Night of the Shy (Revamp)
CHAPTER ONE: RED SHY IN THE MORNING
The morning dew glistened in the early morning Canterlot sun, a droplet collecting itself out of the sky and falling softly upon a blade of glass.
Where it was promptly obliterated by a ring of explosions.
Charging through the smoke came Twilight Sparkle, her face locked in fury, her path leading to only one target: The Royal Castle itself. The Royal Guards quickly formed ranks as the enraged young unicorn barreled towards them. "Watch out for her teleportation ability!" called General Spur, a chiseled black pegasus stallion of many years old. "There may be magical protections up to prevent such actions, but do not underestimate her!"
But the purple unicorn lowered her head as she closed in on their line, and the same thought clipped through all the Guards' minds. "I don't believe she intends to use it, Sir!"
Spur grinned. "No. No, I believe she doesn't... All the better for us, boys and girls! Unicorns! Give her one last warning volley!" The grey unicorn Guards' horns glowed fiercely, and they each hurled a line of magical energy blasts in rapid-fire succession at the intruder. Twilight had only seconds to react as the blasts screamed in, but she did so expertly – dodging, twirling, weaving, blocking and ducking the barrage – all without breaking her pace or stride.
The General's grin grew wider. "Oh, she's gotten better since her last attack...Pegasi! Attack! All troops, prepare for possible hoof-to-hoof engagement!" The row of pegasi Guards launched themselves into the air, angling themselves for a dive-bomb assault on the young pony.
Twilight grinned herself as the fliers tore down through the clouds at her. At the last possible moment, she leaped into the air, kicking the head of the lead pegasus hard into the dirt while simultaneously using the kick to propel herself higher into the sky. She seemed to hang in the blue indefinitely as she hurled her own barrage of magical blasts upwards, causing most of the diving pegasi to scatter.
Yet one pegasus kept her composure and stayed on course, bursting through the smoke of the barrage and colliding with Twilight in midair. The two combatants locked hooves as they fell, raining vicious blows upon each other before they crashed to the ground, tumbling and rolling. When they came out of the roll, Twilight was on top, hoof raised to strike another blow – before she found a circle of extended wings pointed at her throat. "That's far enough, Miss Sparkle."
Twilight stepped off her opponent, eyes darting around the pegasi surrounding her. She smiled again-
-and was brutally stomped to the ground by General Spur the instant she teleported behind him. The General looked at the unconscious purple unicorn. "Nice try, kid."
Fluttershy smiled as she skipped out of the door of the Weather Factory in Cloudsdale, the sun warming her face. "Okay, Angel. What part of Cloudsdale do you wanna see next?" She looked down at her faithful rabbit companion, lying in comfort wrapped in her mane. He was a fussy bunny sometimes, but in the end, she cared for him deeply, and she knew he did the same for her. After seemingly not hearing her question, he stirred, looked down and pointed. "Oh. You want to be back on the ground?" Angel nodded. "Okay, here we go. Hang on." She opened her wings and slowly flew back to the field below, savouring the soft breeze that washed over them as they descended. Once on the ground, Angel pointed back towards Ponyville – or more specifically, as she could tell from their years of knowing each other, towards Sugarcube Corner. "Sugarcube Corner it is, then!" she said, starting her walk as Angel smiled.
The yellow pegasus turned around to see Rainbow Dash landing behind her. "Good morning, Rainbow. How are you doing today?"
"Feelin' pretty good, actually," replied the blue pegasus, stretching herself out. "Just came from visiting my parents. I saw you leavin' the weather factory. Visiting your folks in Cloudsdale, too?"
"No – Although, come to think of it, I probably should...I haven't seen them in ages...But anyways, today's the anniversary of the day I rescued Angel." She nuzzled the rabbit in her mane. "I pester him abut his fussiness a lot, so to make up for it, I've designated this day as his special day, where every year he gets to do mostly everything he wants. A tour of the factory was first on his list today."
"Cool. Where you headed to now?"
"Well, Angel wants to go to Sugarcube Corner now."
"Sweet!" Dash grinned. "Mind if I tag along? I've been flying around all morning, and even I get a bit tired of doing that all day."
"No, not at all!" grinned Fluttershy. "Just as long as this isn't part of a prank you and Angel planned."
"Aw, man!" Rainbow huffed. "And it was a good prank, too..."
"I just know you two too well," smiled the yellow pegasus slyly as the miffed Angel crossed his arms.
"I gotta tell ya', kid," said General Spur as he and Twilight stopped at the bottom of a staircase, "You enjoyed that. So did I. I haven't seen anypony with your level of skills since the Princesses themselves." He smirked. "Even the Guards are enjoying this training. That pegasus you wailed on earlier? She was smiling through her bruises on her way to the mess hall earlier." He chuckled at Twilight's embarrassed blush. "And that reaction. That's another reason that makes me proud to be teaching you, Miss Sparkle: As much as you were smiling out there today, you still recognize that combat is never truly fun." His eyes dropped, wandering back to memories he didn't feel like sharing. "What you learned in the first years of your lessons are still your most important tools: Peace. Respect. Negotiations. These always come first. The best wars? Are the ones that never happen."
Twilight nodded, rubbing the rather nasty welt on her own face where the General had kicked her out cold earlier. "I understand, General." She sighed, still confused about the whole situation. "Though I really want to know: Why am I being trained for this? I'm just Princess Celestia's student. What do any of these combat lessons have anything to do with my studies on the magic of friendship?"
General Spur's eyes looked behind him, though his body didn't move. "Should I tell her?"
"No. I shall."
The voice made Twilight look up at the regal figure standing at the top of the stairs. "Princess Luna?"
