with her tongue.
"Ugh, the marrow's all hard," she grumbles.
"I don't get why you'd cook any of this anyway," Dawn says, gnawing on a rib. "It makes everything so dry."
Two of the guards look away from the flesh devouring vamponies, the closer of them holding a hoof to his mouth as his stomach rumbles ominously, "I think I'm going to be sick."
"Not here you're not!" Twilight shouts, teleporting him away in a dim purple flash.
"There's already enough stuff on the floor without anypony else adding to it," she mutters, the telltale sound of vomit entering a toilet reaching the group a few seconds later.
The third guard stares up at the ceiling towards the source of the sound, then glances first at his remaining nauseated compatriot then again at the vamponies. Shrugging, he picks up another apple in his mouth, puncturing its red skin with his short fangs and draining it dry.
"rrrrrrrrrr~!" Dawn cries out in frustration, her eyes following the tip of the pale yellow tail wiggling just out of reach. "Get! Back! Here!"
The prehensile tail ignores her demands however, bending and twisting to stay just beyond the grasp of the pouncing vampony filly as the coal-dust grey body of the thestral guard to whom it is attached turns in a slow circle. The others in the room watch the scene play out before them, Spike and the princesses following their antics amusedly while the remaining two guards stand next to Luna – the previously vomiting guard much closer to her side than the other though both watch the vamponies closely. Midnight meanwhile rests her head on the floor, following the movements of her sister and her playmate through eyes lidded by tiredness.
As the guard continues turning, Midnight's gaze shifts to rest on his cutie mark of a single, wavy, almost iridescent white line moving from the upper left of his flank to the lower right, idle curiosity distracting her until Dawn makes a final, desperate lunge.
"YESSS!!!" Dawn shouts triumphantly from between her teeth, grinning while the guard's tail wriggles helplessly in her jaws. Smiling mischievously, the guard begins to turn much more quickly, Dawn's eyes widening as she's dragged forward. Their speed rapidly increases, the centripetal force growing strong enough to lift her from the ground as the thestral whose tail she's biting spins faster and faster. On her fifth cycle their speed peaks and the guard changes the incline of her orbit, for a moment Dawn's side sliding along the floor with all the pressure of a feather before her altered path aims her 45 degrees from the library's floor.
Releasing her hold on his tail, Dawn snaps her wings open and easily regains control of her trajectory, the arc of her flight path taking her within reach of the library's mostly empty shelves. Her height slowly decreases as she circles overhead for one lap around the room, however half way through her second lap she suddenly angles her wings downward, dropping towards her older sister. Midnight tenses at the sight of Dawn's impending dive bomb, the impact pushing her several inches across the floor away from their platter and forcing a wet burp from her mouth. Panting, Dawn shifts onto her side and closes her eyes, snuggling into Midnight's barrel. With a sigh, Midnight licks her lips, extending a wing over Dawn and flapping it gently.
The guard looks at Midnight, smiling as he waggles his tail, "Want to take a turn?"
Midnight blinks, then gives him a flat stare, "I will maul you."
The guard coughs and takes a step back, "Right… uhh… never mind, then."
The telltale pop of teleportation sounds from the kitchen, a voice muffled by the thick curtains calling out, "Princess Celestia?"
"We're in here, lieutenant," Celestia responds loudly, turning to look at the curtains blockading the kitchen along with everybody else.
A shaft of light pierces into the shadowed room like a lance a second later, Spike, Twilight, and Luna squinting and averting their gaze while the bat ponies cover their eyes with their wings, Midnight lowering the one fanning Dawn to shield her as well. Much to their relief, Double Time quickly slips through the doorway, allowing the curtains to fall back into place.
Staring in the general direction of the princesses while his eyes adjust, Double Time salutes into the darkness, "Your Highnesses, the ponies you requested to be brought here are waiting outside."
"Thank you, lieutenant," Celestia replies with a nod. "Please send them in."
Double Time bows, "At once."
"You are aware that you can use the door," Luna comments dryly as light surrounds his horn in preparation for another teleportation.
"O-Oh, yes, of course. My apologies," Double Time says, the glow of magic fading from his horn as he instead carefully starts making his way towards the front door.
He freezes after taking only a few steps however, his proximity along with his still adapting vision now allowing him to make out the vamponies – along with the platter of uneaten meat and leftover bones next to them. Midnight turns her head, watching the unmoving guard impassively. Suddenly very much aware that all eyes in the room are on him, Double Time swallows and forces himself forward, his pace picking up noticeably once he passes Midnight and Dawn. Guided by past experience, everyone but Celestia looks away when he opens the door and slips outside.
Celestia sighs once the door slams shut, "Was that really necessary, Luna?"
Rather than respond, Luna merely smiles, finishing off her third waffle and dropping the last of the blueberries into her mouth.
Without warning the front door opens wide, bathing the room in the sunlight of early afternoon as an undisguised Cheerilee and Bon Bon enter alongside Big Mac and Lyra in the wake of two Royal Guards, one a pegasus and the other a unicorn.
Spike yelps in pain and falls backwards as the light scalds his retinas, defensively putting his scaled back between him and the door. The thestral guards flinch, each covering their eyes with their hooves and wings. Midnight follows suit, letting out a low growl as Dawn whimpers and pushes her head against Midnight's side to help block out the light.
"CLOSE THAT THRICE DAMNED DOOR!!!" Luna bellows, her voice booming through the library as she also uses her wings to thwart the light's onslaught while Twilight buries her head in a nearby pile of books.
Acting on instinct, the unicorn guard's horn instantly shines to life, slamming the door shut. A chorus of relieved groans and sighs follows his action, all but Celestia unshielding their eyes and looking around the room through green tinted vision.
"Um… Your Highness… " the unicorn guard ventures after standing completely still in the renewed darkness of the room for several seconds, "may I light my horn?"
"You may not," Celestia replies sharply.
Both guards flinch, their ears pinned to their head and eyes locked on the floor.
A knock brings the attention of everyone in the room back to the door, Rainbow Dash's voice making its way through the wood, "Hey, uh, can we come in now?"
"Twilight," Celestia says, glancing towards the kitchen, "perhaps you could bring your friends in a bit more discretely?"
Twilight nods, trotting over to the shrouded doorway and in three precise moves holding the curtains open with her magic, jumping through, then closing the gap behind her. Nevertheless, the brief moment of extra light is enough to allow the newcomers' still adapting eyes to clearly make out the leftovers of the vamponies' meal. The Royal Guards' worry for their future punishment mixes with confusion as they process the sight – horror replacing both once they realize what they're staring at, the shocked pair shooting bewildered looks at Celestia before the light from Twilight's departure vanishes. Big Mac reacts with similar though less obvious discomfort, shuffling his hooves uneasily and quickly looking away. Lyra and the changelings meanwhile glance unperturbed at the mostly cleared platter, their focus soon returning to the kitchen doorway.
A loud crack of displaced air follows a few seconds after the quiet pop of Twilight's initial teleportation, the kitchen curtain rippling before being once again pushed aside. Twilight and Fluttershy enter first, the two beginning to fill out the circle by sitting opposite the first group of six and to the left of the vamponies' platter, though making sure to keep a fair sized gap between it and them. Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, and Applejack follow, each pausing at the sight of the vamponies' food just long enough to annoy the pony behind them with the exception of Applejack – her gaze locking onto her brother and Cheerilee as soon as she pushes through the curtains.
Once everypony has taken a seat in their now complete, though somewhat amorphous, circle, Celestia glances at her sister, "Given the nature of the discussion we will be having, I think it would be best if our guards left us for the time being."
"Agreed," Luna says with a nod, looking across the room at the only one of her guards not standing beside her. "Lunar Trail; you, Shadow Strike, and Night Glider will wait in the basement until we call for you."
Lunar Trail waits expectantly for his two compatriots, rolling his eyes and turning towards the basement tunnel as Shadow Strike and Night Glider uneasily follow him, the pair making sure to keep a good distance between themselves and a watchful Midnight.
"You two," Celestia says brusquely to her Royal Guards as Luna's thestrals leave, "go back outside; and please, don't throw open the door this time."
"O-Of course," the guards answer in unison, both hastily slipping out the front door.
As soon as the door gently clicks shut, a golden aura covers Celestia's horn and rapidly expands to form a thin, nearly transparent bubble around the gathered ponies. She meets Luna's eyes meet once the spell completes, each offering the other an encouraging smile.
However, before either can speak, Rainbow Dash nervously steps forward, "Hey, uh, Midnight, before we all start talking about all the other things we're here for, I just wanted to say thanks for helping out with Sombra last night. If you hadn't been there, I might've ended up dead. Or worse, apparently. So, you know, if you ever need a uh… a drink, or anything, feel free to drop by."
"Oh, uh, that's… I-sure," Midnight replies, the words stumbling out of her mouth. "You're welcome. And… uhm… thanks."
Her piece said, Rainbow returns to her place in the circle, glancing at the shocked expressions of those around her, "What? That's all I had to say."
Celestia clears her throat, drawing everypony's attention back to her, "I would also like to take the opportunity to apologize to you, Midnight, for what happened 1000 years ago. My fellow princesses and I will need some time to think about and discuss how to proceed from here, but rest assured that what occurred then will not reoccur now."
"Indeed," Luna agrees. "Accidental or not, it is a stain upon the history of Equestria, and one which we will do everything in our power to scrub clean."
"And, I mean, that sounds great and all," Midnight says hesitantly, her gaze moving from Rainbow to the Two Sisters. "But what does that mean, exactly?"
"It means that we will do whatever we can to make up for what happened," Celestia explains. "However… in order to be able to do so, we will need to know where to find any other vamponies who are living within the Everfree – or anywhere else, for that matter. Not only to make amends, but because, for better or worse, word of what has happened here with regard to your kind – as well as the changelings – will eventually spread outside of Ponyville regardless of any measures we may take to contain it, and we need to know which pony or ponies to speak with about the changes that knowledge will bring."
Celestia sighs tiredly, releasing the last of the air in her lungs and drawing a new breath, "That said, my sister has told me that you do not know the location of any vamponies aside from those living near Ponyville. Do you have any way at all to find or communicate with those living in other areas? I realize this is a lot to ask of you, especially given our history, and I wish there were more we could do to prove our good intentions, but I strongly believe that it would be better to get ahead of this rather than waiting for ponies to go searching for answers on their own."
Midnight blinks slowly, a lost look in her eyes as she digests Celestia's words, "I don't, but… I could ask around and see if anypony else does. Maybe a place to start looking or something, at least."
"I think I can help with that, actually," Bon Bon says, a cold pit forming in her stomach as the princesses turn to look at her along with everypony else in the room. "It's not really that hard, if uh… i-if you know what to look for."
"You are 'Bon Bon', correct?" Celestia asks, the slightest hint of suspicion in her voice. "Or is there another name you would rather go by?"
Bon Bon bows, a shiver traveling down her spine, "I-I would prefer Bon Bon, your highness."
"I see," Celestia replies, dismissing a questioning look from Luna with a nearly imperceptible shake of her head. "That name sounds oddly familiar for some reason; but regardless, please explain what you mean."
Lyra puts a foreleg around Bon Bon's shoulders and pulls her closer, Bon Bon sipping from the stream of protective emotions flowing from Lyra to steady herself, "W-Well, um… it all starts with the Everfree, really, in that despite how nonchalant a lot of ponies here in Ponyville are about living literally right next to it, its reputation for being scary and even deadly are very well earned. Most towns anywhere near the forest have walls with a contingent of guards and-or employ a branch of one of the monster hunter guilds to deal with the occasional creature that wanders out of the forest looking for a meal."
Bon Bon pauses, drawing a deep breath before continuing, "There are a few exceptions to this though. The towns that are closest to the Everfree Forest – like Ponyville, which is practically right on top of it – are safe to the point that here in Ponyville we've had fillies and colts wandering into the Everfree on a, quite frankly, disturbingly frequent basis who have nevertheless always come back out mostly unscathed. In fact, the worst that's happened recently is a few timberwolves showing up, along with ponies wandering into poison joke every once in a while. We even have a zebra, Zecora, living inside the forest full time, yet if she were to try to live too far in either direction she'd probably be dead in a month or less."
"Those are the towns that vamponies are by," Bon Bon finishes, swallowing and licking her dried lips. "That isn't all vamponies, I mean, but definitely most."
"So what you are saying, is that the vamponies have been protecting Ponyville as well as these other towns?" Luna asks, looking to Midnight for confirmation.
Midnight's eyes narrow slightly, "Um. Nooo… ?"
"I could be wrong," Bon Bon says quickly, "so correct me if I am, but it's probably less that they're actively guarding the town and more that they both drink pony blood and also eat a lot of the things that would otherwise like to eat ponies. So rather than trying to walk through miles of vampony territory, attack Ponyville, and then walk back through vampony territory covered in pony blood, other Everfree predators tend to just avoid Ponyville and those other towns altogether."
Midnight nods in agreement, "That makes more sense."
"Hold up just a moment now," Applejack objects. "If that's the case, then why do timberwolves still show up every once in a while?"
