Luna is pregnant with a colt sired when she was still Nightmare Moon. What will come of this?
Luna is pregnant with a colt. A colt sired when she was still Nightmare Moon. One thousand years later, the foal is born into a life of secrecy.
But the father, the troubled stallion who stood by the princess' side even as she turned into the dark queen, did not perish in the intervening millennium since Nightmare Moon's defeat. Alone, but not entirely forgotten, the sire of an age past begins a new life in Ponyville, unaware of the existence of his foal.
But starting a new live is never easy, especially when your past invades the present.
The voice of the younger recruit pulled Streamrider’s train of thought back to reality. Not entirely sure of what he had said, the elder guard asked his comrade to repeat himself.
“Oh. I was just wondering when this shift ended,” the pegasus beside him answered. “My hooves are quite worn-out, and I think I could use a good rest.”
Russet’s tone annoyed the more experienced soldier, but he responded as kindly as he could. “Er… The clock tower should signal the end of the seventh hour any minute n–”
Before he could finish, the first stroke of the clock resounded through the stone hallways of Canterlot Castle. The younger recruit wasted no time in rushing to the guard barracks. His partner trailed him at a more leisurely pace.
As soon as the two were out of their golden armor, Russet wandered outside of the barracks to a small garden nestled beside one of the castle’s interior walls. As he watched the night sky, he barely noticed Streamrider trot up alongside him.
The elder guard’s voice echoed in the small exterior space. “You okay?”
He was greatly enjoying the night’s ambiance. The crisp air, the gently oscillating chirps of crickets, a muted breeze accompanied by the rustling leaves of a few trees, all filled his mind with an almost forceful calmness.
Streamrider glanced to his side, looking at his new companion. Despite the peaceful environment, Russet still seemed to hold an air of deep-seated discontent which puzzled him.
In a detached voice Russet mumbled, “Yah. There’s just so much to be done. When it’s all finally finished, though, I know this will have been worth it.”
Before Streamrider had a chance to respond, a horrid retching sound shot through the cold night air.
Luna galloped in the direction of a castle balcony, flinging doors open ahead of her and slamming them after she passed through. Her vision was a blur as she sped past the pictures and cloth hangings which decorated the castle walls. Luna hardly knew where she was going; something subconscious was directing as she made her way through the winding castle halls in search of some outdoor area. The night air, she hoped, would calm her upset stomach.
The princess burst through a pair of low-set double doors and skidded to a halt just before the railing of a small exterior balcony. Luna took a deep breath, but even the crisp night air could not prevent the inevitable. With an ear-splitting retch, Luna spewed her uncompleted meal over the edge of the parapet. The fine mist of partially digested celery and stomach acid fell a full eleven stories before sprinkling a pair of pegasus guard recruits that were lounging in the small garden below the balcony.
Each raised his head just in time to glimpse a dark figure retreating over the edge of the railing far above them.
“Did somepony just…?”
“I – I think so.”
“Just as soon as you thought you’d seen it all,” quipped the elder guard.
Turning and motioning for Russet to do the same, Streamrider reentered the castle halls. When he sensed that the younger recruit had yet to follow him, he directed his gaze backwards. The pegasus recruit was attempting, in vain, to remove a thin fiber of celery from his left wing.
“Euhhgh. This had better turn out to be worth it all.”
Luna meandered towards her quarters. As she passed by the evenly spaced dark blue wall hangings that identified her portion of the castle she was lost in thought. Even after losing her dinner, she was still not feeling well. This was the third time this week that she had become so suddenly sick. That, coupled with a nearly insatiable hunger, made for a very unhappy co-ruler of Equestria.
The alicorn’s thoughts were interrupted as gray pegasus pony collided with her. A sizable stack of packages hit the ground and scattered as they bounced of the thin rug that covered the floor. The carrier of the packages followed her cargo, landing face-down among the small golden starbursts that were delicately sewn into the fabric underneath her.
“Now look what you’ve done, Derpy!” the mailmare muttered to herself. “It’s bad enough that you’re lost in this place.” The pegasus looked up, words cut short as her misaligned amber eyes recognized her ruler. The pony stuttered as she rose to her feet. “Oh, Princess Luna! I– I– Lemme just get out of…”
One hoof sticking out behind her, Ditzy Doo struggled to push the packages towards the outer edge of the hallway. Head held precariously close to the castle floor, she tripped over her own hooves and tumbled to the cold castle floor once again. Ditzy began to tear up.
Stepping closer to watery bubble-flanked mare, Luna leaned in and reassured, “No. No. Do not cry. I was not looking where I was going. It is not your fault.” Extending a foreleg to lift the lowered chin of the pegasus, she continued softly, “Now. What’s your name, and where were you trying to go?”
“D– D– Ditzy Doo, your highness,” the mare replied through restrained sobs, “But most ponies just call me Derpy. I’m looking for the guard barracks; I have these packages to deliver.”
“My,” Luna answered, “you are quite lost.” Looking to the side, and speaking in a brighter tone, Luna offered, “Let me help you with those.”
Summoning some magic, the princess levitated the strewn packages from the castle floor and arranged them neatly in a stack beside Ditzy Doo. Luna smiled, remembering Twilight Sparkle’s lessons.
Crooked eyes still averted, Ditzy responded in a volume just barely audible, “Thank you, Princess.”
Collecting the boxes in her forelegs and balancing them precariously on her back, the mailmare turned to continue her search – this time floorbound.
“Why don’t you let me show you?” Luna asked as the pegasus continued down the hall away from her. “There are not any guards in this part of the castle to help you, and you are more likely to be arrested by a patrol than to receive their help at this hour.”
Turning once again to face her princess, Ditzy, head still lowered, said, “I couldn’t possibly ask you... I’m sure I can find my way on my own.”
“You need not worry. I would quite enjoy a simple conversation on the way.”
Luna shifted her weight and, yawning, opened her eyes. The glow of the nearby fireplace cast its amber rays throughout the cramped castle room, leaving behind fleeting voids which danced across the damp and barren stone walls.
The moon princess could sense that the midnight hour had just passed; she was going to miss the lowering of the moon. Celestia would be worried.
Luna scanned the underground room, her vision still a haze from her recent crying. Seeing nopony, the alicorn let out a breath and forced herself to relax; her concealing wards had held through her sleep.
Luna raised her right wing from the surface of the pillow that she was laying on and peered through the small gap. Her side was barely lit by the room’s sole source of light, but she could still distinguish the dark outline of the colt nestled safely beside it.
The princess smiled in between fresh tears.
The happenings of the past months all made sense now: the hunger, the queasiness, the headaches; she had been pregnant.
A cold rain fell in sheets outside the iron-ribbed windows of the castle that served as the cult’s base of operations. Tantalus, though he was wearing a well-sealed heavy cloak, was soaked and shivering lightly.
The castle gates were illuminated briefly by a spark of plasma that split the night sky into shards. The hairlines vanished as quickly as they had appeared, seemingly forced away by the powerful winds which were whipping the upper atmosphere into a turmoil. Their source of illumination departed, the iron gates retreated into dark silhouettes.
Tantalus pushed aside one of the large reinforced wooden doors at the castle’s entrance and stepped inside. Shaking off as much water as he could, he lifted the heavy cloak from his back, his horn glowing with a dull azure light.
The stallion’s green eyes flicked around the interior of the entrance hall. Several young acolytes, one of them a pegasus, were busy repairing a shattered window at the far end of the hall. By the looks of it, the storm had thrown a stray branch through it. Tantalus trotted past the group, his eyes momentarily locking with the pegasus stallion.
As Tantalus continued towards his destination, he milled over the pegasus’s story. He had heard countless ones that mirrored that particular acolyte’s. However, only the story of one now alicorn drove Tantalus onward: Princess Luna’s.
Since her rebellion, he had reassured himself repeatedly that he was fighting for the common pony; and each time he had done so he had been lying to himself. Whether it be to the pegasus that he had just passed or to the fresh initiates who ferried messages between the castle’s rooms, Tantalus’ devotion had waned. The stallion increasingly yearned for one thing he could now never possess: the embrace of Luna’ wings. Nightmare Moon had long ago taken that pleasure away.
Still, Tantalus remained loyal to the dark queen; he owed that much to Luna, at least.
Tantalus’ ascended a wide spiral staircase, his hoofsteps echoing off the surrounding stone walls. Calling forth a small amount of magic, Tantalus muffled the noisy clops. Breathing instinctively slowed, the stallion reached the top of the staircase, and, without knocking, pushed aside the door in front of him.
The interior of the room stood in stark contrast to the undecorated stone hallway that Tantalus had just exited. A sizable four-poster bed occupied the center of the space, its covers a dark blue barely distinguishable from black. Small starbursts were stitched across its surface in golden thread. Cloth strips of the same design hung in the spaces between the stained glass windows that filled the walls.
The room would have been sufficiently lit by ambient moonlight, but an orange glow emanated from the fireplace in the corner of the room opposite Tantalus. The light cast by the flame colored the room uncharacteristically; specular highlights flickered on the dark gemstones that were inlaid into the room’s furniture, forming an array which looked like a thousand tiny suns.
It was through one of the stained glass windows that Nightmare Moon now stared, her gaze almost unblinking and thoughts distant.
The stallion halted as her powerful voice split the chilled air.
“Is that you, Tantalus?” Nightmare Moon’s gaze turned from the stormy night sky and fell on the stallion.
“Celestia has marshaled her forces,” Tantalus said, “They’ll be here within the week.”
The dark queen smiled. “We are ready, no?”
“For the most part, yes; our preparations are complete.”
Nightmare Moon turned and took a step towards him. “Then why have you come?”
Looking over his shoulder, Tantalus levitated a thin, well-warn brown box from his back. Nightmare Moon’s eyebrows rose slightly in recognition.
As a broad grin overtook his face, Tantalus offered, “Would your grace be interested in a game of chess?”
Nightmare Moon was playing the game he wanted. Relying on his queen’s intellect as much as her drained state, Tantalus was picking her moves for her.
He watched in feigned horror as his mistress slaughtered the remaining pieces under his control.
As the game ended, the unicorn scooted back his chair and rose to his hooves. As the reverberations of from the grinding of wood on stone subsided, the stallion bowed his head, intoned a quick, “Thank you, milady,” and turned to exit the room.
As his hoof pushed against the reinforced door to the staircase, Nightmare Moon rose.
In a near whisper she asked, “Tantalus?”
He turned his head. It took significant willpower to suppress the ear-to-ear grin that part of him demanded occupy his face. “Yes, milady?”
“The next time we play, play your best. Do not grant me false victory.”
Tantalus deflated; his bolstered chest relaxed and his high-held head sunk towards the ground. Had he really been that obvious? Had she been aware of his plot the whole time?
Ears folded back and eyes focused on the ground, Tantalus said, “Yes, milady,” and again turned to leave the room.
The stallion’s ears perked up as his head swiveled to look at the towering mare.
“Just… one more thing…”
The slowly breathing outline of the colt moved suddenly against the amber glow of the fire. A wide eye, iris as if carved from malachite, materialized against the small pony’s sapphire coat. The colt blinked once and fixated his gaze on the teal eyes of his mother. After a moment his mouth opened to draw in a yawn, a small squeak escaping as the gasp tapered to a close.
Luna could barely discern the small wing on the colt’s gently oscillating side. She would not have guessed that her foal would be anything but another alicorn, but the small stub of a horn on the head of all newborn casters was apparent in its absence.
This, perhaps, was the sole thing which boded well for the colt’s future. Unrecognizable as the foal of an alicorn, he had a chance, if only a fleeting one, of leaving behind his unconventional heritage.
Another wave of exhaustion assailed Luna.
“Rest now, my Starshade,” she whispered to the small form that lay against her side. As she spoke, her voice was barely audible above the crackling of the fire.
Luna trotted to the castle’s public hall. Her hoofsteps were light as she tried to avoid making any sound. As soon as Luna eyed the throne room’s interior, she spotted Celestia. The sisters’ eyes met, and the elder rose to her hooves.
As Luna walked slowly inside, Celestia spoke.
“Everypony has left the room.” It was neither a request nor a command, but a simple statement of a fact that was moments from being true. Guards, servants, and nobles collided with one another as the hall emptied.
With her magic, Celestia closed the doors that separated the throne room from the castle’s public hall. She retained her composure until the closing ‘click’ had stopped echoing through the stone room.
“Luna, are you all right?” The sun princess’s voice was steady, but her eyes betrayed anxiety.
Luna looked up into her sister’s eyes and spoke her lie. “I made a… miscalculation with a spell. I… I was knocked unconscious. I only awoke just now.”
“Luna,” Celestia countered, “I scried a dozen times. You were nowhere to be found.” Celestia’s head was cocked to the side. She tapped a hoof in impatience.
“I do not doubt that,” Luna returned, “But, you see, it was a spell designed to deter scrying. I can only assume that it succeeded.”
“You were neither in your wing of the castle, the library, or any of the laboratories.”
Luna shifted her rear legs and looked back to the ground. “Sis, I was trying to hide myself; I did not want to attract attention.”
“Why?” Celestia pursued.
Luna fixated on a patch of floor to her side, doing her best to feign embarrassment, and did not answer.
Celestia’s eyes widened as a soft “oh” escaped her mouth. This time, it was her turn to break eye contact. “I’m sorry, Luna. I shouldn’t have pressed you.” Letting out a restrained sigh, Celesta relaxed. “I’m just glad you’re safe.”
Luna nodded and approached even closer to Celestia, unfurling her wings expectantly.
As Celestia embraced her, Luna whispered, “I’m so sorry.”
In her mind, she continued, So sorry for lying. So sorry for hiding. But I can’t let you know about Starshade – not yet, at least.
Releasing Luna and stepping back, Celestia addressed her sister in a more formal tone. “I don’t know how long you were out for, but you don’t look well. Why don’t you let me summon the doctor and see if she can do anything for you? I can handle the pack of nobles that are going to come rushing in the instant I reopen those doors in the meantime.” The sun princess nodded her head towards the closed doors.
“I think all I need is some rest, ‘Tia,” insisted Luna.
Celestia smiled. “Okay. Just try to stay out of trouble.”
The younger princess trotted towards a wooden door along the room’s western wall. Just as she was about to push aside the door, Celestia added, “Oh. And try to eat something. You are looking pretty thin.”
Luna nodded and, opening the door, scurried out before her sister had any more chance to press the issue.
Twilight Sparkle looked up from the book she was reading. She glanced at the baby dragon on the other side of the room. He had also turned his head towards the source of the noise.
Grimacing, Spike said, “Ouch. Bet that one hurt somepony,” and, without skipping a beat, the returned his attention to the shelf that he had been organizing. Twilight’s number one assistant had an important date that night.
Twilight’s curiosity and concern, however, had been peaked. “Hey Spike?”
Spike did not look away from his task as he mumbled, “Yah?”
“Can you watch the library for a second? I’m going to go check on that noise; it sounded pretty bad and somepony might need help.”
In a vacant tone, Spike answered, “Sure.”
Twilight descended the library’s staircase and pushed open the candle-inscribed exterior door. She blinked several times as the reflection from the white walls of the buildings just outside blinded her.
Twilight squinted as she looked down the road that ran in front of the library. The source of the commotion was evident: An overturned apple cart lay several meters away, one of its wheels still spinning slowly. Just beside it, Applejack was standing angrily over a grey mare that Twilight recognized as Ponyville’s mailpony.
“Can’t you even tell where you’re goin’? Now I’m gunna have to pick up all these apples. And half of ‘em are prolly ruined, too. And I hope to Celestia this cart ain’t broken; it’ll run me forty bits just ta get it movin’ again.”
Ditzy Doo was attempting, unsuccessfully, squeeze in a few words in between Applejack’s. Rising to her hooves, the grey mare tried to skirt past the irate farmpony, but Applejack adjusted her position to block her. Ditzy planted her haunches on the ground and turned her head to fetch something from one of the saddlebags on her back. Twilight recognized the star-inscribed seal on the roll of parchment which the mailmare extracted; whatever it was, it was from Princess Luna herself.
Applejack had barely noticed the scroll. Extending a foreleg, the farmpony launched into a long-winded criticism of the mailmare’s inconsistent delivery schedule. As Ditzy’s wall-eyed gaze began to tear over, Twilight stealthily advanced to the scene. Raising a hoof and placing it on Applejack’s shoulder, she waited for her orange friend to stop talking.
Applejack halted mid-sentence and turned her head towards Twilight. “What’s up, sugarcube? Is somthin’ wrong?” She did not sound pleased.
“Well, you are giving this pony a pretty hard time,” answered Twilight. “Since it doesn’t look like anypony is hurt, why don’t you let – uh…” Twilight Sparkle turned to Ditzy and, smiling, said, “I’m sorry. I don’t seem to remember your name.”
“Ditzy Doo,” the gray mailmare responded unsteadily.
Applejack huffed. “Everypony just calls her Derpy. I’m sure ya can see why.”
Twilight Sparkle glared at her friend. After a moment of silence she continued, “Why don’t you let Ditzy say what she has to say? She has a letter from Luna, and I’m sure this crash was just an accident.”
“Well of course it was an accident, sugarcube,” interjected Applejack, “but my apples are all bruised now and I think my cart’s broke. This isn’t the first time Derpy’s crashed into some unsuspectin’ somepony. Somethin’s gotta be done.”
Twilight cut off Applejack with another tap on the shoulder and a sidelong glance of disapproval. The unicorn looked directly at Ditzy and, reaching out a hoof, encouraged, “Go ahead.”
“I’m really sorry, Applejack. I thought I had another meter or two before I hit you.” The gray mare shook her mane. “I don’t know what went wrong.” Ditzy extracted a half-full coinpurse from her saddlebags and continued, “I have the bits to pay you for the damage, but Princess Luna told me to deliver this letter really fast.”
“Well why didn’t ya just say so?” Applejack said. “If the Princess sent ya to do a speedy delivery, then don’t let me get in yer way. After yer done, why don’t ya just stop on by Sweet Apple Acres an’ we can get this all sorted out.”
“That sounds like a great idea,” Twilight chimed through an overzealous smile. “Why don’t you head off now, Ditzy? I’ll round up a few ponies to help Applejack and I right the cart and collect these apples.”
Ditzy nodded and took wing. Applejack and Twilight watched as the navigationally challenged mare wove her way through the streets to the edge of town, nearly causing another collision before she vanished around a tight corner.
“How did a pony like that get a job as a mailmare?” asked Applejack in a resigned, almost rhetorical tone. “And what the hay do bubbles have to do with any of it?”
Twilight Sparkle chuckled. “I’m sure it all makes sense to her. Now, let me get these apples into a pile so we can sort out the good ones.”
Fluttershy quietly chewed her daffodil sandwich, eyeing the apple that lay beside the empty plate with some reluctance. The mare stopped chewing and swallowed the bite of daffodil and bread in her mouth. For a moment, she savored the crisp, almost-bitter taste of the white and yellow flower.
Looking back at the untouched apple, the mare picked up the stem of the fruit in her teeth and stepped away from the table. Leaving her sandwich on the plate, she trotted to the far corner of her cottage and sat down across just from Angel, who was busily nibbling on a bit of carrot. Leaning her head down, she carefully placed the apple just within the rabbit’s reach.
The furry creature eyed the fruit enviously; apples were his favorite food. Fluttershy watched as Angel sniffed the red fruit. All at once, he dove at the apple, squeaking. Fluttershy smiled, she simply loved watching animals eat – or do anything, for that matter.
Lost in thought, Fluttershy almost missed the sound of soft knocking at her cottage door.
I usually don’t get visitors at this time of day. Oh, I hope nopony’s pet is hurt.
Rushing to her hooves, she called that she would be at the door shortly. Glancing back at Angel, who was sitting contentedly beside a few slobbery scraps of apple, Fluttershy opened the door.
Rainbow Dash sat calmly just outside the threshold of the cottage, her wings folded loosely at her side. The expert flyer was eyeing the pink-maned pony with an expression of nonchalance which looked almost forced.
Fluttershy paused briefly before saying, “Hello. Uh, do you need anything?”
“Not really,” Dash answered. She looked away from Fluttershy and began idly inspecting one of her forehooves. “I was just wondering if you were doing anything cool – or if you wouldn’t mind watching me practice a few new tricks.”
“Well…” Fluttershy responded reluctantly as she tipped her head towards the ground and averted her gaze, “I was just eating lunch, but I – I suppose I could watch you for a little while, if that’s okay?”
“Yah. That’s cool. Why don’t you just follow me?” The blue pegasus gestured somewhere in the direction of the Everfree forest. “I’ve got an awesome spot right at the edge of the forest that’s already all staged out and stuff.”
“Okay,” Fluttershy mumbled as she glanced back at her unfinished daffodil sandwich, which was still lying, now abandoned, on her small eating table.
The yellow mare turned back around, forced a smile, and followed her friend out of the cottage.
Fluttershy walked slowly back to her cottage. She had spent much more time helping Rainbow Dash than “a little while” could possibly have implied.
Something seemed a bit off as the mare approached her cottage door. Fluttershy could not place the feeling’s source with any degree of precision, but the cautious pegasus nonetheless opened the door slowly, muscles tensed and ready to react at a moment’s notice. Still standing in the threshold of the door, Fluttershy scanned the cottage interior for any sign of disturbance. As far as she could tell, there was none.
Fluttershy stepped forward and let the wooden door close behind her. Glancing back, she saw a silent Pinkie Pie sitting just in front of the door.
Facing forwards, Fluttershy continued trotting towards the daffodil sandwich on the table. As the realization of Pinkie’s invasion hit her, the pegasus jumped instinctively, head rotating to fixate on the still unmoving pink mare.
“I’m sorry. Did I scare you?” Pinkie Pie said.
“Oh… no,” replied Fluttershy, still visibly shaking. “It’s alright.”
“That’s just great ‘cause I was trying the be real quiet so I wouldn’t. But now that you know I’m here, I can finally tell you!”
“Uh… Tell me wha–”
“That Derpy came by with a letter for you, silly,” interrupted Pinkie.
“A… A letter? What was it about?” Fluttershy asked before adding, “If you know, that is.”
“Luna wants you to do something special.”
“How… how do you know that?”
“It was obvious, silly. I recognized the seal on the letter, and Derpy was acting so weird – said it had to be delivered only to you. Isn’t that just so great! When she told me that she was looking for you, and that she had a letter, and when I recognized it was from Luna, I just had to come and congratulate you! I was thinking about throwing you a ‘you-just-got-a-secret-letter-from-Luna party’, but I was out of letter-shaped balloons. And you can’t do a letter party without the right balloons, so I just waited for you here.”
“Oh… How long have you been waiting here?”
“About six hours.”
“Pinkie, I was only gone for two.”
“I know, silly,” chirped the pink mare. Continuing in a more dejected tone, the party pony said, “Well, I’m sorry I couldn’t throw you a party. See you later!”
Pinkie Pie rose to her hooves and, pulling open the door with her teeth, bounded out of the cottage, oscillating up and down as she bounced away to wherever it was that she went after ambushing unsuspecting ponies.
A letter? From Luna?
Fluttershy could not imagine what Luna was writing to her about; they had not met on good terms during the previous Nightmare Night. She also wondered why the princess had not used Celestia and Twilight Sparkle to relay the message. Why send Ditzy all the way from Canterlot? Unless, Fluttershy realized, the alicorn had an animal problem that she did not want Celestia to know about. The yellow mare tensed.
What if Luna accidently hurt Philomena and now she need my help to make sure that she is okay? I couldn’t get away with birdnapping Celestia’s pet after what happened last time. Oh, I don’t know if this is alright.
Fluttershy realized that she was shaking again.
Just calm down, Fluttershy. It’s going to be alright. Just go down to the mail office and pick up the letter from Ditzy. It’s probably nothing, maybe she just wants to apologize for Nightmare Night. …Four months afterwards. …And with a letter to be delivered in pony. …That Celestia wasn’t supposed to know about. …Right.
Pushing aside the building’s thick wooden door, Fluttershy entered the Ponyville offices of the Equestrian National Postal Service.
Though it was only three hours past noon, the interior of the space was lit dimly. The dank air that filled the room made Fluttershy uncomfortable. Diffuse light from clouded glass windows fell on the assorted boxes which were stacked along the inside wall. To Fluttershy, the office looked more like a warehouse than a place of business.
A bell sat on a small wooden desk near the front of the cramped space. Ditzy Doo was nowhere to be seen, so Fluttershy approached the bell slowly. The metal implement was pockmarked with spots of rust and hung lopsided on its support.
Unsure as to whether the device might crumble under her touch, the mare gently tapped its top. A dull ring sounded, resulting almost immediately in the sound hurried shuffling from behind a closed door at the back of the room.
Soon, the door opened and Ditzy Doo’s head appeared. The wall-eyed mare looked confusedly about the room, her misaligned gaze eventually fixating on Fluttershy.
“Are you Fluttershy?” asked Ditzy as she trotted to the small table.
“Y – Yes. I was told you had a letter for me?”
“Of course. I’ve got it right here. It’s from Princess Luna herself; she told me to deliver it just to you.”
The mailmare proudly fetched the letter from her saddlebags and placed it in front of Fluttershy, smiling intently.
“Thank you,” said Fluttershy. “Do you mind if I read it here?”
“Not at all,” Ditzy answered, “But I am still wondering why Luna wanted it delivered just to you.”
“Well, if it’s not something too important, I promise I’ll tell you,” offered Fluttershy before she picked up the letter with her teeth and backed up to sit on a sturdy looking palette.
Holding the parchment roll in her hooves, Fluttershy gently tore away the dark blue ribbon that held it closed. As the fiber tore, the mare felt a slight tingling of energy pass through her teeth, as if some enchantment had dissipated.
Unrolling the scroll, Fluttershy eyed Ditzy nervously before reading the message to herself.
I require your presence at the Canterlot castle as soon as possible to discuss an offer of extended employment. Though we have not yet met each other formally, and our brief interaction during the Nightmare Night festivities went less than perfectly, I hope that such an offer is appropriate to make.
Your caring actions and humble demeanor have been made known to me primarily through the praise which my sister, Celestia, has given them. I require an individual possessing such a gentle and kind disposition, and of the several ponies of which I thought you are undoubtedly the most genuine.
Such employment would last for the span of several months – and perhaps even longer than a full year. You would be required to lodge in Canterlot, but would of course be permitted to bring along whatever is necessary to keep you happy and comfortable. Furthermore, you would most certainly have sufficient spare time to tend to any of your current obligations which could be transferred to your Canterlot residence.
As I am sure is already evident, this is a matter of great importance and requires a degree of secrecy. Please let me assure you, however, that what you would do for me is for the best – and will certainly mean very much to me, and, by extension, to my sister.
~ Princess Luna
Fluttershy’s brow was furrowed as she completed the letter. While she was touched that Celestia had complimented her kindness, she was unsure why Luna was looking for that particular trait.
Ditzy Doo was beginning to lean in towards Fluttershy, her eyes squinting as she tried to read the hoofwritten text.
Fluttershy instinctively withdrew the letter from Ditzy’s view. “I’m so sorry, but I don’t think Luna would want you to read this.”
“Oh,” Ditzy said in a defeated tone as she leaned back and turned her head away, “I’m sorry that I looked. Is everything okay?”
“Y – Yes. I think so,” Fluttershy answered. “But I’m going to have to leave for Canterlot. Would you mind holding any more mail for me here until I return?”
“No problem,” Ditzy said, nodding.
“Okay. Thank you very much for getting this to me, Ditzy. Do I owe you anything?”
The mailmare shook her head vigorously as she spoke. “No. Luna paid me a lot already.”
Tantalus opened his mouth and gasped for a breath. As the stale air of the subterranean chamber filled his lungs, he felt his legs began to twitch. They hurt, badly. Still in a haze, Tantalus opened his eyes. An enchanted torch cast a pale blue light that dimly illuminated the space. The stone floor, walls, and ceiling were crisscrossed with cracks. Large cobwebs connected the crumbling fissures to one another. Tantalus was shivering violently; it was very cold.
The stallion looked around. He was hanging vertically against a stone wall at the back of the room, opposite the tight hallway which contained the torch. His forelegs were bound in irons, his back hooves prevented from dangling by a short stone outcropping. Three warn straps of leather loosely held his torso to the wall.
Tantalus tried to summon some magic to undo the bonds. As the energy building in his horn reached a useful level, he took a deep breath and released the magic. The top of his head seared with an incredible pain that made him scream.
After a moment, he called out to the empty room, “Is there anypony here? Can you hear me? Where am I? What happened?” Straining against the bonds, he yelled, “Where is Nightmare Moon? What did you do to her?”
There was no response.
Tantalus sighed and glanced around the room again. The glint of metal caught his eye and he grinned. Beneath the torch a large metal key, pockmarked with bits of rust, had fallen on the ground. A cracked loop of blackened leather lay beside it.
The stallion shook his head from side to side. Straining his eyes upward, he was just barely able to see a patch of gold at the edge of his vision. Around his horn was a ring of nullification, a simple circlet of metal with a hollow core that trapped magical energy.
Gritting his teeth, Tantalus focused his thoughts on the band and let his magic flow. Despite intense pain, he smiled as several molten drops of gold ran down the side of his face. The magic was preventing the liquid metal from touching his body, but the heat was still nearly unbearable. Tantalus maintained the flow of energy, steadily melting a small hole in the ring. As soon as a small amount of magic was able to escape, he lifted the band from his horn and dropped it onto the floor.
Reaching out with his magic, he grabbed the key. He opened the locks around his forelegs and, after a few minutes of writhing, loosed the leather straps around his chest and dropped clumsily to the floor.
Levitating the nullification ring, Tantalus once again heated the metal, bending it into a thin circlet which he slipped around his upper left foreleg.
The stallion scanned the room one last time. Finding nothing, he continued in to the hallway beside the enchanted torch. Ascending a set of stairs, the stallion faced a closed iron portcullis. On the opposite side, he saw the ivy-covered ruins of a stone building. The mechanism governing the metal gateway was long rusted away. Tantalus lifted the door with his magic and stepped out of his prison. Beyond the ruins was a mature forest.
The stallion turned his head looked skywards. From the position of the moon, he gathered that it was several hours before midnight.
Magicing together a mesh of leaves and branches and laying the covering over a framework of thicker wooden limbs, Tantalus constructed a makeshift shelter. He collected some moss and twigs into a pile in front of the lean-to and set it on fire. Sighing, he settled down beside the small flame. His mind still trying to work out exactly what had happened before he had woken up, Tantalus drifted off to sleep.
Tantalus was galloping through the halls of the Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters. He had to reach his queen, fast. He had to tell her that Celestia had marshaled the Elements of Harmony. He had to tell her to flee.
The unicorn stallion was far ahead of the cultists that had survived the initial clash with Celestia’s guards. Tantalus, however, did not look back for more than a moment; a unicorn guard was closing on his flank, horn charged with green energy.
The guard cast first. A thin rod of energy shot out like a lance from his horn, striking a counterspell from Tantalus just past the halfway point between them. The rod of energy, deforming into a fluid, began to mushroom out from the Tantalus’ ward, its energy dissipating into the air like so many droplets of water sprayed against a wall.
Tantalus attacked next. Calling forth a sphere of energy, he launched an orb at the guard. In flight the projectile flattened into a horizontal, rotating disk. The circle’s edges sliced through the magical energy left behind by his opponent’s rod, drawing it up and ringing the disk’s perimeter with a serrated edge. Tantalus’ spell slammed against the magical defenses of the guard, shaving through layers of protective energy as its surface melted away.
Duplicating the guard’s initial attack, Tantalus sent forth a thin rod of his azure energy to follow the path of the circular blade. Instead of remaining as a solid entity, the lance split along its central axis into six thinner rods. Two deflected upwards, coming down from above. Another two curved off to each side as the remainder continued directly onward, impacting at the spot which Tantalus’ disk had already weakened. The twin lances smashed their way through the ward, striking the defender squarely in the chest. The guard was knocked backwards a meter, the crushing impact of the bolt throwing him from his hooves.
Tantalus approached him. The guard was breathing raggedly; Tantalus was sure that the impact from the rods had shattered more than a few ribs. The grey-coated stallion looked up and spoke, drops of blood leaking from the corner of his mouth.
Tantalus seized the horn of the defeated unicorn in his magic. With a burst of force, he twisted the horn. The bone snapped near its summit. Fresh blood welled up from the soft core, as the guard screamed in agony. As the yell tapered off, Tantalus cast the severed point to the floor. The stallion would survive, and after several months and some tender treatment, the missing piece would regrow. But for now, the guard would pose no further threat to Tantalus; that was sufficient.
The victor turned and once again accelerated to a gallop. His queen still needed to be warned; every second that he spent disabling guards was another second that Celestia could use to marshal the power of the Elements of Harmony.
Tantalus flung open the wide-set double doors into the great hall of the Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters and skidded to a halt. Celestia and Nightmare Moon stood opposite one another, the gap between them ablaze with liquid fire. He was too late.
