Summer Sun Festival
Big Mac tightened the last of the ropes securing the load on the cart and nodded in satisfaction. He noticed that the sun was shining on part of the load despite being parked under the shade of a tree and frowned. He moved over to the trunk of the tree, placed his hoof against it, and exerted his earth pony magic. The branch that extended over the cart lengthened and branched out, blocking the offending rays. With that done, he ambled over to the house. As he stepped inside, he called out, “The cart’s ready, Ma!”
Pear Butter’s voice drifted back from the kitchen. “I’ve got your father’s lunch ready. You can take it with you after you’ve had yours.”
Big Mac stepped into the kitchen where he found his mother working alongside Granny Smith and several relatives busily preparing foodstuffs for the Summer Sun Festival. The large stallion carefully threaded his way through the organized chaos and located the basket that Pear pointed out. He took the handle in his mouth and retraced his steps. He had just set the basket on the cart when he noticed a commotion in the yard. His curiosity aroused, he wandered over to investigate the cause.
He noticed a stranger talking to his sister – a purple unicorn. Her kind were uncommon in Ponyville, it being a primarily earth pony settlement, but what was truly unusual was the creature that accompanied the newcomer. Was that some kind of two-legged lizard? Whatever it was looked intelligent because it was taking notes! Applejack was talking animatedly with the unicorn who seemed to be listening with some skepticism. His sister abruptly dashed over to the meal alert and started banging on the triangle and hollering, “Soup’s on!”
If the kitchen had been considered busy, the ensuing commotion put it to shame as dozens of kinfolk from all over Equestria converged on the yard. With a quick word from Applejack, they all began fetching their apple specialties that they had been preparing for the festival to share with everypony for lunch. Big Mac smirked as he watched Applejack urge the stranger to sample all the wares. He recognized his sister’s mischievous streak at work. Even he would find it a stretch to try every one of the foodstuffs on the table.
When he got the chance, he wandered over to Applejack to ask her about the visitor.
“That there is some fancy pony from Canterlot named Twahlight Sparkle sent here by Princess Celestia to check on the preparations for the festival. Seems she needed a mite bit o’ convincin’.”
“And the lizard?” Mac asked.
“Baby dragon, would ya believe? Name’s Spike. Cheerful little fella.”
“Think she can manage to try everything?”
Applejack grinned at him. “Oh, Ah’ll make sure she does!”
Big Mac chuckled before heading to the table to get his share. He had just about had his fill when he saw the unicorn stumble off with a noticeably distended belly. He figured she didn’t doubt the Apple family’s capabilities anymore.
With lunch done, Big Mac went back to the cart and hitched himself to it. With near zero effort, he hauled the cart from under the shade of the tree and onto the track that led to the road into Ponyville. The town was abuzz with preparations for the Summer Sun Festival. While it was an annual holiday, this year the Princess had chosen Ponyville for the site of the major event – the Raising of the Sun ceremony. That had attracted ponies from all over the nation and it was why so many of the Apple family had also come to Sweet Apple Acres to help with the preparations. As the official supplier of the festival food, every hoof was needed to cope with the demand. This was the second load that he had taken to the fairgrounds today, and there would be a third later.
Big Mac exchanged greetings with every familiar face as he passed, and even a cheery wave for some of the more friendly strangers. As he reached the train station, he was held up briefly by another influx of tourists streaming out from it. He raised an eyebrow at seeing a minotaur among them. They rarely came to Ponyville and he doubted that the bull was interested in the ceremony. Mac shrugged. “Festivals are fun for all, I s’pose,” he murmured before continuing onto the open field used to host fairs. While the town hall would host the actual ceremony, these grounds would have all the other activities associated with it: carnival rides, sideshow games, amazing pony acts, beverages, and food.
The large stallion weaved his way between the others there and headed for the very large tent that his father had spent the morning setting up to serve the food to hungry patrons. Along the way, he passed a familiar wagon that was positioned so that its side faced a large open area. A green pegasus was busy setting up equipment and Mac gave him a cheery wave which the pegasus returned.
“Hey, Big Mac! Long time, no see!”
“Eeyup! Good to see you, Mark Wells. How’s the foal?” Mac asked, looking at the young filly watching her father through a window in the wagon.
“Allura’s doing great and being a little terror, but you know two-year-olds.”
The earth pony chuckled. “Sure do. I remember Apple Bloom when she was that age.”
“You’ll come by for the show tonight?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Mac replied.
“Great. Catch you later!”
The pegasus resumed his work and Mac continued to the tent. Pausing at the entrance, he called out, “Second load’s here, Pa!”
A yellow earth pony stallion with a mane and tail that matched Big Mac’s coat came out. “Pull it over next to that counter,” Bright Mac said, pointing with his hoof. “We’ll unload it all there.”
“Got your lunch,” Big Mac said, bending his neck around to grab the basket handle to pass it to his father.
“Eat, Dad. I’ll unload.”
While Bright Mac enjoyed his well-earned break, Big Mac took all the foodstuffs from the cart and carefully placed them on the counter to be sorted onto display shelves later. There was a lot of it, but having seen how many ponies had come pouring into town, the Apples expected to see it fly out the door and earn the family some much-needed bits.
Hours earlier, Trixie noticed the tall spire on the Ponyville town hall peeking above the tree line.
“We’re almost there, Dowser,” she said to her husband.
The green pegasus hitched alongside her to the caravan that was both their mobile home and stage looked up and nodded. “It’ll be nice to be back in Ponyville.”
His wife smiled. “Trixie finds any town nice with you by her side.” They had been traveling together for over a year now, and she still got a thrill over having won this stallion’s heart. And their traveling lifestyle had been good to him as he had put on muscle pulling their wagon. She admired his form for a moment before turning her attention back to the road. “Do you remember where the fairgrounds are?”
“How could I forget where my life became complete?” he replied.
Trixie blushed. Mark Wells still said such nice things, and in a way no other stallion could ever match. “Trixie will check in at the town hall. Can you take the caravan to the grounds and start setting it up?”
“No problem, Love. I can manage it by myself for that short distance.”
The wagon was much bigger than the one that Trixie had owned when she had started, but after she had gained her love mate, her existing one proved to be too cramped in the long run. She had intended to upgrade anyway so that she could present more and bigger shows. The only thing stopping her up until then was that she was a unicorn, not an earth pony, and she would not have been able to cope with a bigger caravan by herself. Fortunately, her husband was more than willing to do his share of the pulling. They had just reached the outskirts of Ponyville when a pink blur appeared before them
Both the pegasus and the unicorn nearly had a heart attack before recognizing the culprit.
“Hi, Pinkie Pie,” Mark said. “We’re not newbies, so who’s the victim?”
“It’sanewunicornfromCanterlotandshe’sheretooverseethefestivalpreparationssowehavetogiveheragreatbigWelcomeToPonyvilleparty! Hereareyourinvitations. Seeya!” And she was gone.
The two paused to parse what Pinkie had babbled. As Trixie picked up the entirely unnecessary invitations (everyone was always invited) in her magic, she said, “Do you think we can squeeze in an appearance between shows?”
Mark replied, “Without even looking at the invites, I’m betting the time will mysteriously be perfect for us.”
“So that’s a yes?” Trixie said as they resumed their march.
“Who wants to miss a Pinkie party? Who would dare to miss a Pinkie party?’”
“The Great and Thrifty Trixie is always happy to partake in free food.”
Mark chuckled in agreement.
They pulled up next to the town hall. Trixie unhitched herself, gave her husband a kiss, and headed for the entrance. Mark then continued to the fairgrounds. Trixie noted two Royal Guards stationed at the door as she trotted inside. Doubtless, they were there for increased security prior to the arrival of the princess. Whatever the reason, they were of no concern to her. The blue unicorn looked around and spotted a sign that read “Festival Events” and went up to the mare behind the counter. “The Amazing Trixie is here to check in,” she announced.
Amethyst Star looked up and smiled broadly. “Miss Trixie! The foals are so looking forward to seeing your show!”
The blue mare smiled smugly. “The Amazing Trixie and her Great and Powerful Partner are ready to put on the best shows yet!”
“I’ll be sure not to miss it.” Sparkler picked up a folder from a pile on the counter. “Here’s a copy of your contract and your schedule of performances. Two rated for the foals, and then two more for the grown-ups later in the evening.”
“It’s an intense schedule, but the Amazing Trixie is up to the challenge.”
“Excellent! Here’s your down payment. Please sign for it here.” Sparkler held out a receipt form and pen which Trixie took in her magic. With the document signed with a flourish, she returned it to Amethyst. “Good. The balance of your fee can be collected from nine o’clock tomorrow. Here are two staff passes that will permit you and your husband to enter and leave the fairgrounds as you please. Have a successful show.”
“Trixie thanks you and looks forward to seeing you in the audience.” The mare then left to head for the fairgrounds.
Irwin Goodall watched the unfamiliar scenery pass by through the train’s window. With the carriage crowded with ponies headed to Ponyville for the festival, the young minotaur bull could not even get up to stretch his legs. At least, the novel view distracted him from the obese mare jammed into the seat beside him, wedging him against the window.
At last, the train approached Irwin’s destination and the conductor called out, “Next stop – Ponyville and the Summer Sun Celebration!”
It was with immense relief that Irwin alighted from the carriage and joined the throng streaming off the platform. With a pet carrier in hand, he headed for the town hall in the hope of getting directions to his true destination. The guards at the doorway gave him a hard look but did not stop him. He was momentarily disconcerted by the fact that the building was considerably bigger on the inside than on the outside. “These ponies and their magic,” he muttered as he looked around for someone to help him. Thankfully, there was an information desk with a rather harried stallion behind the counter. He was attempting to deal with a flood of questions from a long line of ponies, many of them about finding lodgings in a town that was fully booked up already. Irwin realized that he hadn’t allowed for this possibility because he had not come for the festival. It was unfortunate timing that his trip coincided with the event.
It was finally Irwin’s turn and he asked, “Do you know where I can find a mare named Fluttershy? I hear that she is an animal expert. I need her help.”
Blue Quill looked relieved at the question. “While that’s not normally something this counter would deal with, as it happens, I do know where Fluttershy resides. She nursed my dog back to health last Spring. Here – let me draw you a map.”
A couple of minutes later, the minotaur strode out of the town hall. He headed for the countryside with map in hand.
It was a long but not terribly arduous walk. If Irwin wasn’t here on urgent business, he would have enjoyed it more. It was certainly pretty and interesting to him – everything a minotaur like him was not supposed to appreciate. At least, there weren’t any of his kind around here to mock him for his passions. Hopefully, he could take his time and literally smell the flowers after he was done at Fluttershy’s place.
He turned a bend in the road and was startled to see a being that seemed even more out of place than him. A zebra pulling a cart heavily laden with flowers came the other way. He stopped to watch the striped mare as she approached. What someone of her kind was doing here in the middle of Equestria and so far from Zebrica was beyond him.
The zebra paused and smiled. “Good day to you, minotaur. May I ask what you’re seeking for?” she asked in a sing-song voice.
A rhymer! She must be a shaman, if his reading of her steered him true. “I’m looking for Fluttershy’s place,” he answered.
“Ah! The pony you seek resides not far from here. Keep to this road and to her you’ll steer.”
Irwin was glad of the confirmation. “Thank you. I’m Irwin Goodall and I’m new in town. I came to seek Fluttershy’s help.”
“Zecora is my name of no particular fame. Be circumspect with the nervous mare, or else you may give a mighty scare.”
“I’ll bear that in mind, thanks. Have a good day, Zecora.”
“May your day not pall, Irwin Goodall.”
The two parted ways and it was not long before the minotaur reached his destination. The very quaint cottage close to the Everfree Forest was everything the bull expected of the pony he sought. Burrows and bird nests abounded, and several wild animals blithely ignored him and each other. Truly, this animal healer’s abode was a safe space for all. Irwin knocked on the door and awaited a reply. After no response, he knocked again, a little louder.
“Who is it?” a voice faintly called from inside. The minotaur heard hoofsteps approaching and the top section of the two-piece door opened a little. “Sorry to keep you wait— EEP!” The door slammed shut.
A little nonplussed but recalling Zecora’s warning, he tried again. “Miss Fluttershy – I have a patient that needs your help!”
After a lengthy pause, the door open a crack and one eye peered cautiously out. Irwin held up the pet basket.
“I have a very sick bunny that has defied all my attempts to nurse him back to health. You’re my last chance. Your reputation for healing animals is second to none.”
The door opened a bit more and Irwin lifted the lid of the pet basket to show the distressed animal.
Fluttershy’s eyes went wide and she flung both halves of the door open before practically snatching the basket out of his grip. She headed into the cottage, ignoring the minotaur, and Irwin decided that he was tacitly invited inside. As the mare took the rabbit out of the carrier, she asked, “What are the symptoms and how have you been treating him?”
Irwin replied, “Listlessness and vomiting. I thought it was food poisoning but none of my usual treatments worked: diluted essence of bitterroot, activated charcoal, or twice-boiled thistleberry sap. I even tried a drop of the Flim and Flam Brothers Restorative Elixer but that just made him angry.”
“Do you also care for animals? If you don’t mind me asking, that is?” Fluttershy queried as she began examining her patient.
“Some. I love them all but it’s hard being an animal carer in a minotaur village. The cows think it’s silly and the bulls think I’m being ridiculous.”
“There’s nothing ridiculous about caring for our furry friends,” she replied. “What is bothering you, little one?”
The rabbit grunted and the mare nodded thoughtfully. “And where did this happen?” Again, the bunny made noises incomprehensible to the minotaur but seemed to enlighten Fluttershy. “Where does it hurt?” Another chitter. “Let me look. I’ll try to be gentle.”
The mare placed the rabbit on his back and used her primaries to carefully part the fur near where its right foreleg met its torso. “Ah!” she said after a minute. Fluttershy reached over to a nearby drawer and pulled out a pair of forceps. Irwin admired the deftness with which she manipulated the tool, and very quickly, pulled something out. She held up the forceps to show a long narrow thorn almost the same color as the rabbit’s fur.
“Here’s the problem. This is a Widow’s Needle. It is very toxic and, if not removed, will slowly kill small creatures and make big ones very, very sick. It’s lucky that you came to me soon enough. Fortunately, I have a potion that will alleviate the symptoms, but this little fellow will need some TLC for a couple of days before he’s ready to return home.”
“Do you make potions too?” Irwin asked.
“Oh, no. I get them from my friend, Zecora. She makes all kinds of remedies to sell in Ponyville and she generously gives some to me for my animals.”
“That’s very nice of her, and fortunate for this little fella. I was at my wit’s end trying to figure out what was wrong with him.”
Fluttershy smiled. “He said you were very kind and you did help him a lot, even if you couldn’t understand the real problem.”
“You really can talk to and understand animals, can’t you?” the minotaur asked, shaking his head in wonder.
The mare blushed. “I think you could too. You just need to learn to listen.”
“Well, it seems I’ll have to stay in Ponyville for a couple of days. Perhaps I can help you around here and you can give me a few pointers?”
Fluttershy blushed even more. “I… think I’d like that. I’ve never met somepony… or some bull who has such an obvious love of animals to go to such great lengths for one little bunny.”
Irwin scratched the back of his head, a little embarrassed by the praise. “Every life is worth saving, right?”
“Of course it is, Mr… oh… what is your name? If you don’t mind me asking?”
“Irwin. Irwin Goodall.”
“I was about to make lunch, Irwin. Would you care to join me?”
“I… I’d like that, thanks.”
Zecora hoped that she would get another chance to talk to that minotaur. She had known very few but he seemed a lot different from them. Hopefully, she would get the opportunity to chat when both of them were free of their commitments.
A flickering of the sunlight made the zebra look up. She noticed that the scattered clouds were being broken up and she sighed. She much preferred the natural weather of the Everfree even as she acknowledged the usefulness of total control of the local climate. As she continued on her way, she spotted the likely culprit – Rainbow Dash, the head of Ponyville’s weather team. She cavorted with some other pegasus— no, that wasn’t another winged pony. That was a griffon. Yet ne more odd visitor.
“This festival brings all kinds today. Let’s hope they’ve all come just to play.”
When Zecora reached the town hall, she parked her cart near the main door and went inside, ignoring the suspicious glances from the Royal Guard. She politely pushed past the throngs up front and went to the back where she found a white unicorn decorating the stage and surrounds for the ceremony.
“Rarity, my friend, I have brought many a bloom. Tell me where you want them in this room.”
“Oh, Zecora darling! Thank you. You’ve brought the sun-themed type that I requested?”
The zebra nodded. “They all have a sunny glow. They should make a lovely show.”
“Excellent! I am thinking an arch of the flowers over the balcony where Princess Celestia will make her speech would be very symbolic of the occasion. I can handle that if you would decorate the stage, alternating with the gems I have already placed there.”
“It would be my pleasure. I have its measure.”
“Good. Shall we fetch them?”
The two walked outside and Rarity gasped.
“So many! Darling, how did you get that many so quickly?”
Zecora shrugged. “You had the need. I had the speed.”
“You are too generous, Zecora dear. Allow me to carry them all in. You’ve certainly done your part getting them here.” She lit her horn and lifted the flowers off the cart en mass. “Hmm… what’s that lovely sky blue one in the glass jar?”
“That one you should not poke. It is named Poison Joke.”
“Dangerous, I take it?” Rarity sighed. “Such a pity. Oh well, I’m still spoiled for choice. Shall we get to work?”
Gilda Griffon was not sure why she had chosen to come to Ponyville except that she had to get away from the toxic environment of Griffonstone. The one really good thing going for this town was that it was home to her old flight school buddy, Rainbow Dash. She smiled as she again recalled the hijinks they had got up to back then. Maybe, just maybe they could rekindle that relationship. She hadn’t been sure where to find her friend though. Dash had a habit of parking herself on a cloud and napping at the slightest excuse. However, when she spotted the clouds very rapidly being broken up and cleared from the skies over Ponyville, she knew whom the culprit had to be.
Following a blue blur with eagle eyes, the griffon was about to go greet her friend when she noticed the pegasus talking to a sodden unicorn. Knowing Dash, it would not surprise her that she was responsible for the unicorn’s condition. That suspicion raised to a certainty when the pegasus whipped up a whirlwind to dry her off, leaving the mare in an even more hilarious condition. Her tangled mane and tail poofed out to double its size.
As soon as she got the chance, Gilda flew down to meet Rainbow Dash. Approaching from behind, she grabbed her friend and noogied the mare.
“Hey! What the—? Gilda?” Rainbow’s expression switched from annoyance to delight in an instant. Pulling herself out of the griffon’s grasp, she said, “Great to see ya, Gil! What brings you to Ponyville?”
“Can’t a catbird visit a ponybird if she wants?”
“Nah, you’re not exactly the socializing type.”
Gilda’s expression soured a little. “Yeah, not with that lot back home anyway. If it wasn’t for Greta and Gabby, I think I would have gone nuts long ago.”
Rainbow smirked. “Told ya you should’ve stayed in Equestria.”
“I had these big ideas about improving things back home with my Equestrian education. Seems I set my expectations way too high.”
“Whatcha end up doing?”
“Started a bakery. I’m pretty good at it and I thought it might bring some griffs together, be more sociable or something.”
“Sounds kinda like Sugar Cube Corner.”
“Heh! Tell you what – I’ll treat you to lunch there.”
Gilda grinned. “I’m always up for free food.”
“Thought you might. Gotta check in with festival events first to report clearing the skies.” Rainbow took off.
Gilda followed promptly, catching up to fly beside the mare. She saw that they were making a beeline for the tallest structure in the town. She also noticed a couple of winged Royal Guards patrolling above it. As she and Dash drew closer, one of the guards broke away and approached them. Curiously, the guard wore sunglasses. Despite them and the helmet, Gilda could see the suspicious gaze upon her. The guard interposed herself between them and the town hall, causing them to pull up. This enabled the griffon to have a good look at the guard’s strange flight appendages.
“Who plucked your wings?” Gilda blurted out.
“I’m a thestral, not a pegasus, catbird. What is the purpose of your visit?”
“What’s it to you, batty?”
“Just answer the question. With Princess Celestia due to visit, security has to be tight.”
Before Gilda could retort, Rainbow interjected, “Cool it, Corporal Penumbra. This is my pal, Gilda. She’s visiting with me.”
“It’s still curious timing coming here when a pony-centric celebration is happening, especially when royalty is due.”
Gilda sneered. “It’s not the first time I’ve been to one.”
That surprised the thestral. “You have? Which and why?”
Rainbow answered for Gilda. “She went to flight school with me in Cloudsdale. The Summer Sun Celebration was held there with Celestia one year and we both went to see it.”
Penumbra looked keenly at the griffon. “Is that a fact?”
“Yes it is, and I don’t lie, bug-eater.”
The guard peered over her sunglasses, clearly showing she was getting annoyed with Gilda’s impertinence. However, before the thestral could respond, the other guard intervened.
“Let it drop, Corporal. We have all sorts of species coming here today including a zebra, for buck’s sake. One griffon isn’t compromising security.”
“Yes, sir,” she reluctantly complied.
Rainbow and Gilda wasted no time in resuming their flight. However, the pegasus started laughing.
“What’s so funny?” the griffon asked as they landed at the entrance to the town hall.
“You, the great prankster of flight school, never told a lie,” Rainbow scoffed.
“Hey! Despite all the jokes and pranks I pulled with you, did you ever once hear me tell an outright lie?”
Rainbow paused and frowned thoughtfully. After a while, she shook her head. “Now that you mention it, I can’t recall you ever lying. In fact, you pissed off a lot of ponies with the harsh truth.”
Gilda sighed. “Yeah, that’s me. I have this weird compulsion to tell it as it is. It caused me trouble at school and it gives me grief in Griffonstone. Neither griffs nor ponies like to hear the truth all the time. They want it sugar-coated, but I just can’t do it.”
The pegasus grinned. “Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like you. You were never afraid to tell somepony why they were wrong and where to stick it.”
The griffon smirked. “And I liked you because you appreciated that. Well, that and you were the first pegasus who would even talk to me at school.”
The two stopped in front of the Festival Events counter and Rainbow rapped on the desk to get the pink unicorn’s attention.
Amethyst Star looked up from her paperwork. “Oh, Rainbow Dash – what can I do for you?”
“Just reporting in that the skies have been cleared.”
“Excellent!” She fished out a checklist and ticked the task off. “You’re still scheduled to do another pass at sunset and one just before the ceremony tomorrow morning.”
“Don’t worry – I’ll be taking a long nap to make sure I’m up in time to do the pre-dawn run.”
“Good. Thank you, Ms. Dash. You and your friend have a good rest of the day.”
“Who’s that?” Gilda asked as she and Rainbow walked off.