"I'm telling you, it wasn't that harmful of a prank!" Rainbow protested, despite knowing full well that her friend had already forgiven her – probably before she'd even realized there had been a prank planned. Rainbow sighed, keeping up as they trotted back to Ponyville. She had initially ruled out pranking Fluttershy, but after Angel had gotten away from his caretaker for a while and presented the special opportunity to her, Dash had bought in. Since it had been the rabbit's plan, Rainbow knew that what they had intended to do would have taken into consideration Fluttershy's delicate sensibilities.
"Oh, I have no doubt about that," said Fluttershy with a wink. She looked at her companion animal. "I'm sure whatever Angel was planning couldn't have been too bad. I mean, you just don't do anything to prank somepony who's afraid of their own shadow. You've got to plan it out. Don't you, Angel?"
Rainbow frowned at the yellow mare's mocking tone. "You know, sometimes I can't tell if you really are that scared, or if it's all an act you put on just to make us feel more sympathetic towards you." It was an honest observation. There were so many times where Fluttershy would jump at everything that popped out at her – but on the other hoof, Dash had been a firsthoof witness to the many times where her meek friend had suddenly turned into a pony that nopony else would want to mess with. Staring down and berating a full-grown dragon, standing her ground against a cockatrice – before Fluttershy had done those things, Rainbow had thought that only Twilight or the Princesses had the bravery to pull those actions off without being killed. Even Dash had run from that dragon after enraging it. And Rainbow still didn't want to fathom being on the receiving end of her friend's fabled "The Stare."
Fluttershy was about to respond when they reached Ponyville. The next Summer Sun Celebration was tomorrow, and Celestia had selected the town to host it again, as both a wish to "get it right" after the last time where Nightmare Moon hijacked the celebration, and also as gratitude for the more recent defeat of Discord. Through the bustle of the ponies preparing for the event, a blur of pink came racing towards her, followed by Rarity and Applejack. "Fluttershy! Fluttershy! You've got to help us!" cried Pinkie Pie, falling prone to her friend's hooves with desperate pleading, practically groveling to her.
The shy pegasus thought Pinkie had broken her own code and was trying to pull a prank on her, too – until she noticed something: Pinkie's mane was not its usual curly self. Instead it was straight, draped down flat over her face. Rainbow saw it too, and her face became just as worried as Fluttershy's. The last time Pinkie's hair had been that flat was a time that she would not forget, no matter how much she wanted to. The fact that it was down now was not a good sign. Fluttershy knew instantly her friend wasn't joking around. "Oh my, Pinkie!" she asked with heartfelt concern. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"GUMMI'S MISSING!" shrieked the pink pony, not caring one bit who heard her.
"Huh?" A lump formed in Fluttershy's throat. What Angel was to her, Gummi was to Pinkie. The small toothless alligator didn't really do anything much of the time, but his presence clearly still helped Pinkie handle her emotions. If Gummi was gone, it didn't bode well for Pinkie's everyday demeanor.
"He's gone! I can't find him anywhere in Sugarcube Corner! And he's never left Sugarcube Corner! Well, except for the times I've carried him around town on my back – but never under his own power! I just know he's really excited to see Princess Celestia raise the sun tomorrow! He wouldn't just leave!"
"Calm down, Pinkie," soothed Rainbow, walking over and placing a comforting wing over her, not wanting to see her friend in such a fragile emotional state again. "How long has he been missing?"
"At least two days! I didn't notice anything yesterday or the day before, except that it was really strangely quiet in my room those whole two days. And then I bought a really early birthday present for him last night, came home, went upstairs to go give it to him – and I couldn't find him anywhere!"
"It ain't just her," noted Applejack, she and Rarity finally catching up to their distraught friend. Fluttershy and Dash quickly noticed the two looked quite frazzled themselves. "My sweet Winona's been missin' for 3 days! I thought she was just hidin' in the barn the last few days `cause it's been really warm at night, but me, Mac and Applebloom searched all of Sweet Apple Acres twice – and nuthin'!"
"And it's the same story with my Opalescence!" Rarity wailed in distress. "I'd recently given her a brief makeover with a different coloured bowtie in her hair, and she'd had her normal hissy fit and run off to hide like she usually does. But she hasn't come out at all lately! I figured maybe she'd wandered outside, climbed up that tree right outside the Boutique and gotten stuck again – but no! She's gone!"
"Oh my!" The lump grew in Fluttershy's throat. Three of her friends' pets – missing. That was not good.
Applejack lowered her head accusingly, though it was more for her point than directed at her friends. "I'm buckin' to think this ain't a coincidence. Somepony took `em – but who would want to do that?"
"Normally, we'd go right to Twilight – but she's still training in Canterlot right now – and besides, you're the one who knows animals," concluded Rarity. "If anyone can find them, it would be you!"
"You've got to find them! YOU'VE GOT TO FIND THEM!" Pinkie shrieked again, nearly shattering Fluttershy's eardrums. Her yelling had started to get other ponies of the town milling around the group of friends now, also worried about the lack of joy from the pony who held the Element of Laughter.
Angel looked at his caretaker. Fluttershy knew from the look exactly what he meant. When the other pets needed care their owners could not provide, they came to her. The other pets were his friends, too. "Pinkie, please," she started in, her voice soothing, but also carrying an air of authority that surprised even herself. It seemed that animals – or friends – in distress always seemed to bring out a strength in her she continually forgot she had. "Please, listen to Rainbow. Calm down. It's not healthy for you, and shrieking won't help bring Gummi back. That goes for you two as well," she noted, looking at Rarity and Applejack. They both looked down nervously. "Now," she stood a little straighter, giving herself a more authoritative pose. "I've dealt with missing pets before. Where have you looked for them so far?"
"Practically everywhere around town," said Rarity, looking around at the crowd growing around them, acknowledging her thanks to a few ponies. "I don't think there's a building here we haven't searched."
