By The Light of the Moon

by Lets Do This

First published

Faced with Nightmare Moon's approaching return, Twilight, Tempest, and their classmates need help from an expert... a pony named Moondancer. But it's the last thing Moondancer wants to talk about...

Faced with Nightmare Moon's approaching return, Twilight, Tempest, and their classmates need help from an expert on the subject... a pony named Moondancer. There's just one problem: it's the last thing Moondancer wants to talk about...

For more of this AU, see the series, beginning with Not Exactly Friends

Musical Chairs

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And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the Moon, the Moon,
They danced by the light of the Moon...
-- The Owl and the Pussycat, by Edward Lear

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"All right, class!" called Ms. Flask, the gray-coated science teacher. "Settle down now! Open your books to page 54, and read the next chapter. And quietly please! Let's all show what attentive students we are."

Across the room, at one of the student tables, a beige unicorn filly with a red-and-blue striped mane sat, hunched and nervous. She dutifully flipped open her book and tried to focus on the reading assignment, but her mind wasn't on the text in front of her. Instead, she kept glancing across the room, towards a table near the front.

A lavender, blue-maned unicorn sat there, all by herself. She already had her snout buried in her book, its pages steadily turning in the magenta gleam of her magic. Twilight Sparkle... the Princess's own personal protégé. The best student in class. The one filly whom even the teachers deferred to. Twilight pretty much set her own rules on how, or when, or what she studied...

... or with whom.

I'm gonna do it, Moondancer told herself. I'm gonna walk right over there, say hi, and ask if I can sit with her.

She was certain the two of them could be good friends. There was no other filly in class -- in the entire School, even -- who so clearly loved books as much as Moondancer did. No other filly who had so many answers right at her hooftips. No other filly who was so calmly, definitively right about every subject.

No other filly who had her library card laminated, for Celestia's sake, so the thing wouldn't wear out!

Moondancer gritted her teeth. No one ever makes fun of Twilight -- no one would dare. And maybe... just maybe... if we were friends...

... no one would ever make fun of me, either...

She put her forehooves on the table. She tensed, nerving herself to stand up, walk across the room, and ask. And then...

"Right over here, young lady," said Ms. Flask. "And have a seat."

The entire class watched in astonishment as the tall, broken-horned unicorn trotted over to the indicated table. Hesitantly shrugging out of her green carryall, she sat down. Right next to Twilight Sparkle.

Across the room, Moondancer slumped in despair.

She watched as the fierce-looking maroon filly struggled to reach for a book from the pile in front of her. And then saw Twilight herself using her magic to nudge it into reach. The new unicorn grabbed it and settled in, occasionally glaring about watchfully.

She didn't look at all like the type who appreciated company.

Moondancer sank back on her haunches. Well... so much for that idea, she thought somberly.

"Awww... tough break, Moondancer!" whispered Minuette, the cyan filly seated opposite her at the table. She smiled sympathetically. "Still, you've always got the three of us, right?"

"Did you see that?" Lemon Hearts whispered, her eyes wide. "That new pony can't even use her horn! How the hay is she supposed to work magic?"

Twinkleshine scratched her pink mane with a hoof. "Maybe that's why Celestia put her with Twilight? She knows how much Twilight loves a challenge!"

"Yeah!" Minuette laughed. "Seriously? Put Twilight in a round room, she'd find a corner!"

The three of them giggled knowingly at that. And then, as usual, the conversation veered off in an unpredictable direction. The three fillies whispered together about music, about plans for get-togethers, about colts... everything but the chapter in front of them, which they were supposed to be studying...

But Ms. Flask wasn't paying attention to the conversation in class. She was still standing by the door to the hall, speaking with somepony outside. And nervously bobbing, all the while, up and down like a pump handle.

Leaning curiously, Moondancer tried to see.

And nearly fell over in astonishment. It's Princess Celestia herself!

Moondancer watched in awe as the ivory-white alicorn looked in at Twilight and her new tablemate.

And smiled proudly.

Moondancer sighed. If only, she thought, if only the Princess would smile at me like that... just once. Then I'd feel certain that everything was going to be all right...

Morosely, she turned back to her book, back to the lesson. Back to her life, which wasn't suddenly about to change for the better...

Her face landed on the book.

Well, today is officially over. Can I just go back to my room now?

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

When lunchtime finally arrived, Moondancer didn't feel hungry. Instead, she trotted down the School corridors towards the library. All the way there, she was hunched, her eyes lowered, not meeting anyone's gaze, trying not to attract attention.

She reached the library, shut the door behind her.

And relaxed. Suddenly, it was as if an entirely different pony was sitting there, straight and tall, head held high, and smiling. She gazed up happily at the endless shelves of books that surrounded her comfortingly. Books that never judged her, never kept her out, never made light of the myriad things she read about and thought about and liked so much. Never chattered on endlessly and confusingly about completely inconsequential stuff...

Never laughed at Moondancer, or at the mark on her flank, the Moon and its Shepherd Stars.

The Mark... of the Nightmare.

Moondancer found her favorite spot, a comfortable window seat beneath a tall picture window, through which Celestia's sun shone, warmly and brightly. Shrugging off her carryall, she reached into the left side pocket and pulled out a large blue hardcover volume, with a crescent moon on its cover.

Flipping it open to a blank page, Moondancer sat for a moment, tongue between her teeth, quill hovering beside her in her magic.

Then she started writing.

Dear Nightmare Moon --

I was so close! I almost managed it. I almost got to sit next to Twilight Sparkle. But, like usual, I wimped out and I missed my chance. What do I do now? How do I get Twilight to notice me, to see how much I want us to be friends?

Why... why am I always so useless, so worthless?

Her pen paused, and she stared out through the window.

If only... she thought.

If only I could get an answer back...

I: By The Light of the Moon

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Once upon a time, there was a pony who loved to dance by the light of the moon...

The village was small, the house was smaller, the rear yard was smaller still, backing onto a dense, creeper-hung forest, which chirrupped and reeped with creatures of dusk and shadow. Yet the sky this night was open and clear, the stars shining in the deep purple immensity.

And the Moon... the Moon with its Mare shadow, huge and glowing, casting its silvery radiance over the night-dark yard...

Standing on her hind legs in the middle of the yard was a heavy-limbed, gray-coated earth pony with a cobalt blue mane. She held a small bundle in her forehooves. And under the light of the shining Moon... she danced.

She spun gently about, swayed this way and that, bobbed and dipped, to a tune only she could hear. On her flank, her cutie mark swept into and out of the shadows as she turned about: a pale silver disc, with shimmering rays streaming from it.

"Moon Light..." a voice gently scolded, from the doorstep behind her. "There's a chill out here! You're gonna catch your death."

"Shhh!" she called back. And twirled about mischievously.

Her husband, a dark brown unicorn with a graying mane and spectacles, shook his head and smiled. Then he ambled over to stand beside her, and both of them gazed down raptly at the tiny newborn filly in her forehooves.

"It's amazing to me," Dusty Pages finally said. "You always know just what will help her to calm down, and go right to sleep."

Moon Light shrugged gently. "Blue Moon danced in the moonlight with me, when I was a foal. Or so she tells me. And her mother before her. Maybe it's hereditary? I don't know. Don't fight what works, I say."

Dusty nodded. He tugged Moon Light close, and reached out a hoof to gently stroke his daughter's wispy mane. When he spoke, it was clear he was holding back tears of sheer joy.

"We still need to pick a name," he said, falling back on practicality as usual. "I know we said I'd choose if it was a filly, but..." He shook his head. "I'm an historian, I know too much about what names originally meant. I'd seriously overthink it..."

He smiled at Moon Light. "You choose."

Moon Light stared down at her daughter, comfortably slumbering under the soft glow of moonlight -- under the Moon, with its Mare shadow.

"Moondancer," she said, definitively.

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

AAAEEEIIIIEEE!!!

Moon Light started awake at the scream. Then she thrashed out of the covers and raced across the room to the smaller bed. She frantically lit the lantern they kept on the table. And found her year-old daughter sitting bolt upright, eyes wide and staring, her mouth gaping in a noiseless shriek of panic, of sheer terror.

"Moon-Moon! What is it?" Desperately, she hugged her daughter. The beige filly was shivering and drenched in sweat. "Tell Mama! Tell Mama, please! Before Mama goes completely out of her mind!"

There was no reply. The filly was rigid and shivering, staring at something impossibly frightful, something that only she could see.

Moon Light heard movement behind her, a soft curse as Dusty stubbed a hoof on something in the dim lantern light. Then he finally remembered and cast a luminance spell with his horn, filling the room with a soft warm glow.

"What's the matter with her?" Moon Light gasped. "Should we get the doctor?"

Dusty stared worriedly at his daughter for a moment. And then he relaxed, and shook his head.

"No... It's just a night terror. It's normal for young foals, trust me."

"Are you sure? Look at her!"

"I'm sure." Dusty nodded. "It only looks scary. It's a side-effect of the brain working out the whole sleep-wake thing. My kid brother had 'em for a while. Scared the hay out of us every time it happened. But after a while, they went away on their own. And he turned out all right."

"Should we try to wake her?"

"Best to leave her be," he said. "You probably wouldn't be able to wake her anyway. If it's anything like my brother, it'll stop on its own after a few minutes, and then she won't even remember it in the morning."

True enough, Moondancer finally relaxed, her eyes sliding shut, her head drooping. Bonelessly, she flopped back into the pillow. And snored quietly.

Moon Light heaved a relieved sigh, then moved to pull up the covers.

And stopped. And stared.

"Dusty, look! Her cutie mark's appeared!"

He fetched his spectacles and looked with her, at the dark violet crescent moon and three purple stars. "Well, I'll be..." he said, both surprised and proud. "She's a chip off the old block! She's got your family's mark and everything: the Moon!"

"But it's a crescent Moon," she said, worried. "What does it mean?"

Dusty pursed his lips.

"My considered, erudite opinion is I don't have a clue. We can look it up in the morning, see if there's any historical precedent. It may just be her own special quirk." He grinned. "Five bits says she'll be an astronomer," he said, hugging Moon Light.

"Maybe..." Moon Light said, still worried. But then she smiled too. "Or maybe it means she'll carry on the tradition. That one day she'll dance under the moon, with a daughter of her own. That would be nice..."

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

"Mama, why do I have the Moon in my cutie mark?"

Moon Light sighed. Other parents only had to worry about having to explain where little foals came from. How do you explain to your daughter that her mark is... well, that Mark?

"Why do you ask, sweetie?" Moon Light said, playing for time, as she finished scraping the dried remnants from her potter's wheel.

"Well... kids around town have been calling me names."

"What sort of names?"

"Loony Moony," her daughter said, rolling her eyes. "Or Moonbutt. They call me that one a lot. I don't see why they think it's so funny."

Moon Light nodded. She pointed to her own mark. "Mares in my family have always had a Moon of some kind as part of their cutie-mark. No one knows why. It's just who we are... kind of like the Pear family, in the next valley over."

"But what does it mean?" Moondancer said, climbing up on the box beside the wheel. "What's my talent supposed to be, anyway?"

"Not every cutie mark is obvious right away," Moon Light said. "And some ponies get their marks long before they understand what they mean. But yours is kind of special, honey, which might be why the other kids tease you for it. Tell you what, let Mama tell you a special story, which might help you understand it."

Opening a nearby trunk, Moon Light fished out an old, battered book, with heavy metal clasps to hold it shut. Opening it, she paged through it, and showed her daughter a picture. It was an old woodcut, showing a rearing, fanged alicorn, wearing night-dark armor, surrounded on both land and in the sky by an army of dragon-winged, glowing-eyed nightmares.

"The Mare in the Moon," she explained. "It's a very old legend, which tells of how the Mare once ruled the land alongside Princess Celestia. And then, one day, she became jealous of her fellow Princess, then angry with her, and then --"

Moon Light paused, feeling every parent's natural hesitation in telling the whole ghastly truth to their child. Particularly the more grisly parts of the legend, which were detailed with almost indecent pride by the book's author.

"-- let's just say she and her army of nightmares fought Celestia for a while. She fought a final battle with Celestia, and tried to take over and rule the country on her own. So Celestia had to banish her to the Moon. And that's why there's an image of a mare's head on the Moon, to this very day."

"Nightmare Moon..." Moondancer read, looking at the name in block capital letters beneath the woodcut.

Moon Light nodded. "The name the Mare gave to herself. And her mark... well, you can see it in the picture, it was a crescent moon. So the crescent moon has an... unfortunate association for ponies. Even today, when we really ought to know better..."

"So... does that mean that Nightmare Moon was... evil?" Moondancer was looking from the moon on the Dark Mare's armor to her own cutie mark, with a worried look on her face.

Moon Light reached over and pulled her close.

"The Mare was angry, as I said. And probably misunderstood, too. It happens. And things got out of control, before anyone could talk about it and try to come up with a reasonable answer. Which is what we should always try to do."

Moon Light felt uncomfortable, having to find reasons to justify a monster like the Mare. But she loved her daughter too much to see Moondancer question herself, doubt herself, all because of a legend. All because of an innocent association with a figure of horror out of the distant past.

"According to legend," Moon Light went on, "before she became Nightmare Moon, the Mare was a kind and just ruler, just like Celestia. She was a fierce defender of the poor and the unjustly treated. So... I guess she couldn't really have been all bad, right?"

Moondancer looked up at her mother, holding her closely and caringly. And then down at the picture in the book. And smiled.

"I think she sounds really nice." She pointed a hoof at the picture. "I bet if Nightmare Moon was around today, she'd use her alicorn power and army of nightmares to scare the other kids, make them stop teasing me, huh?"

Moon Light smiled. And felt like she'd dodged a bullet.

"She might..." she allowed, hugging Moondancer. "She might, indeed."

One day, she reminded herself, I'm going to have to explain to my daughter that her mark, the Moon and its Shepherd Stars, is not merely a mark... but is The Mark, the sigil of ultimate evil...

... but, thank Celestia, not today...

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

"RAAARRRRRR!"