“Amethyst Star is the best organizer in all of Ponyville. She’s the one who will make this celebration go off without a hitch.”
“I see. She didn’t even blink at seeing me.”
“Yeah, she’s kind of awesome. Not as awesome as me, but who is?”
Gilda punched her in the shoulder. “Still the same ego as ever.”
“Am I wrong though?” Rainbow replied with a grin.
“Ask after I've had that food you promised,” the griffon smirked.
“Almost there!” The pegasus pointed out the building.
Gilda rolled her eyes. “Just when I think I’ve seen it all. Are you supposed to eat the shop or go in it?”
“Never tried the first, but I can guarantee that it won’t taste as good as what’s inside.”
As soon as they entered, Rainbow made a beeline for a booth that was just being vacated. “We’re in luck – with so many tourists here, getting a table isn’t easy.”
Gilda glared at a couple of ponies that were giving her the stink-eye before sitting down opposite her friend. She almost jumped out of her seat again as a pink pony materialized next to her, loudly saying, “Hiya Dash and Dash’s friend!”
“Wha— what the buck!” the frazzled griffin gasped.
Rainbow chuckled. “Don’t mind her – that’s just Pinkie Pie. Can you get us two lunch specials please, Pinkie?”
“Sure thing, Dashie! Annnnnnd here are your invites.”
Rainbow Dash blinked. “We have hundreds of new ponies in town – how can you be throwing a party for just one?”
“Ah, but this one is special, and she’s going to be staying in Ponyville.”
“How do….?” Rainbow started to ask, but Pinkie was gone just as quickly as she had arrived.
“What just happened?” Gilda asked.
“Pinkie not only works here, she’s also the resident party planner.”
“I mean appearing out of nowhere. And having an invitation for me!” She waved the offending item in Rainbow’s face.
“Don’t try to figure her out. Pinkie defies explanation.”
Gilda was about to press for more details but thought better of it. She managed to put it out of her mind when the food arrived: quadruple berry custard tart. Her eyes lit up when she tasted it. “Wow! This is good!”
Rainbow was stuffing her face and swallowed before answering. “Yep. Between what they bake here and the goodies that the Apple family makes, we’re spoiled for good food. We’re lucky that most of the tourists are hitting the more traditional restaurants and don’t think of trying this place.”
Gilda’s face fell a little. “Kind of puts my scones to shame.”
“How would ya know? It’s not as if you’ve ever brought any here for ponies to try. You oughtta do that sometime.”
“I didn’t come here to sell baked goods, Dash.”
“Don’t worry – we’ll have some fun after we’ve eaten.”
A full belly did not slow either down after they left Sugar Cube Corner to get up to some harmless mischief.
Irwin spent a delightful afternoon with Fluttershy. Once she had gotten over her reticence with the stranger, her enthusiasm for her work had her taking the minotaur all over her property. She showed him every animal she was caring for and the nests and burrows of her regular residents. She also sent his heart racing when she brought over a bear to say hello. Despite that, he soon was comfortable with her large furry friend. Fluttershy also had a rehearsal with her birds for a performance to be held at the raising of the sun ceremony.
The day passed quickly and, after he helped her do the feeding rounds, he offered to take her to the festival and get them some food of their own. Fluttershy was reluctant at first as she was uncomfortable in crowds. However, Irwin persuaded her that he owed the mare for her help with the rabbit and wanted to repay her. She found that with him by her side, she felt much more secure and could enjoy the food and activities. Irwin was pleased to find her leaning against him while they watched one of the shows. He put one large arm around her withers and she snuggled up closer.
The bull had not felt this content in a long time. He was a bit of a laughingstock back home due to his doting on little animals, but here was a pony who thought it was a marvelous trait. That was giving him a lot to think about, but for now, he would take pleasure in the moment.
Later that day when the sun was due to set and the festival was in full swing, Rainbow Dash reluctantly brought her and Gilda’s fun to an end. “Gotta go do cloud patrol and catch anything that the outer patrols missed.”
“Outer patrols?” queried Gilda.
“Yeah, Canterlot brought in extra weather ponies to make sure that the countryside around Ponyville was kept clear, with an eye especially on the wild weather coming out of the Everfree Forest. They wanted absolutely nothing to spoil the celebration with Princess Celestia attending. So, while I and my local team look after the weather over town, they cover a lot more territory and might let some slip through. Anyway, while I’m doing that, go have fun at the festival. You’re staying for that, right?”
“Might as well.”
The pegasus was about to take off when a thought occurred to her. “Where are you staying?”
“I was hoping to crash at your place.”
Rainbow grimaced. “Ah, no can do, Gilda. Those extra weather ponies I mentioned? I volunteered my cloudominium for their use. They even have their own security detachment. Tell you what – I’ll have a word with Applejack later and see if she can fix you up. Gotta go!” And the colorful pegasus was gone in a blur.
“Who the buck is Applejack?” Gilda wondered as she headed for the fairgrounds.
The griffin arrived to find a show in progress on a stage built into the side of a wagon. On it, a blue unicorn was singing while producing astounding illusions to the accompaniment of a green pegasus playing a guitar, and a pink pony she recognized as the one from Sugarcube Corner playing several other instruments at once. The song was simple but catchy, and obviously delighting the crowd of foals in front of the stage, not to mention many adults. Gilda was startled to find herself tapping a talon to the beat.
The griffin stayed to watch the rest of the show. The pegasus occasionally left the stage and returned in costume, as did Pinkie Pie. But “The Amazing Trixie” (the unicorn called out her name every minute without fail) was always front and center, fascinating the audience with her magic. Gilda was impressed. In a world where magic was commonplace, this mare was making it… well… amazing!
At some point, Rainbow Dash joined Gilda without her noticing. When the show was done though, the mare dragged her off to a large tent that advertised food. Rainbow approached a counter behind which was an orange earth pony serving a customer. The moment she was free, the pegasus called out, “Hey, AJ! Got a sec?”
“Make it quick, Rainbow Dash.”
“Got a friend who needs a place to crash. Can you help?”
“Ah dunno. We’ve got Apples from all over stayin’ with us. This your pal?” She looked at the griffin suspiciously.
“Yep. This is Gilda. We’ve known each other since we were at flight school together. She’s cool.”
“Really?” Applejack asked with a frown.
Gilda looked her in the eyes. “Yes, really. We’ve been friends for years. I’m here to visit Dash, not to cause you any problems.”
Applejack returned the griffon’s level stare for a moment then her expression lightened. “Any friend of yours is a friend of ours.” She turned around and called out, “Hey, Big Mac – know of someplace we can put up this here griffon gal for the night?”
The stallion nodded. “Ee-yup. As long as she don’t mind sleeping on hay in the barn.” He then turned to attend to a customer.
Rainbow looked at Gilda. “How about it?”
The griffin shrugged. “I’ve slept in worse.”
Applejack said, “Alrighty then. Come back about midnight and Big Mac’ll take ya home with him and show ya where to sleep.”
“Thanks, AJ!” Rainbow said.
“Thank me by buyin’ somethin’, Dash.”
Rainbow and Gilda bought several apple pastries, leaving all parties satisfied.
Penumbra returned from her mandated break and winced when her sergeant bellowed at her.
“Corporal! You’re assigned to stand guard at the upper entrance of the town hall while it’s shut until it reopens for the ceremony.”
“By myself, Sergeant Overshoot?”
“Of course not, you idiot batpony. Ace Shot and Spear Point will be patrolling on the ground.”
The thestral managed not to snarl at the racist ‘batpony’ slur. “I meant in the air, sir.”
“Too much for you to handle by yourself, Corporal? Anyway, Slipstream will be observing the surroundings from a nearby rooftop vantage point.”
“Wouldn’t it be better if the pony with excellent night vision be doing the observation?”
“Just shut up and do as you’re ordered, Corporal!” With that, the grizzled old pegasus flew off.
Penumbra sourly took up her position, sliding into a shadow to be unseen by potential intruders. She quietly seethed at being left alone to do a two-pony job. Ten years of faultless service to the Crown and she was still treated like a pariah because of her tribe. One day, she would prove her worth and loyalty, and then she would find out how far she could buck that old bigot!
When the last of the foals had been sent to bed, the entertainment changed to suit the remaining adult attendees. There were dances and Trixie’s final shows had a more sophisticated appeal. Most ponies settled in for a long night of revelry, but not Big Mac. It would be dawn before the main event and he had to catch some sleep before returning for the morning rush. As soon as Gilda turned up, they headed back to Sweet Apple Acres.
Mac showed Gilda a place away from the Apple family members who were also using the barn as a dormitory. She had just drifted off when a rapid tapping jolted her awake.
“Hey, Gilda! You comfy up here?” came a soft voice.
The griffon turned to see her friend standing in the opening of the hay loft. Another round of tapping from the mare’s hoof on the open frame convinced Gilda to leave her comfortable perch. “Rainbow Dash. Your timing couldn’t be any worse. As usual.”
The pegasus straightened. “Oh. You weren’t already asleep, were you?”
“Now why would I do something sensible like that? And now that you’ve woken me up and gotten me pissed off, it will take me ages before I get to sleep again.”
Rainbow Dash’s ears perked up. “Really? That’s great! I’ll be back in ten seconds flat!”
“Don’t you …” Except Gilda was talking to thin air. She sighed and counted to ten as she flew outside and landed so as not to disturb the sleeping ponies. Sure enough, her colorful friend returned on schedule.
Rainbow held out a book. “Since you’re going to be awake anyway, read this.”
The griffon bit off her next insult, curiosity slightly overriding her irritation. She took the book and held it in her talons . “Wonderbolt Records Through The Ages?” She opened the front cover and removed the check-out card, squinting in the moonlight. “And it’s four months overdue. Why am I not surprised?”
Rainbow Dash raised her wings and began a slow backward hover as she laughed. “No, actually, it’s not. Anyway, you need to read all that, because I’m going to rewrite every record in that book after I get to join. In a year, tops!”
Gilda stepped forward. “What do you mean it’s not overdue? And why would I want to read this? If you’re going to wake me up in the middle of the night, take me to the library to get something worth reading!”
The prismatic mare ascended into the sky. “That’s just the thing. Everypony was in Town Hall during Cranky and Matilda’s wedding last week. The library was closed, just like it has been since Old Mare Noteworthy retired two months ago.”
“So? What’s that got to do—”
“Some rogue lightning clouds came out of the Everfree. Burned down a dozen stalls in the Marketplace and the Golden Oak.” Rainbow Dash accelerated upwards. “You’re holding the entire library in your claws!”
After discovering that Irwin had nowhere to sleep that night, Fluttershy insisted that the minotaur stay with her. He felt flattered that she was willing to trust him so soon. He was not as thrilled by the couch that was offered as his bed. Not only was it a bit small, it had a number of creatures already using it. After a bit of coaxing from the gentle pegasus, it was vacated. She gave him a blanket and pillow and asked him if he wanted her to wake him before she headed back to Ponyville for the ceremony in the morning.
“I’d like that,” Irwin replied. “And you can give me more lessons on how to listen to animals along the way.”
Fluttershy giggled. “Listening to a big strong minotaur like you trying to talk to my birds was funny, but they liked you anyway.”
“It’s a start, I suppose. Goodnight Ms. Fluttershy.”
As the caretaker pegasus left for her room, the minotaur made himself comfortable as best as he could. He smiled to himself. This day had turned out so different from how he had imagined. He had come looking only for help and had found a friend and teacher too.
Trixie yawned as she settled down beside her husband and daughter in their bed.
Mark quietly asked, “Are you sure you want to get up for the ceremony tomorrow? You still have a couple of shows to perform in the morning.”
“Trixie has never beheld a Raising of the Sun and would not miss this opportunity.”
“I thought as much. I’ve set the alarm for you. I’ll stay here with Allura.”
“You’re a wonderful mate and father, Dowser. You understand Trixie so well. Pleasant dreams… about the Amazing Trixie.” She kissed him fervently before snuggling into his open hooves to get some much-needed sleep.
With nothing to do but warn away unauthorized flyers, Penumbra sought to stave off boredom by doing some stargazing. When the time approached for the morning ceremony and citizens and visitors both headed for the Town Hall, the distraction almost caused her to miss some strange movements of the stars.
“That’s odd,” she murmured even as she recalled a faint memory. Then her eyes widened and she gasped.
Return of the Nightmare
Penumbra launched herself from atop the Ponyville Town Hall in search of Sergeant Overshoot. As expected, she found him by the main entrance, although getting to him was not so simple due to the number of ponies making their way into the building for the main event. She had to settle for hovering above him and calling down.
“Sergeant! We have a problem!”
The dour pegasus looked up and scowled at the thestral. “What are you doing away from your post, Corporal?”
“Like I said, we have a problem. Nightmare Moon is returning!”
That caused several nearby ponies to gasp and aroused the ire of the sergeant. “What do you think you’re doing spreading your bizarre batpony stories and frightening the citizens? Shut up and get back to your post!”
“But it’s true! I have seen the signs! If you come around the building, you can see—”
“Get out of here, Corporal!” roared Overshoot. “One more word and I’ll have you thrown in the stockade!”
With a screech of frustration, Penumbra shot back up into the sky. She had to pass on the warning, but who would believe the old prophecy when nopony trusted thestrals? The lieutenant in overall charge of security for the Summer Sun Celebration was escorting Princess Celestia right this moment, so she had nobody to turn to. Her only hope would be that she was wrong. Either way, she was in deep trouble.
Despite Rainbow Dash’s ill-timed visit, Gilda had managed to get back to sleep fairly quickly. Nevertheless, it seemed far too soon when she was awakened by a gentle but insistent hoof shaking her shoulder. She briefly considered murdering Big Mac before groaning and extracting herself from her surprisingly comfortable hay bed. She had missed her chance anyway as the big stallion had already disappeared down the hayloft ladder. Gilda had promised to meet Dash and she had to admit some curiosity about the ceremony. After a good stretch of her limbs, the griffon took off, swiftly making her way to the Town Hall.
Gilda frowned when she realized that she was too late to find a spot inside. The hall was very crowded and the spectators that had not made it in were gathering at the doorway and windows to get a glimpse of the ceremony. Why the buck they didn’t hold it on a stage in the fairgrounds where everyone could watch escaped her. There was some kind of disturbance at the doorway and then the thestral she had met earlier climbed back into the air with a screech. Her curiosity aroused, Gilda flew over to the bat-winged pony.
“Hey! Uhh… Corporal Something-Or-Another. What’s got your tail in a twist?” Gilda asked when she was in hearing range.
Penumbra turned with a snarl before recognizing who had spoken. She pointed with her hoof. “That!”
Gilda’s eyes followed where the pony was pointing and her beak dropped. The fabled Mare-in-the-Moon pattern on the surface of the moon was gone! “What the buck?!” she gasped.
“You know what that means?” Penumbra asked.
“Not really. Something about giving up half your candy, if I remember right. I’m just stunned by how something I’ve seen all my life has now suddenly disappeared.”
“It means that Nightmare Moon has escaped from her imprisonment and she will be coming to exert her reign over Equestria!”
The thestral no longer wore her sunglasses because it was night, so Gilda could gaze clearly into Penumbra’s eyes. The griffon had always possessed the knack for recognizing when anyone was lying to her, but she could not perceive any falsehood now. However, that did not exclude the pony from being mistaken. “I believe that you think that is true, and that moon is a strong argument in your favor. But, what can you do? I saw what happened back there – your boss doesn’t believe you, does he?”
Penumbra growled. “No, he doesn’t. And neither will any of the Royal Guards here. They’ve never accepted me, and my rank as a corporal is a joke to them.”
“Same problem here. Hardly any ponies trust griffons, and the one that I could count on is probably inside the Town Hall right now. Maybe we can spread the word to the Guards after the ceremony?”
The thestral gave Gilda a flat look. “Who do you think Nightmare Moon will target first?”
Gilda did not need to answer that. Both already knew the answer. “I’ll see if I can pass the word, but don’t get your hopes up, bat lady. Try to warn those Guard dweebs anyway.” The griffon flew off, scanning the crowd for anypony who might be receptive to her message. She figured that Big Mac would arrive soon but maybe there was somepony else…. Or maybe not a pony. She landed next to the minotaur that she had spotted in the crowd. “Hey, bully-boy!”
Irwin jumped in surprise. With his heart thumping in his chest, he identified the creature that had startled him. “Wh-what do you want?”
“Know anything about that?” Gilda pointed at the moon.
Irwin’s eyes widened in shock at the sight of the nearly featureless satellite. “What does this mean?”
Gilda gave the minotaur a brief summary of what she had learned from Penumbra. “So, know anypony who could help?”
Irwin shook his head. “The only pony I really know is Fluttershy. I came with her to watch her birds perform for the ceremony, but I stayed out here because I didn’t want to take up the space of two ponies inside. The ceremony has more significance to them than me.”
Gilda’s eyebrow rose. “Fluttershy? Rainbow Dash’s friend? Yeah, no. She won’t be of any help. She’d only run and hide.”
The minotaur was irked by the griffon’s assessment even though he was fairly sure it was accurate. Nevertheless, he felt he needed to defend her. “She could still spread the word to others more able to deal with the possible threat. But the guards aren’t letting anyone into the Town Hall now and I can’t get to her.”
“Then do what I’m doing and try to find some creature who will listen.” Gilda took off again to do exactly that.
Hours earlier, Trixie had climbed inside her wagon, tired but very happy from her final performance for the night. Her husband was equally tired from helping her and looking after their young filly. They had decided that they both needed some sleep before the ceremony in a few hours so, setting an alarm, they had gone to bed.
And then they overslept the alarm.
Trixie and Mark hastily trotted to the Town Hall with Allura safely cradled between the pegasus’ wings. They realized that they were among the stragglers and were unlikely to be able to get into the building. Sure enough, when they saw the crowd outside the building, they knew that they had missed their opportunity to get a good viewing place. Then Trixie spotted Big Mac arriving from the direction of Sweet Apple Acres. She hurried over to him with Mark following in her wake.
“Hey, Big Mac!”
The stallion looked in her direction and smiled. “Howdy, Ms. Trixie. Sure was a great show you two put on last night. What can I do for you?”
“Do you know if there are special entry privileges for contractors like us?”
Big Mac shook his head. “Nnnope. Sorry. Only performers at the ceremony allowed in. The rest are first come, first served. Everypony has an equal chance to see it close up.”
The unicorn sighed. “Trixie figured as much. We will just have to find the best vantage point left.”
Before she could move off though, a griffon landed next to her. “Big Mac!” Gilda said urgently. “Where’s your sister? I know she’ll believe me.”
“Applejack will be inside the Town Hall already. She promised to get Apple Bloom a good spot to see the ceremony.”
“Arrgh! Will nothing go right?!” Gilda shouted.
“Trixie wants to know what has got you so upset.”
“Nightmare Moon, that’s what!”
Trixie chuckled. “That old mares’ tale? Why would you believe anything about that?”
Gilda just glared and pointed. Big Mac and Trixie turned to look and their jaws dropped at the bizarre sight.
Mark Wells tilted his head and furrowed his eyebrows. “Something weird has happened to the moon, but I don’t understand its significance.”
One hasty explanation later, all the pegasus had to say was, “Oh, crap.”
Trixie said, “Perhaps you could push your way inside and warn everypony, Big Mac. We know you’re strong enough to do so.”
Big Mac shook his head. “Nnnope. Too late. Only start a panic and ponies would get hurt trying to get out.”
Everyone knew he was right. Judging by the ponies nearby who had overheard their conversation and were now making a hasty exit, panic would be the inevitable reaction.
Mark said, “That might happen anyway if Nightmare Moon turns up. Best be prepared.”
“Eeyup,” Big Mac agreed. “If worse comes to worst, I’ll make some more exits for ponies to leave.”
“The Amazing Trixie is more used to getting her audience excited, but she will do her best to calm them down if necessary.”
“I’ll smash out the windows for the pegasi,” Gilda said.
“How will you get to them with the Royal Guards posted by all of those?” Mark asked.
Gilda smirked. “I’ll get my thestral friend to distract the guards if necessary. Maybe my minotaur pal too.” She took off and headed for the fairgrounds.
“Okay,” Mark said, “Let’s spread the word and clear ponies out of here.”
“Yes, but not you,” his wife replied. “Take Allura back to the wagon and make sure she stays safe. Your amazing wife will handle the rest.” She gave Allura a kiss, then another to Mark before shooing them off. Her expression grew grimmer as she turned to her task. “Trixie just hopes that we are not mistaken or else her reputation will be toast in this town.”
Gilda fetched the big hammer from the ‘Test Your Strength – unicorns and pegasi only’ carnival game before returning. With so many nervous ponies having cleared away from the Town Hall already, she found a perch on a nearby statue that afforded her a good view inside. She then grimly waited for something to happen.
Irwin found that the number of ponies rapidly diminishing as the news spread. To his disappointment, none chose to hang around to help, although he could not really blame them. He wondered why he did not join them, but he could not bear the thought of even one pony getting hurt, so he persisted. Eventually, he was able to work his way right up to the Town Hall’s doors just as Big Mac and Trixie arrived from the other direction.
Sergeant Overshoot noticed the ponies scattering. “What in the name of Celestia’s Flaming—”
“Sarge!” yelled the unicorn guard at his side.
The pegasus followed the direction of his subordinate’s gaze and then looked further and further upwards as a familiar creature approached. Overshoot scowled as Irwin came to a stop in front of him. “What in Tartarus have you been doing to scare off these citizens, minotaur?”
“Trying to protect them, sir,” Irwin replied respectfully. “We have good reason to believe that this ceremony is under threat.”
“What? Have you been talking to that idiot batpony? I knew you cows were thick, but how could you believe that foals’ tale about Nightmare Moon?”
Irwin frowned. “I am a bull, not a cow, and not a fool either. Have you not seen that the Mare in the Moon has gone?”
“It’s true, Guardpony,” Big Mac said. “My Granny Smith used to tell us foals that story every Nightmare Night. Anypony knows there is truth behind the old mares’ stories.”
“One more word of this nonsense and I’ll have you all arrested for disturbing the peace and any other charge I can think of.” Overshoot stepped forward, lowering his spear threateningly. The unicorn guard at his side likewise aimed his horn at the minotaur.
“Trixie has had enough of your obdurate attitude,” the unicorn said with a snort. “Big Mac – would you be so kind as to restrain the sergeant’s minion.” Trixie lit up her horn and seized Overshoot in her magical grasp.
“Eeyup,” Mac agreed, grabbing the surprised Royal Guard. While the unicorn struggled with both muscle and magic, the earth pony had his three remaining hooves planted firmly on the ground and was as unmovable as a mountain.
Overshoot was having just as little success at escaping Trixie, but he was free with the threats. “I will have you thrown in prison and lose the key, you crazy mare! Do you know how many laws—” His words were stifled by a magical gag.