"Timberwolves aside," Luna interjects, sending Applejack a pointed look before returning her gaze to Midnight, "if that is truly all it takes to locate the other vamponies, then it makes this a great deal easier. I am assuming you and your sister will be returning home once the sun sets, and if it is alright, I would like to accompany you. We still don't know specifically which other towns are likely to be host to vampony populations, and while that will be figured out eventually, for now it would be best to gather the vamponies around Ponyville to inform them of what has happened. The sooner we can begin reaching out to them, the better."
"As long as we-" Midnight pauses, glancing down at her sister asleep and snuggled into her side. "As long as I get to go back to sleep before then."
"Fear not," Luna laughs. "Once we are done talking, my thestrals and I will be returning to our slumber as well."
Midnight lets out a massive yawn, "Awesome."
Celestia inclines her head, "Thank you for being so understanding, and for helping to keep Ponyville safe, intentionally or not. Now, regarding the changeling presence in Ponyville-"
"Forgive me for interrupting, Tia," Luna says apologetically, "but if you don't mind, there is something that came up last night while I was watching over the dream realm and which I would very much like to understand before we delve into the topic of changelings as a whole."
Celestia sighs, "Very well."
"My thanks," Luna replies, turning towards the changeling to Big Mac's left. "Your name is Cheerilee, I believe?"
Cheerilee bows deeply, "Y-Yes, your highness."
"Unless we are mistaken, I encountered you in a nightmare last night; however, almost immediately after I engaged the nightmare, you vanished. It was quite strange – we have never seen anypony disappear from the dreamscape in such a way," Luna states, watching Cheerilee curiously. "Do changelings have any abilities related to the realm of sleep?"
Cheerilee shakes her head, "No, we don't. It's kind of the opposite, actually; we don't dream at all. We have a link to all the others in our hive, and when we sleep that link is strengthened instead. Last night my connection was broken somehow though, and maybe that's how I ended up in a dream, but other than that I have no idea. I've never heard of anything like this happening before."
"Interesting… " Luna murmurs, glancing at the floor and tapping her chin thoughtfully. "Then perhaps your vanishing was simply your link reestablishing itself. I wonder if… hm. Regardless, I take it that also means this was the first dream you've ever had?"
Cheerilee shivers and leans into Big Mac, resting her head on the larger stallion's shoulder, "Y-Yeah."
Luna winces, "I see… you have our sympathies. Though I suppose that does explain why we have never found a changeling in the dreamscape before."
"I guess… " Cheerilee glances up at Big Mac before timidly looking back at Luna, "um… i-if you don't mind me asking, are dreams usually that horrible?"
Luna smiles reassuringly, "Neigh, most dreams are actually quite nice, though often confusing, and even most 'nightmares' are simply manifestations of one's own worries or insecurities. However, what you encountered was a true nightmare – a being which feeds on pain, hatred, and despair, and is made of the randomly recombined leftovers from the collapsed dreams of others after they wake. Fortunately such entities are quite rare; until last night, I had not been forced to deal with one since before I was banished."
"The fact that it targeted you is likely an indication of the anger, fear, and uncertainty of the rest of the town. It could just as easily have gone after Bon Bon or perhaps even Midnight or Dawn," Luna adds, sending an unamused look Pinkie's way. "Though the massive intake of sugar and caffeine following such a stressful series of events certainly did not help matters."
"Sorry," Pinkie Pie apologizes, ducking her head embarrassedly for a moment before raising both it and her right hoof high into the air. "I have a question of my own now though. If there are mean, evil dream creatures, does that mean there are nice ones too?"
Celestia lets out a derisive snort, "Of course not. They are all an insane mess of fractured memories and emotions driven solely by the need to make everypony else they encounter as broken as they are."
Pinkie's mane deflates at this, her shimmering eyes staring at the floor beneath her hooves.
Luna hesitates, then after the barest moment of internal deliberation takes a deep breath, "Err… that is not… actually the case. They are incredibly rare due to the random nature of their creation, but they do exist. I believe the modern term for them is an 'imaginary friend'."
Pinkie grins and squees, her mane poofing back into its regular curly form as she gleefully claps her hooves together. Luna watches bemusedly, though she feels the pressure of Celestia's angry gaze boring into the side of her skull.
Noting the lack of magic behind the stare, Luna allows herself a small sigh, Not exactly how I had hoped to broach the subject with her.
To be fair, we hadn't planned on telling her at all, Selena replies, a nervous undercurrent in her voice. Twilight's house hasn't lit on fire yet though, so that's a good sign, right? Definitely better than when you and her first met, at least.
Luna mentally rolls her eyes, That is hardly saying much.
"Um, Princess Luna?" Twilight queries, glancing between the distracted sisters, "I really don't mean to derail this further, but if you've never seen a changeling in a dream due to their link to the rest of their hive, why haven't you ever seen a vampony before?"
Luna blinks, Twilight's question pulling her from her internal dialogue, "What? Oh! My apologies, Twilight, my mind was elsewhere. In the vamponies' case, the Everfree Forest helped to hide them from us; the chaotic magic present there warps the dreamscape as much as, if not more than, it does the physical world, making navigating it quite treacherous. I also admittedly did not often attempt to look within the forest since, as far as I was aware, nopony had ever lived inside it – Zecora's relatively recent presence being the only exception we know of. Even now it would be quite difficult to find them despite knowing they are there, like trying to search through many miles of rough ocean or dense jungle, so visiting in the real world is still easier for the time being. Here at least I will have a guide."
"How wonderful," Celestia says stiffly, focusing her attention on the pair of undisguised changelings in the room. "Now; Cheerilee, Bon Bon; Luna and I have many questions to ask you, but there is one of particular importance that must be answered first and must be answered truthfully."
She meets Cheerilee's eyes, then Bon Bon's, "Were either of you involved with the army that attacked Canterlot in any way?"
"No," Bon Bon and Cheerilee reply in unison.
Luna raises an eyebrow, "You are both quite sure? It would be far more unfortunate if later we were to find out either one of you had been lying to us."
Celestia nods, "The invasion was already your kind's first impression on all of Equestria. Lying to us about it now will only make things worse."
"Neither of us had anything to do with Queen Chrysalis, her hive, or the invasion," Cheerilee states emphatically. "I didn't even know it had happened until I read about it in the Ponyville Express the next day, and Bon Bon hadn't heard anything until I told her."
"Our shells are the wrong color too," Bon Bon adds. "If we were part of Queen Chrysalis' hive, they'd be dark blue."
"If that is the case, then I take it you two are also from a second and third hive?" Luna asks, her eyes flicking between Cheerilee's dull yellow shell and Bon Bon's light brown one.
"We are," Cheerilee confirms.
"Even so, you are saying that you really don't know anything at all about what happened to this 'Queen Chrysalis' after she was ejected from Canterlot?" Celestia queries, "Or the rest of her army, for that matter."
Bon Bon shakes her head, "I heard all the other queens met to discuss a punishment, but I don't know what they ended up deciding."
"We are, quite literally, far removed from hive politics," Cheerilee adds.
Bon Bon nods, "And honestly it seemed like a topic left well enough alone. If it was something we needed to know, our queens would make sure someling came out to tell us."
"I see," Celestia replies, her tone level. "And how many changeling hives, and changeling queens, are there in Equestria?"
"There are nine," Cheerilee answers. "Hives and queens, I mean – you can't have one without the other. Though that includes Queen Chrysalis too, actually, so probably eight now."
"Eight queens… " Celestia says quietly, a frown settling across her muzzle, "that is… more than I was expecting. And with what Chrysalis alone was able to accomplish…"
Luna's brow furrows, "What do you mean there are eight now? If your queens met to discuss Chrysalis' punishment, then she must have survived her expulsion from Canterlot."
"Well, I mean, I didn't hear what Chrysalis' punishment was specifically, but… " Cheerilee shudders, Big Mac wrapping a foreleg around her shoulders, "but my queen was so angry when she found out what had happened… I've never felt her get so emotional about anything before. I could barely sleep for over a week, and the whole hive was on edge until she calmed down."
Bon Bon bobs her head once in agreement, "My queen reacted similarly. And if the others also reacted the same way… I can't imagine Queen Chrysalis was allowed to live."
"…That is a rather disquieting thought," Celestia says pensively, "though perhaps not unsurprising, given what she did. How long had she been… residing within Equestria, before she made her move?"
Bon Bon shrugs, "I'm not really sure about her specifically, but none of the nine are new queens, and in general we've been here a pretty long time. I do know we've been with you since at least a little bit earlier than the first Hearth's Warming Eve though, since the lead up to that was one of the worst periods in our history, and that none of the nine queens are old enough to have been around for that themselves. I've also heard that it's much more difficult for us to survive among non-pony races – something about ponies being especially magical in comparison – so I don't think there are any hives outside of Equestria, actually."
"Changelings were around pre-Unification?" Twilight asks, "That's well over a thousand years then, at least."
"At the very least," Celestia mutters to herself, staring unseeingly at the wall just over Bon Bon's head.
A chilly silence falls upon all gathered at her words, Bon Bon and Cheerilee both shivering and leaning into their special someponies.
Luna clears her throat, "Regarding these other queens, and their hives, do you know where in Equestria they are located?"
Bon Bon and Cheerilee shift uncomfortably, several seconds passing before Cheerilee speaks up, "We both know the location of our own hive, but it's not… um… that is to say… i-it's not really our place to be telling you or anypony else where it is. I don't even know where Bon Bon's hive is, and I wouldn't expect her to tell me if I asked."
"That is not an acceptable response," Celestia states sharply. "I don't care how long you've all kept yourselves hidden within Equestria, that absolutely cannot remain the case after everything that's happened."
"If for no other reason than we need to have some way to be able to communicate with your hives," Luna says hastily, ignoring a glare shot her way by Celestia. "And not just your hives either – we would need the names of other changelings from other hives as well."
"Uh… " Bon Bon glances between the Royal Sisters. "It's not really our place to be outing other changelings, either. Especially from other hives."
Celestia's jaw clenches, her eyes narrowing, "That is also not an acceptable response. You can't expect to be able to evade some of most important questions we have for you, especially since we need to be able to send discrete messages to all of the hives in order for anything particularly useful to ultimately come of this."
"I'm sorry," Bon Bon apologizes, "but Cheerilee and I were forced to reveal ourselves, and that's not something I'm going to make anyling else go through, nor am I going to betray the trust my queen placed in me by revealing things I know I'm not supposed to reveal. You could make an announcement just here in Ponyville asking any other changelings to reveal themselves though. Once they know Cheerilee and I are fine and that nothing will happen to them, they might be willing to come forward on their own."
"Bon Bon and I could also take your message back to our hives and then our queens could send it out to the other hives," Cheerilee suggests. "There aren't changelings from every single hive in Ponyville, so that would have to happen anyway, and that way no other changelings would have to be revealed."
Midnight lets out another huge yawn, sending Cheerilee and Bon Bon a flat, tired stare, "I really don't understand why you're making such a big deal out of this. There's only one other changeling in the entirety of Ponyville right now."
"You are able to locate changelings?" Luna asks Midnight curiously, "How?"
"They taste different," Midnight answers, an unpleasant expression crossing her face. "Kinda watery, and… eugh. There used to be a lot more too, but most of them left over the last couple years."
Luna's gaze intensifies at this, "How many are we talking about?"
Midnight looks up at the ceiling, her eyes flicking back and forth between two of the thestrals' hooks, "Seven… ty… ish… ? Somewhere around there, anyway."
"That you are able to determine this based on their blood tasting different would imply that you have drunk the blood of every pony in Ponyville," Celestia states, a hint of acid managing to leak into her voice. "Not to mention it would mean that changelings once made up approximately seven percent of Ponyville's population without anypony being any the wiser."
Midnight exhales sharply through her nose, but otherwise doesn't respond.
"I would also like to know if that is true," Luna prompts, raising an eyebrow.
Midnight lets out an annoyed sigh, "I haven't fed on everypony in Ponyville, but we all have our own preferences on who tastes best. Changelings are the exception to that – they always taste bad, so we share with each other who to avoid. Well, not quite always," Midnight corrects herself after a moment's thought. "There is one guy who likes the flavor, calls it an 'acquired taste'."
Cheerilee and Bon Bon share a nervous glance, Midnight rolling her eyes, "If it makes you feel any better, I think you changelings taste terrible."
"In any case," Celestia says, returning her attention to the changelings, "taste aside, do you both attest to there being only one other changeling in Ponyville right now?"
"We do," Bon Bon replies, Cheerilee nodding her own confirmation.
"Very well," Celestia continues. "Then I expect both of you to inform this other changeling of what has happened and that we would like to speak with them, and I also expect each of you to return to your hive and tell your queen the same. Is that understood?"
"It is, your highness," Bon Bon confirms.
Celestia glances between Cheerilee and Bon Bon, meeting their eyes, "Good. We will do our best in the mean time to try to prevent knowledge of what has happened here from leaking out to the rest of Equestria. However, this information cannot be contained indefinitely, so I expect you to do both of those things very soon and as quickly as you can. Is that also understood?"