Moondancer, dressed in black cape and night-dark helm, raced around the yard, forehooves waving, terrorizing the vegetable patch, the garden hose, the sundial, anything that presented a useful target.

"Moon-Moon!" her mother called. "Slow down and watch where you're going. Don't trip over that cape and hurt yourself!"

"Okay, Mama!" Moondancer called brightly. Then, spreading her cape dramatically, she bared her teeth and resumed terrorizing the watering can, demanding its absolute subjugation to her cause.

Dusty chuckled at her, as he came out of the house and sat down on the back steps beside his wife. "She just loves that Nightmare Night costume, doesn't she?"

Moon Light grimaced. "I'm beginning to regret reading her that book about Nightmare Moon. She idolizes the Mare now."

Dusty put a hoof around her shoulders. "It's normal. It's a phase kids go through. Did I ever tell you how, when I was a colt, I loved to dress up as a vampire batpony?" At her surprised look, he nodded. "True story! I just loved that silly old costume! Wore it everywhere, until it finally fell to pieces. And everyone told me it suited me, 'cause I had the ears for it." He wiggled his lightly tufted ears, making her laugh.

"You still do," Moon Light told him.

Then she looked at Moondancer again. The filly was organizing her captives now. She put the watering can next to her toy animals and the push-mower, making sure everyone had food and water and a place to sleep.

Moon Light sighed hopelessly.

Dusty looked at her, concerned. "What's wrong?"

"Things have changed," she said. "Around town I mean. I try to tell myself I'm imagining it, but I'm not. When I'm at the marketplace, or the community center, or helping with decorations for the Flower Festival... ponies keep giving us these strange looks, Moondancer and me. And I hear them whispering about us. They're not even trying to be subtle about it anymore."

"Don't ponies always whisper things, in small towns like this?"

"But the Moon family has lived here, in this town, for generations!" Moon Light demanded. "No one's said a word against us, in all that time. So why now? What's changed? Why's there this bad feeling all of a sudden?"

Dusty looked uncomfortable. "It's... probably this rash of unexplainable nightmares lately. When ponies have nightmares, they blame... you know. And since there's nothing they can do about her, they lash out at anything that reminds them of her. Which... unfortunately means us."

"Me, you mean," Moon Light said. "And my daughter. With our strange, oh-so-sinister Moon marks!"

"I mean us," Dusty told her firmly. "I knew what I was getting into, marrying a Moon daughter. We're in this together, all three of us. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise."

She leaned against him, smiling thankfully.

Then she sighed. "I just don't want her to have to grow up like this. Surrounded by suspicion, by hurtful gossip. All about something that has nothing to do with her. That's not the kind of life I want for my daughter. And her brother or sister, if we decide to have another. We can't raise our family properly like this!"

Dusty eyed her solemnly, at length.

"You know," he finally said, "there is that letter I got from my old colleagues at the Archives. They say there's an opening, now that the Head Researcher has passed on. And... if I ever did want to come back, they say they'd welcome me with open hooves."

"You mean... move to Canterlot?" Moon Light's face fell. "Leave my home town, to go live amongst the upper-crusty nobles and hurry-scurry urbanites? Urgh!" She slapped a knee with a forehoof. "Why does it have to come to this? Why are we forced to leave, just because other ponies don't understand?"

Dusty gritted his teeth. "I'm sorry. It was just an idea. We don't --"

A hoof pressed to his snout, silencing him.

"I want our daughter healthy and happy," Moon Light said, determinedly. "I want her to be comfortable with herself, and free to grow up as she likes. And... if moving to Canterlot is what it takes..."

She glanced at Moondancer. The costumed filly was busy introducing the watering can to her other captives, making sure that everyone was friendly with each other.

"... then that's what we'll do."

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

Moondancer nervously followed the other first-year fillies and colts into the classroom, gazing about in wide-eyed curiosity at the rows of desks, at the shelves filled with wooden bins, inside of which were books, paper, and project materials of all kinds. There was an alphabet running around the top wall of the room. There were signs everywhere with positive messages: "Be Kind", "Try Your Best", "Read A Book".

Moondancer had never seen a room filled with so many different colors before, so full of potential, so alive. It felt exciting just being there. And the other students, milling around her, equally amazed... it was just as her mother had said. They were all city ponies. Everyone was new here, everyone just as nervous as she was. They were all alike.

And the fillies and colts who had their cutie marks already, they had such a variety of icons and images, hers didn't stand out at all. No one stared at her moon-and-stars mark strangely, no one whispered about her behind her back. The fillies and colts were all commenting on each other's marks, happily and acceptingly -- even some of the weirder ones, like skulls or pirate hats.

Moondancer felt reassured. She was going to fit right in.

Stowing her carryall in a cubby the teacher pointed out to her, she took a seat at a desk close to the windows.

"Good morning, class!" the teacher called out. "I'm Ms. Term Paper, and I'd like to welcome you all to Canterlot Elementary. Now, before we begin, since we're all new here, let's write our names on these cards, and put them on our desks, just like mine here --" She indicated a long, folded card on her own desk at the front of the room. "That'll help us remember where we're all seated, and also help us learn to say hi to each other in the morning."

The students willingly set to work, and the teacher trotted up and down the rows, speaking to individual students, giving guidance on letter size and legibility. When she got to Moondancer, she smiled.

"Moondancer!" she said. "That's such a lovely name, dear! Is it your first or last name?"

"Um... it's just my name. Is... that okay?"

"Oh, perfectly, dear! I should introduce you to Ms. Huckleberry, who teaches agriculture and animal care here at the school. I can tell that you two would have a lot in common!"

Once the students' desks were all officially labeled, Ms. Paper suggested they go around the room, each of them introducing him or herself.

"And just to help us know a little bit about you," she added, "tell the class about some pony you really admire. It can be a family member, someone famous, someone from history... anypony who inspires you."

Moondancer listened eagerly as students each greeted the class, and told about royals like Princess Celestia, or nobles they were related to, or famous athletes or performing stars. One young colt in the back of the room even mentioned Star Swirl the Bearded. "I think he looks funny," he said, grinning broadly, "with that really long beard!"

So when it was her turn, Moondancer willingly stood up and addressed her new friends.

"My name is Moondancer -- oh, and it's one word, not two! And the pony I admire most is the Mare in the Moon. Because she's real powerful, and she lives way up there in the Moon. And she's got a moon in her cutie mark, just like mine, see?"

There was silence for a moment, the students staring at each other.

And then the entire class burst out laughing at her.

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

"Hey, Moonie!"

"Loony Moony!"

The colts and fillies sniggered and jeered as she passed along the halls heading for the second grade classroom. She'd been dreading this. It was exactly the same faces as last year, exactly the same thoughtless, tormenting voices.

"Dance for us, Moony! Why don't you dance for us?"

Moondancer kept her eyes facing forward. Don't look, she reminded herself. Don't react. Don't give them the satisfaction.

"How's it goin', Moonbutt?" called one particularly greasy-haired colt.

Moondancer rolled her eyes. Why do you jerks keep calling me that? If you're gonna be crude, at least be original!

"Hey, Moonie!" laughed one tow-headed colt. "Is the Princess gonna banish anyone else to the Moon? To keep your loony mommy company?"

Unable to control herself, Moondancer swung on him, enraged. "My mother lives in Canterlot Heights, for your information!"

And even as she spoke she knew it was a mistake.

"Yeah," he sneered, "that's what they told you! When you were left on their doorstep! And you know why? Because you're evil!"

"Oh, she totally is!" a gum-chewing auburn-maned filly said. "She must be evil, having the Moon in her cutie mark!"

"Evil Moony! Evil Moony!" the children chanted gleefully.

"Look!" Moondancer shouted desperately. "I don't know what the Moon in my mark is for! It has nothing to do with the Mare in the Moon, all right?"

"Wahhhh! I don't know what my cutie-mark means!" the auburn-maned filly echoed derisively, wiping imaginary tears from her eyes. "Sure, that's what you'd like us to think! While you and your loony mommy plot and scheme to take over Equestria!"

Moondancer stared at her, wordlessly, unable to believe that anyone could be that thoughtlessly, stupidly cruel.

In return, the filly feigned terror, held up her forehooves beseechingly.

"No, no! Don't look at me! Ahhh! The evil eye! The evil eye! It burns! It burns! Aughh! Hahahahahaha!"

All of them laughed, loudly and brayingly, as Moondancer turned and bolted away, utterly humiliated.

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

After school, Moondancer retreated to the one place in Canterlot that she felt truly safe. The Public Library wasn't quite as vast as the Archives, but it was far and away larger than any library Moondancer had ever been in before. It had so many books, she was almost certain she could never read them all.

But she was game to try...

Wandering the shelves, she found a number of interesting titles and slotted them into her carryall. Then she headed for her favorite spot to read: a comfortable old couch sitting beneath a window wall, with a magnificent view of the Royal Palace, high on the mountain's peak.

She shrugged out of the carryall, sat down, got comfortable, pulled out a book.

But for once, she didn't feel like reading.

Reaching into her carryall again, she pulled out a different book: a heavy hardbacked volume with a crescent moon on its cover.

This is a journal, Moon Light had told her. Many ponies find that when they're feeling down or stuck on something, it can help to write in a journal. You can spell out your feelings, put them into words in private, where no one else can read them. You can write about things that happen to you and how you feel about them. And since it's private, you can say whatever you need to say, however you need to say it, without worrying about what others might think.

You mean, like a diary? Moondancer had asked. I'd feel silly just writing stuff in a book that no one but me would ever read.

In a sense, Moon Light told her. If it helps you to feel comfortable, write as if you're talking to someone you trust, someone you feel would listen and guide you. You'd be surprised how often you can work things out, just by putting them in words on a page in front of you, rather than leaving them rattling around half-baked in the back of your head...

Moondancer hadn't been entirely convinced but she was willing to give anything a try.

She also wasn't certain why, from the very first page, she'd addressed her entries to Nightmare Moon. Perhaps it was the memory of sitting beside her mother, looking at the woodcut picture of Nightmare Moon... the comforting feeling that there was someone who understood her, who cared about how she felt, who would do anything to protect her...

She'd have felt really awkward, writing private journal entries to her own mother. But writing to Nightmare Moon instead...

... somehow that worked.

Dear Nightmare Moon, she wrote. I'm very sorry to tell you this, but I don't think I want to go to school any more -- ever...

She shook her head, anguished, then forced herself to keep writing.

I can't take another year of this. I love reading, I love learning! But the other students... they're horrible! I mean, if they don't want to be friends, fine! Why can't they just leave me alone! Why do they have to go out of their way to make me feel so miserable?

She gritted her teeth, holding back a sob.

Why does no one want to be friends with me? she wrote. Am I really that useless... that worthless?

She looked round, and then stared up for a while, through the window, at the grand spires and minarets of the Royal Palace of Canterlot.

Then she turned back to the journal, writing furiously.

Can you help me, please? Can you talk to Celestia? Have her make the other kids stop teasing me? Or if you can't do that, could you at least help me find a real friend? If I had one real friend, someone I could trust, I could ignore the things everyone else says. It would make such a difference...

She drew back, and stared at what she'd just written. And then shook her head. It was ridiculous, asking a journal for things. It wasn't like the thing could ever answer back.

Shutting the journal, she dropped it on the couch beside her and then picked up the book she'd pulled out to read.

At least I can spend a quiet hour or three, she thought, learning about the development of the compound wagon harness...

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

"Moon-Moon! Hey! Are you resting your eyes?"

Moondancer looked up, blinking fuzzily. She realized she must have nodded off. The sun had set, and the librarians had lit the lamps, giving the library's interior a warm, rich, flickering glow.

She saw her father standing in front of her, a scroll held tightly in his magic. He was smiling proudly. "I'm so glad I thought to check around the library for you before heading home. Here, have a look, honey... you're gonna love this!"

Moondancer took the scroll and unrolled it. And stared. "Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns?"

Dusty Pages nodded eagerly. "A friend at the Archives heard about your test scores, and suggested we try enrolling you in the School. So we did, Mama and I. We didn't tell you, because we wanted it to be a surprise. And they must have liked what they saw, because they accepted you! Provisionally, pending the usual entrance exam." He waved a hoof. "But with your test scores, I'm sure you'll ace that!"

"Wow, that's just... thanks, Dad!"

"Hey! You earned it, hon!" Then her father looked uneasy. "Of course... it does mean you'll be living at the School while you're there. It's how they run things, apparently. But Mama and I talked about it, and we think it's for the best. And, hey, the School's right here in Canterlot so it's not like you'll be far away or anything. We can always come visit, and we'll all be together for the holidays, just like usual. How's that grab you?"

She stared at him, uneasily.

"Do you think that... anyone else here... will be going to the School?"

Dusty smirked. "Doubt it, kiddo. According to your test results, you're one of a kind here!"

Moondancer looked at the journal, lying on the cushion beside her.

Thanks, she thought. She wasn't exactly clear on who she was thanking.

Then she looked at her father again. "That sounds great, Dad! How soon can I go?"

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

Ms. Flask, Science and Light Magic, Moondancer read. Well, this is it.

Moondancer cautiously inched through the doorway, into the classroom, and peered around. The fillies and colts were all taking their seats, laughing and chattering with each other.

Head lowered, Moondancer made her way over to a nearby student table.

"Hi," she said quietly to one of the students already sitting there. "Is this spot taken? Is it okay if I sit here?"

"Hey! Sure!" the cyan unicorn replied brightly. "I'm Minuette!" She pointed to the other two ponies at the table. "And that's Lemon Hearts. And that's Twin-kle-shine!"

The other ponies nodded pleasantly as she pointed to them.

Two ponies with single-word names, Moondancer thought. That's a good start already...

"Um, I'm... Moondancer," she muttered, cringing uncomfortably. "I'm new here. I just started."

"Hey, Moondancer!" Minuette replied, giggling. "Welcome to the crazy house!"

"Nice to meet you," Lemon Hearts said. "You just started? Woah! How about that entrance exam, huh?" She rolled her eyes.

"No kidding!" Twinkleshine agreed. "I was never so nervous in my life! How did you do, Moondancer?"