Trixie brought him within view of the moon and turned Overshoot to face it. “If you can tell Trixie what other explanation there is for that, she will humbly apologize.” She then dropped the gag.
Overshoot gasped. “Sweet Celestia! It’s true. Nightmare Moon has escaped!”
Trixie ceased her magical levitation and dumped the sergeant on the ground. “Perhaps now you might do your job before it’s too late,” she said archly.
Overshoot glared at her before racing back to the door, yelling for the Guards to assemble for new orders. Trixie followed but was dismayed when she heard the ceremony beginning, heralded by trumpets and a chorus of birds. They were going to be too late for an orderly evacuation.
Trixie, Irwin, Big Mac, Gilda, and Penumbra all had a clear view of what happened next. After hearing the warm-up tone from speakers set around the building, they could also hear everything happening inside the Town Hall.
Mayor Mare proclaimed, “As Mayor of Ponyville, it is my great pleasure to announce the beginning of the Summer Sun Celebration!”
The sounds of cheering easily drowned out the shouts of alarm from the Royal Guards. They were further ignored as the applause died down and the mayor continued.
“In just a few moments, our town will witness the magic of the sunrise and celebrate this – the longest day of the year. And now, it is my great honor to introduce to you the ruler of our land, the very pony who gives us the sun and the moon each and every day, the good, the wise, the bringer of Harmony to all of Equestria – Princess Celestia!”
Trumpets and cheers overwhelmed all efforts of the Guards to get the audience’s attention. Instead, Overshoot signaled them to take up positions within the hall. As Rarity drew back the curtains from the balcony where the princess was to appear, instead, two Royal Guards slumped to the floor. The sergeant recognized his superior who had been escorting Princess Celestia and his heart sank.
Rarity screamed at the sight. “Are… are they dead? Where’s the Princess?!”
The crowd echoed her fright and shouts and yells of panic soon filled the hall. Then, a swirling dark nebula formed on the balcony, rapidly taking on the form of a black bat-winged alicorn dressed in armor. The crowd hushed in terror at the sight as the newcomer smiled haughtily at them. Then, with a condescending tone to her voice, she spoke.
“Oh, my beloved subjects! It has been so long since I’ve seen your precious little sun-loving faces.”
“What did you do with our Princess?!” yelled Rainbow Dash. She did not wait for an answer before attempting to charge at Nightmare Moon, only to be restrained by Applejack.
The alicorn laughed. “Am I not royal enough for you? Don’t you know who I am?” She glared at the cringing ponies. “Does my crown no longer count since I have been imprisoned for a thousand years? Did you not recall the legend and see the signs?”
“I did!” Twilight Sparkle called out. “You’re Nightmare Moon!”
The crowd gasped and the sounds of panic grew once more.
“Well, well, well! Somepony who remembers me. Then you also know why I’m here. Remember this day, little ponies, for it was your last. From this moment forth, the night shall last forever!” The alicorn burst into maniacal laughter as lightning flashed and thunder boomed.
“ATTACK!” screamed Overshoot.
Every Royal Guard charged at Nightmare Moon with the pegasi in the lead. However, the winged ponies were the first to be struck down by the alicorn’s retaliation. Weapons thrown or shot at her were caught and sent back to the ones who dispatched them. Spell-wielding unicorns had their magic blocked and were sent hurtling into walls, or even through them. Penumbra dived in too, but she was repelled by a thunderous shockwave.
By then, as feared, the audience descended into panic and tried to leave the Town Hall en masse. However, Big Mac and Irwin had already started bashing holes in the wall to let more ponies escape, while Gilda did the same to the windows. Trixie had prepared a spell that she recalled from her days at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns – a calming spell designed for young children. With enough magical power put behind it though, the spell was able to reduce the crowd’s panic so that a deadly crush did not ensue. And the Amazing Trixie was up to the task, or so she kept telling herself as she gritted her teeth and strained against the fear of hundreds of ponies.
Nightmare Moon contemptuously laughed at the unfolding chaos before engulfing herself in the swirling nebula of her voluminous mane and tail. She dissolved into mist and exited through one of the gaping windows. Rainbow Dash raced after her, only to be stopped by Gilda.
“Lemme go!” Dash demanded.
“No way! You saw how Nightmare Moon smashed the Royal Guard. That’s what’ll happen to you too.”
“I’m not just going to stay here and do nothing,” the pegasus declared. Then she spotted Twilight Sparkle racing away. “That unicorn knows more than she’s been telling. I bet she knows what’s going on.” Dash freed herself from Gilda’s grasp and flew off in pursuit of the purple unicorn.
Satisfied that her friend was not going to try a lone pursuit of Nightmare Moon, the griffon set down next to Irwin who was carrying an exhausted Trixie in his arms. By now, the Town Hall had almost emptied and a deadly stampede avoided. Ponies everywhere were galloping home and locking the door behind them. Big Mac was checking out a few ponies nearby that had been hurt in the rush, but thankfully, none were seriously injured, unlike the Royal Guards. Casualties were high among them. Surprisingly, Gilda saw a zebra tending to the survivors.
“Who’s that?” Gilda asked.
Big Mac replied, “That’s Zecora, the local shaman. She specializes in potions.”
“So I see.” Gilda noticed the rapid recovery of one of the Guards who had just consumed a potion that Zecora had taken from her saddlebags.
The zebra made her way to the next victim who was groaning and attempting to get to her hooves. Penumbra tried to fend off Zecora, protesting that she was okay.
“That is clearly not true. You need to drink this brew.”
Big Mac said, “Trust her. Drink it.”
Penumbra gave the stallion a hard look before she nodded and accepted the potion. She drank the contents of the vial, pulling a face at the taste. Then her eyes opened in surprise as the brew took effect. “Wow! That’s amazing stuff!” The thestral got up and looked around for her weapons. “Did anypony see which way Nightmare Moon went?”
“Why? Going to join your mistress, batpony?” sneered a pegasus with torn and burnt wings.
Penumbra groaned. Of all the Royal Guards to survive, why did it have to be Overshoot? “Nightmare Moon is not my mistress, Sergeant. I am and always have been loyal to Equestria, and Princess Celestia is my sworn monarch. I’m going to find where Nightmare Moon has gone so we can bring a task force strong enough to deal with her.”
“You expect me to believe that?” He put a hoof on Penumbra’s chest. “You’re going to stay right here, Corporal, until Private Trick Shot comes back with reinforcements. Then we’ll find out what part you really played in this.”
Irwin put Trixie down by Zecora who passed the mare a revitalizing potion. The bull said, “Please do not blame Penumbra. As I understand it, she was the one attempting to warn you.”
“Don’t tell me you believe that traitorous mare too, cow? Butt out of pony business!” Overshoot snarled.
Irwin was slow to anger, but that was the second time he had been called a cow and he was tired of dealing with the bigoted and obstructionist stallion. “Aren’t you a charming little racist?” he said as he reached out with one meaty hand and clamped it around Overshoot’s fetlock, dragging it away from Penumbra. “Let’s just give the nice thestral a chance to help us all.”
Overshoot yelped at Irwin’s crushing grip as the bull pulled him over to where a couple of the other recovering Guards lay.
“Ms. Zecora – as a healer, I have diagnosed this pony to be delusional. I’m prescribing that he gets some rest immediately. Could you help, please?”
Zecora smiled in understanding and took a different colored potion from her bag. She removed the cork and passed it to Irwin.
“Keep that striped demon’s poisons away from me!” Overshoot protested, trying to escape Irwin’s painful grasp.
The minotaur ignored him and, with a deft move that Fluttershy had shown him only a few hours earlier on how to deal with a squirming patient, slipped the potion into Overshoot’s mouth. The stallion reflexively swallowed and, moments later, slipped into peaceful sleep.
“Thanks, minotaur,” Penumbra said.
“You’re welcome, ma’am. Irwin Goodall at your and Equestria’s service. How can I help?”
“Nnnope!” Big Mac said as he joined Irwin. “How can we help?”
“This isn’t your problem, citizens. The Royal Guard will—”
“Horsefeathers!” Gilda exclaimed. “The way I see it, this is all of Equestria’s problem.”
Zecora was listening as she aided the injured. “If the legends are all that I fear, then for the world, disaster is near.”
Irwin looked toward the zebra and raised an eyebrow. “How do you mean?”
It was not Zecora who answered him though. “Trixie has told the tale of Nightmare Moon in many ways to different audiences from the youngest foals through to adults, but the premise is always the same. Nightmare Moon wishes to rule the world in eternal night. However, without the sun, plants will wither and die. Then, because we can grow no food, we will all starve.”
“But… that is madness!” protested Irwin.
Gilda said, “You heard it from the evil alicorn herself, buddy – she declared that the night would last forever.”
“Eeyup,” agreed Big Mac. “So, what are we going to do about it?”
The Quest Begins
“As I said before – did anypony see where Nightmare Moon went?” Penumbra asked with a hint of annoyance in her voice.
“I spied the dark cloud of the Nightmare pest,” Zecora replied. “She went toward the Everfree Forest.”
“Then that’s where I’m headed.” The thestral went over to one of the recovering Royal Guards. “Private Tailspin – when reinforcements arrive, inform them that I am trying to track Nightmare Moon within the Everfree.”
The pegasus whose half-burnt feathers indicated she would not be flying again anytime soon glared surlily at Penumbra but nodded.
A medical team arrived just then. They thanked the zebra for her efforts and took over. There were gasps of dismay upon assessing the casualties including several dead Guards. The badly wounded were stabilized before they were carried away to the Ponyville Hospital. Then the medics attended to the needs of those with lesser injuries.
Penumbra searched for her missing spear which she had lost in the shockwave, but her mind was already planning what to do next. “Who among you is familiar with the Everfree Forest?”
“Though few ponies midst the trees do roam, I am one of those who calls it home,” Zecora replied.
“Citizen zebra – will you guide me?”
“I will do as you ask, for I am up to the task.”
Irwin said, “While I have never been in the Everfree, I am no stranger to foraging in the woods.”
Big Mac said, “The Everfree is no ordinary forest. We Apples have been dealing for generations with the monsters that stray into our fields from there.”
“Makes no difference to me,” Gilda said. “I’ll take them all on!” She noticed the stares of the others. “What? You didn’t think I was going to let Batty here go solve our problems by herself, did you?”
Penumbra scowled. “Please refrain from calling me batty or batpony. Those are slurs among my kind. I am a thestral, and my name is Penumbra.”
Gilda winced as if slapped. “Sorry. Didn’t know that, Penny.”
The thestral lifted an eyebrow at the nickname but let it pass. “The stallion is correct – the Everfree is not a place that anypony goes with impunity, our zebra friend notwithstanding. Are you sure you wish to accompany us?”
Irwin nodded. “As I see it, the suffering and deaths that will occur if we do nothing is a far worse fate than anything that might befall me. I cannot bear the thought of letting that happen to every innocent creature. I will do my best to help.”
“Eeyup – what he said,” Big Mac agreed.
Trixie said, “Far be it for the Amazing Trixie to let even one foal come to harm, or to never hear them laugh again under the brutal hoof of Nightmare Moon. We shall accompany you as well.”
“Really, Ms. Trixie?” Big Mac asked. “Don’t you rely heavily on your stage equipment?”
The unicorn checked the fit of her saddlebags. “The Amazing Trixie has her traveling kit with her and is ready to go.”
Gilda raised an eyebrow. “You do? Did you come here this morning expecting to outperform Celestia and her Summer Sun Celebration?”
The blue mare shrugged. “Trixie endeavors to always be prepared, even if to only entertain sleepy and cranky foals during the lead-up to the ceremony.”
Gilda chuckled. “I reckon she needs to come. Nightmare Moon might expect regular magic, but not Trixie’s kind.”
The stage magician smiled smugly. “That is what makes Trixie so Amazing!”
Penumbra said, “Maybe that’s true, but you saw what Nightmare Moon did to anyone who threatened her. We need to track her down while protecting ourselves from the dangers of the forest. The goal is to pin down her location so that we can bring the EUP army to confront her, not fight her ourselves.”
“What about also bringing along some of these Royal Guards that are recovered enough?” Irwin asked.
“Forget it!” Tailspin spat. “Nopony is following that batpony’s lead. We’ll wait for orders from the Captain of the Guard.”
Gilda stared at the pegasus with her eyes narrowed to slits. “If you’re an example of the attitude of the Royal Guards nowadays, we’re better off without you.” She turned to look at Penumbra. “No offense, Penny, but sounds to me like the Royal Guard needs a serious shake-up.”
The thestral wished she could disagree, but could not. Instead, she said to the group, “If you’re all willing to assist me with this, then we had better get going. We can’t count on Nightmare Moon being easy to find.” She trotted out the nearest exit, that being one that Big Mac had made. She spotted her errant spear and picked it up with a grunt of satisfaction. Tucking it under a wing for the moment, she turned to see the others following.
“Have you any idea where Nightmare Moon might be heading?” Penumbra addressed them all but her focus was on the zebra.
Zecora replied, “The Everfree is vast and deep, its secrets quite easy to keep. But in its heart lies a haven quite bold. ‘Tis the alicorn sisters’ castle of old.”
“You’re right, Zecora!” Trixie exclaimed. “It makes sense that Nightmare Moon would head for the place that she once called home.”
“That sounds like our best bet,” Penumbra said. “Zecora – please lead the way.”
The zebra set off at a trot and the others fell in behind. Gilda took to the air and kept pace with them. At Penumbra’s questioning look, the griffon said, “We’re not built for walking long distances. I’ll fly while I can.”
“Fair enough,” the thestral replied. “You’re going to be grounded soon. The dense canopy will prevent you from keeping track of us from the air once we enter the woods.”
Big Mac pulled alongside Trixie and asked, “How did you know of that castle?”
The blue unicorn smiled smugly. “Trixie knows all the old legends and tales. The Castle of the Two Sisters was the seat of government for Equestria a millennium ago but was destroyed in the final battle between Princess Celestia and Nightmare Moon. The dark magics that the Nightmare used turned the beautiful forest around the castle into the dread woods they are today. The story makes fine material for Trixie’s Nightmare Night performances.”
“Huh! I did not know that.”
“Maybe you would have if you’d attended one of the Amazing Trixie’s Nightmare Night shows,” she accused.
The stallion gave the mare a flat look. “As I recall, the ‘Great and Powerful Trixie’ was not well received a few years back.”
Trixie’s ears pinked with her blush of shame. “Trixie admits that was not her finest hour, but it did cause her to meet the love of her life. Dowser brought out the best in Trixie, and now she lives to hear the laughter and joy of her audience, not to mention her husband and foal. Since our marriage, Trixie passed the ‘Great and Powerful’ moniker to my husband. You behold the Amazing Trixie now.”
Big Mac nodded. “Like I said earlier, I caught one of your shows tonight – you were marvelous.”
“Trixie thanks you. By the way, my husband told me that you were known for your one-word responses, yet you seem to be quite loquacious to Trixie.”
The stallion snorted. “That old joke?” He sighed. “Truth is, I talked too much when I was a colt. Granny would scold me for chatting when I should have been working. Learned the hard way that there was a time and place for talking, and I tended to cut conversations short so that I could get back to my chores. Somepony started the rumor that it was impossible to get more than one word out of me and it became the town joke for a while. Remind me to have a word with Mark about perpetuating that myth.”
“Just one word?” Trixie asked with a grin.
Big Mac rolled his eyes. “You’re as bad as each other.”
Irwin chuckled at the overheard conversation, drawing the attention of the showmare. “So, what’s your story, minotaur? Trixie has played for your calves before, but your kind has shown little interest otherwise in pony traditions. Why come to this festival?”
“I came here to meet Ms. Fluttershy. The timing was a coincidence.”
Gilda said, “Yeah, he told me that he only came back into town to watch Flutters’ birds perform. Can’t quite make that jibe with my image of minotaurs.”
Irwin smiled sadly. “It’s true. In my homeland, we are told that we need to be mean and dominate others to get respect, but it never sat right with me. However, just to please my father, I tried for a while to do as he taught. He praised me for it but I decided that I did not like it. So, I apologized to him and left home to start living my life the way I felt it should be lived.”
“Sheesh! I know that feeling. That had to be hard,” Gilda replied.
“It was, and yet it was more rewarding. The world is not always a kind place and our children need to learn that, but that does not mean that we cannot strive to make it as kind as possible. And the best way to do that is to lead by example. Kindness does not stop at your family, your neighbors, or even your tribe. Kindness extends to all living things, and when you live by that philosophy, kindness is usually reciprocated.”
The griffon snorted. “Pardon me for being skeptical.”
“Oh? What did you mean by that? You said you knew how I felt.”
“You’re looking at a bird educated by ponies,” Gilda replied. “Grandpa Gruff decided that I needed an education that I couldn’t get in Griffonstone, so he sent me to flight school in Cloudsdale. That’s a boarding school, if you didn’t know. There I was – the only griffon in a school full of foals. It was Tartarus! At least until Rainbow Dash decided it would be cool to hang out with a griffon chick.”
Irwin nodded. “Seems to me that you quickly learned the value of kindness.”
“Ha! If everypony felt the way Dash did, maybe you would have been right. But she did give me the encouragement to go on and earn respect.”
Big Mac said, “That proves what Irwin was saying – the kindness of one filly helped you be strong.”
“Yeah, but that wasn’t what I was referring to when I said Irwin’s life had to have been hard. You see, I spent the next several years growing up at that school, only returning home for the summer holidays. By the time I graduated and left school for the final time, I discovered that I did not belong in Griffonstone anymore. I had spent so much time living like a pony and learning like a pony, I had started thinking like a pony. The griffons I had known and admired as a chick now seemed rude and crude. With rare exceptions, there was no consideration for others. They disgusted me, and they sensed that. I’ve been pretty much ostracized from griffon society, and if it wasn’t for my friends, Gabby and Greta, I would have gone nuts by now. I came here yesterday to get away from all that and reconnect with my buddy, Rainbow Dash.”
Big Mac said, “I feel kinda sorry now that my sister and I were so suspicious of you. That wasn’t neighborly of us.”
Gilda raised an eyebrow. “I don’t recall you acting like that. In fact, you didn’t hesitate to offer me a place to sleep.”
“Doesn’t mean that I wasn’t thinking it before Applejack gave you the nod. Only when I was sure you were a good ’un did I think we could be friends.”
“Eh! Don’t knock yourself out about it. I might empathize with you ponies but I’m still a griffon – you had reason to doubt. It all worked out in the end.” She flew lower and held out a balled-up set of talons. “We cool?”
Big Mac smiled and hoof-bumped her fist. “We’re cool.”
“Awesome.” Gilda landed beside the stallion, glad of the excuse to be near him. What she had not said was that she not only tended to think like a pony, she also found stallions more attractive than griffon cocks. Because griffons were bigger than the average pony, that had often put off the colts at flight school, but this huge farm stallion easily overtopped her. He obviously didn’t fear her and she thought he was sexy as hell! Even if she didn’t want to help save the world from the Nightmare, she would have wanted an excuse to spend time with this male hunk. Now, if only he had wings, he’d be perfect!
What Gilda did not notice was the grinning unicorn behind her. Trixie knew how to read an audience and this griffon was an open book to the unicorn. She wondered if she could have a little fun with that. Later, of course. When things weren’t so dire.
When the conversation lulled, Irwin spoke up. “How about you, Ms. Penumbra? I gather that you have not had an easy life. It can’t be easy being the only thestral among these ponies.”
“You have no idea how true that is, Mr. Goodall. However, my sob story can wait. We’ve reached the outskirts of the Everfree and I need to be alert to danger. Ms. Zecora – what do you recommend?”
“Here begins a fairly safe path to my home, but on it in the depths of night I don’t roam. But it will get us partway to the castle and, hopefully, without too much hassle.”
“Then let’s proceed without delay. I don’t think I need to remind you all that time is probably against us.”
Zecora nodded. “Follow me closely, look but don’t touch. Unless you wish to have trouble much.”
The bright full moon had given the party adequate illumination up to this moment, but now the zebra withdrew a lantern from her saddle pack and lit it. She then strode into the murky depths of the woods with Penumbra by her side, and with Gilda and Big Mac following. Trixie lit up her horn, and she and Irwin brought up the rear. The oppressive atmosphere of the dread forest settled on them like a heavy cloak, leaving no doubt that the real danger of their quest had just begun.
The First Challenges
Penumbra’s head constantly swiveled as she scanned for danger, her keen night vision making up for the limited illumination from Zecora’s lantern. “This seems to be a remarkably good path into this wild forest,” the thestral commented.
The zebra nodded. “This route that leads past my abode, was once a broad and busy road. The forest has reclaimed its land – what remains is this narrow band.”
Big Mac said, “If the castle was the seat of government, it makes sense that some big roads would have led to it. After a thousand years though, not much is left.”
Zecora said, “My trips to Ponyville keep open the way, but beyond my home, there is not much to say.”
“Then traveling will get a lot harder, I gather?” Penumbra asked.
“That the path will be difficult is completely right,” Zecora replied, “although more immediate dangers lurk in the night.”
A howl was heard from not far away.
“Case in point,” Gilda said. “I think trouble may have found us already.”
“Keep close,” Penumbra said. “I will protect you.”
“Nnnope” Big Mac said, pushing forward. “We Apples find Timberwolves straying onto our land occasionally. I know how to deal with them. Ms. Trixie – have you a fire-starting spell?”
“Trixie does, but also has other recourses,” the unicorn replied.
“Good. Please stay close by and be prepared.”
“What are you up to?” Penumbra asked, wary of the approaching howls.
“Showing why timberwolves learn to leave Sweet Apple Acres alone,” the stallion replied. “Have you ever fought them before?”
“No, I haven’t. The Royal Guard doesn’t go into the Everfree.”
“Timberwolves can’t be easily killed. If damaged or broken, they can quickly put themselves back together as good as new. There’s only one way to deal with them permanently. Please watch our backs while you see how it’s done.”
The thestral might have argued further, but she saw twin points of green light appear in the darkness. Two stepped out in front of the group, growling deep while their eyes glowed malevolently at them. Three others emerged from the sides, penning the travelers together. Gilda and Penumbra spread their wings to take to the air if the creatures attacked. Zecora fished out a couple of vials from her bags while Irwin withdrew a short but heavy club from his backpack. At the surprised looks from some of the others, he shrugged.
“Dad made me take it,” the bull confessed. “He may have had a point.”
The timberwolf at the front growled and leaped at the blue pony with the annoying glowing horn that was its target. It did not expect the pony’s larger companion to whirl around and buck while it was in mid-leap. Hooves that could either delicately harvest a tree or fell a mighty oak made short work of the enchanted wooden creature. It shattered into kindling.
“Now, Ms. Trixie!” Big Mac commanded before turning his attention to the next wolf.