"All the stores?" asked Fluttershy. She had a growing suspicion of where they might end up searching, but her want to avoid going there made her wish to double-check every option. Besides, she thought, it's what Twilight would do if she were here. Rarity nodded in answer. "All the houses?" Pinkie nodded. "All the farms?" Applejack nodded. "All the fields? The roads? The trees? The bushes?" she asked, rapidly losing her authoritative air as her friends kept nodding and the fear in her slowly grew. "The-"
"I told you, we dun' searched everywhere, Fluttershy!" cut in Applejack. "That's why we came to you!"
"Okay! Okay..." The timid pegasus calmed herself down, embarrassed at freaking out right after telling her friends to keep their cool. "It's just – That means the only place left to search is..." She squeaked, looking out down the pathway to her house – and to the acres of trees behind it. "The Everfree Forest!"
"I'm afraid that there is no delicate way to put this, Twilight," said Princess Luna as she and her sister's pupil walked down one of the many long hallways in the Royal Castle. General Spur had excused himself to the mess hall, leaving the young unicorn and the Royal alicorn to speak to each other alone. "Your learning of the power of friendship is but one small part of my sister's overall plan for you."
"Overall plan?" Twilight was still confused. "And why isn't Princess Celestia telling me this herself?"
"She asked me to take her place regarding this matter. She is saving her strength. Remember that while she may raise the sun every day, she puts extra care into the raising for the Summer Sun Celebration."
"What?" protested Twilight. "She usually only rests the day of the Celebration – not the day before it."
"She wishes to make the raising for tomorrow's Celebration her best effort yet. This is out of a deep gratitude to you and your friends for once again wielding the Elements of Harmony and defeating Discord. You have no idea how grateful she truly is for that. You have no idea how grateful I am."
Twilight sensed something in Luna's tone. It was certainly not joy. "What – What exactly did Discord do in the past, Princess Luna?" she asked, her voice soft and concerned instead of harsh and protesting.
Luna lowered her head, her eyes misting up. "The Discord you and your friends faced was a joke of his former self. He must have thought the six of you were an absolute joke, too – or he would've been the much more ruthless ruler who seized his power by viciously murdering our parents those ages ago."
"M – Murdered?" gasped Twilight. Discord had threatened Rainbow Dash with the destruction of Cloudsdale, yet that was the darkest he had taken his brief second reign of chaos. But - murder...
"Yes. Murdered." Luna fought back the tears of the horrible memories and raised her head back up, regaining her regal stature. "Which is where our conversation comes back around to its original topic. Quite simply, Twilight Sparkle: You will become Princess if something happens to the both of us."
A unicorn stallion in the crowd approached Fluttershy and her friends. "Are you absolutely sure that the Everfree Forest is where your missing animals went? They could have just run to Trottingham."
"Why, of course!" Rarity smacked her head. "The road to the north leads to Trottingham!"
"But we searched that road, Rarity!" reminded Applejack. "Didn't find a chippin' thing, remember?"
The fashion unicorn scowled. "But we didn't go all the way to Trottingham, though. Oh, thank you for the suggestion, kind sir – PRINCE BLUEBLOOD?" She recoiled upon seeing the stallion she had tried to woo at the last Grand Galloping Gala, only to discover he was a pompous, stuck-up royal jerk. Even more surprising to her was the fact that he was standing in front of her caked in...berry juice and flour?
"Forgive me, milady," the Prince bowed to the slack-jawed pony. "Fair Applejack and I had rather hoped to surprise you at the Summer Sun Celebration – where I would be a bit more...cleaned up." His horn glowed – and all the stains on his hide were magically wiped away, leaving him clean as a whistle.
Applejack giggled at Rarity's glare. "You didn't hear, Rare? You embarrassed the jerk right out of him when ya' told him off at the Gala. Exiled himself to Hoofington, came to love farmin' – and now runs-"
"Blueblood's Bakeries – the finest blue berry confections in all Equestria!" Blueblood finished proudly. "But none of that is important right now. What matters is finding your beloved cat Opalescence." He bowed to her again. "Please allow me to make up for my horrible behaviour at the Gala by helping you search the road to Trottingham, Lady Rarity. Anything for one of the ponies who defeated Discord."
Rarity was still a bit slack-jawed. "I – I...I accept your offer of help, kind Prince," she smiled – much to the Prince's clear happiness. "BUT– " her tone changed, "I WILL be watching. Don't. Pull. Anything."
"Can somepony tell me who this guy is – and why he's wasting the time we need to go find Gummi?" growled Pinkie, crossing her hooves.
Blueblood ignored the insult. "I give you my word, milady. I wish to prove to you that I have changed."
"I believe you for now," huffed Rarity, turning to the northern road. "Let us not waste more time. Opal must be scared sick, being away from me for so long." She set off down the path, the Prince behind her.
"Gummi would never go NEAR the Everfree Forest! I'm going with them!" Pinkie huffed, crossing her hooves briefly before following Rarity and Blueblood. "Rarity! Wait up! I'm coming with you!"
Applejack watched Pinkie catch up, then disappear with the two down the northern road. She clapped her front hooves together. "Welp, I guess that's that!" she said, grabbing Fluttershy and looking at Rainbow Dash. "C'mon, girls! Looks like we're the ones who get to go search the Everfree Forest!"
"Fine with me!" Dash replied, spreading her wings and flying ahead towards the Forest.
"Wait!" protested Fluttershy as she was suddenly dragged against her will. "I didn't say I – EEP!" she squealed as Angel started pushing her in the direction Applejack was already pulling her. "Angel!"
"Hey, remember, Fluttershy – it's his special day, right?" winked Dash. "He wants to go find them."
Fluttershy sighed, considering her companion's feelings. "Oh..." She gingerly started walking towards the Forest under her own power. "Why do I have the feeling I'm going to regret this later?"
"HUH?" Twilight stumbled backwards several steps, even though nothing had shoved her at all.