Tantalus searched for a way to intervene, but a cocoon of raw energy surrounded the battling sisters. He was inaudible even to himself above the roar of magic. The voices of the two combatants, however, were easy to separate from the raging battle.
Celestia called out first. “Luna! Why are you doing this? Why are you attacking your sister?”
Nightmare Moon retorted, spitting her words with contempt, “I. Am. Not. Your. Little. Luna. Anymore.” Each word was accompanied with a blast of dark purple energy.
The elder sister shied back from the outbursts as they struck her protective wards, taking several unsteady steps backwards. But Tantalus was worried; Celestia was holding back.
“Why do you seek to choke this land in an eternal cloak of night? Do you not see that actions are only destructive? Without the light of day, the forests will wither, Equestria’s crops will perish, and our people will die. How can you not see this?”
“As if this were simply about the neglect of my night sky! What have you told your followers? Or, what have you not told them? This land, it needs a new beginning. It needs a cleansing in the cold of midnight, a cleansing beneath my stars. Do you not see the failure of your realm or are you simply too attached to the notions of a past age? You battle for a cause condemned by the flow of time.”
“I fight because Equestria can be saved. I know this realm is not perfect, but I also know that it can never be.”
It was Celestia’s turn to lash out with her magic. The yellow bolt of energy struck Nightmare Moon’s wards with force. The dark queen to shied backwards and pulled her head in towards her body. As she did so, her gaze momentarily found Tantalus. In the brief second that their eyes connected, Tantalus saw the alicorn’s dragon-like iris shoot wide.
Nightmare Moon blinked and refocused on Celestia.
The sun princess continued, “You always were a studious one, Luna – spending countless months consumed in books of all sorts. Tell me, what writing convinced you that the path of bloodshed would bear fruit? What work drove you to destroy your body in the pursuit of power?”
Nightmare Moon paused for a brief moment before she spoke, her eyes flitting in the direction of Tantalus. “Celestia, you foal. You confused foal. I have not a single pony to credit with my rebirth – except, perhaps, you.”
Tantalus blinked. Nightmare Moon had not mentioned him. Why? What reason could she possibly have to–? He stopped mid-thought. She’s protecting me.
Nightmare Moon stepped forwards slowly. “Was it not you, after all, who pushed me to become my own self? To escape from the shadows of your rule and my status as the second-born ruler of the night? Well, princess, here I am: a queen. It is my turn to direct this land. And when you see the new world that I shall forge for my ponies, you shall see Nightmare Moon as they do!”
Nightmare Moon poured all her remaining energy into one final assault. Her horn aglow with the despair of countless centuries overshadowed and forgotten, she attacked.
Tantalus’ vision blurred. A blast of bright light forced him to shield his eyes. His body tingled from the release of energy as the ancient stained glass windows of the great hall blew outward, showering the combatants which still battled below with a mist of colored glass shards.
Tantalus felt the tingling cease. A triumphant laugh echoed throughout the room, the laugh of Nightmare Moon.
The unicorn slowly lowered the foreleg that had been covering his eyes. His queen towered above Celestia; the sun princess had sunk to the ground.
Nightmare Moon smiled. “Your restraint is commendable, sister. If it is out of fear of harming me, however, you need not continue. If it comes instead from a failing of faith in your cause, then by all means, submit. Submit and I shall permit you to continue living.”
The elder alicorn looked up at her younger sister and spoke with desperation. “I will not submit. If you kill me, there is no turning back. Equestria will waste away under your reign. This land needs both of its rulers upon its thrones. Luna, I need you to rule with me.”
“That is something that shall never come to pass again.”
The younger sister let her magic loose. As the fluid bolt impacted Celestia, the room filled with yet another bright light.
Tantalus lowered his foreleg for a second time. Celestia was on her hooves, horn blazing and eyes filled with a solid white light. The six Elements of Harmony floated above the alicorn’s outstretched wings, orbiting slowly around a point in their center.
Celestia spoke in a voice nearly unrecognizable. “Nightmare Moon, you leave me no choice. Your intent has been made clear. I am sorry that I could not redeem you.”
With those words, the elder alicorn raised her head and flared her wings. A fluid arc lanced out from each of the six jewels above her and combined into a bolt that appeared as a rainbow. The energy crossed the short distance between the two sisters in an instant, striking Nightmare Moon and releasing a prismatic burst of force.
Tantalus was thrown against the castle wall, only by chance avoiding being cast out one of the shattered windows behind him. As he regained his senses, Celestia was standing over him, tears dripping from her magenta eyes.
When the alicorn spoke, however, her voice was steady with resolve. “Tantalus Starshade. It has been so long.”
Tantalus responded, his mind still in a haze. “Wh– what have you done? Where is Nightmare Moon?”
“I banished her. She is imprisoned within the moon.”
“Luna is not dead, then?”
“I do not know. Only time will tell.” The sun princess advanced even closer to Tantalus, her horn now nearly touching the stallion’s head. “Now, tell me, and speak honestly, what role did you play in the corruption of her?”
Tantalus hesitated for a moment. The dark queen had lied to protect him, a lie that Tantalus could not let rest in vain. He drew a breath and began his story. Celestia listened quietly as Tantalus recited the fabricated tale, which, while admitting his clear involvement in the cult’s leadership, detailed nothing of his relationship with Luna or the role he played in her transformation.
As the stallion finished, the alicorn released a sigh. “So it really was me that drove Luna to become Nightmare Moon.”
Celestia’s horn was precariously close to the ground, her eyelids drooping slightly.
Tantalus smiled. “Princess, I believe you and I both had a part to play. While my actions do not exonerate you, realize that Luna acted of her own accord. I fear there is little you might have done to prevent her uprising.”
“You were always as good with words as you were at chess,” admitted Celestia. Drawing herself upright, the alicorn continued as magic began to fill her horn, “Still. You shall pay for your crimes. Perhaps I may find it in my heart one day to show you even more mercy than I will show you now. Tantalus Starshade, when you next awake, the world you shall find will not be the same as the one you now leave.”
Before Tantalus could respond, Celestia had cast the spell.
Tantalus awoke to the warming light of dawn. He was shaking and there were fresh tears in his eyes. Still shocked by the vividness of the memory, he rose unsteadily to his hooves and examined the ruins around him, the words of the sun princess still echoing in his mind.
The world you shall find will not be the same as the one you now leave.
The Great and Powerful Trixie was hungry. Sighing, she stepped off to the side of the road and situated herself under a nearby tree. The leaves shielded the mare somewhat from the rays of the midday sun as she removed the burlap sack slung over her shoulder and unfolded it on the ground. There was not much food left inside, only a few old pieces of bread wrapped in a thin cloth. Trixie unwrapped a piece and nibbled on it. Her stomach protested as the first bite of the stale food made its way down her throat. It did not want this meal again; it wanted something fresh. Trxie shook her head, tore off a large piece, and forced it down. Her stomach wanted something that it could not have.
Trixie looked up from her meal as she heard the sound of hoofsteps on grass. From the direction of the road, a white unicorn mare with a red mane was approaching her.
“Are you okay?” the stranger asked.
Trixie raised her head and closed her eyes, trying to look as composed as possible. “Trixie is just fine.”
The stranger sat down beside her. “You talk like that even after the show?”
“The Great and Powerful Trixie is the Great and Powerful Trixie.”
The mare chuckled. “You certainly don’t look the part right now.”
Trixie looked back to the open sack in front of her and prodded it with a forehoof. “Trixie knows.”
“I bet that you’re wondering who I am,” the stranger commented.
“I’m Sanguine. It’s a pleasure to meet the Great and Powerful Trixie in person.”
Trixie placed the half-eaten loaf of bread back on the ground and rewrapped it. When she looked up she saw that Sanguine had extended a hoof. The blue mare hesitated, forcing a smile.
Sanguine frowned and returned her hoof to her side. “You won’t ever get out of this rut if you aren’t nice to other ponies.”
Trixie scoffed. “Trixie can handle herself.”
“I can see that.”
The blue mare’s head snapped to Sanguine. Bitterly, she demanded, “What do you want?”
“I want to help you,” the white pony answered calmly.
“Because I think you can help me.”
Sanguine paused for a moment. “Let’s call it a research project. We’re both on the way to Canterlot, why don’t I tell you on the way there?” Sanguine pointed to a carriage parked just off the side of the road. “It’s a long walk from here to there, and I’ve got food too.”
Trixie looked back to her knapsack. After a moment, she sighed and wrapped it up with her magic. Standing, she said, “Trixie will hear what you have to say.”
Sanguine stood as well and motioned for Trixie to follower her. As the pair loaded into the back of the carriage, the white mare signaled for the two ponies that were pulling it to continue onwards. Immediately after entering, Trixie slouched against the soft red fabric seats. They matched Sanguine’s mane almost perfectly, but looked warn from years of use.
“So, what is this project of yours?” Trixie asked.
Sanguine smiled. “First, I want to tell you a story.”
The white mare’s expression darkened slightly. “It’s a story from my foalhood. The day I lost my mother.”
It was the middle of a cold winter night in Manehattan. Sanguine had been asleep, nestled into her warm covers like a good little filly. The clouds outside where the thick and puffy white ones, but they looked grey in the midnight light. The filly was very tired; she wanted to go back to sleep.
Downstairs, she heard another noise. Her eyes shot open as her breathing became shallower. The raised voices of her mother and father echoed up the stairwell.
Sanguine slipped out from under the bedclothes and dropped onto the floor. Moving as silently as she could, she opened the door to her room and entered the hallway in front of it. She could hear her mother yelling now. It sounded like it was coming from the home’s entryway.
As she descended the stairs a cold blast of air hit her. The front door was open and her mother was standing just outside the threshold. Her father was yelling now too. Sanguine heard her name, but they had not noticed her yet. The unicorn stallion was pleading with the mare, promising forgiveness. Her mother only shook her head, eyes closed. He was crying, but she was not. The pegasus mare looked almost confident.
“He’s better than you,” Sanguine’s mother explained. “He lives in Canterlot. He has a big home and lots of money. He loves me so much more than you ever have. And he shows it.”
Her father said Sanguine’s name again.
“I don’t care about her. How can you not see that? This is my life; not hers. I have a chance at a future now. He’s so much smarter and he knows other ponies in Canterlot too.” The mare turned around and faced the open air. “I’ve made up my mind.”
Spreading her wings, Sanguine’s mother leapt into the air. The stallion followed her on hoof, galloping as he shouted apologies at the night sky. Sanguine had followed her father out into the snow. It was cold and she was much slower than her father, but she knew that she could change her mother’s mind. If only she could reach her.
The mare rose ever higher until she finally slipped inside the gray clouds and vanished. Sanguine and her father both stopped running. He turned around and, seeing his foal, scooped her up in his hooves and lifted her onto his back. He was mumbling words of comfort, but Sanguine could not make them out over the sounds of her crying.
The stallion carried her back into the warm house and up to her bed. He stayed in her room the whole night, watching her closely. It took Sanguine what felt like hours to finally drift back to sleep. The whole time, she thought of only one thing: If only I were faster. If only I could have flown.
“What do you mean?” Trixie said as she scooted slightly further away from Sanguine.
The other unicorn sighed. “Around two years after that night my father took me to the Summer Sun Celebration. It was in Las Pegasus that year. It was the first time that I saw Princess Celestia. You’ve seen her, right?”
“Yah,” Trixie said, “but everypony has. Pictures of her are in every foal’s schoolbooks.”
“But have you seen her in person?”
“No,” Trixie admitted.
Sanguine pointed to her eyes. “It took me actually seeing her to put two and two together. If she’s an alicorn, why can’t we all be?”
Trixie cocked her head to the side. “I don’t know. That’s just the way it is, I guess.”
“That’s not an answer,” Sanguine scolded. “I have devoted my life to finding out how these princesses came to be. I did well in school. I got into The Canterlot University of Magic. It didn’t take long for me to find out that finding an answer would be an uphill battle. I scoured the libraries and I even got to speak with Celestia myself.”
“What did she tell you? What did you find?” Trixie asked, her eyes wide with curiosity.
Sanguine slapped a hoof against her leg. “Nothing from Celestia and only worthless clues in the books. I tried to reach out to other scholars. I tried to get their help, but I got nothing but laughs from them.”
Trixie shook her head. “That must have been terrible. I bet you felt a lot like I do right now.”
“Hah!” Sanguine shouted, bumping Trixie on the shoulder roughly. She crossed her forehooves and beamed.
“What?” Trixie asked, slightly stunned.
“You said, ‘I’. Twice.”
Trixie smiled. “Oh. I, er, Trixie just slipped up.”
“That’s a regression,” Sanguine commented, “but I’m sure we can make back the progress.”
Trixie did not answer. The carriage rolled over a large bump, shaking the two ponies within.
“So,” Sanguine said after she steadied herself, “this is where you come in, Trixie. I need your help.”
The light blue mare shook her head and looked out the carriage window. “Trixie is not a scientist. She can’t possibly help you.”
Sanguine let out a loud laugh and rested a hoof on Trixie’s shoulder. “I saw your show; you’re pretty good with magic. That’s all that I need. A unicorn who’s young enough to learn a few new tricks and ambitious enough to face down an alicorn. Don’t you want out of this traveling showpony business?” Sanguine swept a foreleg in a wide arc in front of her. “Don’t you want to see the world? Don’t you want to make it a better place for everypony?” Trixie was nodding, but Sanguine kept talking. “Don’t you want to learn how to fight? Don’t tell me that you’ve never been hurt by another pony before and wanted revenge. Everypony has.”
“I can think of one,” Trixie said, stomping her rear right leg against the carriage floor as a picture of Twilight Sparkle filled her mind’s eye. She could see that arrogant sneer on the purple mare’s face. That sneer of a mare that needed to be put in her place.
Sanguine grinned. “Exactly. Tell me about the pony. What happened?”
“She made a fool of the Great and Powerful Trixie,” the blue mare said, nearly spitting each word. “I lost everything that day. All because of her. All because of Twilight Sparkle.”
“Wait? Who?” Sanguine asked, her eyes going wide.
“Twilight Sparkle,” Trixie repeated.
“Well, that’s a coincidence.” The white pony leaned back in her seat and sighed contentedly.
“I think you’ll be a perfect fit,” Sanguine said, patting Trixie on the back. “You’re not the only pony who’s been hurt by Twilight Sparkle before. Remember how I told you about my time at the Canterlot University of Magic?”
The white pony’s words elicited a nod from Trixie before she continued, “Well, I had a classmate named of Twilight Sparkle. We were sort of friends, as much as somepony could be friends with that mare.”
Sanguine smiled, asking, “How about another story?”
Trixie did not protest.
Twilight Sparkle shook her head and laid the thick stack of paper back on the desk in front of her. “You can’t be serious about this, Sanguine.”
Sanguine sighed and looked around the room. The library at the University of Canterlot was cold. Cold. Sanguine thought for a moment, milling over the word in her mind. It was the only word that Sanguine could find to describe the place. The feeling did not just come from the frigid temperature that radiated from the gray stone walls or the chilling drafts of air that circulated throughout building. It came from the rows upon rows of heartless, data-driven texts stacked to the ceiling around her. It came from the suppressed, voiceless sounds of students whispering back and forth. It came from the relentless, unforgiving rigor of academic life. But most of all, it came from the purple mare sitting just in front of Sanguine.
“Why don’t you understand?” the white mare asked, still not looking at Twilight.
Sanguine could hear Twilight flip through the first few pages with her magic. “You don’t have anything here.”
The red-maned mare chuckled. “That’s half of the point.” Sanguine waived her hoof in the space in front of her. “Research needs to be done.”
Twilight shook her head again. “There’s a reason it hasn’t. I’m–”
Sanguine spun to face Twilight and cut her off.
“Yah. I know. You know Celestia. Everypony in this entire university knows that. You’re the special one, Twilight. You get all the best grades. The princess makes sure you get into all the best classes. You can conjure up a spell in your sleep that would put half of the professors here to shame.” Sanguine spread her forelegs wide, nearly throwing the mare over as the chair beneath her tilted backwards. “You’re the pinnacle of a unicorn’s existence.”
Twilight was speechless. Before she could marshal a response, Sanguine launched into another point.
“Look around you. Look. What do you see? Unicorns. Everywhere. Just us. No pegasi, no earth ponies. Just us.”
The purple mare’s eyes flicked to the side. She knew that she did not need to look, though. There were only unicorns at the Canterlot University of Magic. It was a university… of magic. Twilight was about to inform Sanguine of the fact when the white mare pressed a hoof up against her mouth.
Sanguine shook her head violently. “Don’t you say it, Twilight Sparkle. I’m not a foal.” The irate unicorn withdrew her hoof. “I know this is a university of magic. But that’s not my point. Why do we unicorns get all of this? Why do we get magic? Why do we get all this knowledge? Why don’t the pegasi? Why not the earth ponies too?”
Sanguine pointed a hoof to the east. “Now look at Cloudsdale. Ever been there? Ever even heard of a unicorn going there? Bet not. Pegasi only, on account of it being two and a half kilometers off the ground. How come they get to fly and we don’t?”
The white mare pushed her chair out from under her and stood on all four hooves. She was practically yelling now. The eyes of the entire library were on her.
“Now, look out to the Everfree Valley. You see those rows of apple trees? Those stretch forty times as far as Cloudsdale is off the ground. You think a unicorn could make that? No. That’s earth pony’s job. Why do they get to bend and shape nature to their will? Why can’t we make a flower spring from the ground with little more than a tender thought?”
Sanguine lifted the desk in front of her in her magic and cast it to the side. The pages of her thesis scattered in the air as the wooden table collided with the ground a few meters away. Twilight flinched backwards, but Sanguine did not stop. She stepped right up to Twilight, her muzzle only inches from the purple mare’s.
“It isn’t bucking fair. None of it. Look at us. We’re three races, bound together by the one thing that bests us all: your beautiful alicorn princess. A pony that has it all. Celestia. That’s what I want, Twilight Sparkle. I want us all to be equals. Pegasi. Unicorns. Earth ponies. Alicorns.”
The white mare jabbed a hoof into Twilight’s stomach. “But you wouldn’t know about that, would you? There’s not a heart in there. You don’t care what you feel like inside when you wake up. All the closed doors, they don’t matter to you. Life is not the destination, Twilight; it’s the journey. Maybe Celestia should have taught you that first.”
Sanguine took a single step backwards. Sighing, she said in a more even tone, “Everypony being able to experience everything. Nopony left behind in the cold as a pegasus flies off. Is that too much to ask for? Is that not worth spending my life on?”
Sanguine was nearly yelling and with each word her forelegs waved wildly through the air. Trixie had been forced into the far corner of the carriage for fear of being struck. She felt a little like Twilight must have: completely overwhelmed.
“What happened?” Trixie managed as Sanguine’s story tapered to a close.
The white mare chuckled. “Disciplinary probation. Or do you mean the presentation? That was a few days later. I think most everypony was too afraid to laugh, but a few did anyways.” Sanguine shook her head. “I handled that significantly better.”
The pair went silent for several minutes. Trixie watched the Equestrian countryside roll past them through the carriage window. Just the thought of walking that distance made her hooves hurt and her stomach rumble.
Sanguine’s voice interrupted Trixie’s thoughts.
“So, how about that food I offered you?”
Trixie looked up. The other unicorn was smiling back at her.
“What? Oh. Trixie would appreciate it greatly.”
The white pony’s horn lit with a dull red glow. A few seconds later a wooden box floated in through the carriage window. Sanguine opened it and extracted a bowl filled with leafy greens. Trixie felt her stomach growl. Finally, something that was not stale bread! This meal would be a simple salad for Sanguine, but Trixie would make it a feast for herself.
Sanguine passed the bowl to Trixie and watched quietly as the blue unicorn devoured its contents. After Trixie finished, Sanguine ferried the bowl away and returned the box. The blue mare had said no words of thanks, but her purple eyes spoke differently.
After another few minutes passed in silence, Sanguine said, “So, about my offer?”
Trixie jumped at the sudden words. “Uh, yes. Yes.”
Sanguine smiled. “So you’re agreeing, then.”
The blue pony repeated herself with a nod.
“Splendid. In that case, I don’t think Canterlot is our destination. Do you mind if we make for the caves?”
Trixie cocked her head to the side. “Caves?”
“Yes. That’s where the whole operation’s been set up. There’s a system of caves and abandoned mines only a couple kilometers away from the town of Ponyville, which, as you know, is on the way to Canterlot. That’s where we’re working from.”
“We?” Trixie asked. “How many ponies are working for you now?”
“You’ll be the thirtieth or so. Most are unicorns, but we have a few pegasi and earth ponies too. This is about everypony, after all.”
Trixie looked back out the window. “How long until we get there?”
“An hour or two,” Sanguine said as she too turned to look out her window.
Sanguine coughed as she lay back on her cot in the conclave’s communal quarters. The strip of cloth strung between two sturdy pieces of cloth was rough and uncomfortable, but it was certainly better than the cavern floor. She rolled over and faced towards the exit, breathing in the slightly fresher air. Before long the mare heard the creaking sound of the room’s door opening.
Opening her eyes, Sanguine saw Trixie. A thin burlap sack of belongings was slung loosely over the blue mare’s back, obscuring her wand and crescent moon cutie mark. One of the conclave’s acolytes stood behind her, but he had turned away and looked to be leaving. He had probably been the one that showed Trixie around the cavern after her arrival.
“Can I help you with anything?” Sanguine asked, gesturing at the sack on Trixie’s back.
Trixie answered in a confident, if slightly anxious voice. “Would you be so kind as to tell Trixie where she might put her belongings?”
“Ah, yes,” Sanguine said. The mare slowly removed herself from her cot and rose to her hooves. “I think we have an open bunk or two over here.”
Sanguine led Trixie to a cot in the opposite corner of the room. The white unicorn tapped an empty patch of ground just beside it with a forehoof.
“Just set your belongings down here and I’ll get them put away for you. Meanwhile, you should head to the kitchen. Just tell the cook that you’re new and he should give you a little extra to eat; he’s a bit of a sucker for unicorn mares.”
Trixie smiled. “Thank you, Sanguine.”
“No,” Sanguine said, putting a hoof on Trixie’s shoulder. “Thank you for offering your help. We’re in desperate need of more magical talent. Any strength that you can lend us is worth much more than a few spoonfuls of oatmeal.”
Trixie nodded. After levitating her belongings to the floor she asked, “Now that Trixie is here, could you tell her what she needs to do?”
Sanguine forced a smile. “Don’t worry about that at the moment. I promise that I’ll explain what’s going on here, what our plans are, and where you fit in very soon. But I want you to focus on getting settled right now. Learning to navigate these caves is difficult enough.”
The white mare ushered Trixie out of the room with a hoof.
“Go and eat now. We’ll talk later.”
The blue unicorn hesitated. She eyed her sack of belongings beside the other unicorn. Sanguine traced Trixie’s gaze and chuckled slightly, shaking her head.
“Don’t worry about your things,” said Sanguine as she leaned back against Trixie’s cot. “I’ll get them sorted.”
The white mare repeated the waving gesture. “Just go eat now.”
Without another word, Trixie obeyed and exited the cavern, leaving Sanguine alone in the space. After a moment of contemplation, the she unlaced Trixie’s bag with her magic and looked inside. She saw a pair of purple capes, each fastened by a false gem; a small satchel of bits, with no more than twenty coins; a loaf-and-a-half of bread, near-spoiling and wrapped in thin folds of cloth; a worn leather-bound journal, accompanied by a recently drained inkwell and quill; several pouches of alchemical ingredients combined into a curious powder; and a single tattered wizard’s hat. No more.
With a sigh, Sanguine stowed the clothing and satchel beneath a cot and placed the journal and quill on the canvas-wrapped pillow. Ferrying Trixie’s inkwell to one of the writing desks along the room’s walls, the mare drew a large flask of ink from the communal stores. With her magic, Sanguine and transferred a small amount from the flask into Trixie’s vial. Returning to the cot, Sanguine unwrapped the pieces of bread and tossed them into the fire that burned in the center of the room, leaving the cloth scraps folded neatly beside the cloaks and hat.
Organization completed, Sanguine returned to her cot and closed her eyes. Though her head still hurt, she felt much better than she had before. She was one step closer to Luna. One step closer to equality.
Tantalus looked out from the edge of the Everfree Forest. Concealed behind a leafy bush, he scanned the valley in front of him. Three kilometers to the west, the stallion saw a quaint, candy-colored town nestled around a river. He found this quite confusing. The stallion recognized the area as the Everfree Valley; it had been a sight that he had awoken to each morning during his service to Princess Luna. However, something had changed the region vastly. The forest perimeter was far too close to the river and he was certain that the valley was relatively unsettled.
How – how long has it been? How many decades? How many centuries? Discord! How many eras? Celestia’s words replayed in his mind. The world you shall find will not be the same as the one you now leave.
Tantalus shook his mane and sighed. What he had suspected was clearly true: he had been unconscious for a very long time. He would have to start over from the beginning; he would have to start a new life here in this new Equestria.
The stallion trotted cautiously to the outskirts of the town. Near the edge of the forest he could see a small cottage with a garden and chicken coop outside. A framed sign was fixed to the door, which Tantalus approached and read.
Fluttershy has taken up residence in Canterlot for an extended period of time. If you need to contact her, please direct all correspondence to Canterlot Castle. This cottage is currently available for rent until her return. Please see Twilight Sparkle for details.
Tantalus leaned to look into a window. The inside of the cottage was nearly empty and a thin layer of dust coated what little furniture remained. After digging at the ground for a moment in thought, the stallion turned about and headed for the town’s center.
The stallion passed many buildings on his way to the town hall; almost all of them sported several stories, which surprised the stallion. There were also many ponies milling about the streets, the majority of them hauling goods to and from the town center. They seemed happy. As he passed a group of chatting ponies, he heard snatches of a conversation about somepony named Pinkie Pie. They were wondering why she had not yet done something; he did not catch what that something was.
Tantalus reached the town hall fairly quickly. The tall building’s interior was well lit by the windows which ringed its walls. To his left, the stallion saw a wide desk with several rows of cubbies stacked behind it. Each wooden hole was filled with scrolls. An earth pony was sitting alone at the desk, busily scribbling in a leather-bound ledger.
Tantalus approached and waited patiently. After several minutes, and a strategically placed cough, the brown-coated mare finally looked up from her work.
“Oh. I’m sorry; sometimes I get too focused on the numbers. A profitable city is a prosperous city, after all. Is there anything I can help you with, Mr…”
Tantalus looked around. “Uh…” He knew that it would be unwise for him to use his real name.
“Rooks,” he answered, after the ivory chess piece which adorned his flank. “Cobalt Rooks.”
“…Rooks?” finished the mare.
Tantalus forced a reassuring smile and nodded.
The mare smiled hesitantly in return before asking, “What brings you to Ponyville this fine day?”
Ponyville? That must be the name of this town.
The stallion made a mental note of the fact as he answered, “I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of the library. That, and if your town has an inn that I could say at, I’d be very appreciative if you could give me directions to it.”
“Oh, no problem. The Books and Branches Library is just off Stirrup Street. You can’t miss it; it’s the big hollowed out tree with telescopes all over the balconies.”
Tantalus nodded; he had seen the road sign for Stirrup Street on his way into town. “And the inn?”
“Oh, sorry dear. I know there’s a few places around town that might be renting out some rooms, but we don’t have anything like an official inn. In fact, I think Miss Fluttershy’s property was recently put up for rent, and at quite a reasonable price too. I’m pretty sure that the librarian, Twilight Sparkle, is overseeing it now.”
“Uh… yes. Thank you very much. I suppose I’ll be on my way now. Thanks again.”
“One more thing,” added the mare before flashing a toothy smile, “please be sure to stop by some of our fine restaurants and other tourist locations.” Maintaining her overzealous smile, the mare batted her eyes.
Tantalus did not respond as he turned and exited the town hall. Trotting back down the road on which he had entered Ponyville, the blue-coated stallion looked for the intersection that crossed Stirrup Street.
As Tantalus opened the candle-inscribed door to the Books and Branches Library, he was greeted by gaze of a purple and green baby dragon. The dragon had been organizing books on a lower shelf and was now looking over his shoulder at the stallion. He rolled his eyes before turning and padding over to the door.
“Uh… Hello there,” the dragon said as he approached Tantalus. “Welcome to the Books and Branches Library. I’m Spike. Are you looking for a particular book, or are you just here to see Twilight? She’s not here right now.”
“As a matter of fact, I’m interested in browsing your history section,” answered the stallion as he took a step further into the library and began scanning the bookshelves. “I– I don’t really have anything conventional to pay you with, but I don’t think I’ll actually need to take any books from here. Oh, and I’m also interested in speaking with Miss Twilight Sparkle about the cottage on the outskirts of town. Do you know when she will be back in?”
“No, I don’t. She should be back before dark, though, if that’s any help.” The dragon glanced back at the self he had been organizing. “In the meantime, why don’t you come over here and we can look at some history books. Do you want ancient history of Equestria, or something more recent?”
“I’m not sure, actually. Can you find me a book on something since the banishment of Nightmare Moon?”
“Well,” said Spike, rubbing his chin, “I don’t know if we have anything that covers the last thousand years very completely. There is this one book about the Elements of Harmony, if that means anything to you, but it’s pretty vague. We really only have stuff on the last couple centuries here.”
Tantalus nodded at the mention of the Elements of Harmony; it seemed a good place to start.
Spike, seeing the stallion’s nod, offered, “If you’re interested in the Elements, you might just want to wait for Twilight to get back; she’s one of them, you know.”
“Wha-?” Tantalus gasped.
“Oh yah,” Spike said, turning around and waving a claw for Tantalus to follow him. “You see, Twilight is Princess Celestia’s student and she was sent here to Ponyville to make friends so that they could use the Elements of Harmony to defeat Nightmare Moon and turn her back into Luna.” Spike looked over his shoulder and asked, “Where have you been this last year?”
The stallion’s thoughts were a blur as he mumbled, “Uh… away. I haven’t been in Equestria for a very long time.”
“That’s cool,” said Spike. Facing forwards, he continued, “I’m sure Twilight would love to talk to you about that. While we’re waiting for her, is there any other sort of history you might be interested in?”
Questions flooded the stallion’s mind. Nightmare Moon returned? And was defeated? And my Luna came back? Is she okay? Is she imprisoned? Twilight Sparkle is Celestia’s student? When did that tyrant start taking an interest in commoners? What has changed? What hasn’t?
Tantalus’ thoughts converged in an instant. “Actually,” he asked, “do you have any books on Equestrian politics and society? I would definitely prefer more recent works.”
Spike jumped with enthusiasm. “Ooo! We have plenty on that. Twilight absolutely loves books on politics.” Spike leaned into Tantalus and whispered, “I think it’s because she spent so much time with Princess Celestia,” before he continued in a normal tone, “They’re just over here.”
Tantalus followed Spike to a bookshelf on one of the library’s walls. The dragon ascended a ladder and, after a moment of searching, began rattling of the titles of books. One caught the stallion’s ear.
“Forgotten Equestrian Politics: Volume IV – The Solar Monarchy,” listed Spike.
“That,” said Tantalus, pointing his hoof at the thin tome that Spike had referred to.
“F.E.P. four?” repeated Spike, “Are you sure?” The dragon shook his head. “I shouldn’t have even mentioned it. The pony who wrote that was a total quack. Twilight told me once how it just goes on and on about how Celestia used to be this horrible tyrant or something. That she didn’t care about her ponies. As if! You don’t need to be an expert on history to know that the last thousand years have been a virtual paradise.” Spike further expressed his disapproval with the wave of a claw.
Tantalus, however, was not so quick to dismiss the work. He knew that Luna had been keeping journals in the years before she had eloped with him to become Nightmare Moon. Had Celestia found and read them? Tantalus would not be surprised if a millennium of separation from Luna had caused Celestia to surround herself with whatever her sister had left behind, but could it really be true that Celestia had taken their contents to heart? Perhaps the sun princess had come around after all.
“Yes, I’m sure,” Tantalus said, returning his thoughts to the library.
Spike reluctantly passed him the book. “It’s your time, I guess.”
Tantalus ignored the comment and asked, “Is it alright if I read it here?”
“Sure,” said Spike, “but can I get your name first? Just so I can tell Twilight I know who you are when she asks.”
“Oh. I’m sorry that I didn’t introduce myself; I’ve had a rather… hectic day.” Straightening himself and extending a hoof, Tantalus said, “I am Cobalt Rooks. Well met, Spike.”
Spike paused. “Uh… Well met to you too, Cobalt. Now, go ahead and find a seat and you can get to reading. Just don’t go up to the loft; Twilight and I sort of live there now.”
“I’ll remember not to,” assured Tantalus. Continuing, the stallion asked, “Now, how can I pay you? I don’t exactly have any money, but perhaps a bit of this will suffice?” Tantalus indicated the gold band encircled his left foreleg.
Spike once again looked puzzled. “Uh… This is a public library.” After a moment he clarified, “You don’t have to pay so long as the book gets back on time. And considering that you’re going to read it here, I don’t think that will be a problem.”