The show pony knew her cue and telekinetically threw fire-starter powder on the remains. Designed to quickly start campfires when only damp wood could be found, the compound immediately ignited the pile of timber. The creature’s attempts to reform were hampered by small pieces falling away into ash. These were followed by larger and larger pieces until the animated pile of sticks collapsed on itself.
Meanwhile, the second timberwolf approached more cautiously, attempting to flank the huge stallion. Big Mac was too fast for it though, and the moment that it was within reach, he whirled and bucked with the same result as the first. There was soon a second bonfire burning.
The remaining Timberwolves leaped into action simultaneously, but Gilda and Penumbra were ready. They climbed into the air above the monsters and dealt them kicks that knocked them off course. Irwin bashed the head off one while Zecora threw a vial onto another which shattered, spraying its contents all over the beast. The sticky substance gummed up its limbs and it struggled to move.
The decapitated timberwolf had almost put itself back together when Big Mac arrived to completely disassemble it. Then Trixie turned it into a bonfire, quickly joined by the gummed-up monster, the glue proving to be very flammable. Nearby, Penumbra and Gilda had teamed up to harass the final timberwolf. While the creature tried to attack one of them, the other would inflict damage on it with hooves, talons, and spear. As soon as it paused to deal with the debilitating injury, the other defendant would inflict more damage.
“Stand clear!” yelled Big Mac as he leaped into the fray. Needless to say, another pile of kindling was the swift result.
Five fires lit up the path while the six adventurers calmed down from the mêlée.
“Remind me not to go behind you in a fight,” Penumbra fervently said to Big Mac.
“Eeyup!” the stallion replied with a smirk.
“Is that all of them?” Trixie asked with a frown.
“They prefer to work in a small pack. That should be the end to this attack,” Zecora replied.
“What’s that whining?” Irwin asked.
“What whining?” Trixie asked.
“I hear it too,” Penumbra said. “It’s coming from over there.” She pointed a hoof at a bush.
Irwin walked over to it. “It seems to be calling for someone.”
“Be careful, you dweeb!” Gilda called out. “It could be a trap!”
“No, you’re wrong.” The bull bent over and plunged his arm into the bush, pulling out something that yelped and struggled. Irwin carefully adjusted his grip so that it was firmly but safely held in his grasp.
“Is that a baby timberwolf?” Trixie asked.
Zecora nodded. “What you all think is true. A cub is before you.”
Gilda said, “Well, kill it and let’s get going.”
Irwin frowned. “No, I won’t let you kill this helpless creature.”
“Helpless?!” squawked the griffon. “Look at it! It’s trying to take a bite out of you even now!”
“It doesn’t know any better,” the bull replied. “Fluttershy has shown me that frightened dangerous creatures can respond to a little kindness.” Irwin struggled for a moment as the cub snarled and snapped at his hand. He carefully moved it closer to his face and sniffed. “And it looks like this one needs it. I smell rot and its wood is dark and covered with holes.” The tiny creature shifted its attempts to try to bite his nose. “I could use a little help. Zecora – would you happen to have something to calm her down?”
“I have no brew to pacify this beast of wood, but perhaps I have something that’s almost as good.” She pulled out a bottle containing a blue liquid. “Poison joke’s effects are quite strange. I urge you to stay out of range.”
“Poison?!” Irwin blurted out. “I said I don’t want to kill it.”
“Death is not its due. Let’s see what it will do. Hold it still or I might spill.”
Gilda grabbed a nearby fallen branch with a forked end. “Put it on the ground and I’ll hold it in place.”
Irwin did as he was asked and the griffon pinned the struggling and snarling creature. Zecora unstopped the bottle and carefully sprinkled some of the contents over the cub. The concentrated essence of the poison joke flower began its magic immediately. Rotten wood smoothed out and fresh bark appeared. Brown and shriveled leaves turned green and shiny. Then, pink blossoms burst out all over it. The eyes that had been glowing a sickly green turned a warm yellow and looked up at the bull. The cub yipped and lolled out its leafy tongue while its tail wagged.
“Let her go,” Irwin said.
Despite the changes, Gilda was reluctant to comply but did so cautiously. She almost regretted it when the creature leaped up at the bull, but instead of attacking, it started licking and nuzzling him.
“I did not expect that,” Penumbra said.
Zecora said, “The magic of the Everfree it was lacking. Now fully charged and healed, it is not attacking.”
“I’m not getting that poison joke on me, am I?” Irwin asked.
“Trixie believes it has all been absorbed into the creature. It should be harmless now.”
“Good. I would like to pet Blossom without getting changed too.”
Gilda raised her eyebrows. “You’ve named it already?”
“I’ve named her,” Irwin corrected.
“How do you know it’s a girl?” Penumbra asked.
Irwin smiled. “She told me. I’ve always wanted a pet dog.”
“You can’t keep it,” Penumbra said. “It belongs here and we’re on a mission.”
“Look at her!” Irwin protested. “She’s nothing like those wild Timberwolves we fought. She doesn’t belong here anymore.”
“Penny’s right,” Gilda said. “You have no idea how to look after something like that, and she would only get in our way.”
“I bet I could figure out how to care for her, and she won’t hinder us. Look!” He took off his backpack and opened the flap. He then picked up the cub and put her inside before putting the backpack on again. Blossom stuck her head out of the flap and looked around, her tongue lolling. She yipped excitedly. “See? No problem.”
Gilda said, “Oh, come on! This is supposed to be a covert mission. You know that creature is going to make noise at just the wrong moment. Big Mac – tell him he’s nuts.”
The stallion shook his head. “Nope. Learned my lesson when I tried to talk Applebloom out of adoptin’ some whistle ants. Had to wait until she got sick of them on her own. Irwin’s got his heart set on the cub.”
The griffon turned to Trixie. “Never work with animals – isn’t that what performers always say?”
“Trixie would never get between a boy and his pet. And Irwin is one big boy where it counts.”
Gilda threw up her talons. “I give up. Penny – what are we going to do?”
The thestral turned and resumed her journey. “As they teach us in the Royal Guard – if you can’t change it, deal with it.”
Zecora fell in beside Penumbra and the others followed, descending into silence. They all knew that the timberwolves were not the only danger that they would face on this journey, and possibly not even the most serious considering how readily they had dealt with the monsters.
Although the group had some minor frights before they reached the turn-off to Zecora’s home, the zebra assured them that the light held those at bay. They had yet to encounter any more truly dangerous creatures, much to their relief. That did not last long because Zecora informed them that the worst was yet to come.
Everyone took advantage of some offered refreshments before continuing their quest. They also drank in the atmosphere of the tree home. The Zebrican decorations combined with the shelves full of potions and ingredients lent an exotic air to the place. Meanwhile, Zecora busied herself packing potions that she felt might come in handy. When she was done, they headed out once more.
As the zebra had warned, the path deteriorated close to impassability. In some places, if not for Zecora’s familiarity with the area, they would have gotten lost. Then they arrived at the banks of a raging torrent, bringing the party to a halt.
Zecora said, “Normally, a ford crosses this river, but to step into that makes me shiver.”
“I could carry you or Trixie over that short distance,” Gilda said, “but I don’t know about Irwin, and Big Mac is right out.”
“I think we can manage it together,” Penumbra suggested.
“Worth a try,” the griffon replied. “Mac first. If we can manage him, we can handle Irwin easily.
Big Mac eyed the river warily. “I don’t know about this. Are you sure you can do it?”
“Trust me,” Penumbra said. “If I’m not certain that we can make it safely, we won’t continue.”
The stallion nodded reluctantly and held up his forelegs. The thestral and the griffon each grabbed one leg and hauled him into the air.
Gilda grunted with the effort but the load seemed manageable. She looked over to Penumbra who nodded. As one, they angled their wings and the pair headed over the river. As soon as they made it to the other bank, they let the stallion go and he dropped to his hooves.
Big Mac sighed with relief. “In the air ain’t no place for an earth pony.”
“Not gonna lie, handsome,” Gilda said, “I found myself wishing you weren’t the strapping stallion that you are. That wasn’t easy and you had me worried for a moment.”
“Next time, ask Trixie for help,” said the blue unicorn from next to them.
Gilda jumped with a screech of surprise. “What the—? How did you get here?”
“The Amazing Trixie teleported over. Sadly, she cannot take passengers. However, she can give some telekinetic assistance to your lift.”
“You could have told us that before we took Big Mac over.”
“Trixie thought you had matters well in hoof. However, she will speak up next time.”
Gilda rolled her eyes. “Right. Let’s get Irwin.”
The minotaur was not quite so eager. “I can’t swim – are you sure about this?”
Gilda laid her right talons on Irwin’s arm. “Believe me – we managed Big Mac and we can do the same with you. We even have Trixie on standby to help.”
Irwin swallowed and nodded. “Okay – let’s do this.”
In the end, it was anticlimactic when the transfer was safely completed. Zecora was brought over and the group continued on its way.
About a quarter hour later, a clucking noise from the bushes had Zecora warn everyone to turn their gaze in the other direction if they did not wish to be turned to stone. Irwin did not know if the cockatrice could affect his timberwolf pup, but he made sure she was not looking in that direction.
Not long afterward, they were all cowering behind a boulder, sheltering from the flying spines of a small band of pukwudgies. The aggressive beasts were driven off by what Zecora described as a pukwudgie stink bomb. That it smelled like strawberries to everyone else mattered not at all. They were just grateful not to get skewered.
The group had been trudging through dense scrub, accumulating many annoying scratches, when the forest opened up. For the first time since entering the woods, they could see the night sky with the full moon illuminating the clearing. There was much relief until Penumbra shouted a warning.
“Stop! Defensive positions! We’ve got company.”
Three leather-winged beings descended from the sky, landing in front of the group. The largest, a male thestral dressed in heavy armor reminiscent of Nightmare Moon’s, was flanked by two not much smaller females similarly outfitted. He scowled at Penumbra. “And where do you think you are going, traitor?”
Trials and Lessons
The six companions braced themselves for trouble but the thestrals that blocked their path seemed focused on just one of them. Penumbra frowned and took a pace forward to be practically in the face of the thestral who had spoken. “Who are you to call me a traitor?” she spat. “I am a member of the Equestrian Royal Guard, sworn to serve and protect Princess Celestia and her subjects. I have not nor ever would betray my oath to the Crown!”
The female thestrals hissed and the male snarled. “You are a thestral of Queen Nightmare Moon’s army! You owe your loyalty to her and not the Day Tyrant.”
“That army has not existed in a thousand years!” Penumbra rebutted. “And while many of our kind may call Nightmare Moon our true leader, that is the foolish thinking that has held our tribe back for centuries. Those of us who have seen the futility of that path have tried to build a better life, but thestrals like you have sabotaged our efforts to the point that we are regarded with fear and suspicion. I joined the Royal Guard to prove to both them and myself that we can be so much better than that.”
“Better? We already are! Her Majesty created our race, uplifting us from the lesser ponies, and making us her mighty legion. We have no higher calling than to serve her will. A few dissidents change that not at all. You would have benefitted our cause better by preparing for this day. Your true Queen has returned! Abandon these fools, return to your brigade, and join us in taking back the country in the name of Nightmare Moon!”
Penumbra blinked and frowned. Brigade? Those had not existed since Celestia had disbanded them centuries ago. Had Nightmare Moon already managed to reorganize them already? But the Grand Catacombs were so far away; surely, she could not have done so already? And then there was that remark about a few dissidents. A whole separate town was hardly something to be so trivialized. Something stank and it wasn’t bat guano. She needed to test her suspicions. “Alright – who do I report to?”
There was a gasp of surprise from behind Penumbra but she ignored it in favor of studying the thestral’s reaction. He frowned and hesitated before replying.
“How could you not know your commanding officer?”
“Oh, you mean Captain Torn Ear?”
“I suppose he’ll expect me to sing our company’s battle song – We Shall Prevail by Moonlight. He always made me sing the lead.”
The thestral nodded. “A stirring tune to get thestral warrior blood pumping.”
Penumbra grinned. “Which warrior’s feats performed in the name of Nightmare Moon since her cruel and unjust banishment do you feel brought the most glory to our mighty queen?”
The stallion’s mouth opened but no reply was forthcoming.
“You don’t know, do you?” Penumbra said with a smirk. You also don’t know that there’s no such Captain Torn Ear. In fact, Torn is a childhood friend and a mare. And that song was a not a battle hymn but a tune written about a successful moonlight harvest after a harsh winter that had been the death of many thestrals in our entire town full of thestrals that have no allegiance to Nightmare Moon.” She prodded the stallion hard in the chest with her hoof, meeting little resistance. “You are a fraud – an apparition sent by the Nightmare to sway me from my cause. You know nothing of thestrals today. We have matured and changed over the last thousand years. We are strangers to you now. How could we ever feel allegiance to someone who is mired deep in the past and does not know our needs and desires?”
All three thestrals threw their heads back and screeched, causing everyone to cover their ears to block the painful noise. Then the stallion snarled at Penumbra, “Fool! You could have been part of a greater glory. Now, if you or any of your companions come any closer, I will kill you all.”
“Not pretending anymore, Nightmare Moon? Good. As a loyal member of the Equestrian Royal Guard, I vow that I will do everything within my power to see that you are defeated once more, and Princess Celestia is freed from your grasp.”
The stallion snarled once more before all three thestrals dissolved into a dark mist which rapidly dissipated.
Penumbra gave a sigh of relief before turning to face her companions. “Thank you all for accompanying me this far, but now it is obvious that Nightmare Moon knows where we are and what we are doing. It is time for you all to turn back. It’s not worth risking your lives further.”
Gilda rolled her eyes. “I suppose you think you’re going to continue on and hope that you accomplish your mission all by yourself?”
“Of course – it’s my duty.”
“Do you really think we will be safe if Nightmare Moon succeeds in her effort to take over Equestria?”
Penumbra swept a hoof in the direction of where the false thestrals had been standing. “You heard her – she will kill anyone who continues on this quest. That’s a promise she will do her utmost to keep.”
Gilda scoffed. “We’re already corpses as far as she’s concerned. She just wants to deter us for now and deal with us later.”
“It’s still a better chance than sacrificing your lives here and now.”
The griffon prodded the thestral with a talon. “Look who’s talking. Listen up, Penny – you have a duty to get the word back to the Royal Guard and the EUP, but you’re not going to be able to do it by yourself. The truth is you’re marked. Moony obviously can find you and you’re no real threat to her. Only by working together are we going to stand any chance. We all know what’s at stake here and we all have a lot to lose. And unless I’ve read these creatures all wrong, not one of us is going to let you go on by yourself.”
There were murmurs of assent from the other four.
Penumbra frowned at the griffon. “You’re a pain in the plot, you know? But, you’re right. I can’t do this on my own.”
“Yeah, yeah. That’s hardly the first time I’ve been called that, and often for the same reason. Truth hurts.”
Big Mac said, “If we have all decided to go on, instead of yammerin’ and makin’ ourselves an easy target, can I suggest that we get the buck out of here?”
“Trixie agrees. She is tired of seeing that full moon glaring at her.”
Despite the gloom of the forest, everyone could empathize with the unicorn. The moon was Nightmare’s domain and they felt naked in its sight. They hastened to continue.
Shortly after they had left the glade and were once more surrounded by trees, Big Mac said to Penumbra, “Tell us about that there town o’ yours.”
The thestral turned to look at him with a raised eyebrow. “You really want to know?”
“Eeyup. I like to learn about my friends and I’ve never heard about a thestral township.”
Penumbra shifted her attention back to their path but she was pleased that somepony had found her home of interest. “It is called Libertas, an ancient word for freedom. It was established by the thestrals who were disaffected by the obsessive adherence to the goals of a defeated alicorn and her insane ideas. We thestrals love the night, but even we know that you need the sun to grow food. Food that we had been stealing from farms when we weren’t cowering in the cold caverns that we had proudly named the Grand Catacombs. Gradually, the saner among my ancestors chose to leave the caverns and start a settlement elsewhere.”
Big Mac asked. “Where did they find the land?”
“Out to the west beyond White Tail Woods. Equestria was young back then, and there was plenty of unclaimed territory distant from other pony settlements. Of course, it was also far from any pegasus village and thus they had no weather control. Sadly, when Nightmare Moon changed pegasi into thestrals, my species lost that ability while gaining others more suited to the Nightmare’s needs. Anyway, life for those pioneers was difficult, although it gradually got easier as more and more thestrals joined them to add their contributions. Unfortunately, the hard core of those loyal to Nightmare Moon maintained their stance and continued to raid farms. That caused Libertas and its citizens to gain an unfair reputation for being thieves with nasty dispositions. Any of us who strayed into nearby towns were treated with hostility and bigotry despite doing nothing to deserve it. And so, Libertas grew in isolation from the rest of the nation. I believe that the only reason our community was not wiped out long ago was because Princess Celestia had forbidden it. She never blamed us for the actions of Nightmare Moon.”
Trixie said, “Princess Celestia blamed herself for Nightmare Moon. She could not turn her back on those affected by the Nightmare’s actions.” At the surprised looks from the others, she continued. “What? Did you not know that Nightmare Moon was once Princess Luna, Celestia’s sister?”
“Sister?!” was the common expression of shocked surprise from the others.
“How do you know that?” asked Irwin.
The unicorn smiled smugly. “The Amazing Trixie studied under Princess Celestia before deciding on a different life path. She learned many things including how Celestia’s pride and neglect caused Luna to get jealous and resentful. That opened up the Moon Princess to the seductive temptations of the Nightmare who merged with the alicorn and started a rebellion. Celestia firmly believes that if she had not ignored her sister’s needs, Nightmare Moon would never have happened.”
Zecora added, “And the dark magic that fills the Everfree would not have ever come to be.”
Irwin asked, “Does that mean there would not have been Timberwolves like Blossom if not for Nightmare Moon?”
The zebra replied, “They are the wood spirits of old corrupted. It is my belief Blossom has reverted.”
Big Mac said, “So, Libertas is either unknown or ignored by most ponies. It must have been hard establishing a community without earth ponies to assist with farming.”
“It was very harsh. Some thestrals died but we persevered. Fortunately, we discovered early that we had some talent for growing fruit and today our orchards rival those of Sweet Apple Acres. We grow far more varieties of fruit though. No offense, Mr. Macintosh but nopony lives on apples alone.”
The large stallion chuckled. “I know, but don’t tell my sister that. And please, call me Big Mac.”
“Anyway,” Penumbra continued, “Libertas today is not so different from Ponyville except that no rail line passes through and the road there is barely a track due to infrequent use. And, of course, we mostly labor during the night hours and sleep through the day.”
Irwin said, “It must have been hard for you to switch to daylight hours after joining the Royal Guard.”
The thestral shrugged. “I’m a bit weird – I like the warm sun, and my shades look cool. Besides, I am usually stuck with the night shifts. Most ponies are glad to leave those to me.”
Gilda said, “What surprises me is that there are only thestrals. Why didn’t Nightmare Moon convert unicorns and earth ponies as well as pegasi?”
“What makes you think she didn’t?” Penumbra replied.
“Oh? If she did, where are they?”
“The Nightmare’s dark magic corrupted the unicorns’ and drove them mad. Just like the beasts of the Everfree, they were a danger to everypony, not just Celestia’s followers. They were the Nirik – creatures of unstoppable flames. Those that did not destroy each other were captured and cleansed to the best of the mages’ abilities. Today, their peaceful alter form – the Kirin – live in another isolated community among the Peaks of Peril.”
Big Mac asked, “If they are peaceful, why do they keep away from other ponies?”
“I believe it is because of the lingering effects of their transformation. They are extremely passionate beings and easily revert to their nirik form. They choose to live away from those that can be harmed by them.”
“Trixie has heard of the Kirin but not of their origins. She has heard nothing about the earth ponies though.”
Penumbra said, “They were called the Alastors but for some reason, the dark magic did not linger. Some speculate that it is their very connection to the earth that drained the dark magic from them. Anyway, those ponies eventually reverted and returned to their normal lives. However, that does not mean that they were completely unchanged. Did you know that no earth pony could manipulate rock prior to Nightmare Moon? That battle-useful ability has apparently been passed on to their offspring.”
(Alastor, is a black horse belonging to the Greek god Hades. He was one of the four horses drawing Hades's chariot when he rose from the Underworld to bring Persephone down with him. Alastor, in Christian demonology, came to be considered a kind of possessing entity. It was the best fit that I could find for a Nightmare version of an earth pony. It didn’t hurt that it was a Greek myth too.)
Big Mac gaped and blinked for a moment. “Does that mean I could have some of that ability too?”
“The talent has had a thousand years to disseminate among the earth pony population. Have you ever tried to shape rock?”
“Umm… well… plowing fields has always been easy for me, and I’m exceptionally strong even for an earth pony. Removing boulders is no trouble at all. So, maybe?”
Irwin said, “It seems that we have had three outcomes for each of the three tribes of ponies changed by Nightmare Moon. We have the thestrals who are shunned and feared. The Kirin choose to live in anonymous isolation. And the Alastors have blended back into the pony population. The thestrals definitely got the worst of it. I’ve had some poor interactions with ponies because I’m a minotaur, but I’m not a pony and it’s not hard to understand the fear of some creature that is not your kind.”
Zecora said, “I also know what it is like to have ponies lash out and strike. In me, they saw a pony who is striped, and it took much time before I was liked.”
Big Mac nodded. “I remember when you turned up in our village for the first time and caused fear and panic. But you kept coming back and selling your products. But it wasn’t until the year when an epidemic affecting foals swept through our town that attitudes toward you completely changed. The healing potion you provided saved many lives – far more than in other towns without the benefit of your services. And you gave it all without asking anything in return. It’s no wonder that you are so liked and respected now.”
The zebra smiled gently. “Generosity should always be the Equestrian way. If we fail to invest in our children, then we’d surely pay.”
Penumbra frowned. “You managed to overcome prejudice because you got the opportunity to show your worth. I’ve been trying for most of a decade with nothing to show for it,” she said bitterly.
Zecora raised an eyebrow. “Have you not often proved your worth in every way? When you give your best for others, it is a good day.”
“And yet, thestrals as a whole are still reviled. I have accomplished nothing.”
“I admit my status owes something to luck. Without the disease, I might still be stuck. But even so, I would have persevered, and I would show I was not to be feared. The more we treat others like family, the better neighbors we all soon would be.”
Irwin said, “I can empathize with that attitude. Kindness and generosity can go a long way toward building trust. I might have been considered strange by my fellow minotaurs, but they knew I could be relied upon.”
Gilda said, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Be true to yourself because people can spot a phony. It might hurt sometimes but betraying yourself hurts worse. Your goal is worthy, and frankly I admire your tenacity.”
