Friendship is the Key

Chapter 1: Shadows Gather

by Appending_fic

"Twilight?" The soft voice, though nearly inaudible, was enough to draw Twilight's attention from her books. Twilight had learned to respond to the voice, even if others around it were far louder; even if Fluttershy didn't have anything important to say (although she often did), Twilight knew it was important that her friend always know she would be heard.

"Yes?"

The pale yellow pegasus stepped carefully into the library, steps more nervous than normal. Twilight watched her carefully, knowing that whatever it was, Fluttershy would get to it in time.

Fluttershy stopped next to Twilight's bookstand before she looked up from her hooves. She took a deep breath.

"Twilight, remember when you were telling us the sun is a star?"

"Of course," Twilight replied. "Why? Do you want to know more about the sun and the moon? They're fascinating magical artifacts-"

"No, not about the sun. I want to know about...stars. Do they all shine down on worlds like ours?"

Twilight started and stared at Fluttershy. "I don't...I've never read much about that," she said. "But I think...it makes sense, certainly. Not exactly like our world, of course. If they're far away, they could be any sort of place. Why, it's a wonderful idea, going there and meeting people from another world-"

"Twilight, please." Again, Twilight broke off at Flutteryshy's quiet words. "I...do you really think every star has its own world?"

"Why do you ask?" Twilight said, already distracted by the thought that one of her books might have the answer.

"Only...some of the stars have been vanishing," Fluttershy whispered. "And if they're all a part of another world, then that means-" She broke off, the implications too upsetting for Fluttershy's gentle nature, Twilight suspected.

"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that," Twilight replied. "Stars move around a lot during the night. Plus, with clouds and everything, anything could have just hidden them from view."

"Oh," Fluttershy said. "Well, then thank you. I'm glad to know it's nothing to worry about."

But Fluttershy's concerns niggled at Twilight for some time. There might not have been anything to it, but no one had thought there was anything to Twilight's worries about Nightmare Moon (except Celestia, of course, who knew pretty much everything).

Twilight eventually set aside one of her tomes and climbed quietly up to the observatory so as not to wake Spike. She began scanning the night sky. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary, until she passed over the constellation of the Manticore. The star that made up the tip of its tail wasn't visible.

"Odd," Twilight muttered to herself. She was about to turn away to take notes when another nearby star, the central star of the Crown, flared almost painfully bright and vanished.

Twilight gasped and backed away from the telescope. She tripped over a book and fell with a clatter that roused Spike.

"Twilight?" He scurried up the stairs and stared at her worriedly as Twilight tried to sort out her limbs. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," Twilight muttered. "I just...I think something is terribly wrong. Spike, take a letter."

"What? No, it's late, and I hate getting mail before sunrise, you know that!"

"It's important, Spike," Twilight said, stamping her hoof.

The baby dragon scowled and crossed his arms. "Fine."

"Dear Princess Celestia. A strange phenomenon has recently come to my attention, and I wanted to consult with you. A friend of mine came to me worried that the stars seemed to be disappearing from the sky..."

;;;:::::{-]

Twilight was in a right state, Applejack knew. She'd been pacing and startling for three days, and wouldn't explain what the matter was. All the pacing was upsetting Fluttershy, who was ever quieter and more nervous than usual (although it was hard to tell).

So Applejack at last cornered Twilight in the library.

"Twilight, I've got a bone to pick with you," Applejack announced. "You've been making a right nuisance of yourself, and making Fluttershy worry."

"I didn't do that," Twilight muttered. "She's worrying on her own."

"Then why won't she talk to anyone about it?" Applejack demanded. "And what's got you in such a snit?"

"It's nothing," Twilight said quickly. "I don't want to worry anyone."

"Well, you're doing a fine job of it, driving us all up the wall with your nerves," Applejack said. "You can tell us anything, Twilight. You know that."

"I know, but this is..." Twilight fidgeted, shaking her head. "Do you remember when I was writing to Princess Celestia about Nightmare Moon?"

"Of course I do," Applejack retorted. "But isn't Princess Luna...good now?"