Moondancer scratched at her mane uncomfortably. As expected, she'd aced the exam... but she didn't want anyone thinking she was stuck up about it.

"Uhm... they told me I did really well... for a beginner."

"Wow!" Minuette goggled. "They actually said something to you? You know they usually just scribble something mysterious on those clipboards they have, and then call in the next student. You must've really wowed 'em, huh?"

Twinkleshine grinned. "Not as much as Twilight Sparkle, I bet!" She nodded her head, and when Moondancer turned to look, she saw seated at one of the front tables a lavender filly with a blue mane. There was a book spread open on the table before her. The filly had her elbows on the table, her hooves pressed to her cheeks, and she was staring down at the book intensely, as if she was trying to make it catch fire with her mind alone.

Twilight Sparkle! Moondancer was astounded. The Princess's personal student? She'd heard about Twilight, of course, but hadn't expected to see her anywhere nearly as mundane as a classroom.

"Oh yeah!" Minuette laughed. "Ol' Twilight nearly took the roof off the exam hall hatching a dragon's egg! She knows just about everything there is to know about magic, I bet!"

"She doesn't say much, though," Twinkleshine said. "You really have to prod her to say anything at all."

"Wait..." Moondancer said, "you've talked with her?"

"Oh, sure!" Minuette nodded. "We sometimes get together to study after school, actually."

Moondancer goggled. "Really?"

"Yep. But when we say study," Lemon Hearts added, "we mean study! Twilight doesn't say a word, just sits there and reads, the whole time."

"But when we quiz each other afterwards," Twinkleshine noted, "she never misses a question. Not once! And she's real patient with us when we mess stuff up. She just explains the right answer, and moves on."

"Word of advice, though," Minuette giggled. "Don't take her anywhere near a library, or you won't see her for hours! That pony really loves her books!"

Moondancer turned to stare at Twilight, who was still sitting there, by herself, trying to incinerate her book with her eyes, her magenta magic smoothly flicking the pages.

Now there's a pony, Moondancer thought, that I can relate to...

... a pony just like me.

She bit her lip, nervously. "Uhm... I know I only just got here but..."

"Hey!" Minutte interrupted. "I just had a great idea! You want to come study with all of us? We could introduce you to Twilight! You two would just totally get along, I can tell!"

"That... would be so nice of you!" Moondancer replied, amazed at her luck.

"No problem!" Minuette said. "The more the merrier, right girls?" The other two nodded agreeably.

And Moondancer sighed in relief.

Maybe, she thought, just maybe... I'll get it right this time. As long as I don't open my big mouth and spoil everything. Well, that can't happen if I just don't say anything. I'll just keep my mouth shut, and focus on studying...

... just like Twilight...

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

The next morning, Moondancer was in the School library, sitting on the window seat beneath the picture window. She had the blue journal open on her lap, and her quill scribbled industriously.

Dear Nightmare Moon --

Sorry I haven't written sooner. Things have been going so great! We all got together for a study session yesterday afternoon, and I was right! Twilight is just like me! She loves to read, and to study really hard subjects! And she can give the answer to any question at all, just like that! Maybe she'll want to be friends with me. That would be so great. Maybe even... maybe she'd even let me sit next to her in class. Then I'd finally have a really close friend, someone that I can really talk to, anytime at all, about anything and everything... except...

Moondancer winced. Her quill paused for a moment. She felt guilty.

Except for you, Nightmare Moon, she wrote. I hope you won't be upset, but I just can't risk talking with anypony about you anymore. It's just not worth the risk of them finding out, and laughing and calling me names again. Especially not Twilight! If she ever found out about you, I don't... I just don't know what I'd do!

Moondancer felt sad. She felt like she was betraying an old, trusted friend. Even if it was just words in a book...

I'm so sorry! I'll still write to you, obviously. But only in private, in secret. I hope you'll understand --

"Excuse me? Moondancer, right?"

Moondancer looked up, shocked. Her forehooves slapped the journal shut so fast that she trapped the quill, still quivering, between its pages.

Twilight Sparkle looked at her with a bemused smile. "Oh! I'm sorry! I didn't mean to startle you. I just wanted to ask... is that Star Swirl's comparative monograph on spell construction strategies?"

Moondancer looked at the volume she was pointing at. "Um... oh, yeah! It is."

"Do you need it right now? Could I have it? I'm writing an essay on iterative versus recursive spell construction, and I wanted to quote him as a source reference."

"Oh sure! Go right ahead," Moondancer grabbed the book in her hooves and nervously held it out. "I was only reading it for fun anyways."

"Really?" Twilight grinned, as she took the book with her magic. "I thought I was the only one who read these things for fun!" She rolled her eyes. "I mean... spell construction, right?"

Moondancer nodded. "Yeah, I know what you mean. It gets a little boring sometimes, but..."

"... but when you see how all the pieces go together," Twilight said, her face lighting up, "and how spells are just structure, just a conduit for the magic..."

Moondancer nodded. "... and you're basically turning what you want the magic to do into a shape for the magic to flow through, it's like..." She hunted for words. "It's like every single one of these papers is suddenly a building block, that you can add to your collection!"

"Yeah!" Twilight nodded. "And then they're just like candy, almost! Suddenly you can't get enough of them! Ah, ahem." She coughed into her hoof. "Sorry! I get a little carried away when the topic is magic!"

"Oh, yeah," Moondancer said, nodding. "Me too."

Twilight smiled. "So... if you're reading Star Swirl," she went on, "have you read anything by Knuth? Or Hoofstadter?"

"Hoofstadter?" Moondancer said, puzzled.

"You know," Twilight said, "Hoofstadter's Law? Everything takes longer than you think, even when you take into account Hoofstadter's Law?"

Moondancer grinned. "I don't think I've read him!"

"I bet you'd like him! He's a fun read. And there's a bunch of other key authors in spellwork you'd like too, if you haven't read them. I could show you where they are, if you want."

"Well, sure!" Moondancer quickly shoved the journal and her other books into her carryall, then willingly followed along as Twilight led the way into the stacks.

And she was astonished by how lively and talkative Twilight was -- not at all like the quiet, serious-looking pony at the study session...

Then Moondancer looked around, realizing.

Of course... a library. A place where she feels comfortable just opening up and being herself...

... just like me.

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

A couple weeks later, after a particularly challenging pop test in history class, the group pooled their bits for an impromptu cupcake party at the café and sweet shop on Diamond Avenue.

Lemon Hearts, Twinkleshine, and Minuette were all munching their favorite cupcakes, and chattering a mile a minute. They'd even managed to rope in Minuette's friend Lyra Heartstrings. Just to be different, the pistachio-colored filly had a pistachio-frosted muffin sitting in front of her, as she gabbed and laughed with the others.

Moondancer herself had a white-frosted cupcake with small candies sprinkled on it. But she paid it no attention, looking instead at Twilight Sparkle, sitting next to her.

She'd just given Twilight a small book that she'd spent over an hour searching for in the used bookshop up the street. It was a copy of Principles of Magic, and while she half-suspected Twilight already had a copy, she hoped the fact it was a first edition would make it special.

There was even an inscription on the title page, which Moondancer had spent hours working out, on seemingly endless pieces of scrap paper:

To my friend, Twilight Sparkle.
Thanks for introducing me to the classics.

But she wasn't certain whether Twilight had even seen the inscription. The lavender unicorn had just flipped the book open and started reading it, right there at the table, completely tuning everyone out. None of the other ponies even seemed to notice -- they apparently took it as perfectly natural behavior, coming from Twilight.

Moondancer stared at Twilight, feeling anxious. This wasn't the reaction she'd been hoping for. Maybe she hates it, Moondancer thought. Maybe she's just pretending to read it, to be polite? She must have a copy already. But why's she making such a show of going through the whole thing, page by page? Ohhh... did I just mess up again? Was the inscription too much? Maybe I should have just given her the book, not made a big deal out of it. Or maybe...

Then Twilight looked up at her.

"Thanks, Moondancer... I always liked this one. I'd just about worn out my old copy, so it's great having a replacement that's in such good shape."

Moondancer hesitantly smiled.

"Oh, no problem, Twilight. Glad you like it..."

Okay..., she thought. Kind of a mixed message there. But at least she likes it. Maybe there's hope after all...

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

That evening, Moondancer sat by the window in the library, writing in her journal. The quill quivered with the tension in her magic.

Dear Nightmare Moon -- I'm going to do it. Tomorrow morning, I'm going to ask Twilight if I can sit with her in class. I hope she'll let me. Maybe... maybe she'll be my friend?

She thought anxiously for a moment.

I know that you once wrote, in The Way of the Night, that you don't really believe in luck. That the Stars are geometry, not portent. But... wish me luck all the same? I need all the help I can get...

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

And now... she was sitting there again, on the window seat, writing in the journal:

I was so close! I almost managed it. I almost got to sit next to Twilight Sparkle. And like usual, I wimped out. I missed my chance. What do I do now? How do I get Twilight to notice me, to see how much I want us to be friends? Why... why am I always so useless, so worthless?

Her quill paused. She stared out through the window. Then she stared at the blank section of the page, below what she'd written.

If only... she thought. If only I could get an answer back...

And then she kept on writing:

I don't really think I'm cut out to be friends with anyone.

She thought about it for a while, then nodded.

I'm just too nervous, she wrote. Too afraid of getting it wrong. It's so hard to know what to say. I keep messing things up. I think... I think I should just stick with my books. My books, my studies...

... and you, Nightmare Moon. You've always been here for me...

She shut her eyes, lowered her head.

And cried quietly, alone.

II: We Need An Expert...

View Online

In the Grand Audience Hall of the Royal Palace of Canterlot, there was a lengthy, echoing stillness as the Captain of the Guard considered what he'd just heard. Seated tall and regal on the Sun Throne, Princess Celestia patiently waited for the proud, stolid stallion to collect his thoughts.

"Forgive me, Highness," he said at last. "It's... a lot to take in."

"Understandable. It is also of the utmost secrecy. You will speak of this to no one, until given leave to do so."

"Of course, Your Highness."

"As of this moment, only yourself and a few other key ponies have been informed. And shortly, five more will be told. And they are the crucial ones."

"Given their importance, Your Highness, as well as the disturbing reports I've been hearing -- nightmares amongst the populace, rumors of Nightmare cults meeting in secret in some of the smaller villages -- should we not assign some of the Guard to, well... guard them?"

"That is precisely what I do not want." The alicorn shook her head. "Twilight and her friends will have more than enough on their minds with the work they're doing. I don't want them distracted, to feel they're under surveillance -- or worse, house arrest. I want them to feel able to follow their instincts, wherever that might lead them."

"We can be discreet, Your Highness," the Captain offered, diffidently. "Keep them under observation, from a distance?"

"No doubt you might try. However, I suspect you'd find it difficult to hide anything from these ponies... in particular, from Tempest Shadow."

The Captain grimaced. Even after all this time, he and his officers were still smarting from the roughhousing they had unexpectedly received from the moody unicorn when they'd first brought her in.

"With respect, Highness, that one is trouble. Insolent, shifty, and aggressive -- unreliable, in my view."

"There you're quite wrong," Celestia gently reproved him. "Tempest is highly intelligent, observant, and of necessity self-sufficient. She has a practiced, intuitive understanding of security and its weaknesses, and how they might be exploited."

"A thief, in plain language, Highness. And very likely worse -- or so we might discover, if we were permitted to investigate her further...?"

Celestia blandly ignored the hint. "As the saying goes, set a thief to catch one, hmm? But Tempest also brings two other important qualities. First, she is fiercely -- one might almost say fanatically -- loyal to those she considers friends, in particular to Twilight. She is strongly motivated to see to the group's safety, and she has an insider's perspective on how best to do so. And secondly..."

Celestia smiled, amusedly.

"Twilight herself trusts Tempest, implicitly. She feels comfortable under Tempest's watchful eye. And the others, they all follow Twilight's example. Even Sunset Shimmer defers to Twilight, to my great surprise. So we shall make use of this fortunate circumstance. Captain, I want you and your guards to support Tempest in this. Allow her to set the tone, provide any assistance she may require. Otherwise, stay firmly in the background, unless called upon."

"Highness..." the Captain began, ready to object. Then he saw the look in her eye. And came to attention. "Understood, Your Highness."

Celestia smiled understandingly. "It is an unusual arrangement, to be sure," she agreed. "But these are unusual times. We must make use of every opportunity fate puts before us."

"As you say, Highness."

Further conversation was forestalled by a rap at the door. "Princess Celestia?" the Chief Steward said, looking in. "Your students are here."

"Good. Send them in."

The doors swept open, and the group walked in. Leading them was Twilight Sparkle, with Spike trotting along beside her. The lavender unicorn was compulsively sifting through a pack of index cards held in her magic, barely looking where she was going.

Stalking along beside her was Tempest Shadow. Tall, stern, and ever-watchful, the maroon pony missed nothing, even going so far as to gently nudge Twilight a hair to the right so she avoided a wrinkle in the otherwise smooth red carpet. And trotting along beside Tempest was her white-maned hedgehog assistant, Grubber. His eyes wide, he stared up and around at the immense chamber, looking both awed and humbled.

Behind them was Starlight Glimmer, carrying a bundle of equipment and scrolls in her magic. She had the nervous-yet-capable air of a general's aide, toting the map-case and battle plans. And strolling along beside her was Trixie Lulamoon, wearing her star-spangled magician's hat and cape, the focus gem clipped to her collar. Her hat was tilted to a jaunty angle, there was a proud smile on her face. The showpony gave every impression of having graciously acceded to a royal summons, in order to present a dazzling spectacle of légerdesabot...

... which wasn't all that far from the truth, actually, so Celestia made allowances for the pony's overinflated ego.

And lastly, trailing at the back of the group, came Sunset Shimmer. The flame-maned pony was looking uncommonly downcast and somber. She'd often looked that way whenever she'd felt she'd failed to achieve a perfect score on a test. Celestia dearly wanted to call her former student over, to reassure her and to compliment her on her progress since her return. Yet Celestia had a feeling she might soon have more than one student to comfort.