“And don’t forget to laugh even if everything seems set against you,” Trixie said. “The greatest lesson Trixie learned was bringing joy to others brought it into hers as well.”
Big Mac grinned. “I think I can safely say that we all support you in our own ways and we think of you as a friend.” He held out a hoof. “Will you be mine?”
Penumbra regarded the hoof for a moment before clopping hers against his. With tears welling in her eyes, she replied, “I am honored to be your friend.”
A moment later, all the others came up to exchange hoof-bumps with the thestral. They grinned at each other knowing that they all had formed a bond in their endeavor.
After a long moment while they absorbed this affirmation of their status, Penumbra wiped the moisture from her eyes and turned back to the path. “Our task is still dangerous but we can do this together. Be careful because I do not wish to lose my new friends so soon.”
With a chorus of agreement, they continued onward.
The dark forest continued to get more oppressive as they progressed, and a dark mist built up around the group. It happened so gradually that no one noticed it happening. The six who had resumed their quest with revitalized spirits slowly lost their enthusiasm. Their steps felt leaden and weariness descended upon them. When the way was barred by the rampant undergrowth, it became ever harder to push through. Eventually, Gilda sank to the ground, exhausted and numbed. She was quickly joined by Zecora and Irwin. Big Mac’s strength seemed to abandon him but he did not care. He slumped to the earth with a moan. Penumbra’s determination only carried her a few more paces before it too failed.
“Must rest… for a moment… before…” Her sentence failed to complete.
Trixie was not unaffected, but the fog was having a harder time slowing her down. Despite its depressing effects, she could tell that this was no mere tiredness from their hours-long efforts to penetrate the dense forest. This had to be a trap laid by Nightmare Moon. “Get up, everypony! Don’t let this dire mist smother your spirits!”
That only evoked some half-hearted efforts which quickly failed. Worse yet, Trixie could barely stir herself anymore. With a great effort, she reached into her saddlebag with her magic and brought out one of her stage pyrotechnics. Designed to be shot high into the air and burst into a spectacular sparkling fireball, instead, she threw it a mere few yards away. The firework exploded, nearly deafening them. However, the shock had its intended effect. Hearts were sent racing, pumping adrenalin through everyone. The unicorn let off a continuous display of some smaller pyrotechnics that lit up the area and displaced the mist.
“Go!” Trixie yelled. “Get as far away from here as you can! Penumbra – you have a mission! You can’t stop now. Big Mac – use that strength of yours to help Gilda. Irwin – help Zecora. Move it!”
With every word, Trixie’s weariness and depression dissipated more and more and her confidence grew.
“This will be the Amazing Trixie’s most important performance – the defiance of Nightmare Moon! Not even the evil alicorn can overcome Trixie’s Great and Powerful magics!”
Trixie laughed and lifted her hooves into the air. Streamers shot into the air with a triumphant musical accompaniment. Her companions shook their heads, dispelling the fog in their brains. Their pace picked up until they had left the spirit-crushing mist behind. Nevertheless, they continued to run, unmindful of the undergrowth whipping their faces. No one wanted to fall victim to that trap again. They only came to a halt when they reached a canyon that crossed their path. A collapsed bridge prevented any further progress.
“Look! There’s the castle!” Penumbra cried. “We’ve made it.”
“Not quite. First, we need to cross this,” Big Mac said. He sighed. “I suppose I’ll have to be carried over again.”
“Actually,” Gilda said from aloft where she was scouting the area, “I see steps carved into the side of the rock. You can walk down and we won’t have to tire ourselves out carrying you.”
That was a far more acceptable alternative to both Big Mac and Irwin and they immediate headed down the indicated stairs.
“These steps must have been carved before they built the bridge,” the minotaur speculated.
When they reached the bottom, they crossed to the other side. They looked around for a matching set of stairs but found none.
“What was the point of those steps if you can’t get up the other side?” asked a very perplexed Big Mac.
“Maybe there’s something else down here,” suggested Trixie.
“Perhaps, but we are supposed to be looking for Nightmare Moon. Exploration can come later.”
Gilda looked up at the steep sides of the canyon and groaned. Merely carrying the stallion over the river had been hard enough, but lifting him vertically all the way up to the top was going to be awful. “I suppose we’d better get this over with,” she said with a sigh of resignation.
“Wait,” Penumbra said. “Big Mac – we talked about rock-shaping. Want to give it a try?”
The stallion eyed the rock face. “I dunno. Never tried anythin’ quite like that before. How do I do it?”
“From what I have heard, it’s merely a matter of visualizing your intent,” the thestral explained.
Trixie said, “I get it. Think of it like when you buck apple trees to make the fruit drop exactly where you want them to go. It’s magic – intent shapes the spell.”
“Okay. I’ll try.” Big Mac turned so that his rear was toward the rock face. He took a long moment to imagine the result he wanted, then he bucked with all his might.
The canyon shuddered with the impact and crumbling rock began falling. Everyone hastily retreated from the cliff face until the sound of falling stones ceased and the dust cleared.
“Well, I’ll be hornswaggled,” declared Big Mac. “It worked!”
While not the careful craftmanship of the other stairs, a perfectly serviceable set of steps now led up to the top of the cliff.
“After you,” Irwin said with a grin, waving Zecora on. Trixie quickly followed, then Irwin and Big Mac. Penumbra and Gilda elected to fly up, both happy not to need to lift their companions.
The group walked up to the stone wall that surrounded the ancient castle and paused at the gateway.
“Okay, what’s the plan?” Gilda asked.
Penumbra replied, “If Nightmare Moon is here as we suspect, it’s a given that she knows we’re here. The noise Big Mac made would have betrayed us even if she didn’t before. However, I don’t believe she can pinpoint us if we keep under cover.”
“What about when we met those fake thestrals or the mist trap?” Irwin asked. “Nightmare Moon found us then.”
Trixie replied, “The latter was an area-of-effect spell. It was broad enough to cover virtually any approach to the castle from our previous contact. As for that, we walked out into a moonlit glade in the middle of a dark forest. We kind of stood out.”
“Exactly,” Penumbra said with a nod. “So, stealth is the word. The castle is big, so I suggest that we split into two groups to check out more places. I’m going to look for Luna’s former suite in case she’s made herself at home there once more. Big Mac – can I get you to lead the other group elsewhere? I suggest the throne room.”
“Eeyup,” he replied.
Penumbra swept her gaze over all the others. “Remember – we are only here to confirm that Nightmare Moon has made this her base. If you can observe any other useful details at the same time, that is a bonus. You are not to take unnecessary risks doing so. The point is to bring intel back to Canterlot so that we can return with forces prepared to deal with the threat. So, be careful!”
They decided that Gilda and Trixie would accompany him while Irwin and Zecora would go with the thestral. They wished each other luck, entered the castle grounds, and split up. Both groups headed for the nearest cover and they soon lost sight of each other.
Penumbra only had a few scraps of knowledge to determine her destination, but her best guess had her heading inside to find a stairway to the towers where the princesses had been reputed to have their suites. Meanwhile, Big Mac set his sights on a partially collapsed vaulted roof that could be that of the throne room. Gilda took to the air and was almost completely silent. Despite his size, the stallion was fairly light on his hooves and made much quieter steps than Trixie. Nevertheless, they could alert Nightmare Moon to their approach. Then a thought occurred to him – maybe there was more to bending rocks to his desire than bucking them. He willed that the stone floor stop making noise and their hoofsteps faded to near inaudibility. The stallion was both surprised and shaken by his success. Could he really be descended from an Alastor as Penumbra had speculated? Would the Nightmare sense this?
Mac’s companions had been equally startled by the sudden cessation of sound from their steps. However, the ability to creep through the hallways in silence more than made up for it. They passed room after empty room before reaching the huge double doors that they presumed led to the throne room. One door was slightly ajar and, after carefully pushing her head through, Gilda could see no one beyond. She squeezed the rest of the way through and Trixie followed a moment later. The gap was far too narrow for the big stallion though, but there was no other way for him to progress further. Big Mac decided to risk opening the door a bit more, but not before he told the other two to take cover. Taking a deep breath, he carefully pulled on the door.
The effect was horrendous. The hinges screeched, sending the noise through every corner of the ruins. Through the enlarged gap, Big Mac could clearly see that this was not the throne room but a huge ballroom. A dried-up fountain with decorative balls was at the other end, but that view was quickly replaced by the sight of a dark swirling mist that congealed into the form of Nightmare Moon.
“Oho! What have we here? Any pony who ignores my warning is either very foolish or very brave. Perhaps both.” The malevolent alicorn strode toward the terrified stallion. “I will reward thy bravery with a quick death.”
Nightmare Moon marched right up to Big Mac until they were practically nose to nose. The alicorn was only about an inch taller than the large stallion but her huge magical presence made her seem so much bigger.
“How dost thou wish to die?” she asked with a malevolent grin.
“Old age would be nice.” Big Mac’s voice nearly cracked from his fear.
Nightmare Moon lost her malicious smile. “I do not find thee amusing.” She charged up her horn.
“Wait! You wouldn’t kill one of your descendants, would you?”
The alicorn paused her spell and scowled. “By what right do you make such a baseless claim?”
Big Mac prayed that the other group was on their way after hearing the hinge squeal. He just needed to stall the murderous mare for a while. “We earth ponies owe our special talents to you, Princess. We would never have been able to match the other tribes without your gifts.”
“My so-called gifts do not make me thy ancestor. They were granted so that your kind could serve me better. I see no evidence that thou art one of those chosen to serve me other than thy unusual stature.”
Big Mac smiled. “You want proof? Then, how about this?” He stamped a foreleg and a pillar of stone erupted from the floor underneath Nightmare Moon. The alicorn was flung away and the stallion hastily made a break for cover.
Nightmare Moon recovered much more quickly than Big Mac hoped and she hurled a deadly spell at him. He managed to dodge but the huge double doors were not so lucky. They shattered with a deafening boom, shards flying everywhere. The stallion ignored the ones that struck him painfully as he galloped in another direction. He almost stopped when the Nightmare landed several yards ahead of him. Instead, he redoubled his efforts, lowered his head, and charged at the black mare.
Nightmare Moon’s eyebrows rose at the sight but then she laughed and charged at him. They came together with a resounding crash and they were thrown apart, her badly dented helmet clattering to the floor across the room. Shocked by the unanticipated result, the alicorn scrambled to her hooves and lit up her horn to blast the stallion who lay groaning on the stone paving. Before she could do so, searing pain erupted down her head, neck, and withers. She screamed and threw herself to one side to spot the griffon that raked her with their talons.
After slipping into the chamber unnoticed, Gilda had been watching with horror from her hiding place when Big Mac had been confronted. Despite their mission to bring intel back to Canterlot, she had not been able to sit idly by and watch her favorite stallion be killed. At her first opportunity, she had taken off to defend Big Mac. For once, she had put her dangerous talons to use in a real fight. Unfortunately, Gilda had missed the alicorn’s eyes as she moved at the last moment, but the feel of tearing flesh had been most satisfying. The sight of Nightmare Moon turning her attention to the griffon quickly dampened that elation. For the next several seconds, Gilda frantically dodged bolt after bolt of deadly magic hurled her way. Her luck eventually ran out as her wing was clipped and she was knocked to the ground.
Nightmare Moon landed in front of Gilda who desperately tried to run for shelter. Before the alicorn could kill the griffon, she was slammed in the barrel by a recovered Big Mac, throwing off her aim. Deciding that the stallion was the bigger and more immediate threat, she focused on him although staying aware of the griffon’s position. Big Mac had not hung around though and ducked behind a huge pillar.
The alicorn laughed contemptuously and blasted away at the stone column, knocking large chunks off of it. Just as the stallion was exposed though, a smoke bomb exploded in front of her, totally obscuring her view. She fired off a few random shots before turning to look for whoever had thrown the bomb, only to have another go off, totally obscuring her view in all directions. Then a massive firework blew up practically in her face, knocking her back and making her ears ring painfully. Near deafened, Nightmare Moon could barely hear voices calling out to each other. Knowing now that she was up against no less than three opponents, she shot out a bubble shield that blew away all the blinding smoke. She immediately spotted the griffon dive-bombing her and blasted her, only to see the shot pass through the catbird harmlessly.
Gilda saw that Trixie’s illusion had distracted Nightmare Moon as planned and attacked from the side, gouging fresh wounds into the alicorn’s shoulder and neck. The griffon was not quick enough to retreat however, and with a scream of rage, a broad blast from the Nightmare’s horn knocked her from the air.
Before Nightmare Moon could take advantage, a glass bottle smashed into her face, shattering and spilling its contents onto her muzzle. Inadvertently breathing in some of its contents made the alicorn’s head swim and she stumbled to the floor. Gilda took the opportunity to get clear, wary of the glow from her enemy’s horn. However, it was not another attack but a spell to overcome the effects of the potion. Nightmare Moon spotted the newcomers, especially the minotaur who had accurately thrown the bottle. The zebra passed another to him and he immediately threw it. The alicorn did not intend to be a stationary target and she jumped to the side. To her surprise, this one exploded in a cloud of dust when it shattered on the floor nearby. She immediately began sneezing violently and frequently. She had the presence of mind to blow away the dust and fired several random shots while trying to throw off the effects of the powder.
Gilda’s attack was thwarted as she was hit in the left shoulder, putting the muscles of both her wing and foreleg out of action. She landed heavily and painfully, but she hauled herself to her remaining feet to limp away. Fortunately for her, Penumbra had distracted Nightmare Moon with her own attack. However, in dodging a horn blast, her aim was spoiled and her spear tip hit armor rather than the vulnerable flesh. The alicorn flung out a wing to smash the thestral into the floor. Before Nightmare Moon could blast her, a boulder hurled by Big Mac smashed into her head and horn, sending an enormous stab of pain through her. She screamed and teleported away from everyone to give herself a few moments to shake off the injury. Blood from a gash to her forehead dripped into one eye.
Penumbra recovered and launched another attack. Nightmare Moon noticed the thestral but her defensive measures were affected by dizziness and pain. The thestral dodged easily, slashing the alicorn across the flank with a blade strapped to her forehoof. Despite the pain, the alicorn thrust her attacker away with a flat shield. Nightmare Moon cast a healing spell upon herself, dulling the pain and closing the wounds that had been inflicted upon her. She leaped into the air, high above her tormentors, her wings brushing the beams holding up what was left of the roof. She prepared an enormous blast of magic to take out her enemies in a broad attack, only to have her view abruptly obscured by a flock of frightened and frantic bats whose roosting area she had disturbed. The alicorn tried to push them away, but for some reason, they came back to mob her. Then she noticed a very high-pitched sound coming from the direction of the thestral. She was doing something with the bats! She hurled a bolt of magic at Penumbra, but the thestral had been ready and dodged it.
Meanwhile, Big Mac took advantage of the distraction. He picked up another huge piece of rubble and threw it at the alicorn. Nightmare Moon accidentally dodged it, but the chunk of stone reached its peak and came down on her shoulder, knocking her to the ground. The rock pinned her wing to the floor, but she twisted her body to buck it away. The stab of pain that shot through her wing told her that it was broken and it hung limply by her side. Before she could cast a bone-mending spell, Penumbra and Irwin launched an attack but she fended them off with a flat shield. Before she could respond with an assault of her own, one of Trixie’s fireworks once again blinded and deafened her momentarily.
Big Mac saw his opportunity and dodged around the Nightmare’s shield. He galloped up to the alicorn, turned, and bucked her in the barrel as hard as he could. Her enchanted armor saved her life, but several ribs were broken. The shock made her drop her shield and everyone charged forward, but she teleported once more to the far side of the room to give herself time to recover. Bathed in the moonlight streaming through the vine-encrusted ruined wall, she seemed to draw strength from it. A powerful healing spell set to work mending her broken bones, but the others did not wait for her to recover and they began their attacks anew.
Zecora passed another bottle to Irwin with instructions on its use. The minotaur nodded and hurled it, but Nightmare Moon deflected it away from her with her magic. However, a direct assault was not intended this time. Knowing that the alicorn would be on guard against similar previous attacks, the zebra had something sneakier in mind. As the Nightmare prepared to deal with the approaching stallion, thestral, and griffon, she failed to notice that the nearby vines had started growing. They rapidly lengthened and thickened, and she only realized that she was under a new attack when the plants started curling around her limbs, immobilizing her. With astonishing speed, they wrapped around her barrel and began constricting her. With a cry of equal rage and fear, she blasted away at the offending vines until their threat was eliminated.
By this time, the three were almost upon her, but her telekinesis hurled the remains of the plants along with some of the surrounding rubble at them. Penumbra dodged and hurled her spear but Nightmare Moon deflected it with one armor-clad foreleg. She prepared to strike back, but her opponents had split up to approach from three different directions. In the moment that it took her to decide which was the greatest threat, suddenly there were six of them, then nine, then a full dozen! The alicorn realized that they were illusions, but they were so perfect that she could not tell them apart from the real threats. She prepared to fire a broad magic beam at them but her spell was disrupted by an agonizing pain in her hind leg. She found a flower-covered timberwolf cub had sunk its wooden fangs into her limb and she blasted it into pieces.
“Blossom!” Irwin bellowed before hurling his club at the alicorn.
With a frustrated growl, Nightmare Moon threw out a spherical shield that hurled away the real attackers and she teleported away from the confusing fakes. She appeared by the dried-up fountain with the stone ball decorations and threw up a broad shield between her and the ones who were giving her so much trouble.
Nightmare Moon panted from her exertions while glaring at the half-dozen beings who were already discussing how to renew their attack. “I see it now – six warriors sent here to recover the Elements to use them against my rightful rule. I had hoped to use them myself but that path doth seem closed to me. However, I can stop you from using them against me.” She lit up her horn.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Big Mac replied.
The alicorn paused and raised an eyebrow. “How couldst thou not know of the Elements?”
Gilda frowned and said, “You mean the wind, rain, and thunder?”
“Nay, foolish griffon! I speak not of the weather.”
Zecora said, “Perhaps she means air, water, fire, and earth. But they are misconceptions of no worth.”
Nightmare Moon looked shocked. “Are you all truly that ignorant? You have no knowledge of how my sister bested me?” She laughed malevolently. “If that is so, you are all doomed to failure. You have fought well, but you cannot defeat me. In fact, I will not even let you survive to enjoy the reign of the moon. You will never behold the magnificence of the Lunar Empire as I lead it to glory as is my destiny!”
Big Mac frowned. “What glory? What is to be gained by ruling over a dead world?”
Nightmare Moon’s eyes widened and she gaped at the stallion. “What art thou talking about?”
“If it’s night forever, no plants can grow, we will run out of food, and we will all starve to death.”
“Not just ponies,” said Irwin, “but every creature large and small!” The alicorn frowned. “The sun will still travel through the sky, but it will remain eclipsed by my moon. I shall still allow a tenth of the light through for the poor sun-loving fools and their plants.”
The stallion shook his head. “I am a farmer and I can tell you that it’s not enough. Most plants cannot survive with that little light. Those that do will struggle to grow at all. Plants only put excess nutrients into their fruit or seeds – malnourished ones have nothing to spare. We will still starve. Forget that mad plan, Nightmare Moon. Release Princess Celestia and be our friend instead. We really do not want to fight you.”
Nightmare Moon scowled. “Thou seekest to deceive me, hoping I will stay my hoof. My magic will sustain this world in spite of thy misgivings. And my reign will not be put to an end by the Elements of Harmony!” Her horn lit up and she blasted the fountain. Some of the balls remained intact but the alicorn stomped on them and shattered them.
“You were afraid of rocks? Are you mad?” Gilda asked.
“Tis no matter what thou thinkest – they are a threat no more. None of you are either. I have tarried with you all long enough. Time to die.”
Big Mac gave a double-buck to the alicorn’s shield but even his immense strength was not enough to break it. He glared at the evil alicorn as she laughed at his failure. He stepped back to rejoin his companions. “My friends and I may not be able to stop you, Nightmare Moon, but others will come and defeat you. You have just your ambition to drive you, but we have our world, our families, and our friends to defend. We won’t allow you to succeed.”
“You six won’t be doing anything,” the alicorn declared.
As Nightmare Moon lit up her horn, an unseen wind gusted, lifting the shattered pieces of the Element globes and sending them unhindered by the alicorn’s shield to the six.
“What is this? What is happening?” Nightmare Moon demanded. “Is this some new trick?”
The shards split up and whirled around the individuals, lifting them up into the air. Energy filled them and each tilted their head back and closed their eyes
“NO! THIS CANNOT BE!” Nightmare Moon fired her horn at them, but the iridescent energy that surrounded the six deflected the beam. Again and again, she tried with the same result.
The shards abruptly coalesced into gems set in necklaces that settled around the necks of all six and power overwhelmed them. They felt drawn together by the bonds that had grown between them during their quest. They could now sense the characteristic that made each one special – Gilda’s absolute honesty; Zecora’s unstinting generosity; Irwin’s unfailing kindness; Penumbra’s uncompromising loyalty; Trixie’s need to elicit laughter and joy; and Big Mac’s desire for friendship. All of them knew that they would forever be a part of each other’s lives from this moment. They also knew that there was one other who needed them.
A burst of rainbow-colored magic erupted from their midst and struck the black alicorn. Nightmare Moon screamed and felt as if she was being torn apart. Suddenly, something that had been part of her for a millennium was ripped away and the pain stopped. However, the iridescent assault continued and her feelings were laid bare. Her hate and jealousy evaporated, and her intentions were revealed as the selfish and dreadful things they truly were. She could not bear it any longer.
“PLEASE – MAKE IT STOP!”
The rainbow assault ceased and the six settled down to the ground. The alicorn moaned and collapsed onto the floor.
Panting, Gilda said, “What the heck was that all about?” She reflexively flared her wings, then her eyebrows rose. “Hey! My wing and leg are healed!”
Penumbra said, “Now that you mention it, I’m completely fine now too. How about you, Big… Mac…?” She stared at the stallion who was approaching their defeated foe, oblivious of the thestral’s consternation.
“Are you okay, Nightmare Moon?” the stallion asked.
The alicorn lifted her head. “No, not Nightmare Moon. My name is Luna. And yes, for the first time in centuries, I believe I am fine. Better than fine.” She slowly got up to her hooves and the six could get a good look at her. Gone were the dark nebulae that had been her mane and tail, replaced by a bright blue that glistened with sparkling stars that contrasted with her velvet-black coat. Her eyes, while retaining the slit pupils, no longer glared evilly. Instead, they seemed dewy-soft and shy. Where once was a terrifying creature of malevolence now stood a beautiful and vulnerable mare.
“My thanks to thee, my Prince, and thy true companions for freeing me.”
“I’m no prince,” demurred Big Mac.
“Those wings and horn belie thy statement,” Luna replied.