Princess Luna kept her head held high. "You heard me. Since neither of us have children, and since Prince Blueblood seems more content to live his life as a baker in Hoofington after exiling himself, there are no blood heirs left. Therefore, as Celestia's protégée, she has deemed you third in line for the throne. As I stated before, your studies of friendship are for a purpose: To ensure a connection to those you may someday rule – so that you never forget to consider your subjects' opinions before making a decision. Celestia has put greater emphasis on this aspect of your training because it is the most crucial. We would never have defeated Discord the first time had we not made friends when we were fillies."
"I – I –" Twilight stuttered, still so stunned she couldn't speak. Finally, a word popped out. "Princess?"
"Pardon us for waiting so long to tell you, Twilight. But normally such raw magical skill like yours are not so developed so early in a pony's life. Celestia felt it was better for you to enjoy your foalhood."
"I – I understand that much. And I am honoured to be thought up to the task. It's just all – a bit –"
Twilight snorted. "Overwhelming is an understatement." A sudden, terrible thought crossed her mind. "Waitaminute... If I'm being told about this now, does that mean – Are you and Celestia about to – d–"
The young unicorn breathed a deep sigh of relief. "Oh, thank heavens! For a moment there, I thought..." She bowed her head, embarrassed. "Forgive me for asking such a stupid question."
"What is there to forgive?" smiled Luna. "I would ask the same question, were I in your hooves. Do not be ashamed of your inquisitory nature. It serves one well on the throne, so long as they do not inflame it with paranoia over the power they hold." The Princess of the Night gazed up at the afternoon scenery. "But you are still not quite ready. There is much you have learned. Yet so much you still need to learn."
Princess Luna sighed. Her head drooped as memories again flooded back – but this time she allowed it. Twilight had to understand. "Trust me, Twilight. Were it not necessary, we would not be training you in it. Unfortunately, war is a tool all Princesses must keep in the back of their minds, and be willing to risk if there are absolutely no other options left to defend their lands. No Princess of Equestria – except a horribly corrupted one – would declare war simply for bloodthirsty gain or a land grab. Such an act means sending friends towards possible death. You have never experienced death, have you, Twilight?" The unicorn's uncomfortable glance away from her told all. "No. You have faced the spectre of death in some of your, er – adventures... But never have you actually witnessed anything die with your own eyes. Celestia and I have seen almost all the methods of death firsthoof. Discord killed our parents not by brutal slaughter, but by torturing their minds until they gave up. We watched them turn grey. It was heartbreaking, seeing them refuse to eat or drink, then attempt to bark us away from trying to feed them – only for those barks to come out as ragged, wrenching gasps from throats drier than sand..."
Twilight reached out in comfort as the Princess broke for a second, tears splashing her mane. "Luna..."
Luna shooed the prodigy's gesture away, though she deeply appreciated it. After wiping the tears off, she collected herself with a deep inhale and continued as if nothing had happened. "And know that the tale of me becoming jealous and turning into Nightmare Moon is not the truth. It is the only lie Celestia has ever told. I could never be jealous of our subjects naturally needing to sleep through my nights. It is why I always try to make them as peaceful and quiet as possible. No, I was taken over. Completely. An evil magic, older than Discord, older than my sister and I combined – it forcibly possessed my body. I had no control over my actions. I watched helplessly inside myself as it transformed my body into that of Nightmare Moon and made me terrorize Equestria, killing and devouring ponies who were alone at night. Yes, Nightmare Night is not as far from the truth as you think," said Luna, noticing Twilight's horrified face. "Though instead of candy to appease the entity controlling me, it was a blood sacrifice."
Twilight slumped onto her haunches. "My stars..."
"Celestia did everything to save me. She fought 'me' hundreds of times. You should have seen us, lighting up the skies every night with our sorties... She tried the Elements of Harmony – they didn't work. Hard to believe, but she was ready to surrender her own body to the entity's control, if it meant I would be freed. But the remaining citizens and creatures of Equestria rallied to her aid – and much like with the original creation of the Elements, willingly sacrificed themselves in a huge battle against my possessor. They not only wore down the entity enough for Celestia to strike, but the love with which they carried out their actions made the Elements stronger – so when Celestia tried them again, they were powerful enough to allow her to exile me. And then you and your friends came along, made them even more powerful, and were able to finally wrench the demon's claws off my body and restore me."
"...but the entity got away," mustered Twilight, forcing herself out of the shock over the tale she just heard. "It's still out there, and Celestia wants me to be fully prepared in case it comes back again."
Luna smiled some, rather surprised at how much better she felt having gotten everything out into the open. She, too, had wondered why Celestia had asked her to tell Twilight all this – but after spilling her guts, she knew exactly why. And she loved her sister even more. "Yes. That would be the gist of it."
"Okay, girls, I think I've gone far enough – See you!" Fluttershy dashed for the door of her cottage – only to be tripped by Angel seconds before reaching it. Before she could recover and enter the house, her tail was lassoed. "No! Applejack!" she cried as the orange pony dragged her back to the group.
"No ifs, ands or buts, young lady!" Applejack scolded. "You're comin' to the Everfree Forest with us!"
Fluttershy cowered, staring at the imposing forest ahead of them. "B-b-b-but!" she protested, shivering.
"Aw, c'mon!" Rainbow Dash groaned, exasperated. "How can you still be so scared of Everfree? You live right next to it! You've gone in there already a dozen times! One of our best friends lives in there! Get over it already! We've beaten Discord and Nightmare Moon! We shouldn't be totally afraid of it!"
"She's right, Fluttershy!" huffed Applejack. "I may be plum terrified of this place, but that's no excuse for givin' up on searching it for my Winona! She'd run headlong in here, without a lick of bein' scared!"
Fluttershy had to admit, they had a point. Yet one thing still bothered her. "B-b-b-but it's so unnatural!"