"Princess!" Twilight said, hurriedly putting away the cards and coming to attention before the throne. "You asked to see us? If it's about our refractive magic project, I'm happy to report that with Sunset's help we've made a lot of progress. We're now able to split off any chosen stream of magic, and the pony directing the flow can apply it to any target. If you'd like, we can provide a demonstration?"

Celestia smiled fondly at Twilight's anxious eagerness.

"Thank you, Twilight. I shall, as always, be pleased to see it. But that is not why I summoned you." She paused, gathering her thoughts, then went on. "I have decided, based on your progress, and based on the advice of a pony I trust --" She added a glance and a smile at Sunset, who only looked more uncomfortable. "-- that the time has come to reveal something to all of you. Something I should have perhaps told you long before this. Something that explains the vital importance of you and your friends, and of the work that you have all been doing... both for me, and for all of Equestria."

Twilight glanced around at the others. Then she worriedly faced Celestia again. "Of course, Princess!"

Celestia looked at them all herself: five young unicorns, a baby dragon, a scruffy hedgehog... perhaps the oddest group of heroes Equestria had ever had to call upon.

"For nearly a millenia," Celestia began, "our land of Equestria has known peace, prosperity, and the reasonable certainty that both will continue. However, there are dark times ahead, and we must prepare for them. You are familiar, I am sure, with the legend of Nightmare Moon?"

Twilight and the others nodded.

"It is no legend," Celestia said flatly. "It is fact. The Mare shadow on the Moon? It is Nightmare Moon. She is real, as real as any of us."

She gave the startled group a few moments to consider that, then went on, placidly and directly. She spoke of the imprisonment of the Nightmare, by use of the Elements of Harmony; of the approaching end of the spell's thousand-year span; of the impending release and return of the Nightmare...

And more than once she almost came to a halt, seeing the look on Twilight's face. The unicorn's jaw hung open, her eyes grew wider and wider.

"For the longest time," Celestia said, "I had assumed that as the containment spell faded, and Nightmare Moon's release approached, a new bearer might arise, who would assume control of the Elements, and wield them once more in my place. When Sunset Shimmer appeared, I naturally assumed that it might be she who would discover a means to reawaken the Elements. And Sunset, I am sorry," she added, "for having unfairly placed that burden on you. I know how hard you tried, how much it meant to you. I am most grateful to you for all you did, and are continuing to do even now."

Sunset nodded sadly, managing a faint smile.

"But Twilight," Celestia said, turning to her, "having observed your group's project coming together, I now suspect that you are creating something new here, something that recreates the power of the Elements... perhaps even replacing them altogether. It has been nearly a thousand years, but even so, seeing the forces you are able to unleash and wield together, I find them strikingly familar. If memory serves, I recall seeing something similar myself, when I used the Elements that one last time, so many long years ago."

Celestia smiled, a little sadly.

"We are, after all, at the end of an era. It would be appropriate that there be a new type of magic now to defend Equestria. And new bearers of that magic, such as yourselves..." She smiled proudly at the group before her.

"Us?" Twilight said, utterly floored.

"Well, of course us, Twilight!" Trixie said smugly, ignoring Starlight's attempts to shush her. "You know anypony else around here who's as Great and Powerful as we are? With the exception of Your Highness, of course!" she added hastily, bowing to the Throne.

Celestia eyed Trixie in tolerant amusement.

"But, Princess..." Twilight objected, "we're just students!"

"As I have said, Twilight, you and your friends are more than mere students. You each have gifts, skills, and magic potential, such has rarely been seen in Equestria in a thousand years. This cannot be mere coincidence, that such a group of ponies would arise, exactly when needed."

Celestia smiled reassuringly down at her wide-eyed student.

"The road ahead will not be an easy one. It will be a challenge, to be sure. But I feel certain that together you and your friends will be up to it. And you will not be alone, Twilight. You will have all of Equestria behind you. But Twilight, we will rely on you, and your friends, to lead the way... to show us what must be done."

Twilight shut her mouth, swallowed nervously. She looked up at her mentor, looking very small, and frightened.

And also, very determined.

"We'll do our very best, Princess... all of us."

"Of that I have no doubt," Celestia replied. "And to that end, I have a task for each of you. Tempest Shadow!"

Tempest had been looking at Twilight, watching her with increasing concern. Her gaze snapped up, focusing intently on Celestia. "Highness?"

"Up to now I have been relying on you, informally, to watch over Twilight and your other friends and keep them safe. I feel we should formalize that responsibility. I am placing the safety and security of this group in your capable hooves. If there is anything you need, let me or the Captain of the Guard know." She indicated the Captain, who reluctantly saluted. "We will make it happen."

Tempest considered it, then nodded.

"Understood, Your Highness." Then she looked thoughtful for a moment. "I don't suppose... that I might request a suit of armor, to begin with? The way this group has been flinging magic around, I feel I might need one."

"Done," Celestia replied swiftly. "The Captain will see to it."

Then Celestia turned to Starlight and Trixie. "The two of you," she said, "are highly skilled in magic, each in your own way. I would like you to focus on that, and train each other, so that each of you can serve as the other's backup. Trixie, I wish you to learn everything that Starlight can teach you about thaumic magic. And Starlight, I want you to learn everything that Trixie can teach you about stage magic. After all, one never knows when a well-timed illusion may make all the difference, hmm?"

"Of course, Your Highness!" Starlight agreed.

"Oh! It will be a long, weary struggle, to be sure!" Trixie settled a hoof around Starlight's shoulders. "Nevertheless I'm certain my Great and Powerful assistant will pull through, proving herself worthy of such awesome responsibility!"

"Thanks a lot, Trixie!" Starlight muttered.

"Not at all, bestie! Just building up your confidence!"

Starlight rolled her eyes.

"Twilight," Celestia said, smiling down at her. "Every group needs a leader. In addition to your skills with magic, you have a knack for guiding and encouraging your friends. So I would like you to continue doing so, continue doing the excellent job you've been doing so far."

Twilight nodded. "Of course, Princess." Her shoulders were hunched, her teeth gritted. She looked positively terrified.

Unable to stand seeing her like that any longer, Tempest edged closer to put a comforting hoof around her shoulders. Twilight smiled up at her, thankfully.

"Sunset --" Celestia began, turning to her.

But Sunset spoke up quickly, interrupting her.

"Don't worry, Your Highness," she said, "I'll be Twilight's backup." She strode quickly forward to sit on Twilight's other side, putting a hoof around her shoulders as well. "I'll do everything I can to help and support her. We'll make this project work, and keep Equestria safe. I promise!"

She glanced over Twilight's head at Tempest, and the two of them nodded to each other, in silent accord.

Celestia sighed, relieved. Bless you, Sunset! she thought. I am so glad you've returned to us.

"We'll all help, Twilight!" Spike said, hugging her from the front.

"And don't forget us," said Starlight, as she and Trixie put their own hooves on Twilight's shoulders. "We've got your back, too."

Twilight glanced around at all of them, clearly still anxious, yet grateful for the show of support. She looked up at Celestia, and managed a brave, wordless smile.

Grubber, standing off to the side, peered up at Tempest.

"Me too, boss?"

Tempest eyed him narrowly. "You hug me," she muttered, "you'll regret it..."

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

Later that day, in Twilight's tower room at the Library, the atmosphere might best have been described as... intensely focused.

Twilight herself sat at the worktable in the center of the room. There were stacks of books and scrolls all around her, and Spike was just adding the latest arrivals from the Archives to the pile beside her. With her elbows on the table, her face pressed into her forehooves, Twilight stared fixedly at the book spread open before her. Every now and then her magic anxiously flicked a page with a sharp snap.

To her left was Trixie, a book open in front of her, equally focused on reading. Every now and then the showpony leaned toward Twilight to ask a question, or to whisper excitedly about something she'd just read that she'd never really grasped before. And Twilight would mutter back, softly and distractedly, not allowing her gaze to waver from her book for a moment.

Across the table from both of them sat Starlight. There were numerous scrolls and fragments of parchment spread out before her, plus a large blank scroll on which she was sketching out a spell design. Her quill hung poised in the air briefly as she stared worriedly at her two friends. Then she reluctantly turned back to her own studies. Setting the quill aside, she faced a top-hat sitting on the table beside her. Beside it was a small plush rabbit toy, which she grabbed with her magic and dumped into the hat. Just for the look of the thing, she waved her hooves mystically over the hat. Then she picked the hat up and tipped it over... revealing that the rabbit had vanished.

Then she put the hat back on the table and sat there, her forehooves crossed, frowning at it.

"Trixie, how do I do this part again?"

Trixie looked up in mock surprise.

"Why, Starlight! It's so simple." Trotting around, Trixie grabbed up the hat in her forehooves. She examined it closely inside and out, then determinedly felt around inside it with a hoof.

Then she put it down and glanced sideways at Starlight, a mischievous look in her eyes.

"You know what your problem is, bestie?"

With a quick swipe of her hoof, she brushed Starlight's mane... and there was the rabbit, sitting on her hoof.

"You keep forgetting, and leaving it behind your ear," she scolded.

Despite herself, Starlight giggled. "How do you do that, Trixie? You make it look so easy!"

"Misdirection, my humble assistant!" Trixie intoned proudly. "Keep the audience distracted, keep them looking the wrong way, so they never see what you're really up to." She grinned happily. "And timing, too... that's so important!"

Starlight nodded, and sighed. "That's the hard part about all this! I'm not used to having to do things on the spot, as a performance. With structured spellwork, as long as I've written and invoked the spell properly, it just... well, works! But stage magic... it's a whole different ball game."

"Lucky for you then, that you have such an experienced and proficient teacher, eh?" She looked across the table. "Am I right, Twilight?"

"Uh huh," Twilight muttered. Not crossly, not disapprovingly. Just not really paying attention. Her eyes never left the book before her.

Trixie and Starlight looked at each other uncomfortably. And then got back to their respective tasks.

Over by the window wall, Tempest was standing before a trio of mirrors, being fitted for the suit of armor she'd requested. She shrugged her shoulders uneasily, trying to get used to the heavy, gilded plate. She doubtfully inspected the golden shoe on one forehoof, then let the hoof fall to the floor with a heavy thump.

"I don't know..." she muttered.

"It... looks good on ya, boss," Grubber offered doubtfully. "Though it's kinda, how do I put it, uh... bling for you. Ya know what I mean?"

She frowned at him. "I hope you've been taking notes, Grubber," she warned. "You're going to be doing this a lot." Then she turned her scowl on the palace armorer, who was adjusting the straps and jotting down measurements. "You wouldn't have anything lighter weight would you? And maybe something in plain old basic black? The whole idea here is to not to stand out."

"Well... there is battlemage armor," the gray-haired pony offered. "Designed for casters. Though it won't have nearly the same stopping power--"

"Someone fires a crossbow at me," Tempest replied testily, "they're going to get me, even through this getup." She eyed her glittering image in the mirror. "And, if it comes to that, my job isn't to stop an army anyways. It's to be there in time, buy a few extra seconds if that's what it takes."

"Hmmm... I'll check what we have in the armory," the armorer said. "And I should also talk to the Archives, see what they might have down in the deep storerooms. It's been a while since the Mage Wars, but do I seem to recall they had far better battlemage armor back then -- even compared with the best bespoke armor today."

Tempest nodded. "I don't mind hoof-me-downs," she said mildly. "As long as it gets the job done."

"Of course. I'll get right on it."

"Thanks." Turning, Tempest crossed back over to the table. For a moment, she stood next to Twilight, looking over her shoulder at the book the pony was reading.

Then she shrugged out of an armored shoe, and gently put a hoof around the lavender pony's shoulders.

"How are you doing, Twilight?"

"Urghh! Not great. I really wish we'd known about Nightmare Moon sooner. I don't know nearly as much as I should about that era. I've always been so focused on magic in my studies. I haven't spent as much time in the history section. I don't have a good feel for who the really reliable historical sources are. I'm having to go through them myself, one by one."

"Well..." Starlight suggested, "why not ask the best source of all? Princess Celestia herself?"

Twilight shook her head. "You saw how she looked whenever Nightmare Moon's name came up. It's an unpleasant memory for her, even after all this time. I don't think we should hassle her with it, if we can avoid it. We just need to keep at this, find out all we can -- from history, from legend, whatever! Anything we uncover might help us."

"How about this one, Twilight?" Trixie said, plopping an open book in front of her.

Twilight glanced at it. "No, that's Equistotle again -- he's no help. He had a bad habit of writing down anything that seemed like a good idea at the time and calling it the truth."

She stared around forlornly at the piles of books and scrolls. "There's just so much to get through here, even just to get started! You know, what we really need is an expert on all this. That would save so much time."

"Oh, who needs an expert, Twilight? When you have the Grrreat and Powerful Trrrixie!" The blue pony lofted her hooves dramatically. "And Trixie shall not rest until we've researched everything there is to know!" So saying, she grabbed another book, and began paging through it intently.

Grimacing, Twilight pulled over another book herself, and dove back in.

And Tempest remained seated beside her, hoof around her shoulders, keeping her company. "Don't worry, Twilight," she whispered soothingly. "You'll get there, I know you will. And I'll do everything I can to help -- and to keep you safe." She scowled angrily. "I'll even go up against Nightmare Moon myself if I have to, to buy you the time you need."

"Thanks," Twilight said, in a small voice. Then her head dropped back onto her hooves, and she stared at the book in front of her, anxious and sad.

Across the room, Sunset Shimmer was seated by herself next to a smaller worktable, staring morosely at a table-top model of the storage loop project. The shimmering ring of stored magic cycled round and round through the focus gem without any appreciable loss. That, and being able to split off a chosen stream of magic, were Sunset's main contributions to the group thus far... and that was really starting to bother her.

She looked up as Starlight came over, clipboard in hoof, to note down readings from the measuring devices placed around the loop. "Fat lot of good I've done so far," Sunset muttered. "I've helped with our project a little bit, but really? It's nothing all of you couldn't have done on your own."

"Every little bit helps," Starlight replied. "The more of us working on this, the better our chances, right?"

"But... over on the other side of the mirror," Sunset objected, "we were able to do so much more! And I still can't explain why!"