“Oh,” Tantalus said, ears laid flat in embarrassment as he carefully grabbed the book and located a seat.
Tantalus and Spike both looked up as the door to the library opened. It was just before sunset. The blast of cool outdoor air that rushed inside caused the candles that Spike had lit to flicker.
The stallion returned to the copy of Forgotten Equestrian Politics: Volume IV that he held in his hooves. His concentration, however, was interrupted when Spike greeted the new arrival.
Tantalus’ looked up at the mention of the mare’s name. Before him stood a striking young unicorn sporting a lavender coat and intense amethyst eyes. Eyes that now looked at him with a measure of real concern.
“Spike? Who is this?” asked Twilight, nodding a head in Tantalus’ direction.
Tantalus interrupted the baby dragon, intent on introducing himself. “I am Cobalt Rooks, miss. I hope my being here is not an issue; I’m new here in Ponyville and I don’t have a place to stay yet. In fact,” he added, “I’ve been waiting to speak to you about renting out Ms. Fluttershy’s Cottage.”
“Oh,” Twilight said. The mare stepped further into the library and closed the door behind her with magic. “I suppose that’s okay. Fluttershy’s gotten a rather nice job up at Canterlot Castle that apparently pays very well. She’s decided to rent out the cottage for a small price. You have the bits to pay, right?”
“I’m afraid not, Miss Sparkle. I’ve been outside of Equestria for quite some time and I don’t have any bits.” Extending the foreleg with the golden circlet, Tantalus continued, “But I do have this golden band. Could we negotiate payment with it?”
Twilight’s eyes went wide as she looked at the band. “Where did you go? I’ve hardly ever spoken to anypony who has been outside Equestria! What was it like?”
Spike chuckled, mumbling, “Told you she’d love to talk.”
Tantalus halted for a moment as he tried to ignore the dragon. “Uh, I went to visit a zebra tribe. But please, will this gold be enough?”
“Huh?” Twilight said. She blinked. “Oh. May I see it?”
Tantalus straightened his hoof and levitated the golden ring to Twilight. The mare held the band in her magic for a moment, studying it closely.
“This… This is pure gold,” the mare said. She looked intrigued. “Did the zebras give this to you?”
“Yes,” Tantalus lied, sticking with the story that he had concocted while waiting for Twilight to return.
“Well, this looks to be worth quite a bit. How long are you planning to say in Ponyville?”
“For quite some time. I think it will take me awhile to get back on my hooves after having been gone for so long.”
“Okay,” answered Twilight with a short nod. “How about this: why don’t I just pay you now and then we can discuss Fluttershy’s cottage?”
Tantalus frowned. “Forgive me, but I think I would rather exchange this for money at a more … professional location. Just to make sure it is appraised right, you understand.”
Twilight Sparkle nodded. “You’d probably have to leave Ponyville to find anypony who could afford to pay you aside from myself. I happen to have quite a sum saved up; Celestia gives me much more each month than I can ever spend. Besides, I would rather like to take a closer look at this zebra artifact, if you don’t mind.”
“My,” said Tantalus, “how much is it worth?”
“About seventeen hundred bits, considering that it’s zebra-made and all,” Twilight answered, barely looking up from the ring.
“Uh… How much will it cost me to rent Miss Fluttershy’s cottage?”
“Fluttershy asked me to decide,” admitted Twilight. “However, she did say to keep it inexpensive if somepony who really needed a place to live wanted it. I think you fit that description. How does eighty bits per week sound?”
Tantalus smiled. “Superb.”
“Very well then.” The mare looked at her dragon. “Spike, round up the bits while I show Cobalt to the cottage.” Twilight opened the door and motioned for Tantalus to follow her. “It’s late now, so why don’t you stop back by here in the morning and so I can give you the money, show you around the town, and maybe introduce you to Pinkie Pie?”
“Pinkie Pie? I’ve heard that name. Who is she?”
“Oh. You’ll meet her eventually. It’s best that you don’t surprise her; she tends to freak out a bit.”
“If you think that is best, Miss Sparkle.”
Tantalus followed the mare out of the library and into the streets. He took a deep breath.
A new time, a new world, a new home, a new name, and maybe, just maybe, a new friend. Celestia’s voice echoed in the space between his ears. The world you shall find will not be the same as the one you now leave.
Tantalus stretched against the soft blankets of the bed, extending his legs and twisting his torso in an attempt to restore blood flow to his extremities. Eyes still closed, the stallion snuggled in closer to the bed sheets and yawned. He could feel the warm rays of the sun on his face. They felt so good. He did not want to wake up.
Tantalus lethargically opened a single eye. After a split second of pain, the lid snapped closed. Twisting his head away from the sunlight, Tantalus reopened it. The unicorn looked at the enchanted hourglass on the bedside stand. Half-past nine. Not bad, all things considered. With another yawn, the stallion’s thoughts strayed to the mare he had met the night before.
With a push of his back hooves, the unicorn removed the sheets that covered his body and rolled off the bed. His legs were still sore from his trek out of the Everfree Forest.
Tantalus quickly descended down the curved stairs outside his room and headed for the cottage’s exit. He trotted through the threshold and down the short path that led to the edge of the property. Sunlight illuminated the empty plots of soil that had once nourished a garden. Beside those vacant beds, a single red chicken coop stood empty, longing for the activity of its former residents. As he followed the thin unpaved path that led from the cottage into Ponyville, Tantalus could only wonder what was keeping Fluttershy in Canterlot for such a long time.
Spike listened to the metallic clicks as he stacked the bits that were Cobalt’s payment. Twilight had only withdrawn four hundred bits from her account; the rest of the payment was recorded on an embossed slip of paper that bore the mare’s name and an account number. The baby dragon had trouble understanding why anypony would value any piece of paper, but Twilight had insisted that it was worth what the stallion was owed. The purple dragon shrugged and continued stacking the coins. The dull click of the metal discs filled his ears. Now that was proof of worth! Not some official-looking scribbles of ink on a flimsy scrap of paper.
“How’s it coming along, Spike?” Twilight chirped from across the room. “Do you need any help?”
“I don’t think so,” reassured the mare’s number-one assistant, “I’m almost done.”
“Alright.” As Twilight spoke, however, her brow furrowed. “Spike, do you think Cobalt has a bank account? I didn’t really consider that he might not but now that I think of it, he really didn’t have anything to bring into Fluttershy’s cottage. I wonder if he even owns anything at all. Well, except for that zebra bracelet. But he did sure seem quite ready to part with it, didn’t he?”
The baby dragon just shrugged and continued stacking the bits, mumbling something unintelligible.
As she continued thinking, Twilight Sparkle became increasingly concerned about Tantalus’ history. She had just assumed that the stallion’s trip outside of Equestria explained his sudden appearance and lack of property. There was, of course, a quick way to verify the stallion’s story. I need to take this to Zecora. She’ll be able to tell me if it’s authentic.
The purple mare’s thoughts were interrupted as the door to the library swung open. Cobalt was standing in the threshold, looking around intently before his eyes fixated on the stack of coins that Spike was organizing. After a second, the stallion’s gaze snapped to Twilight.
Opening his mouth, Tantalus said, “I’m sorry I’m here so late. I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
“Oh, no,” reassured Twilight, “Spike was just finishing up your payment for that Zebra bracelet.”
“Thanks,” said the stallion. A moment later a quizzical expression formed on his face. “Is… is that it? I guess I expected seventeen hundred bits to look a little more significant.”
Twilight frowned. How long, exactly, had the stallion been gone? The stack of coins was so small that it clearly could not be the full payment. After a moment, she explained that she had written a check that he could bit at a later date.
“A check?” asked the stallion, repeating the term that Twilight had used.
Twilight nodded. “Yes.” At Tantalus’ continued look of confusion, the mare elaborated, “You know, a signed note that says that I owe you thirteen hundred bits.”
“Oh, yes. Quite right.” The stallion’s expression of confusion only slightly yielded.
The mare was now positive that something was amiss with the newcomer.
After several silent seconds, the stallion asked, “So… What about that tour, Miss Sparkle?”
“Ah, yes,” Twilight said. Turning to Spike she asked, “Spike, do you think you could take those bits to Fluttershy’s cottage and put them in the chest at the foot of bed in the guest bedroom?”
“Sure,” grumbled the dragon, gathering up the neat stack of coins into a nearby box. “I’ll wait for you back here at the library once I’m done.”
“Thank you so much, Spike.” The mare turned to Tantalus. “Now, why don’t you follow me and we can get this tour started. Oh, and I hope you haven’t eaten yet; Pinkie Pie’s already planned a party for you, food included.”
“A… A party?” asked the stallion, concerned.
“Don’t worry. It’s just Pinkie being Pinkie; she throws one for every new pony when they come to Ponyville. I was kind of scared when she surprised me, but it turned out to be really fun. Besides, you’ll get to meet everypony else. Come on, though, we’ve got a lot to see before we head to Sugarcube Corner.”
Tantalus nodded hesitantly. “Whatever you say.”
Tantalus looked around hurriedly, his heart pounding. So many colors, so many ponies, and too many questions.
Why did Twilight Sparkle leave me here?
Galloping past several ponies gathered around a punch bowl, he dove into Sugarcube Corner’s kitchen.
The stallion had been afraid of the building the moment he laid eyes on its imitation-gingerbread roof and saccharin cupcake spire. With its walls covered in colorful decals illustrating a strange confectionary stock and its shelves lined with all manners of sugary treats, it was a truly startling place of business.
It was a strange world he found himself in.
The stallion shrunk towards the back wall of the cooking space as the room’s swinging door opened at the bidding of a white-coated mare that Tantalus recognized from earlier.
“Cobalt?” asked the purple-maned mare, “Is everything alright, dear?”
The stallion hung his head and, ears folded back, mumbled his answer. “Uh, Yah. It’s– It’s just so much happening. I needed a moment to catch my breath.”
“I know, dear. Sometimes Pinkie can be so overwhelming. She means well, though. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Just, uh, don’t tell anypony I’m in here.”
“Well, if you insist. You are the guest of honor, you realize. It’s not proper for you to languish back here while everypony else is celebrating your arrival in town.”
Tantalus’ reply was cut short as another head poked its way into the kitchen. This one was sky blue and sported a mane striped with the colors of the rainbow. She was also flying. Indoors.
She’s going to ask me if I’m doing chilled things again, isn’t she. What does she even mean? It’s summer; it won’t be cold for months!
Rainbow Dash looked around the kitchen, her forelegs dangling idly. “You ponies doing anything cool back here? I saw you all head in and I figured something awesome must be going on.”
Rarity waved her hoof. “Oh. Nothing, Rainbow. Cobalt here was just getting a breath of fresh air.”
“Alright,” said Rainbow Dash, “I’ll head back out then. Pinkie’s just about to start a round of pin-the-tail-on-the-pony.” Pointing a hoof at Tantalus, she continued, “You should come, Cobalt. It’ll be awesome.”
“Yah. I’ll try to catch up in a bit,” he lied.
An orange-coated mare stepped into kitchen. Carefully positioning herself beneath Rainbow Dash’s flapping wings, she eyed Tantalus worriedly.
Rainbow Dash looked down at the earth pony standing under her. “Applejack, what are you doing back here? Did you think something awesome was happening too?”
“Naw, Dash. I was just comin’ to tell y’all that Pinkie’s startin’ a game o’ pin-the-tail-on-the-pony. Any y’all interested? Especially you, Mr. Rooks,” the mare added with a nod in the direction of the stallion, “This here party’s for you, after all.”
Rarity extended a hoof to stop Tantalus from answering and said, “Now, my dears, we will be out in just a minute. Cobalt is taking a little break and shan’t be disturbed. He will be out when he feels like it.”
As the other ponies exited, Tantalus mouthed a silent “thank you” to Rarity. The white unicorn nodded before turning and following her friends out of the kitchen.
Twilight Sparkle trotted through the Everfree Forest. Though it was only an hour or two past noon, but the interior of the forest was as dark as ever. Insects and other small critters scurried in all directions throughout the canopy above, all hurrying away from the intruder in their home.
Before long, the unicorn arrived at Zecora’s hut. Checking to ensure that the golden band was sill in her saddlebags, Twilight raised her hoof and knocked on the door. After a few seconds, Zecora was at the door, already beckoning Twilight inside. Twilight followed her into the wooden and straw home. With the exception of the missing cauldron above central fire pit, the hut’s interior had not changed much since she had last visited.
The unicorn’s eyes flicked about the space for a moment and snapped back to Zecora. The zebra was sitting on her haunches just in front of the door. Twilight did the same, inspecting the golden rings that encircled one of the Zecora’s forelegs. They did not look much like the band she had received from Cobalt.
Zecora spoke first. “So Twilight Sparkle, why to me do you return? I see in your eyes a look of concern.” The zebra’s turquoise eyes inquisitively scanned her visitor.
“It’s nothing big. I was just wondering if you could identify something for me,” answered Twilight.
Rummaging through her saddlebags, she extracted Tantalus’ golden ring and presented it to the eager zebra.
“The pony I got it from said it was zebra-made, but I’m not so sure.”
“Ah. So about this band you seek my advice? I can tell you already that it is quite nice.” The golden ring held securely in her hooves, Zecora turned away from Twilight Sparkle and examined the object more closely. “But upon closer inspection, I fear, a zebra’s handiwork this is nowhere near. The gold is far too pure.” Zecora turned about and faced Twilight, using a single hoof to indicate the edge of the band as she spoke. “And observe this smooth contour. In a zebra forge this was not struck. That the pony who gave you this did not lie, I’m afraid you’ve no such luck.”
After she had finished speaking, Zecora passed the circlet back to Twilight. The unicorn mumbled a word of thanks, her full appreciation for Zecora’s insight not evident behind her furrowed brow.
The zebra addressed Twilight more firmly. “Twilight Sparkle, are you sure this is a matter of little concern? For there is one more thing about this trinket that it appears you have yet to learn.”
Twilight looked up. “Is there something wrong with it? I mean, besides that it’s not zebra-made.”
“Lean in close and you will sense something quite cryptic. Can you not feel the remnants of strong magic?”
As she moved the band close to her head, Twilight realized that she could indeed sense some residual energy in the band. The circlet resonated with a low magical ring that was difficult to identify. Twilight had no idea how the zebra apothecary had sensed it too.
Looking up at the zebra, Twilight asked, “Do you have any idea what form of magic might have caused this?”
“About that, Twilight, I am confused – for with magical energy, you see, this band is entirely infused. Perhaps it was made with magic, and not crafted in a forge of stone and brick.”
Made with magic? But from what? Something either already quite pure or very massive. Either way, that only leaves more questions than answers. There’s only one way to get to the bottom of this: I’ll have to confront Cobalt.
With the stallion’s motives even more in question, Twilight became acutely aware of the possible danger that her and her friends were in. She shook her head. They can handle themselves, but there’s definitely more to him than I first thought.
Zecora frowned. “Is there something wrong with what I’ve said, my dear? If so then please, speak it so I may hear.”
Twilight realized that Zecora had seen her shake her head. “Oh, I’m sorry Zecora. I think you are absolutely correct; this band does seem to be completely infused with the energy. I was shaking my head at something I thought of.”
“There’s no harm done,” reassured Zecora. “But let me tell you that I, for one, am interested in this band’s origin. When you are willing to speak more could you come again?”
Twilight turned the bracelet in her hooves, her thoughts still distant.
After a moment she said, “I think I will. Thank you for your time and insight, but for now I’ve got to ask somepony a lot of questions.”
Twilight pushed open the door to Sugarcube Corner. Slipping inside quietly, she skirted past several ponies and glanced around the building’s ground floor. Cobalt was nowhere to be found. The unicorn also noticed something else out of place. Though there were several ponies that were happily playing game of pin-the-tail-on-the-pony, a dejected Pinkie Pie was sitting in a wooden chair in the corner of the room. The pink mare’s head was hung limply and Twilight detected what might have been the slightest hint of tears in her sky-blue eyes.
Pinkie Pie looked up as Twilight walked towards her. “Hey Twilight,” she mouthed. Her voice was barely audible above the background chatter of the guests.
“Yah. It’s just that Cobalt is hiding somewhere in the kitchen; I think he doesn’t like my party.”
“Really? Did anything happen? Did he do something?” Twilight glanced around the room again, checking for any signs of damage.
“No, not that I noticed,” Pinkie answered. “I don’t know why he doesn’t like it. I put up balloons and streamers and I even made some cupcakes with little chess pieces on them. I’ve always been able to make anypony happy when they come to my parties. Cobalt just looked really, really scared.”
Twilight shook her head. “Come on, Pinkie. You can’t possibly be saying that you haven’t ever had a less-than-perfect party before?”
“No,” admitted Pinkie Pie, “but in the end they always seem happy. I just don’t know how Cobalt is supposed to be happy if he spends the entire party hiding in the kitchen. But I’m too scared to go in there and get him; it might frighten him even more. Rarity, Dashie, and Applejack went in there earlier to talk to him and it didn’t work for them either.”
“Here,” offered Twilight, “why don’t you let me go in there and see if I can’t talk to him? Cobalt seems like a really overloaded pony, perhaps all he needs right now is a calm voice to talk to. I’ve got a few questions I’ve been meaning to ask him, too.”
“Okay. Just don’t be too pushy with the questions. I remember him saying something about how ponies were asking him too many before he galloped off in there.”
Twilight nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind. In the meantime, why don’t you join in on that game of pin-the-tail-on-the-pony? Let me worry about Cobalt.”
“I think you’re right,” Pinkie Pie said, her mood brightening slightly. “Go and talk to him; I think he knows you the best of any of us, anyways. I’ll make sure nopony else goes in after you.”
Twilight turned to the kitchen’s door. The careful mare pushed aside the swinging panel quietly, trying to not alert the stallion to her entrance. She stepped around the table in the center of the room and into full view of Tantalus. The stallion was lying on his belly, legs curled up beneath him.
He eyed Twilight Sparkle with an expression of extraordinary relief which quickly turned into embarrassment. “Did everything go okay?” he asked.
“Actually, Cobalt, I’m afraid it did not.”
The stallion glanced around nervously, ears laid back, before fixating his gaze on the mare all the more intently. “I– Is everything alright, Miss? Is there anything I can do to–?”
Twilight cut off the dishonest stallion. “Yes, actually.” She sunk to her belly and brought her head level with his. “Would you mind telling me how you got that bracelet, again? I have it from a zebra herself that it’s not zebra-made.”
“Oh,” mumbled Tantalus, head sinking closer to cold tile floor. “You just seemed so interested that it might be. I really didn’t mean to deceive you; I just needed to make sure I got the money. I don’t have anything to my name, you realize; that band is all I had to start this new life here in Ponyville. You offered so much.” Looking up at Twilight Sparkle with his green eyes, Tantalus asked unsteadily, “Do– Do you understand?”
Twilight nodded, but continued frowning. “You still haven’t answered my question, though. Where did you get the bracelet?”
Tantalus looked around nervously. All he could do was to tell the truth and hope that the unicorn mare would understand. “I made it,” the stallion began, his words increasing rapidly in tempo as he continued speaking, “from a nullification ring placed on me by Celestia for a crime I committed a thousand years ago. I aided Nightmare Moon in her rebellion.”
The look on Twilight Sparkle’s face went quickly from one of concern to one of shock. Her jaw hung open slightly while she tried to find a response.
Tantalus looked at the stupefied mare, a weak smile dragging the corners of his mouth upward.
At some length, Twilight said, “I– I’m really not sure that I believe you. Tell me, though, why did you do it? Why would you want to destroy Equestria with eternal darkness?”
Tantalus looked quite wounded at the accusation, even if it had been entirely true. With a sigh, he admitted, “I– I did what I did for Luna.” Looking directly into Twilight Sparkle’s eyes, the stallion continued, “Tell me, haven’t you ever loved somepony? And loved that pony so much that you would do anything they asked you?” Tantalus broke his gaze with the mare and stared off somewhere into the distance as he spoke. “I don’t know what Celestia has told all of Equestria for these thousand years, but I gather that it wasn’t the full story. We didn’t want to see the world destroyed forever; we wanted to see it reborn.”
“Celestia wouldn’t lie to me. Or Equestria,” Twilight retorted.
“A thousand years ago, I would have argued that. But now, I realize that Celestia really did take Luna’s cause to heart. Not Nightmare Moon’s,” Tantalus clarified, “but Luna’s.”
Twilight Sparkle let out an uneasy scoff and shook her head in disapproval.
Tantalus ignored the attack. “It is – for the most part – entirely true. I watched as Luna wrote journals with ideas that are ancient history to you; I discussed each and every sentence with her and even added a few myself.” With a sigh at disbelief on Twilight’s face, the stallion finished, “Can you possibly understand?”
Twilight Sparkle looked away. “You aren’t the first pony who an alicorn has confided in. I understand and I think I’m willing to believe you.” The mare, now more concerned for Tantalus himself than for her safety or Ponyville’s, stretched out a hoof to straighten the newcomer’s head. Speaking firmly, she asked, “Do you want to destroy Equestria?”
“No, I do not. I have nothing left of that time but my life; all I want now is to make sure that I can keep it.”
Twilight Sparkle nodded and rose to her hooves. Offering a foreleg to Tantalus, she said, “I can’t see anything wrong with that, Cobalt. I have many more questions to ask you, but I don’t think that now is the time. Why don’t you come with me and we’ll head back into Pinkie Pie’s party. I promise I’ll stop ponies from asking too many questions; and I also promise that you’ll come out happy. Pinkie never lets a pony leave her parties unhappy, especially when that pony is the guest of honor.”
Tantalus hooked his foreleg around Twilight’s and pulled himself to his hooves. With a sigh and a forced smile, he followed Twilight Sparkle through the kitchen’s swinging door and into the milling party guests.
Russet trotted softly through the halls of Canterlot Castle. His quarry was just a few dozen meters ahead, and still unsuspecting. He was not wearing his armor, though, and so he had to be sure that he was not spotted. This was a critical moment; one that so much work had led up to.
As the weeks had blurred into months, the pegasus dutifully reported all he could discover about the operations of the castle to Sanguine. After all the sleepless nights recording watch shifts and the short lunches spent watching the kitchens, it finally seemed that he was on to something of use. Princess Luna was hiding something; he knew that much.
Now, Russet was following the alicorn on one of her visits to a small cottage on the outskirts of the castle grounds. In the past, he had only watched what occurred there from a distance, but today he was going to hide within hearing range. The undercover guard suspected that something about this particular meeting was going to be especially sensitive; Luna normally visited the cottage twice a week, but for the last three she had not gone there at all.
The identity of the cottage’s inhabitants was also of great interest to Sanguine. In months past, Russet had only ever caught quick glimpses of the other occupant, a small blue pegasus colt with a disorderly teal mane. He had seen the young foal at play more and more frequently in recent weeks, though always within a few dozen meters of the cottage.
With each of his subsequent visits, Russet was becoming progressively more astounded by the foal’s rate of growth. In the span of eleven months he had managed to advance from suckling on a small bottle of milk to conversing regularly with his keeper. Considering the princess’s behavior, both Russet and Sanguine suspected that the foal was some young prodigy which Luna had taken under her wing, much like how Celestia had done with Twilight Sparkle. This was all conjecture, however, and both cousins hoped that Russet’s efforts today would shed more light on the moon princess’ relationship with the colt.
Russet carefully pushed open the small wooden door that led from the hallway to the castle’s exterior, just as Luna had done a minute earlier. As Russet exited the castle, he ducked behind a bush. Concealed behind the twisted green brambles, the stallion waited as the alicorn trotted towards the cottage’s exterior. There, he could see the yellow mare watching the colt at play. The small pegasus was running around in circles, his attention focused on some object which was too tiny for Russet to see.
The yellow mare looked up and saw Luna. With a frantic push, she ushered the colt inside the house before turning to the alicorn. The pair spoke for several minutes before Luna motioned towards the cottage. The mare nodded and followed the princess inside.
Not letting his excitement overwhelm him, Russet waited several seconds before moving out from behind his cover and taking wing in the direction of the cottage. As he flew, he scanned the area for a closer hiding place. The roof seemed adequate.
As the pegasus alighted on the thatched roof of the cottage, he could already hear small snippets of the conversation going on between the princess and the mare. Russet moved quietly in the direction of the sounds, eventually settling above a small exterior window.
While he dared not look inside to observe the conversers, it was clear that the matter being discussed was sensitive; the princess’s powerful voice was quieted to something approaching a whisper. The near-silent voice of the yellow mare was just barely even audible over that.
The first words Russet heard clearly were from the princess.
“Are you sure Starshade won’t hear us?”
“Yes. The walls are thick enough, so long as we speak quietly,” assured the voice of the mare.
“Good. So, has Starshade handled my not-being-around well?”
“Well…” The mare paused. A quick coaxing from the royal sister, however, fetched a rushed response. “At first – no. Poor little Starshade thought that he had made you angry. I think he still does, even after I told him you were just busy. Despite not telling him–” The cautious mare halted, stopping for a moment. “– you know. The poor little thing’s still quite attached to you.”
“I feared so,” Luna said. “Do you think that he will manage, though?”
“I think, yes. Once I told him about Ponyville he seemed so excited. He hasn’t really been able to spend some time with anypony like him, and I’m afraid that his fondness for learning is beginning to outstrip my abilities; I’ve never really been good at explaining things to other ponies.”
“So you’re still in support of relocating away from the castle.”
The princess’ statement had not been a question, but the mare responded as if it was. “Yes.” Russet could almost hear her head nodding as she continued, “I think it’s what he needs. Even if it means he’ll be so far away from his–” The mare had paused again; apparently she was not very confident in the ability of the cottage walls to muffle everything that was said. Finally, she finished, “– you.”
“Very well,” conceded the princess. “I fear you know him much better than I, now. I just did not expect he would grow so quickly; I thought I would have more time.”
“Oh, Princess. I’m so sorry; I didn’t realize,” consoled the gentle voice of the colt’s caretaker.
Russet could tell that the princess was crying now.
“No. No,” contested the alicorn, her voice unsteady. “Moving is what is best for Starshade. I will just have to make do with visiting as often as I can, I suppose.”
“Are you sure it won’t be too much of a burden? I know we could wait a little longer, if you want.”
“I have made up my mind already, Fluttershy. If you could just fetch him and let me say my goodbyes, I will call for a few servants to pack up your things and send you off. It is best that we do this now; I am afraid I might change my mind if we postpone this much longer.”
“Of course, princess. Starshade will be so happy to talk to you again.”
Russet heard Fluttershy open the room’s door and move into the hallway. The pegasus held his position on the roof, silently waiting. After a minute, he heard the door to the room reopen and the sound of hooves shuffling. The stallion leaned as far over the edge of the roof as he could, listening intently.
Amid the excited clops of young hooves on the room’s wooden floor, Luna spoke first. Her voice was steadier than before, but still bore the telltale sound of a conflicted conscience. “Starshade, it is good to see you again.”
“Oh Miss Luna!” A brief gap of silence occurred as the colt nuzzled up against the princess. Shortly, however, the foal squealed, “I’m so glad you came back! You’re not angry at me anymore, are you?”
“Oh, no,” Luna said. “I’ve never been angry with you; I’ve just been very busy.” Russet could just barely detect the slight pause as the princess lied to the colt.
“That’s what Miss Fluttershy told me,” the colt said, his voice partially muffled by the alicorn’s body, “but I wanted to hear it from you, Miss Luna.”
“Then I believe you have had your request granted. Now, has Fluttershy told you much about Ponyville?”
“Oh! Yes. Lots! It sounds so exciting, but I’m really sad that you won’t be able to come with us. Miss Fluttershy explained that you had a very important job here at the castle, controlling the moon and running Equestria and all, and that Ponyville is just too far away for you to visit every week. That’s the only thing I don’t like.”
Fluttershy, who had been entirely silent up to that point, offered a quiet correction. “She’ll still be able to visit every one in a while.”
Luna continued where Fluttershy had left off, “Of course. And if you ever come to need me, I’ll be just a letter away. Just enjoy your time in Ponyville, and everything will fall into place.”
“Alright, Miss Luna, I’ll try very hard.”
“There’s no need to try, Starshade. Ponyville is the place you belong. I see that now.”
“I’m going to miss you,” the colt said, his voice quieter than before.
“And I you, Starshade.” After a moment and in a considerably more reserved tone, the princess addressed the colt’s caretaker. “Fluttershy, why don’t you and Starshade get started on packing your belongings? Meanwhile, I’ll go and fetch a servant or two to help. If all goes well, you should be on your way to Ponyville by mid afternoon, I think. I will be sure to be there for your sendoff. Until then, goodbye.”
In a split second, Russet was in the air, wings carrying him swiftly in the direction of the castle. As the undercover guard flew, his thoughts were racing. They finally had a way to draw Luna from her seclusion! After all these months of work, he had finally found a solid point of attack. Russet had a long report to write to his cousin when he returned, and, for once, he relished the prospect.
Atop her tower balcony, Princess Celestia basked in the late morning sun. It was just a brief moment of rest for the elder ruler of Equestria, but it was one that was essential to her daily routine.
Throughout the past thousand years of her reign, she had rarely neglected to indulge in the radiant sphere’s warm glow. And even with her sister returned, the sun princess still needed something to keep her anchored. In the past, it had been her day-to-day relationship with Twilight Sparkle, but the accomplished mare had been more than wanting for her relocation to Ponyville.
Thinking of Twilight Sparkle, the sun Celestia’s thoughts drifted to Luna’s discovery of the abandoned pegasus colt. By all accounts, at least, the colt was growing at an astonishing rate. A sign, Celestia knew, of great potential; the same potential that she had seen in the purple unicorn mare many years prior.
Twilight had been one of a very few of the princess’ students that she had become significantly attached to. After centuries upon centuries of everypony that she had ever known flashing into existence and vanishing just as quickly, it took something special to attach the hardened ruler to one particular life. Twilight Sparkle, however, had fit the bill perfectly.
The sun princess only hoped that Luna would avoid becoming too close to the colt; it was a mistake, if it could really be called that, which the Celestia had made far too many times before. In the end, it always hurt. It was a good pain, of course, one of fulfillment and inevitability, but Celestia feared that it might injure her sensitive sister overly.
As Celestia thought, she stared idly over the edge of the balcony. Down below, she spotted a rather rushed-looking pegasus guard as he rounded the far corner of the castle, evidently bound for the guard quarters. She afforded the guard only a brief thought before turning her mind back to her duties. Much of the day still remained, and her presence was, without a doubt, already required in some matter.
Sighing, Celestia rouse and turned to exit the balcony. As the she trotted slowly through her bedroom, she thought of Twilight Sparkle, her friends, and the other ponies of Ponyville. She thought of the ponies in Manehattan and the pegasi of Cloudsdale. She thought of her citizens and her realm.
If only she had listened to Luna earlier. If only she had not clung to the dying structure of ages past even as her sister rebelled. A thousand years of loneliness and regret could have been avoided. It had taken her so long to see the wisdom embedded in the scribbled writings of her co-ruler. Far too long.
Even in the year since Luna’s return, she felt as if a piece of the prior sister had been lost to Nightmare Moon. Perhaps, she hoped, the colt would serve to rekindle her sister’s inner fire. He would give Luna something to invest in, something to be attached to.
This was why Celestia had avoided becoming involved with Fluttershy and the colt. He was what Luna needed most, and Celestia would never again deprive her sister of what she needed, be it a voice of understanding and support or the love of a little colt.
Spike padded giddily down Stirrup Street, subconsciously navigating his way through the scores of hooves that trotted along the cobbled road. His mind, as per the usual, was on Rarity. It was a rare event that he could find the nerve to ask his caretaker for a couple hours to himself, which made the time spent with Rarity all the more precious to him.
Spike’s walked up to the wooden door of the Books and Branches Library and pushed the panel aside.
As the door opened, Spike heard the Cobalt’s voice. “… and this is Forgotten Equestrian Politics: Volume IV. This particular work has received some rather negative reviews from other scholars, but I think that if you just sit down and read it from an objective standpoint you will find that it contains much more than just a grain of truth. It comes very highly recommended from me, for what that means to you.”
“Well, if that’s the case, I think give – what did you call it, again? – Forgotten Equestrian Politics?” Tantalus nodded as the other stallion continued, “I’ve always been interested in interpretations of Equestrian history.”
“Very well then, here you go. It’s a rather quick read, but I do think you’ll find it quite enlightening.”
Spike watched as the dark-coated stallion smoothly levitated the leather-bound book to the earth pony, worry already working its way onto his scaled face.
Book securely stowed in the saddlebags that were strapped to his side, the hourglass-flanked stallion trotted pleasedly past the onlooking dragon, offering him a curt nod.
As the earth pony exited, Tantalus called after him, “Oh! And try to remember to have that book back by the end of the week; it’s a two bit late fee per day, otherwise.”
“Will do,” the earth pony said as he nodded. “Thanks again, Mr. Rooks.”