"It's got nothing to do with her," Twilight said. "But it's just as serious, so I didn't want to worry anyone needlessly."

"It's a little late for that," Applejack said. "And in any case, we stood at your side against Nightmare Moon; I think we deserve to know what's going on."

Twilight sighed. "But that's the problem, Applejack. I don't know what's going on. I wrote to Princess Celestia for advice, but I haven't heard back from her yet. Do you think she's ignoring me?"

"Don't worry yourself, honey," Applejack said. "You said that last time, Princess Celestia gave you just the advice you needed to fix things. I'm sure she's giving it all the attention it deserves. And if it's not a problem, she'll tell you."

"I'm sure you're right," Twilight said. She gave an uncertain kick of her hoof. "But what if it's a real problem?"

"Then she'll tell you if she needs your help."

A sudden clatter drew both of the ponies' attention. Spike had fallen from a stack of tomes, a smoking letter clutched in one claw.

"Spike?"

"A message for you, Twilight. But it's not from Princess Celestia - it's from Princess Luna."

;;;:::::{-]

"Okay, quiet, everypony," Twilight said imperiously. The five assembled ponies fell silent, although Twilight could see it was hard on Pinkie not to be asking every question on her mind. "I'm sure you all know I've been...a little out of sorts, lately. I've been worried about something, and I wrote to Princess Celestia about it-"

"It's not Nightmare Moon again, is it?" Rainbow demanded. "Because we can kick her rump from here to Canterlot!"

"Rainbow Dash, I'm surprised at you!" Rarity snapped. "Princess Luna's gone through a lot, and it's uncharitable to assume she's making trouble again."

"Tch!" Rainbow scoffed, tossing her head. "Whatever. Just tell us what's going on."

"Well..." Twilight frowned. "It's...a little hard to explain."

"No, it isn't," Spike insisted. "You told me earlier it was just an evil shadow eating whole worlds!"

The other ponies let out a collective gasp.

"W-worlds?" Fluttershy stammered.

"Thanks, Spike," Twilight muttered, giving him a brief glare. "That's not...well, it's not that simple. Fluttershy saw a star disappear out of the sky, and I wrote to Canterlot for advice. Princess Luna wrote us a reply."

"How does she know anything? She spent a thousand years in the moon," Rainbow said.

"I don't know," Twilight said. "But she did say she wanted to see us. All of us."

"Why d'you think she wants to see us?" Applejack asked.

"Somehow I doubt it's to tell us not to worry," Rarity said. "She could have written that in a letter."

"I don't know, but I want to find out," Twilight said. "How about it?"

"Sounds exciting!" Pinkie declared.

"I suppose I can't let you go on your own," Applejack said.

"Do you think it's going to be dangerous?" Rainbow asked, her voice bright with excitement.

"I couldn't imagine not joining you," Rarity said. "And what about you, Fluttershy?"

Fluttershy, who had folded in on herself when Spike had mentioned the hungry shadow, spread her wings and stretched herself up. "Something made a star vanish, and if Spike's right, that means it made a whole world disappear. If I can do anything to help, I'm going to do it!" The vehemence in Fluttershy's voice sent even Rainbow skittering back a step.

"That's the spirit!" Twilight said. "So let's get going!"

It was hardly that easy; each pony had to pack, and Spike had to collect every book Twilight thought she might need for the journey. Spike had catalogued three entire bestiaries, two grimoires, and half a dozen books in languages he couldn't read, before Twilight let him take a break.

"If I'm packing the books, what are you doing?" Spike demanded.

"Researching," Twilight replied around a mouthful of salad. "There aren't a lot of references to the stars in Equestrian history, but what are there pretty much confirm Fluttershy was at least half-right. I've been reading up on what sort of worlds we might come across."

"Like dragon worlds?"

Twilight's mouth twitched up at the edges, but she nodded. "Although I wouldn't expect every world to have some sort of 'theme'. It's a bit much to expect. Nevertheless, the books you're packing will make sure we don't run into anything unexpected."