Starlight shrugged. "It's new magic. You make it work first, then you figure out how to explain it. We'll get there!"

"Maybe," Sunset allowed. She thumped the table with a hoof -- gently, so as not to disturb the model. "You know, I honestly thought I was doing the right thing, asking Celestia to clue you all in about what we were facing, about Nightmare Moon's return? Now... I'm not so sure."

"It is better that we know. At least I think so!" Starlight smiled sympathetically. "We all understand how important this is now."

"But look what it's done to Twilight!" Sunset gestured with a hoof. "She used to be the brightest, happiest one in our group. And now look at her! I've driven her right back into her shell, right back into the books!"

"Yeah." Starlight herself turned to look at Twilight, and nodded. "That worries me, too." Then she shrugged. "But... it's not really my place to say, right? Twilight's in charge of the group. And like Celestia said, there are dark times ahead. It's better for us to be prepared..." She looked at Twilight again. "... isn't it?"

"Well," Sunset said, standing up. "If I can do nothing else here, I'm not going to let her keep doing this to herself."

"Oh? What are you going to do?" Starlight asked, surprised.

Sunset smiled wryly. "Looks like I'm going to teach Twilight the lesson that Celestia tried to teach me..."

Trotting over to the main worktable, she waited patiently until Twilight had reached the end of a chapter.

Then she reached across and gently hoofed the book shut.

"Sunset!"

"Time to take a break, Twilight," she said firmly. "You've been at this for hours."

"I can't take a break! There's too much to get through here!"

"And it'll be there later," Sunset replied. "But as a very wise pony once told me, there's more to this than study. You need to get out more, spend time with others. You need to stay open to what they can show you and teach you..."

"Sunset, we don't have time for that right now!"

Twilight started to reach for the book again.

And Sunset rammed a hoof down on it, keeping it shut.

"Twilight!" she said angrily, "don't do this to yourself! You're starting to look just like me! Just like I did before..." She grimaced. "Before I lost it, and ran off through the mirror. Don't make the same mistake I did!" Sunset's face fell. "Just... don't be me, okay?" she whispered sadly.

After a moment, Twilight put out a hoof to touch hers. "Okay. So what should I do?"

Sunset blinked in surprise. Then she shrugged.

"Honestly? I'm not sure. Hadn't really thought it out this far ahead. But... spend some time with friends. I mean, other than us. You need to get away from the books, away from all this for a while. Didn't you say you had some friends here at the School, before we all came along?"

"Well, yeah... I did. Other students in class." Twilight looked uneasy. "I... kind of lost touch with them. We weren't all that close to begin with."

"Okay..." Sunset said. "So, how about inviting them to get together again? Like for donuts or something? And you can introduce me to them. That'd help me -- pretty much everyone I knew from class has grown up and moved on by now."

"All right," Twilight said. "I'd like that!"

And she finally smiled again. And Sunset smiled back, relieved.

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

Twilight looked across the table in Pony Joe's, at the three fillies sitting opposite her.

"Before, when we were all studying together," she said, " I know I wasn't really a very good friend to all of you. And what with the work I've been doing lately for Princess Celestia, I've kind of... let our friendship fall by the wayside. And that's my fault. Since then, I've learned how valuable it is to have good friends who'll be there for you. And how much I wasn't like that for all of you. And I just wanted to say, for any pain I might have caused you... I'm really sorry!"

The three ponies looked at each other... and then laughed out loud.

"Oh, come on, Twilight!" Minuette finally said. "Sure, it stung a little when you stopped hanging around with us, but it's not like we weren't used to that from you."

"Yeah." Twinkleshine nodded. "We didn't take it personally. Like you said, Princess Celestia's kept you busy, and nopony could hold that against you."

"But it's great spending time with you again," Lemon Hearts said, "And your new friends, too." She smiled at Tempest, who was sitting quietly to Twilight's left. And at Starlight and Trixie, who were sitting next to Tempest. Starlight kept covertly kicking Trixie under the table, whenever she looked about to butt into the conversation. The point of all this was to let Twilight do the talking...

Then Lemon Hearts looked at Sunset, sitting on Twilight's right. "So, uh... who's the new pony?"

"Hi, I'm Sunset Shimmer." Sunset shook hooves with her, and exchanged nods with the others. "I, uh... just transferred in. It's nice to meet all of you!"

"Hey, Sunset!" Minuette chirped. "Great to meet you too! Any ol' friend of Twilight's, and all that!"

"Wasn't there a Sunset here a few years ago?" Twinkleshine asked. "She was a student of Celestia's, too, right?"

"Eeeyeah," Sunset said, scuffing her mane nervously. "No relation..."

"Oh, by the way!" Minuette went on, "Lyra asked me to say she would have been here, but she's helping Bon Bon... with an 'extra credit assignment'," she added, with hoof-quotes.

The three ponies exchanged knowing grins. "More like an excuse for the two of them to hang out together," Twinkleshine said.

"No kidding!" Lemon Hearts nodded. "You know, Bon Bon's been talking about moving to Ponyville when she graduates? If she does, I'll betcha Lyra goes with her!"

They all laughed at that.

"So!" Minuette asked Twilight, "what's Princess Celestia got ya working on? I mean, if it's not some kinda super-duper state secret or somethin'?"

"Well..." Twilight began uneasily.

"Twilight!" Sunset scolded her. "Don't be modest! We've been working on an in-depth research study," she explained breezily. "Following up on sources for the old legend of the Mare in the Moon."

Twilight stared at her, shocked and worried. But the three fillies just grinned in amusement.

"That old pony's tale?" Twinkleshine said, amazed.

"Yeah!" Lemon Hearts said. "Like, no one around here takes that seriously. 'Cept around Nightmare Night of course. Oh sure, folks living in the smaller villages have their superstitions and all, but we're a little more sophisticated here in Canterlot!"

"I'll bet it runs to a lot of reading, huh?" Minuette gave Twilight a wink. "No wonder Celestia picked you for the job!"

"Uhm... yeah," Twilight agreed, relaxing a little. "You should see the number of books and scrolls I've been plowing through lately. Which... normally would be great. Except I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by it all. It's hard to know where to begin!"

"You know what you should do?" Twinkleshine said. "Talk to Moondancer."

"Moondancer?" Twilight blinked. "Really?"

"Yeah!" Minuette beamed. "The Mare in the Moon is kinda her pet subject. She doesn't say anything about it, of course. But she's always got a book, or scroll, or something with her about the Mare. And she's got this cool journal with a crescent moon on the cover, that she writes in sometimes. And then there's her mark, too!"

"Her mark..." Twilight blinked. Then her eyes went wide. "The Moon and the Stars! Omigosh, I never really noticed that before..."

"Yeah! I mean, right?" Minuette giggled. "Real oogy-boogy, huh? Always wanted to ask her about it, like how she got it and all. But, well..." She shrugged. "Moondancer's always been kinda private about personal stuff like that. Didn't wanna be nosey."

Lemon Hearts nodded. "But if there's anypony around here who'd be an expert on the Mare legend, it'd be Moondancer!"

"O-kay..." Twilight exchanged a look with Sunset. Who shrugged, with an I told you so look on her face. "Do you know where we might find her?"

"Well..." Twinkleshine looked troubled. "Honestly, we haven't seen all that much of her lately ourselves. She pretty much keeps to herself. When she's not in class she's usually studying over at the School library, or at the Archives."

"Or holed up in her dorm room," Lemon Hearts said. "With her books."

Minuette giggled. "Just like you, huh, Twilight?"

Twilight was shaking her head, amazed at how little attention she'd paid to one of her closest friends.

"Exactly like me..."

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

Knocking at Moondancer's dorm room door produced nothing, and a quick search of the School library and the Canterlot public library likewise came up empty. Which left only one alternative...

"Okay," Trixie summed it up. "We're looking for one pony, who likes books... somewhere in the Canterlot Archives. No problem! This should only take what, a few weeks at most?"

"Trixie..." Starlight scolded. Then she looked at Twilight. "Should we split up? We can cover more ground that way."

"Uh huh." Twilight pointed. "You two head that way, check out the research annex. Tempest and I will scout around the open stacks here in front. And Sunset, you check the reference stacks." Twilight thought about it for a moment. "And try the museum wing too, just in case. There's some nice quiet spots for reading there. I've used it before myself."

"You got it, Twilight," Sunset replied. "Wanna meet back here in, let's say an hour? Unless we come across her sooner?"

"Sounds like a plan!"

The ponies all set off, scouting around through the various stacks, the study carrels, the workrooms and reading halls.

Sunset, on a hunch, headed for the museum first. She wandered among its exhibits and display cases, checking alcoves, nooks, any other quiet spots that might be good for reading.

Luckily, her hunch paid off. After only about twenty minutes of searching she came across a pony, sitting on a bench in front of a picture window, through which the spires and minarets of the Royal Palace loomed tall and massive. The filly was beige, with red-and-blue striped hair, and a moon-and-stars cutie mark.

And had her snout buried in a book.

Like I need any more hints, Sunset thought, grinning.

"Hi! It's Moondancer, right?"

The pony didn't even look up from her book. "Um... yeah?"

"Nice to meet you! I'm Sunset Shimmer."

"Oh." A page turned in the pony's pale-pink magic field.

Sunset chewed her lip. This was going to be harder than she'd thought.

She carefully sat down on the bench herself. "Look, I know I'm disturbing you, and I'm sorry about that, but it's real important. A mutual friend is looking for you... Twilight Sparkle?"

"Twilight?" That got Moondancer to look up from her book. "Really?"

"Really. She's been trying to reconnect with her old friends from class. We found Minuette and the others, but we missed you. If you have a minute, Twilight really wanted to chat with you."

"Me? Woah!" Moondancer looked doubtful, then hopeful...

... and then rounded on Sunset, loudly and angrily:

"This had better not be some kind of prank! All right?"

Sunset drew back, her eyes wide. "Absolutely not. Twilight asked me to find you. That's the truth of it."

"Oh. Sorry." Moondancer hunched unhappily. "It's just... some ponies think it's funny, yanking my chain like that..."

"Well, I'm not one of 'em, okay?" Sunset smiled. "C'mon, let's go see if we can find Twilight now. I mean, library, right? Probably be harder than finding you!"

Moondancer smiled at that. "Yeah, probably. Knowing Twilight."

She packed up her carryall, put it on, and then followed along with Sunset, back toward the open stacks.

Looking around, Sunset sighed in relief when she spotted Twilight and Tempest standing near the information desk. "Twilight!" she called, in as loud a whisper as she dared in the library hush. "I found her!"

"Moondancer!" Twilight replied, and came over to meet them. "I'm so glad we found you. How've you been?"

"Uh, fine... thanks." Moondancer smiled. "What's this all about? Sunset said you wanted to chat?"

"Oh, you have no idea! Look, this is really important. We're working on a project for Princess Celestia, and we could really use your help. And from talking with the others, it sounds like this would be right up your alley!"

"Really? Well, sure!" Moondancer beamed. "I'd be glad to help, Twilight! What is it?"

"We need to find out everything we can about the Mare in the Moon."

Moondancer's eyes went wide.

"The Mare in the Moon?" Twilight repeated, puzzled. "Nightmare Moon?"

"No..." Moondancer whispered, shaking her head, her eyes brimming with tears. "No... no no no no no!"

She covered her face with her hooves.

"Uaaauugh!"

Then she whirled about, the carryall flying off her back, and bolted away, crying in heartbroken anguish.

Leaving Twilight, Sunset, and Tempest standing in wordless shock as they watched her run off.

"Well..." Tempest finally said. "That was... unexpected."

"What the...?" Sunset whispered. "What the hay did we just do?"

"Oh great!" Twilight's hoof thunked into her head. "Stupid, stupid, stupid! I try to reach out to an old friend, and what do I do? Right off the bat, I ask about something personal and private, without even thinking about how it might affect her. Why am I such a horrible friend?"

"Don't beat yourself up," Sunset said. "At least you have the excuse of having known her before. Look, you two wait here, in case Starlight or Trixie come back. I'll go find Moondancer, try to find out what got her so upset."

She set off, frowning. "Because I'm tired of ruining everypony's day around here..."

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

Sunset rapidly quartered the museum again, and then the reference wing beyond. But there was no sign of Moondancer anywhere.

Pausing for a moment, Sunset considered the problem. If I wanted to hide somewhere no one would find me, she thought, where would I go?

And she immediately had an idea. After all, I can't be the only student who knows about the Restricted Section, right?

Happily, the spell she'd used before to gain access still worked. In the main room, surrounded by artifacts and forbidden texts and black books...

... she found one beige pony, lying on the floor, her face buried in her forehooves, sobbing.

"Moondancer?"

"Go away!" Moondancer yelled. "Just go away! All of you... just go away and stop hurting me! Why can't you all just go away and leave me alone!"

Uneasily, Sunset wandered over and sat down beside her.

"I'm sorry," Sunset said. "I'm sorry I barged in and made such a mess of things. I'm sorry I've hurt you so much, because clearly I have. And I'm sorry... because I just didn't know how badly this would affect you."

Moondancer said nothing. She just lay there, silently.

Sunset shrugged. "I'm new here. I know that's no excuse, but it's the truth. I never meant to hurt you. I just wish I knew why it hurt so much, so I could do something about it..."

So saying, she put a comforting hoof on Moondancer's shoulder...

And unexpectedly, in a blinding flash of recollection, she got a lifetime's worth of misunderstanding and loneliness, right between the eyes...

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

Sunset gradually came to. She found herself lying on the floor, staring dazedly up at the ceiling. With Moondancer looking down at her, worried.

"Are you okay? You just... yelled, and then passed out."

Sunset put a hoof to her forehead.

"Ow. You know what? Some days I actually believe that understanding is better than a kick in the head? And then there's days like this..."

She hauled herself up, and stared at Moondancer.

She writes to Nightmare Moon, Sunset thought, as a way of coping. Because she feels she can't make friends. And making friends matters to her. Not like Twilight, who's perfectly happy just reading for reading's sake. For Moondancer, having friends means everything. Studying is just a way of shutting out the pain, the loneliness...