“What are you talking about? I don’t have—” His throat choked up as he felt something that should not be there. He turned to see red-feathered wings that had flared out at Luna’s ridiculous statement. “I… I… have—” His eyes rolled back into his head and he slumped to the floor in a dead faint.
Luna smiled softly at an old memory. “We did that too.”
“Hey! What did you do to Big Mac?” Gilda demanded angrily as she stalked up to Luna.
“Peace, griffoness – I did nothing. He has merely passed out from the shock of realization that he has ascended.”
Gilda’s eyebrows rose. “That can happen?” She looked him over. “Gotta admit those wings look great on him. Really, really great.” A chuckle from Luna made the griffon realize that she was staring at the stallion rather hungrily. She hastily averted her eyes, put her talons on his withers, and gave him a shake. “Hey! Mac! No time for a nap.”
Big Mac groaned but did not open his eyes. “Tell me I’m hallucinating.”
“No such luck. You’re a sparkling-brand-new alicorn, dude.”
“Nope!” the stallion said with another groan. He put his forelegs over his head as if the truth would go away if only he didn’t look. He flinched at the feel of the new appendage growing from his forehead but stubbornly refused to accept it.
“Trixie assures you that you do have wings and a horn,” the unicorn said as she joined them. “Although she wonders why she did not get wings too.”
“Harmony has its reasons,” Luna said. “I am just ecstatic that it brought you six together to free me from my foolish mistake. Although calling it a mere mistake grossly understates the seriousness and tragedy of its consequences.” Luna hung her head low. “How many ponies died because I succumbed to my jealousy and hate?”
Penumbra said, “If you are truly repentant, then you will end the night and release Princess Celestia. She will decide your fate.”
Luna looked up at Penumbra. “I never expected to meet a thestral so unwaveringly loyal to the Princess of the Day. Fear not, warrior, my sister hath been released already and brings the sun even as we speak.”
Indeed, dawn was breaking, rapidly brightening the ruins. With the moonlight no longer needed, Luna’s horn lit up and the orb rapidly set. It had barely gone when the sun was briefly eclipsed by another alicorn. Princess Celestia was glowing with her power, awing the onlookers, but the alicorn only had eyes for her sibling.
“Your mane and tail… it is you!” Rushing up to the dark alicorn, Celestia flung her forelegs around her. “Oh, Luna! How I have longed for this day! Welcome back, sister! I hope that you can forgive me for banishing you to the moon so long ago.”
Luna hugged her sister back. “There is nothing to forgive. I allowed myself to be seduced by the Nightmare and turned against thee and anypony who would choose the day over my night.”
“But it was my pride and neglect that led to your loneliness and jealousy. I was such a poor sister to you.”
“And I should not have bottled my feelings up inside to fester and corrupt me. Had I but made you listen, mayhap none of what happened would have come to pass.”
“But I am still at fault,” Celestia protested. “I misused the Elements of Harmony and trapped you in the Nightmare instead of cleansing you. I spent centuries trying to undo that mistake. As I was no longer able to wield the Elements, I had to find new potential Bearers. Thankfully, I did, and we both owe them more than we can ever repay.” Celestia released Luna from the hug and turned to face the others who had all approached the sisters. Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped. “Who in Faust’s Name…?” She blinked for a moment before shaking herself and recovering her composure. “Uh… although these were not the ponies that I had arrang— that I had expected. May I ask who you wonderful heroes are?”
Gilda laughed. “Talk about oblivious!”
Penumbra glared at the griffon then faced the princess. Before she could say a word, a small sound emanated from across the room, getting louder as it grew closer. The final few twigs coalesced into a flowery timberwolf cub as it bounded across the rubble-strewn floor.
“Blossom! You’re okay!” Irwin sank to one knee and scooped up the tiny creature which had his full attention as it barked and licked the minotaur.
Penumbra rolled her eyes before turning back to Celestia and saluting smartly. “Corporal Penumbra of the Royal Guard, Your Highness. My companions are Gilda, Zecora, Irwin Goodall, Trixie—”
“The Amazing Trixie,” the unicorn corrected.
Celestia chuckled. “I remember you from our lessons, Ms. Lulamoon. I believe you have done well for yourself in your career, not to mention in this endeavor. And who is the pegasus on the floor?”
Gilda snorted as she restrained a laugh. “That’s no pegasus. Hey, Mac! Time to accept reality and rejoin us.”
The stallion sighed. “I suppose I gotta.” He uncovered his head and got up on his hooves. He found himself almost at eye-level with the gobsmacked white alicorn and he bowed, nearly poking out her eye with his new horn. “Macintosh Apple at your service, Your Highness.”
Celestia gaped even more than previously. “An alicorn stallion? Where did you come from?”
“Right here, ma’am. I was an earth pony right up until all that magic happened.”
Penumbra said, “It’s true, Princess. Big Mac only just transformed when we used these things on Luna.” She tapped the necklace she was wearing.
“Oh, my! It seems Harmony has had plans of its own. This must come as a big shock to you, Mr. Macintosh. I’ll have to have my niece, Cadance, have a talk with you. She will help give you insight into what it will be like now that you’re a prince.”
Big Mac’s eyes widened and he shook his head. “Nope, nope, nope! I’m no prince. I didn’t even want these things!”
Celestia glanced over to her sister and Luna nodded, understanding what her sibling was thinking. “What we want and what we need to do are often two entirely different things. Luna and I had no ambition for leadership before we ascended, but ponies turned to us for it anyway. But I will not press you about it for now. There will be time for that later after we celebrate the return of my sister.”
Penumbra said, “We may have to deal with Nightmare Moon’s deeds first, Your Highness.”
Celestia frowned. “Luna – did…?”
“I deeply regret that ponies died this past night,” the Alicorn of the Moon confessed with her head averted in shame.
“Oh, sister…. You have many wrongs to right, but I will be there for you this time, I promise.”
“I will accept the consequences of my actions, Tia. But, I thank thee.”
Celestia nodded. “I think we had better head off to Canterlot. I will—”
“This is where I heard the sounds coming from!” a brash voice came from beyond the shattered doors. A moment later, a blue pegasus zoomed into the room. “They’re over here!”
“Rainbow Dash? What are you doing here?” Gilda asked.
“That egghead that the princess sent — oh. Hi, Princess! Good to see you back. I told Twi she had nothing to worry about. Wait! Is that Nightmare Moon?”
“That’s Princess Luna, Princess Celestia’s sister,” the griffon informed her.
“Celestia has a sister? Next, you’re going to tell me this red guy is her brother.”
“N-nope,” Big Mac said.
Rainbow Dash’s eyes widened into saucers and her wings stopped flapping. She came down to the floor with a thud and her jaw kept dropping. “Big Mac?”
“Princess Big Mac?” The pegasus snorted before she burst out laughing, rolling on the floor in hysterics.
“Not that funny,” Big Mac complained.
Before anyone could say more, five more ponies entered the room. In the lead was Twilight Sparkle who immediately spotted Celestia and rushed up to her.
“Princess! You’re okay! I hoped as much when the sun came up.”
“Yes, my dear student. These fine heroes defeated Nightmare Moon and freed my sister. I see that you made some friends as I asked you to do.”
“I could not have made it this far without their help. Let me introduce you. You have already met Rainbow Dash. These are Applejack, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, and Fluttershy. They wanted to help me find the Elements of Harmony so that we could defeat Nightmare Moon, but I gather that we were beaten to the punch.” Twilight faced the dark alicorn. “I believe that you are Luna, Princess Celestia’s sister, correct?” At Luna’s nod, Twilight continued. “Welcome back, Princess.” She then turned to Big Mac. “However, I do not know who you are, sir. In fact, I have never even heard of an alicorn stallion before.”
“You met me at Sweet Apple Acres yesterday. I’m Big Mac.”
Applejack said, “Yep, that’s my brother alright. Usually not this much of a show-off.”
Rarity smiled. “Darling, the rubies are a nice touch, but you really must upscale your accessories beyond practical farm gear.”
For her part, Fluttershy peeked out from behind Irwin and looked the red stallion up and down.
Twilight’s mouth made an ‘O’ in surprise before it morphed into a broad grin. “You ascended? You must tell me all about it! How did it happen? Did you do some great magic? Were the Elements of Harmony involved? Is that one you’re wearing? I have to run a comprehensive series of tests on you! Are you—”
“Twilight!” Celestia interrupted. There will be time for that later. There is much to be done first.”
“Starting with your surrender!” came a loud voice from above.
Unnoticed until now, several thestrals had flown in on silent wings and perched on the roofing beams. Many more thestrals were pouring into the room through the damaged section. The largest spread his wings wide and bared his fangs. “Nightmare Moon, we, your loyal servants, have come to aid in your defeat of the Sun Tyrant. Command us and we will deal with these lesser creatures!”
“Uh-oh. Somepony’s late to the party,” Pinkie Pie said.
Penumbra stepped forward out of the group and glared at the thestral that had made the threats. “I remember you from my youth at the Grand Catacombs, Night Shriek. Stand down – the conflict between the Royal Sisters is ended.”
The stallion drew himself up and spread his wings dramatically. “Why should we listen to anything that you say, race-traitor? You serve the Sun Tyrant!”
“I serve Equestria!” Penumbra declared. “While that used to mean with Princess Celestia at its head, with the return of Princess Luna, she will take her rightful place beside her sister.”
“You speak nonsense, fool. We serve Nightmare Moon, not this Princess Luna you speak about.”
“The Nightmare corrupted Princess Luna. She has been cleansed and stands before you now and does not wish further hostilities.”
“Enough! We will not listen to your cowardly words anymore. We are sworn to follow Nightmare Moon to glory. We have been waiting for this day for a millennium!”
Luna strode forward to join Penumbra. “In that case, wilt thou listen to me?”
“Of course, Your Highness,” Night Shriek replied.
“Then thou shalt obey Captain Penumbra of my Night Guard. Stand down. While we have much to resolve with our sister, we have made our peace.”
Penumbra barely managed to keep her composure at Luna’s declared promotion. While she recognized that it was a ploy to give the thestral mare more apparent authority than she actually had, such public announcements were not made lightly. Whatever happened from here on, her life and career were forever changed. She glanced at Luna who returned her gaze with a nod. Penumbra took a deep breath and returned her attention to Night Shriek.
“You heard the Princess – if you truly wish to serve the Night, you will swear your loyalty to the Crown and the Royal Sisters.”
“And what if we don’t wish to serve two rulers? Perhaps we can rid ourselves of one and serve the Night Alicorn alone?”
There were angry murmurs among the ponies and Element Bearers. Trixie said quietly to Celestia, “Shouldn’t you be stepping in?”
The alicorn shook her head. “My sister and her chosen champion must resolve this.”
Before Penumbra could decide what to say next, one of her friends walked up to her side.
Gilda sat on her rump, put her balled-up talons on her hips, and glared up at the recalcitrant batpony. “Do you truly wish to fail so badly in front of your chosen princess? I could take you and several others just by myself.”
Night Shriek growled. “You are a boastful catbird. I’ll kill you right after this traitor.”
“Oh, for the love of— Get down here, you blithering idiot. I want to show you something. What? Too scared to face me?”
With a snarl, Night Shriek dropped down from the roof beam, landing with a thud, his blade drawn. However, before he could do anything more, Gilda darted forward and her talons swept out faster than the eye could follow. The thestral stumbled back from the impact but recovered quickly, ready to counter another attack, only for it not to come. Gilda just stood there sneering at him.
“Before you think of trying anything,” the griffon said, “take a look at your chest plate.”
Despite his misgivings, Night Shriek looked down and his eyes widened. A row of gashes had been torn through the peytral and a small amount of blood slowly seeped over the edges.
Gilda said, “You’ve been polishing the rust off that shiny armor that you proudly wear for a thousand years, and it’s absolute crap compared to modern alloys. You have no idea about the superior armor and weapons you’re up against. I’m a baker, not a warrior, and yet you’re not the slightest threat to me, let alone the forces gathered here. And that’s not even counting the EUP army. So, do yourselves a favor and listen to Penumbra.” She turned and rejoined the others, muttering, “Buck, that hurt!”
Big Mac caught her words and nodded approvingly. The griffon had managed to take the wind out of the sails of the blustering thestral without initiating a fight. The gathered thestrals muttered among themselves as well. This stopped with a frown and a screech from their commander.
Penumbra smiled grimly before addressing the large thestral again. “So, what’s it to be, Night Shriek? Still want to try to kill me? Or will you instead, swear your loyalty to the Crown and join the Night Guard under my command? You will get the training and equipment that you deserve, not to mention good food and accommodation. And in time, you will earn honor for protecting Equestria’s citizens against all that threatens them in the night.”
In reply, he spat on the ground. “Lies, all of it! Do you think I don’t know what Equestrians think of thestrals?”
“And who was responsible for that reputation? Who steals from ponies and exiled thestrals? What you call hunting is nothing but common thievery. You bring dishonor to all thestrals by skulking about in the middle of the night. I have worked hard for years to overturn that perception. You have the chance to speed up that change. I’m not saying that it will be easy, but if I can get this far, what can all thestrals working together achieve?”
Night Shriek knitted his brow and was silent for a long moment before he replied. “We shall not lay down our arms and swear allegiance to one whom we have dedicated our lives to overthrow. I lead the Grand Catacombs by virtue of my commitment to our cause. Even if it means my death, I will not surrender.”
“Then meet me in personal battle,” Penumbra said sternly while shifting the grip on her spear. “If you win, you will know that you have the strength to further your cause, but if I win, you will submit unconditionally to the authority of the Royal Sisters and me as the Captain of the Night Guard.”
Night Shriek smirked. “I am half again your size – the biggest and strongest of Nightmare Moon’s loyal thestral forces. Do you truly think you are a match for me?”
“I do.” Penumbra faced Luna. “With your permission, Your Highness?”
Luna nodded. “Granted, my champion.”
Celestia frowned. “Do you think this is wise?” she murmured to her sister.
Luna smiled. “Trust me, Tia. I have fought that mare and know her ability.”
Meanwhile, Penumbra and Night Shriek had taken flight and moved well away from the group to give them more room to battle. The two faced each other and readied themselves, sizing each other up. Then Luna gave the command.
Night Shriek let out a piercing scream and dived at Penumbra. She dodged to the side, deflecting his sword thrust effortlessly. Time and again, the huge thestral closed in with powerful attacks but not once did he land a blow. With a reverberating clang, the stallion’s sword broke off at the hilt. Penumbra, quickly followed with a spinning buck to his chest, denting the already-damaged peytral. Night Shriek pulled out a battle knife and returned to the attack.
Over the next couple of minutes, everyone could see that Penumbra was toying with him. Her training, determination, and anger all combined into the greatest beating that Night Shriek had ever endured. One broken leg, a dislocated wing, and some severely battered armor later, the batpony stallion found himself on the ground with a spearpoint in his face.
“Do you concede?” Penumbra asked.
“You have bested me, Captain Penumbra. I pledge my loyalty.”
Penumbra turned to face the thestral forces still roosting on the beams. “Well?”
For a moment, the mare thought that everything had gone wrong as the batponies all flew down. However, they did not attack. They knelt and bowed their heads.
“We are yours to command, Captain Penumbra,” a thestral mare declared. “We will serve Equestria and the Night Alicorn as its night warriors.”
“Thank you. Your pledges are accepted.” Penumbra turned and walked back to the others.
Gilda met her halfway. “Nice work, Penny. You were awesome!”
“I was terrified, Gilda,” Penumbra confided quietly. “I thought those thestrals were going to lose patience and kill me ever since Night Shriek announced their presence. I couldn’t have handled them all at once.”
“Ha! Think I was all cool when I slashed his armor? Like I said, I’m a baker, not a warrior.”
Penumbra chuckled. “Could have fooled me.”
When Penumbra reached the Royal Sisters, she bowed her head in Celestia’s direction. “Please forgive my presumption for following Princess Luna’s ruse to make me appear more important than I am.”
Celestia smiled benignly at her. “There is nothing to forgive. My sister has as much authority to grant field promotions as I, so your new rank stands. Granted, it is most unusual to jump from a mere corporal to a captain, but I suspect that the promotions in between have been long overdue. And now, since you are under Luna’s purview, I suggest that you report to her.”
Penumbra was stunned but had the presence of mind to face Luna and salute. “Captain Penumbra reporting, Your Highness. The situation has been secured.”
“Well done, Captain. Order thy forces report to us in Canterlot one week hence, then return to my side. We have much to achieve ere that comes to pass.”
“Yes, Ma’am!” Penumbra went back to the thestrals to give them instructions.
Big Mac said to Celestia, “Your Highness, you do realize that those thestrals have only been swayed because they believe that they still serve the true ruler of Equestria? They won’t take kindly to Princess Luna being punished for her transgressions as Nightmare Moon.”
Celestia sighed. “I do. That is but one problem among many that we will need to deal with. For now, though, I believe that we should all return to Canterlot. This castle brings back bad memories and I wish to make new, happier ones now that I have my sister back.”
“It’s a long trek back to Ponyville to catch a train,” Irwin pointed out.
Celestia smiled. “I think we can manage something a bit easier and quicker than that.”
At Penumbra’s direction, four thestrals placed Night Shriek into a webbed stretcher. After they had taken off, the remaining thestrals took flight and turned south. The sun glinted off their silver armor as the aerial forces shrank into the distance. As soon as Penumbra returned to the group, the solar alicorn had everyone gather close. Then she teleported them all to the distant capital city.
They arrived in the throne room amid a sea of turmoil. Celestia’s absence and the greatly extended night had left many ponies in a panic. A very harassed and exhausted pink alicorn sat on the throne, attempting to keep some semblance of control. Her eyes lit up when the group arrived.
“Auntie! Thank heavens you’re back!” Princess Cadance cried out as she leaped from the dais to glide down into the waiting forelegs of Celestia. The two exchanged a long hug before the young alicorn spoke again with a reproachful tone in her voice. “You told me that there might be trouble before you left for the Summer Sun Celebration, but you didn’t warn me about all this when you put me in charge in your absence.”
“I’m truly sorry, dear niece, but even I did not know exactly how events would work out. However, I had confidence in your ability to hold things together until my return.”
Cadance stepped back from the solar alicorn to better look at those accompanying her. “And who are these— Oh! Another alicorn! No, two! Auntie – what have you been up to?”
Celestia smiled and could not repress a joyful squeal. “Cadance, may I introduce you to your aunt and my long-lost sister, Princess Luna. It was her release from banishment that precipitated last night’s events.”
“Oh! I’m so very pleased to meet you. Auntie Celestia never mentioned you before now.”
“Thou mayest have heard of me by another name,” Luna replied.
The pink alicorn’s eyes lit with recognition. “Ah! I understand.” Cadance then looked at Big Mac. “And I guess that this must be my uncle?”
Big Mac chuckled. “Nope.”
Celestia said, “This is Prince Macintosh Apple who was one of the heroes of tonight’s events.”
“Not a prince,” Big Mac responded with a shake of his head.
“Oo-kay. I think that there’s a story here.”
“There is quite a long one, but it can be told over breakfast. I’m sure that everyone could do with some food and drink right now before you return home.” Celestia headed for the door and the others fell in behind.
“That’s mighty kind of you,” Applejack said, “but me an’ Big Mac need to get back to Sweet Apple Acres. Farm work don’t wait for no pony.”
Celestia nodded. “I understand, but first, I require a report on all the events that transpired last night. I will arrange for swift transport to take you all back to Ponyville once that’s done. However, I warn you that your lives have been forever changed. From now on, you will all be taking a greater role in the fate of our nation, especially the six new Element Bearers.”
“You mean we’re not finished with this bling?” Gilda asked.
“You bear Equestria’s greatest defense against unusual threats. They have been lost to us for far too long. They cannot be wielded by just anyone. You are their bearers now and that will admittedly be a great burden at times.”
A cream-coated unicorn mare with a brown mane and tail fell into step beside Celestia. “What is the situation, Your Highness?” she asked.
“Ah, Ms. Inkwell. I’m happy to say that, while there are many changes in the wind, you can reassure everypony that normality has been restored for now. I will release a statement on the incident later today when I have a full debriefing on the events.”
“And the sealed envelope that you left with me?”
“You may destroy that. It won’t be needed.”
“I will get right onto those tasks,” the unicorn said as she made a note on the clipboard she was holding in her magic.
“Thank you, Raven.”
As Raven left, Luna said, “Didst thou make plans in the event that the Nightmare was not defeated?”
Celestia nodded. “While I was reasonably confident of success, I am far from omniscient. Recent events have only reinforced that fact. I had to ensure that contingency plans were left in trusted hooves.”
The solar alicorn led them all into a dining hall where she encouraged everyone to take a seat. Several servants immediately flooded in to take orders for food and drink. Applejack caused a minor scene when she learned Sweet Apple Acres cider was not on the menu. After the staff left in a hurry to fulfill those orders and escape the earth pony’s wrath, Celestia called for attention.
“While we are waiting for our meals, I suggest that we begin the debriefing. Who would like to start?”
“I suppose I’d better,” Big Mac said.
“Just a moment.” Twilight Sparkle held up a hoof until she had placed a scroll, an ink well, and a half-dozen quills on the table, all surrounded by the glow of her magic. “I think we’re ready.”
Everyone noticed the quill dutifully writing down her words. She squinted at the page for a moment, lowered her hoof, then nodded to the stallion.
The new alicorn related the sequence of events while the others occasionally interjected with relevant details. Penumbra filled in the parts where the group was separated, although there was not much to add. Twilight Sparkle and her new friends described their adventure and, judging by the impediments that were thrown their way, it was believed that at least they had served to distract Nightmare Moon somewhat, allowing Big Mac’s group to get further without detection.
After the meal and the debriefing were finally done, Celestia informed them that she would arrange an air carriage to fly them rapidly back to Ponyville. “I will be contacting all of you over the next several days to inform you of changes that will be happening. Thank you, my little ponies, and you too, Gilda, Irwin, and Zecora. Captain Penumbra – for the moment at least, I wish you to keep in close proximity with the other Element Bearers until Luna and I decide on a permanent arrangement.” Her horn glowed and a couple of small metal badges popped into being. “You will be needing these when you report to the Ponyville garrison as its temporary commander.”
Penumbra recognized the insignia of a Captain of the Guard as Luna’s magic secured them to her armor. Somehow seeing them made her promotion so much more real. “Thank you, Your Highnesses.”
Luna said, “Now, pray pardon us as we take our leave – my sister and I have much to discuss.”
“Me too,” Cadance said with determination.
The three alicorn mares departed.
“Why did it have to be by air?” Big Mac lamented.
“Get used to it, big guy,” Gilda said with a grin. “You’ve got wings now.”
“Don’t know how to fly.”
“I’ll teach you if you want,” the griffon replied.
“Not sure I wanna.”