They were to leave shortly after lunch, so Twilight helped Spike gather a few more essentials (food, Spike had to remind her) before hustling him out the door.

The rest of the ponies were gathered outside the library, so they were ready to leave almost immediately. Spike seized a place on Twilight's back and settled back to snooze the way to Canterlot.

His plan was immediately thwarted when the fillies set out at a steady canter that required him to dig his claws into Twilight's gear just to stay on. "Hey, whay's the big idea?"

"Sorry, Spike," Twilight said, "but Luna said we needed to come as fast as possible."

"And she didn't have enough chariots to send to pick us up?" Spike grumbled. He clenched his claws a little tighter and resigned himself to a tough ride. He was sore when they slowed to rest for the evening, and slumped to the ground with a quiet grunt no one seemed to notice.

Most of the ponies were stretching and groaning themselves, few save Applejack used to the constant exertion. So Spike tugged a branch to the center of their little camp and set it ablaze.

Rainbow was first next to it, flopping onto her back and twisting at irregular intervals to catch the heat all over, while Pinkie Pie was close at her hooves, sticks and marshmallows at the ready.

It was almost cheery, settled around the fire.

"Ooh! I've got a great song to sing around the campfire!" Pinkie declared.

Correction: it was going to be cheery if it killed them.

Spike drifted off halfway through the first verse of "There was an Earth Pony Who Wanted to Fly", waking only to Twilight's insistent shaking.

"Wake up, Spike," she said.

"Still dark," Spike muttered, shoving her away.

"No, that's just the clouds," Twilight said. "Come on; we've got to be going."

The other ponies were rousing with approximately the same enthusiasm as Spike managed as he stumbled to the remains of the fire. He spat, but even his starter felt damp.

Rainbow Dash glowered at the sky, her wings drooping.

"All right, that's it!" she snapped, and took to the air. She kicked at the clouds ineffectively, as the dark grey fog clung to her hooves rather than dissipating. After a minute, she dropped back down to the ground, still glowering.

"Are you finished, sugarcube?" Applejack asked.

"For now," Rainbow said with a sharp look upward.

Spike took his place back on Twilight's back, and soon they were were cantering along. After about an hour, Rainbow Dash made another attempt to clear the sky above them, to the same effect.

It was dark and dank enough that Spike normally would have felt worn-out, but something about the air...there was a chill to it that made him wary of even a brief nap, and the air sometimes seemed to brush against him with an irregular, heart-pounding rhythm.

The fillies must have sensed it, too, because they began to gradually speed up, and by Rainbow Dash's third failed attempt at clearing the sky, they were galloping.

They stopped by a river at what Spike assumed to be noon. The ponies were all gasping and panting from the exertion, and Spike was almost chilled to the bone.

"I don't get it," Rainbow Dash complained. "I've never seen clouds this bad!"

"I don't like the looks of them, either," Twilight said. "They remind me of the day Nightmare Moon came back."

"Yeah, it's making my tail twitch," Pinkie complained.

Twilight froze mid-step before darting off of the road to take cover under a bush. A moment later, a tremendous thunderclap shook the air, dislodging an equine form that slammed to earth where Twilight had been standing. Fluttershy whinnied in surprise as the rest of the ponies froze. It took just a moment, however, for Applejack to close in on the pony, a young colt who seemed more dazed than hurt by the fall.

"Are you all right?"

"Course I am, Kai-" The colt glanced up and his eyes widened comically; he tried to stand and back away from Applejack at the same time, but only unded up tripping over his own hooves, landing in an undignified blue heap. His eyes, a mild ice blue, were still wide as he stared at the ponies. "Who are you?" he demanded.

"I'm Pinkie Pie!" Pinkie declared. "This is Twilight Sparkle, that's Applejack, Rarity's over here, and Fluttershy's hiding over there behind Rainbow Dash. Who are you?" The colt tried to scramble again, possibly because Pinkie had ended with her face inches from his own, and he was already skittish. His mane, an even paler blue than his coat, flopped over his face as he fell down again, too-long legs tangled oddly beneath him.

"Riku," he muttered, clearly trying to edge away from her.