“No problem. I do hope you enjoy the book. Oh, and please come again.”
“I’ve no doubt that I will – on both accounts. Goodbye.”
With those words, the patron exited, leaving Tantalus and Spike alone on the library’s ground floor. The dragon was brooding, eliciting a rather puzzled look from Tantalus.
Cobalt doesn’t have the authority to loan out a book! How could he just step in and take over my job like that?
The dragon’s thoughts were interrupted as Tantalus opened his mouth to speak. “Well, hello there, Spike. Did everything with Rarity go alright?” At the forged look of confusion that materialized on the dragon, Tantalus chided, “Oh, that look isn’t going to get you anywhere; I know exactly what you’ve been doing on all those breaks you take. It’s alright; it’s perfectly natural – more or less. I think Rarity’s very lucky to be the object of such affection. But that’s not why you’re worried, is it? What’s wrong, Spike?”
Spike wanted to answer, wanted to make the interloper know his place, but found that he could not.
Tantalus watched, first shocked, and then surprised, as a flaming parchment projectile shot from the dragon’s mouth and came to rest in his outstretched claw. “A – A letter?” Tantalus said, taking a cautious step forwards.
“Yah,” returned Spike, “And it looks to be from Luna too. Twilight will definitely be surprised; the princess almost never sends her any letters – much less through me.”
“From Princess Luna? Oh my.” Tantalus’ ears folded back as he spoke, his hooves directing him to shy away from the letter.
Spike raised his brow; Twilight had not told him of Tantalus’s history, a secret which she had promised to keep closely. “Uh… I don’t think it’s going to bite, Cobalt. You’d better get used to it; it happens quite often around here. The letters are usually from Celestia, though.”
As Spike spoke, he padded over to the wall opposite the library’s loft and placed the scroll, still unopened, on the podium beside Owlowiscious’s perch. Tantalus trailed behind him, keeping his eyes fixed on the sealed letter.
Spike turned from the podium and faced the stallion. After a moment, Tantalus asked, “So, how would you feel if I stared working at the library? Twilight hinted at an offer earlier, and I think it’ll probably be the best job offer I’ll get here in Ponyville.”
Spike’s jaw fell slack as his pupils went wide. No! a voice inside his mind shouted. The dragon wanted to yell, to deny the stallion outright then and there. Cobalt was not going to be replacing him as the library’s caretaker. Never.
Anger only mostly suppressed, the dragon snapped, “Don’t you have enough bits from that zebra bracelet of yours to live on?”
“Not for the rest of my life, I don’t,” Tantalus returned. “Besides, I don’t have anything else productive to do; it would be foalish of me to not start earning a living.”
“Library work won’t pay well,” Spike countered.
“I know. But what else could I do? I don’t have any credentials; in fact I’ve almost no history in Equestria at all. The only other thing I might be able to do is teach magic, but what pony here in Ponyville needs a magic teacher?”
“Nopony,” admitted Spike.
Tantalus shifted his weight gently, sliding back onto his haunches and leaning in close to the baby dragon as he spoke. “Besides, it’ll take some load off Twilight – with her not having to manage the library so much – and I’m sure it will give you plenty of free time to help with her studies.” With a raised eyebrow the stallion hinted, “And maybe even spend some more time with Rarity?”
Spike turned his head from Tantalus, arms crossed. Before the baby dragon could find something to say, Twilight pushed open the library’s door and trotted inside.
As the mare entered, Tantalus saw that her sides were laden with saddlebags filled to the bursting with what appeared to be an assortment of roots, leaves, and grasses. The purple unicorn was too occupied with the bags to notice Spike’s discontentment.
Barely looking up from her shed saddlebags, Twilight said, “So, Cobalt, I met a pony on the street that said you lent him a book from the library. Did you really do that?”
Tantalus’ ears folded back as he said, “Yes.”
Twilight smiled. “Well it seems he was quite pleased with the book you helped him find. I appreciate you taking the initiative and lending it out to him; just because Spike and I are gone doesn’t mean that this place needs to close down. I know I hinted at an offer of working here earlier, but what would you say to an official request?”
“I’d be much obliged, Miss Sparkle.”
“What about you, Spike?” asked the mare, finally looking upwards.
The brutal scowl on the dragon’s face was answer enough.
“Don’t be silly, Spike. You’ve been asking for more and more free time lately, and I think it’d be good for you to make use of the lightened load. You can’t stay cooped up in here tending books all day; even Owlowiscious gets out every once in a while. Besides, it’d take a world of a burden off my back; you may sort the books, but in the end I seem to be the one who issues cards and collects fees.”
Tantalus took the momentary pause to interject, “If it’ll cause a problem between you and Spike, I think I’ll have to decline your offer. I don’t want to shake things up.”
Twilight shook her head. “Don’t worry; Spike and I have been through this before when Owlowiscious started helping me. I thought we’d’ve moved past this by now.”
“I’m not jealous, Twilight,” the dragon lied in response.
“I’m sorry, Spike; but do you really think that Cobalt helping out around here is a bad idea?”
Spike averted his gaze as he answered, instead directing his eyes towards the library’s wooden floor and idly grinding a claw gently against the wooden surface. “No. I don’t.”
“Very good, then. Now, did anything else happen while I was away?”
“Yes,” Spike answered, perking up at the opportunity to assist Twilight. “A letter came in. It’s from Luna.”
“From Luna?” Twilight repeated.
“Yah,” Spike said, pointing a claw. “I set it over there on the podium. Lemme grab it.”
“Don’t worry, Spike. I’ve got it,” assured Twilight. Within moments, the scroll was in the grasp of her magic, hovering just inches before her muzzle, unfurled. “Well, it may have had Luna’s seal, but it’s from Fluttershy. She probably asked Luna to send it for her. It says that she’s coming back to Ponyville, and that she’s bringing along a young colt to live with her. It looks like Luna found him on the street and adopted him, and then asked Fluttershy to look after him. So that’s what she’s been doing all these months! I wonder why she kept it so secret.”
“Probably didn’t want word getting out that the once-Nightmare-Moon adopted a colt,” offered Spike. The baby dragon shrunk back at the look of disapproval that Twilight shot at him. “Just sayin’.”
Twilight continued, “Well, whatever the cause, I’m sure Luna and Fluttershy had good reason. Fluttershy and the colt will probably be here in less than a half hour, too.” The mare turned to Tantalus. “I’m sorry, Cobalt, but I think this means your housing situation is going to be in jeopardy. Anyways, I guess we’ll have to cross that bridge when we get to it. For now, I’ll try to round up Pinkie and Rarity. Spike,” she said, facing the dragon, “could you find Rainbow Dash and ask her to go get Applejack? She should be at the farm.”
“Right away, Twilight,” chirped Spike as he rushed out of the library.
Tantalus watched as Twilight followed the dragon with her eyes for a moment before looking back him.
After a moment, she asked, “Do you think you could watch the library for me? Actually… scratch that.” Twilight, with a wink, corrected, “Now that you work here, just keep doing your job.”
“Of course. But if what you said is true, you probably don’t have much time – especially if Pinkie’s going to need to prepare a ‘welcome-back-to-Ponyville-and-hello-new-colt’ party.”
Twilight chuckled. “I didn’t think of that, honestly. Anyways, I’ll be sure to find her first.” With a smile, the mare finished, “Thanks so much for taking care of the library. I promise when this all clears up I’ll discuss your payment and schedule with you.”
“Whenever is best. There’s no rush at all.”
“Of course. I’ll see you at the party.”
Tantalus returned the mare’s smile. “I look forward to it.”
This time, the stallion really was enthusiastic about the pending celebration; he was particularly interested in meeting Fluttershy, and was intrigued by the colt which Luna had seen fit to adopt.
Figuring it could do no harm, Tantalus picked up the letter with his magic and scanned the hoofwritten text. His eyes stopped abruptly, caught on the name of the colt.
The parchment dropped to the floor as the stallion staggered backwards. It’s just a coincidence. It’s just a coincidence, Tantalus tried to reassure himself.
Sitting on his haunches, lost in thought, Tantalus Starshade waited for somepony to enter the library and distract him from his worries.
The crisp high-altitude air tore through Starshade’s teal mane as he leaned his head further out of the carriage. The colt drew a deep breath and forced open his eyes. Down below, the ground shrunk ever further away as the royal carriage climbed higher and higher into the Equestrian sky. Starshade, in the distance, could just make out the winding Everfree River. The colt turned his gaze upwards.
Just above him, a pocket of sparse clouds swirled in their westbound course. He wondered what they felt like. Fluttershy knew, of course, and had tried to explain the feeling, but the pegasus had yet to experience it for himself. Oh the times that he had asked her to take him flying! She had always said “no”, of course; explaining how it would be too dangerous or how it would draw too much attention.
But, by Celestia, this little pegasus wanted to fly! Even if his wings were too small to support him.
Starshade forced his body even further out of the carriage, allowing his forelegs to dangle against the frame’s exterior while his back legs remained hooked securely around the thin brass bar at the base of the door. The air was cold, almost too cold, but Starshade was much too occupied with the sensation of airflow against his body to notice his light shivering.
He knew Fluttershy would stop him as soon as she noticed, but he was determined to enjoy every moment of that false-flight that he could. This was what pegasi were meant to do; Fluttershy’s animal obsession was just an anomaly, an unnatural aberration. Now Starshade understood the mare’s stories about Rainbow Dash.
What kind of pegasus wouldn’t want to be the fastest flyer? The obvious answer came immediately. Well, one like Fluttershy.
But Starshade did not want to be like Fluttershy; he knew that much. And, now, he was certain that he wanted to be like Rainbow Dash.
What was that thing called? A “cutie mark”? Yah. I’m going to have wings or an airstream or something like that for a cutie mark. Defin–
As he thought, the colt’s gaze had wandered downwards once again. The carriage jerked sharply, filling Starshade’s stomach with the most uncomfortable feeling he had ever experienced. For a split moment, he knew he was going to die.
The colt blinked. He was still alive and still clinging tightly as ever to the carriage door with his rear legs. The invigorating wind was still whipping his mane into a disorganized frill of teal hair. The sickening sensation of falling had vanished, only to be replaced by one much worse. One that caused him to shake his mane in an attempt to banish it.
He was not afraid; he was a pegasus! He had just been caught off guard. He was going to love flying, just like Rainbow Dash.
“Okay, Starshade. It’s going to be dark when we go inside, and then somepony will turn on the lights and everypony will shout ‘surprise’ and then you’ll get to meet a lot of other ponies who will say ‘hello’ and try to shake your hoof and ask you loads of questions. Are you ready?”
Starshade nodded wordlessly to his caretaker.
“Please try to act surprised, okay?” Fluttershy insisted. “I don’t want us to upset Pinkie.”
“Of course,” Starshade said.
“It might be a bit overwhelming at first, but I promise that Pinkie will make sure everything goes alright.”
Starshade glanced to his side. “You said that there might be some foals my age here, right? That’ll be so fun!”
“Maybe,” Fluttershy answered. “Pinkie probably knows that I brought you along, and I think she would’ve invited a colt or filly or two to help keep you entertained.”
“And I’ll get to meet Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, and Rainbow Dash?”
“Yes,” Fluttershy said with a nod. “And Rarity, too.”
“Awesome. I hope they’ll like me.”
Fluttershy put a hoof on Starshade’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about that. Just be you. I tried once to be somepony that I wasn’t and I felt so out of place. It wasn’t till I met all those cute little animals below Cloudsdale that I realized I should have just been myself and left flight school earlier.”
Starshade nodded. He had never experienced any problems being himself in the past. “I will.”
“Just try to stay close.”
Fluttershy pushed open the door to her cottage. Starshade galloped past her, rushing headfirst into the dark interior. He felt his head hit something. It was soft, and it grunted.
“Ah. Uh… Surprise?” a stallion’s voice said from somewhere above Starshade.
After a split second of silence, a chorus of considerably more exuberant ponies shouted, “Surprise!”
The little pony’s eyes snapped shut as a bright light illuminated the room. Amid scattered cries of “Welcome to Ponyville,” the colt slowly opened his eyes.
The afterimage of the light obscured the foal’s vision, but he could tell that he was standing in front of something blue and brown. Something that was silent in spite of all the friendly and very loud ponies around it. Something that was trying very hard to distance itself from him.
“Ah Starshade, it seems you’ve run into Cobalt already,” a mare said.
Starshade looked in the direction of the voice. A purple blob stood to his right, and the colt could just make out a single extended hoof protruding from the shape. He reached out his own hoof and interlocked it with the blob’s, using the support to pull himself up.
Starshade blinked, clearing the afterimage slightly. The purple mass resolved into a horned head. “You are Starshade, right?” it asked.
The colt nodded, still slightly disoriented.
“I’m Twilight Sparkle,” the mare continued. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Twilight gestured in the direction of the blue figure that the colt had collided with. “And this fine pony, as I said before, is Cobalt Rooks.”
The stallion mouthed some words, the sounds only barely escaping his mouth as his eyes darted between Starshade and some location off to his side. “It’s a pleasure,” he finally managed.
Twilight raised a hoof to scratch her mane. She looked back and forth between the stallion beside her and the little colt.
After a few seconds, Starshade, a puzzled look on his face, said, “Uh… It’s nice to meet you both too. I’m… um… going to find Rainbow Dash now. Do either of you know where she is?”
Tantalus shook his head and mouthed a quiet “No”.
Twilight, however, pointed a hoof in the direction of Fluttershy’s living room. “I think she’s back there with Pinkie. She was helping her put up a few last-minute decorations. You and Fluttershy arrived a little earlier than we expected.”
Starshade nodded. “Thank you. I guess I’ll talk to you again, sometime. Alright?”
As Starshade trotted excitedly away in the direction of the living room, Twilight turned to face Tantalus. “Is everything alright, Cobalt?”
“Yah. Uh… I’m going to go and find Fluttershy. I need to figure out this whole housing thing.”
“Okay. I’ll try to catch up with Starshade; I want to make sure he meets everypony that he needs to. If Fluttershy’s letter is anything to go by, the colt should be going into Cheerilee’s class. I think she’s around here somewhere. Applebloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo too.”
As Tantalus turned to begin his search for Fluttershy, Twilight hurriedly added, “Oh. And if everything doesn’t work out with Fluttershy, you’re welcome to stay with me at the library. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it has a pretty large basement that I’m not really using for much anymore. It’d take some cleaning, but I think it’s habitable. Besides, it would save you the walk every morning into Ponyville.”
The stallion smiled. “I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you very much for the offer.”
“Not a problem at all. Oh. And if we don’t get a chance to talk again here, I’ll meet you back at the library. Okay?”
“Got it. Thanks again, Twilight.”
Rainbow Dash. Sky blue coat. Multicolored mane. Sky blue coat. Multicolored mane. Ugh! Where is she?
The small pegasus was becoming frustrated; he had been trying to locate the pegasus mare within the sea of hooves that surrounded him for several minutes.
Starshade, struck by an idea, turned his eyes to the ceiling. Fluttershy had made the point of telling him that Rainbow Dash liked to fly everywhere, even indoors. The colt craned his neck to peer through the mass of stallions and mares above him.
Starshade collided with something soft. He had hit plenty of legs already, but this one felt different. The colt looked up from his prone position on the floor. An orange pegasus filly with a magenta mane lay across from him. Three of her legs were splayed outward against the floor, the forth trapped somewhere beneath her belly.
Despite her awkward position, an excited look formed in her purple eyes. Fanning her wings as she pushed herself to her hooves, the filly said, “I don’t recognize you. Are you the new colt?”
“Yes,” Starshade answered as he steadied his gait. “I’m Starshade.”
Starshade flapped his wings, trying to pull himself up like the filly had. After a few seconds, he sighed and pushed himself up with legpower alone.
“Oh?” the filly answered, “That’s a really cool name. I’m Scootaloo.”
Starshade glanced at the floor. “Thanks. Yours is pretty neat too.”
“Twilight Sparkle told Applebloom, Sweetie Belle, and I that you’ll be living here with Fluttershy and that you’re going to be in our class. She said you’ve never been to school before.”
“Well, sort of. Fluttershy’s taught me a lot over the last five or six months – I’ve spent most of my time learning things.”
“But you didn’t have to go to class, right?” Scootaloo said.
“Yah, that’s right.”
The filly’s eyes went wide. “Oh. You’re so lucky. And you’ve only been homeschooled for a few months? You must have so much free time to have fun.”
“What do you mean? Learning is fun. I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember.”
“As long as you can remember?” Scootaloo said. “Wait, just exactly how old are you?”
“Well, Fluttershy told me not to tell anypony, but she said I’ll turn one in two weeks.”
“That’s amazing,” Scootaloo said. “You look almost as old as Applebloom.”
Another voice interjected, “Did somepony say mah name?”
Two more fillies trotted up alongside Scootaloo. One, the speaker, had a yellow coat and a big pink ribbon in her rose-colored mane. The other, a unicorn, had a white coat and two-colored mane that was split between purple and light pink.
The yellow one continued, “What was that you’re sayin’ about mah age? I’m younger than ya, you know.” The white one nudged the yellow filly with her foreleg and gestured at Starshade. “Wha–? Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t see ya there. Mah name's Applebloom. Ah bet that you’re that new pony Twilight told us about, right?”
Scootaloo answered. “Yah. He is. He’s got an awesome name too. It’s Starshade.”
The colt nodded weakly, his ears folding back against his head. He liked his name, but he did not think it was anything special. “It’s nice to meet you, Applebloom,” Starshade said. Turning to the snow-coated unicorn, he asked, “Who are you?”
“I’m Sweetie Belle,” the filly answered. “You’re going to be in our class, right?”
“From what Scootaloo said, I think so.”
“That’s going to be really fun. Miss Cheerilee is such a good teacher.”
Scootaloo looked excitedly at the other two fillies. “Did you know that Starshade’s not even a year old? That’s so cool.”
Applebloom had a puzzled expression on her face as she said, “Are… are you some kinda genius or somethin’?”
“Uh… I don’t know. I did here Princess Luna say that I learned quickly once.”
“Wait,” Applebloom said. “Did ya say you know Princess Luna?”
“Yah. She used to visit Fluttershy and me once or twice a week back in Canterlot.”
Sweetie Belle interjected, “Oooh. I bet Luna’s doing the same thing with you that Princess Celestia did with Twilight! You’re so lucky.”
“Uh… What’s that?”
“Well, Twilight said that Celestia sort-of adopted her when she figured out that she was really good at magic. I bet Luna’s doing the same thing with you. Only without the magic part,” Sweetie Belle explained. Continuing, the white filly asked, “Did Luna invite you to some sort of special school? Did you have to leave your parents to live with Fluttershy in Canterlot?”
“No. Fluttershy homeschooled him,” answered Scootaloo. “But that’s still a good question. Where are your parents?”
“I… Um… I don’t know. Fluttershy and Luna don’t know. They found me somewhere in Canterlot.”
“Oh. I’m so sorry,” Scootaloo said. “I lost my parents awhile back. Now I just live with Cheerilee. But at least I got to know them. I don’t know why somepony would abandon a colt like you.”
“Scootaloo!” Sweetie Belle and Applebloom shouted in unison.
“What a thing to say!” Applebloom continued. “Ya need to be more considerate, Scootaloo. I’m sorry, Starshade.”
Starshade was silent. Sure, he had considered the possibility that he had been abandoned before, but he certainly did not feel like he had been abandoned. Still, coming from another pony, it felt different. Scootaloo had not upset him, but she had brought the painful idea to Starshade’s mind. Why had his parents left him on the streets of Canterlot?
Shaking his mane, the colt dismissed, “Oh. It’s alright. Fluttershy and Luna are sort of my parents now.”
“So… Uh…” Applebloom picked up, “It was nice talking to you, Starshade. I guess we’ll see you in school soon. Come on, girls, I saw Pinkie filling some balloons over by the punch. How does Cutie Mark Crusader party balloon fillers sound?”
“Awesome,” “I like that idea,” Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle answered before bounding off after Applebloom.
Calling out from behind them, Starshade asked, “Before you go, does anypony know where Rainbow Dash is?”
Scootaloo shouted back, “I think she’s by the entryway. You probably just missed her; she was hanging up decorations in the air.”
Starshade turned and headed in the direction of the Cottage’s ground-floor door.
“Hey there, tyke,” a voice said from somewhere above Starshade. “I take it you’re Starshade?”
The colt looked up and into the eyes of Rainbow Dash. The sky-blue coat. The vibrant rainbow mane. The mare looked every bit as impressive as Fluttershy had described her.
“Yah,” the colt answered. “And you’re Rainbow Dash, right? The fastest flyer in Equestria?”
“Of course,” answered the pegasus with a flick of her mane. “The one and only.”
“I’m so glad I found you! You don’t know how long I’ve been looking.”
“An eager fan already, I see? Fluttershy must’ve done me justice.” The mare continued hovering above Starshade, letting her rear legs dangle limply just in front of his muzzle. The colt had to twist his neck just to make eye contact with the mare as she continued speaking. “I talked to Fluttershy already and she said that you haven’t seen any professional flying shows. Fortunately, I’ve managed to round up some tickets for the Wonderbolts. It’s not for four months or so, but I don’t think Rarity would really want to come; it’s not even in Cloudsdale this time, much less Canterlot. Maybe you could convince her to give you her ticket? I’m sure she would actually appreciate you taking it off of her hooves.”
“Uh… That sounds really cool, but who are the Wonderbolts?”
“Only the best stunt flyers in all of Equestria – aside from me, of course. No pegasus’ life is complete without seeing one of their shows. I can’t believe Fluttershy didn’t tell you about them.” The mare uncrossed her forelegs and put a single hoof to her chin. “Actually, I guess I can. Anyways, how does that sound, Starshade?”
“I… I… That sounds great! Thank you so much for the offer, Miss Rainbow Dash.”
“Well, you don’t have the ticket yet. And don’t call me ‘miss’. I’m just Rainbow Dash.”
“You’ve got it, Rainbow Dash.”
“Yah. I know.” Turning in the direction of the punch bowl, the mare, with another flick of her rainbow mane, said, “Catch ya later, colt,” and speed off to the refreshment table.
Twilight Sparkle paced about her loft. Her hoofsteps were light, purposely restrained to avoid waking Spike.
The purple mare looked out the small window to her side. From the position of the moon, she could tell that it was several hours past midnight. A quick glance at the hourglass beside the windowsill confirmed her observation.
Downstairs, echoing from the door to the library’s basement, she could just barely hear the muffled sounds of worried hoofsteps. Cobalt was sleepless as well.
She could only guess at what was keeping him awake.
Twilight shook her head. No. She did not need to guess; she knew. It was Luna.
The mare drew in a breath to chuckle, but halted herself at the thought of Spike. In a way, it was Luna that now kept her awake too.
Twilight looked out the window again, this time seating herself in front of it instead of just standing. She let the breath she held escape as a quiet sigh.
Cobalt had told his story to her over a month ago, but it had only begun to sink to the mare’s mind in after the stallion had moved into the basement. There was one thing he had not said, though, as he detailed his past to her. The stallion had not answered the one question that Twilight did not have the courage to ask. She repeated it to herself, letting the words form silently on her lips.
Do you still love Luna?
It was a simple question, but before the mare could find the words to pose it, she had known the answer. She could see it in Cobalt’s eyes as he talked about her.
He did not know.
Twilight thought of Luna. The small, fragile alicorn that persisted after the defeat of Nightmare Moon was hardly at fault for Cobalt’s current state, but Twilight still blamed her. She wanted Cobalt to be at peace, and Luna was the one keeping him from it.
That was why she had given him the basement room and the job as the librarian. She just wanted him to not have to worry, to be able to start again free of the concerns of his past life.
That was what she told herself, at least.
The unicorn looked out the window again, focusing directly on the silver orb that hung amid the countless stars. Twilight blinked, but her eyelids refused to reopen. Her head nodded, almost touching the wooden floor before she caught herself.
Downstairs, the sound of pacing hoofsteps had ceased.
It was late; she needed to sleep now. Fluttershy and Starshade were to stop by later that morning to pick up schoolbooks, and she wanted to be awake to see the colt off on his first day of school.
Starshade shifted under the weight of his saddlebags as he followed Fluttershy through the streets of Ponyville. In his rush to prepare for school, he had improperly fastened the satchels to his back. A metal buckle was chafing against the base of his left wing, causing him some minor discomfort. But the colt was not about to stop to refasten the straps; he did not want to be late.
Fluttershy trotted slowly behind the eager colt, always four or five steps from being alongside him. Starshade kept glancing back, silently urging the mare to quicken her pace.
“Starshade,” she called as foal started cantering ahead more quickly.
Through the general bustle along the wide street, the colt barely heard her. Glancing back and slowing to a trot to allow the mare to catch up, he asked, “Yes?”
“Did you forget already? We need to stop by the library first.” The mare gestured down a side street as she added, “We still have a couple books to pick up.”
“Oh. Right,” Starshade said, his ears flat against the side of his head.
The saddlebags were already quite heavy with the books and supplies that Fluttershy had already purchased for him. Did he really need any more books?
“Don’t worry,” Fluttershy preempted. “We’ll still be on time. I woke you up an hour early just in case.”
“Mm.” The colt nodded and asked, “What are these books for, again?”
“They’re for astronomy.”
“Uh,” he whined, “astronomy?”
“Luna had me ask Cheerilee if you could take the class early, and she agreed. The princess really thought you would enjoy it.”
“Oh,” said Starshade. He looked at the ground.
“But you don’t have to go if you don’t want. We could always just tell Cheerilee–”
“Oh. No. I didn’t mean it like that. If Miss Luna thinks I’ll enjoy then it I’m sure I will. Really.” The colt nodded to reinforce his point. The princess always knew what he liked, even better than Fluttershy.
“Okay. But if you’re not sure I know Cheerilee won’t mind. Foals your age don’t usually learn astronomy until next year.”
“I want to learn it,” Starshade insisted. “It’s her sky.”
“Alright,” Fluttershy said. “The Books and Branches library is just this way, off Stirrup Street. Hey, we might see Twilight again! She loves astronomy, you know.”
“Really?” the colt asked. He liked Twilight Sparkle; she was smart.
“She has two telescopes.”
“One for each eye?”
Fluttershy looked to her side. The colt was sporting a playful grin, eyebrows raised in anticipation.
Fluttershy looked forward again, not wanting to see Starshade’s face. His attempts to joke with her were rare; he had learned long ago that the majority fell flat to her.
She tried to laugh. A few quiet squeaks escaped her mouth, but not much more.
Maybe he had looked to the side and smiled at her effort, maybe he had not. All she knew that Starshade was quiet until they reached the library; the only sound she heard, aside from the quiet clops of his hooves, came from the ruffling of his wings against the saddlebags.
The mare pushed open the library’s wooden door. A sole stallion was ground floor’s only occupant. Though his face was obscured by the cover of a thick book, she recognized him as Cobalt Rooks.
At the sound of hoofsteps on the library’s floor, the stallion looked up. Carefully sliding a bookmark between the pages of the book and closing it, he levitated the volume onto the small table beside him. “Ah. Miss Fluttershy. Is there anything I can do for you this morning?”
“I’m so sorry about the cottage.” She blurted it out; it was the first thought that came to her mind.
She blushed instantaneously.
“Oh, that?” he answered, “Don’t worry; Twilight’s letting me live in the basement, now.” Tapping the floor with his hoof, he added, “It keeps me close to my job.”
“You… uh… work here, now?”
“Oh. Um... In that case, Twilight’s supposed to have some astronomy books for Starshade here.”
The mare stepped aside to reveal the little pegasus. He was still outside the library, his haunches resting on the surface of the street. His head had been turned to the side, where he was nibbling at the base of his left wing, but at the mention of his name he had looked up.
Tantalus made eye contact, taking in the gaze of the inquisitive green irises. The pegasus colt blinked.
Drawing breath through a lopsided grin, the foal exclaimed, “Hey Cobalt! I didn’t know you worked at the library.”
Tantalus blinked. The anxiety, where was it?
“I’ve not been here too long. I started last week – on the day you arrived, actually.” Tantalus motioned the pegasus into the library as he continued. “Now, why don’t you come inside and we can get you those books? They came in just last night; we had to order a set all the way from Canterlot. Twilight was surprised, though. She said that they don’t normally fill orders that fast. And Ditzy Doo – you know her? She’s the mailmare. Anyways, she delivered them herself, which I guess is irregular. So it seems you’re pretty lucky they’re in now.”
Three books assembled themselves into a stack beside the colt, arranged by Tantalus’ gray-blue magic. The set before him was different from the brand new schoolbooks that he already carried; these books looked worn, well loved.
Starshade glanced at the title of the book on the top. The Stars and Their Motions: A Catalog of Constellation Cycles
It did not sound very entertaining. Not in the slightest. But he trusted Luna.
“Thanks,” said the small pegasus. The word came out more dejectedly than he intended.
“Not one for astronomy, eh?” said Tantalus.
“I don’t really know.”
“It wasn’t my favorite subject either,” the stallion admitted, “but it gets better as you go along. There’re only so many names and patterns you can memorize before you start wondering why the stars look and move the way they do. That’s cosmology. Astronomy traditionally segues right into it.”
The stallion lifted the pile of books, extracting the one situated on the bottom and placing it on the top before letting the stack return to rest.
Starshade eyed the title. Modern Cosmology.
“And by the looks of it,” continued Tantalus, “I’d say that’s exactly where you’re headed.”
His curiously slightly engaged, the colt asked, “What exactly is ‘cosmology’?”
“It’s the science that tries to explain how the stars and planets got there, and what they’re going to do.”
“Ah,” the pegasus said, “That sounds much more interesting.”
“I’m glad you think so. It’s a fascinating field; there’s been so much progress in the last millennium.” Removing his gaze from Starshade, the stallion faced Fluttershy. “Now, is there anything else you need this morning?”
Starshade eyed the yellow mare as she shook her head wordlessly. Fluttershy looked particularly nervous; her ears were folded and her back was arched, causing her mane to drag against the ground as she shied away. Her eyes flicked back and forth in their sockets, never straying on Tantalus for but a moment.
With a look of some confusion the unicorn said, “Alright then.” Tantalus used his magic to flip open one of Starshade’s saddlebags and slid the worn schoolbooks inside as he spoke. “I hope you’ll enjoy your first day at school.”
“I will,” Starshade assured. The small pegasus pony rose to his hooves, momentarily battling the newfound weight on his back. Turning to his silent caretaker, he urged, “Let’s get going, Miss Fluttershy. I don’t want to be late.”
Gathering herself, the mare followed Starshade out the library door. Before she exited, however, a short farewell formed noiselessly on her lips.
Twilight Sparkle bounded down the staircase from her loft.
Argh. I hope Starshade and Fluttershy haven’t come yet. Why did I have to stay up so late? It’s not like I couldn’t have worried about Cobalt in the morning.
The mare jumped the last several steps and landed on the library’s ground floor with a loud clop.
“Late for something?” asked Tantalus from behind a thick book.
“I just wanted to see Starshade off on his first day of school. Has Fluttershy stopped by yet?”
“Yah. About an hour ago,” answered the stallion, “School’s probably started already.”
“I guess I won’t be able to catch up with them, then. Did they get the astronomy and cosmology books alright?”
“Yes,” Tantalus said, flipping a page. “I’m surprised that they were so worn, though. I just noticed that this morning because of the light.”
“Really? That’s strange. I wonder why they wouldn’t send new copies. The Canterlot Library usually keeps schoolbooks like that in stock.”
“Well, if there’s any problem, I’m sure Starshade will manage for at least one day. He’ll be able to return them.”
“You’re right. It shouldn’t be a problem.”
The mare advanced towards Tantalus from her position by the stairwell. From on top of one of the bookshelves beside the stallion, she levitated a small brown box.
Tantalus looked up from the book he was reading and into Twilight’s violet eyes. The mare was grinning.
“So,” she started, “since I have nothing to do this morning, now, would you be interested in a game or two of chess?”
The stallion set the book he was reading down beside him, laying the volume binding-up to ensure that his place was saved.
Twilight shrieked, levitating the book into the air in a flash and inserting a bookmark between the pages before setting it back down on its side.
Tantalus blinked and Twilight blushed.
After a moment, the stallion slowly said, “I, uh, most certainly would be interested in some chess.”
“Okay, class!” Cheerilee addressed her students between an unnaturally wide grin, “I trust you all remembered to bring your Catalog of Constellation Cycles, correct?”
Several students nodded, among them Sweetie Belle, Applebloom, Silver Spoon, and Diamond Tiara. Twist had also appended an enthusiastic shout to the end of her nods.
The filly beside Starshade, however, had not nodded. The orange pegasus was looking at the floor dejectedly, avoiding eye contact with the magenta mare at the head of the classroom at all costs.
The orange filly responded between gritted teeth. “She’s going to kill me if she finds out I forgot the book again.”
“Is everything alright, blank-flank?” Silver Spoon whispered from in front of Scootaloo, barely even turning to make herself heard. “You’re going to miss your precious recess again if you forgot your Catalog. Oh. Won’t that be just a shame? Stuck inside here with nothing fun to do and none of your blank-flank friends to gabble with.”