“Flying’s the greatest thing ever. I’m gonna bet that you’ll get the urge to fly soon. Every griffon and every pegasus does.”
“If you say so,” the stallion replied morosely.
“I know so!” Rainbow Dash enthusiastically declared.
“Cheer up, Prince Mac,” Gilda said with a grin.
“Nope. Still don’t wanna be a prince.”
“Trixie believes that you will change your mind. But you’ll do it your way, not theirs. Trixie learned long ago to be true to herself, and so should you. But the you that you are now is not the same one that Trixie spoke to when she saw you yesterday. Great things are in your future. Trixie is only sad that she did not become a princess too. She would have been even more Amazing!”
Zecora said, “Trixie’s confidence in you is great, it’s true, but I can say that we all believe in you.”
“I’ve seen the kind of pony you are when all the bits are on the table. I would willingly swear fealty to you,” Penumbra added.
Irwin listened to something that Fluttershy was whispering to him, then looked at Big Mac. “Fluttershy thinks you would make a lovely prince. Her words, but I agree in principle. Equestria could use some male leadership.”
Twilight said, “Logically, Irwin is correct. Alicorns have always been seen as the natural leaders of Equestria, and if Harmony has chosen to give us a male one, then that is his destiny.”
Applejack frowned. “Now hold on just a minute! If mah brother don’t want to be a prince, y’all shouldn’t be pushing him so hard to be one!”
“Darling, I don’t believe any of us are doing that,” Rarity said. “We are merely affirming our belief in him and our faith in Harmony’s choice. But, on a personal level, I believe Big Mac… no, Macintosh Apple would make a fine prince. And I do hope you will see me for your coronation garments if you do make that choice, dear.”
“And I’ll throw you the biggest coronation party ever!” Pinkie Pie declared.
“I’m doomed,” the stallion groaned and dropped his head to the table with a thud, hitting his new horn too. “Ow.”
Twilight said, “You have to be careful of your horn. They’re quite sensitive.”
“I noticed,” the new alicorn replied.
“I would be happy to give you lessons on how to use it.”
“Ah thought you said you were headin’ back to Canterlot straight after the festival?” Applejack queried.
Twilight smiled and shrugged. “I seem to have found five reasons to stay. I would need somewhere to reside though. I can’t stay at the inn indefinitely.”
“I would be happy to offer you my spare room, darling,” Rarity offered.
“Thanks, Rarity. I would appreciate that.”
A pegasus entered the room just then. “I have a carriage waiting for everyone who wishes to return to Ponyville. Would that be all of you?”
“Yessiree, that’s us!” Applejack replied.
The pegasus said, “Please follow me.”
Everyone got up and trooped after him.
Big Mac was surprised to discover that traveling by air was not the slightest bit disturbing once they had launched. The fact that he enjoyed the trip made him wonder what other changes had happened to him besides the obvious physical ones. Of course, it was the latter that caused a great stir when they all disembarked in the middle of Ponyville. He quickly gained an entourage as he headed in the direction of Sweet Apple Acres. While there were lots of murmured conversations between those ponies, none dared to talk to him. Big Mac supposed he would feel just as stunned if Applejack had suddenly become an alicorn.
Pinkie departed for Sugarcube Corner but not before promising to throw the six a “We Defeated the Nightmare” party. Trixie headed to where her caravan was parked, eager to reunite with her husband and foal. Rainbow Dash was not so keen on having to get back to her weather control job but did so after promising to drop in on her new friends later. Rarity and Twilight made their farewells as the fashionista took her houseguest to her home at Carousel Boutique. The rest were all walking in the same general direction and remained grouped together as they passed through town to the outskirts where the Royal Guard garrison was located.
While several paused at the post, curious to see the reaction of the Guards stationed there, Irwin and Fluttershy left for the pegasus’ cottage, accompanied by Zecora whose route home took her past the yellow pegasus’ domicile.
Penumbra put on her professional soldier’s frown and stepped inside. Gilda followed closely, not wanting to miss a moment of what would happen. The thestral was a little disturbed by the lack of someone posted at the door but chose to put it down to a large portion of the Ponyville contingent being out of action due to injuries incurred fighting Nightmare Moon. There was a pony behind the duty officer’s desk though and Penumbra was secretly pleased that it was her nemesis, Sergeant Overshoot. The surly pegasus was bandaged but apparently not so injured that it put him out of action. However, he certainly was not on the ball because he did not even look up when the two approached.
“What do you want?” Overshoot asked while still focused on the papers on his desk.
“ATTENTION!” the thestral commanded in her best parade ground voice.
Overshoot almost fell off his chair trying to come to stand and salute before he realized who had barked the command. His face grew red and the cords of his neck stood out as his blood boiled. “Who the buck do you think you are, batbrain?! You go AWOL and come back thinking you can waltz in here pretending you’re hot horseapples! You’re going to be busted back to Private Last Class after I’m done with you! Until then, you can start on latrine duty!”
Penumbra was not the least surprised at Overshoot’s reaction and calmly waited for the opportunity to speak. “That won’t be happening, Sergeant. I am here to take over command of this garrison until my new permanent assignment begins. You may address me as Captain Penumbra. I’m still waiting for your salute.” She tilted her head toward the new Captain’s insignia to bring home her point.
Overshoot’s eyes bulged at the sight of the shiny new rank pins before his expression grew even more thunderous. “I don’t know where you got those fakes from, but you’re going to the stockade for impersonating an officer. Guards! Arrest this batpony!” he yelled back into the barracks.
“I wouldn’t try that if I was you,” Gilda said with a smirk, enjoying the show. “Penny is telling the truth.”
“Nobody asked you, catbird. Get out of here before I have you hauled away too.”
Several Royal Guards had responded to Overshoot’s order, but they hesitated when they saw Gilda pointing a talon at the rank insignia on the stern thestral’s armor.
Penumbra said, “By order of Her Highness, Princess Celestia, I am taking command of this post until further notice. Sergeant, I have been patient with you due to the extraordinary circumstances of my promotion, but if you persist, I will have you arrested for insubordination.”
“Why should I believe anything a pony of your kind should say?” he spat.
“Perhaps you will believe me?” came a voice from the doorway.
Overshoot looked toward the newcomer. “Oh, like I would listen to an overgrown hayseed like yoooo….”
His voice trailed off as his jaw dropped and his eyes grew large as saucers. He, like every other Guard, stared at Big Mac who had unconsciously flared his wings in agitation. The Element in his crown glowed for a moment and somepony murmured in the deafening silence, “An alicorn stallion!”
That broke the spell and every soldier bowed toward Big Mac.
“A-apologies, m-my P-prince,” stammered Overshoot.
Big Mac decided that this was not the time to deny his royalty. “Penumbra was promoted to Captain of the Night Guard for her services to Equestria, including helping defeat Nightmare Moon and restoring Princess Celestia’s sister, Princess Luna. I suggest you stop digging your own grave, Sergeant.” The alicorn turned to leave, having said his piece, but paused. “And I’ll have a word to Her Highness about how you treat civilians.” Big Mac stepped out of the building, smugly satisfied at having a dig at the annoying pegasus.
A very nervous Overshoot turned back to Penumbra and snapped a belated salute. “Your orders, Ma’am?”
“You’re not out of hot water yet, Private Overshoot. As Prince Macintosh said, your attitude is in severe need of adjustment. You can start with that latrine duty that you felt needed attention right after you fill me in on the status of this garrison.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” the demoted stallion replied surlily.
“Oh, and Overshoot?” The thestrals showed all of her fangs. “You’re going to love the new recruits.”
“What new … uh … Yes, Ma’am.”
Gilda said, “Well, that was fun, but I’ll be going now. I reckon that you’re going to be busy for a while, Penny.”
The thestral smiled crookedly. “You’re probably right, Gilda. Don’t be a stranger, okay?”
“As if!” the griffon said with a chuckle before she gave the thestral a hoofbump and joined Big Mac and Applejack outside. “Thanks for waiting. Got a favor to ask. I have no desire to go back to Griffonstone. I’d pretty much decided that my life was at a dead-end there already before all this crap went down. Anyway, I need a place to crash for a while. Mind if I stay in your barn for a little longer?”
Big Mac shook his head. “No friend of mine is making her home in our barn. You saved my life last night, Gilda. You can stay in our guest room for as long as you need. Right, Applejack?”
“Darn tootin’!” she replied. “Never had a griffon houseguest before, but Ah reckon yer one of the family after what ya done.”
Gilda blushed, not used to the unstinting friendliness. “Thanks. If I can help out in any way…?”
Applejack hummed thoughtfully as she and her brother turned to head up the road toward Sweet Apple Acres. “Anything ya good at?”
“She’s a baker,” Big Mac pointed out.
“Yeah? Ma reckons she could use some help with her baked goods business. Ah’m sure she’d appreciate a helping hoof. Or talon, Ah suppose.”
“She’s got it!” Gilda declared, relieved that she had a place to call home for a while at least. And as she followed behind the two ponies, she let her eyes rove over the handsome stallion that had captivated her since she first laid eyes on him. “Maybe a few personal flying lessons too,” she murmured to herself.
Applejack and Big Mac got quite a reception when they arrived at Sweet Apple Acres. When both of their eldest children failed to return from the aborted Summer Sun Celebration, Pear Butter and Bright Mac had feared the worst. Their relief at seeing Applejack and Macintosh walking in the gate almost made them overlook the stallion’s new appendages. Almost.
Pear Butter was about to start giving them the scolding of a lifetime for disappearing without warning when her words froze in her throat. She blinked and gaped for a long moment while Big Mac waited for his mother to recover and Gilda had to choke back laughter at the sight.
“Bright Mac, honey – are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Pear asked.
“If’n you’re seeing an alicorn that looks like our son, then yep.”
The mare shook herself and frowned. “Macintosh Apple – just what have you gotten yourself into?!”
“Long story, Ma. And we have a guest,” Big Mac replied, indicating Gilda with a forehoof.
Pear looked at the griffon and raised an eyebrow. Gilda tried out her most ingratiating smile and it seemed to work. Pear sighed and tilted her head toward the house. “Come on in. We were about to have a meal. Don’t know which one to call it since time has been thrown for a loop by the extra long night, but we’re hungry. You can tell us all about…” She waved a hoof in the general direction of the new horn and wings. “… these while we’re eating.”
They trooped inside and Big Mac had to deal with a very excited little sister before he could sit down with his parents at the dining table. With Apple Bloom hanging on every word, he, Applejack, and Gilda related the tale of their adventures to Pear Butter, Bright Mac, and a strangely blasé Granny Smith.
“… and then we headed home,” Big Mac concluded. “Now, I know everypony keeps calling me a prince, but don’t you worry none – I have no intention of abandoning my obligations right here.”
“Now just hold on a minute!” Granny Smith piped up. “Harmony done gave you those wings and horn for a reason, but it don’t mean you haveta sit on a fancy throne up in Canterlot. Seems to me you just started a new phase of life and you can do a lot more than plow fields and buck apples. If that there Element of Harmony means anythin’, then you should be doin’ things for the betterment of Equestria. Mebbe as a Prince of Friendship or the like.”
Gilda was impressed. The ancient mare had appeared to be almost asleep for most of the conversation, but it was clear that she had not missed much, if anything.
“But you need me here!” Big Mac objected.
“What? Are you goin’ to drop what your doin’ overnight? Course not! You need to plan and work up to these things. Discuss with Celestia about how you think you can best help ponies now that you’re an alicorn. And don’t you worry none about the work here. Your cousin Caramel was talking about movin’ to Ponyville and he’ll take up the slack as you get busy elsewhere.”
The alicorn stallion’s ears drooped. “But I don’t want to be a prince.”
“Well, I don’t like muckin’ out the pig pen, but I got enough sense ta know that it’s gotta be done. You’ve got the crown to go with them wings and horn – better get used to it,” Granny said with a cackling laugh.
Gilda was liking the old mare more and more. The griffon had never met a pony with such a no-nonsense attitude. However, she felt Big Mac needed a boost right now after that. “Hey, Mac, no pony says you have to be officially coronated. Let the ponies have their comforting delusions while you just be your awesome friendly self. Let them call you Prince if that makes them happy. New appendages haven’t changed who you are inside, right?”
Big Mac gave her a crooked smile. “I suppose not.”
The griffon grinned. “I might suggest you take off that crown though. It spoils the desired outcome.”
The alicorn had forgotten about the headpiece with the Element of Harmony embedded in it until Granny Smith had mentioned it. It sat on his head so naturally that he had not noticed it for a long while. No wonder the Ponyville citizens had been so quietly respectful! He reached up and took it off his head and put it on the table. It wasn’t the fanciest thing, but its simple elegant design suited the stallion. For better or worse, it was his.
Bright Mac said, “Well, it seems we all will have to deal with some adjustments over the coming months, but I think Granny is right. You have a bright new destiny, son, and your mother and I will do our best to support you.”
Pear Butter nodded. “But that can wait until tomorrow. You look tired and it’s best to start a new day after a healthy sleep with a rested body and a fresh mind.” She looked at Gilda. “And I welcome you as our guest. What you did for our son leaves us indebted to you.”
Gilda blushed. She was not used to getting so much praise and goodwill from everyone. “Like I told Mac and Applejack, I don’t want to be dead weight. I can help out with the baking if you want?”
“If that’s what you truly wish to do, dear, you can join me in the morning. But for now… Applejack, please take Ms. Gilda to her room and show her the facilities.”
“Sure thing, Ma,” Applejack replied, getting up from her chair.
“Thanks, Ms. Butter. Just call me Gilda though.”
“And you can call me Ma if you like,” the mare replied.
Gilda almost stumbled as she followed Applejack out of the room. Tears welled in her eyes, blurring her vision. After years of enduring griffon hostility and near non-existent friendships, the wholehearted acceptance by this family was filling her with an overwhelming amount of emotion.
“Pleasant dreams, you three!” Bright Mac called out as his son followed the two out of the room.
Applejack said, “Ma and Pa have really taken a shine to ya, Gilda. Our folks have good judgment about ponies, and Ah guess griffons too. So, if you’ve earned their respect, Ah reckon ya got yourself a home for as long as ya need.”
“Thanks, Applejack. I really mean it,” Gilda replied.
The mare chuckled. “From one compulsive truth-teller to another, Ah know.” Applejack took the griffon upstairs and pointed out the bathroom on the way to the guest room. “Make yourself comfy, and welcome to Sweet Apple Acres. Catch ya in the mornin’!” She yawned. “After we all get some much-needed shuteye.”
With nothing pushing her to keep going anymore, Gilda barely found the energy to use the bathroom before throwing herself on the bed and almost instantly falling asleep.
And despite his concerns about his future, Big Mac did not take long to join her in the dream realm.
Fluttershy was nearly overwhelmed by all her animals that had been neglected due to her unplanned absence. She was very glad that Irwin was more than willing to split her regular duties with her. Between the two, they quickly dealt with the needs of every one of the creatures. The pegasus noted that the minotaur seemed to have little difficulty in comprehending their needs, understanding them nearly at the level of Fluttershy herself. She was impressed but wondered how he had come so far so quickly. She did notice the gem on his collar glowing occasionally and speculated on whether that Element of Harmony was assisting him. Then she smiled to herself and shrugged. It did not matter – Irwin had brought his kindness and compassion, not the jewel. He gently introduced Blossom to each of the animals and they quickly accepted the baby timberwolf. The animals trusted Irwin and that gave her a warm feeling in her heart. She hoped he would consider staying for a while longer.
Irwin was flattered by the praise that Fluttershy gave him after the chores were completed. Whereas he had long felt like a stranger among his own kind for his pacific attitude, the pegasus mare made him feel completely at home, even if he had to sleep on the couch. The feeling of fitting in made it hard to even contemplate going back to his hometown. If he had not been so tired, he might have lain awake for a long time, contemplating his future. As it was, he was fast asleep within moments of his head hitting the pillow. The minotaur never even noticed when Blossom climbed on top of him, curled up, and went to sleep with her new guardian.
Trixie was delighted to hug Allura and shared a few kisses between her daughter and her husband.
“I wasn’t too worried about your absence,” Mark Wells professed. “I believe in your ability to make it through any problem.”
“You have always been Trixie’s greatest supporter and your belief in her makes her proud to be your wife. But it was the most perilous quest of Trixie’s life.” She gave Mark a brief summary of events, edited slightly for Allura’s ears. While their foal was still young, they had learned early that their daughter was rather precocious. “Trixie will give you further details at a more opportune moment. Meanwhile, your Amazing Wife desperately needs her beauty sleep.”
“Don’t worry,” Mark replied. “Your Great and Powerful Husband has everything under control. I’ve collected the balance of your appearance fee and finished packing up. We can leave for Appleloosa immediately after breakfast tomorrow if you want.”
The blue unicorn shook her head. “Trixie promised to stick around for another day while the princesses sort out some details with us. Mostly due to these, Trixie supposes.” She indicated the necklace that she had taken off in preparation for climbing into bed. “We have plenty of time to spare to make it to the Appleloosa rodeo for our next gig.”
“Suits me, dear. I’d like to visit some friends while we’re here.”
“Trixie has made some more good friends too. And then there’s Pinkie’s party.” She pulled the sheet over herself.
“How could I forget that! Have a good sleep, love.”
“Thanks, Dowser. Love you.”
Mark picked up their filly and placed her on his back. He whispered to her, “Come on, Allura. Let’s go to the Ponyville Spa and arrange a session for Mommy. We don’t want her all stinky from her adventures, do we?”
Allura giggled and Trixie muttered, “I heard that, Mudlark Smells!”
Zecora was happy to get back to her tree home. Despite her tiredness, she unpacked her saddlebags, methodically returned the contents to their proper locations, and made notes on what needed to be replaced. Only then did she consider climbing into bed. However, sleep did not come to her immediately. The events since the aborted Celebration played over her mind and she wondered what was bothering her. And then it struck her. She had made so many good friends and had become part of something greater. Her life had irreversibly changed and so had her needs. “It is plain to see – I’m feeling lonely.”
The zebra resolved to pay a visit to Irwin tomorrow. He had shown an interest in her potion-making. Perhaps she could encourage him to stay and become her apprentice? With that decided, Zecora was able to relax and drift off into slumber.
Penumbra was exhausted. She’d had a long shift before Celestia had been due to arrive at the Summer Sun Celebration, and there had been no respite since then. She had been awake for far too long and it was catching up to her very quickly now that all her immediate concerns had been dealt with. She appointed one of the more trustworthy among the squad members as the Officer-in-Charge and left her with some instructions before collapsing on the bed in the Ranking Officer’s Quarters. She went to sleep with smug thoughts of Overshoot scrubbing toilets for the next several hours.
The dream realm was always more vivid for thestrals, many of whom were dreamwalkers. Penumbra did not consider herself skilled in that talent, but this time it seemed more real to her than on any previous occasion. She stood in what appeared to be the throne room of what she imagined the Castle of the Two Sisters had once looked like. She wondered why before the sound of approaching hoofsteps drew her attention.
From a side passage, Princess Luna emerged and regally approached the thestral who bowed respectfully. “Prithee rise, Captain Penumbra. Welcome to my demesnes, my most faithful follower.”
“Thank you, Your Highness. May I ask why you have brought me here?”
“I have not had the opportunity to thank thee and thy friends personally for what you have done for me and my sister. This was the most expedient way for me to meet thee in private. I was most impressed by thy skill in battle and thy loyalty to the Thrones.”
“That was my duty, Princess. I would never let you nor Princess Celestia down.”
“Nevertheless, thy dedication was most exemplary.” Luna smile mischievously and leaned in close to the thestral. “And one other thing – I think thou art quite charming. If thou art willing, mayhap thou wouldst be interested in an assignation once our current responsibilities are resolved?”
Without waiting for an answer, Luna disappeared in a swirl of mist and sparkles, a girlish giggle echoing through the throne room.
Penumbra blinked and her jaw dropped. Did an alicorn princess just call her cute and ask her out on a date? Did Luna realize that Penumbra preferred mares? Was there any way in Equestria she was going to say no?
When Gilda woke, it was nighttime. The room was not dark though due to the curtains on the windows being drawn back, allowing a generous amount of moonlight within. The griffon realized that she had forgotten to close the curtains because she had been so tired. The daylight had not stopped her from falling asleep almost the moment her head hit the pillow. She could see the moon from where she lay, its changed appearance fascinating her. She felt little inclination to get up – this bed had to be the most comfortable that she had slept in all her life. However, one biological need took urgent precedence.
“Gotta pee,” she grumbled as she reluctantly pushed back the covers. She did a full-body stretch as only a creature that was part feline could do, then headed for the bathroom. After relieving herself, she considered her reflection in the mirror. “Could do with a preening,” she murmured but settled for making herself look presentable for the moment.
Now that she was fully awake, Gilda realized that she was hungry. She left the bathroom intending to go to the kitchen to see if there was anything handy to eat. The griffon paused at the top of the steps when she noticed that there were sounds coming downstairs and light was spilling out into the hallway.
‘Someone besides me is up,’ she thought and quietly made her way down. As a predator species, Gilda was adept at silently stalking her prey. She stood in the doorway of the kitchen without alerting the occupant to her nearness. It was Pear Butter that the griffon saw working with various cooking implements and the smell wafting from the stove made the griffon’s stomach gurgle loudly.
Pear Butter’s ears swiveled around and the mare looked for the source. She smiled when she saw Gilda. “Good morning. Feeling hungry after that long sleep?”
Gilda rubbed the back of her head sheepishly, having her presence betrayed by an empty stomach. “Good morning, Ms. Butter. Yeah, I’m kinda famished.”
“I told you to call me Ma,” the mare chided her with a gentle smile. “Anyway, what would you like to eat? Big Mac brought in a couple of dozen freshly laid eggs and I could make an omelet with cheese if you’d like?”
“That sounds great, Ma. Umm… so, Big Mac is up already? I would have thought he’d be as tired as me.”
“Maybe he needs less now that he’s an alicorn,” Pear replied as she grabbed some eggs and began cracking them into a bowl. “Or perhaps it’s just a lifetime of early starts. Whatever the case, he got up at the same time as Applejack, Pa, and me. None of us are sure what the time on the clock is supposed to be yet, but us farmers know when it’s time to work.” She added some water to the eggs before grating cheese into the bowl and added chopped tomato, salt, and pepper. She turned to put a large frypan on the stove, paused and asked, “Would you like mushrooms in your omelet?”
“Love 'em!” Gilda replied. “I'll have you know that griffins still take pride in our hunting abilities. I've refined my mushroom-stalking skills to the point they hardly ever see me coming.”
Pear laughed. “You’re just as believable as Applejack when you spin tall tales.” She fetched some large mushrooms out of a paper bag sitting on the shelf. She chopped them up before adding them to the other ingredients before mixing them well. By then, the frypan was sufficiently heated and she poured the contents of the bowl into it.