Cheerilee and Bon Bon nod again.
"Wonderful." Celestia's gaze sharpens, "Additionally, I have had some long-standing questions regarding statements Chrysalis made during her attempted invasion, which I believe you will finally be able to provide some answers to. For example, she spoke of feeding on Shining Armor's love for Cadence and her intention to drain the love from every pony in Equestria in order to 'find food for her subjects'. Would I be correct in assuming then that all changelings feed on the love of non-changelings, as well as that both of you have routinely taken love from other ponies living in Ponyville?"
Bon Bon and Cheerilee hesitate, Bon Bon speaking up when Celestia raises an eyebrow, "That's not… um… inaccurate, and while love is the best, we do feed on more than just love. Joy, anger, or even fear or sadness are all emotions we can feed on too, but the extremes of those are poisonous to us, like obsession, hatred, or terror."
"It is interesting that you can consume negative feelings as well," Celestia comments. "But regardless, 'eating' mental energy – emotions – would by definition require the use of mind magic, correct?"
"Correct," Bon Bon replies, shuffling her hooves.
"And is this mind magic ever used to manipulate or strengthen a pony's emotions?" Celestia queries, "So that you can take more energy from them, for example, or so they are easier to feed on. Or perhaps even for more mundane goals, such as convincing somepony to take a particular course of action."
Luna shoots her sister a warning look, "Tia… "
Celestia ignores Luna, her focus on Bon Bon intensifying, "Answer, please."
"I… I mean, I can't really say that no changeling anywhere has ever done that," Bon Bon admits. "But I've never done that and I don't know of any changeling who's done that either. Any unnecessary use of magic is discouraged, since it could possibly be detected and lead to our discovery."
Celestia frowns, "Hm. I see. Well, would it also be correct to say that consuming emotions regularly is a matter of survival for you, in addition to food and water like regular ponies require?"
"I-I… uh, yes?" Bon Bon stammers.
Celestia's gaze hardens, "To summarize then – all changelings, yourselves included, are capable of using mind magic, and in fact consistently do so on the ponies around you in order to feed on them."
"Well… I suppose that's true, in a way… " Bon Bon says, squirming closer to Lyra under Celestia's piercing gaze. "But relatively few changelings ever leave the hive, or at most are never farther than a few miles from it, and those of us that do leave are given very strict training on how to feed and gather emotions without harming anypony. A-And also, I meant to say it before, but we don't even feed directly on other ponies, most of the time, since with there being so many more ponies than changelings the ambient emotions are usually enough."
"Quite like a buffet, it would seem," Celestia replies, the barest hint of ozone wafting through the room. "But regardless, it sounds like both of you have gone through this training then?"
"I-I, umm… " Bon Bon swallows loudly, "Y… Y-Yes."
Cheerilee nods mutely, Big Mac's mane obscuring part of her face.
Celestia's lip curls, "I see. And given that all who do will be living in disguise among non-changelings with a very high priority placed on not being discovered, I would assume this training is not simply an ethics course, and also includes other, more advanced, techniques. Using mind magic for offensive purposes, for instance."
"Tia," Luna interjects.
"It is a valid question," Celestia counters, sparing her sister a glance before staring down at Bon Bon. "Answer, please."
Bon Bon flinches, her ears splaying, "N-No, we're only taught how to use it for… f-for uh… for self-defense."
"Offense and defense are two sides of the same coin; one can easily be repurposed for use as the other," Celestia says, giving a short, dismissive exhalation. "Have either of you ever used mind magic to harm somepony?"
"No!" Bon Bon denies vehemently, shaking her head, "Never."
Cheerilee wilts as Princess Celestia's gaze lands on her, "Uh… w-well… "
Bon Bon gapes at her friend, "Cheerilee… ?"
"I-It was last night, a-after the n-nightmare," Cheerilee stammers, shrinking beneath the large foreleg wrapped protectively around her shoulders. "I was so scared, a-and I fed on Big Mac's love more than I should have. But it wasn't too much more, and he's almost completely fine now!"
Celestia looks down at Cheerilee coldly, a victorious glint in her eyes – the telltale dim flash of teleportation enveloping both her and Luna before she can speak.
Celestia blinks, her brief moment of surprise quickly replaced by anger as she faces the only other being she can see with her in Twilight's kitchen, "What is the meaning of this, Luna?"
Luna sighs tiredly, raising a foreleg to shield her eyes from the afternoon sun streaming in through the windows, "Celestia, what are you doing?"
"Discussing the changelings' use of mind magic," Celestia states, her eyes narrowing. "Or at least I was."
"Really? 'Discussing'?" Luna asks, giving Celestia a flat look. "It seems to us that 'interrogating' would be a more accurate description."
"Mind magic is extremely dangerous, and changelings are an entire species predicated on its use on unsuspecting ponies," Celestia replies tersely, returning Luna's look with a glare. "I need to know what they are capable of and how much of a threat they pose, especially given what one of their queens has already done – Cadence still has nightmares about it you know, and it took Shining Armor months before he really felt like himself again after what that parasite did to him."
Luna inclines her head slightly, "We are well aware of the difficulties they faced recovering from their ordeal, having provided them a great deal of help ourselves, but-"
"But nothing!" Celestia barks, her nostrils flared, "A Changeling Queen kidnapped and tormented Cadence, later kidnapped Twilight as well, warped Shining Armor's mind to the point he could barely think for himself, and assaulted me in the middle of a room full of their friends and family all in an attempt to conquer Equestria and turn it into her own feeding ground."
Luna stands a little taller, holding Celestia's gaze with her own, "Mind magic or not, and invasion or not, changelings as a whole have otherwise lived peacefully within Equestria for who knows how long, and they have all continued to do so even after our nation began demonizing them following Cadence and Shining Armor's wedding. Despite what one queen has done, it does not therefore mean that every changeling in Equestria is a threat, much less Cheerilee or Bon Bon."
"Living peacefully?" Celestia gives a short, mirthless laugh, "How can you say they are living peacefully when they openly admit to draining those around them every single day? Even with just two of them, one has already confessed to mentally scarring the pony she supposedly loves!"
"It was clearly an accident-"
"An accident!?" Celestia demands, now nearly shouting, "She assaulted him!"
"She was traumatized," Luna counters, her own voice rising in response. "She had never dreamed before in her life, and her first experience doing so was of a true nightmare. It would be as if she had never experienced pain before, and the first sensation she ever feels are her legs being chopped off. She was only trying to stem her own suffering."
Celestia snorts, "Excuses."
Luna licks her lips, jaw clenching, "Besides, the Apple stallion seems to be perfectly fine. Why would you simply assume any kind of permanent harm was done to him?"
Celestia throws up her hooves, "Because it's mind magic! It is inherently dangerous; one wrong push and you can turn a pony in a vegetable, or worse!"
"By that logic all magic is inherently dangerous, and yet you do not spend your days interrogating unicorns who have done nothing wrong besides using the gifts they were born with," Luna replies.
Celestia gives Luna an annoyed look, "That would be absurd, and you know it."
"Yes," Luna states crisply, "that was my point. Especially given the myriad things I know you've overlooked Twilight doing – that 'want it need it' incident alone would have landed other ponies in our barely used dungeon, even in this day and age."
"…And then there are the vamponies," Celestia continues as if Luna had not spoken. "I saw Midnight use Domination magic on Twilight back there, is that also alright?"
Luna shakes her head, "No, it is not, and we will have to make sure they understand not to use it on non-vamponies without warning like that, but even so it is simply a part of their species and their culture. They were obviously not intending to bring any harm to Twilight and from the looks of things were merely trying to play with her."
Celestia sneers, "As a predator would its prey."
"That is not what I meant, which you know full well," Luna replies, her stony expression belying the frustration in her tone.
Celestia grits her teeth, "How can you keep taking their side in this?! Can't you see how much of a threat they-"
The side of Luna's left hoof impacts her muzzle, Celestia staggering as the rattled gears in her mind jam and grind to a halt.
"I am 'taking their side', as you put it, because this conversation is reminding us more and more of what you once said of my own talent," Luna states, anger simmering beneath each word.
Celestia regains her balance after a few stumbling steps, staring at her sister as she raises a hoof to the faintly stinging welt now reddening her cheek, "Luna… I didn't mean… you know I haven't thought of you like that since… "
Celestia's words falter under her sister's withering glare, however eventually Luna closes her eyes and sighs, her anger gone once she reopens them, "We know you don't, however I do know how uncomfortable you are with mind magic, and I also know you've been dodging the issue for millennia by telling yourself that even though mind magic is bad you can trust me, or more recently that you can trust Cadence too, but that isn't going to work anymore. If we are going to be able to officially extend peace and friendship to the vamponies and to the changelings, you are going to need to accept that mind magic and its various facets have a role to play in Equestria beyond one or two Alicorn princesses – and in fact have had a role for a very long time now, even if we were not aware of it."
Sympathy enters Luna's voice, "Can you do that?"
Celestia shuffles her hooves, "I… yes. But-"
"And is that something you also want to do?" Luna asks softly, "Or would you rather they be our enemies? There can be no middle ground when they are dependent upon us for their own survival."
Celestia shakes her head, "Of course I don't want anypony to be our enemies, but they-"
Luna looks into her sister's eyes, "Tia."
Celestia stares back for the barest moment before taking a deep breath, her shoulders slumping as she glances at the floor, "…Sorry. It isn't just their mind magic that is bothering me, though. That Equestria plays host to eight or nine changeling queens along with their hives; the fact that there were once so many changelings in the town I sent Twilight to in order to make friends and bond with the Elements; what might happen to the Crystal Empire – Cadence and Shining Armor especially – if any of the remaining queens were to go after the Crystal Heart; not to mention how many changelings there must still be in all of our other cities and towns, or even Canterlot… there must be at least some, and yet nopony was reported missing after Chrysalis' army was blasted away-"
Celestia cuts herself off with a sigh, a small smile makes its way onto her lips, "But you are right that I let it get to me far more than it should have, and I was taking my fears out on those two. So, thank you for calling me out. I can only imagine what they would have ended up telling their queens if you had not, but 'Celestia had her guards create a make-shift dungeon and then imprisoned us there' would probably have come up. Even if they aren't our enemies though, despite my poor form in questioning them, their goals are also not necessarily our own."
"What are sisters for?" Luna asks rhetorically, returning Celestia's smile with one of her own. "And yes, we can agree to that much, certainly. The players may be different than we are used to, but at the end of the night this is just another set of political games you and I must make our moves in, after all. Are you ready to return to the others and wrap this up?"
Celestia points a hoof at Luna, "One last thing. Why haven't you ever told me about these 'nice dream entities' before?"
Luna flinches, her eyes widening and ears folding down as she shifts nervously from side to side, "…We had thought about it, and originally we had intended to tell you, but we were afraid of how you would react to such information so soon after our peace was first made, and after a while we stopped feeling like it was worth the risk of bringing it up at all. However, once Pinkie Pie asked the question, we did not wish to lie to everypony about it either, especially since your answer seemed to be causing her distress."
In the ensuing silence, Celestia tilts her head slightly, the light of understanding flickering to life in her eyes, "We?"
"I-I mean-" Luna catches herself, after a moment nodding shakily, "Yes. We."
"I… see… " Celestia says, after a moment letting out a quick exhalation. "Well then, when you and I are both back in Canterlot, you'll have to introduce us."
Luna stands stock still, "Truly? You wish to meet her?"
"Yes," Celestia replies, smiling warmly, "I would. And then-"
"TIS A JOYOUS DAY!" Luna declares, tackle-hugging Celestia to the floor.
"Luna… hugging… too tight… air… " Celestia gasps from beneath her sister.
"Sorry," Luna quickly apologizes, releasing her grip and taking a step back, her eyes sparkling like her mane.
Celestia coughs, "And then, both of you can explain everything you've been keeping from me about 'dream entities' and 'imaginary friends' in exchange for all those years I spent referring to myself in plural with that 'royal we' nonsense you were so insistent about."
"As you wish," Luna snickers. "We suppose it is only fair."
"Good," Celestia says with a nod. "Now I am ready to go back."
Spheres of light envelope the pair, dim versions of the sun and moon further illuminating a kitchen already lit by sunlight for several seconds before vanishing. With their absence, peaceful quiet falls once more, barely a sound to be heard.
Wincing at the noise, Spike peers out from within the shadows of the pantry, draconic pupils flicking warily over the now empty room. Finding nopony remaining to notice him, he slips himself an amethyst, the crunching of splintering stone muted by his cheeks and then silenced entirely as he closes the door to plunge both himself and his ill-gotten desserts into darkness once more.
Reappearing in the darker room, Celestia blinks rapidly while she waits for her eyes to adjust, her heart twinging once everypony else comes into focus – Cheerilee and Bon Bon watching her from the forelegs of their special someponies, the couples' fear palpable.
Clearing her throat, Celestia inclines her head, "Everypony; Cheerilee and Bon Bon especially; I would like to apologize for my behavior before Luna and I left. I allowed past prejudices as well as recent events to cloud my judgment, and I took it out on you two. However, I bear no ill-will towards either of you, and I hope that despite my earlier actions we can continue working together towards establishing a means of communication between the Equestrian government and your hives."