"Calm down, Pinkie, and get out of that poor pony's face," Twilight said.

"I'm not a-" The colt glanced down at his flank and let out a terrified whinny. A moment later, he leapt to his feet and shot forward, closing in on Twilight. "What did you do to me?"

"Me? I didn't do anything!" Twilight protested.

"Well, you did get out of the way," Pinkie said.

"I've never seen anybody move that fast when Pinkie gets one of her senses," Applejack mused.

"That's because you didn't spend a whole day getting hit with every little twitch and shiver she gets!" Twilight retorted.

"Hey. Hey!" The ponies turned to Riku, who was glaring at them with a ferocity he'd lacked when confused and dazed. "Can you just tell me where I am?"

"About halfway between Ponyville and Canterlot," Rarity said. "Where'd you come from?"

"Ponyville?" Riku asked. "That's - I came from the Destiny Islands."

"I'm never heard of those," Twilight said thoughtfully. "Does anypony know about them?"

The assembled fillies shook their heads, and a transformation came over Riku. While he'd started scared, and gone to belligerant, he was now watching them with a look of awe.

"You're - this is really -" He spun in an excited circle, trying to take in his surroundings and the details of his flank all at once. It gave the fillies a moment to take in his appearance as well.

The colt didn't look much older than them, and was a medium shade of blue with almost silver hair. His cutie mark was an image of a pointed key. He was still awkward in his movements, but when he straightened to grin at the fillies, there was a brash confidence there.

"So, what are you...girls up to?" Riku winked.

Twilight sighed and pushed through the other fillies. "Look, I'm sure you've got an interesting story, but we're on an important mission right now."

"Mission?" Riku asked. "You don't look like much. Maybe you need a little help."

"Help?" Rainbow demanded. "Maybe you need a good kick in the rump! I can handle anything!"

"Calm down, Rainbow," Applejack said placidly. "He's obviously not from around here, so give him some slack. How's he supposed to know about how we beat Nightmare Moon?"

Riku's expression darkened briefly. "Then maybe I ought to tag along, anyway. I've never been here before, and this...Canterlot sounds likes somewhere I can get some answers."

"Not for a strange colt who literally fell out of the sky," Rarity said. "Darling, we might be friendly fillies-" Pinkie giggled, and Rarity pushed on, "but we're hardly dragging you into the palace on five minutes of acquaintance. For one thing..." She glanced up. "Your Destiny Islands - how did you get here from there?"

"And what's your purpose here?" Rainbow snapped, stepping up and pushing her face nearly into Riku's. He stumbled back, hooves scrambling on the turn. "Are you a spy?"

"Who'd he be spying for?" Applejack asked.

"I don't know," Rainbow said, sitting down hard, folding her front legs petulantly. "But he'd better answer our questions!"

Riku sighed. He sat down, too, awkwardly trying to curl into a ball. "I came here because I was sick of the islands. And..." He looked up at the dark sky. "I guess I...flew?"

"Well, either you did or you didn't, sugarcube," Applejack said. "What'd you do?"

"Nothing!" Riku snapped, shooting to his feet. When he realized he was the center of attention from all six ponies and dragon, he ducked his head, blue hair drooping over his slim face. "I'm lost, okay? I got...lost running away from my home. I don't know what happened, but I think it was something bad, because I couldn't find it again. So I want to go with you. I want to see if there's someone who can help me at your...Canterlot."

"Well, if that's what you want," Twilight said uncertainly. "But you need to stick close; things could get ugly before you could say 'Equestria'."

"Equestria!" Pinkie Pie declared. The other ponies all stared at her. "What? I wanted to see what would happen!"

;;;:::::{-]

Rainbow Dash glanced back, frowning when she saw Fluttershy at the back of their group, practically trailing behind them, eyes fixed on her hooves.

"Keep your eye out," she instructed Applejack before sweeping back to where Fluttershy was walking. Rainbow slowed her wingbeats so she was just keeping pace with her friend. She remained silent, until Fluttershy glanced up and yelped.