Starshade acted instantaneously. Selecting the volume from the saddlebags beneath his desk, the pegasus pushed his worn copy of the book in Scootaloo’s direction.
The filly looked back at Starshade, quite confused. “But won’t you…?”
“Don’t worry. It only arrived last night.”
Starshade did not want his first day of learning with Miss Cheerilee to harbor deceit, but it was hardly a wrongdoing that would bother him. He wanted to speak with Scootaloo at recess more than he was interested in astronomy.
“I can just say I haven’t gotten it yet.”
Silver Spoon humphed before turning back towards the front of the classroom. She was mumbling under her breath, but Starshade could not decipher the words.
Scootaloo smiled as she lifted the book onto her desk. “Thank y–”
“Alright,” Cheerilee interrupted, “Would everypony please turn to page 86?”
A chorus of flipping pages filled the room. Starshade sat quietly as the colts and fillies found the page, one of his hooves raised to draw Cheerilee’s attention.
“Yes, Starshade?” the teacher said.
“My copy hasn’t been delivered from Canterlot yet,” the colt said flatly.
“Oh yes. I suppose you can share with Scootaloo for the time being. It’s a miracle that she remembered to bring hers anyways; I could’ve sworn I saw her leave it on a table back at home. Just scoot your desk next to her and we can get started.”
Starshade eagerly complied. As he pushed the desk across the floor, a grating noise filled the small learning space. Though the sound was short-lived, all the eyes in the room were trained on the colt as he took his place beside Scootaloo.
The filly, in fact, was the only pony in the room not looking at Starshade. Instead, her attention was focused entirely on the open volume before her. She was not blinking.
“Starshade,” Scootaloo asked in a voice just above a whisper, “did you write all this?”
The colt pulled the book closer to him and read the page. Small snatches of hoofwritten text were sprinkled in the book’s margins, beside pictures, and even between printed lines. At the bottom of the page, a small sketch was accompanied by figures that were mostly incomprehensible to Starshade. The colt, however, could pick out some familiar mathematical signs from the blocks of symbols.
“No. I didn’t,” he said, shaking his head.
Saving the place with his left hoof, Starshade flipped the book to the inside cover. There, in the same hoofwriting as the calculative scribbles, was a message.
My Dearest Starshade,
When I heard of the request for a copy of this particular book, I couldn’t help but feel that you might make better use of this volume than I. While some of the notes might be a bit beyond your ability to understand, I’m sure you’ll find the remainder quite enlightening and helpful.
~ Princess Luna
Scootaloo stared at the message. “You weren’t foaling when you said Luna was looking out for you, huh?”
“I guess not.”
“What about those scribbles? They looked like some kind of math. Can you read them?”
Starshade flipped back to page 86 and stared at the equations, racking his brain for any memories of the symbols before him.
“Only bits and pieces. I can’t make any sense of most of them. What about the other notes, do they make any sense to you?”
Scootaloo examined the text closely, squinting. “Yah. I remember Cheerilee talking about some of these things.”
The filly placed her hoof beside one of the notes. “You see that? Luna seems to think that star four is actually a galaxy. I think all the math below is related to that, somehow.”
As she spoke, Scootaloo’s hoof traced the thin arrow that led from the note to a collection of equations beside the sketch.
“Interesting,” Starshade whispered, “Fluttershy never mentioned much about galaxies.”
“Oh? Cheerilee just goes on and on about them. She says they’re just about the most beautiful things in the cosmos. I’ve never really understood how they work, though.”
Cheerilee’s stern voice cut into their conversation. “Is everything alright, Scootaloo?”
“Yes, Miss Cheerilee,” Starshade interjected, “She was just explaining galaxies to me.”
“Very well, then. But could you please keep your attention on the lecture? If you need some help catching up, Starshade, you can always just speak to me after class.”
“Of course. I’m sorry.”
As soon as Cheerilee had started speaking again, Silver Spoon, without turning around, whispered, “You’re off to a rocky start, orphan. Miss Cheerilee just hates liars, you know.”
Fluttershy waited outside Ponyville’s schoolhouse. Several parents of the other colts and fillies in Starshade’s class stood nearby, chatting idly. The mare shied away from the other ponies, and moved closer to the red building’s door. School would be out soon.
Fluttershy tried to block out the conversations of the ponies around her; she just wanted to think in peace.
I hope everything went okay. What if Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon were mean? Relax, Fluttershy. Just relax. Starshade can handle himself.
The mare’s thoughts wandered back to that morning, when Starshade and her picked up the astronomy textbooks. But she was not thinking of the books or the colt, she was thinking of the librarian. Again.
He seemed like such a nice pony. Why did I have to send him off? Why couldn’t I just have let Starshade sleep in my room?
Fluttershy paused and shook her mane.
Oh, why do I care? It was not like Cobalt had done anything special. Why did she feel so strange when she was around him?
The school bell rang and Fluttershy looked up. Its sharp sound signaled the end of Starshade’s first day at school. Within moments, several foals poured excitedly out of the building and rushed to their waiting parents.
The yellow pegasus waited for several minutes before Starshade appeared at the schoolhouse door, trotting alongside Applebloom, Scootaloo, and Sweetie Belle. The group walked towards Fluttershy, heads leaned together and whispering quietly.
The mare caught only a short snippet of the conversation as they advanced. Scootaloo was speaking.
“… book. I’ve got to get home before–”
Starshade tapped the orange filly; she immediately went silent.
“Miss Fluttershy,” the colt asked, looking up at the mare, “Is it alright if I don’t come home with you? Sweetie Belle, Applebloom, and Scootaloo asked me if I could help them with something.”
“We promise he’ll be back way before nightfall!” interjected Sweetie Belle.
Fluttershy halted, unsure of her answer.
Scootaloo looked intensely at the mare, her lavender eyes wide. “Please!” the pegasus filly begged.
Fluttershy nodded. “Alright, Starshade. Please just remember to be safe.”
“Thank you so much, Miss Fluttershy!” squealed Starshade as he ran to the mare and hugged her. “Do you think you could take my saddlebags home for me?”
Starshade slid the weighty packs from his back and placed them beside Fluttershy, ruffling his wings as he did so. “Thanks, again. I promise I won’t be gone too long.”
“Have fun,” the yellow mare said before picking up the saddlebags in her teeth.
She turned and slung the packs over her back, unsuccessfully avoiding sandwiching her wings under the weight. Trying her best to not look back, she made her way down the wide street in the direction of her cottage.
I sure hope Starshade will be able to find his way home. I guess Sweetie Belle, Applebloom, and Scootaloo do know the way, though. Fluttershy shifted the weight on her back and sighed. He’ll be alright, Fluttershy. Just relax. Just relax.
Sweetie Belle raised her head and looked around before ducking back in to the group of foals. “So what’s the plan, Scootaloo?”
Applebloom, Sweetie Belle, and Starshade were huddled around the orange filly, listening eagerly as she answered. “Well, here’s what we know.” Scootaloo planted a hoof on the clear ground in the center of the group and traced a square. “Cheerilee’s on her way home right now. We have to make it back before she does. Otherwise, she’ll see my copy of that astronomy book in the same place I left it this morning and realize I took Starshade’s.”
The filly drew two wavy lines from the square, each staring at opposing sides and curving outwards, eventually ending in parallel. “You see this first line? That’s Cheerilee’s path. She’ll try to go inside the front door.” Scootaloo indicated the second line with her hoof. It was considerably more contorted, showing a more roundabout route. “We can’t let her see us pass her, so we’ll need to head for the back door. With the way the streets are laid out, that’s going to be a lot longer of a distance, so we’ll need to go fast.”
“Can’t we just use tha scooter?” asked Applebloom.
“Even if we had the wagon, which we don’t, we wouldn’t have enough room for Starshade.”
Starshade rested his chin on an outstretched hoof. Not looking up, the colt asked, “Scootaloo, can you fit a second pony on your scooter?”
“Yah,” answered Scootaloo. “What are you thinking?”
“Let’s create a distraction. How about we send two of us ahead to occupy Miss Cheerilee while you take another around back on your scooter?”
“That’d work,” Applebloom chimed.
Scootaloo nodded, drawing several more lines in the dust and erasing the latter part of Cheerilee’s path. “That’s a good idea, Starshade.” The orange filly pointed to one of the new lines. “Applebloom, that’s you. I want you to distract Cheerilee first.” Scootaloo placed a dot on the remaining path and looked at Sweetie Belle. “You wait here. Just as Applebloom’s about to finish, jump Cheerilee. That should definitely buy us enough time.”
“So I take it you’re bringing me with you, then,” said Starshade.
“Yah. You haven’t been on my scooter before. It’s awesome. That, and you have the biggest stake in this. It’s not a big deal if Cheerilee finds out that I forgot my book. But if she finds out that you lied to her…”
“I didn’t think of it like that.”
Sweetie Belle pulled her head back into the group for a second time. “We’d better get going,” she said. “Cheerilee just went around the corner. She’ll be home in under five minutes.”
“Right,” confirmed Scootaloo. Pointing a hoof at Sweetie Belle and Applebloom, she ordered, “You two head out now. Meet us back at the clubhouse in fifteen minutes.”
The fillies nodded and rushed off towards the corner that Cheerilee had disappeared around, leaving Scootaloo and Starshade alone outside the schoolhouse.
“Come on. Scooter’s over here.”
Starshade followed the orange pegasus along the side of the red building to where a dilapidated blue scooter lay beside a helmet. Scootaloo picked up the purple headgear and brushed away a few errant blades of grass, looking at Starshade then back at the helmet.
“I don’t have another with me,” she said, shrugging slightly. “Just… remember to hold on tight.”
Starshade could barely hear Scootaloo as she talked back from in front of him; the buzz from her wings and the rush of air made her almost inaudible as the scooter blazed through the streets of Ponyville. He tightened his grip around Scootaloo’s waist. As the filly directed the scooter through groups of ponies and around tight turns, he did best to avoid interfering with her wings.
Starshade lurched forwards as the scooter came to an abrupt halt.
“This is the place,” said Scootaloo as she stepped off the scooter and removed her helmet.
Starshade shook his head. “You go fast.”
“That?” Scootaloo answered with a laugh, “You should see me on a straightaway without another pony slowing me down.”
Scootaloo walked to the door of the small two-story building in front of them, laying the scooter against the building’s yellow outside wall. Quietly, she pushed against the wooden panel and slipped inside the house.
“Come on,” she urged, looking back at Starshade. “Applebloom and Sweetie Belle probably won’t be able to distract Cheerilee for too much longer.”
Starshade followed Scootaloo into the house. Aside from the clops of their hooves on the wooden floor, the interior was silent.
Starshade skirted around a scattered pile of papers on the floor, eying them interestedly. He recognized the names of several of his classmates scrawled at the top.
“Is Miss Cheerilee always this disorganized?” he whispered.
“Pretty much,” Scootaloo answered as she used her forehooves to lift herself up to the level of a nearby table, as she searched its surface.
“Do you remember where you left the book?”
“Uh… No. Not really,” she admitted.
“Well, Miss Cheerilee said she saw it this morning, right? So it’s probably somewhere on the way out.”
“Okay. I’ll check the kitchen, you check by the front door.”
“Right.” Scootaloo pointed down a short hallway to the right of Starshade. “Kitchen’s that way.”
The colt nodded and headed in the direction Scootaloo had pointed. It was getting darker as he trotted further down the hallway; there were no windows in that part of the house, and any candles that might have lit the way had been extinguished earlier that morning.
The colt combed the table and counters, avoiding any stray papers as best he could. One, however, caught his eye.
It was something short, but Cheerilee’s note at the top had drawn his attention.
Silver Spoon, this is really quite an eye opening piece of writing from you. I know things were difficult after your mother’s death, but I realize now how far-reaching it must have been for you. I don’t feel comfortable putting a grade on this, all things considered. I just want you to remember that I’m here to talk about things if you need to. As a teacher, it’s my job to ensure my students grow up well both on and off school grounds.
The colt’s eyes flicked to the writing prompt.
Describe a time when somepony you know well did or said something that you disliked. Elaborate on why you feel they did what they did, and how you handled the situation afterwards. It can be anypony: a friend, a relative, one of your siblings, or even a parent.
Silver Spoon had circled two words within the prompt: ‘did’ in the first sentence, and ‘parent’ in the final.
Starshade’s eyes shot to the block of hoofwritten text below the prompt. At the top, slightly off-center and underlined, was a title. The words formed on Starshade’s lips as he scanned them.
The Morning Father Left.
The colt raised an eyebrow in disbelief.
Mother dead. Father gone. Silver Spoon is an orphan too?
Starshade looked up from Silver Spoon’s essay. He was only a few lines in, but he could hear a disturbance coming from the hallway. The front door was open and the colt could just make out Applebloom and Sweetie Belle’s voices as they vied for Cheerilee’s attention.
The little pegasus froze. Scootaloo had a perfectly good excuse for her presence, but he was definitely not supposed to be in the house.
Starshade’s eyes darted about the room, looking for an exit. There was only one, the hallway. The same hallway that Cheerilee’s voice now echoed down.
The colt slid a few papers over Silver Spoon’s essay and backed down from the table.
Starshade surveyed the small room again. He had only a few options. There was the pantry at the opposite end of the small kitchen. Its door was closed, and the colt did not know if it would be spacious enough to hold him.
Starshade stopped momentarily. He could hear Scootaloo’s voice now, but Applebloom and Sweetie Belle’s had stopped. The orange filly was speaking much louder than Cheerilee was.
“Oh?! So you’re going to get a snack in the kitchen, huh Cheerilee?”
Starshade shook his head. There was the dining table that he had found the essay on. It had a long tablecloth that, with a little bit of tugging, would easily reach the floor and hide him.
The colt perked up his ears. Hoofsteps. He could hear them now, and they were getting louder. The hallway was no longer an option. That left the only table and the pantry.
Starshade’s eyes flicked instinctively down the hallway. He had seen something move. His gaze fell on Cheerilee’s foreleg as it peaked around the corner. Immediately, Scootaloo rounded the corner, clinging to the disembodied magenta hoof.
Neither the filly nor the mare saw Starshade as he dove under the small table and yanked the tablecloth to the floor.
The pegasus waited beneath the table. The only relief to his anxiety that he granted himself was a small opening at the bottom of the tablecloth. He could see the bottom of the pantry door across the room and little more.
Several sheets of paper floated to the ground in front of Starshade, pulled from the table above him when he had moved the tablecloth.
“Scootaloo,” Cheerilee insisted, “please stop.”
Starshade could just barely see Scootaloo’s hind legs from his low vantage point. She was circling around Cheerilee, apparently trying to block her progress around the kitchen.
Scootaloo darted for the pantry door. “So, Cheerilee,” the filly asked, pausing between each word, “how would you, uh, like me to fix you a totally awesome snack?”
“Oh?” asked the mare. She sounded quite surprised. “I’d really appreciate that.”
As Scootaloo began shuffling through the pantry, Cheerilee bent down and started picking up the papers scattered about the floor. As quickly as he could react, Starshade let the tablecloth fall back to the ground.
The colt backed slowly away from the table’s outer edge, holding his breath. He could see the shadow of Cheerilee’s head as it moved along the surface of the tablecloth.
Amid the crinkling of papers, Starshade heard the hoofsteps of Scootaloo approaching the table. Several large thuds resounded against the tabletop above home, and one more came from the floor in front him.
A jar of apple butter rolled clumsily beneath the table, stopping just in front of the petrified pegasus pony.
“Let me get that for you,” offered Cheerilee.
The mare’s shadow grew against the surface of the hanging tablecloth.
“No!” Scootaloo shouted, perhaps a little too loudly. “Uh… I’m making you the snack; I’ll get it.”
“Don’t be silly, Scootaloo. I’m already down here anyways.”
A magenta hoof extended beneath the table, feeling around for the jar. Starshade closed his eyes and pushed the apple butter slowly towards it. Cheerilee’s foreleg bumped against the jar and quickly curled around it, pulling butter out from beneath the table.
“Got it!” Cheerilee chirped as she placed the jar and the papers down on the table. “That looks… interesting. Are you sure you know what you’re making?”
“Yah. I think so,” Scootaloo said. “Sweetie Belle told me how to make this once. Do you, uh, know where the toaster is? She said all I have to do is add the butter to the mix and then stick it in a toaster.”
“You are not putting that mess in a toaster, Scootaloo,” deadpanned Cheerilee. “It’s liquid.”
“Toasters can’t handle that?”
“No, they can’t.”
“Then why did Sweetie–?”
“I don’t know. Why don’t you just put that in the sink and we’ll skip the snack for now?” Cheerilee said. “Suddenly, I don’t feel so hungry.”
“Oh? Alright then.” Scootaloo sounded relieved. “I’ll get this cleaned up. At least let me do that for you.”
“Okay, Scootaloo. I appreciate you trying.”
“You’re… uh… welcome, Cheerilee.”
Starshade heard the mare trot out of the kitchen. For another half a minute, the only sound the colt could hear aside from Scootaloo’s hoofsteps was the chink of a glass hitting glass.
“Starshade, are you still in here?” Scootaloo asked in a voice just barely above a whisper. “You can come out now. Cheerilee’s gone.”
Starshade stuck his head out from behind the tablecloth and looked up at Scootaloo. The pegasus colt grinned. “That was close,” he said, matching the orange filly’s volume.
“And then, the jar rolled under the table and Cheerilee went to go grab it.” Scootaloo paused for dramatic effect.
The interior of the Cutie Mark Crusaders’ Clubhouse was silent. Sweetie Belle and Applebloom were sitting on their haunches just in front of the orange speaker, enraptured. Starshade, meanwhile, stood by Scootaloo’s side, looking slightly embarrassed.
“Were you scared, Starshade?” asked Sweetie Belle.
The colt nodded. “Quite a bit.”
Applebloom looked bored. “Well, wha’ happened next, Scoots?” she said impatiently.
“So Cheerilee put her hoof under the table. And…”
“… And?” Applebloom and Sweetie Belle gasped in unison.
“She pulled out the butter and put it on the table.” Scootaloo finished with a flair of her hooves.
“That’s, uh, it?” Applebloom asked slowly.
“Yah. Pretty much,” said Scootaloo. “Except one thing. Sweetie Belle, where did you get that recipe for toast that you told me about?”
“I made it up!” the white unicorn answered proudly. “Did it taste good?”
“Cheerilee wouldn’t let her put it in the toaster,” said Starshade. “It was a liquid.”
“So?” replied Sweetie Belle, looking offended.
“Uh… apparently toasters don’t like that,” Scootaloo explained.
“Why not? It worked fine for me.”
Starshade looked puzzled. “Did you turn the toaster on?”
“Yes. It came out nice and toasted on the other side.”
“The other side?” Starshade and Scootaloo asked simultaneously.
“It’s supposed to pop out the top, Sweetie Belle,” insisted Scootaloo.
At Sweetie Belle’s continued silence, Starshade said, “Not leak out the bottom. It’s a toaster.”
“Well it came out nice and toasted,” Sweetie Belle said in her defense. “Isn’t that what toasters do?”
Applebloom looked at Sweetie Belle. “Did it taste any good?”
“Well no,” the unicorn admitted, her head sinking to the ground. At her next thought, however, the white filly’s ears perked up a bit. “But it’s still a work in progress. I’m sure I’ll get my cutie mark in cooking, eventually.”
The foals were quiet for a moment as they pondered their blank flanks.
“We’ll find somethin’ eventually,” Applebloom said with a sigh. “Speakin’ of that,” she continued more energetically, “do any of ya have some ideas for what we should be doin’ next?”
Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle shook their heads.
“What about you, Starshade? Ya got any ideas?”
“Not really,” he answered. Starshade had not thought about getting his cutie mark very much, but ever since the carriage ride to Ponyville he had been thinking more and more about flying. “I really want to try flying, but my wings aren’t strong enough yet.” The colt looked up at the ceiling. “Which reminds me: Rainbow Dash said I could get ticket to the Wonderbolts show from Rarity. Do any of you know where Rarity lives?”
Scootaloo’s mouth failed to close after her last breath.
“She’s my big sister,” answered Sweetie Belle.
Scootaloo was still unable to speak, though her lower jaw was beginning to bob up and down as she started thinking of words to say.
“Oh?” said Starshade.
“Rainbow Dash offered you tickets to see the Wonderbolts?” Scootaloo yelled, staring blankly at Starshade.
“Yah,” said the colt. “Is that a big deal?”
“The only thing that would be more awesome than going to see the Wonderbolts is going to see them with Rainbow Dash! You’re so lucky, Starshade.”
Sweetie Belle interjected with an idea. “Well, why don’t we try and find a ticket for Scootaloo too? Rarity knows so many well-connected ponies in Canterlot that I’m sure she could get us one.”
“So we’re heading to Rarity’s then?” asked Starshade.
The other foals, however, did not answer. They were already standing in a small circle, each one with a single hoof extended into the middle.
“Come on, Starshade,” urged Applebloom.
“Huh?” the colt said as he squeezed his way into the group. “What are we doing?”
Scootaloo whispered to him, “On three, raise your hoof and shout, ‘Cutie Mark Crusader ticket hunters’.”
“Ticket Hunters?” said Sweetie Belle. “I thought we were doing Cutie Mark Crusader ticket negotiators.”
“No, hunters,” Scootaloo insisted. “What does ‘negotiators’ even mean?”
“Why don’t we all just agree on ‘ticket finders,’ for now?” Applebloom suggested.
“Alright.” “Sure.” Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle answered.
Starshade put his foreleg into the center of the group.
All at once, the four foals raised their hooves and shouted in unison, “Cutie Mark Crusader ticket finders!”
Trixie dived to the side as a bolt of fiery red magic soared past her. She raised a hoof, shielding her eyes from the splashes of energy that flew from the impact site a meter to her side. The mare still felt magic tingling against her foreleg as lowered it and looked back to her opponent.
Above her, smiling slightly, was Sanguine. The smile, however, quickly turned into a frown at Trixie’s inaction.
The white mare, extending a hoof, urged, “Come on, Trixie. You’re not finished yet. Summon some magic, throw up a shield, and get ready for the next attack. You can’t be tired already.”
Trixie blinked. Her head was still spinning from the rough fall.
Sanguine let out a disappointed humph. “I guess the stage name was just that after all. I can hear them: ‘The Great and Powerful Horned Earth Pony’.” Sanguine spit the final two words. “That’s what they’d call you if they saw you now, Trixie. You’re no caster; you’re just an earth pony with a lump on her skull.”
Sanguine slowly trotted closer to Trixie. She stood above the light blue mare, looking down on her through several messy tangles of her bright red mane. Leaning in closer, the white unicorn whispered, “I think we’re done here.”
Trixie gritted her teeth as she flushed her horn with energy.
A ward! Hah! The Great and Powerful Trixie does not shield herself like a coward.
The blue mare took a deep breath and tensed her legs. All at once, she released the energy from her horn and forced herself to her hooves.
The thought exploded from her lips as she let her magic fly. “She strikes!”
Trixie stepped carefully down a short section of wooden stairs as she entered the conclave’s bathing chamber. She grasped a lantern tightly in her teeth as the stairs creaked loudly under her hooves; the space was quite dark.
The spacious cavern was warm and damp, and the thin panels of wood that covered portions of the floor were wet with a thin sheen of moisture. In the far corner of the room coals glowed beneath a sizable cauldron of water, steam slowly billowing from its top.
The room, it appeared, was unoccupied. That was not unusual for time of night, but it did mean that she would be able to relax more easily. Placing her lantern on a small table beside the entryway, Trixie walked towards the far corner of the room opposite the simmering cauldron. Gently, she lowered herself into the spring-fed warm pool. The temperate water barely crowned the mare’s shoulders as she sunk into the water.
Trixie dunked her head beneath the water, letting the leisurely current that circulated throughout the pool flow through her mane. After a moment, she felt something against the top of her head. It was the energy dampening ring that Sanguine had placed around her horn for sparring; she had forgotten to remove it after the training session.
Reaching out with a tendril of magic, Trixie lifted the band from her horn. Setting it down gently beside the pool, the mare turned back to move deeper into the water. As the light from her horn subsided, something caught in Trixie’s peripheral vision. It was a silhouette, just barely distinguishable from the rock wall it floated in front of.
The blue mare lit her horn and asked cautiously, “Is anypony there?”
Trixie did not need the forthcoming answer. In the corner of the pool, head peaking just above the water’s surface, was Sanguine. She was not moving.
Rainbow Dash touched down gently in front of Sugarcube Corner. After inspecting the large cupcake spire for a moment, she stepped inside the mock-gingerbread establishment.
“Pinkie?” the pegasus called, “You here?”
“Yep!” the pink pony’s voice yelled from the kitchen, “I’ll be out in just a second!”
Rainbow Dash sat and idly scanned the shop’s interior. A large rainbow-striped candy cane caught her eye. The pegasus pony licked her lips; she could almost taste the lime stripe. It looked delicious.
Rainbow Dash sighed and tore her gaze away from the treat. “Pinkie!” she shouted more angrily than she intended, “Come on.”
Pinkie Pie’s head shot out through the swinging kitchen door, a tray of multicolored taffy balanced precariously on her head. “What’s up, Rainbow? Is everything okey-dokey?”
“Yah. Uh…” Rainbow’s eyes shot back to the candy cane. “How much does that thing cost?” she asked, pointing a hoof at the hooked shaft of dyed sugar.
“A bit,” answered Pinkie. “You want it?”
“Yah. It looks awesome. I don’t have any bits with me, though.”
Pinkie Pie trotted to the counter in the middle of the room and slid the tray off her head onto the wooden surface. “Don’t worry. I’ll just put it on your tab.” The candy-colored pony winked.
Rainbow Dash picked the treat off the stand beside her. “Thanks.”
“It’s absolutively no problem at all, Dashie. Just bring a few bits around next time and you’ll be all good for quite a while.” Pinkie Pie started stacking the pieces of taffy on a shelf beside the counter. “Now,” she said, looking over her shoulder, “Is there anything else you need?”
“Mmmmph?” A spray of saliva and sugary dye sprayed from the pegasus pony’s mouth. Rainbow Dash pulled out the candy cane, looking at the slobbery mass regretfully. “Yah. Uh… Rarity sent me over to ask if you still had your Wonderbolts ticket. Scootaloo’s looking for one, and was wondering if you might be willing to give up yours.”
“Oh. I’m so sorry, but I already gave mine to Cobalt after he asked me to. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Naw, it’s alright,” Rainbow Dash said with a sigh.
Nopony seemed all that interested in attending the Wonderbolts show, even after she had scrounged up the bits to buy them all tickets. She had told them that they were free to give them to other ponies if they wanted, but she had still hoped that they would not.
Rainbow, eyes still fixed on the candy cane, said, “I figured you probably didn’t want to go anyways. And with Twilight and Cobalt the way they are with each other now, I bet they are going together.” Dash waved her hooves up and down slightly, imitating the shape of quotation marks as she spoke the last word.
“So Twilight won’t be able to give up hers then?”
“Yah. And I already talked to Applejack and she said that she gave hers to the mailpony for some strange reason.”
“What about Fluttershy?” asked Pinkie as she stacked the last of the taffy pieces onto the shelf and faced Rainbow Dash.
“She’s going with Starshade, who just asked for Rarity’s ticket.”
“Oh? That’s pretty much everypony that I know has a ticket,” said Pinkie Pie.
The party mare shook her head. “Poor Scootaloo.”
Several bubbles floated up through the warm water above Sanguine’s head. More followed as the mare gradually rose above the water’s level. Her eyes were closed as she ran a single hoof through her mane, freeing some of the water from the red strands to run back into the surface of the pool.
“Sanguine?” Trixie repeated.
The mare’s red eyes shot open, though Trixie could barely make out their color in the dim light cast by her horn. “Oh,” the mare gasped, “I thought I felt somepony slip in.” Sanguine pulled back several errant strands of. “I didn’t expect you though,” she added. “You finished with barely a scratch.”
“Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. Nothing that a warm bath and a good night’s rest can’t fix. It’s fortunate, actually, that you decided to come now. I was planning on talking to you in the morning, but I might as well ask you now so you’ll be able to sleep on it.”
“What is it?” Trixie shifted nervously. She hoped that, whatever it was, it would not be something important.
“Well, I don’t remember if I’ve told you this already or not, but we’re keeping our eyes on a particular pegasus colt that seems to have an important relationship with Princess Luna. About a week ago, he was moved to Ponyville. Anyways, since he moved we haven’t been able to find a pony both willing and qualified to keep an eye on him. Luna was wise, or perhaps just lucky, to send him there; he’s surrounded by the Elements of Harmony and very well protected.”
Trixie drew a breath to speak, but Sanguine extended a hoof to quiet her. “Just hear me out, Trixie. I remember you telling me about your run-in with Twilight Sparkle. I know that it did not go well, but I’ve wanted a good magician on call in Ponyville to keep an eye on the Elements anyways. You are a very good magician, good enough that you shouldn’t have any trouble communicating with me in real-time. So do you understand why I’m asking you, now?”
Trixie nodded. “Yes.”
“Very good. Now, I want you to think about this tonight and give me an answer in the morning. Is that long enough for you to think over it?”
“It should be.”
“Okay. I won’t bother you anymore; I know I’m asking quite a bit.”
Sanguine hopped up out of the pool and, levitating a towel across her back, made for the cavern’s exit, leaving Trixie alone in the room. The blue unicorn waited for several minutes. She did not need a full night to think about it; she already knew that she was going to do it. It would be an opportunity not only to make herself useful to the conclave and to Sanguine, but to finally get revenge on the purple mare that had shamed her.
This time Twilight Sparkle was going to be the pony that failed, not Trixie.
Silver Spoon stretched beneath her soft covers and yawned. She pushed the blankets off her head and glanced at the hourglass on her bedside table. Without her glasses it was difficult for her to gauge the level of the sand, but she could still tell that something had woken her early.
The filly climbed from her bed and trotted to her dresser. Fumbling for a moment with her glasses case, Silver Spoon extracted the blue frames and watched her image in the mirror come into focus as she slid them onto her nose. Sighing, she fixed her light blue pearls around her neck and hastily arranged her mane.
She remembered those years, now past, when her real father had done it for her. Mr. Rich was almost always gone when she woke up in the morning, and even when he was home he rarely spent much time the gray filly.
Silver Spoon cracked open her room’s door, but hesitated before exiting. She could hear voices downstairs; Mr. Rich was speaking with a mare.
“Thank you very much for getting this so quickly, Ditzy. What do I owe you?”
“Delivery’s four bits,” the other pony answered.
Silver Spoon followed the short hallway away from her room and snuck onto the landing above the front entryway. Peeking over the edge, she watched as Mr. Rich pulled several gold coins from a pouch at his side and passed them to the waiting pegasus mare.
Ditzy Doo thanked the stallion and, after rummaging for a moment through her saddlebags, gave him a teal slip of paper.
“I’m sure Silver Spoon is going to be very surprised,” remarked Rich. “I don’t think she has been to a Wonderbolts show yet. Thank you again.”
“You’re most welcome,” Ditzy answered.
As the grey mare turned to exit the room, Silver Spoon noticed her misaligned yellow eyes and bubble-shaped cutie mark. She recognized the mare now.
How did that featherbrained mailmare possibly get a Wonderbolts ticket? Silver Spoon wondered as Filthy Rich closed the door and turned about.
The stallion looked up at the gray filly and smiled. “I’m glad you’re awake now, Silver Spoon. Why don’t you come down here? I’ve got a surprise for you.”
“I know,” deadpanned the filly, “I was watching.”
“Oh,” Rich remarked. “Are you excited?”
Silver Spoon forced a smile as she responded. A part of her appreciated that Mr. Rich had thought of her. The remaining part, however, was slightly mortified at the thought of attending a pegasus air show.
“Perhaps a little,” she answered. Suddenly, her smile widened; she had thought of something. “Mr. Rich, do you think you could give that ticket to me now? I’d like to keep it.”
The stallion looked relieved that Silver Spoon had accepted the gift. “Of course,” he answered.
The grey filly’s smile expanded even wider. Scootaloo’s going to die when she figures out that I have a Wonderbolts ticket and she doesn’t. This is going to be very, very fun.
“So,” Sweetie Belle asked, “what’s the plan for today?”
The other Cutie Mark Crusaders were huddled around the white filly in an out-of-the-way corner of the school’s playground. Each was trying independently to come up with something for the group to do.
Scootaloo sighed. Applebloom, Sweetie Belle, and Starshade followed suit. It was difficult to find new things to try when all they had at their disposal was a small schoolyard playground.
“Oh,” a voice mocked over Applebloom’s shoulder, “Are the blank-flanks bored?”
The yellow filly looked back over her flank. It was Diamond Tiara.
“Go away,” Applebloom deadpanned before turning her head back into the small circle.