"Unnatural to you!" said Zecora, the zebra's sudden appearance sending the yellow pegasus yipping to hide behind Rainbow Dash. "Remember – to the animals in there, it is as normal as the sky is blue!"
"Hey there, Zecora," smiled the farm pony. "Fancy you showin' up here all of a sudden like that."
"Ah, Applejack of orange, and Rainbow Dash of blue." Scared as they may have been of her in the past, all the ponies now quite enjoyed seeing Zecora. Her friendly smile was always uplifting to come across. "Have you come to the Forest to forage – or is there something with which I can help you two?"
"Three, actually," deadpanned Dash, shoving Fluttershy out from behind her. "And yeah – have you seen a toothless alligator, a white cat, and a dog running around in there anywhere? Pinkie, Rarity and Applejack's pets have been missing for a few days, and we think they may have run into Everfree."
Zecora shook her head. "No. No, I have not. But I shall keep my eye out, in case they cross my lot."
"Thank you, Zecora," Applejack said, spontaneously hugging her as the worry for Winona resurfaced.
Zecora belatedly returned the hug. "Not a problem, my friend. I'm sure you will find them in the end."
The three ponies watched as the zebra promptly went on her way. "See, Fluttershy?" smiled Dash as they watched Zecora fall completely out of their sight. "If we're together, what's there to be afraid of?"
The instant she finished her sentence, a large roaring blur exploded out of the trees and slammed into the pegasus, sending her hurtling backwards and crashing into the birdhouses by Fluttershy's house. "RAINBOW!" screamed Applejack as the terrified birds scattered in the wake of her now-unmoving friend's impact on their homes. She looked back at the creature that had emerged – and felt fear boil in her veins as she stared at the back of a grey bear-sized creature with two long, floppy ears. But she'd been in this situation before. She forced the fear back, letting her fight side take over. "HEY! YOU!" The creature, advancing towards the unconscious Dash, seemed to understand, and turned to face her – letting Applejack see its glowing red eyes and sharp, buck-toothed fangs. She gulped. "Oh, lordy..."
The creature roared at Applejack and charged – quite quickly. Mid-stride, it unleashed razor-sharp claws previously retracted in its massive paws. Not expecting its speed, the orange pony was barely able to roll out the way as it slashed at her, the claws throwing up a cloud of dirt as they missed their target and sliced rather deep cuts into the soil. "Some kinda' help would be right appreciated here!" She dodged another angry swipe of the creature's paw and shot a furious look at Fluttershy – who was trying to get Rainbow Dash to wake up. "C'mon, Fluttershy! Get over her and tame this thing already, will ya'?" But Fluttershy shook her head, terrified – and suddenly launched herself into the air, flying high and away from everything. "FLUTTERSHY! WHERE ARE YOU GOIN'?" Just then, the creature connected. "AUGH!" Applejack screamed at the pain of the claws digging into her hide and propelling her backwards even farther. And then she hit the very hard rock – and everything went completely dark.
Fluttershy was whimpering like crazy by the time she had flown to a height above even Cloudsdale. "Ishouldn'thavedonethat, I shouldn'thavedonethat!" she squealed to herself, crying. She knew she had to go back. But the creature! It was so different from any she'd encountered. It frightened her so much...
She somehow forced herself to stop ascending, turned around, looked back down – and gasped in horror upon seeing Applejack motionless, with three deep, nasty claw gashes on her stomach. The creature was hungrily advancing on her friend. She could practically see its jaws, dripping with saliva. But something stopped its advance. It recoiled and swatted at something below it. The shivering yellow pegasus watched a tiny white speck leap up onto the creature's head and yank its ears back – quite hard. Furious, the beast grabbed the speck with one paw and tossed it to the ground, snorting in annoyance. Fluttershy's heart nearly stopped when she realized just who the little speck was. "Oh no – ANGEL!"
And then it happened. "HEY!"
The roar woke Applejack up. She could hear something falling from the sky, and fast. She looked up – just in time to cover her ears as the dive-bombing Fluttershy shattered the sound barrier, the deafening CRACK accompanied by a brilliant yellow-pink shockwave that bent more than a few trees backwards. Hearing the boom, the creature snarling over her turned to look – as Fluttershy slammed down onto it, her speed drilling it down a few metres into the ground. When the dust cleared out of the crater created, Applejack could see Fluttershy had the creature pinned, her hooves stomped on its throat with so much pressure that it was choking a bit. The yellow pony's wings were locked forward like blades, pointed right at the beast's eyes. And Fluttershy's eyes were also locked onto the creature's, boiling with rage, fixed in – The Stare. Applejack had never actually seen The Stare herself, despite knowing Fluttershy for a very long time – but even without being its target, she had to look away from the intensity of it.
"NOW LISTEN HERE!" Fluttershy growled, her normally meek personality buried in unbridled fury. "We weren't attacking you, were we?" The creature completely wilted, shaking its head, tears starting to run down its cheeks. "No. Yet you attacked my friends – unprovoked!" The Stare grew fiercer. "My friends – and ESPECIALLY Angel... They. Are Not. For Eating. You got that?" With a soft choke, the creature nodded, absolutely terrified. "Good." Fluttershy stepped off its throat, a smile of triumph breaking on her face – before it turned into a glare again. "Now go back to the forest and let us be!"
The monster animal whimpered, obeying the demand promptly, rapidly running back into Everfree. Eventually, it came to where no creature was watching it. Its lips curled into a grin – before it turned into what could only be described as a shadow – a shadow that drifted away...against the wind's blow.
Back at the forest's edge, Fluttershy shook her head, coming out of a daze. She looked behind her – Rainbow Dash was still knocked out. She turned to look at Applejack – and a chill ran through her. "Oh dear! Applejack!" she cried, running over to her wounded friend. "Don't you move! Stay right there!"