"So… we're not going to get banished or thrown in a dungeon or anything?" Cheerilee asks, peering out from behind Big Mac's mane.
Celestia shakes her head, "No, nothing will happen to either of you over what has been revealed here. However, with that said," she fixes Cheerilee with an expectant stare, "I would be very unhappy to hear of any recurrences."
"O-Of course!" Cheerilee nods rapidly, "It won't happen again, your Highness; I Pinkie Promise."
"Good." Celestia stands taller, "Now, in the meantime, I will be heading back to Canterlot to aid in the transportation and imprisonment of Sombra."
"When you arrive in Canterlot, could you also send an additional 25 Night Guard?" Luna requests, "While I have no doubts as to the skill of my own Lunar Guard, it would be very beneficial to have more round the clock coverage of Ponyville in case something else were to occur."
"Of course," Celestia replies with a nod before turning to the Element Bearers. "Twilight, I would like you and your friends to handle the situation here in Ponyville. I don't have any advice for what to tell everypony, since quite frankly I do not know what I would tell them myself; however, I trust you, as does Luna, and we will support you in whatever course of action you decide to take."
"Also, as an addendum to that," Luna states, pausing to make sure she has Pinkie's attention, "there is to be no more caffeine bingeing."
Pinkie frowns, "Aww… "
"Indeed," Celestia agrees, matching Pinkie's frown with one of her own. "In fact, let's make that official. I hereby decree that no resident of Ponyville is allowed to consume caffeine in any form for the next 48 hours."
Twilight fidgets, "Don't you think that's a little bit extreme, Princess Celestia?"
"No," Celestia replies, giving Twilight a flat look. "I really don't."
"In the meantime, I will be returning to bed," Luna says, glancing at her sleeping spot, "or in this case couch, I suppose, and leaving for the Everfree with Midnight and Dawn once the sun sets."
Celestia nods, popping the soundproof spell bubble surrounding them with a flick of her horn as she walks towards the door. Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, and Applejack follow in her wake along with Bon Bon, Lyra, Big Mac, and Cheerilee, the group pausing in front of the door to look back at Twilight.
"Hey Twi, you coming?" Rainbow asks.
Twilight lets out an awkward laugh, "Actually, I was planning on taking a shower first."
"A wise decision," Rarity states, raising an eyebrow at the incredulous looks directed her way. "What? She does smell a bit sweaty."
"If everypony is ready," Celestia says, waiting for a moment before opening the front door.
The ponies leaving brace themselves against the onslaught of sunlight, all but Celestia squinting as they quickly exit and close the door behind them. Twilight sighs as soon as the door clicks shut, lowering her foreleg from her eyes and heading towards the stairs to the second floor.
Stopping at the foot of the steps, she turns towards the remaining ponies in her house, "Well, like I said, I'm going to take a shower. I don't know if I'll get to talk to either of you before you head into the Everfree Forest, but if not, good luck."
Luna smiles, "And to you, Twilight Sparkle."
"ymphifgr… " Midnight grumbles tiredly, not bothering to open her eyes.
As Twilight clops up the stairs to her shower, Luna stands and makes her way over to the tunnel leading to her host's basement. However, just before she reaches the tunnel's entrance, her three guards step into the room.
"We heard some ponies leaving, so we assumed your meeting with your sister and the others was over, your Highness," Shadow Strike states, bowing along with Lunar Trail and Night Glider. "Is there anything we need to know?"
"Indeed there is," Princess Luna replies. "Along with the two changelings you already saw when they entered undisguised, it has also come to light that a third changeling makes their home in Ponyville, though their identity has yet to be revealed. While that is not ideal, you are not to go searching for this third changeling at this time."
"Understood," Shadow Strike says with a nod.
"Good," Luna continues. "We have a reasonable degree of certainty that these three changelings are currently the only ones in Ponyville, so if more begin to turn up, that would be a concern. However, for the time being they are not to be considered a threat, and despite their current legal status technically being something of an unknown, they are to be treated as any other member of the town. Additionally, my sister will be sending 25 Night Guard here once she arrives in Canterlot. You three are to bring them up to speed on what has happened and instruct them to keep watch over the town during the night."
"Will any others be assigned to your protection besides ourselves?" Shadow Strike asks.
"No, and in fact you three will also be guarding Ponyville rather than myself," Luna replies, gesturing towards the pair of vamponies lying on the floor. "I will be heading into the Everfree Forest with Midnight and Dawn in order to try and reach out to the other vamponies living within."
Lunar Trail's eyes flick to Midnight, "Perhaps at least one of us should accompany you into the forest? I think I speak for all of us when I say it would put us much more at ease to know that one of your own Guard is protecting you, especially in such a place."
Luna raises an eyebrow, "By all accounts, the part of the Everfree Forest surrounding Ponyville is fairly safe, though we suppose it couldn't hurt. I take it you are volunteering?"
"I am, Princess," Lunar Trail confirms, his pricked ears giving a nervous twitch.
Luna exhales sharply, "I see. Very well, you may join us. Unless you have any objections, Midnight?"
Midnight's eyes open, blinking blearily at the Night Princess and her thestrals, "Just him. No others."
"It is settled then," Luna says, returning her gaze to her guards. "Are there any other questions?"
Night Glider glances at Midnight, "So… uh, if we were to encounter any of these other vamponies, what should we do?"
"For the time being, leave them alone. We currently have no other means in place for them to obtain what they need and I very much doubt that any intervention on our part would end at all pleasantly for either side – though given how well they have managed to stay hidden for most of our history, I think it is unlikely this will be an issue," Luna answers. "Anything else?"
The guards salute, "No, Princess."
Luna nods, "In that case, I will be going back to bed, as should you. My sister and her day guards will handle the situation until it is time for the moon to rise."
Dropping their salute, the thestrals jump into the air, hovering beneath the ceiling by their chosen hook just long enough to wrap their tail around it before allowing gravity to take over. Luna makes her way over to her couch as her thestrals wrap themselves in their wings, wedging herself between the cushions of the couch's seat and the ones making up the couch's back with a contented sigh.
Midnight meanwhile closes her eyes and attempts to finally reach the realm of sleep, however the hair on the back of her neck continues to stand on end, her instincts buzzing warningly at her about the unfamiliar creatures hanging above just loudly enough to keep her awake. After a few minutes she bares her fangs and lets out a low growl, Dawn also opening her eyes groggily as Midnight stands and turns towards the basement. Latching onto Midnight's tail with her mouth, Dawn slides along the cluttered library floor behind her big sister, silence once more descending on the library after they vanish into the tunnel save for the faint sound of Twilight's shower.
Luna grumbles irritably, her slumber faltering for the fourth time in as many hours as vague feelings of worry and doubt worm their way into her thoughts. Discontent eats away at her surroundings, her petal bedding's gentle touch blending with the plushness of the couch beneath her physical body while the normally calming scent of ink and books takes the opportunity to invade her more aromatic surroundings as well. A few tosses and turns later, she grudgingly allows her eyes to open, what remains of the carefully crafted meadow filled with faintly luminescent flowers making up her personal dream realm melting away to reveal the familiar bleeding together of the dreamscape's blues, purples, and whites.
Spreading her wings, she flaps them gently, her own will doing more to propel her forward than the motions of her body. Stray currents of subconscious thought press against her, lightly pushing her mane and tail to and fro like a warm breeze, Luna's mind wandering with the sensation to pleasant memories made during the recent summer months. A sudden chill brings her back to the present however, shivering and looking around just in time for a gale to slam into her face. Tumbling head over hooves from the force of the blow, Luna quickly rights herself, narrowing her eyes at the still-distant source of the disturbance.
The dreamscape of the Everfree resists her glare, the shadowy smoke suffusing the place giving an energetic swirl as if amused by her anger. Letting out an annoyed grunt, she summons forth a pillow from the ether, setting herself down on the floating cushion to observe the chaos of the forest.
Luna stares at the Everfree dreamscape patiently, her eyes locked onto a single point near the border. Without warning, a form takes shape from the haze, the faint outline of a tree appearing for a few moments before collapsing back into incoherent murk.
And then… now!
Her eyes dart to another point up and to the left, her gaze arriving just in time to see… nothing. However, after a few seconds another form takes shape at the edge of her peripheral vision, dissipating the instant she looks at it. Luna's pillow lengthens just enough for her to faceplant into it, letting out a muffled, frustrated groan.
"You know," an amused voice says from behind her, "while I am glad to see you taking a break from your nightly self-torment sessions, sleep works best if you let your mind rest along with your body."
Luna lifts her head, raising an eyebrow as she rotates her pillow with a thought, "And yet, you seem to be wide awake as well."
"In my defense, it is rather difficult to find peaceful sleep when one's restless mindmate decides to turn the lights back on," Selena replies wryly. "So. What's bothering you?"
"…I am not so certain that I made the correct decision to meet with the vamponies so quickly," Luna answers after a moment, glancing down at her pillow. "I know why it can't wait, generally where I need to go, what I need to say and to who, but how exactly should I go about saying it? I may well only get one chance at this, and if I am not able to make them understand how things will be changing in a way they will accept, then there will inevitably be conflicts, and I do not know how much good any of us will be able to do if that history begins to repeat itself. Neither demanding the vamponies wholly submit to us and our rules after what happened nor forcing the townsponies to accept being fed upon by unknown, predatory ponies from the Everfree will end well for anypony, and yet there may end up being no better options available to us.
"I'm sure everything will turn out alright," Selena says, offering a reassuring smile. "Midnight and Dawn seem to trust you, and to understand the necessity of change now that their kind has been revealed."
Luna nibbles the inside of her mouth, "Midnight's reaction is part of what has me so worried. When she realized what had happened a thousand years ago, she was frightened of what I intended to do to her – it was only through giving her my blood that I was able to so quickly allay those fears, and I can hardly do the same for each and every vampony who lives nearby. Not to mention we don't even know what it would do to them; it may have healed Midnight's wounds, but it also altered her cutie mark, which is always an indication of something far more subtle and serious. And we haven't even told Midnight, or Celestia for that matter, specifically what we intend to say needs to change. Celestia I know completely trusts us – well, me, at least – but Midnight… Midnight I am not so sure. This certainly has a much greater impact on her than it does my sister, and if even she ends up refusing to abide by our proposal, then it seems likely that none of the other vamponies will either."
"Well then, the solution is obvious," Selena states matter-of-factly.
A couple seconds of silence pass, Luna watching Selena expectantly before filling the void of words with a question, "That solution being?"
Selena rolls her eyes, "If you are so worried about what Midnight will think, then ask her. If you are worried about how the other vamponies will react, then ask her about that too. And if she thinks your plan won't work, then ask her why and what she thinks a better solution would be."
"Oh, right," Luna says, rubbing her temples. "This is why Celestia usually takes charge of politics and diplomacy – it sounds so obvious now that you say it."
Selena bobs her head and floats over to Luna's right, staring at the dreamscape of the Everfree Forest, "So, have you seen anything interesting out there?"
"No," Luna grumbles, turning her pillow towards the forest's murky depths as well, "and at times I am almost certain that it is mocking me."
"The forest does seem to love its secrets… " Selena murmurs, staring pensively out into the undulating black fog.
Luna sighs after a few minutes, giving Selena a flat look, "Do you intend to tell me what's on your mind, or shall I start guessing? Because clearly I am not the only one being bothered by something."
Selena looks away from the forest of smoke, sending Luna a quick glance before dropping her gaze to her hooves, "Celestia."
Luna pulls her front hooves towards her chest, letting her left side push into the pillow as she repositions herself, "Ah."
"What if she doesn't like that I live in your head? What if she wants me to leave your mind?" Selena asks nervously, "What if she just plain doesn't like me? What if she freaks out like she did with the changelings and starts demanding that you choose-"
"Then I will not," Luna interrupts. "You are both important to me."
A smile flickers weakly across Selena's lips, "That… isn't really an answer."
Luna pauses, giving Selena a pointed look, "If anypony tries to force me to choose, then they will have made my choice all the easier."
Selena winces at the implication, her ears drooping, "Sorry."
Luna pushes her pillow away, the imaginary fabric holding it together unwinding into nothingness as she embraces Selena, "But that isn't going to happen; you two are my favorite ponies in the world and you are going to get along fine – there will be no choosing."
"I'm sure you're right," Selena replies, returning Luna's hug before pulling back. "I'm just really nervous about meeting her. I haven't met anypony as myself in a really long time, and it's Celestia of all ponies… "
"And it will be fine," Luna reiterates confidently. "And, who knows, depending on how well it goes, perhaps you could even ask her about your idea to have a partial eclipse soon."
Selena giggles, "Let's not put the cart before the pony. Besides, you're the one who controls the moon, not me."
A tingle of magic runs over Luna's body before she can reply, the pair glancing up to find the full moon suddenly shining down upon them as if summoned by their words.
"It's time?" Selena queries.
"It is," Luna says with a nod, the dreamscape dissolving into a wash of colors as she takes her leave of the realm of sleep.