"Jeez, Fluttershy," Rainbow said. "It's just me. I might be amazing and all, but you know that already, right?"

"Yeah," Fluttershy said. "Um..."

"Look, are you still worrying about what Spike said?"

"Aren't you? It's horrible thinking about something eating worlds..." Fluttershy shuddered.

"Ah, come on, Fluttershy. Where's the brave old Fluttershy who yelled down a dragon? Stared down a Cockatrice?"

"It's not that I'm not...brave," Fluttershy said. "It's just terrible to think of all those poor people...and animals. What happens to them?"

Rainbow laughed. "I bet they've got people like Celestia to help everyone get away. You're just feeling bad over nothing, Flutter."

"Oh. I'm sorry."

Rainbow grinned and dropped to the ground, nudging Fluttershy enough that she started, staring at the brightly-maned pony. "Don't apologize, Flutter. Just try to cheer up."

"I'll try," Fluttershy said, voice a tiny bit stronger than it normally was.

"Great!" Fluttershy took on a more normal speed, and Rainbow trotted along with her. "So...what do you think Princess Luna wants to talk to us about? I've heard she doesn't see just anypony."

"She's obviously decided we were the choice candidates to deal with...whatever this whole mess is about," Rarity said haughtily. "Not that I blame her. I mean, we did show her a thing or two the last time we met, what with Nightmare Moon and everything."

Rainbow gave an amused snort. "Yeah, we totally did."

"What's with this Nightmare Moon thing?"

Ranbow shot a glare at Riku; something about the colt set her off, and she wasn't going to play nice, even if Rarity seemed perfectly willing to, as she launched into a dramatic description of the whole affair.

"Oh, it was terrible. Ages and ages ago, the Princess Luna tried to plunge the world into eternal night, so her sister locked her away forever and ever. And then she escaped, and Nightmare Moon tried it again. All hope seemed lost, until I...and my friends," she added gracefully, "gathered the mythical Elements of Harmony and defeated Nightmare Moon once and for all! It was quite an accomplishment, you know." She fluttered her eyes at Riku, who managed to look moderately impressed.

"You said Princess Luna, and then Nightmare Moon. Are they the same person?"

Rarity opened her mouth, and then glanced at Rainbow Dash in confusion. "I've never...it never really came up."

"Don't look at me," Rainbow declared. "I don't worry about that sort of thing."

"Princess Celestia told me something about it, once," Twilight said. "She said all the anger and bitterness in Luna's heart built up so much that it..."

"Collapsed in on itself," Riku said. He abruptly broke into a gallop.

"Hey, what do you think you're doing?" Applejack shouted as the colt bolted past her.

"We've got to get to the castle and find this Luna before it's too late!"

"Too late for what?" Twilight shouted after him. But Riku wasn't paying attention, and Twilight sped into a canter to keep up with him. The others followed suit, and Rainbow, never one to give up an opportunity to race, took to the air.

At this speed, it took just a few hours to reach Canterlot. The sky, however, remained dark and ominous, and Rainbow, already irritable, felt like kicking something that wouldn't just stick to her hooves. Pinkie, however, seemed unaffected. When they closed on Canterlot, Rainbow slowed when she realized something had changed.

"Girls? Something weird is going on..."

"The castle's in such disarray!" Rarity said. "The guards are-"

"Halt! In the name of the Lady Celestia!" Riku skidded to a halt and collapsed in front of a pair of unicorn guards. The other ponies slowed and stopped significantly more gracefully. "State your business!"

"I'm Twilight Sparkle," Twilight said, stepping forward. "I'm Princess Celestia's protege, and me and my friends are here to see Princess Luna."

"Well, I'm afraid you're out of luck," the guard said. "You're not going to see her."

"She specifically asked us to see her!" Twilight protested.

The guard snorted. "Good luck."

A beam of light swept over the group, and the guard looked up in shock "Ma'am!"

"You can let them in, Ironhooves," Princess Celestia said gently. "I was expecting them."

"Your Majesty," the guard deferred.

Princess Celestia looked at the assembled group and gave them an approving nod. Her eyes stopped when she saw Riku, however. "Is this another of your friends, my faithful student?"