"I am so sorry, Moondancer," Sunset said. "I get it now. Don't ask me how, I just do! I get how much Nightmare Moon means to you. I know how much it hurts when ponies make fun of you for that, about things that mean so much to you. And I promise, Moondancer, we are not here to make fun of you. None of us are! We really, honestly want your help."

Cautiously, she put a hoof on Moondancer's shoulder. This time, it landed without incident.

"We need an expert on Nightmare Moon. I can't tell you why, that's for Twilight to say. But... I can't think of any pony who'd be better for this than you. And if you want, we won't say a thing to anypony else, about you and Nightmare Moon. We'll keep it private, just amongst us, okay? Look, just... trust us. Please? Give us a chance, let us show you we're worth it. Let us be the friends that you've always wanted and needed. Okay?"

Moondancer stared at her, utterly astonished. Then she nodded.

"Okay."

Sunset stared back at her, just as surprised.

"Wow. Two for two. Uhh... I've really got to start planning these things further ahead. Okay, look, let's go find Twilight and the others. I'll explain everything, and we'll... kinda take it from there. All right?"

"All right." Moondancer managed a small smile. "And thanks, Sunset."

"Hey, not a problem." Sunset returned the smile. And then she glanced around at the darkened shelves, filled with even darker tomes.

"You know, we really should get out of here. If the Princess caught me down here again, it would be really difficult to explain..."

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

Starlight and Trixie had just come back from searching the research annex when Sunset and Moondancer returned. The group found a quiet corner where they could have some privacy, Sunset made introductions all round, and then briefly explained things.

And Twilight wordlessly pulled Moondancer into a long, warm hug.

"I'm sorry, Moondancer," she finally whispered. "I didn't know how much being friends with me meant to you. And I'm sorry if I hurt you by not paying attention, and by just appearing out of the blue like this, asking you about stuff that's personal to you. That's not the only reason I'm here, you know."

She drew back, looking Moondancer in the eyes.

"You're my friend, Moondancer. That's what matters! If you can help us learn more about Nightmare Moon, that would be a great help, but even if you couldn't... you'd still be my friend. All right?"

Moondancer wiped her eyes.

"You don't know how much I've needed to hear you say that, Twilight."

"I do," Sunset said quietly, with feeling.

"And," Moondancer went on, "if I really can help you, Twilight, I want to help. What do you need to know?"

"Thanks, Moondancer! But let's not discuss it here," Twilight said. "This is all really kinda sorta top secret, you know? Let's go back to our workroom at the School. We can put all our cards on the table there."

"Wow... you know, I always wondered what that tower room of yours was like."

"I'll give you a guided tour," Twilight said. "How about that?"

"It'd be awesome! Oh, wait a sec... there's a couple books back at my dorm room that'd be good to start with. I mean, if you really want the whole picture. Let me go grab those. I'll meet you all over there. Is that okay?"

"That's perfect! We'll see you there, Moondancer."

"And here's your carryall," Starlight said, offering it. "I think Trixie and I found all the books that were in it. They kinda spilled all over the place."

"Thanks!" Moondancer smiled around at them, almost too choked up for words. "I just want you all to know, this is the best day of my life!"

She turned and set off at once, heading for the School's dorm wing. And Twilight and Sunset watched her go.

"You know, Twilight," Sunset said, "I used to think that being The Best was all that really mattered."

"And now?"

"Helping other ponies be their best... yeah, that's definitely better!"

III: A Great and Powerful Summoning

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Moondancer burst through the door of her dorm room, and flung off her carryall. Then she hauled out the low trunk from under the bed, and rapidly sifted through the books she kept locked inside it.

"Predictions and Prophecies," she muttered, "that's important. And Star Swirl's monograph on The Nightmare and its Influence, uh huh. Oh, and the original text of the Legend of the Two Sisters, gotta show Twilight that!"

She paused, looking at the treasure-trove of books and scrolls. And then laughed. "Maybe it'd just be simpler to bring the whole trunk? Gotta ask if they can help me haul it over!"

The thought was so unusual, it brought her to an abrupt halt. Suddenly, she had a group of friends that she could ask to do something like that.

A lifetime of caution, of fear, momentarily reasserted itself.

Can I really trust them, she thought, to care about me? To look out for me? To stand up for me? Or are they only interested in me so far as I can help with their project?

She considered it for a while. And then shook her head, smiling.

Like Sunset said -- I gotta give them a chance, let them prove that they're the friends I've always wanted.

Returning her attention to the trunk, she picked out a few other choice volumes to bring with her, then turned to her carryall, to repack its pockets.

And froze.

Hurriedly, she hoofed through the books in its pockets, not finding the one that really mattered.

It's missing, she thought. My journal! All my private thoughts, all my notes to Nightmare Moon! It must have fallen out, back at the Archives!

Her blood ran cold.

What if the librarians find it, and reshelve it somewhere, thinking it's just some random reference book? I might never see it again! Or worse, what if somepony reads it, and then wants to know why I'm writing all these private messages to Nightmare Moon?

Dropping the carryall, she hurried to the door, yanked it open...

... and blinked, startled.

There was a pony standing there, a white, wavy-maned colt. His forehoof was lifted, as if to knock on the door.

"Oh, hi!" he said. "Sorry! Are you Moondancer?"

"Um... yeah?"

"Oh, great! Look, I found this book. It had your name inside the cover, so I figured I'd see if you'd lost it."

"My journal!" Moondancer grabbed it. "Oh! Thanks so much!"

"No problem!" he said. "Hey, just curious, is it a diary of some kind? Don't worry, I didn't read it, apart from looking at the first page or two to figure out what it was. Wouldn't want you to think I'm being nosey, or anything."

"It's okay. And yeah, it's... kinda personal."

"Thought so. Hey, mind if I ask you a question?"

"No, what?"

"Do you really believe in Nightmare Moon? Do you believe she actually exists?"

Moondancer blinked. It never rains..., she thought.

"Well," she offered diplomatically, "there are several competing theories about that... but I suppose every legend starts from some sort of truth, doesn't it?"

"Woah, that is so deep, so wise! You know, I have these friends... and they'd really love to hear anything you can tell them about her."

Moondancer looked around, suddenly aware of the numerous black-cloaked ponies closing in on both of them. One was holding a coil of rope, another a sack.

"Um... hello?" she asked, frightened. "You're not friends of Twilight Sparkle, are you?"

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

Twilight nervously tapped a hoof on the worktable. She'd long ago given up even trying to pretend she was reading the book in front of her.

"How long's it been?" she asked.

"Since the last time you asked?" Tempest replied. "Three minutes." Then she called over her shoulder. "Grubber! Any sign of her yet?"

"Not yet, boss!" he called from his post by the window, looking down into the open quad below. "It's getting dark down there, though. Won't be able to see much longer."

"You think maybe she changed her mind?" Spike asked. "Decided she didn't want to come?"

Sunset shook her head. "A pony who just got her most heartfelt wish? Not likely, take it from me!"

"Maybe we should have gone with her?" Twilight fretted. "Offered to help bring back... whatever it was she went to get? But then, maybe that would have seemed like we were being pushy? Like we were crowding her, hurrying her? Ohhh! I'm trying to be a good friend here! Or... am I just obsessing about things again?"

"A little of both, maybe," Starlight agreed.

"Relax, Twilight," Tempest advised. "Something may have come up, which she had to take care of. She'll be along."

"Well! Even assuming she does show up," Trixie said, waving a hoof dismissively, not even looking up from her book, "what's she going to be able to tell us, anyways?"

"Trixie!" Starlight objected.

"I'm serious!" Trixie poked the book with a hooftip. "We've been at this for hours ourselves, and haven't even made a dent yet! She's a student, just like us! How's she going to be able to tell us anything about Nightmare Moon that we couldn't find out just as well on our own?"

"Because she's thought about this," Sunset said, "read about it, cared about it, her entire life." She looked at Twilight. "That's what we really need here. We don't need just facts, we need experience. We need somepony who owns this, who cares about it more than anything else. And Moondancer's like that, trust me! In fact --"

She came to a halt, a concerned look on her face.

"-- now that I think about it... there is nothing else that she'd need to take care of first."

"And just how do you know that?" Trixie asked. "You only just met her!"

Sunset shrugged. Now was as good a time as any to bring it up. "When I crossed over through the mirror, I picked up this weird empathy talent. I touch someone, and bam, I see things about them: memories, feelings, sometimes stuff they're not even aware of themselves!"

Trixie stared, with a worried look on her face.

"Ooooh, that sounds... freaky..."

"You have no idea!" Sunset said. "It doesn't always work, and it seems to depend on really strong emotion. But when it does, it's like being hit over the head with another pony's entire soul -- not pleasant!"

"My sympathies," Trixie remarked dryly.

Sunset rolled her eyes, then looked around at the others.

"Moondancer should have been here by now. We need to go check on her."

"Right," Twilight nodded. "Let's go! And remember, everypony, last one out locks up! Right, Tempest?"

"Nice to see you're finally learning," Tempest said. "Grubber! You and Spike wait here, in case Moondancer does show up. Let her know we'll be back soon."

"Got it, boss!"

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

When they reached Moondancer's room, they found the door was ajar, the lights off inside. Motioning the others back, Tempest went in first, shouldering open the door with her armor, glaring about warily. When she motioned curtly for the rest of them, they followed her in nervously.

"Wow, this place is a mess," Starlight said, looking around.

"This? This is nothing," Twilight said sheepishly. "You should see my room when Spike's been busy running errands and hasn't had time to sweep up. Stacks of books, dirty dishes, crumpled scroll paper all over the floor... eeyeah, this is about normal for me."

"Still..." Tempest gave the disarray a practiced eye. "There are signs of a struggle. Books knocked over, an overturned chair. And this --" She pointed a hoof at the carryall lying on the floor.

Twilight quickly checked its contents. "These look like the books she was going to bring! Okay, something must have happened to her. Somepony came here and grabbed her. But why?"

"And who?" Starlight asked. "And how do we figure out where they've taken her?"

"We could ask around the dorm," Sunset said quickly. "See if anyone saw anything?"

"Right, let's get on it!" Starlight headed for the door, followed by others -- or rather, she realized, most of the others. "Trixie?"

The showpony had turned Moondancer's desk chair upright, and settled herself comfortably on it. With her cloak wrapped around her, a pensive look on her face, she sat staring intently into the distance, silent and brooding.

Starlight motioned to the door. "Aren't you coming with us? What are you doing?"

Trixie looked at her, as if in surprise. "Why, Starlight! I'm figuring out where Moondancer is, of course!"

Tempest eyed her sourly. "Oh, really?"

Trixie frowned back at her. Then she leapt to her hooves, adopting her stage voice. "Oh, ye of little faith! Watch in awe, as the Grrreat and Powerful Trrrixie ferrets out the exact place that Moondancer has been taken!"

Spreading her forehooves grandly, she stepped to the center of the room, and came to a halt. Folding her cloak about her, her eyes narrowed, she made a great show of glancing about the room, as if looking for something.

"Trixie..." Starlight said, "we really don't have time for --"

"Shush!" Trixie demanded, with a wave of a hoof. Then she resumed her search.

Tempest rolled her eyes. "This is getting us nowhere!"

Trixie gave her an arch look. "Au contraire! The Great Trixie's powers of observation and deduction are not to be scoffed at! In fact, the Great and Powerful Trixie has already put her hoof on the key to the entire mystery... literally!"

When the others stared at her blankly, she rolled her eyes, and dropped back to her normal speaking voice.

"Look, this is a pony who doesn't get out much, right? Who isn't all that active, who just sits around all day? Doing nothing but reading books? No offense, Twilight!" she added sweetly. "Soooo... ya wanna tell me why there's a receipt from a sporting-goods store on her floor?"

She pointed. They all stared at the slip of paper sticking out from under her left hoof. Trixie grabbed it up with her magic and passed it to Twilight, who read it over.

"Gloves and Skis..." Twilight said. "This is in Canterlot Heights, near the lower slopes!"

"Well, what are we waiting for?" Sunset said. "Let's get after her!"

Twilight suddenly looked worried.

"Wait... maybe we should ask for help? After all, what if whoever grabbed Moondancer -- gets us, too?"

She looked up at Tempest. Who glanced around at everyone, a stern look on her face. "That's true..." she observed. "You know, the smart thing to do here would be to report this to the Canterlot Guard, tell them what we know, and let them do their job."

She glanced at Twilight with a smirk on her face.

"Which... if I know them, would involve several hours spent determining whether they have proper jurisdiction, filling out the proper forms, coming up with a list of possible suspects, and eventually assigning some junior officer to knock on a few doors, ask a few questions, and call it a day."

She scowled darkly.

"You may have noticed, I'm not big on doing the smart thing. I say we go after Moondancer, find her ourselves." She shrugged. "It's what good friends would do."

"All right!" Sunset said, pumping a fist.

"Hey, I'm in!" Starlight agreed.

"Ha! No pony left behind, eh, bestie?" Trixie nudged Starlight.

Twilight smiled around at her friends, relieved. Then she looked up at Tempest. "Thanks!"

Tempest gave her a sour look. "Don't thank me, Twilight. You were going to do it anyway. I'm just bowing to the inevitable here."

The ponies quickly crowded out through the door, and headed down the main staircase towards the dorm's front entrance.

And Tempest thoughtfully pulled the door shut after them all.

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

When the sack was pulled off her head, Moondancer at first could hardly tell the difference. She was sitting on a reasonably comfortable chair, under a bright overhead light. It left the rest of the large store-room she was in dark and obscure... though not entirely. Squinting a bit, she could just make out shadowy, robed figures gathered around her. A lot of them.

"Uhm... hello?" Moondancer said. "Who are you? Where is this?"

One of the robed figures came forward, carrying a heavy book. The gleam of magic flipped open the book and paged rapidly through it. And then the figure lofted a hoof and spoke, somberly and reverently.

"And the prophet of the Mark shall know not whom she addresses, nor the place of the Gathering..."

The robed figures nodded in agreement.

"Okay, this isn't funny," Moondancer said. "What do you all want?"