Luna continues lying on her couch after she re-enters the waking world, allowing herself to bask in her physical form's relaxation for a little while longer before forcing herself into motion. Several wonderful, full body stretches later, she levitates the forgotten fourth waffle still resting on her plate to hover next to her, making her way up to Twilight's top-most balcony. Arriving through its trapdoor, she spares a glance for the telescope clamped to the northeast section of the railing encircling the platform, instead taking a seat facing the western horizon while she consumes her now long cold waffle and watches the dimming sunset mark the passing of the day's final moments.
However, a split second before the sun vanishes entirely, Luna's ears twitch at the sound of an inaudible voice and she smirks mischievously, a light blue glow pulsing over her horn to push her sister's celestial object into hiding an instant too soon. Immediately the sun edges back into the sky, hanging there for a long moment before once more descending out of sight. Snickering, Luna walks over to stand beside Twilight's telescope, the air thrumming with focused magical power as she pulls her moon up from behind the eastern horizon and sets it on its course across the night sky.
"That was so cool!" a colt's voice calls out from the street below, Pipsqueak waving up at her from between two older ponies. "Hello, Princess Luna!"
The stallion beside Pipsqueak precedes his own hesitant wave with a quick bow, his nearly colorless white coat and pale yellow mane and tail contrasted by the bright green of his eyes and a cutie mark of a train conductor's hat. Meanwhile the mare standing on Pipsqueak's other side dips her head as well, her cutie mark of a pair of railroads forming an 'X' blending in with the rest of her entirely brown body.
"Greetings, Pipsqueak," Luna replies, the enhanced volume of the Royal Canterlot Voice vibrating the wood beneath her hooves. "How are you this fine night?"
"Well, it's my bedtime, so that isn't so great," Pipsqueak answers. "I want to stay up all night like you do, Princess!"
"Your dedication to our night is admirable, young one," Luna says, a suppressed giggle hidden beneath her false solemnity, "however you should indeed rest – you would not wish to then sleep away the day while your friends are awake to play, would you?"
Pipsqueak pokes at the ground, "I guess not… oh! Will you be coming back to Ponyville for the Nightmare Night festival this year? The candy and games and everything are great, but it's just not the same without you!"
"Unfortunately we have already committed to making an appearance in Las Pegasus, and then at the base of Mount Olympony later that same night," Luna replies, letting out an exaggerated sigh of regret. She pauses for a few seconds, watching the hope drain from Pipsqueak's face, "But, I have no such obligations for the year after."
"Really?" Pipsqueak gives a quick rear of excitement, "Yes! Thank you, Princess! It'll be the best Nightmare Night ever! I'll make sure of it!"
"Of that, I have no doubt," Luna states, smiling warmly down at him.
Pipsqueak's mother nudges him forward, "Come on, Pip, let's go. I'm sure the Princess has some very important work to do, and like she said, you need your rest."
"Alright… " Pipsqueak says sadly, taking a few steps before waving to Luna again, "Goodnight, Princess Luna!"
Luna returns the wave, "Pleasant dreams, Pipsqueak."
Though as she turns towards the trapdoor, one last string of words from the young stallion manages to reach her ears.
"See? I told you that Luna is best princess!"
Spreading her wings, Luna lands lightly at the base of the ladder leading to the balcony, a smile stuck on her face and a spring in her step as she heads further into Twilight's home.
Luna pauses at the top of the stairs overlooking the library, Lunar Trail dropping from his hook while Shadow Strike and Night Glider equip the last of their armor. The first step of her descent draws forth a creak from the wood, all three of her guards saluting the moment they realize its source.
"At ease," Luna says automatically, the thestrals relaxing at her words.
Shadow Strike steps forward, "Your Highness, by your leave, Night Glider and I are ready to begin patrolling the town."
"Of course," Luna replies, dismissing them with a wave of her hoof.
The pair offer a brisk bow before heading to the front door, both stashing a pair of apples under each wing from a refilled fruit bowl sitting by the doorway.
Lunar Trail meanwhile rapidly dons his armor, slipping his hind legs into a pair of obsidian blue greaves and tightening a pair of woven, pitch black belts at the top and bottom of each until they are snug with his legs. The greaves for his forelegs follow suit, both of these also bearing a silver engraving of Princess Luna's cutie mark. The same woven material as the belts links each of the foreleg greaves to a sharpened steel hoofshoe, the shoes slightly smaller than his hoof though with just enough give to allow his foot to be pushed inside and held tightly by the metal. A curved, claw-like blade parallel to his leg clicks into place on either side of each shoe once his full weight presses onto their soles – the weapons nearly invisible against his armor. Then with one final, smooth motion he swings the last piece of his armor over his body and lets it fall into place across his barrel, a helmet connected by scale plates running up the back of his neck dropping neatly onto his head.
"You are ready?" Luna asks, walking past him.
Using his tail, Lunar Trail slips a trio of of sheaths into hidden slots between his armor and his back, the first two a pair of daggers and the third a shortsword, "Yes, Princess!"
"Good," Luna replies, waiting until Lunar Trail takes his place in front of her before she enters the tunnel leading to Twilight's basement. "Let us wake Midnight and Dawn, and then be on our way."
The wood of the tree vanishes after only a few steps, densely packed dirt taking its place. Several seconds later, the path steepens and curves to the left, thick roots wrapping the tunnel to form rough, bumpy steps as they continue their descent – whitish-blue crystal lamps periodically flickering to life inside tiny alcoves likewise formed from the roots. A full minute after leaving the library, the pair finally reach the basement, stepping into a perfectly circular room lined with still more roots and lit by more of the same glowing crystals. Five new tunnels branch out from it, all of them placed precisely 60 degrees apart from each other.
A weak breeze pushes at their backs as Lunar Trail glances down each of the tunnels, impenetrable darkness consuming the one closest to their left, "So… which way do you think they went, Princess Luna?"
Luna points at the darkened tunnel, "We are fairly certain they went that way."
"Err… I'm not doubting you, Princess, but what makes you so sure?" Lunar Trail asks, examining the royally chosen tunnel more closely. Luna's hoof drops to point at the floor – a several inactive lamp crystals piled just inside the tunnel entrance.
"Ah," Lunar Trail replies, trotting into the darkened tunnel after a nod of confirmation from Luna. Blue light illuminates his way forward, Luna's magic floating the first of the crystals past him into an empty lamp hanging from the ceiling.
The roots and compacted dirt quickly give way to a square passage built from stone bricks as they follow the path of crystal-less lamps, the two of them soon reaching the third – and final – room attached to the tunnel. A diverse collection of scorched, melted, shattered, and otherwise irreparably damaged odds and ends rests within, each meticulously labeled, categorized, and placed on a multitude of shelves of assorted heights, widths, and depths lining its walls.
Lunar Trail quickly focuses on the pair of vamponies curled up in the far left corner despite the experimental detritus however, Dawn's back pressed to the wall while Midnight's faces them. He takes a step in their direction, but Luna's magical aura surrounds him before he can taken another and she shakes her head, instead levitating a partially burnt wooden rod from one of the shelves. Rotating it so the unburnt end is facing Midnight, she prods the sleeping vampony's shoulder.
Instantly Midnight's head whips around, the entire length of her fangs on full display as she sinks her teeth into the rod. A murderous growl rumbles in her throat, the light from Luna's magic glinting off a clear liquid dripping from her fangs as she drives her teeth further into the creaking wood.
"Luna's light… " Lunar Trail murmurs, staring wide-eyed at the display before him. Images of his leg or neck similarly clamped between her jaws flash through his mind, though the cold touch of fear is quickly tainted by a much warmer and entirely different, yet not unrelated, sensation spreading across his body.
Midnight's ears prick at the sound of his words, the muscles of her jaw slowly unclenching once the noise filters through the adrenal haze filling her still waking mind. Blinking, she glances first at Lunar Trail and Luna, then at the piece of wood held between her teeth before reversing course and attempting to open her mouth.
The wood refuses to let go however, leaving her teeth lodged firmly in the rod and her mouth held mostly shut, "Mm."
Frowning, she shifts to a sitting position, this time using her forehooves to yank the rod downwards while jerking her head in the opposite direction. After a split second of resistance her mouth pops open, the tooth just behind her upper right fang successfully escaping from the rod's woody grip while the other side of her mouth is less fortunate – a bleeding gap now where the left tooth used to be. She makes quick work of freeing her lower jaw, her tongue flicking into the fresh hole in her teeth once the piece of wood falls to the floor.
"Midnight? Are you alright?" Luna ventures, a still stunned Lunar Trail staring at the tooth lodged in the rod.
Midnight swallows, scrunching her muzzle at the bitter taste of her own blood spreading through her mouth, "Hm? Yeah, I'm fine."
"You're, uh… you're sure?" Lunar Trail manages to ask. "I mean, you just yanked out your own tooth."
Midnight shrugs, "It had started feeling kind of loose while I was eating earlier, so it was probably going to fall out on its own soon anyway."
Luna and Lunar trade confused looks, Midnight glancing between them with equal confusion, "What?"
"Nothing," Luna replies uncertainly, "it's just that you are so calm about this, as if losing a tooth is a completely normal thing to occur, yet you do not seem to be missing any other teeth."
"Well… yeah," Midnight says, "they grow back."
"Your teeth grow back after they fall out?" Lunar Trail asks. "As in, all on their own?"
Midnight's ears prick, "Do yours not?"
"Uhh… " Lunar Trail shakes his head, "no, no they do not."
Midnight's brow knits, "But… what do you do if a tooth gets chipped, or knocked out?"
"We fix it with a potion or with magic," Luna answers simply.
"Or we just deal with having a tooth missing," Lunar Trail adds.
Midnight blinks, "Huh."
A groaning yawn suddenly emanates from behind Midnight, Dawn only barely opening her eyes, "So is it time to leave, or can I go back to sleep while you guys talk about teeth and stuff?"
"Nope, time to get up," Midnight replies, poking at the belly of her younger sister.
Dawn curls into a ball against her sister's persistent hoof, standing and stretching once it's safe. Spreading her wings, she flaps them a couple times then refolds them to her sides, Midnight following suit and spreading her own wings to their fullest before bringing them back to rest against her barrel.
So are you going to ask her or not? Selena prods.
"Actually, Midnight, there is something I would like to hear your opinion on before we depart," Luna says after a moment's hesitation.
Dawn groans again, collapsing back to the floor.
Midnight casts an annoyed look at her sister, "Um, okay. What?"
"Well… " Luna glances away uncomfortably, "with the existence of your kind now being known, a lot of things are going to be changing. The main… problem, I suppose, being that vamponies are going to have to accept that other ponies have the right to refuse to be fed on – once all the specifics are figured out and agreed upon, you aren't going to be able to continue breaking into ponies' homes at will and drinking their blood. Ponies are going to have to be able to give and take permission, and vamponies are going to need to honor that choice. Another possibility is also that blood could be donated, perhaps at the Ponyville Hospital, and then vamponies could go there to pick up what they need."
"So," Luna continues, "before we go and meet with all of the vamponies around Ponyville, I am curious as to what you think about these ideas as well as what you think the other vamponies will think of them."
Midnight looks at the floor, deep in thought, "Do we have a choice?"
"Not… really, no," Luna answers, wincing. "Still, I would like to force the issue as little as possible."
"Mmm… " Midnight murmurs. "Well, the 'donating' option sounds pretty weird and like it might taste really bad. I guess the 'permission' thing would be okay, as long as there's enough ponies and we're not expected to end up as servants in exchange or something." Her expression darkens, "I'm not going to go around begging for blood just so I can survive, and I'm not going to starve myself if nopony wants to 'give permission' either."
"Rest assured, while I have not worked out the exact details yet, whatever arrangement we come to will not be one of that nature," Luna replies, cracking a small smile. "What of all the other vamponies near Ponyville, though?"
Midnight shrugs, "I can think of a few who might not be too bothered by it themselves, maybe, but I doubt anypony is really going to be happy about it either, and I don't think any of them would go their own way against my parents' decision regardless. As for my parents… I really don't know. They definitely won't like anything that gives anypony else any kind of control over our survival, but I wish I knew why they never told me about what happened. They aren't old enough to have been around back then, but… "
"Yes, that is quite the 800 pound minotaur, isn't it… " Luna sighs, "Nevertheless, we thank you for your insight, Midnight."
Midnight nods, poking at her little sister's sprawled form. "Hey, we're done talking, get up."
Lunar Trail turns to leave as Dawn gets to her hooves, Luna following behind him while the vamponies walk behind her, the four of them making their way to the library and towards the front door. Lunar Trail pushes the door open, holding it while Luna and Midnight walk out to stand with him beneath the stars. Dawn hesitates however, raising her hoof to step outside only to pull it back, the process repeating itself until with a gulp she vanishes into the shadows.
"I'm good," Dawn whispers from beside Midnight, her voice barely audible.
With nopony left within Twilight's home, Midnight takes to the sky, Dawn flying close enough to her sister for Midnight to feel the air displaced by Dawn's wingbeats on her own wings. Luna and Lunar Trail follow in their wake, both of them giving Midnight a more normal berth as they allow her to lead them towards her home.