Twilight glanced at Riku, gritting her teeth in obvious embarrassment. It had been bad enough when she was introducing her actual friends to Princess Celestia, Rainbow supposed. Trying to vouch for somepony she'd never met was probably driving her halfway crazy.

"This is Riku, and...he sort of...dropped in?" she said uncertainly. "I'd actually planned to duck into the library to see if I could help him find his way home. He can wait out here if things are too hectic inside-"

"No," Celestia interrupted. She wasn't looking at Twilight, which seemed odd. Every time Rainbow had seen the princess and Twilight Sparkle in the same room, they'd tried to pay attention to each other. But the princesses' eyes were fixed on the dark sky. "I don't want anypony out here alone if I can ensure otherwise. I think we can find an empty room to keep him in until we're finished."

"Finished with what?" Twilight asked.

The princess tilted her head at her student. "I have important matters to discuss, and out here is not the place."

Rainbow scowled at the prospect of more talking, but trailed after the other ponies dutifully. Riku was the last to move, leaving him and Rainbow walking even. She slowed, trying to keep behind him, but he slowed, keeping pace with her.

"So, what sort of stuff do you do around here?" Riku asked.

"Drop it, colt," Rainbow said. "You're not my type."

"I - what?" Riku asked. "I was just trying to be friendly. I've never been around here before. Jeez, got much of an ego on you?"

"Of course I've got an ego - you don't get to be the best flier in Equestria without one!" Rainbow retorted. She wondered if anyone would notice if she shoved Riku off a cliff. "I bet you can't match that."

"With what wings?" Riku demanded. "And I happen to be the best fighter I know."

"Well, that just makes you a one-trick pony, because I can fly, fight, and kick the heck out of stormclouds!"

"You can't cook, though," Pinkie pie interjected. "Or draw-"

"I don't think Riku needs to hear the few things I can't do perfectly," Rainbow interrupted. "I think he wants to know about the mysterious goings-on which have nothing to do with my insignificant flaws!"

Riku was smirking; Rainbow took a deep breath to subsume the urge to hit him. But they were inside, now, stopped by a sitting room. Princess Celestia smiled at Riku and gestured to the door with her head. The guards hovering in the background seemed slightly less friendly, but that was just their job.

"Can't I go with you?" Riku asked Twilight.

"I'm sure you understand why we're hesitant to allow a stranger to be privy to my private discussions," Celestia said gently. "But I'm certain Twilight Sparkle will be able to help you get home after we're finished."

"I don't care about home," Riku snapped. "I've seen something like Nightmare Moon before. If she's back, this whole world is in danger!"

Celestia narrowed her eyes, and Rainbow wondered if she was going to banish Riku to the moon. Nopony'd been brave enough to bring up Nightmare Moon in Celestia's hearing since the...incident. She'd been resisting the urge to kick Riku for the sake of Twilight for nearly ten minutes, so she was going to watch if Celestia was going to punish him for his arrogance. But then Rainbow saw a tiny reflection on the princess' cheek - a tear - and her heart sank. This couldn't be even remotely good.

"Maybe you're right," Celestia said softly. "But I have to hope..." She stared at Riku for a long moment, and the colt shifted uncomfortably under her gaze before the princess relented. "Well, if you've entered my student's good graces, perhaps you might be allowed to hear this." She stepped int the sitting room herself, and gestured for the others to follow her. They trailed in, one by one, until they were sitting in a circle and Celestia firmly closed the door behind them.

"Ladies...and gentlepony," Celestia said quietly. "I'm glad you're all here. Even though I didn't expect some of you, and the circumstances could be far better."

"Not to offend," Rarity said, "But we were intending to meet with Princess Luna. She said she knew something about the disappearing stars."

"She said much the same to me," Celestia said, "before she disappeared sometime last night."

"Last night?" Twilight asked. "She told us to come here just a few days ago!"

"She sought me ought last night to speak to me, and never appeared to make the moon set. She's gone, again, and with the strange clouds, I'm worried about her."