“Yah,” Diamond Tiara sneered, “You’re bored.” The pink earth pony pushed Applebloom aside and wedged her way into the group. “Fortunately, I’ve got something for you blank-flanks to do! Well, two of you at least. Applebloom, Sweetie Belle: how would you like to try getting your cutie marks doing something fun?”
Scootaloo faced Diamond Tiara directly. “We are not interested in playing one of your little games, Tiara – especially when only two of us get to. Just leave.”
“Buck this,” Diamond Tiara said. “Either you two blank-flanks are coming with me, or I’m going to tell Cheerilee exactly what happened to that bird she brought to class last week.”
Applebloom looked mortified. “That wasn’t mah fault!” she exclaimed, “It just sorta flew off. Nopony could’ve stopped it.”
“Or maybe I’ll just tell Rarity what you told Scootaloo about that dress she made, Sweetie Belle. Would you like that?”
“You wouldn’t…” the white unicorn said.
“Oh,” Diamond Tiara answered, smiling, “you know I would.”
Starshade looked between Applebloom, Sweetie Belle, and Diamond Tiara. “Just go,” the colt said. “This is not worth getting into trouble over.”
“Ah!” the pink earth pony exclaimed. “I see at least one of you blank-flanks has a bit of brain.”
She pointed at Sweetie Belle, then Applebloom. “You two follow me now. Starshade, Scootaloo: you stay here.”
Trixie meandered through the streets of Ponyville, glancing at the windows and doors of the houses and storefronts that she passed. She was searching for a particular house, one of a hooffull whose owner had posted a bulletin in the marketplace. It was the only one that had advertised that extended stays were welcome.
The blue mare stopped in front of the house and double checked the address on the flyer. 8 Zapapple Way. She was at the correct place. Trixie skirted around the outside of the small two-story structure for a moment, seeing nothing of interest.
Shrugging, she turned back down Zapapple Way and headed back in the direction of the town center. As the pony walked, her stomach rumbled a little; searching Ponyville had left her both tired and quite hungry.
Idly, she levitated the flyer in front of her and skimmed it again, looking for the name of the owner.
8 Zapapple Way
Private residence located near the Ponyville schoolhouse. One available bedroom with private bathroom.
Long-staying tenants are welcome, but a young filly lives with me, so please, no couples!
Stop by after 3:00pm and inquire within. Rent is 35 bits / wk.
Starshade and Scootaloo watched as their two friends followed Diamond Tiara to another section of the playground.
“This isn’t going to end well,” deadpanned Starshade.
Scootaloo shrugged and looked at the colt beside her. “So what do you want to–?” The orange filly was interrupted by a voice from behind her.
“Ah,” said Silver Spoon as she advanced between the two foals, “I see your other friends left you. Just what are you blank-flanks going to do now?”
“I should’ve guessed you’d be right behind Tiara,” said Scootaloo.
Starshade sighed. “Would you please just leave us alone?”
The gray filly leaned in closer to Starshade, her voice adopting the slightest whine. “But that wouldn’t be any fun. Besides, it’s not like Sweetie Belle and Applebloom are the only ponies we have a little dirt on.”
Silver Spoon nudged Starshade as she continued. “But I’m not here to blackmail you. I just wanted to show you two a little something Tiara’s father gave me as a gift.”
Starshade saw the edge of a teal Wonderbolts ticket peeking out of Silver Spoon’s saddlebags. This was definitely not going to end well.
“Rich gave you a Wonderbolts ticket!” exclaimed Scootaloo, stepping forward to get a better look at the ticket.
Silver Spoon whipped the small slip of paper out of the orange filly’s reach. “My, Scootaloo. You’re awfully grabby. You should have more respect for other ponies’ property.”
“Why are you doing this to us?” Starshade said, looking annoyedly at the gray filly.
“Oh?” she answered, “I just thought you two pegasi would be interested. I mean, they are the best stunt flyers in all of Equestria, you know. Seeing them would be an absolutely amazing opportunity for a pegasus pony. Especially a little blank-flank foal.”
Scootaloo glared at the gray filly. “What do you want me to say?”
“Perhaps a bit of congratulations? Just imagine how much fun Starshade and I are going to have together! You should be so happy for me.”
Starshade, mortified, glanced to his side. Beside him, the orange filly was seething. Scootaloo or no Scootaloo, Silver Spoon was not going to ruin the Wonderbolts show for him.
“Why can’t you just leave us alone?” the colt yelled. It was louder than he intended, but he did not care anymore. Silver Spoon was going to get a piece of his mind. “I mean. I guess I understand. You don’t like your cutie mark – you don’t understand it or something – and so you make fun of us blank flanks so it seems like yours is better. You don’t have your parents anymore, so you try to make Scootaloo and I feel bad about being orphans too.” His wings flared wide, Starshade took a step towards the cowering gray filly.
Silver Spoon’s eyes were starting to water. The earth pony just barely managed to speak as Starshade took a breath. “I… Uh…”
“But I don’t understand this,” cut off the colt. “Scootaloo’s not done anything to you, yet you come here with your Wonderbolts ticket and hold it over her head. What could you possibly be insecure about now?”
The grey filly looked around trying to find a way to escape from the teal-maned pegasus that towered above her. She answered quietly as she suppressed additional tears. “It’s not… I… You don’t… I’m just…”
“It’s not what? I don’t what? You’re just what? I’ll tell you what it is. I don’t know why, but you just seem to hate us. You get angry at us for getting mad at you when you make fun of us! It’s all your fault. Just yours.” Silver Spoon was sitting on her haunches and crying openly now. Starshade was only centimeters from her face, and had been yelling quite loudly.
The rest of the ponies on playground were quiet. Each one was staring at either the enraged pegasus colt or the crying gray filly. Even Diamond Tiara was watching in silence from the opposite side of the small outdoor space.
Starshade was breathing heavily as Scootaloo extended a foreleg and hooked him by the base of his extended right wing. The colt was fighting her backwards pull. “I think you’ve said enough,” she whispered.
Starshade looked up and around at the ponies around him, and then back at Silver Spoon. His head sunk as he let Scootaloo guide him backwards.
Silver Spoon was still trying to speak as Cheerilee rushed to her side and wrapped a leg around the watery filly.
“I’m not… an orphan,” she was explaining through strained breaths, “Daddy’s still alive and he still loves me. I– I know this.”
Cheerilee tried to calm Silver Spoon. “Shhhh. It’s alright. Come on. Come inside. We’ll get this worked out.”
The gray filly screamed through even more tears, “I know he still loves me!”
Cheerilee looked for a moment at Starshade. The mare’s expression was enough to tell Starshade what he needed to do.
“I–” the colt stammered, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“No you’re not!” shouted Silver Spoon, her eyes now filled more with tears of rage than of sorrow.
Silver Spoon tried to throw off Cheerilee’s restraining hoof. The tender mare, however, simply picked up the wailing gray earth pony by the scruff of her neck and walked in the direction of the schoolhouse. Through gritted teeth, the mare said, “Starshade, I want you to wait by the door. Wait to come in until I call you.”
Starshade looked at all the foals around him and, head now held high, trotted behind Cheerilee to the school door.
As he passed Scootaloo he whispered, “Don’t worry. We’ll get you into that show some way.”
Trixie watched as a cherry-colored mare and an orange pegasus filly walked towards her down Zapapple Way. The pair stopped just before the fourth house opposite Trixie’s side of the road.
The blue mare crossed the street quickly, stopping only a meter from the two ponies. “Excuse me, but are you Cheerilee?”
The schoolteacher turned around and looked at Trixie. “Oh! Yes I am,” Cheerilee answered. “Is there something I can do for you?”
“I was interested in renting out the room you advertised,” Trixie said.
The orange filly looked at the mare beside her, apparently quite confused. “You’re renting out a room?”
“Yes,” answered Cheerilee. The mare looked back to Trixie. “Why don’t you step inside and we can show you around. I just need a few moments; I’ve had a rather hectic day.”
“Not a problem at all.” Trixie gestured at the still-confused filly. “I assume this is the foal your bulletin mentioned.”
“Yes,” Cheerilee confirmed, “This is Scootaloo. Scootaloo, say hi.”
“Uh… Hi… Um… What’s your name?”
“Trixie,” the blue mare answered.
“Uh… Hello, Trixie.” Scootaloo forced a smile. “It’s very nice to meet you.”
Fluttershy’s brow was furrowed in concentration as she watched the quill she held scratch against a leaf of parchment. Her writing, as always, was hopelessly unsteady.
Fluttershy flinched, causing a few small drops of ink to fly from the quill and splatter against the page. The yellow mare’s gaze shot instantaneously to the source of the creak that had startled her. Starshade was nudging the door to her room open with his muzzle.
“Oh, sorry,” the colt apologized as soon as his head was visible. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Fluttershy removed the writing quill from her mouth and placed it beside the inkwell on her desk. “It’s okay. I’m not doing anything important,” the mare said. “Is there something you wanted to talk about?”
Starshade was not looking at Fluttershy as he answered. Instead, the colt’s gaze was fixated on the letter that Fluttershy had been writing. “You’re telling Miss Luna, aren’t you?”
The small pegasus looked from the letter directly to the floor. His eyelids were drooping, hiding the upper curve of his green irises and just barely obscuring the top of his pupils.
“Oh Starshade,” Fluttershy said softly as she stood and moved closer to the foal, “You know that I have to.”
The yellow mare trotted past Starshade as she spoke. Circling around behind him, she stopped at his side, standing in parallel his small winged body. He did not follow her with his eyes as she did so; his wide pupils remained focused on the ground.
Raising a forehoof, Fluttershy began gently massaging the base of the little colt’s wings. Starshade looked up over his shoulder and back at her. The mare detected the slightest smile on the pegasus’ face, but he still looked to be on the verge of tears.
“Don’t worry,” she reassured, “Everypony slips up a little bit every once in a while. Emotions can be a very hard thing to control. Even adult ponies have trouble sometimes.”
“Even you?” he asked, untwisting his neck and looking forwards again.
“Of course. I get really scared. Especially in the Everfree forest around all the scary creatures in there.”
“I wasn’t scared, though. I was angry. That’s so much worse.”
“You’re right,” Fluttershy said in a soft voice barely above a whisper. Starshade was on the verge of tears.
Fluttershy pressed her hooves into Starshade’s side, causing him to wince a little. “But dealing with those negative emotions is even more important than dealing with being afraid. When I get scared, I have to work up the courage to face my fears in order to help my friends.” Fluttershy ran a second hoof along the colt’s side and began massaging a little bit more vigorously. She could see Starshade beginning to un-tense under her touch. “But you don’t just need courage when you’re scared. You need it even more when you’re angry. Do you understand why?”
“No,” the little pegasus admitted. “I don’t understand.”
“You need the courage to calm yourself down and forgive the other pony. That’s so much harder than finding the courage to stare down a cockatrice or a big dragon, you know.”
“Because, a dragon can only hurt you on the outside. But not fighting back against a mean pony can hurt you on the inside. At least, that’s what you think will happen. But in reality, being in control of yourself when they’re not shows everypony else, and sometimes even them, that you are the better pony. If you get angry too, then you’re acting just like they are.”
Starshade’s eyes were closed as he answered. “I think I understand.”
“So what do you think you should do, then?”
“Miss Cheerilee already made me apologize to Silver Spoon,” Starshade preempted.
“Did you mean it?”
“Not really,” the colt said slowly, his eyes trailing back to the floor.
“Then I think you know what you need to do tomorrow,” Fluttershy said. “For now, you should go to sleep; it’s late. In the meantime, I think I’ve found the perfect way to finish my letter.”
Starshade looked up at Fluttershy again. “Does Miss Luna get scared about things?”
The mare paused for a moment, unsure of her answer. The image of a damp castle room filled her mind’s eye. Princess Luna was lying on a lone cushion in the center of the cold space, cuddling a small teal-maned pegasus foal in her forelegs. She was crying.
“Of course, Starshade.”
“I’ve never seen anything – pony, alicorn, or otherwise – more scared in my entire life.”
“That’s it?" Scootaloo stared at the colt, mouth hanging open.
“Uh… yah,” Starshade said as he glanced between the three Cutie Mark Crusaders surrounding him.
With a burst of laughter, Scootaloo fell to the floor. “Don’t worry. Three little days of detention is nothing. She’s given me a week before and I live with her!”
“I say ya got lucky,” commented Applebloom. “Cheerilee must like you or somethin’.”
Sweetie Belle said, “Did you see the way Silver Spoon cried? I wonder if she’ll even show up–”
Starshade put a hoof to the white filly’s lips as a certain gray earth pony trotted, head-held-high, into the classroom. Silver Spoon moved directly past the silent Cutie Mark Crusaders and took her seat. If she had looked at them, it was through the utmost corner of her nearly-closed eyes.
“Do you think…?” Scootaloo whispered.
Starshade shook his head. “I don’t think I could live with myself.”
“Why?” asked Applebloom and Sweetie Bell simultaneously.
“Because I know I would break down and let loose. I don’t ever want to go through losing it like that again.”
“You should talk to her during recess, I think,” said Sweetie Belle.
“I was planning on it. She was still crying when Cheerilee had me apologize. I wasn’t really sorry, and she knew.”
“Time for class, everypony!” shouted Cheerilee to the now fully occupied room. “Find your seats and get out Modern Cosmology. We’re starting our new unit today.”
Scootaloo, Starshade, Applebloom, and Sweetie Belle made their way to their seats with the remainder of the students that had not yet taken them.
As Starshade passed Silver Spoon’s desk, he felt the slightest tap against his shoulder.
“Bring Scootaloo,” she whispered to him.
Twilight Sparkle gently closed her book as her lavender eyes finished scanning the last paragraph on the page. She brushed a hoof over the blue and yellow cover. A History of the Wonderbolts, the purple mare read once again. She shrugged and levitated the volume to one of the bookshelves beside her bed. It was a particularly dry history.
Twilight glanced around the room, looking for her assistant. “Spike!” she called, “Spike!”
The mare trotted down the stairs to the library’s ground floor, looking quickly into each side room that she passed.
Where has that dragon gotten off to?
As Twilight reached the ground floor, she called again, “Spike?”
The purple mare heard hoofsteps echoing out of one of the ground floor rooms. “He’s not here,” answered Tantalus from behind her. “He left to go see Rarity about an hour ago. He told me that he didn’t have anything to do here.”
“Oh,” Twilight said. “I didn’t think he’d…”
“… just leave without asking you?” finished the stallion.
The mare nodded.
Tantalus trotted alongside her, smiling. “He’s getting a little too accustomed to all the free time. It’s probably pretty hard for him to justify staying around here and waiting on the off chance that you might need his help.”
“I guess I don’t ask for it much anymore,” Twilight said.
Tantalus raised an eyebrow.
“Not that that’s a bad thing,” she quickly corrected. “It’s just…”
“… different?” he finished again.
Twilight nodded. The two ponies stood there for a moment, silent. Neither was looking at the other.
“So…” Tantalus said slowly, “What were you reading? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“A History of the Wonderbolts. With the show coming up, I figured I’d brush up on the subject. It was rather unentertaining, though.”
“That’s in a week, right? The show, I mean.”
“Ten days,” the purple unicorn answered.
“Are they planning anything special?” asked Tantalus. “I’ll admit I haven’t looked too closely at the schedule.”
“Nightmare Night is just two or three days after that, isn’t it?”
Twilight Sparkle paused for a moment and looked at the ceiling, thinking. “Probably,” she decided.
Twilight and Tantalus were silent again for a moment. The stallion was watching the floor as the mare intently examined a bookshelf to her side.
“Would, uh… you like to play some chess?” offered Twilight after a few moments.
“School gets out in an hour, right?” asked Tantalus.
“Yes. What are you thinking?”
“I’ll teach you how to play antichess.”
“It’s a shorter variant of chess in which you try to loose and captures are compulsory. Spike said he’d be back forty-five minutes from now, which should give us time for three or four games. After that, I think I have a plan for the rest of our day.”
“Oh?” Twilight asked, “How does it involve the schoolfoals?”
“I think we need to get out more. How does a big picnic sound?”
“And what about Spike?”
The stallion grinned. “We’ll need someone to help us round up all of your friends. Come on, let’s get started.”
Starshade tapped Scootaloo and pointed a hoof in the direction of Silver Spoon. The earth pony was standing at the opposite end of the playground, doing her best to avoid the gaze of the other ponies that were playing around her.
“What about her?” asked the orange pegasus.
“She told me to bring you. I’m not really sure why.”
Scootaloo paused and watched Silver Spoon. After a moment, the filly pointed at the saddlebags on her back. “Why did she bring those? That’s so not cool.”
““Let’s get this over with,” Scootaloo said with a sigh as she started plodding in the direction of the gray filly.
Starshade cantered out of the Ponyville schoolhouse; he was not going to spend a moment longer in after school detention than he had to. As he hurried down the short path to the road that ran in front of the school, he looked back over his shoulder. Silver Spoon trotted out of the red building behind him, beaming.
The colt stopped moving when, just past the junction he was approaching, he saw Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, and several other ponies that he recognized. In front of the group, his three best friends milled about playfully. Everypony else was looking at him expectantly.
Silver Spoon, maintaining her pace, passed Starshade without making eye contact. She was still grinning, and Starshade could have sworn he heard her humming.
Rainbow Dash shot forward from the group and alighted just in front of the colt. “Pick up the pace; we’ve got places to be. I had the time to fly all the way over to Rich’s mansion and back in the time it took you to get out of there.”
“Where are we going?” Starshade asked as Dash started moving forward again.
The light blue pegasus was hovering just above his side and slightly ahead of him as she answered. “Twilight and Cobalt decided to organize a picnic for all of us. I wasn’t planning on coming originally, but when she said that you and Scootaloo would be invited too, I figured I’d give it a shot. With the Wonderbolts show coming up and all, I think you foals need to see some awesome beforehoof so your minds don’t get totally blown when they all start flying. That, and I’ve got some new tricks I want Fluttershy to see.”
“So, uh, who is Rich, and why did you fly over to his mansion?”
“Rich is Silver Spoon’s foster father. We had to make sure that it was okay for her to give Scootaloo the ticket.”
Starshade looked worried. “I… hadn’t thought of that. Did it go okay?”
“Oh, yah. I went just fine. Scootaloo was freaking out when I told her it was alright with him.” The rainbow-maned mare nudged the colt from above. “You know, in a way, she owes getting that ticket to you.”
Starshade chuckled a little. “I told her I’d get it somehow. Just… not quite how I expected.”
The pair stopped in front of the waiting group of ponies. An orange earth pony mare that Starshade recognized as Applejack smiled at him as he came to a halt. “Good to see ya again, Starshade.”
“Likewise,” added the white unicorn standing beside her.
Starshade nodded, answering the two mares in kind. His attention, however, was focused on the lone stallion of the group. He was studying the colt a little too intently to escape notice. As their green eyes met for a brief moment, the unicorn Starshade knew as Cobalt Rooks looked genuinely scared.
“Hello,” the stallion mouthed weakly.
Applejack straightened the lime green saddlebags on her back and said, “Well, let’s get movin’, everypony. It’s not like we all got all day, here.”
“Yes,” said Twilight Sparkle as she tried to round up the three young fillies, “We really should get going. The park’s still about ten minutes away.”
Starshade jumped backwards as Rainbow Dash streaked past him, her wings flapping only centimeters beyond the bridge of his nose. The blue mare twisted into a tight corkscrew as she shot along the carefully arranged line of the ponies watching her.
The colt craned his neck as Rainbow Dash rose skyward. For a moment, she vanished within the glow of the low afternoon sun before circling backwards and diving into a low curve that would take her behind the row of spectators.
There was only one problem: the row of spectators was no longer a row. Several of the ponies in the line had jumped backwards just as Starshade had. He could already tell that Rainbow was moving too fast to correct her course.
Starshade ducked to the ground as the rainbow-maned pegasus flew over him, her tail brushing lightly against his back. Turning his head, he looked down the line. The colt forced his eyes closed; he did not want to see what was about to happen.
Starshade cringed as Fluttershy’s squeal of surprise split the humid air of the riverside park. The colt opened an eye to watch as his friends gathered around the small pile of blue and yellow feathers that remained where the collision had occurred. Ten meters distant, he could see Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy.
Everypony was running towards the two prone mares now, Starshade included. Before the first of them had even reached the two mares, Rainbow Dash was already on her hooves. She nudged Fluttershy with a foreleg as Cobalt and Applejack stopped beside her.
Starshade trotted small circles in the corner of the hospital’s waiting room.
“Sit back down, Starshade,” Applejack insisted, again.
It was hard to keep still; he was worried.
“We’ll all know how bad it is in a bit. There’s no sense in trottin’ around like that and makin’ so much of a fuss about it.”
“I know,” the colt returned, still tracing a circle with his path.
He was not very worried about Fluttershy, though. She had been rather talkative as she was carried to the hospital. Even with what appeared to be a broken leg, the yellow mare had continued insisting that she could walk on her own.
No, the young foal was not worried about her; he was worried about himself. What if Fluttershy would have to spend a long time in the hospital? What if she could not take care of him for some time?
The colt’s tired eyes went wide. What if she can’t take me to the Wonderbolts show? What if I miss it?
He traced a hoof against the cold hospital floor. It had no answer for him.
“Don’t worry, Starshade,” Twilight Sparkle said, shutting the door to the library behind the colt. “The doctor said she’d be out in time for Nightmare Night. That’s less than two weeks away, you know.”
Starshade nodded slowly.
“Besides,” Twilight continued, “If you want, we can visit Fluttershy every day.” The purple mare nudged the blue stallion standing beside her. “With Cobalt taking care of the library now, I’ll have plenty of free time to take you to see her after school.”
The stallion smiled weakly. Maybe it was just that Twilight was not paying attention, but it seemed to Starshade that Cobalt was really uncomfortable about something.
“Are you sure it’s okay that I’m staying over here?” asked the foal. “I mean, I know Cobalt’s already living here and stuff.”
Twilight sunk to her knees and smiled at the colt from his eye level. “Starshade, I know you’re a bit scared. I know you just want to be with Fluttershy right now, but she needs to rest. You need a place to live, and we all agreed that this library would be better for you than Applejack’s farm. Besides, it’s not like you’re causing any problems here. It’s only for two weeks or so, after all.”
Starshade shied a couple of steps backwards. This mare was not Fluttershy – not that he even wanted to be with Fluttershy – and clearly did not understand what was going on. While she was right that the library was probably best for him, even though he would have preferred staying with Rainbow Dash, she did not seem to realize what she was causing Cobalt to go through.
Twilight Sparkle frowned. Beside her, the stallion’s gaze was flicking back and forth between bookshelves and the patch of floor in front of him.
“I remember when I started living in here in Ponyville,” offered Tantalus quietly. He was still avoiding making eye contact with the colt. “It was really scary and overwhelming at first. But as soon as you find yourself a warm bed and some open hooves to take you in, you’ll realize that you shouldn’t have been worrying about anything.” He looked at Twilight Sparkle for a moment as he finished, “We’re not in short supply of that here, I think.”
The stallion’s gaze shifted directly to Starshade for the first time since they had entered the library. “Come on, let me show you where you’ll sleep,” he said.
His smile looked a little less forced, now.
Starshade lazily opened an eye. From the opposite side of the room, he could still hear the raspy snores of the small dragon that had accompanied him to sleep. Still, he did not mind; it was neat to be able to sleep with a dragon.
It was early in the morning, but Starshade figured that it was as good a time as any to begin his weekend. He shuffled out from underneath the scratchy covers of his temporary bed and into the bathroom.
Grabbing his toothbrush and squeezing a thick line of minty-flavored paste onto its bristles, he began brushing his teeth. Fluttershy usually had to remind him to brush, but now it seemed that most every morning since he had moved into the library he remembered. He did not want Fluttershy to be disappointed with him.
Besides, he wanted to look his best. The Wonderbolts show would be in…
The colt paused, half of his mouth still lathered with toothpaste.
Wait. Is it today?
“Scootaloo!” Starshade banged his hooves against the wooden door. “Scoooootaaaloooooo!”
The door of the small house on Zapapple Way opened slowly. But instead of Cheerilee, or even Scootaloo, a blue-coated unicorn stood in the doorway.
“Huh? Wha–?” the mare said groggily, looking around at a height far above the pegasus foal’s. “Who’s there?” Trixie looked down. Her eyes stuck on the colt for a moment. The gears in her head were turning, but had not quite clicked into place yet.
The colt smiled up at her. “Hello! Who are you? And where’s Scootaloo?”
Trixie took a step backwards. “You. You’re Starshade.”
“Yep. Now, uh, is Scootaloo there? We’ve got to get ready for the Wonderbolts show!”
“It’s four o’clock in the morning. She’s sleeping, along with the rest of Ponyville.”
“Yah. So, uh, can you get her?” The colt tried to look into the house, leaning his head around the blue mare.
“Is there even anypony else here with you?” Trixie asked, blocking him as he tried to squeeze past her.
“I did wake up Twilight. She’s just really slow.” The foal lifted a hoof and pointed it back down the road. “See, she’s right there.”
Trixie blinked, squinting down the street in the direction that Starshade had indicated. She saw a blob of purple coat and frizzy mane trotting sleepily in their direction.
She froze. “Did you, uh, say ‘Twilight Sparkle’?”
“Ya–” The door slammed in Starshade’s face before he could finish his answer.
“That was weird,” he said to nopony in particular as Twilight trotted alongside him.
The purple mare put a hoof around his side. “Starshade, I told you to go back to sleep.”
“Do you know who that was?” asked the colt, ignoring her. “She’s really mean.”
“I don’t know; I didn’t get a good look at her. But I bet she’s not a mean pony, just really tired. It’s four o’clock in the morning, you realize.”
“Yah, she told me, before she slammed the door in my face. I know this is Scootaloo’s house. What’s she doing here?”
“Probably just a guest or something. I did see that Cheerilee had an ad for a room up in the marketplace, too. Come on, let’s get back to the library before you wake up anypony else. We’ll head off to the Wonderbolts show before lunch. I… need to get some more sleep.”
“Hurry up, Twilight!” “Yah, come on.” “Oh this is going to be so awesome.”
“What’re you waiting for?”
“Wake up, Twilight!”
Twilight Sparkle’s eyes shot open. “What? Huh? Are we there?” She put a hoof to the base of her horn, massaging it gently. “Oh Celestia my head hurts.”
Rainbow Dash was looking down from directly above the purple mare, the eager smiles of Starshade and Scootaloo blocking out anything that she might have seen in the blue pegasus’ periphery.
Dash blinked. “So, you getting up or what?”
“Are we there?”
Twilight sighed, pushing the pegasus to the side as she sat up. “Fine. Fine. I’m moving.”
She looked around the train car for a bit. Not much had changed; the last time she had been on this train, she had been trying to find Applejack. Now, where Pinkie had once been bouncing up and down in juice-induced agony, Cobalt was sitting and smiling at her.
“Don’t worry. We’re still pretty early,” he said. “You can sleep a little more before the show starts.”
Finding her way to her hooves, Twilight followed Rainbow Dash and the foals out of the train car.
The blue pegasus, already several meters ahead of Twilight, whirled around and called back, “Come on, Twilight! If we want the best seats, we’ve gotta hurry!”
“I’m… ahhh… coming,” mumbled Twilight through a yawn.
As Tantalus passed by Rainbow, he heard her whisper, “I don’t think ‘a little’ is going to cut it. She’s practically sleeping on her hooves.”
The stallion looked back. Still on boarding platform, just beneath the sign that read Dodge Junction, Twilight was standing. She was not moving and eyes were closed.
“I’ll go get her,” Tantalus said.
“Yah. We’ll just catch up with you at the show.” Grabbing a map from a nearby stand with his magic, Tantalus turned back towards the purple mare. “See you then, Dash,” he said over his shoulder.
He knew just what Twilight needed to wake up.
Starshade was having trouble keeping track of Rainbow Dash as she spiraled overhead. As the streaks of rainbow mane shot past him, he could hear small snatches of her excitement.
“... seats are so much better … lifetime opportunity … bet they’ll see … right at the front …”
The colt shook his head. The mare was starting to squeak like Fluttershy.
Scootaloo nudged Starshade with an elbow. “This is going to be so awesome! You see those seats that Dash got us?”
“She certainly seems excited about it,” he said.
Above them, the blue pegasus shouted, “Let’s get moving, you foals. We’ve got a show to see!”
Starshade and Scootaloo bounded after the fast flyer. Before long, the two winded foals made it to their destination, a large field outside some sort of orchard. Dozens and dozens of temporary bleachers were arrayed around the open space with several hoops and tall poles dotting the interior. The stands were already more than half full, and new spectators were trickling in at a steady pace. Considering how early they were, it was more than likely that the show was completely sold out.
In the center bleacher, bouncing up and down in excitement, was Rainbow Dash. Throughout the crowd, Starshade spotted several pegasi dressed in a bright blue and yellow uniform. One of them was talking to Rainbow.
“Is that a Wonderbolt?” asked Starshade as he pointed a hoof at the pony in front of Dash.
Scootaloo nodded. “Yah. I wonder what’s up. Hey, I bet if we hurry over there, we might get a chance to talk to that one.”
“Yah. It’ll be awesome.”
As Scootaloo and Starshade closed the distance to Rainbow Dash, it was apparent that the blue pegasus was only getting more and more excited. Around them, several of the Wonderbolts were already leading a hooffull of other pegasi into the sky.
“What’s going on, Dash?” shouted Scootaloo as soon as she was in range.
The rainbow mare barely turned to look at the foal, but the Wonderbolt whipped around to answer her. Scootaloo instantly recognized the flyer; it was Spitfire.
“Hey kid,” said the mare.
“Hey!” Starshade chirped back.
Scootaloo did not answer; her mouth was not moving like she wanted it to.
“So what’s going on?” continued the colt.
“We’re just getting a few volunteer pegasi to help us round up some clouds,” Spitfire answered. “They’re a bit further out than we expected, and we’d rather not get all tired before the show.”
Scootaloo’s jaw finally started moving up and down. “So, you’re getting Rainbow Dash to help you?”
“Seems like it. Unless, of course, she needs to be looking after you two.”
The response both Dash and Scootaloo was immediate, and loud. “No.”
The older pegasus continued, “I’ve got two friends on the way. They should be here any second now. It’s not a problem at all.”
Scootaloo burst into the conversation. “Is there anything I can do to help too?”
Spitfire frowned. “Well, not right now, no.”
For a moment, Scootaloo looked heartbroken.
“But,” the mare continued, the frown morphing into a playful grin, “We are going to be doing something at the end of the show for all the foals. I’ll try to make sure we grab you two, alright?” The flyer extended a hoof and lightly ruffled Scootaloo’s mane. “All right then,” Spitfire continued, turning to the sky, “Come on, Dash. We shouldn’t be more than fifteen minutes. Soarin’s organizing the volunteers somewhere over there. I’ll go pick up a few more pegasi and join you in a bit.”
In a flutter of feathers, the yellow stuntmare and blue pegasus were gone.
And I thought that Rainbow Dash had been squeaking like Fluttershy before.
“That was so awesome! We’re gunna remember this forever.”
Starshade looked to his side. Scootaloo was bouncing around in small circles, flapping her small wings in ecstasy as she jumped.
Starshade found himself grinning widely.
“I wonder what they’re going to have us do,” Scootaloo said as she came to rest.
“I bet it’ll be awesome,” Starshade returned, settling his rump down on the bleachers.
Starshade blinked. Wait. Where did that one go?
The Wonderbolt had vanished behind a cloud. The entire crowd was staring at fluffy white mass, silently waiting for something to happen. Beside him, Scootaloo was staring at the spot where the pegasus had vanished.
Dash was seated on the opposite side of the colt, clenching her hooves and whispering, “This one’s gunna be awesome! This one’s gunna be awesome!”
A loud bang split the near-empty sky, vaporizing the white formation in an instant. Five winged Wonderbolts shot out in a blur of blue and yellow, whipping up the wispy remnants of the cloud into a whirling mass with their synchronous wingbeats. From out of the glare of the sun, a sixth flyer appeared, speeding towards the center of circle formed by the other Wonderbolts. Starshade recognized the orange and amber mane; it was Spitfire.
Tufts of cloud trailed the mare in a sparse column as she rocketed between the other flyers, hooking laterally as she leveled out. Spitfire traced a circle just above ground level, an action mirrored in the opposite direction by the Wonderbolts above her.
One loop. Two. Three. Five. Starshade was getting dizzy from watching her.
“Look!” whispered Rainbow, grabbing the colt’s head with one foreleg and pointing with the other. “In the middle. The cloud wisps, they’re spinning.”
Starshade focused his eyes in the empty void between the lone flyer and her comrades. He could see it now; the column that Spitfire had created was spiraling, the opposing currents from the top and bottom forcing it into a thin, nearly-solid white rod.
“Wow,” whispered the colt, mouth now as wide as Scootaloo’s was beside him.
Dash was shaking her hooves even more violently. “Here it comes. Here’s the finale!”