Pages turned. "The wise one shall not know those whom she has gathered to herself," the figure read, "in the name of She Who Shall Return."

"Look, is this is about my journal? It's just stuff I wrote to myself, okay? Just private stuff. It's not actually messages to Nightmare Moon!"

More pages flipped. "Ah! Here it is. She shall deny the knowing, the telling, and the seeing -- but she has wisdom beyond measure, and shall guide the righteous out of the darkness!"

The crowd of robed figures nodded and murmured approvingly.

Moondancer stared in astonishment at the figure before her, still standing there, one forehoof lifted proudly, as if expecting a benediction, an anointment...

Then Moondancer shook her head, utterly disgusted.

"Seriously?" she asked. "You shove a bag over my head, haul me all the way down here... just to quote Hoofstradamus at me?"

"Uh, sorry?" The robed figure asked, nonplussed.

Moondancer pointed at the book. "Hoofstradamus? The Prophecies, right? I bet it's even the abridged version. The uncut edition you wouldn't be able to hold up like that without a pretty solid table underneath it!"

"But, but... the Master foretold so much... predicted so much!"

"Yeah! By being deliberately rambling and vague! You could flip through that book and find something halfway true about anything. I mean, come on!" Glancing around, she noticed a lectern nearby, which had a few tomes on its lower shelf. "Well! At least you've got Hippasia!" she said, nodding. "She was a real historian. Though she kind of lost it at the end, so you can't trust her later scrolls, right after the Banishing."

The robed figure was staring from Moondancer to the book in her hooves, uncomfortably. Moondancer eyed her pityingly.

"I'll bet you haven't even read Hippasia, have you?"

"Well..." the figure admitted. "She is kind of long and dry. We've only gotten partway through..."

"Figures. Look, take my advice, if you're going to start up some kind of weird cult around Nightmare Moon... at least make sure you're starting with some reliable sources, huh?"

The robed figures looked at each other, then back at Moondancer.

"Maybe..." the leader said hesitantly, "you could give us some pointers?"

Moondancer shrugged.

"Um, I guess... what else you got around here?"

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

Sometime later, at a transom window high on the rear wall of the store-room, two nervous pony faces edged into view. It was Starlight and Trixie. They rapidly took in the candle-lit scene before them.

Outside, in the alley behind the sporting-goods store, Tempest Shadow was reared up, one forehoof braced against the wall, holding up both ponies with her other hoof. She grunted in annoyance. "You want to make it quick up there?" she whispered. "This isn't as easy as it looks!"

"Sorry, Tempest!" Starlight whispered back. "You can lower us down now."

Tempest did. Then the five of them withdrew a short distance down the alley. "Well? What did you see?" Sunset asked.

"Not much," Trixie said, "A candle-lit room, full of ponies wearing dark robes."

"And Moondancer's there," Starlight added, "sitting on a chair right in the middle of them. They've got books open, all around her... it's like some kind of arcane ritual!"

"Omigosh!" Sunset said. "Some kind of cult? Like maybe one worshipping Nightmare Moon? Just like out of the history books!"

Twilight looked puzzled. "Yeah... straight out of the history books. I mean, didn't the Nightmare cult pretty much die out in the early third century?"

"Well this one," Starlight said, "looks very much alive. And they've got Moondancer! We've got to get her out of there!"

"There's too many to rush them... it'd be too risky." Tempest rapidly considered options. "We should sneak in, try to grab her fast, before they even know we're there."

"Actually..." Trixie said, tapping her chin with a hoof, "Trixie has a much better idea. You know what we've got here?" She giggled, and rubbed her forehooves together. "A ready-made audience!"

"Trixie..." Starlight warned, with a worried look on her face.

"Hear me out!" the showpony said. "The Grrreat and Powerful Trrrixie knows how to read a crowd. And this one is just begging for a show!" She grinned. "All we have to do is figure out how to stage it properly..."

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

"Yeah, okay, there was the Heresy of the Nightmare Shadow," Moondancer allowed. "But that faded out way back in the fourth century, along with most of the other schisms. Most of the standard histories today accept the Monist theory. It only makes sense, right? Why would a good and kind ruler, who was also supposed to be incredibly smart, agree to be taken over by some kind of dark force, huh? Doesn't add up, right?"

The robed figures all nodded. "Right!" one said. "When you put it like that, it's pretty hard to disagree!"

Another tentatively raised a hoof. "But, didn't Cloudmane the Thunderous, in his History of the Nightmare, report an eyewitness account of a bicameral transformation?"

"Him?" Moondancer sniffed, and shook her head. "He's post-Banishment, writing in the late second century! And he based his work on accounts that were already second- or third-hoof to begin with. There's no way he could've given anything like an eyewitness account."

"Woah..." said another robed pony. "You really know your stuff!"

"Yeah!" said a third. "It's amazing how you can keep all this straight so easily."

"You're so authoritative," said a fourth, "so confident, when you get on a roll like that."

"Well..." Moondancer shrugged, smiling sheepishly. "I've been reading and thinking about the Mare most of my life. It's a hobby, I guess." She glanced around at the robed figures. "So... now we've got all that straightened out, any chance you might just... maybe... let me go?"

The roomful of mysterious hooded, cloaked figures all looked utterly heartstricken.

"Aw, do you have to?"

"You've taught us so much!"

"Yeah! I wish all our meetings could be like this. This is cool!"

"Could you at least," said the robed pony holding The Prophecies, "stick around long enough to meet our leader? I just know she'd love to talk with you, ask you questions."

"She really would!" another said. "And speaking of which, shouldn't she be here by now? She's usually so prompt, what's keeping her?"

"She'll be along. Oh, please! Won't you stay until she gets here?"

The robed figures all nodded imploringly.

"Please?... Would you?... It'd mean so much!"

Moondancer looked around at the darkly cowled, shadowy figures, staring at her raptly and beseechingly. On the one hoof, it was surprisingly pleasant, having a completely rapt and attentive audience like this.

On the other hoof, it was downright terrifying...

"Look, I appreciate the attention, I really do. But... I'm not an historian. I just read a lot! This is just a hobby of mine. I'm not the pony you need here..."

"On the contrary!" called a proud, raspy voice. "You are precisely the pony we have sought, to lead us into the grand new future that lies ahead!"

A door had opened across the room, through which a beam of light fell from the front room of the building. Silhouetted in it was a proudly stern figure, cloaked in a robe so black it made everyone else's look brown, and wearing a heavy gold chain necklace.

She swept into the candle-lit room, the door swinging shut behind her. The crowd of robed figures quickly made room, as she stalked unhesitatingly straight through their midst, ending up right in front of Moondancer.

Reaching out a hoof, the new pony casually snatched The Prophecies from its owner. She snapped it open, her magic paging through it with confident authority. Finding what she sought, her robed hoof stabbed down onto the page.

"Here it is: Her wisdom shall summon the Night, and the Night shall reign supreme! You see, my friends? At long last, we have found the key! The pony of the Mark, who shall bring about the return of the imprisoned Queen of the Night -- Nightmare Moon!"

The cloaked ponies looked at each other, uncertainly.

"Um, pardon me for asking," one said, "but are you feeling all right? Your voice sounds really different tonight."

The pony glanced around, then quickly coughed into a hoof. "Hay fever," she said quickly. "It's why I was late tonight. But not too late," she quickly added in a grand tone, "to witness the Great Return itself! For tonight, my friends, tonight we are finally ready. Tonight we shall perform... the Summoning!"

There was a puzzled silence from the crowd.

The black-robed pony looked around at all of them. "Uh, you know? The bit at the end, where there's this incantation, and... oh, for crying out loud. Look, right here!" She showed them a page from the book.

"But... I thought that was a chant that turns hay into gold?" said one of them.

"No, no," said another, "you're thinking of the spell on page 353. This one's a warding spell to drive off flies."

"You're both wrong!" said a third, "it's a cure for halitosis and impacted hoof! I know that for a fact, because my grandmare swears by it, and --"

"Enough!" shouted the leader. They all fell silent. "Foolish ponies!" she went on. "That's what Hoofstradamus wanted you to think! But it is in fact the secret incantation, the very secret incantation, known only to the true elect, that will unlock the prison of Stars, summoning the Mare of Darkness, the Mistress of the Night -- Nightmare Moon!"

"But... wait a minute," Moondancer said. "I thought the Legend foretold the Return would be on the longest day of the thousandth year? We're nowhere near the solstice yet."

The black-cowled figure face-hoofed, then quickly recovered. "Aha!" she snapped. "That was intentional, to throw the nonbelievers off guard, so they wouldn't suspect the truth: that when the pony of the Mark appears, we would be able to summon the Mare ourselves, at any time, catching them completely off guard!"

The robed ponies drew back nervously.

"So... we're actually going to summon Nightmare Moon... now?"

"That's not possible... is it?"

"Look, if we're going to be here late tonight, I'm going to need to get a message to my sitter."

"Hang on a minute," said a more sharp-minded follower. "Didn't Moondancer just say that Hoofstradamus was basically a false prophet? So, that incantation can't possibly work! Uh... right?"

The black-cloaked leader held up a hoof for silence. "Oh, yes it can! Ye ponies of small minds and little faith! But it only will if she reads it! She denies it only so that you would not suspect her true power -- the power of the bearer of the Mark, to summon the One who gave it to her!"

She swung back to Moondancer. "Read it! And summon the Dark Mare, to protect and lead her faithful followers to glory!"

Holding out the book, she pointed imperiously at the page with a hoof...

... and allowed just enough power into her horn so that it lit up her face, inside the hood. It was Trixie, smiling and winking slyly at Moondancer.

Nervously, Moondancer took the book from her. She felt every eye in the room fixed on her as she cleared her throat and then read the words:

Per lux lunae, de Mare redit
Ad lusibus de Noctem aeternum
In littus de tempore...

She glanced around, feeling more than a little silly. "See?" she said. "I told you it was all a bunch of --"

She got no further. A sudden, sourceless gust of wind whipped through the room, snuffing out the candles the cultists had lit, leaving Moondancer once more spotlit in the darkness by the bright light overhead.

Outside, there was a crash of thunder. Brilliant flashes of lightning blazed through the windows.

Then, without warning, the rear door of the room was smashed off its hinges, landing with a thump on the floor.

Framed in the windswept, flickering light outside was a tall, cloaked figure. Its horn was a brilliant sword of blue, actinic light, its shadowy, hooded face obscured by its armored helmet.

The dark pony strode into the room, its every step a floor-shaking armored thump. It came to a halt, gazing around imperiously at the cowering figures all around...

... and then down at the startled beige pony sitting in the chair.

"Aha! There you are! The pony who bears our Mark, who has freed us from our long imprisonment. We are most grateful to thee -- Moondancer!"

"N-n-nightmare Moon?" Moondancer's eyes were wide and staring. This can't be happening, she thought. It's got to be a trick... I can't have just summoned Nightmare Moon! Or... can I?

"You know me?" she whispered to the towering dark figure.

"But of course!" The mare laughed. "We have known thee all thy life, ever since you first received our Mark and were set on the path to our liberation. How could we not know a pony so valued to us, so worthy? And how could we not spring to thy defense, when thou hast need of us?"

Her gaze swept the room again, unpleasantly.

"As for the rest of you... how dare you treat our servant so cavalierly, with such disrespect!" She looked at Moondancer again, her voice turning silkily threatening. "Shall I banish them to the Moon in my stead? As fitting punishment for their discourtesy?"

"Umm... I don't think that'll be necessary," Moondancer said, worried. "Just... make them promise not to do it again."

The dark mare stamped a hoof. "Swear it!" she demanded. "On pain of thy lives! Swear eternal allegiance to she who bears our Mark! Or suffer our undying wrath!"

The robed ponies cowered abjectly, bowing in subservience. And none more so than the black-robed leader, who prostrated herself at the dark mare's hooves. "Queen of the Dark, Empress of Night," she intoned, "look with mercy and lenience on us, your chosen few--"

"You!" The dark mare snarled. A cloaked, armor-clad hoof lifted, pointed at her. "I have had more than enough of you! Strutting about, calling on my name, as and when it suits you! You, who would use my servant as a stepping-stone to power? You, who speaks my name, yet seeks only to rule in my stead? Finally, I shall be free of you!"

Her voice lifted in a triumphant roar, her horn sizzling with power. "Begone from me, wretch! Begone from my dominion, from my world! Thou art banished, eternally! HENCE!"

"AIEEEEE!" The black-clad pony found herself wreathed in swirling, flickering arcs of golden fire. She leapt up, moved to flee, and found herself pinned in place, unable to escape. She flailed her hooves wildly, wailing. One hoof went up, came down...

There was a loud explosion, a cloud of choking smoke. When it had cleared, there was nothing left of her, save the robe and chain, lying on the floor.

The cult members gasped in horror.

"And the same fate," the dark mare warned them, "awaits all who would challenge my absolute authority! Now!" she went on, suddenly dropping into a silky, conversational tone again, "let us see the faces of our chosen few, those who have been selected to serve us. Remove thy cloaks! Stand forth in our presence, under our Night -- unmasked and unafraid!"

The ponies all looked at each other. No one wanted to go first.

The dark pony growled threateningly. "Well? Are you not our true followers? Why do you fear to be seen and known! Have we not sworn to protect those who stand with us? Who act in our name? Or... do you doubt my power? Shall I provide another demonstration?"

Shivering, the ponies quickly began pulling off their robes. One of the first to appear was the white, wavy-haired pony who had come to Moondancer's door. His cutie-mark, she noticed, was three blue snowflakes.

Behind her, there was a gasp.

"Double Diamond?" It was Starlight, pushing back the hood of her robe.

"Starlight!" The white pony smiled in recognition. "I didn't know you were one of us!"

"Well, I'm not, actually, but -- what the hay?"

Other faces were appearing, in the circle of light around Moondancer. And as they did, Starlight was looking from one face to the next, in mounting surprise. "Party Favor? Sugar Belle? And... Night Glider, wasn't it?"

"Hey, Starlight!" Night Glider fluttered her blue-gray wings. "You actually remember us? Cool!"