"You don't think she's Nightmare Moon. So what do you think happened?"

Celestia glanced at Riku, eyes wide, but she didn't say anything.

"Princess?" Fluttershy said. "Are you all right?"

Celestia bowed her head, and when she spoke, it was as soft as Fluttershy's own voice, and directed at the marble floor. "She left without explaining, much as she did when she became Nightmare Moon. But she left a note for me. And I agree it was a warning, of sorts. It's why I let you in here, Riku. You think you know what happened to my sister?"

"Not..." Riku shifted under the weight of the divine gaze. "I met a man who told me about Darkness. It's looking for a way in."

Celestia's gaze bored into the colt, but he didn't seem any more discomfited, so Rainbow thought he might actually be telling the truth. "She told me to send my student away from here, Riku. She said to find a door the shadows can't use. Does that sound familiar?"

"I don't know!" Riku snapped. "I just thought - I've seen the stars disappearing, and I know it's nothing good. So don't...I don't know any more than you. Something bad's happening, and I want to stop it."

"The stars, yes." Celestia glanced away, towards a window and the shaded sky. "The stars are my sister's, the same as the moon. But she told me, once, that she didn't make them, just shared the night with them. My...mother spoke of a time when stars vanished from the sky. It was nothing like this, though. It was a war, and everypony knew where they stood." She sighed and drooped. "I wish Luna were here."

Rainbow glanced away. She felt they hadn't been meant to hear that, as even Twilight was shifting nervously from hoof to hoof.

"Maybe we're supposed to find her," Rainbow said. "She asked you to send us away." She walked closer to the monarch, stopping when she was still a length away from Celestia. As much as she was trying to cheer up the princess as she might one of her friends, it wouldn't end well if she actually touched Celestia. She ducked her head down, though, grinning when she caught Celestia's eyes. "And even if she didn't, we can find her anyway."

Celestia blinked at Rainbow, and she was smiling again. Sadly, but she wasn't crying any longer. Rainbow let her grin widen. She could be an awesome friend, to princesses and regular ponies!

"I don't think...Luna will be found easily, if she doesn't want to be. But it is well you find something to occupy yourself with, Twilight Sparkle, if I am to listen to my sister's plea. And your friends, as well, because I doubt even Nightmare Moon would imagine Twilight would go somewhere the rest of you wouldn't follow." She smiled at each of them in turn, although Celestia paused when she looked at Riku, obviously still worried about his appearance, or history, or something more subtle. "If you are to leave here, Twilight, you must study what is happening to our world, to the stars. Learn. We cannot hope to do anything about it if we understand nothing about it."

Riku jerked away from the princess, stumbling again. He just smiled weakly when Rainbow stared at him. Rainbow narrowed her eyes at the colt; there was something about him she just didn't trust. That boy was trouble, she'd bet her wings on it. She resolved not to let him out of her sight.

"That's all well and good, but how are we supposed to go where shadows can't follow?" Pinkie said. "Unless we're supposed to go somewhere really bright. Except you'd still have a shadow. Goodness, this is a hard riddle."

"Maybe we ought to just sleep on it," Riku suggested.

"You're welcome to stay here," Celestia said. "But please try to stay out of the way; there have been some worrying reports from the Everfree Forest and Untamed Desert, and the guards have been on high alert."

"Sure," Applejack said. "You'll barely know we're here."

;;;:::::{-]

"The door to this world is yet sealed to us."

"Hmph. I don't see why we have to go around waiting for someone to let us in, like some sort of...servants."

"We are no one's servants. But there are laws by which we are bound. Laws that will fade, soon enough. And then...the world will be our oyster."

"Not that world. The walls are too strong. The key too well hidden."

"Don't worry yourselves. We've got a man...pony...on the inside. After all, we may be stuck outside like servants, but that never makes us...common."

;;;:::::{-]

AN - Hey, all. You'll notice I've done a little re-organizing. I'm a little happier with how this chapter flows than how it originally did. Taking a small break from actually writing this weekend, though, though I hope I get back to it soon. I am having fun writing it, at least.