As they approach the border of the Everfree, Midnight's ears twitch towards the forest and she inhales slowly through her nose, the increasingly familiar scents and sounds of the place a welcome change after spending two full nights among Ponyville's constructed streets and houses. Dawn fades into visibility on her right, giggling as she draws her wings to her sides and executes a quick aileron roll above the rapidly thickening canopy. Luna and Lunar Trail meanwhile watch the two sisters from a short distance behind them, Luna's tail snaking over to poke at Lunar's armored hindquarters – said stallion frowning and quickly looking around for the source of the unexpected touch. After a few seconds his roaming gaze lands on Luna, his princess meeting his eyes just long enough to reply with a coy smile and a wink. The tips of his ears tint red and he quickly averts his gaze, sending Luna another nervous glance a minute later before speeding up to fly on Midnight's left.
"Beautiful night tonight," Lunar comments, examining the moon and stars populating the perfectly clear sky.
"Mhm," Midnight replies, sparing a glance for the darkened realm above then returning her gaze to the forest below.
"I wasn't expecting it to be this peaceful, seeing as pegasi don't control the weather here," Lunar continues. "Is Everfree weather normally this calm?"
Midnight shrugs, "Sometimes."
"I've only heard about how chaotic the Everfree is supposed to be – during training all they said was to avoid flying over it at all costs, period. Isn't it difficult to not know what the weather is going to be like even an hour from now?" Lunar asks.
"It's weather," Midnight states bluntly. "As long as it's not incredibly windy or stormy or cold, it doesn't matter what it's like."
Lunar Trail winces, "Ah. Right. Makes sense."
No words are spoken for a few minutes, the increasingly awkward silence broken only by the regular sound of air moving over their wings. Gathering his courage, Lunar risks a glance in Midnight's direction, finding her still staring at the trees passing beneath them.
"Your mane and tail look nice," Lunar Trail offers.
Midnight's gaze falls on him once more, her brow knit, "Um… thanks?"
"How do you clean it?" Lunar queries, "Just swipe somepony's shampoo every once in a while?"
"No," Midnight replies, "we make a paste from a few plants."
Lunar nods, "Huh, that's kind of neat."
"It's irritating," Midnight grumbles.
"So it gives you a rash or something?" Lunar Trail asks sympathetically, "I had something like that happen once. That was not a pleasant night."
Midnight rolls her eyes, "I mean making it is irritating. So is talking about it."
"Oh," Lunar replies, ears drooping.
Looking again at Midnight, his gaze lingers on the pair of fangs poking out from between her lips, his tongue lightly running over his own smaller set of sharpened canines, "If you don't mind me asking, there is something else I am a bit curious about. What does blood taste like to you?"
Midnight's wings freeze for an instant at the peak of her upstroke and she quickly glances at the inquiring stallion, "What?"
"Well," Lunar Trail says, smiling as Midnight restarts her wings with a few rapid beats to regain lost altitude, "I thought maybe you'd rather talk about that than the weather, or your hair. I've also been told that thestrals taste fruit juices differently from other types of ponies, so I'm a little curious if vamponies have something similar with blood."
Midnight simply stares at him, her expression inscrutable.
"Soo… ?" Lunar Trail prompts into the lengthening silence, the end of his tail slowly coiling and uncoiling despite the speed of their flight.
Midnight sighs, glancing at the forest for a moment, "Vampony blood, whether it's my own or somepony else's, is really bitter. Changeling blood is even worse. Otherwise it depends on the pony."
"Is the taste entirely random?" Lunar Trail asks curiously, "Or is each tribe kind of similar?"
Midnight shrugs, "It can be pretty similar sometimes, but mostly it's just random. Some are more filling than others too; I only need a few mouthfuls of the red apple stallion, for example."
Lunar Trail's smile returns, pouncing on the volunteered piece of information, "I'm guessing he's your favorite then?"
"Nope," Midnight replies, a mischievous grin spreading across her face. "My favorite is Luna."
Lunar coughs, his wings momentarily losing sync with each other and throwing him off balance, "But how would – you snuck up to the library while we were sleeping and bit the Princess?!"
"Be at ease," Princess Luna states calmly, closing the gap to fly more closely behind them. "Midnight has done no such thing. I offered her my own blood in the hospital before I called for you."
Lunar Trail looks forward, Luna's explanation doing little to to dispel the sudden image of Midnight biting the princess under his protection from his mind, "Oh."
"And it was amazing," Midnight continues dreamily, ignoring the somewhat miffed stallion to her left. "It was like drinking the moon and stars, but also all the blackness between them. Nopony else has ever come close to tasting like that. I wonder if all alicorns have two flavors."
"Two?" Luna asks quickly, her left ear twitching.
Midnight nods, still staring off into the distance, "Mhm."
Well, that's interesting, Selena comments.
Indeed, Luna replies, her mind beginning to wander after the implications of Midnight's statement. I had strongly suspected they were getting something beyond physical nutrients from feeding, but this certainly confirms that assumption. Perhaps something that vamponies and changelings are deficient in on their own, based on her description of their taste.
Silence again envelopes the trio as they each keep to their own thoughts, though one by one their attention is drawn to Dawn's boredom-fueled and increasingly strange flight patterns.
"So… " Lunar Trail says after a time, his focus drifting from an upside down Dawn back to Midnight, "have you ever had thestral blood?"
Midnight gives him a flat look; however, before she can speak, the leaves of a particularly large oak tree they had passed over mere seconds ago rustle and she looks behind her, eyes widening, "Uh-oh."
Suddenly a shadowy blur slams into Midnight, the translucent and vaguely pony shaped blob of darkness dragging her into the forest below.
"Wait!" Dawn shouts as a second, barely visible shadow wraps around her barrel and pulls her towards the trees as well, "Mmooooommm~"
Luna's horn immediately glows to life, encasing her and Lunar Trail in a shell of magic – a third vampony impacting the protective barrier a split second later. The vampony's shadow magic partially dissipates as he bounces harmlessly off the shield, his wings flapping unevenly for a moment before he once more vanishes from sight, Luna nevertheless tracking his descent.
Lunar Trail follows Princess Luna's gaze, minutes passing while the pair watch the gently rippling leaves of the trees below them. Glancing at the shield still surrounding them, he slowly sheaths his shortsword, "Uhm… what should we do now, Princess?"
"It would seem that this is something of a family matter," Luna replies delicately, "so we believe it would be best to not intervene for the time being."
Lunar Trail dips his head, relaxing as he returns to watching the Everfree, "As you say, Princess."
Midnight dislodges her attacker with a kick as they rush towards the ground, flaring her wings just in time to flip herself around and land on her hooves, though the layer of moss coating the forest floor fails to provide enough traction to prevent her from skidding into a nearby tree. The other vampony gives her no time to recover, Midnight managing only a couple dazed steps before he rams into her, knocking her away from the trunk and onto her back. Blinking stars from her eyes, Midnight raises her forelegs to defend herself, baring her fangs as she feels a pair of hooves step on her right wing. Her bravado vanishes the moment she recognizes the pony next to her however, mouth closing and hooves dropping to her chest as she raises her chin to expose her throat, "H-Hi Dad."
Wisp glares down at his eldest daughter, lowering his head to let his canines lightly touch either side of her windpipe – Midnight holding perfectly still save for the rapid expansion and contraction of her abdomen as she tries to catch her breath.
Wisp's head jerks up at the sound of something else crashing through the canopy, Eclipse landing heavily on three hooves with a wriggling Dawn held tightly to her chest by the fourth, "Good, you've got Midnight, now get off her so we can get out of here."
As she speaks, the vampony who had attacked Luna joins the family, Dusk coming to a hovering stop just above the mossy ground before landing with a wince.
"Did you get the alicorn?" Wisps asks.
Dusk shakes his head, exhaling sharply as he rolls his right shoulder, "Shield."
Wisp groans, "Okay, then we really need to leave before they-"
"NO!" Dawn shouts, struggling free of Eclipse's hold to stand on her own four hooves.
Wisp's eyes narrow, his irises glowing dimly, "What?"
Dawn retreats a step, ears drooping as she lowers herself to the ground, "The p-princess just wants to talk to us."
Wisp blinks, "What."
"It's true," Midnight adds supportively, "she-"
"Shut up," Wisp hisses, glaring once more at his still pinned daughter. "You were supposed to help Dawn feed, you had ONE JOB, and instead you both go missing for a night, and then when we go out to look for you we find you, apparently willingly, leading an alicorn right to us! You don't get to speak!"
Eclipse eyes the branches above, "We don't have time for this."
"You're right," Wisp agrees, stepping off Midnight's wing and spreading his own slightly larger pair.
"Wait," Midnight says, standing and gingerly folding her wings to her sides. "Dawn was telling the truth, they really do just want to talk with us."
Wisp grits his teeth, "I don't know what lies they told you, but the only reason they'd tolerate your existence is so they could use you to find the rest of us in order to-"
"In order to finish killing us off like they almost did 1000 years ago?" Midnight interrupts.
"…how did you know about that?" Wisp asks quietly.
"Wait, hold on a second, what do you mean 'almost killed us off'?" Dusk demands.
"About 1000 years ago the Equestrians tried to exterminate our entire species," Wisp answers tersely.
Dusk stares at his father, mouth hanging open, "What?! How would – you never – we go into their town about once every couple weeks, why didn't you ever tell us?!"
Eclipse sighs, "Because we didn't want you to grow up terrified of the ponies you depend on to survive."
"And we didn't want to risk any of you being stupid enough to try and get revenge," Wisp adds irritably.
"They do just want to talk though," Midnight says, tenderly rubbing the two hoof-shaped bruises forming on her wing. "They didn't realize we were the ones they were killing back then."
"They didn't know?!" Wisp shouts furiously, "They slaughtered thousands and nearly killed off our entire race, how could they possibly not know? That's-"
"The alicorn gave me her blood," Midnight states simply.
Wisp blinks, then blinks again, several long seconds passing before he manages another word, "That's… I-I… what?"
Midnight takes a deep breath, "The alicorn, Luna, willingly offered her own blood to me, which healed the injuries I got from fighting an undead vampony, which is what they were originally fighting a thousand years ago and what they thought we were too – they didn't even know we existed until a couple nights ago. And when Dawn and I got separated after I was attacked by the undead vampony, the purple alicorn, Twilight, found her and brought her to where they were keeping me in their hospital. Then last night I helped Luna and Twilight, as well as some of her friends, to take down the undead vampony. And then during the day another alicorn showed up and apologized for at least the fourth time for what they did 1000 years ago, and one of Twilight's friends even offered to let me feed on her."
Her brow creases, "Unn…less she meant 'drink' as in water or something, in which case that's going to be kind of awkward, but regardless." She gestures at her flank, "Drinking Luna's blood also added a moon to my cutie mark."
Wisp stands gaping at Midnight, his eyes slowly traveling from her face to her flank and back again, "An… undead… you can't be serious."
Midnight shrugs, "I don't know about undead, but I do know that he kept moving after I broke his spine, and that his blood smelled… not even just bad, it smelled wrong. I'm not sure how else to describe it. 'Even worse than dried changeling blood' is as close as I can think of."
"And I made friends with some fillies in town who call themselves the Cutie Mark Crusaders," Dawn chimes in. "They're going to help me get my cutie mark since none of them have their cutie marks yet either. Oh, and also the rainbow pegasus saved us from the undead pony."
"Look, I know how crazy this all sounds," Midnight continues as Wisp shifts his gaze back and forth between his two daughters, looking utterly lost, "and it's really complicated, but they say they want to help us to live peacefully with the rest of the ponies in Equestria, and I believe them."
Eclipse looks up towards the forest's canopy, her lips pressed into a thin line, "…I think we should hear what the alicorn has to say."
"Y-You do?" Wisp asks, frowning a moment later, "Wait… what? Why? What could she possibly have to say that would matter, after what they did?"
Eclipse sighs, "Given… whatever all that was that apparently happened, and that Midnight's cutie mark changed, it doesn't seem completely impossible that what their princess told Midnight is the truth. So at the very least I want to hear what she wants from us from her own mouth."
Wisp gives her a hard stare, Eclipse meeting his eyes unblinkingly until Wisp lets out a long groan and looks away, "Fine, we'll go hear what she has to say."
"Midnight, you, and I will hear what she has to say," Eclipse corrects, shifting her attention to her son. "Dusk, I want you to take Dawn home and wait for us, just in case. If you don't hear from any of us within an hour, spread word to everypony else and then get as far away from here as possible."
Dusk bobs his head once, turning to move deeper into the Everfree, "Come on, Dawn."
"But-" Dawn tries to protest.
"Dawn," Wisp states clearly, pointing at Dusk, "follow your brother."
Dawn's eyes travel between each of her family members before giving in, lowering her muzzle to stare at the ground as she trails after Dusk.
The others watch them go, Eclipse sighing after they've been hidden by the surrounding trees for a few minutes, "Midnight, go tell the alicorn-"
"Luna," Midnight corrects.