Next to Starlight, another robed pony shoved back its hood. It was Twilight, and she was looking at Starlight in surprise.

"You know these ponies?"

"Well, uh... yeah! They're all from my hometown, Sire's Hollow!"

"Seriously?" Sunset asked, lowering her own hood. "Just out of curiosity," she added, "is anypony here not from Sire's Hollow?"

A few tentative hooves went up.

"So... Diamond," Starlight asked, "how did you all get here?"

Double Diamond shrugged. "After you and Sunburst left, it just seemed like anypony who was anypony was headed to Canterlot. So a bunch of us pooled our bits and took the train here, to seek a future for ourselves. It's worked out better for some than others. I was able to land this awesome job at Gloves and Skis, and I've been helping out others who find it harder to make ends meet."

"That sounds wonderful, actually," Twilight said, uneasily, "so... how did you all end up in a Nightmare cult?"

"Well..." Diamond looked ashamed. "As Starlight can probably tell you, none of us really felt much sense of purpose to our lives. Even coming here, we just didn't seem to be getting anywhere, each of us on our own."

"But then we ran into this really smart, charismatic pony," Sugar Belle said. "She brought us together, gave us books to read, organized these meetings..."

"Yeah! She gave us a real sense of purpose." Party Favor agreed. "She made us feel like we weren't useless noponies. She made us feel like we had a future, a destiny..."

"Wow..." Starlight said. "Must have been some pony! So... where is she?"

The cultists looked uncomfortably at the crumpled robe and chain lying on the floor.

"I suppose she must be on the Moon by now..."

"Au contraire!" called a voice from the far side of the room. "The Grrreat and Powerful Trrrixie may be down! But she is never out!" Pushing through the crowds, she stalked over to stand next to Starlight, grinning. "Lucky for us we found this other pony's robe in the front closet, along with the others we borrowed."

"But..." Double Diamond said, "if you're still here, then what about --"

He nervously peered up at the looming dark pony, who had been watching them all in tolerant silence. She tossed her head, throwing back her hood...

... it was Tempest, smirking proudly.

"You shouldn't believe everything you're told," she said. "Or even everything you believe."

Moondancer let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "Wow... you're really good at this, Tempest. You even had me convinced!"

Tempest smirked. "I have a knack for improv," she said. "Plus, I had some excellent drama coaches." She exchanged a smile with Sunset... and, reluctantly, with Trixie as well. "Oh, and by the way," she added to the cultists, "sorry about the back door -- I was expecting it to put up more of a fight. We'll fix it up before we leave..."

She came to a halt, realizing they were all staring at her armor, gleaming gold under the spotlight.

"A Royal Guard?" Nightflier gasped.

"Oh, gosh!" Double Diamond's shoulders fell. "I guess this means that we're all under arrest, officer?"

"What?" Tempest blinked. "Oh, the armor. Don't worry, I'm not with the Guard, I just have this on loan from them for now." She lifted an armored hoof and stared at it sourly. "Still not wild about the color. Grubber was right, it is a little too bling for me."

"But..." Sugar Belle winced. "Even so, we're probably still in big trouble... for kidnapping and such, right?"

"Look... about that," Twilight said quickly, "no one's been hurt. And I bet you all realize now that forming an arcane cult and summoning an ancient and powerful evil is not really the safest way of dealing with life issues, right?"

The ponies all willingly nodded.

"So... I think we'd be okay with a solemn promise to find some better way to spend your spare time. If that's okay with you, Moondancer?"

Moondancer nodded readily. "I'm totally fine with that. It was a little frightening at first, but then talking with all of you about my favorite subject... well, that was a lot of fun, actually!"

"Hey, for us, too!" Sugar Belle said. "You know so much!"

"Well, why don't we all get together regularly," Starlight suggested. "For donuts and such, just to chat? I'd love to spend time catching up with all of you. And if any of you still need help making ends meet, maybe we can pool our minds, come up with some way to help?"

"Who are you," Double Diamond said, grinning at her, "and what did you do with the real Starlight Glimmer?" He laughed. "That sounds great to me! How about all of you?"

The rest of the group nodded willingly.

Twilight smiled around at her friends, and the former cultists, relieved everything had turned out all right, that it had all been sorted out so equitably for everyone...

"All right! Stay where you are! And keep your hooves, horns, and wings where we can see them!"

They all turned, and saw the Captain of the Guard marching in through the rear door. He was closely followed by a number of other Guard ponies, who quickly moved to surround and corral the former cultists.

"You ponies are under arrest!" the Captain intoned. "On suspicion of kidnapping, plus assembly in furtherance of a summoning, as well as other prohibited Dark Magic, to be determined at a later date!"

There was a short, tense silence, as the cult ponies looked at each other and at the stern-faced guards.

And then Tempest turned and strolled over to face the Captain, staring at him eye to eye. "I wasn't aware," she said, evenly and assertively, "that it was against the law to gather for a book club discussion..."

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

"Excuse me? But... a book club?"

Princess Celestia sat tall and regal upon the Sun Throne. Before her, surrounded by the guards, were Twilight and her friends, plus the group of ponies from the cult. The Princess was wearing a look of bemused skepticism as she spoke.

Tempest nodded. "Yes, Your Highness," she said, with solemn imperturbability. "These ponies merely organized a book club, with a particular focus on ancient myths and legends. They invited Moondancer to lead a presentation and discussion, given her experience with the subject. All quite harmless, actually."

"Highness!" the Guard Captain snapped, "we'd received reports earlier of an apparent kidnapping. And of mysterious figures seen skulking about the streets in dark robes... who were known to congregate at the storefront in question." He gave Tempest a challenging glare.

Which she returned, an eyebrow raised.

"You're never heard," she asked mildly, "of live-action role-playing? Dressing up, to get into the spirit of things? And of initiation ceremonies?" She shrugged, as if it was perfectly obvious. "The group was merely giving its newest member a traditional hazing. As far as I know, Moondancer herself had no complaints about it. Am I right?"

Surprised, Moondancer nervously bowed to Celestia. "It was... actually kind of fun, Your Majesty!"

"Indeed?" Celestia didn't yet seem convinced.

"Really!" The Guard Captain played what he thought was his winning card. "What about the bangs and flashes we observed? The shouting and screaming?"

"Oh! Those were merely special effects," Trixie put in smugly. "Stage magic! Mostly courtesy of my Great and Powerful assistant here!" She patted Starlight on the back, making her blush. "She's coming along so nicely!"

The Captain was having none of it. "And," he persisted, "when we followed the students into the establishment, to ensure their safety, we observed several ponies reading from arcane texts that are clearly on the restricted list, so we..."

"Excuse me?" Celestia's gaze swung to him, disapprovingly. "When you followed them in?"

"Uhm... yes, Your Highness! Because of the importance of --"

"Ahem!" Celestia silenced him with a glare. "Chief Steward!"

"Highness?" The wigged pony came to attention.

"Owing to the lateness of the hour, would you see to it that any of our young book club members here who desire it, are given suitable accommodation for the evening as guests of the Palace? And Tempest, will you please escort Twilight and the others back to your own rooms? Including Moondancer of course, assuming that she wishes to go with you?"

"Absolutely!" Moondancer nodded eagerly. "Thank you, Your Highness!"

"You are most welcome, my little pony. Off with you all, now! I need to have a small discussion," she said, a sharp edge in her tone, "with my Guard Captain here. About paying attention to orders..."

Tempest knew well enough not to push things any further. Barely glancing at the suddenly very nervous Captain, she bowed her head subserviently to the Throne. Then she gathered up her friends with a quick nod of her head. "You heard the Princess!" she said briskly. "Let's not impose upon her wise and generous understanding any further, hmm?"

With amused and relieved smiles, the other five ponies followed her out of the Audience Hall.

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

"Woah!" Moondancer said, admiring the lofty, glass-walled, library-like atmosphere of Twilight's tower room. "This place is... impressive."

"Don't worry, it gets everyone like that!" Starlight assured her.

"And now that you're working with us," Twilight added, "you're welcome to come here, to read or study, whenever you want."

"Thanks!" Moondancer turned in a slow circle, taking it all in. And then her gaze fell on the tabletop model of the storage loop.

"Oh, wow! Are you building a harmonic lattice?"

"Pardon?" Twilight followed her over to the table, where Moondancer eyed the model excitedly.

"A harmonic lattice!" she said, matter-of-factly. "It's an application of crystalline harmonics. You use the implicit resonance of an array of tuned crystals to establish a geometric standing wave, which is much more stable than the field created by a single gem alone." She pointed with a hoof. "See? If you had tuned crystals here, here, and here, then you could easily amplify the field's power a thousandfold, without any loss of stability!"

"Wait a second," Sunset said. "I thought the whole point here was to try to split off streams of magic, to perform spellwork? But what you're saying is, there's a way to make the standing wave of the loop even stronger?"

Moondancer nodded. "And the effect extends beyond the lattice itself. It creates a field of stability, of matter, energy, and magic! You just need enough gems to define the space of application. Oh, and power, of course -- buckets of it!"

"Where'd you read something like that?" Twilight asked, astonished. "I've been looking through every book on magic and gem enchantment I can get my hooves on, and I haven't come across anything of the sort!"

"Oh, it's in a research text on gemology," Moondancer replied, a little sheepishly. "I picked it up last month, on a whim, just to give it a read. I probably still have it kicking around in my room, if you want it?"

"Oh, yeah!" Twilight said. "Sounds like that could really help us!"

"No kidding!" Starlight said, staring at the model. "We've been looking at this project completely backwards! It's not a storage loop to power spells... it's a field generator! A harmonic field generator!"

"Like... the Elements of Harmony?" Twilight said, looking astonished.

"Oh! You've read about them, too?" Moondancer asked. "They were what Princess Celestia used to imprison Nightmare Moon. Here, there's a book that describes them. It's one of the ones I went to my room to get."

Shrugging out of her carryall, she dug into a pocket and pulled out a thin red volume, which she gave to Twilight.

"The Elements of Harmony: A Reference Guide," Twilight read. Then she looked up at Moondancer, in amazement. "Why did it take me so long to realize what a good friend you are?" she asked. "I mean, you've got the bookworm thing even worse than I do! And that's saying something!"

Moondancer smiled back, and shrugged.

"All I ever needed was a good friend I could share it with."

"Well, now you have five of them!" Sunset said, hugging her. "Right, everypony?"

Twilight willingly hugged Moondancer too, and so did the others. Even Tempest uneasily put a forehoof around the group, and joined in the moment.

Wiping her eyes, Moondancer looked around at all of them... the friends she'd longed for, all her life.

"So," she said. "anyone want to help me move a trunkload of books?"

The Pony Who Danced With the Moon

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The pony sat at the desk, in her dorm room. It was early in the morning, just before dawn. There was a book on the desk before her, a blue journal with a crescent moon on its cover. She flipped it open to a random page, read a few of the entries, thoughtful and silent.

"Nightmare Moon..." Trixie whispered.

And she felt, like the touch of a ghost, an armored hoof settling gently onto her shoulder.

"Thou summoned me?" the Nightmare asked, a hint of cold humor in her tone.

Trixie sighed, angrily.

"I had friends... well, followers! Ponies who listened to me, believed in me, did what I told them. To them, I was Great and Powerful! Well, sort of. And you made me give all that up. After I worked so hard for it!"

"Merely a stepping stone," the nightmare chuckled dismissively. "One small step on the path to true greatness." She leaned closer. Hot, sulfurous breath whispered at Trixie's ear. "What matters is, you have settled any doubt concerning you, amongst the others -- Twilight and her friends. They will trust you now, believe you now. You are in the right place, my little pony, ready to act. All is in readiness! You should be proud of what you have accomplished!"

Trixie was silent for a while.

Then she tapped the pages in front of her. "Moondancer had a journal, just like Sunset. And she wrote to you, again and again, even though she never got answers back. She just kept writing."

"What need have you, Trixie, for such things?" The nightmare snorted. "You can talk to me directly now. You need not wait for night, for dreams..."

"And then you make me forget again!" Trixie grumbled. "So I never know whether what I do is my own idea... or yours."

"But the two should be one and the same, correct? You serve me, I protect and guide you. Unless you're saying that's not what you want any longer?" There was a sharp edge in her voice.

"No..." Trixie said sadly. "I do want to be Great and Powerful, just like you promised. I just... I don't know..."

Trixie sighed, and stared at the journal again. She idly flipped through its pages, reading the words, the many messages. The quiet, lonely voice, struggling against its own self-doubt...

"She cares about you so much," Trixie said. "You matter to her."

Nightmare Moon sniffed. "In name only. To her I am merely an imaginary friend, a substitute for a mother she felt unable to talk to directly, an outlet for her private thoughts..."

Trixie stared out through the window, at the first rays of sunlight verging over the distant mountains. "And she believes that you care about her. That you watch over her. That you'd protect her, if she was ever frightened or in danger."

There was silence behind her. Then, suddenly, a different voice spoke.

"Is that what this is all about, my diligent student? You worry we do not care about thee? You worry that, having attained our dominion, we should forget about thee? Thou should know better than that by now!"

Trixie turned to look. "Princess Luna?"

The dark-blue alicorn smiled. "Who else would it be?"

"But... you shouldn't be here! What if Nightmare Moon finds out..."

"Silly little pony!" Luna replied. "I am Nightmare Moon. We are, and have always been, one and the same. During my Night, when she is awake, I slumber in her thoughts. During the Day, she sleeps... and dreams of me."

The hoof on Trixie's shoulder squeezed gently, caringly.

"Have no fear, Trixie Luna Moon. When we are set free, we shall never forget the one who aided us. The one that we shall set above all others, as archmage of our dominion -- our Great and Powerful student." She leaned closer, nuzzling Trixie's mane. "Just remember, Trixie: never any fear...

... and never any doubt!"

Trixie knew enough not to reach out, as dearly as she wanted to. It would shatter the illusion, as it always did.

She just smiled up at the Princess...

... with tears streaming down her cheeks.

The End

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No infringement is intended. This story is a work of fan fiction, written by fans for fans of the series.