At the end of the ninth loop, Spitfire pulled up. The mare continued the motion, extending it into a full vertical twist. Flying upside down, the mare shot in a bee line perpendicular to the rotating column, arching her back as she neared it. Twisting again into a straight vertical, the mare rammed the rod head-on at its base, splitting it lengthwise down its central axis as she soared into to the sky.
Distinct thin shards split off from the column, deflecting over Spitfire’s body and out into the open space around her, the continued motion of the other Wonderbolts bending them into smooth curves that looked like ribbons twirling around a maypole.
As Spitfire reached the elevation of the other flyers, they broke off of their circling formation and, looping back, followed her into the sky. The flyers were rapidly closing the distance separating them, their paths contracting into a single point that would inevitably end in a collision. Starshade held his breath, tracing their paths wordlessly with his eyes. Just before the moment that they would have hit, they vanished in a fiery orange glow.
Starshade shielded his eyes; the Wonderbolts had flown into the disc of the sun.
The crowd erupted in cheering.
“I told you so!” shouted Dash over the noise of the celebrating ponies as she wacked the colt on the shoulder with a forehoof. “Bucking. Amazing.”
Starshade only nodded. He knew it now: he was going to be a stunt flyer; he was going to be a Wonderbolt.
After a few moments, the voice of the announcer filled the makeshift showground.
“Ladies and gentlecolts, that’s our show. Thank you for attending today’s Wonderbolts Flight Demonstration and remember Cherry Hill Ranch for all your seasonal cherry needs: quality cherries, grown right here in Dodge Junction since E.S.M. 964.”
Starshade and Rainbow Dash both stood to exit the bleachers. Scootaloo, however, remained seated.
“Come on, Scoots,” Starshade said. “Let’s get going.”
Scootaloo frowned. “But Spitfire said that they were going to do something for the foals at the end of the show!”
Before Starshade could answer, the announcer’s voice returned. “Oh, um, and those of you with young pegasus colts and fillies please be sure to stop by the signature booths for an opportunity to Fly With the Wonderbolts, sponsored by the Cloudsdale Young Flyers’ Association: inspiring the next generation of Equestria’s greatest flyers.”
Scootaloo smiled. “See?”
Beside her, Starshade was looking at the ground. “Did you hear what he said? ‘Fly with the Wonderbolts?’ We can’t fly, Scootaloo.”
Rainbow Dash corralled the little pegasi with her hooves, saying, “Naw. I think I’ve got an idea of what they’re going to do. You foals are just the right age. Besides, I have a feeling that Twilight and Tantalus aren’t going to show up anytime soon. They missed the entire show.”
Scootaloo was bouncing up and down as Starshade cantered in small circles around her hooves. From a distance, Spitfire looked on with a smile. She was glad that Cloudsdale had finally agreed to fund the fly along.
Stretching her wings, the mare nodded to the two other Wonderbolts beside her. “Soarin’, you get the two colts; Fleetfoot, get the fillies on the left; and I’ve got the orange filly and the blue colt.”
Soarin’ grumbled. “I still don’t think this is a good idea.”
Fleetfoot laughed loudly and poked the stallion in the side with a forehoof. “What, big boy? You scared of a couple of foals?”
“No.” Soarin’ looked to the mare on his other side. “I’m worried about you, Spitfire. Rapidfire hit you hard; you should be resting that right wing of yours.”
Spitfire waved a hoof. “My brother? It was barely a scrape; I’m fine.”
“We had to have a unicorn teleport him out. We’re just lucky the crowd didn’t miss him.”
“Damn it. I’m not missing the first day of this for the world. Now get to your foals. We’ve got young flyers to inspire.”
Soarin’ sighed. “Your call, boss. Just be careful.”
Spitfire twisted her head around and looked at the two foals on her back. They were heavier than she had expected.
The yellow mare smiled through gritted teeth. “You two ready?”
“Yah,” Starshade said with a nod.
Scootaloo was much louder. “Go fast! Go as fast as you can!”
Spitfire flipped her head around, chuckled slightly, and spread her wings. “We’ll ease into it slowly. Just hold on tight.”
The mare lurched forward. For a moment, she ran along the ground, slowing building speed into an open gallop. Crouching down, she pushed off the ground and flapped her wings.
The filly on her back was yelling. “Woooooo! Can you believe it, Starshade? We’re flying! We’re flyyyyying!”
Starshade let out a deep breath, keeping his eyes tightly closed. He could feel the wind flowing through his mane. It felt good. It felt right.
His lips moved in a whisper. “Yah. We’re flying.”
“What? I can’t hear you!” shouted Scootaloo from behind him.
“I said, ‘We’re flying!’”
Starshade opened his eyes as Scootaloo tightened her grip on his shoulders. Spitfire was picking up speed.
“How you foals doin’ back there?” the flyer yelled, glancing back slightly.
Scootaloo answered instantly. “Awesome! Go faster! And go higher! Way higher!”
“Yah,” Starshade yelled, “do it!”
Spitfire lowered her head and squinted her eyes, ignoring her heaving lungs and the burning muscles in her right wing. “Just hold on tight!”
Starshade peeked over the edge of Spitfire’s back. He could see the bleachers far beneath him shrinking rapidly. The image of the other two Wonderbolts and their passengers stretched into a blur. His head whipped through a cloud, leaving drops of cool moisture clinging to his coat. He could no longer hear Spitfire’s breathing over the rush of the air around him.
Taking another breath, Starshade inched out his wings from his sides. As they extended to their full lengths, Starshade felt the wind pull against his primary feathers. He looked back. Behind him, Scootaloo was doing the same thing, eyes closed.
Starshade let his eyelids relax again. “Pegasi are meant to fly.”
“What?” Spitfire yelled back. “I– Ah!”
To his right side the colt heard a terrible tearing sound. Immediately the Wonderbolt under him lurched right and pitched downwards. For the second time in his life, Starshade felt that terrible falling feeling in his stomach.
As his hooves ripped away from Spitfire’s lower neck, he heard Scootaloo shout his name.
Starshade opened his eyes. He was falling, his wings battering uselessly against his sides in the periphery of his vision. He could see Spitfire and Scootaloo directly above him. The Wonderbolt was spiraling rapidly towards the earth and the filly was facing downwards, looking past Starshade and on to the ground. Her wings were spread wide, her primary feathers fluttering in the open air. She was getting further and further away from him.
Starshade looked over his shoulder and towards the ground. Scootaloo was not getting farther from him; he was getting farther from her.
And closer to his death.
He looked back. He could see her mouth moving, shouting instructions at him. He knew what he needed to do, but he could not twist his body around; the air rushing past him was too strong.
Above him, Scootaloo was in a dive. Her wings were beating against her sides, forcing her faster and faster towards him. In that moment, he realized that Scootaloo was flying. Not falling, not gliding, but flying.
Some part of him forced a smile onto his face. It was what she was meant to do.
But not me. I’m going to die now. The ground was close. Only a few more seconds and it would all be over.
An explosion of color filled his field of vision. Moments later, something struck him hard in the side. He heard a familiar voice in his ear. It was Rainbow Dash.
Starshade pressed himself further into the cushioning of his bed. The soft knocking at the door to his room in the Ponyville library only quieted slightly.
The colt twisted under the covers. “Go away!”
The knocking stopped, and the door creaked open. Gentle hoofsteps approached the bed, and before long they had stopped too. Starshade felt a hoof touch the covers above his head.
“I heard about what happened,” a voice said. It was Fluttershy’s.
The little pegasus pulled the bed sheets further around him and tucked his head in closer to his body. Fluttershy withdrew her hoof and instead seated herself carefully beside him on the bed.
The mare was facing away from Starshade as she spoke. “I came as soon as the doctors would let me. They said that Rainbow Dash saved your life.”
The colt grumbled. “She nearly killed you.”
“Oh, no. She didn’t hurt me that badly. It was more my fault for not watching out. Besides, after saving you, Dash more than made up for it.”
“I wish she hadn’t,” the colt spat.
Fluttershy frowned. “Hadn’t made up for it, or hadn’t saved you?”
The colt shifted under the covers again. Fluttershy could hear him choking back tears. “Hadn’t saved me.”
Fluttershy pushed herself off of the bed and walked around it. Standing so that she faced Starshade, she returned a hoof to his body. She rubbed it over the covers, feeling for the pegasus’s wings. They were ruffled and splayed awkwardly beneath the bedclothes.
“Nightmare Night is tomorrow,” the mare said. “Princess Luna is coming, she sent me a letter.”
“Miss Luna?” Starshade asked from beneath the covers.
“Yes. It’s sort of going to be a Ponyville tradition. But there’s one thing we still haven’t worked out yet.”
The colt pulled his wings out from under Fluttershy’s hoof and pushed himself away from her position beside the bed. “I’m not sure that I care anymore.”
“Oh? Picking out a costume can be such fun.”
Starshade pushed the covers off of his head with his forelegs and looked towards Fluttershy. “I already had one picked out, you know.”
Fluttershy looked to the corner of the room. A small blue and yellow bodysuit lay on the floor, the winged bolt sewn into the flank barely visible in its discarded state.
The two ponies were silent. Fluttershy was staring at the costume, Starshade out the small window to his side.
Fluttershy drew a breath and started to speak. Before she could say anything, yelling erupted from outside the window.
“Ya can’t go up there, Scootaloo! Fluttershy told us to be quiet an’ wait,” Applebloom shouted through gritted teeth.
“I can too. Now let go of my tail,” Scootaloo yelled back. “Sweetie Belle, tell her to let me go.”
“You shouldn’t fly up there,” Sweetie Belle said quietly.
“Argh,” Scootaloo huffed. “Forget it. I want to talk to him. You let go now or I’m gunna hurt you.”
Fluttershy looked out the window as Applebloom dug her hooves into the ground. The filly’s teeth were still clamped firmly around Scootaloo’s tail.
The orange filly whipped around, ramming Applebloom in the side with her head. The earth pony fell to the ground, kicking at Scootaloo and landing a hoof in the pegasus’s chest.
Sweetie Belle backed away, staring at her two friends. “Stop fighting! Stop before one of you hurts somepony!”
Fluttershy jumped down from the window as Applebloom kicked Scootaloo again, this time in the side. The earth pony stood above the pegasus, still holding her magenta tail.
“I told ya not to fly up there,” Applebloom said.
Fluttershy took a step forwards, staring intensely at the pair of fighting fillies. “Are you two done now?”
Both froze. “Yes, Fluttershy,” they said in unison.
The yellow mare glanced at Sweetie Belle. As soon as her gaze left Scootaloo, the little pegasus jumped to her hooves. Tearing her tail from Applebloom’s mouth, she crouched down and, with a leap, took wing up to Starshade’s window.
Applebloom blinked and spat out the pink strands of hair still in her mouth. “When she gets back down here–”
Fluttershy stared at the seething yellow filly. “Let her go.”
Scootaloo hopped down from the windowsill and folded her wings. “Starshade, are you okay?”
“I’m alive,” the colt said. He looked at Scootaloo, bending his head around to see her wings. “You flew up here?”
“Yah,” Scootaloo answered, looking back at her wings as well. “I didn’t get a chance to talk after Rainbow Dash caught you. You’re not hurt, right?”
“Not really, no.”
“Well, what’s wrong then?” Scootaloo asked, taking a step closer to the bed.
“I’m not supposed to fly.”
The filly frowned. “But you’re a pegasus, Starshade.”
Starshade looked away, stuffing his hooves back underneath the bed covers. “That’s the problem.”
Scootaloo walked forwards and sat down beside the bed, looking up at the colt over its edge. “Where did you get the idea that you’re not supposed to fly? That’s stupid. It wasn’t your fault that Spitfire dropped us.”
“It’s not that,” Starshade said. “I’m afraid of heights.”
“Oh.” Scootaloo looked at the ground. “You sure?”
Starshade eyed the covers of the bed and did not answer.
After a moment, Scootaloo stood back up and walked over to the window. Hopping up onto the sill, she spread her wings. The filly opened her mouth, closed it, and furrowed her brow.
With a forced smile she finally managed, “Well, I don’t know what to say. You know, maybe it’s just a, uh, um…”
“… temporary thing?” Starshade offered, looking back to her.
Scootaloo started nodding, but stopped when the colt shook his head. Ruffling her wings, she said, “It would be awesome if you come to Nightmare Night.”
With a flap of her wings, Scootaloo jumped out of the window and, banking left, turned towards her home.
Scootaloo pushed herself off the floor of her room and, after steadying herself, rubbed the side that Applebloom had kicked. She winced; even after a full day, the spot still ached. The filly sighed, suppressing the feeling of anger. She glanced towards the poster of the Wonderbolts still on her wall and smiled.
I’m going to remember that day forever.
The rush of the wind through her mane, the fear as Spitfire fell out from beneath her, the exhilaration of adrenaline, opening her wings in terror: it was not how she had pictured her first flight, but it was a pretty awesome story.
The memory continued in the eye of Scootaloo’s mind. She could see herself soaring through the air, looking down at the ground. She saw Starshade, legs flailing as he plummeted, his wings slapping against his sides uselessly. He was looking up at her and smiling.
Scootaloo’s stomach lurched as her eyes shot open. That part of the memory hurt even worse than the bruise that Applebloom had given her. Scootaloo looked back to the floor. She could still see the blast wave of Rainbow Dash’s sonic rainboom. For a moment, she had thought that Rainbow had not made it in time.
The filly shook her head; she did not want to think about that now. She looked around the room, trying to find something to occupy her time until Nightmare Night began. She stopped for a moment; through her door, she could hear Trixie talking to somepony.
Again? Well, might as well listen in. That’ll be fun.
Quietly, the orange filly made her way into the hallway. Crouching low, she hugged the wall as she inched her way towards Trixie’s room. Her hoofsteps fell silently against the carpeted floor, her wings folded loosely against her side and ready to propel her into the air at a moment’s notice.
Scootaloo pressed her ear against the door and listened. This time, Trixie was speaking louder than she normally did.
“… that Luna will even try to save him?”
The other voice, one that Scootaloo was still unable to identify, answered. “I’m positive, Trixie. And I want you to be there when the opportunity arises. It just doesn’t add up. We need to gauge her reaction.”
Scootaloo heard Trixie stomp her hoof. “I am not going to hurt a foal.”
The other voice paused for a moment and when it finally spoke it was cold and firm. “Trixie, listen to me. I don’t want him hurt either, but we need to know. Both Russet and I suspect that there is something more to their relationship. So long as you are careful, he shouldn’t get hurt.” There was another pause. “Too badly.”
Scootaloo gasped. They had never talked about hurting somepony before. Cheerilee had just told Scootaloo to mind her own business and not to worry about Trixie. But this, this sounded different.
The next thing that Scootaloo noticed was that her head had hit the ceiling. She spun around, still in midair, looking for the source of the banging that had startled her. Inside the room, Trixie and the voice had stopped speaking entirely.
Scootaloo chuckled, trying to slow her pounding heart. It was just somepony at the front door.
“Could you get that, Scootaloo?” Cheerilee called from somewhere in the direction of the kitchen.
“Sure thing!” Scootaloo answered, flapping her way to the entryway. At least Trixie won’t be suspicious if she sees me now.
Scootaloo grabbed the door handle in her teeth and pulled against it, straining her wings. After several seconds of trying, she reluctantly dropped to the floor and pulled it open by hoof.
Scootaloo blinked. It was dark out and there was a pile of hay sitting in the doorway.
“Uh… where are you?” Scootaloo asked.
The bale of hay looked to the side. “Scootaloo, it’s me. I came ta apologize an’ stuff. I shouldn’t’ve kicked at ya.”
“And Sweetie Belle!” the white filly’s voice interjected from behind the bale. “Applebloom’s really sorry about everything. We tried to find you yesterday, but as soon as we got here Cheerilee just told us that you had flown off somewhere.”
Scootaloo away. “Yah. I did.” After a moment, she continued, “But everything’s fine now, I think.”
Sweetie Belle pushed past Applebloom. She was wearing a long white dress decorated with small gems. A thin veil hung over her head, just barely obscuring her horn. It looked like Rarity had taken quite a bit of time making the dress.
“So, what do you say to Cutie Mark Crusader treat collectors, Scootaloo?” Sweetie Belle asked.
Scootaloo smiled. “Definitely. But there’s just one problem.”
“What?” Applebloom and Sweetie Belle asked simultaneously.
“We’re missing Starshade.”
“Oh,” Sweetie Belle said. “You didn’t get to talk to him after you flew up there?”
Scootaloo shook her head. “I did, but he seemed really sad. His costume was crumpled up in the corner. I don’t think he’s coming tonight.”
“Well, there’s only one way ta fix that,” Applebloom said, shuffling around inside the large bale of hay. “I bet he’s still at the library; I don’t think Fluttershy’s moved him out yet. Let’s go an’ see him right now. Together.”
Starshade shifted his position on the windowsill. The cold Nightmare Night air blew through his mane and over his small wings, chilling him slightly. He looked back to the corner of the room where the Wonderbolts costume lay on the floor and sighed. It was too late now; the night had already begun. Scootaloo had left, and Sweetie Belle and Applebloom had not even come. He had no costume, no friends, and no purpose.
The colt looked back over the edge of window and down to the ground below. He felt the terrible feeling in his stomach again. It was a long ways down from the top of the library tree. Closing his watery eyes, he pulled his head back. He would only ever be able to fly in his imagination.
What kind of a pegasus am I? What kind of a pony? I can’t fly. My parents abandoned me. Princess Luna sent me here to this place. And Fluttershy hasn’t even brought me back to her cottage yet. Nopony wants me.
Starshade looked back over the edge. I don’t even want me.
With a yawn, the foal closed his eyes. He let his left forehoof dangle, and then his right. Spreading his wings, the small pegasus jumped. The sickening feeling did not return; he kept flapping. He opened his eyes. The ground flew beneath him, over roads and buildings. He could feel the cold wind flowing through is mane, and the pressure of lift against his wings.
He looked up. There was no sky above him, only a swirling darkness. His gaze flicked below. Where the ground had been was blackness.
The colt’s eyes shot open. He was still on the windowsill, looking out over Ponyville. His stomach lurched again, and his hooves shot back to a safe position beneath him. He had dozed off.
The colt’s head spun, searching for the pony that had called him. He looked left, and then right.
The voice yelled again. “Up here, Starshade!”
Starshade looked up. Above him, a purple and black figure was perched on a tree branch.
“Scootaloo? Is that you?”
The shape nodded, shuffling forwards and revealing an orange muzzle. “I’m dressed up as a Shadowbolt. Rainbow Dash gave me the idea.” Scootaloo ruffled her wings. “Anyways, would you mind leaving your room for a second? Sweetie Belle and Applebloom are waiting in the hallway just outside. I was too, until I came out here to try and get you.”
“I can’t go to Nightmare Night,” the colt preempted.
Scootaloo already had an answer. “Why not? It’s so much fun. Besides, Princess Luna will be here. I remember how she wrote all that awesome stuff in your astronomy book.”
“I know,” Starshade said. He eyed the Wonderbolts costume in the corner. “I don’t have anything to wear.”
Scootaloo pointed a hoof at the door. “Sweetie Belle had a great idea. We got you one of Twilight’s old costumes. She cut it down a bit with some scissors and it should fit you just fine.” Scootaloo puffed her chest. “I helped her pick it out. I think it’s pretty awesome.”
“What is it?”
“Starswirl the Bearded.”
Starshade eyed the bells lining the costume. “I still don’t think that this is a good idea.” With every word, the beard strapped to his chin grazed the ground. "Besides, the hat is too big."
“Just put it on,” Scootaloo said. “We’ll have so much fun.”
“All right, all right.”
A bale of hay collided with Starshade’s flank. The square bundle tipped onto its side, leaving the flailing legs of the pony within waving aimlessly for purchase. “Uh,” it said, “Can one of ya help me?”
Starshade turned and grabbed a rope that secured the bale to Applebloom in his teeth. With a heave, he pulled her upright.
Applebloom straightened her costume. “Thanks. Just so ya all know, Zecora’s startin’ now. Ya better get movin’ before we miss it.”
“We’ll be right there,” Sweetie Belle said, helping to steady Applebloom as she stood. “Scootaloo’s right. You’re going to have a lot of fun.”
Starshade looked back to Scootaloo. “Who did you say this costume was, again?”
“It’s Starswirl the Bearded. As soon as I remembered his name, I picked it for you. Isn’t it awesome that you both have such close names?”
Starshade shook his head. “He was a unicorn, though.”
“That’s not a problem,” Scootaloo insisted.
“But I’m a…” Starshade stopped, looking back to the small wings tucked against his side and sighing. “… Whatever. It’s not like it matters anymore. I might as well be an earth pony.”
Beside him Applebloom started, but a strategically placed hoof from Sweetie Belle stopped the yellow filly from saying anything.
Sweetie Belle hoisted the costume onto Starshade’s back, covering up his wings. The colt shifted his gaze back to the ground as the white filly started speaking.
“I’m sorry we don’t have a horn for you, Starshade. But I think the hat’ll hide it anyways.”
Before Starshade could answer, Applebloom interjected, “Come on, guys. We’ve got ta go now.”
Scootaloo patted Starshade on the back. “See? I told you it’d look awesome. Cutie Mark Crusader candy collectors are go!”
“My little ponies, gather round. Be quiet and make no sound. Nightmare Moon will soon be here. This is something you foals must fear.” Zecora stood up, the golden bands around her forelegs jingling quietly.
“Why?” a filly chimed from somewhere behind Starshade. “Who’s Nightmare Moon?”
“Ah, Dinky, a good question. You see, Nightmare Moon is a pony filled with much aggression. We all know she hunts and captures little foals, but Nightmare Moon also has other goals.”
As Zecora continued, Starshade nudged Scootaloo. “Why is Zecora talking about Nightmare Moon?” he asked in a whisper. “Miss Luna’s not Nightmare Moon anymore.”
“Last year, Princess Luna suddenly came here for Nightmare Night. She dressed up as Nightmare Moon and scared us all night. It was really fun and she’s doing it again this year.”
Starshade dug a hoof into the ground. “Being scared isn’t fun at all.”
In the back of his mind, Starshade sensed that Zecora had ceased speaking. The ponies around him stood with locked knees. The silence of their apprehension prevented Scootaloo from answering him.
A dark purple mist trickled around the foals’ hooves, rising and obscuring their vision. Starshade turned his head as a small filly squeaked beside him. Through the mist, he could see Zecora raising her hooves.
The zebra looked left and right. “You little foals had best run soon. Behold the dark queen, Nightmare Moon!”
In a flash, the mist vanished. Where a statue had once been, a dark figure grinned back at the foals with fanged teeth.
A cold voice resonated through the night air. “My my, we are hungry tonight!”
As the ponies around him scattered, Starshade stood, frozen in place. He had never seen Miss Luna like this before, never heard her speak like that.
The dark queen halted for a moment, looking into the foal’s stunned eyes. From around the corner of a nearby building, an orange figure masked in purple and black appeared.
The pegasus colt looked up at Nightmare Moon and smiled. He did not need Scootaloo to tell him twice. The small bells on his hat ringing furiously, Starshade bolted for cover.
Starshade ducked into alley, heart pounding and sides heaving. The beard dangling from his chin was stained with dirt, and the tip was in frayed and in tatters. He didn’t know where the big bell-covered hat had gone, either.
But he did not care; the dark queen was close, too close. Starshade flipped open his saddlebags and nosed through them, looking for any scraps of candy. A few empty wrappers crinkled against his muzzle.
I just hope she doesn’t find me.
A cold laugh cut through the night air. Starshade froze, his face still buried in the folds of his left saddlebag.
“Doth we perceive a little foal who hath forgotten his offering to Nightmare Moon?”
Starshade’s eyes flicked to the junction between the alleyway and the street. There, the dark queen stood. A purple mist swirled about her hooves with a mind of its own, coalescing briefly into thick patches and forking off into slender whips. It looked alive.
His breathing stopped. It’s over. It’s all over. His heartbeat resounded in his head.
An orange blur whizzed past Nightmare Moon’s horn. The queen looked up, the mist thinning ever so slightly.
Starshade heard Scootaloo’s voice. “Don’t just sit there, run!”
The mist. It was still blocking his way. He had nowhere to run.
He did not think. One leg forward, then another, and another. The pulses of his heart were the only thing faster than the beat of his hooves against the ground. Head lowered, Starshade plowed through the mist, his small wings slapping against his sides. The frigid purple energy washed over him. It was unlike anything that he had felt before. And, with a gasp, he was through it and into the street.
As he galloped down the dark path, an orange pegasus soared above him. Scootaloo dipped downwards and leveled out beside Starshade.
“You saved me,” the colt managed in between rushed breaths.
“Just keep running,” Scootaloo said.
“This is... fun. I– I don’t know why.”
“Don’t stop. Don’t talk. Just run.”
Spike set down the large mirror he had been carrying and flopped onto his back. A tired baby dragon stared back at him under the moonlit sky, blinking slowly.
“Twilight, why did you have to get all fancy this year?” he said from his position on the ground.
The mare walked past him, two of the large mirrors floating easily alongside her under the pull of her magic. “Come on, Spike. They’re not that heavy. We need to get at least eleven more into position to ensure that Trémane’s algorithm can be used to solve it.”
“Say what?” Spike shook his head. “Never mind. I don’t see why we had to do this outside, though. Isn’t the library big enough?”
Tantalus trotted up to Spike, carrying a large box of candies in his magic. “Nope,” he answered, “It wouldn’t be much of a maze then. Besides, it’s scarier out here.” Setting the box on the ground and pointing a hoof, he said, “Now, why don’t you take this box and I’ll get the mirror?”
Spike pushed himself upright and grumbled. “Alright.”
Starshade glanced back over his shoulder. Slowing his pace and gasping for air, he said, “I think she’s gone, Scootaloo.”
Beside him, Scootaloo was slowing down as well. She looked back. “Yah. I think we lost her.” The pegasus touched down beside Starshade, folding her wings and panting, but sporting a massive smile. “I don’t think I’ve ever flown so hard. Felt good.”
The two foals stood in the road for a moment. Starshade twisted around and looked back down it. Scootaloo eyed a building, ruffling her wings against her side.
Scootaloo looked at Starshade. “So, uh, do you want to…?”
“Yah,” he said, lowering his head and tensing his muscles. “Race you to the mist.”
“Right!” Scootaloo yelled as she banked sharply to her side. “She got in front of us somehow!”
Starshade dug his hooves into the ground. Slowing to a momentary halt, the colt turned and tailed Scootaloo as she flew down a side street. He looked back. Behind him, two blobs of purple mist from either direction collided with one another, mixing together and continuing forward after him as one mass.
“She’s boxing us in!” Starshade yelled.
“I know!” Scootaloo called back over the rush of air around her. As she neared the end of the road, her wings spread wide. “Left!” she shouted again, leaning to the side.
Moments later, Starshade followed the orange pegasus onto another side street. In the corner of his eye, he saw the cold purple mist darting along behind them as he turned, even larger than it had been before.
“We’ve got to find a way to hide, Scootaloo! I– I can’t keep running like this and you’re starting to slow down!”
Scootaloo spun her head around. “I know! But where can we go? We’ve got to keep running!”
Starshade, redoubling his efforts, pulled alongside the flying pegasus filly. “Twilight and Cobalt are setting up a mirror maze outside of the library,” he said, barely looking to his side. “We’re really close. We can hide and catch our breath in there.”
Scootaloo looked back down the road, then to her wings, and back to Starshade. Dropping smoothly to her hooves and continuing in a gallop, she said, “Lead the way.”
From a distance, Trixie watched as Starshade and Scootaloo wove their way through the streets of Ponyville. Peeling her eyes from the fleeing foals for a moment, she checked her costume. Nopony would be able to recognize her.
Trixie jumped backwards. Three small foals shot past her, all screaming and fleeing almost blindly. Moments later a mass of purple mist floated leisurely past her, almost nodding to the mare as it passed. Trixie sighed as the magic continued around a corner and out of view. All she could do now was wait for an opportunity.
“Incoming!” Scootaloo yelled as she darted around the legs of the ponies outside of the Books and Branches library. She wedged her way past a blue stallion and stopped in her tracks.
The mirror maze was massive. From the outside, it looked like a wide circle. The tall mirrors forming the perimeter were double-sided, and Scootaloo could make out a swirl of purple mist coalescing behind her the reflections. The was a small entrance just ahead of her, a tiny gap where a mirror had not been placed. There was a hoofdrawn map posted beside it.
Scootaloo galloped up to it, alongside Starshade. The maze was built from of five concentric rings that were interconnected by small passageways. There was an open space in the center, with a picture of a small chest inside of it. Scootaloo also spotted an exit on the opposite side of the maze.
“We’ve got to move, Scootaloo,” Starshade said, pointing a hoof at a reflection in the mirror.
The orange pegasus nodded. “Yah, okay. I just hope you’ve got that map memorized.”
Starshade pulled her through the entrance and into the maze and turned left. “Uh, I don’t.”
“Great,” Scootaloo deadpanned. We’re going to be in here for a while.
Trixie took a step forwards. This was her chance; this would work.
She watched as the purple mist surrounded and enveloped the mirror maze. The princess could materialize at the slightest notice; she would be there to save him.
The unicorn took another step. All the work, it would come down to this.
Trixie closed her eyes.
Sanguine mouthed the words in the eye of the mare’s mind. “You do realize that this is more than just temporary filler, I hope. You can’t be planning on returning to your traveling show.”
Eyes shifting beneath their closed lids, Trixie’s mind flicked back to the purple mare standing beside the maze’s entrance. This time Twilight Sparkle was going to be the pony that failed. This time, I’m going to succeed.
Lids still closed, Trixie reached out with a thin tendril of blue magic. She knew what she needed to do.
“I am not going to hurt a foal.”
“Trixie, listen to me. I don’t want him hurt either, but we need to know.”
The unicorn extended her head, straightening her back.
This time, I’m going to be useful.
Trixie pushed the tendril against a mirror. For a moment, it teetered on its edge. Trixie forced the magic forwards.
A resounding crash filled the Nightmare Night air. Seconds later, another sounded. And another.
Trixie opened her eyes. From all corners of the town, streams of purple energy shot into the air and streaked in the direction of the library tree. In a flash, they were gone.
Hovering above the collapsing maze, a dark figure scanned the reflective rings. It gasped and dove for the ground.
From the outskirts of Fluttershy’s cottage, Tantalus watched intently. He had been sitting there for over an hour; Princess Luna was still inside with Starshade and Fluttershy. The last the stallion had heard, the little pegasus was still in a pretty rough condition; Tantalus suspected that he was still unconscious. Now, Tantalus was just waiting for Luna to leave.
Somewhere off in the direction of the cottage, the stallion heard a stick snap. Suppressing the initial flinch, Tantalus sunk deeper into the shadows of the bushes concealing him. It had just been one of Fluttershy’s animals; there was no need to get worried.
Tantalus settled down onto his belly and watched the night sky. He did not know what he wanted to think; only that Fluttershy was going to be answering some questions soon. He had waited too long to figure out what Starshade really was to Luna.
He dug a hoof idly into the ground, dragging it in small circles, still staring into the dark sky.
And to me.
Starshade shifted under the covers of the bed. It was so comfortable, so warm. He stretched out a leg, feeling around idly in search of a nice cold spot.
A sharp pain shot up his side. The colt gasped and bolted upright, eyes flying open. The room was spinning and his ears pounded with each heartbeat. He raised a foreleg and touched his head. It was cold, moist, and rough.
Bandages? Wha- What happened?
Starshade’s gaze darted around the room, looking for somepony. It was empty. Puzzled and woozy, Starshade lay back down on the bed, one of his hooves still pressed up against the bandages around his head.
Ugh… What was I even doing? Something about candy, and running. Did I get sick or something? No. That wouldn’t explain…
The foal shot upright again and threw the covers off his body. “Scootaloo!”
Starshade rushed to the door, ignoring the pain in his side and fighting the wobbling of the room. He pressed up against it, feeling for the handle. In seconds, it was open and the foal was in the hallway, moving as quickly as he could manage. At the top of the stairs down, however, he halted. There were voices talking below.
“Now that everypony else is gone, I think you owe me some answers.” The colt recognized the voice. It was Cobalt’s.
Fluttershy spoke next, her voice weak and hesitant. “What do you mean?”
“You know very well what I mean. What happened after Luna saved him, that wasn’t normal.”
Starshade inched down the stairs, taking each step slowly. As soon as he could, he poked his head out of the stairwell and scanned the entry level. It was empty; the voices were coming from the kitchen.
“It’s, uh, really nice that you came over,” Fluttershy said suddenly. “Can I make you something to eat? If you don’t mind, that is…”
Starshade peaked around the corner and into the kitchen, barely letting his head show at all. Inside it, he could see Fluttershy standing at the cooking counter, beside the sink. She had a small knife in her hoof and a pile of whole carrots sat on a cutting board just in front of her. Tantalus stood on the other side of the room, one leg slightly forward, as if he was preparing to take a step. He was looking directly at the mare as she turned back around and started chopping.