Eclipse rolls her eyes, "Go tell Luna that we will speak with her, but if she wants to talk to us, then she can come down here."
Midnight acquiesces with a nod, spreading her wings and jumping towards the leaf-obscured sky.
Lunar tenses within Luna's barrier the moment something breaks through the treetops, his tail's grip on his sheathed shortsword relaxing once he recognizes the incoming object as Midnight.
Stopping in front of Luna's shield, Midnight taps the hollow, glowing sphere twice, "Huh, neat. Anyway, Luna, I told my parents about everything that happened the last couple nights, and uh… well, they're definitely not happy about any of it. At all. But they've agreed to at least listen to what you have to say, so… follow me."
Luna touches the inside of her shield with the tip of her horn, the protective barrier popping like a punctured bubble – Lunar Trail's gaze darting in all directions during their descent while Luna pushes aside obstructing leaves and branches with her magic. Reaching the ground a short distance from the location of her previous landing, Midnight trots forward, Luna and Lunar walking more slowly in her wake to allow a respectful distance to form between the vamponies and themselves.
Midnight's parents watch the approaching alicorn and thestral, their eyes tracking every move and frequently flitting up to Luna's inactive horn. A loud *SNAP* echoes through the trees as Luna steps on a particularly large twig, both parents jumping back with fangs bared and half hidden by shadows before realizing the source of the sound. Lunar Trail reacts in kind, leaping in front of Luna with his shortsword drawn and a faint white glow outlining his hooves. Midnight freezes mid-step, staring at Lunar while her ears swivel towards her parents.
"Lunar Trail, stand down," Luna says after a long, tense pause, slowly pushing the now broken twig to the side and out of her path.
"With all due respect, Princess, I think it would be best if I stay where I am," Lunar Trail replies under his breath, eying the still hostile stance of the two new vamponies. "At least until we know they aren't going to attack you again."
Luna's jaw clenches, though her attention never leaves the pair of hazy forms opposite her, "I am not asking your opinion on the matter. I am telling you what you shall do. Now."
Lunar Trail flinches, immediately dropping his defensive posture and backing up to stand just in front of Luna.
"At my side," Luna commands.
Lunar Trail slowly moves to Princess Luna's right side, maintaining his focus on Midnight's parents while splitting his scrutiny between them and the surrounding trees.
"Sheath your weapon."
Lunar Trail hesitates, meeting his Princess' steely gaze for a bare instant before quickly sheathing his blade, the weak light surrounding his hooves likewise fading.
"Our apologies," Luna says, managing a mostly sincere smile as she takes a couple more steps forward, Lunar Trail remaining next to her while she moves. "We had hoped our meeting would not begin on such an… aggressive note. But regardless, I am Luna, and this beside me is my guard, Lunar Trail."
A few seconds pass in silence, Midnight's parents trading an uncertain look before releasing their shadow magic. Midnight lets out a sigh of relief, taking the opportunity to finish walking over to stand beside her mother who steps forward as well, mouth twitching in a failed attempt to return Luna's smile, "Hello. I am Eclipse. And this is my mate, Wisp."
Wisp glowers, "Our daughter said that you wanted to talk to us?"
"Indeed," Luna replies, swallowing past the lump forming in her throat as she takes a seat on the mossy earth. "I need your help to arrange a meeting with all the vamponies who are living in the Everfree around Ponyville."
Wisp's eyes narrow, "And why would we do that? I don't even want to be talking to you right now."
"I suppose I should have started with that, actually," Luna answers, mentally kicking herself. "We are unsure to the exact level of detail Midnight has told you about the events of these last nights, but the crux of the matter is that the existence and nature of vamponies is now known to all of Ponyville, and will likely soon be known across all of Equestria. What this means, is that you will no longer be able to remain hidden, since now ponies will know how and where to look for you. And while I completely understand any distrust you have of us, we would very much like to prevent some ponies' inevitable distaste over your unique dietary needs from growing into outright conflict. To that end, we would like to meet with the vamponies who live around Ponyville, so that we may begin working towards some kind of agreement or framework which will ultimately allow your race to live alongside the other tribes in harmony. It is also our hope that whatever understanding we come to can then be applied to any other towns which have vamponies living nearby."
Worry flickers across Luna's face, "And, while I truly do not mean for this to come across as a threat, time is very much of the essence if we are to prevent ponies who do not wish to be fed upon from taking matters into their own hooves."
"I don't see why we need to change in order to accommodate their discomfort," Wisp says tersely. "We have already been living peacefully alongside your kind both before and after you nearly wiped us out. We have been living next to Ponyville for centuries, and nopony in the town even noticed. You are their leader, why don't you just tell them to get over themselves and let things stay the same as they always have been?"
"You are right, I could do that," Luna answers carefully. "But I won't, because the fact of the matter is that things are different now than they were even just a few nights ago. I do not dispute your right to survive, need for blood included, but your right to survive does not extend to forcing an entire town to submit to your needs. Doing so would likely cause many ponies to simply leave, and if too many leave then you will not be able to survive on whomever remains. Should I then force ponies to stay against their will? And if ponies are forced to stay, or simply unwilling or unable to leave, they could resort to other methods to try and prevent vamponies from feeding on them. Should I then enforce punishments harsh enough to make them unwilling to defend their own homes?"
Wisp snorts, "If you leave, then we leave. We're here because it's convenient, not because we have to be."
"Besides, if they are so averse to us being here, why should we even stay?" Eclipse asks coolly. "There aren't very many of us; we could easily relocate to live close to some other town that wouldn't know to look for us."
"You could move," Luna admits, "however the changelings living in Ponyville, who were also discovered over the course of the last two nights, knew of a way to figure out which towns vamponies are living by."
"And they told you?" Wisp demands.
"Yes," Luna replies, "and-"
"Backstabbing bugs," Wisp hisses.
"And I am glad that they did," Luna states forcefully, "not because it is my intention to use that knowledge to force your hoof, but because it demonstrates how having vamponies nearby is in fact a good thing. By their account, it is due to your presence that many of the Everfree's predators – well, other predators – are kept at bay. Were you to leave, it is all but certain that Ponyville will come under attack from wild manticores, chupacabras, and the like, and they would be after far more than a little blood."
"It is my hope," Luna continues, "that through talking to and learning about each other, this mutually beneficial relationship can be kept intact despite the change in circumstances."
Eclipse raises an eyebrow, disdain dripping from every syllable, "And yet, despite how nicely you have chosen your words, it still sounds like you are saying we need to entrust our future to you since we can't hide and we can't leave. But just because we don't have any particularly good options doesn't automatically make yours a better one, especially with what your kind already did to us, so why should we trust you or believe a single word you've said? Our hunting patterns can change if they have to, if that's what's giving us away."
Midnight frowns, "Because-"
"Quiet, Midnight," Wisp says loudly, cutting her off.
Luna swallows, her throat suddenly dry, "Well, I… if what Midnight and now I have told you is not enough, and if you are truly still so skeptical of my intentions as to question every word I speak, then there is very little I can do in this moment to prove to you otherwise."
"I see," Wisp replies, a hint of triumph lacing his voice. "So if we refused to find the others and bring them together to speak with you, what would you do?"
"I-I… " Luna stammers, a cold pit forming in her stomach, "I suppose… there would not be anything left for me to do here, so I would return to Ponyville."
Eclipse meets Luna's worried gaze, holding it with her own, "Then that is what we choose. Get out of our forest."
Her words strike Luna like a blow, ringing in her ears dimming all other sounds as they reverberate around her skull along with two of her own.
Midnight jerks around to stare at her mother, "Wait-"
"Shut up," Eclipse interrupts without so much as glancing at her daughter.
"Dad, you can't-" Midnight says in an attempted appeal to her other parent, however a glowing-eyed glare from Wisp is all she gets in reply.
Luna opens her mouth to speak, however no words come out and she instead bows, finding her voice by the time she lifts her head, "If that is what you wish."
Taking a hesitant step backwards, Luna pauses for one last hopeful second before turning and walking away, her ears limply folded down as she stares unseeingly at the moist dirt and moss beneath her hooves. Lunar Trail watches the vamponies for a few seconds more, then turns on his heel to follow in Luna's plodding hoofsteps.
Flameless torches burst to life, their light dwarfing the glow of Celestia's horn to reveal a large, dusty room, its only apparent feature a short, but wide, square pedestal rising from its center. Over a dozen unicorns drain down the stairs into the room's corner after her, the group maintaining Sombra's current prison between them while they form a circle in front of the room's entrance.
"Stay where you are," Celestia instructs, making her way to the pedestal. Walking in a slow circle around it, she gives each of its four corners a tap with her horn.
A rune glows to life upon each touch, the magic held within them burning through the room's thick layer of dust with an ominous hiss to leave the dull orange symbols clearly visible. As soon as the fourth rune is lit, more runes begin to glow as well, a column of symbols activating beneath each corner to reach the floor in perfect synchrony with another revolution of Celestia around the pedestal. Celestia continues her walking, more runes activating to form increasingly complex layers of enchantments as she spirals further and further outward, the hissing becoming louder and the smell of burnt dust more poignant with each step. Coming to a stop just in front of the circle of mages, Celestia spreads her wings and takes flight, hovering halfway between the pedestal and the room's corner.
Her horn glows brighter, the aura of her magic surrounding the shield her sister had used to contain the former tyrant, "You may release him now."
A unanimous sigh of relief echoes from the unicorns as their horns wink out, several slumping to the cool stone floor, their exhausted groans interrupted by the occasional sneeze. Celestia meanwhile delicately levitates Sombra over to the pedestal, sweat beading on her face and sparks of magic popping from her horn by the time he touches down, the surface of the pedestal deforming until it matches the curve of the barrier holding him perfectly.
As soon as Sombra is in place, the outermost runes shine increasingly brightly, the room's torches flickering and going out as magical power rapidly spirals inward along the runes towards the pedestal. A brief pause follows once all the runes are charged, the room lit almost entirely by their dangerous glow save for the beacon of Celestia's luminous horn, the air thrumming with structured magical energy. Suddenly, an orange fog engulfs Sombra's prison, the haze solidifying into a shield an instant later to shatter Luna's and take its place.
Celestia cries out at this and her wings falter, magical feedback searing through her horn as she tumbles towards the rune-laden floor. A hodgepodge of five auras surround her just before she falls onto her own massive enchantment however, an equal number of unicorns gritting their teeth while they focus what remains of their magic to lift their princess to safety.
Celestia's legs tremble once her mages lower her to the floor between them, though she manages to remain standing. Four of the unicorns who saved her are less fortuitous, simultaneously collapsing into sweaty heaps. The fifth unicorn gasps, sitting heavily, but with a concerted effort is able to keep his muzzle from hitting the same dusty stone as his colleagues.
"Princess… Celestia," he gasps out between breaths, "if you… don't mind me asking… what is this place? Who made it?"
"I did… some nine and a half centuries ago," Celestia replies, sweat dripping down her body. "You are Solar Flare, correct?"
"I – y-yes," the stallion stammers. "Um… may I ask why?"
Celestia rubs her eyes and sighs, "After my sister… succumbed to dark forces, I feared that one day I would also fall to the same temptations. And if I fell… there were no other alicorns to deal with me, no others able to wield the Elements of Harmony. So I made this place… by tapping into the ley line running beneath Canterhorn Mountain… which is also why I originally decided to have Canterlot built where it is." She laughs tiredly, "Though you will not find that explanation in any history book."
Forcing her hooves into motion, Celestia turns to face Sombra, wisps of magic flickering along her horn to gather at its tip. After half a minute, Celestia lowers her horn to the closest rune, the fiery symbol absorbing her magic instantly. A split second later the entire runic spiral pulses, sending a shockwave of magic deep into the earth. For another half minute, nothing happens.
Then the runes glow red.
Without any further warning, a massive upswell of magic slams into the runes from below, the spiraling engravings blocking and channeling the power into Sombra's new prison, turning it into a blazing inferno of raw elemental energy. The surge peters out only a few seconds later, the runes returning to their normal orange glow as if nothing had happened.
Solar Flare sits gaping at the display, afterimages of the runes still visible on the insides of his eyelids with each blink, "Sweet – uh – you. What was that?!"
The other unicorns, tired as they are, nevertheless look to Celestia in search of an explanation as well, each of them equally awestruck.
"That," Celestia answers, "was a fail-safe, in case even these wards were unable to contain me on their own."
Princess Celestia watches carefully while the brilliantly shining orb at the room's center dims, the elemental maelstrom fading until the barrier appears empty of both magic and evil smoke alike. The resulting void is short lived however, her eyes narrowing as Sombra's telltale smoke reinstantiates.
"Uselessss… " Sombra goads her, laughing.
"Insolent prick," Celestia mutters to herself.
"But… but h-how is he… ?" Solar Flare stammers, flinching as Sombra's gaze turns to him.