Applejack winced. "Ngh...I'm fine. At least in the sense that none of my organs are fallin' out." The freckled pony managed one chuckle before doubling over, grimacing at the severe pain of her injury.
"But you're bleeding profusely!"
The farm pony took a gander at the deep wounds on her chest. "Well, hey, look at that..." She swooned suddenly, feeling very lightheaded. "If you don't mind, I'm gonna...pass out again." Her eyes closed.
Fluttershy felt a tug on her tail. She turned - and squealed in relieved happiness, hugging an annoyed bunny. "Angel! You're okay! Huh?" Angel was pointing furiously at her cottage. "Oh, right! Right!" She had no time to celebrate. She quickly dashed into her house, racing to collect all of the medical supplies she was going to need in order to save her friends. "Oh! Hang on, Applejack! Hang on, Rainbow!"
The CRACK made Princess Luna and Twilight's heads snap to attention. "What on Equestria was that?" asked Luna. Moments later, dissipating bands of brilliant yellow and pink coursed low across the sky.
"Oh..." Twilight snickered. "Looks like Rainbow Dash was showing off her sonic rainboom again."
"Hmm? Ah, your boastful but loyal friend. I see." Luna relaxed back from her heightened alertness, following Twilight as they trotted up some stairs and into the stunningly cavernous Royal Library.
"Princess Luna...?" Twilight shook her head, a thought bothering her. "I'm confused. You mentioned that the dark magic made you do all these horrible things, and put up a rather extraordinary fight, until – um, 'you' were put in the moon. Did my friends and I really make the Elements of Harmony stronger, or did it willingly stop possessing you? I just can't help but think that the latter is the case, given the relatively simple obstacles it placed in our way compared to the fight it put up a thousand years ago-"
"-and the fact that the entity wasn't caught." Luna raised her head again, sighing. "Yes, the thought has crossed both I and my sister's minds." She turned around and faced the purple pony. "It is one of the reasons Celestia felt it time to explain your...situation - and start training you in the art of combat."
"And you also mentioned that the trials Discord put us through were nothing compared to what he did when he first appeared to wreak havoc." Theories were now racing through Twilight's head, almost faster than she could cohesively express them. "Is it possible that with every use, the Elements drain some of the powers of those they are used on, and that contributes to their increased power later on?"
Luna chuckled. "It would seem once your mind starts, it does not stop until you get all the answers, child... I am not sure about that theory – it is entirely possible, however, and would explain much."
"And – you briefly mentioned the time of the Elements' creation. You have knowledge of that? That's the one giant empty space of history I haven't been able to find, no matter how many historical archives I've read! Can you tell me anything more about that? It is something I would greatly like to know!"
"The student in you has truly emerged now." Luna's comment made Twilight blush in embarrassment. "Oh, don't you blush now. Frankly, it's a breath of fresh air to know that somepony in this day and age actually cares about the history of Equestria." Her face quickly fell, though. "Sadly, dear Twilight, what precious documents of Equestria's beginnings that we had were lost to Discord's hand during his rule. It is rather quite a miracle that he only destroyed what he did. I'm sorry. I can only tell you one thing."
Twilight watched Princess Luna's horn glow. After a few minutes of it traveling through the vast expanse of the Library, a small book comprised of barely any pages floated down into view. Twilight picked the book from Luna's magical grip and took a look at its cover. "The Flame of Limbo?"
"Yes," nodded Luna.
"But that's just-"
"-an old mare's tale?" Luna shifted haughtily. "I believe that's what your friends said about 'my' return."
Twilight shook her head in astonishment. She couldn't believe it. The Flame of Limbo...It existed?
"Argh...Anyone get the name of that troll that hit me?" Applejack opened her eyes to see the tear-stained faces of Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy peering down at her. "What are y'all lookin' at?"
"Oh, Celestia, you're okay!" cried Rainbow, gently nuzzling her friend's neck. "It was taking so long for you to wake up, we thought you'd lost too much blood!"
"Huh?" the farm pony raised a hoof – and instantly cringed in pain. She looked back to see her chest wrapped almost completely in bandages. "Oh yeah. That bearbunny – werebunny? – tried to turn me into three giant strips of horse steak. I remember now. Thanks for comin' back to save us, Fluttershy."
"I bound your wound and stopped your bleeding, but you must still rest, Applejack." Fluttershy nuzzled her friend happily. "However, it is good to know you're alive." She glanced back at Rainbow. "Dash..."
"Aw man, seriously?" Rainbow whined, turning around and walking back to the living room, having been moments from leaving the small cottage. "Applejack's okay! I can go search now! I feel fine!"
Fluttershy scowled. "You were unconscious for a very long time, Rainbow! You've suffered a serious head injury!" scolded the caretaker pony. "You need to go lie down and get some rest of your own!"
"I swear!" came the weather pegasus' further protestation. "I swear on Celestia's mane, I feel fine!"
"Ain't that what Snowfire said?" inquired Applejack, bringing up a particularly horrible moment in the history of the Wonderbolts – the aerial flying team that her friend so idolized. A new, very young member named Snowfire had smacked her head hard against a tree in a practice session, and insisted she was fine for a rather dangerous manoeuver in their show. The next day, during the show, a blood vessel ruptured in her head, and she fell into the audience, dead. The comment brought an instant reaction from Dash – and the way her friend froze in mid-thought told Applejack perhaps she'd gone too far. She looked down in embarrassment. "I – I'm sorry, Dash...I only brought it up to get you to see what Fluttershy is all concerned about – Wait..." She slowly, horrifyingly realized. "Were you there?"
Dash glanced away, anxiously pawing at the floor to avoid crying. The action didn't help one single bit. "She landed right at my hooves. Looked straight into my eyes – and died. I couldn't have been more than 2 years old. My first Wonderbolts show – and I watched my idol die. Thanks for bringing that up."