“What?” Tantalus shook his head. “No. I– I just want you to answer my question.”
“I, uh, I don’t know what to say. Princess Luna loves him very much.”
Tantalus took a step forwards, ears perked on end. “Why?”
Fluttershy stared intently at the carrots, her chopping picking up pace slightly. “She found him. In the streets.”
“That doesn’t explain anything. There has to be scores of orphans in Canterlot. Why him?”
Tantalus stomped a hoof. “Why did she name him Starshade? Why?”
“I– I– She just–” Fluttershy squeaked. Dropping the knife, she turned around.
Starshade squinted. Was she blushing?
Taking a step backwards, she said, “Are you sure you don’t want some food?”
“No! Yes, I mean. Argh! No. Food.” Tantalus shook his head, his brown mane swaying back and forth violently. “Just tell me.”
Fluttershy slinked to the ground as Tantalus took another step closer to her. Her eyes were glued on the floor. “Tell you what?”
“About Starshade! Where he really came from; why Luna acted so weird; why he’s named that; whatever! I just want an answer!” The stallion paused for a moment. He had taken a step with each thing he had listed, his horn now hovering a few centimeters from Fluttershy’s head. He looked over the cowering and blushing mare. Puling his head back and glancing away, in a much quieter voice he said, “I– I just need to know.”
Fluttershy squeaked, opening a single eye slightly.
“Please tell me,” Tantalus said, sinking onto his belly. After a moment in which Fluttershy only managed another small squeak, he slammed a hoof up against the side of his head. “I don’t want to think about making you. Please. I’m not that kind of pony anymore.”
Fluttershy reopened an eye. “Uh, what?”
Tantalus looked up at her. “Just tell me.”
“I– I can’t. I promised.” The mare’s face was flushed with blood.
“Please. I need to know.”
“I…” Her head sunk and she sighed. Looking directly at Tantalus she said, “Starshade is Princess Luna’s foal. She became pregnant with him as Nightmare Moon. She named him after the father, Tantalus Starshade.”
Starshade staggered out of the cottage, his world swirling in a blur and his side throbbing. He did not know what had happened next, only that he had run. He just needed somewhere to think, somewhere to rest his head, somewhere to figure out what had just happened.
He sunk down into the grass beside some bushes. Spinning his head around, he looked back at the door. There was nopony there.
I’m… I’m Miss Luna’s. She’s my mother. I… I have a mother! But... why? Why didn’t she tell–?
Starshade stopped mid-thought. Somewhere nearby he heard a stick snap. “Is somepony there?” he whispered.
The next thing the colt knew was that a gray-blue glow had surrounded him. Confused, he raised a hoof and stared at the magical field surrounding him for a moment, cocking his head. In a flash, the world went black.
On the edge of his consciousness, he heard a voice. “Trixie promises that she won’t hurt you.”
Twilight woke to the sound of hooves beating against her bedroom window. She glanced at her bedside hourglass. Four o’clock in the morning.
“Only asleep for two hours,” the mare muttered as she pushed the covers off her and padded over to the windowsill. She squinted as she looked through the window; it was still very dark outside.
“Rainbow?” she asked, tilting her head. “What do you need?”
The blue pegasus bumped up against the glass again, before turning her head and smashing the side of it into the closed pane. Her mouth moved noiselessly, saying something that Twilight could not hear.
“What?” Twilight yelled. “I can’t hear you, Dash.” The unicorn paused for a moment. “Oh. Right.”
She flicked open the latch on the window with a quick spell. “What do–?”
Rainbow Dash shot through the open window, plowing into Twilight and sending the pair into a heap on the floor.
“Sorry,” Dash said quickly, pushing herself off the prone unicorn and standing upright. Twilight only moaned.
“What do you need, Dash? Is something wrong?” Twilight stumbled to her hooves, using her bed as support as she lifted herself.
Dash walked in a small circle as she spoke, her wings still unfurled and twitching impatiently. “You’d better believe it. We can’t find Starshade anywhere. We’ve been looking for an hour.” The pegasus stopped directly in front of Twilight. “Fluttershy won’t say a thing. She’s practically a fountain right now. The only thing we got out of her was that Cobalt had left before she realized that Starshade was gone. We can’t find him either. Cobalt, I mean. Fluttershy said–”
Twilight plugged Rainbow Dash’s mouth with a hoof. “Wait. What are you trying to tell me? That Starshade is missing and Cobalt took him?” The unicorn was glaring at Rainbow Dash, her eyebrows hooked in a wide ‘V’.
Rainbow shook her head furiously from left to right. Slobber leaked out around Twilight’s hoof as the pegasus tried to answer. Angrily, Twilight yanked out her hoof and took a half step closer to Dash, stretching her forelegs and crushing the gasping flyer with her gaze.
“Whaddya do that for?” the pegasus huffed in between breaths. Dash took a small step backwards and glanced to both sides. “Why are you looking at me like that, Twilight?”
“Well?” Twilight said, matching Rainbow’s stride.
“I, uh, I wasn’t saying anything about your little coltfriend. But the fact is that Starshade’s missing, and so is he. That’s all I know.”
“What were you about to say about Fluttershy?” Twilight shot back.
“Only that she said it was her fault that Starshade ran away. Her words, not mine.”
Twilight visibly relaxed, tilting herself backwards slightly and letting Rainbow Dash rise back to her full height. “Okay,” she said, “that’s all I needed to know.”
“If you hadn’tve shoved your hoof into my mouth and been all crazy like that you would’ve gotten it faster,” Dash said bluntly.
Twilight looked to her side for a brief moment. “I– I’m sorry. I just needed to know. I couldn’t believe that Cobalt would’ve done something like that.” Twilight turned and walked towards the window. She turned her head and looked up to the night sky. “Does Luna know?”
Dash stepped alongside her. “That’s sorta why I came to get you, Twi. We need Spike to send off a letter.”
“Oh, right. He should be…” Twilight stopped mid-sentence as she turned around and saw Spike’s empty basket. “That’s weird. He was there when I went to sleep. There’s no way he left in the middle of the night.”
“You’re not telling me that Spike’s missing too, are you?” Dash said.
Twilight shook her head. “I don’t know. I guess I am.”
Spike opened his eyes and sat up, rubbing his head. He looked around, scanning the dark space around him. “What happened? Where am I? Argh. Why does my head hurt like this?”
“Oh, you’re up now,” a voice said beside him. It sounded like it had just been crying.
“Starshade, is that you?” Spike asked, reaching out a claw to feel for the colt.
“Yah,” Starshade said.
“Well I guess it’s good that you’re here with me. Do you have any idea what’s happening?” Spike asked.
“And…?” Spike said, waving a claw in the darkness.
“We’ve been foalnapped by somepony who calls herself Trixie. We’re in a crate right now, and she’s taking us somewhere really quickly.”
Spike nodded in the darkness, pushing himself backwards and up against the wall of the crate as the floor bounced up and down irregularly beneath him.
“Is there anypony else in here?” the dragon asked after a moment.
“No,” Starshade said. “It’s just us.”
“Do you have any idea–?”
Starshade ruffled his wings. “I think so. I’m not really sure.”
“Well, anything’s better than nothing,” Spike said. “What do you think?”
“I think it’s because I’m Princess Luna’s foal.”
For a few seconds, Spike was silent. “What? There’s no way.”
“I overheard Fluttershy and Cobalt talking. I know what they said,” Starshade answered quietly. “It sort of explains everything too.”
The dragon sat silently again, his claws on his knees and his head loosely bobbing with the motion of the crate. After a minute or two, he looked up and said, “You know, I could light up this place with some fire for a few seconds, if that’d help.”
“Why not,” Starshade said flatly, scooting himself away from the dragon. “Go ahead.”
Spike opened his mouth and let a small jet of green flame escape. For a moment, he saw the small blue colt’s outline huddled against the opposite corner of the crate. His bloodshot emerald eyes were wide, his wings folded tightly against his gently oscillating sides.
The baby dragon scanned the rest of the space. It was completely empty, aside from the two occupants.
Spike let the flame die, plunging them back into darkness. “So you don’t have any idea why I’m here, do you?”
“We could always just ask Trixie,” the little pegasus answered.
“Huh?” Spike said.
“Just bang on the crate. She’ll open it up.”
“Maybe in a bit,” Spike said, stifling a cough. “I think I burned up some of the air in here. My head hurts even worse now. And I’m going to need to wait for my eyes to adjust again, too. I didn’t think of that.”
“Mm,” Starshade said. “I’ll just be over here if you need me.”
Twilight Sparkle sunk down onto her belly and inched a hoof around the crying yellow mare beside her.
She paused for a moment, thinking of what she could say. “I’m sorry Fluttershy, for whatever it is, but we need to know what happened. Starshade and Cobalt are missing and we can’t find Spike.”
Fluttershy turned her head away from Twilight and tucked it beneath her right foreleg. “Of course they’re gone. I shouldn’t have said anything.” She dug her head deeper into her side, sniffling back a fresh wave of tears. “And now I’m never going to see any of them again.”
Twilight wrapped her forelegs around Fluttershy’s head and gently pulled it from her side. “Fluttershy, you didn’t hear me. Spike is missing. It’s the middle of the night, and he was there when I went to sleep. Something is happening. We need to know what you told Cobalt, and what Starshade heard. Please.”
Fluttershy turned her head and looked out the ground-floor window and up at the moon, it’s top edge just barely hidden by the windowsill in the cloudless night sky. Fluttershy sighed. “I’m so sorry, Princess. I– I don’t know why. I didn’t want him to be angry at me.”
The unicorn extended a hoof and patted Fluttershy on the side. “It’s okay. We will find Starshade, and Cobalt, and Spike. I promise. But the first thing I need to know is what you told them.”
Fluttershy turned her head back to Twilight, and tried to force a smile through the tears. “I know. I–” Fluttershy halted, but after a moment, drew a deep breath. Closing her eyes, she burst out, “Starshade is Princess Luna’s colt. That’s what I told Cobalt, that’s what Starshade heard.”
Twilight blinked. “Oh. It all makes sense. I know where Cobalt will be. I’ve got to go. I’ve got to go now. Rarity and Applejack are just outside, if you need somepony to talk to. I’ll be back with Cobalt as fast as I can.”
Trixie slowly opened the top of the crate. Shielding the small crack with a layer of energy, she looked inside.
“What do you want?” she snapped, squinting into the darkness.
Only a gasp, followed by several suppressed coughs answered her. After a moment, the small dragon inside said, “Well, the first thing I wanted was some fresh air to breathe. Seeing as I have that now, I was wondering if you could tell us what’s going on. Starshade here hasn’t been much of a help.”
From somewhere in the far corner of the box, the colt grunted. Trixie still could not tell exactly where he was.
Trixie pulled back her head and raised her chin. “The Great and Powerful Trixie, your illustrious captor, refuses to answer such a question.”
“Wow. I thought it was just a coincidence that you happened to be named Trixie, but you really are that silly showmare from all those months back. Guess that whole gig didn’t go too well for you. Had to turn foalnapper to keep food on the table?”
Trixie glared daggers into the box. “Trixie is just getting back on her hooves. Once Sanguine’s mission is done, I’ll be back on the road wowing audiences from Canterlot to Las Pegasus. And you’ll be dead, probably, once we’re done with you.”
“Sanguine?” the dragon said. “So you didn’t even come up with this? Well, that’s probably why you managed to capture a young foal and a sleeping dragon this time. I’d call that a relative success.”
“Trixie captured you from under the watch of Twilight Sparkle and Fluttershy, two of the Elements of Harmony. That is hardly an easy feat.”
“Twilight and Fluttershy were asleep, weren’t they?” Spike asked casually.
From the corner, the colt interjected, “Actually, Fluttershy was talking to Cobalt. She can barely even breathe around him. Would have been harder to fool her if she had been asleep.”
“Case and point,” Spike said, flicking a claw against the side of the crate. “Not exactly the crowning achievement of all ponykind.”
Trixie shoved her head further into the crate, her horn aglow with anger. “You’re lucky we need you alive, little dragon. You should see what we’re going to make you do when we get back. You’ll wish we didn’t.”
“And what is that?” Spike shot back, moving his head to within centimeters from the blue mare’s. “Another one of those plans Sanguine came up with?”
Trixie pulled her head back and closed her eyes. “No. Trixie thought of this one. We needed a way to make sure that Luna and Celestia could not be alerted quickly. That, and we need you to send the ransom letter. You’re going to make this all possible, Spike.”
The dragon sunk back against the crate, crossing his arms. “But you’ve forgotten one thing, Trixie.”
The mare raised an eyebrow. “And what is that?”
“Twilight will be looking for me. She’s much better at magic than you; she’ll find us.”
Trixie scoffed. “How? It’s not like she can just trot over to the Canterlot Archives and grab a scrying spell. She may be a special pony, she may even be able to get access to spells like that, but she won’t be able to do it fast enough. Now, do you have anything else you want to ask the Great and Powerful Trixie?”
Spike looked to the side at Starshade. The colt shrugged in response and turned his eyes back to the crate wall.
“Eh, I’ve got nothin’,” Spike said, duplicating Starshade’s shrug. “Just remember to open up that lid every once in a while so we can breathe. Okay?”
“Trixie hates you,” Trixie said as she withdrew her head and let the lid drop, plunging the dragon and the foal back into darkness.
Twilight Sparkle poked her head out of the thick underbrush of the Everfree forest and scanned the clearing. It was early morning now, and the first rays of the dawn were just beginning to clear the dark overhead canopy. The mare shivered slightly as she walked into the grassy space. Dew sprinkled the ground and soaked her legs as she moved throughout the crumbling ruins, searching for some sign of Cobalt Rooks. She knew he would be here.
The mare rounded a corner and, spotting a burned-out campfire, trotted up to it. It looked like it had been there quite some time. Bits of white ash floated in the small puddles of condensation that surrounded a single large and blackened log. Twilight idly dug a hoof into the soft pile, turning hooffulls of burnt material in small circles as she looked up and scanned the ruins.
She jumped slightly as a stallion’s voice spoke from behind her. “I don’t know if you’re looking for me, but I doubt somehow that you’ll find what you’re looking for in the ashes of a dead fire.”
Twilight spun her head around and looked back to Tantalus. As she met his gaze, she saw that he was smiling, his head cocked slightly to the side. His eyelids, however, were drooping and he was breathing heavily.
“Didn’t sleep well?” she asked, turning her body around completely to face him.
“Didn’t sleep at all,” he said, gesturing a hoof to a flattened patch of grass beside the wall behind him. “I guess news like this tends to do that to you.”
Twilight lay down on the ground, tucking her forehooves underneath her body. “So you are Tantalus Starshade, then, aren’t you?”
Tantalus followed her motion. Sighing as he lowered himself, he said, “Yes.”
“You are Starshade’s sire.”
The stallion looked at the ground. “I suppose so. I just can’t believe…” Tantalus trailed off, his eyes locked on the beams of daylight rapidly approaching their spot beside the fire. “… I wonder what she knows,” he finished, looking back to Twilight.
“Luna?” she asked.
“Her too, but I meant Celestia.”
Twilight looked to the side, studying a patch of ground. “I don’t know.”
The two were silent as they watched the advancing streaks of brightness illuminate the grass around them and continue onwards.
Twilight looked back to him and said, “So, I take it you don’t know anything that has happened yet, then.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, raising and eyebrow and cocking his head even further to the right.
“Starshade and Spike are missing. They vanished sometime late last night, right after Starshade overheard your conversation with Fluttershy. I wouldn’t be too worried if Starshade had just simply galloped off to collect his mind, but we searched everywhere – even with magic – and the fact that Spike is missing to makes me think that something is going on. That’s why I needed to find you.”
Tantalus pushed himself up and rose to his hooves. “Well, then, let’s get moving. We don’t have any time to waste. We need to get back to the library.”
Twilight followed him. As they trotted to the edge of the clearing, she asked, “Why the library? That was the first place I searched for Spike.”
Pushing aside the foliage blocking their path, the stallion explained, “I need some components for a spell. It’s an old one, one that many ponies today probably don’t remember. Nightmare Moon and I used it to track Celestia. I think we can use it to find Starshade.”
“A scrying spell?” Twilight said slowly. “Those are forbidden.”
“Never stopped me before,” the stallion said with a grin. “This particular one is special, too. All we need is a part of Starshade. A hair, or a hoofclipping. Or, alternatively, we can use the blood of a close relative. We used Luna’s to track Celestia. If I am truly Starshade’s father, then we can use mine to find him.”
“Not only a scrying spell, but blood magic?” Twilight shook her mane. “I really don’t think I can let you do this.”
Tantalus chuckled as he pulled aside a branch and allowed Twilight to pass him. “Blood magic? Don’t foal yourself. That’s not blood magic. I know what you need to do blood magic, and a few drops as a focus is not blood magic.”
“You’ve done blood magic?” she asked, more curiously than concernedly.
“Of course. Luna had to become Nightmare Moon somehow.” The stallion shuddered. “I’ve made many mistakes in my past, Twilight. I’m just hoping that Starshade won’t be one of them.” He looked ahead down the overgrown trail through the forest. “Come on, we need to move faster.”
Rainbow Dash tore through the skies above Equestria. Thin streaks of color trailed behind her, cutting an uninterrupted path straight to the heart of the mountainside capital city.
Stealing a glance behind her, the blue pegasus checked the saddlebags strapped across her back. The top folds rippled violently in the wind, straining against the metal clasps holding them closed. Rainbow shook her head and forced herself to slow.
Dash cursed under her breath. When I get my hooves on that bucking showmare… Argh! If Fluttershy could’ve flown the letter I’d be hunting Trixie down right now. There’s no way that Twilight, Cobalt and the others will be able to catch her on hoof, even with that freaky not-blood-magic or whatever it is. Rainbow pressed her hooves against her head and rolled her eyes. I hate it when I have to go slow.
The mare squinted in the direction of Canterlot. It was hard to gauge the distance to the city; the scale of the towering castle buildings ahead and the empty valley below made it seem as if she was hardly moving at all.
Princess Celestia looked up from her writing stand and set down the quill beside the half-finished letter. Sighing and shaking her head, she plodded towards the chamber door. Outside her room, she could already hear the clang of metal armor and the voices of guards barking orders.
Slowly, she eased open the reinforced door with her magic. For a moment, she halted at the scene before her, blinking once. Just in front of the threshold, two of her royal guards lay prone on the floor, a struggling blue pony pinned beneath them. Three more unicorn guardponies stood in a tight circle around them, their heads lowered and horns aglow.
Celestia cleared her throat. Instantly, the guards froze. The sandwiched pegasus continued to shout and squirm for a moment before her magenta eyes finally locked with the princess’s. With a grin, the mare forced herself upwards, slamming her back into the stomach of the guard on her right side.
“I told ya you couldn’t keep Rainbow Dash down for–” Dash stopped mid-sentence as a yellow field materialized around her body. Her eyes flicked away from the guard and back to Celestia. “Hey! That’s not fair!”
The alicorn raised her chin and glared down on the pegasus in front of her. “Rainbow Dash, you had better have a good explanation for attacking my royal guards.” Celestia tilted her head forwards, frowning. “And you would do well to address me as ‘Princess’ when you speak. Now, why are you here at this hour, and where are your friends?”
Celestia let her magic dissipate, gently dropping Rainbow Dash to her hooves. The pegasus brushed herself off with a forehoof and muttered, “Second time today I’ve let one of you magic-types order me around.”
“Dash,” Celestia warned, raising an eyebrow.
“Yah, yah, yah. Sorry, Princess. Twilight sent me off to give you this letter. Starshade and Spike were foalnapped last night and we figured it would be good for you and Princess Luna to know.”
Celestia’s eyes snapped to the guard on Rainbow Dash’s left. His armor was inlaid with a single blue star, marking him as a commanding officer.
“You,” Celestia said, “wake Shining Armor and inform him that I desire his presence in my personal quarters as soon as possible. The rest of you are dismissed.”
In a shuffle, the guards bounded down the spiral staircase behind them, leaving Celestia and Rainbow Dash alone.
Celestia motioned Rainbow Dash into the room. As soon as the mare was inside and the door was closed, Celestia said, “I received a letter from Spike only several hours ago, intended for Luna. She left as soon as she had read it. I cannot imagine why she would have left alone if she knew he was in danger. They must be using him as some sort of bait. Do you have any idea where they are being taken?”
“No,” the pegasus answered, “I don’t.” Rainbow reached into her saddlebags and extracted the letter. “But I have this letter for you, from Twilight. She told me it has everything that she knows about what is happening in it, that way I wouldn’t have to remember. She said that she would teleport in another letter as soon as she learned where Starshade is being taken. I don’t know why she didn’t just teleport this one, though. It would have been way faster.”
The alicorn shook her head. “Teleportation from such a distance is very unreliable. I doubt, even with Twilight’s skill, that it would end up in the correct wing of the castle, much less in my hooves. She was right to send you with this.”
Celestia grabbed the letter in her magic and unrolled it, scanning its contents as quickly as she could. After a moment, she set it down beside her on the writing desk, her brow furrowed.
“Tantalus Starshade,” she muttered, “even after a thousand years you still have your wits about you. I was wrong to expect less.”
“Huh?” Dash asked, her head cocked to the side. “Who’s Tanta-whatever, and what did you say about Starshade and a thousand years?”
Celestia closed her eyes and sighed; it was going to be a long day.
Tantalus leaned over the small water-filled bowl and released his magic, letting several drops of blood from a small cut on his foreleg mix with the magical energy. He muttered under his breath, eyes scanning the pool for any sign of Starshade, Spike, or Trixie.
Twilight stepped alongside him and rested a hoof across the back of his neck. “It’s getting harder, isn’t it?” she asked.
The stallion nodded. “There’s other magic interfering, now. It’s powerful, but this spell is almost impossible to stop.” The blue glow around the stallion’s horn faded. Sighing, he shook his head and looked at Twilight. “I don’t think we’re going to get any more than this. I may be his father, and we have my blood, but getting past the magic isn’t going to be possible without a better focus – which we don’t have.”
Tantalus backed away from the applecart that held the bowl of water and spell reagents and, turning around, faced the other ponies traveling with him. He looked between Rarity, Applejack, and Pinkie Pie. After a moment, he asked, “Where’s Fluttershy?”
A squeak sounded from a nearby patch of tall grass just off the road. Twilight shook her head and trotted up to it. Rolling her eyes, she stuck her head into the brush and, pushing aside the grass, revealed a quivering Fluttershy with a burst of magenta magic.
Twilight extended a hoof, offering it to the yellow mare. “I told you it isn’t blood magic. You don’t need to worry about it. Besides, it’s the only way we can find Starshade and Spike.”
“I… I know.”
“I have a feeling that that’s not going to change anything,” Twilight said, as Fluttershy hooked a forehoof around hers and stood.
Tantalus cleared his throat. “Alright. So, as best as I can tell, Starshade and Spike are somewhere inside of a cave about thirty minutes’ gallop to the southwest of here. The wards there are very powerful so my guess is that there at least five other unicorns, probably with some pegasi and earth ponies too.”
“My, my,” Rarity said, shaking her head. “Whatever are we to do, then? It’s not like we can fight ten or fifteen other ponies to get Starshade and Spikey-wikey back. And in a cave, too. Can you image what the damp air could do to our manes?” The white mare shuddered at the thought.
“The odds aren’t good,” Applejack added.
Tantalus sunk back to his haunches, ears folded back and eyes on the ground.
“Are you alright?” Twilight asked, cocking her head slightly.
The stallion nodded. “I’m just thinking. You can still teleport a letter to Canterlot, right?”
“I can,” Twilight said, “but it could take Celestia a while to find it.”
“That’ll have to do,” the stallion said, returning to his hooves and trotting over to the cart. “All of you should get a bite to eat; it’s almost lunch…” Halting where he stood, Tantalus trailed off. After a second, he said, “Actually, forget that. I have a different plan. Let’s get moving.”
The other ponies standing around the cart stared back blankly.
“Uh, what, sugarcube?” Applejack asked.
Beside her, Twilight said, “No, actually. I think Cobalt has the right idea.” The unicorn smiled, nodding slightly. “We need to move quickly.”
Russet trotted briskly through the damp tunnels of the conclave’s cave network, his hooves splashing noisily through the shallow pools of water that dotted the ground. Gripping the lantern he held in his mouth more tightly, he glanced backwards. From the blackness beyond the lantern’s ring of light, he only heard the faint echoes of a distant dripping stalactite.
The pegasus stallion’s stomach rumbled, starling him slightly. Frowning and shaking his head, he turned back around and continued down tunnel in the direction of the kitchen.
After three or four minutes of walking, Russet stopped in front of the thin and rotting wooden panel that separated the kitchen area from the tunnels. On the other side, he could hear the cheery voices of several other ponies chatting over their meals. Pushing aside the door, Russet stepped inside.
The next thing he knew, there was a flash of purple and the resounding sound of splitting rock.
Applejack walked up to the massive pile of rubble that filled the cave tunnel in front of her. Nudging a small round chunk of ceiling idly with a forehoof, she asked, “How many do ya reckon were in there?”
Beside her, Tantalus shrugged. “I don’t know. At least ten, though. Probably more.”
“Are… are they going to be alright?” Fluttershy asked, standing motionless as she stared at the wall of boulders.
“Of course, silly!” Pinkie Pie shouted. “Twilight waited to make sure that brown one got inside so he wouldn’t get squashed. He wouldn’t have been alright if she didn’t.” Pinkie raised her forelegs and brought them down on her head, sticking out her tongue limply as she pushed her head down to the cave floor.
Fluttershy was not watching Pinkie, however. Coughing slightly from the cloud of unsettled dust, she mumbled, “They’re trapped in there.”
Tantalus trotted alongside her and slung a hoof across her back. “Don’t worry. It’ll take quite a bit of work, but once Celestia gets here and this is all over, we’ll be able to get them out with magic.” Looking to the side at Twilight, he continued, asking, “Are you ready to move on? We don’t have much longer before somepony comes to investigate.”
Wordlessly, the purple mare nodded.
Trixie looked to her side at Sanguine. The white mare’s ears were still on end, her gaze directed down the same passageway that Trixie’s had been moments before.
Trixie’s voice shook slightly as she asked, “What was that?”
Sanguine shook her head. “Cave collapse, I hope.”
“What do you mean, you hope? If it’s not a collapse then…” Trixie trailed off.
“… It’s an attack,” Sanguine finished, rising to her hooves. Glancing back into the depths of the cavern, she continued, “I can’t leave them unattended, Trixie, not even for a moment. Round up as many ponies as you can find and try to figure out what happened. Get back here as soon as you can.”
Pushing herself onto her hooves, Trixie nodded and turned towards the entryway tunnel. “I will,” she said. Slipping through the charged glow of red energy that shielded Luna’s prison, she trotted down the tunnel and into the darkness of the conclave’s cave network.
“Oh! That was weird.” Pinkie’s voice echoed down wide tunnel, soon tapering off into silence.
Beside her, Applejack rolled her eyes. “What now, sugarcube?” she asked, her voice nearly a whisper.
Still speaking loudly, Pinkie explained, “I haven’t felt one like that before.”
“Be quiet,” Tantalus snapped, spinning around and placing a hoof to his lips. “Unless you have something really important to say, don’t say it. We can’t afford to be found right now.”
“But–” Pinkie protested. Tantalus’s glare cut her off.
“Maybe we should listen to her,” Fluttershy offered, whispering even more quietly than the stallion had been.
Tantalus looked to his side. Twilight’s eyes were also locked on the pink mare.
“What is it, dear?” Rarity asked, taking a step alongside Pinkie Pie.
“I’m not sure, silly,” Pinkie said, placing a hoof on her chin as she sunk to her haunches. “But I have a really weird feeling that something bad is–”
“Now!” a mare’s voice cried from somewhere farther down the passageway. Blue, orange, and green blasts of energy materialized out of the darkness ahead of Tantalus. Instinctively, he dove to the ground as the magical bolts streaked over his back. Behind him, he heard two ponies yell.
Tantalus focused forwards, his horn already charged with energy. The eerie blue glow of his magic lit the tunnel, revealing the forms of three unicorns galloping towards them. Above them, a single red-colored pegasus hovered, eyes squinted and wings flared wide.
Another fluid bolt of blue energy flew past him, splashing against a hastily-summoned purple shield.
“How does that feel?” the voice of the mare called out again. “You’re ready to fight the Great and Powerful Trixie aren’t you, Twilight Sparkle?”
“What?” Tantalus heard Twilight mutter as he readied his own magic in retaliation.
“She’s the one that foalnapped Starshade,” he yelled, glancing slightly to his side as two gray-blue lances burst from his horn and traveled in the direction of the two other charging unicorns.
“I know,” Twilight shouted in return, sending forth a bolt of her own towards Trixie. “But last I saw her she was just a traveling showpony.”
“The Great and Powerful Trixie has learned much since you shamed her,” Trixie called back. “Now, she will make you pay, Twilight Sparkle.”
Eyes narrow and mouth wide in a grin, a blue bolt shot from Trixie’s horn and collided with Twilight’s spell. In midair the colors mixed and exploded into a muddy shower of sparks.
Tantalus tore his eyes away from Twilight, heart pounding as he squared off against the other two unicorns. She would have to fight Trixie on her own.
In front of him, about fifteen meters down the tunnel, the first of the charging unicorns slowed to a halt. The green-coated stallion grinned, and, lowering his horn, aimed several bolts to Tantalus’s side. In a flash of blue-gray light, the missiles vanished as they passed alongside Tantalus. With a grin, the other unicorn seized a long stalagmite in the glow of his magic and tore it from the cave floor. Tantalus dodged to the side, his hooves slipping precariously on the damp floor as the rocky chunk whizzed past him and shattered against the ground.
Steadying himself, Tantalus readied for an attack, but a sidelong blast from the green stallion forced him to summon another shield to his right. He gritted his teeth as he dove left to dodge a yellow bolt.
Another pair of green and yellow lances smashed against his shielding, pushing him backwards and down towards the ground. Tantalus strained his legs, trying to keep upright under the two unicorns’ continuing assault.
Stealing a glance backwards, he looked for some sign that the battle was being won on a different front.
Fluttershy yelped as a hazy blue glow appeared around the small collection of stalagmites and stalactites separating her from the fray in the tunnel. With a snap, the thin spindles lifted from the ground and tore from the ceiling, hovering momentarily in the air before her. She flinched as they whipped violently around in a quarter circle and leveled in parallel with the floor. With a flash, they shot away from her – and directly towards Pinkie Pie.
Squinting through a single open eye, she watched as Rarity dove in front of the makeshift spears, the light from her horn glinting off the damp cave wall. With a burst of energy, the white mare forced three of the rods off to the side, but the remaining four wavered only slightly in their path as they flew onwards.
A cloud of dust engulfed Rarity and Pinkie as the dripstones collided with their bodies. In an instant, Fluttershy was on her hooves. Her thoughts in a haze, she galloped towards the settling rocky powder. In her periphery, she saw Applejack trading blows with a grounded red pegasus, a rope wrapped tightly around his right wing and torso.
Slowing to a halt, Fluttershy hooked a hoof around one of Rarity’s forelegs and started dragging the stunned mare down the tunnel and away from the fighting.
Tantalus cringed as a wave of pain shot through his body. The smell of singed hair filled his nostrils as the side of his head slammed against the uneven tunnel wall. The stallion slumped to the floor, ears ringing and vision blurry. For a moment, he lay there as the red and yellow unicorns slowly approached.
An orange and brown mass collided headlong into the side of the green caster. Tantalus blinked, clearing his vision slightly. Applejack was barely distinguishable from the stallion as they traded blows on the chamber floor.
Tantalus charged his horn with energy, sending a bolt into the side of the distracted yellow unicorn. In an instant, he was on his hooves again, poised over the stunned yellow caster. The stallion halted for just a second. Save for a steady shallow breathing, the yellow one did not move.
Turning to Applejack and the green stallion, Tantalus prepared another bolt. As he leveled his horn to fire, out of the corner of his eye he saw Twilight and Trixie locked in combat.
Twilight stood tall, taking hoofstep after hoofstep forwards as she forced Trixie further back down the tunnel. The blue mare's teeth were gritted as she tried to force her horn upwards under Twilight’s continuing blasts. In a split second, Twilight watched as Trixie's eyes went wide, shifting back and forth across the walls of subterranean tunnel. Her eyes locking on something, Trixie grinned.
The purple unicorn barely had time to throw up a shield as a bolt from Trixie streaked towards Pinkie Pie. Above her, the ceiling exploded in a burst of light-blue energy. Twilight dove backwards as rocky splinters rained down in front of her. Her stomach scraped against the damp floor as she skidded away from the collapse.
Silence filled the tunnel. Blinking once, Twilight opened her eyes and looked up from her prone position. To her side, she saw Applejack lying motionless, just barely clear of the fallen rock. The purple mare looked up, squinting through the dust.
Above her Trixie stood, horn glowing and eyes narrowed.