"Both the natural and magical worlds are governed by unbreakable laws, many of which I would hope you are quite familiar with," Celestia says, stifling a yawn. "The more mundane rules such as the various and sundry thauma-to-matter conversion ratios, for example, all the way up to those governing life itself. For him to survive such an assault, it must be that Sombra has found a way to twist himself around one of these laws in order to anchor himself in this world, regardless of how much magic we throw at him. But-"
Celestia yawns again, turning to send a baleful look up the long flight of stairs, the silken promise of her waiting bedsheets like a siren's call to her body and mind alike, "But unbinding him is now more a matter of tedium than difficulty, and as such is a problem for another day. He is not going anywhere for a few centuries at the very least."
"If that is your wish, your highness," Solar Flare replies, sending another nervous glance Sombra's way before trailing Celestia up the stairs, the other unicorns dragging themselves to their hooves to follow in their wake.
A freshly risen moon peers over the Everfree's sea of trees, its light breaking through a growing crack in the canopy to create slow shadows swaying to and fro over a river flowing towards a distant lake. In its center atop a fallen tree stands Midnight, glowing nocturnal butterflies on the receiving end of her ire – her current target only barely evading the snap of her jaws. She pauses, rebalancing on the slick log before hopping after it once more, the fluttering insect again floating out of her reach just in time.
Her entire body twitches at the sudden greeting, a choked hiss escaping as her grip fails, gravity taking over to drag her into the water below. Giggling greets her once she resurfaces, a lanky vampony mare sporting a dark green coat along with a coal grey mane and tail streaked with silver smiling down from her former place on the log, "Sorry about that; it's not like you to get so surprised."
Midnight grunts, treading water long enough to shoot a glare at the intruder before swimming towards the riverbank, "What do you want, Moon Shadow?"
"I was curious, you know? About whether you were alright," said mare replies, following along the log after Midnight. "And other things. It sounded like you and Dawn were right in the middle of what happened, and while I can kinda understand your parents not dragging Dawn around everywhere with them, you not being there was just weird."
Reaching the shore, Midnight rises from the river, Moon Shadow raising a wing against a brief shower of horizontal rain as Midnight dries herself, "So… yeah. Are you okay? You don't seem very hurt for somepony who was captured by them."
Midnight shrugs, "I was hurt. I got better. Not sure what else my parents have been telling everypony."
Moon Shadow rolls her eyes, "Alright, well, that's good. So as far as the whole 'got attacked, discovered, revealed us and a bunch of our secrets, led an alicorn into the forest, and now we all have to be super careful when we go to feed' part? Oh, and I guess the changelings are our enemies now too for some reason."
"Sounds about right," Midnight says, giving her mane one last, vigorous shake.
Moon Shadow rubs her temples, "Bloody… look, I didn't spend the last two nights wandering around looking for you so you could tell me you did in fact do all those stupid things in as few words as possible. So, tell me what else is really going on, or-"
Midnight narrows her eyes – a butterfly meanwhile alighting on the fluff tipping an ear, "Or?"
Moon Shadow fidgets, "Or… I'll go get the zebra to make some weird potion out of, like, goat hair, and then dump it on you. Or something. I don't know."
"She'd probably use it on you instead after what you did last time," Midnight retorts, raising an eyebrow. "And Dusk's already been looking for a way to get back at you for that too."
"Yeah, I kinda figured," Moon Shadow admits, exhaling sharply. "But seriously, you can't expect me to believe that there's nothing else going on here; that you went ahead and did all that, and then they just let you go later."
Midnight's eyes flicker, her legs trembling like a newborn foal's while a low growl escapes from between her teeth.
Moon Shadow's ears lower, "B-But uh, if your parents told you not to talk about it, I don't want to force anything either."
"They're being… idiots… anyway," Midnight manages, each word leaving her mouth like a nail yanked from a piece of wood. "And now they're… going around making everything worse."
Moon Shadow rubs the back of her head, glancing away, "Wellllll, we've already been discovered, so… you know… how could they possibly make anything any worse?"
Midnight sits, panting, two more butterflies alighting on her mane, "The Equestrians didn't… didn't know what they were doing. Back then. And as half-hearted as it… as it…"
She grunts, shaking her head, "as it sounds, they're sorry for what happened. And they don't want to have to fight with us now. And my parents… are going to make us all get into a fight with them anyway. And we'll lose."
Moon Shadow's mouth hangs open for a moment, her brow knitting, "So they said they were sorry, and you believed them. Okay."
Her attention jumps to Midnight's cutie mark, "Did they… I mean, did they do something to you?"
Midnight lets out a choked laugh, then a gasp, her forelegs steadying, "The opposite. The townsponies never attacked me at all. I was attacked by an undead pony who was going to kill the pony I went to help Dawn feed on. Then-"
"Wait, stop, hold on," Moon Shadow interrupts, holding up her hooves. "Two things. One – undead; what? Two – why? It's not really our problem if one of them dies."
Midnight taps the muddy ground, averting her gaze, "W-Well, I… they called it undead, then I helped hunt him down later and broke his spine and a bunch of other bones, and he just stood right back up. So… yeah. I believe that. And… I didn't expect to get beat up the first time. That pony is mine; I'm not going to let some random weirdo walk in and kill her for some blood. You know what I mean."
Moon Shadow groans, "Yeah, I do. Anyway, then?"
"Then…" Midnight shivers, her jaw clenching, "then they found me, and put me in their hospital. Then they found Dawn and brought her over to me, no questions asked. Then, I… well, Luna offered, so I fed from her, and then-"
Moon Shadow again raises a hoof, "Hold on. Who's Luna?"
Midnight shrugs, "One of their alicorns. A bit bigger, blue."
"You fed from-" Moon Shadow gapes at Midnight, her eyes nearly bugging out of her head, "and she let you?"
Midnight nods, "And then some magical whatever happened, and suddenly I was healed and my butt had a moon on it. Then later Luna shot the undead guy with the actual moon somehow, the next day an even bigger white alicorn came by and we all talked some more, we left with Luna that night, my parents told her to go bite herself under the sun. And that's what happened."
Moon Shadow stares blankly at Midnight, twice her mouth opening only for no words to leave. Standing, she paces in a small circle, eventually coming to a halt and letting out a long sigh, "That's not at all close to what your parents told us."
Another faint tremor ripples through Midnight's body, "My parents hardly let me talk to them afterwards. They just assumed I was controlled somehow and ordered me to stay in the forest, among other things."
Moon Shadow shoots a look at Midnight's flank, "Are you sure you aren't being influenced, though? She changed your cutie mark."
"I am NOT being influenced, or controlled, or whatever else you want to call it," Midnight growls, eyes flashing. "I have felt… stronger, since then. But that's it."
"Then why did you lead Luna towards us?" Moon Shadow asks flatly. "Why did you even talk to them about us? If you hadn't said anything, we could've all just left and gone to live by another town and they wouldn't have ever known there were more of us."
Midnight paws at the muddy soil, "Because I – we – I was discovered, alright. They found me, I couldn't escape, and they had a pretty good idea what I was even before I woke up. Also, I had to come from somewhere, so there couldn't not be more of us. We can't run from this, now that they know to look for us, and my parents and anypony who agrees with them are idiots if they think we can just keep on hiding like nothing happened, the townsponies will forget about us, and then everything will go back to normal."
She looks up, meeting Moon Shadow's eyes, "Hoping for that relies on them accepting that we're here just as much as trying to cooperate with them does, except instead of talking to them it's 'be more careful and hope nothing else goes wrong forever'. It's stupid."
Moon Shadow holds Midnight's gaze for a moment, then glances away, "You're going to go back into their town then, I assume?"
Midnight nods, "I can't yet, but soon. It's my fault that all of this is happening. I'm not going to sit around hoping everything works itself out."
Moon Shadow examines the sky through the crevice in the canopy carved by the river, eventually closing her eyes and exhaling slowly before returning her attention to Midnight, "Can I come with?"
A unicorn stallion taps his chin amid the gravelly murmur, eyeing a half-completed puzzle covering the table in front of him, faint wrinkles and the beginnings of greyness scattered across his otherwise orange coat and crew cut, sky blue mane. Eventually, he slots a piece into an empty spot beneath Celestia's barrel, leaning away once the task is complete. A squeak from his chair interrupts a forming yawn however, the stallion jumping to his hooves, heart racing, before he closes his eyes and takes several deep, slow breaths. Slumping back into the chair – ears twitching at the sound of another creak – he lets out a long sigh and allows his eyelids to rise, his gaze sliding across the room until it lands on a small family picture framed and hanging on the wall. A faintly younger version of himself grins back, his wife likewise grinning to his left and between them their son, all three adults wearing their full Royal Guard armor with the exception of a clambering grandcolt taking the place of his son's helmet.
The elder Guard smiles, the beating of his heart finally slowing as his eyes move upward, a pair of still polished helmets hanging from the wall above the picture. Returning to his puzzle, he levitates a cup of warm milk into his grasp, its heat seeping through his hooves while he drains the last of it. Cup empty, he lingers on the completed sun in the puzzle's background, a quick glance out a nearby window confirming the night's darkness still shrouds the real world.
He sighs again, If only…
His ears prick at the sound of yet another creak, a chuckle escaping as he glances at the ceiling, I guess she couldn't stay asleep either.
He turns in his chair to watch the stairs, awaiting his other half. Another, longer creak a few seconds later is all that follows however, minutes passing with no further noises coming from either the stairs or the floor above.
A frown takes hold of his expression, worry worming its way into the back of his mind, "I guess… she decided not to come down, then."
Or it was somepony else, doubt whispers back.
His heart lurches against his chest, but he shakes his head, "N-No. No. That's silly. Our house is locked up and completely safe."
But the only place that creaks in our bedroom is by the window.
He looks to his puzzle, its pieced together cardboard sun suddenly far less comforting, "Which does that because we like to sit there a lot. She probably just took a look outside. And it's locked."
She wouldn't get out of bed only to take a three-second look outside though.
He eyes the stairway as though it were a snake lying in wait, another minute of indecision passing before he finally stands, "I'll… go check, then. I'll check, I'll see there's nopony there, and then I can finish my puzzle. There hasn't been a report of forced entry in Ponyville in years, after all."
Except the vamponies.
He gulps, pausing on the first step, "Well… yeah, but what are the odds that there's actually one of them here, tonight?"
The former Guard grimaces, pushing aside his swirling doubt and fear as he makes his way to the second floor, the stairs offering several squeaks of their own.
Reaching their bedroom, his frown deepens, "I… didn't close the door when I left earlier, did I?"
He grunts, shooting angry thoughts at his inner self, then twists the doorknob. The inside of their bedroom, lit only by the light of Luna's moon flowing in through a lone window, greets him. He waits in the entrance, pushing the door all the way open until it bumps the wall. Finding nothing out of place, he steps inside, quickly glancing to his right and left – the space to his sides as empty and uninteresting as the rest of the room.
A point of light flickers to life at the tip of his horn, an aura of magic enveloping the door to close it behind him while its warm glow drives back the darkness and moonlight alike as he makes his way over to a bed not quite nestled into the far corner. A mare lays sleeping on the closer half – though she has long since claimed all of the blankets – age already beginning to take its toll on her bright yellow mane and deep gold coat.
The elder Guard stands over his wife for a long moment, watching the slow, calm breaths of her sleep before gently running his hoof across a foreleg sticking out from the cocoon of blankets, "Hey, Goldie, uh, I just wanted to check – are you alright?"
He braces himself, waiting for the irate admonishment of a sleepy mare forced awake. Instead, her breathing continues unchanged, the angry words never coming.
He shakes her, his heart quickening, "H-Hey, Golden, wake up."
A snore is her only reply, his wife oblivious to his touch.
He inhales deeply, "Golden Arrow!"
His wife's rhythmic breathing is the only answer he receives, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end as his frantic gaze lands on her exposed limb. Horn glowing brighter, he leans closer, a trembling examination revealing twin spots of fresh skin a few inches from her shoulder. He stares dumbly at the recently healed pair of wounds for a fraction of a second before leaping over her, heart pounding against his chest as he pulls his wife, blankets and all, onto the floor of the gap between his side of the bed and the wall.
When yet another scan of their room reveals nothing, his horn glows brighter, deep orange sparks popping free. He drops a pillow onto his wife's face, covering his own eyes with a foreleg, Let's see how those nocturnal bastards like this.
His entire horn blazes like a sliver of the sun itself, bathing every inch of the room in a blinding, piercing light – a pained screech answering his spell followed by a thud.
He stares at the crumpled figure writhing on the floor clutching its eyes, mouth agape, the fading, residual magic left over from his spell still brightening the room, "Oh. Oh sweet Celestia."
The vampony stills at his words, its blood red, snake-like eyes opening in a bare squint to meet the unicorn's own. Icy fear stabs at his heart anew, his blood running cold as he looses a wordless shout along with a blast of magic. The spellbolt strikes the vampony's shoulder, spinning it around and throwing it against the far wall. Pain lances through his skull as the vampony slumps to the floor and he lets out a low hiss through clenched teeth, a touch to his horn coming back with a faint outline of ash while an acrid smell makes its way to his nostrils.
Letting out a groan, he looks towards the defeated invader, a mouthful of pointed teeth and fangs rushing towards him the next – and last – thing he sees that night.