"Sugarcube...I – I didn't mean – Honestly, if I could get up right now, I'd hug you in my sorry, darlin'."
"I'll do that for you." Fluttershy walked up to her friend and laid a comforting wing on her. "Please don't cry anymore, Rainbow. You know Applejack didn't mean that to be mean-spirited in any way."
"I know what she meant." Dash sniffed more tears away, collecting herself. "And I don't blame her." A small smile crossed her lips. "Sometimes it takes something like that to make me realize how stupid I'm being. If you think I need to rest, I will. I guess Winona and the other pets can wait one more night."
Applejack smiled. "Now that's more like it."
"Hey, where'd Fluttershy go?" asked Dash, suddenly noticing the lack of that comforting wing.
Applejack sat straight up in a bit of a panic, surprised. "Fluttersh – ohhh, that wasn't a very good idea to move like that..." she cringed, lying back down to ease the searing pain coursing through her nerves.
"I'm here, you two," called Fluttershy. Moments later, she trotted back into the living room, two small jars in her mouth. She nodded at the jar on her left. "This is a special healing potion Zecora gave me a while back. I have a very limited supply, because apparently it takes a plant that only grows once every 20 years in a specific location – but it does wonders for healing all kinds of wounds. Especially big, nasty ones like yours, Applejack. Though I don't know how effective it'll be on possible concussions like your case, Rainbow – but I'm willing to see if it helps. Unfortunately, it only works while patients are asleep – and it causes incredible pain." She suppressed a laugh, remembering how Angel wasn't happy with her for weeks after she'd given him a drop of the stuff when he'd splintered his foot a few months ago. Refocusing, she nodded at the jar on her right. "So before I give you that, you've got to take this. It will knock you out cold for a good 12 hours. Trust me, you'll sleep through anything."
"So we'll conk out now – but be right as rain to go look for my darlin' Winona in the mornin'?"
"You'll still need to drink a lot of water to regain the blood you've lost, Applejack – but yes."
"Alrighty then," sighed Rainbow, plopping herself down on the couch next to Applejack, yawning big. "The sun's startin' to go down, I don't wanna miss the Celebration tomorrow night – I feel like getting a good night's sleep tonight. Nothin' Zecora's made has killed us yet... I'm all ready for that medicine."
"Same here," smiled Applejack. "We'll all go search for Winona and the other pets in the shiny day."
Fluttershy smiled back. "Aright."
Moments later, after the medicine and the sedative were given to them, her friends were both so deep asleep, they could've been hibernating. Fluttershy carefully pulled a blanket over them. "Sleep tight." She turned around and looked at Angel – who had already run and gotten himself snuggled in his little basket bed. "Oh no you don't, Angel. The sun is nowhere near the horizon at all yet. We have a few birdhouses to fix before we can go to sleep." She picked the whole basket up. "C'mon, grumbly."
"GUMMI! WHERE ARE YOU?" screeched Pinkie Pie frantically, before breaking down sobbing. "I KNOW YOU'RE OUT HERE! PLEASE COME OUT! PLEASE DON'T LEAVE ME – alone..."
Rarity immediately embraced her forlorn friend. "Pinkie, what ever do you mean, 'alone'? You know you're never alone. You've got all of us, Mr. and Mrs. Cake, and everypony else in Ponyville."
Pinkie sniffed back a few tears. "I know, Rarity. It's just – well, there's some things I just don't like to talk about with you girls. I tell all those things to Gummi – and now I can't!" she wailed.
"Shhh..." cooed the fashion pony. "Keep it together, sweetie." The white unicorn's tone was soft and gentle – but inside, Rarity was scowling at herself. She, Pinkie and Prince Blueblood – whom she had to admit had indeed changed for the better – had searched every inch of the road to Trottingham, and every inch of Trottingham itself. Yet there was no sign of Gummi, her Opal, or Applejack's Winona.
"It seems we're losing light, milady," noted Blueblood, gazing at the sky. "We should head back to Ponyville before it gets dark. Let us regroup and search the road towards Hoofington tomorrow."
"NO! NO!" protested the upset pink pony. "Make some light with your horns! We can start searching the road to Hoofington tonight! Please, please, PLEASE! We can't give up tonight! We just can't!"
"Pinkie, please!" Rarity delicately removed her friend's grip on her mane. "Even if either of us did illuminate the road with our magic, there's no way we could hold the spell long enough to do any kind of truly thorough search! And honestly, with your state of mind right now–" The holder of the Element of Generosity smiled, toning her voice back down to caring. "It's better that you get some rest, dear."
"But – But – Oh...I guess you're right," Pinkie sighed. And deep in her heart, she knew they were right. Gummi could wait another day. But unlike Opalescence the cat or Winona the dog, the little toothless alligator really had no means of self-defence aside from tiny claws – and that worried her the most.
"I promise you, Lady Pie – We will find him," consoled Prince Blueblood, bowing his head in respect. "But now is not the time to waste our energy and endanger our health by pushing beyond our limits."
"Come now, Pinkie." Rarity smiled her softest smile. "Let's go home, shall we? You never know – Maybe Gummi will be just sitting there waiting for you at Sugarcube Corner when we get back."
"Yeah...Okay," sniffled Pinkie, begrudgingly following the two unicorns back down the Ponyville road.
"The Flame of Limbo... The waypoint of the Royal memories...The safehouse of the Royal souls..." Twilight slumped onto her haunches, still caught up in disbelief. With the existence of the Elements of Harmony proven, all the best scholars in Equestria were just beginning to believe the story of their origin – that in a time of great desperation and darkness, the first Guardians poured the essence of their souls into the formation of the Elements, sacrificing their lives to create the weapon their children – the First Royals – used to save the lands they loved. But none of the scholars believed The Flame of Limbo existed. An everlasting magical flame, locked in a giant diamond, buried somewhere deep in the bowels of Equestria? Even Star Swirl the Bearded had come to believe that The Flame of Limbo was a myth.
"It exists, Twilight," nodded Princess Luna. "It is the reason Celestia remains alive today. The demon magic haunting my body still had control of my powers during the lunar imprisonment. It slowly began to corrupt all the stars – until 1,000 years later, it had turned enough of them that they were powerful enough to try and pull her into the heavens. But when they absorbed her physical body, her soul was immediately ferried to the Flame, where they could not reach. When the Elements moved on to you and your friends, the corruption was broken, her body was pulled back from the skies – and her soul was restored to it, moments before she appeared to you all that night. It is yet another reason she wishes to provide the best raising of the sun anypony has ever seen at the Summer Sun Celebration tomorrow."
"Wait, what?" asked Twilight, stunned. "You mean when the Mayor said Princess Celestia was gone, she was really d – dead?" She shook her head in more disbelief. "I thought Royals were immortal!"
"Nopony is immortal. We Royals are simply blessed with long lives, so long as the Flame burns. Though, honestly, anypony can live beyond 1,000 years old. Take General Spur, for example."
That raised Twilight's eyebrows. "General Spur is over a thousand years old?"
Luna nodded. "He was our father's most trusted advisor, and the first of the friends we made on our way to defeating Discord and avenging our parents' deaths. He has fought many battles alongside us."
"Hold on – Granny Smith, then – She's not a thousand y...Is she?"
"Enough, Twilight," chuckled Luna. "Don't let your curiosity overwhelm you. I'm sure I don't have to remind you of the last time your imagination got the better of you. 'Magic Kindergarten'? Really?"
Twilight blushed again. She was never going to live that episode of her life down. Even if she became Princess, everypony would probably still whisper about it: "Remember that one day the Princess went crazy over a silly missed deadline?" "Watch out! She'll send you to Magic Kindergarten if you make her angry!" She still couldn't find her Mr. Smartypants doll. That was probably for the better, though.
"It is almost time for me to raise the moon and the stars." The Princess of the Night smiled warmly. "Let us retire. We shall talk more of the past tomorrow, before you return to your duties in Ponyville."
"With all due respect, Princess Luna..." Twilight spoke with a sudden bit of forcefulness. She'd noticed a shift in the elder alicorn's body language and eye contact with her earlier, but only now had it struck her why. She lowered her head assertively. "You're hiding something. I can see it in your eyes. You know more than simply the fact that The Flame of Limbo exists. If it does, then you have all the memories of Royals past. You know what happened back then. You know exactly how Equestria was created. If I am to be fully and properly prepared for ruling Equestria – should I not know everything about Equestria?"
Luna stopped under one of the giant arching windows of the hallway leading out of the Royal Library. "No. No, you should not," she responded – making Twilight cringe at her choice of wording. "Not yet."
Luna threw up her hoof, her voice sharp, stern and commanding. "This is not up for discussion, young Sparkle. Do you understand me?"
Fighting the urge to press the matter, the purple unicorn simply bowed her head. "Yes, your highness."
"Good. Trust me on this one. The horrors of Discord's reign? The horrors of Nightmare Moon? They all pale under the shadow of horrors past. Nopony is truly ready to experience those awful memories." Luna returned to her normal warmth. "Though, it is comforting to know you have such perception."
Twilight's brain was halted in mid-thought. "Wait...Was that a test?"
The alicorn mare smiled, nodding slowly. "And you passed."
"So will you tell me what happened in the past now?" asked Twilight, growing excited.
"Shrewd," Luna chuckled. "But no. On that I was serious. We must be vigilant, my little pony. The forces aligned against friendship and harmony have never ceased trying to usurp us. Discord broke through once, yes – but in the cup of Equestria's history, his reign was but a drop in an ocean of years."
Twilight groaned in exasperation, but she didn't argue back. It had been worth a shot. She had pushed as far as she could today. She looked out of the gargantuan window as the sun began to set on the horizon. "Well," she sighed, "if I am to be Princess one day – I shall have to take up a different name."
Princess Luna tilted her head at her sister's young charge quizzically.
Twilight looked at her. "'Princess Twilight Sparkle' doesn't exactly roll off the tongue now, does it?"
Luna snorted, smirking in amusement as she looked off at the always beautiful colours that swirled around the clouds as her sister carefully took the sun out of the sky. "No. No, I suppose it does not."
Statues dotted the gardens surrounding the Royal Labyrinth. Some were very old, with cracks running all over their weathered stone, while the newer ones still defied the winds that whipped over them. Some were simply works commissioned by the Royals, symbolizing the virtues that kept Equestria strong. Others were memorials to heroes of days past - such as the one celebrating The Saving of the Dragons, Dame Lickety-Split I's expulsion of the evil force that had corrupted the beasts of the Everfree Forest, an action that had led to as much peace between the two species as there could possibly be.
But there was one brand new statue that did not match any of the others. Thanks to recent events, everypony who visited the Gardens avoided it like the plague. Yet as Princess Luna's horn glowed in the high window of the tower overlooking the greens and she raised the moon and the stars to bring on another beautiful night, a wispy shadow found its way in, giving the statue its first ever visitor.
The shadow encircled the statue, studying it. "So they defeated you again, did they, my child? Disappointing, but not unexpected. Take heed in knowing your actions were not completely in vain. You have given me all the information I need, and I shall make my move soon. I know you think I won't succeed with my powers do depleted – but just remember: All your powers came from me. I can take them all back if I have to. But I would much rather not have to – what good is creating a new legacy if I won't have an heir to share it with? And the shy one – you never let her reveal that she had those powers...Enhanced with the right magic, her abilities may just be enough to make up the difference. Trust me, my child: The day will soon come when "Equestria" is but a word of myth."
The statue of the draconequus just stared back, its eyes frozen in fear at a sight that had long past.
END CHAPTER ONE