“Help yourself to some apple juice if you like. It’s in a jug in the fridge.” Pear pointed to a cupboard. “There are glasses up there.”
“Actually, I’ll grab my travel mug,” Gilda replied. “I can drink out of pony glasses but griffon cups have a design made for beaks. No lips, you see.”
“Oh, of course. Let me know if there are any other items made for us ponies that don’t suit griffons, dear.”
“Will do, Ma.” Gilda left the kitchen and bounded up the stairs. Once in her room, she located her bags and dug out the travel mug which was a durable cup with a spout that allowed liquids to be poured into her beak without spilling. She returned to the kitchen and fetched the apple juice, pouring herself a generous amount before returning the jug to the fridge. She realized that she was very thirsty when she drank two-thirds of the juice without pause.
“That’s really great juice!” Gilda exclaimed.
“Thanks, dear. We’re proud of our product here at Sweet Apple Acres. I even have some pear juice from a small stand of trees that I keep. Granny was quite insistent that I keep some pear traditions going from my side of the family.”
“Oh? Perhaps you could tell me about some of those?”
“We can do that after you’ve had your breakfast.” Pear Butter took the frypan from the stove and her spatula neatly lifted the cooked omelet and placed it on a plate in front of Gilda. “You’ll need your energy for when we do the baking. So, more eating and less talking.”
Gilda thoroughly enjoyed the food. It seemed everything that ponies made tasted better than the best griffon fare, although she did wonder how they would handle a steak. The generously large omelet filled her and she burped contentedly after washing it down with the last of the juice.
Pear giggled as she placed a bag of flour on the table. “There’s a sign of a well-fed griffon. Put your plate in the sink and we’ll get to work.”
Gilda did so while Pear gathered several more items in preparation.
“Now, you’ve said that you’re a baker, but what would you say is your best product?”
“Well… my scones were the most popular, so I suppose that would be it.”
“Scones? Alright, let’s start with those. Show me what you can do, dear, while I work on something else.”
Gilda gulped. The normally self-confident griffon felt nervousness that she had not experienced in a long while. It was time to prove herself.
Earlier that morning, despite the awkwardness of trying to find a comfortable way of sleeping with his newly acquired wings, Big Mac had managed to find a suitable position and slept solidly until his inbuilt alarm clock woke him. It was completely dark as he, unlike Gilda, had drawn the curtains. He reached for the bedside lamp and the room was lit with a soft glow. His hoof stopped in midair – he had not touched the lamp yet! His eyes drifted up to see a ball of light shining at the tip of his horn. He stared at it for a long moment before sighing. It was a reminder that his life was forever changed by his transformation. He decided that the best way of dealing with it, for now, was to continue his normal habits as much as possible, so he climbed out of bed and headed for the bathroom.
Big Mac passed his father on the way who paused and regarded the glowing horn for a moment before saying, “That’s convenient.”
The alicorn shrugged. “Don’t know how I turned it on, and I don’t know how to turn it off neither.”
Bright Mac chuckled. “You’ll get the hang of it, I reckon. I’ll let Ma know that you’re up. We weren’t sure how long you’d sleep.”
Splashing water in his face apparently was sufficient to get his glowing horn to shut off. After taking care of his needs in the bathroom, Big Mac started to head downstairs before pausing and looking toward Gilda’s room. The door was ajar and he wondered if she was up. He silently peeked inside and saw that the griffon was still fast asleep, so he quietly closed the door.
After a hearty breakfast, he, his father, and Applejack left to do their morning chores. There was no sign of dawn as yet, but his horn once again lit the way. He reluctantly decided that it had its advantages before banging it on the door frame of the chicken coop. The hens seemed fascinated with his new wings when Big Mac gathered the eggs. They definitely did not make as much fuss as they normally did. He remembered to duck this time when exiting the coop.
After leaving the eggs with his mother, he went to help his father properly pack and store the equipment that Bright Mac had brought from the Summer Sun Festival grounds. While they were engaged in that activity, the sun rose and the moon set.
Bright Mac said, “That was a short night. The Princess must be trying to adjust the time back to normal.”
“It was getting too cool for this time of the year because of the extended night,” Macintosh observed. “Not good for the trees. A bit more day to make up for it will help a lot.”
“Agreed. Speaking of the trees, check out the Royal Gala apples. I believe they are ready for harvesting.”
“Sure thing, Pa.”
The apples were indeed ready and the stallion took comfort in the normality of the harvesting process, although he quickly found out that he had to moderate his bucking. It seemed that his strength had grown along with everything else. He was joined by Applejack and the two worked in familiar unison.
Big Mac was so in the zone that he was surprised when Gilda turned up carrying a basket on her back.
“Lunchtime!” the griffon announced.
Brother and sister ponies eagerly dropped what they were doing and gathered on the blanket that Gilda spread on the ground in the shade of the apple trees. She pulled out some plates from the basket before piling them with food. Along with the usual salad sandwiches, cheese, coleslaw, and fruit, the griffon proudly laid out some baked goods.
“Are those the scones y’all reckon are your fav'rites?” Applejack asked.
“Yes. Your mom was very impressed with them. Let me know what you think of them.”
After everyone had eaten their fill of the main course, Gilda pulled out a jar of zap apple jam and a pot of whipped cream. “Pear whipped this cream for me to go with the scones and jam. We didn’t have that in Griffonstone, but it sure goes well with the scones.” She had cut the scones in half and spread jam on each piece before putting a dollop of cream on them. She held the first ones out to Bright Mac first before serving Macintosh and Applejack. She had to prepare another lot very quickly as they all expressed pleasure and ate their scones with alacrity.
Applejack finished a mouthful and licked her lips. “You done brought home a keeper, Big Mac.”
“Eeyup!” he agreed.
Gilda didn’t believe until now that she could blush so much from simple praise of her cooking. Applejack appeared to notice because she smirked and opened her mouth to say something. Knowing the mare’s penchant to zero in on the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, the griffon interrupted with the first thing she could think of. “I do have one question.”
“Yup?” said Big Mac with an encouraging nod.
Gilda put on her silliest impression of a country accent. “What in tarnation is a ‘zap apple,’ anyways?”
All the Apples laughed freely.
Penumbra was fast asleep, but in the world of dreams, she was reliving some of the abuses and prejudice that she’d had to endure for years. As always, she stoically ignored what she could and dealt with what she could not. Suddenly, right in the middle of a condescending tirade from her squad leader, the unicorn swirled away in a dissipating mist.
“That will be quite enough of that knavery,” came a regal voice from behind the thestral.
Penumbra turned to see Princess Luna in all her majesty. She bowed, realizing that the Mistress of Dreams was visiting her. “Thank you, Your Highness.”
“ 'Twas nothing, my loyal captain, but it did give me more insight into the nature of the tribulations thou hast suffered. I am ashamed that I am the cause of thy persecution.”
“Please, do not take the blame for the actions of our entire tribe, Princess. If not for the likes of Night Shriek, thestrals could have made peace with the other pony tribes over the centuries.”
“Perhaps, but they need not have suffered that problem at all but for me,” Luna said sadly.
“If it wasn’t for you, my kind would not exist. I am happy to be a thestral despite everything.”
The Moon Princess smiled. “We will endeavor to make that so for all thy kind. And it begins from the top. Acting on your debriefing, my sister and I have already uncovered much that troubles us. While we have yet to make a thorough investigation, we suspect that the current Captain of the Royal Guard has had clandestine instructions in place to ensure that thou wouldst never be promoted. Thou only achieved corporal rank due to length of service and an inability to show cause why thou shouldst not be promoted. We believe a second promotion to sergeant was quashed.”
Penumbra closed her eyes and sighed. “I suspected as much, Your Highness, but I had no proof nor anypony to turn to short of Princess Celestia herself, and you can be sure that I was never allowed to be anywhere near her. I am stunned that you have learned so much so soon.”
“Word hath reached much of the Royal Guard already, and especially thy part in it. Thy promotion hath caused many a guilty dream this night.”
Penumbra’s eyes widened. “You’ve seen their dreams?”
“Nay, their nightmares. Before my banishment, I was the guardian of the dream realm. I would seek out those suffering from nightmares and soothe their troubles. Imagine my surprise when I took up my mantle this eve, only to discover that many of those nightmares were born of their mistreatment of thee and fear of punishment. I learned far too much this night.”
“I see. Thank you for telling me all of this, Princess. I am happy to be vindicated.”
“Thou art very welcome, Penumbra. And please, call me Luna when we are not in a situation that calls for formality. Thou hast more than earned the right to that familiarity.”
The thestral recalled the alicorn’s hint at asking for a date, and she realized that it would be awkward if she could not call her by name. “I’ll do that, Luna. Anyway, what happens from here?”
“My sister hath ordered Lieutenant Shining Armor to relieve thee temporarily while thou dost return to Canterlot. We have much to investigate and we must weed out the rot in the Royal Guard. If half of what I have learned this night is the full truth, I believe that we will be asking for Captain Stone Wall’s resignation soon.”
“I see. I will be ready to depart immediately upon Shining Armor’s arrival. Umm… I will remember this when I wake up, right?”
The Alicorn of Dreams smiled. “Thou shalt. Dost thou not remember what I said when last we met in the dream realm?” When the thestral nodded, Luna bent her neck down and presented her jawline to Penumbra. “If my Captain of the Night Guard hath the courage, thou mayest answer with a kiss.”
That annoying voice in her head called ‘common sense’ told Penumbra exactly what she could not possibly do to her sovereign… under any circumstances. Ignoring that voice was not difficult, especially with her pride urging the thestral to not back down from such a blatant challenge.
Penumbra leaned forward only to have Luna quickly swivel her head and kiss the surprised thestral full on the lips.
Before Penumbra could react, the Alicorn of Dreams dissolved into mist once more. The thestral heard laughter fade into the distance from all around her.
Penumbra gaped and touched her lips with a hoof, feeling the residual moisture. Luna was a fast mover! And that was just the way the thestral liked it!
Zecora set off for Fluttershy’s house at dawn. She found the pegasus at work tending to her animals. As she had expected, Irwin Goodall was assisting her while getting lessons from her.
“…and that’s what Harry meant by the bendy pain,” Fluttershy was saying.
Irwin nodded. “I get it now. I’ve been trying too hard to understand words when I should have been concentrating on how they conceptualize meanings.”
“Exactly. Animals don’t talk like we do, so to be able to help them, we need to comprehend their intentions rather than literal words.”
Zecora concluded that Fluttershy was utterly taken by the minotaur due to her complete lack of hesitation or shyness when talking with him. That was good because it greatly increased the likelihood of him staying rather than returning to his hometown. However, Zecora wanted to be a part of Irwin’s life too, so she had to make a strong impression to match that of the pegasus. She stepped into view to greet them.
“Good morning to you both on this fine day. I have brought many medicines your way.”
“Ooh! Thank you, Zecora. I was running low.”
Irwin looked at the vials and packets that the zebra was unloading from her saddlebags. He held up one of the bottles. “Are these the potions that you told me that you brew for ponies?”
Zecora was glad to hear that Irwin’s interest in her potions had not waned. “Every medicine is targeted at a particular ill. Ponies, and minotaurs, have completely different needs to fill.”
“So, these are strictly for animals? I’ve wondered in the past if some of our minotaur medicines could have helped the animals that I have tried to treat.”
The zebra fixed him with a serious gaze. “Would you like to learn how and which to brew? Is that something that you would want to do?”
Irwin blinked and stared out into space. He had been kept busy all morning since Fluttershy had made them breakfast, but it had been nothing but pleasurable work. He was finally doing something with his life that he genuinely wanted to do. And he realized that he wanted to do more than just help the pegasus. Zecora was offering him a path to learning how to do that, but that meant he would have to move permanently to Ponyville. He smiled. That idea was nowhere near as daunting as when the thought had first crossed his mind. Harmony had made him an Element Bearer and Princess Celestia had indicated that she wanted all the bearers to stay together, so everything seemed to be pointing to him staying here. He turned his focus back on Zecora. “I would love to learn everything from you. When can we start?”
Zecora beamed with delight. “Your apprenticeship begins immediately. Unless there is somewhere else that you need to be?”
The minotaur was reminded that he had to wind up some things back home, not to mention fetching his possessions. “I have to square everything with my family and bring my things here if I’m going to move to Ponyville permanently.” Irwin realized then that there was another problem. “But where am I going to stay? I can’t sleep on Fluttershy’s couch indefinitely.”
“I… don’t mind… if you don’t,” the yellow pegasus said meekly.
“I could set up a bed in my house instead,” Zecora offered.
Irwin looked from one mare to the other and grinned. “Well, I don’t lack for alternatives. I suppose we can work out a more permanent solution later. I’m stoked that everyone is so eager to help me learn. But I better pack and head off to the station. I’m not sure when the next train will be going to my hometown, but I don’t want to miss it. And I really have to take my bunny patient home too.” The minotaur then headed inside.
Zecora turned her attention to Fluttershy who said, “You like him too.”
The zebra nodded. “It’s true, I do. His passion to heal is a match for your zeal.”
Fluttershy looked toward her cottage. “I… I’ve never felt this way before. He just… makes me feel so happy when he’s with me.”
Zecora nodded. “The way you are feeling I understand well. We are similarly smitten, I can tell.”
The pegasus regarded the zebra nervously. “Does that mean we’re… competing for him?”
“What more can I say? It’s the pony way.”
Fluttershy was well aware that mares had to vie for the attention of the stallions as there were so many females to each of the males, but she never expected to be in that position. And with a non-pony too! Yet, here she was contending with one of her best friends for Irwin. The timorous pegasus bit her lip and screwed up her courage. “I won’t give up easily, Zecora.”
The zebra smiled. “Of course, you must try, my dear Fluttershy. You should do your best, or him I shall wrest.”
Irwin emerged from the cottage just then with Blossom hot on his heels. He gave the two a wave. “Thanks for everything, ladies! I hope to be back before the weekend. Have a great day!” Then he left at a comfortable jog.
“Have a safe trip!” Fluttershy called out before facing Zecora once more. She gave the zebra a soft but determined smile. “It is on.”
With absolutely nothing scheduled for the day, Trixie opted for a long sleep-in and snuggling with her husband. If it wasn’t for their hungry foal, they might still be in bed. Once up though, they decided to make the most of the free day. Their itinerant lifestyle meant that they were familiar with the services available to them in each town, and so Allura was left with a playgroup that gave her some valuable interaction with ponies her own age. Trixie and Mark spent most of the day enjoying what Ponyville had to offer visitors, taking in a stage play and dining at a nice restaurant for a change rather than cooking while on the road.
Trixie was pleased that nothing happened all day to interrupt her family’s day off. She was not surprised, however, when there came a knock on their caravan’s door not long after they had returned home that evening. She tucked a blanket around Allura while glancing at her husband who was closer to the door. Mark answered the knock, finding a Royal Guard standing at the base of the steps.
“Is this the residence of Trixie Lulamoon?” the pegasus guard asked.
“It is,” Mark replied before turning and saying, “Honey, it’s for you.”
The blue unicorn came to the doorway. “You have met the Amazing Trixie – what do you wish of her?”
“Her Highness, Princess Celestia, wishes to have a word with you.” The guard pressed a device strung around his neck. It flashed briefly before he continued. “The Princess will be here momentarily.”
True to his word, seconds later, Celestia arrived in a flash of teleportation. “Good evening, My Little Ponies.”
“Good evening, Your Highness,” both Trixie and Mark replied while bowing respectfully.
Trixie stepped down from the caravan to approach the alicorn. “Is something wrong, Princess? You look very tired.”
Celestia gave her a wan smile. “I have yet to sleep since last we saw each other. My sister and I have had far too many tasks to accomplish in too short a time. Nevertheless, this is my final stop before I head for the Royal Bedroom.”
“To what does Trixie owe the honor of your visit?”
“As I previously mentioned, I desire to keep all the Element Bearers in close proximity so that they may respond to appropriate emergencies at short notice. I realize that this conflicts with your career, and I have come up with a way around this problem.” Her horn lit up and telekinesis withdrew an object from under the alicorn’s wing. She held it up in front of Trixie. “This is a rare portal amulet. Powerful unicorns can use it to generate a portal to any place they have been previously and can clearly visualize. As you have traveled so widely, that should be very beneficial for you. More importantly, it will allow you to answer a summons if we need the Element Bearers. As long as you have the power and skill to use its enchantment, this amulet will give you the freedom to continue your showbusiness travels.”
Trixie drew herself up proudly. “The Amazing Trixie is no mere boastful unicorn. Instruct her on the amulet’s use and she will prove it.”
Celestia did so and hung the amulet around the unicorn’s neck, saying, “I suggest a short test hop.”
Mark pulled his wife’s restocked saddlebags from the wagon and placed them across her withers. Trixie kissed her husband and said, “You know me so well, Dowser. Look toward Canterlot.” Then she activated the amulet and a swirling portal appeared before her. She stepped through and the portal collapsed.
Celestia asked, “Did Trixie just—?”
“Yep,” Mark replied with a grin, just as fireworks burst over the distant city perched on the side of a mountain.
Penumbra slept soundly until she woke to the sound of knocking. “Your wake-up call, Captain,” came a voice through the door.
She had left instructions to be woken, but now she was sufficiently refreshed and ready to begin what was bound to be a busy day, starting with the arrival of Lieutenant Shining Armor. She took the time to make herself look as presentable as possible, lamenting the condition of her battered armor. “At least I won’t have any trouble requisitioning a new set,” she murmured as she attempted to make a quick fix. “Hmm… Better talk to Princess Luna about a redesign for the Night Guard. The new recruits would be demoralized if they are forced to wear Day Guard armor and regalia.”
Reasonably satisfied with her appearance, Penumbra emerged from her quarters to break her fast. While eating, she took the morning report from the officer-in-charge, Sergeant Quick Wind. She inquired about the train service from Canterlot and the pegasus stallion informed her that the first scheduled arrival was due in about fifteen minutes, barring disruptions due to recent events. That gave her time to get a few administrative duties out of the way before her relief arrived.
A quarter-hour later, her keen hearing caught the sound of the train whistle in the distance as it pulled into the station. Assuming that this was indeed the service from Canterlot, her relief would be here soon. She wondered what he was like. She had never seen him, nor heard much about him except that he was a rising star in the Royal Guard. At least, she knew to expect a unicorn stallion, but that was it. She trusted the princesses not to send a jerk, but it remained to be seen what he was like as an officer.
Penumbra was writing up orders for some tasks she wanted attended to in her absence when there was a knock on the door to her quarters which doubled as her office.
“Enter!” she called out.
Quick Wind opened the door and saluted. “Captain – Lieutenant Shining Armor has arrived.”
“Very good. Send him in,” she replied as she stood and acknowledged the salute. It was still sinking in that she was everypony’s superior officer now.
A unicorn with an immaculately groomed snow-white coat and two-tone blue mane entered and gave Penumbra a crisp salute. “Lieutenant Shining Armor reporting, Captain!”
Penumbra noted that he was wearing a full formal armor kit that certainly lived up to his name as it had been polished to a mirror sheen. His expression was perfectly neutral but his eyes seemed to sparkle. She briefly wondered if she had been sent a pretty colt to relieve her, although his toned body belied a stallion that got by on just his looks. She returned the salute and said, “At ease, Lieutenant.”
Shining immediately relaxed and grinned disarmingly. “I’ve been eager to meet the batpony who made such a great impression on the princesses that she made the rank of captain from a mere corporal. I’ve been given an overview of the battle you had with Nightmare Moon and, if you don’t mind ma’am, I would like to prepare a tactical breakdown of every fight you and your companions went through. This could then be presented by you to the other officers as a case study, leading to updates in tactics.”
Penumbra was so surprised by the unicorn’s gushing enthusiasm that she barely noticed the insulting nickname. She judged that he used it through sheer ignorance, so she smiled back. “Thank you for the praise – I might take you up on that proposal. FYI though – the term ‘batpony’ is considered a slur. My kind are called thestrals.”
“My sincere apologies, Captain. I was not aware of that. I won’t use it again.”
“Apology accepted. Now, aside from relieving me while I attend the princesses in Canterlot, what further orders were you given?”
Shining frowned. “I have been informed of the serious failures to live up to the standards of the Royal Guard and I’m to address them during your absence. Do I have your permission to do as I see fit to remedy that situation?”
Penumbra raised an eyebrow. “You sound like a pony with some frustrations of his own.”
“You could say that, ma’am. I am somewhat… disappointed in some of the personnel in the Guard that I love. I joined the Royal Guard because its principles mirrored my own. You can imagine my… frustration when few aspects met my expectations. I plan to remake the organization under my command into something all ponies can trust and look up to. With your permission, Ma’am.”
‘Tactful as well as dedicated. I think I’m going to like this stallion.’ Penumbra pushed the pile of papers that she had prepared across the desk toward Shining Armor. “Here are my orders and recommendations with regard to specific members of this unit. You may add to them as necessary.” She got up and headed for the door. “I’ll show you around and introduce you to the sergeants before I head for the station. I’m told that the next service to Canterlot is due to depart in just over an hour but I’m not certain that I can trust the timetable at the moment.”
Shining said, “I took the liberty of checking the schedule before proceeding here. The stationmaster informed me that service had mostly returned to normal and he expected the next train to Canterlot to depart close to if not exactly on time.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant. That was most helpful.”
By the time she had finished giving Shining Armor a tour of the garrison, Penumbra found herself wishing that she had been posted to his unit when she had joined. Of course, there would have been bigoted ponies there too, but at least she would have had one genuine friend. She hoped he would be one in the future.
When Penumbra arrived at Canterlot Castle, she learned from Raven Inkwell why the princesses had not required her to be there earlier. They had been visiting the families of the victims of Nightmare Moon, offering their condolences and pledges of assistance. Celestia had introduced her sister and lent Luna moral support. The meetings had taken an emotional toll on the night alicorn, however, and she was far from the cheerful pony that Penumbra had met in her dreams last night. Nevertheless, Luna managed a smile when she saw the thestral, and that made Penumbra happy.
All three alicorns met with Penumbra in private before getting down to business. The thestral started off addressing each according to protocol but Luna rebuked her gently, reminding her to call the alicorn by name. Penumbra looked uncertainly in Celestia’s direction but the princess merely smiled.
“I am very happy that my sister has found someone to call a friend already. I definitely have no objections to the informality, at least in private. Our subjects often forget that we are ponies too and have our friends.”
Cadance said, “I’ve never enjoyed being too formal, and as I’m not even a reigning alicorn, I’d rather you call me by name too.”
Celestia giggled, mildly shocking the thestral as it shattered her image of the perfect princess. “I suppose I had better make it three for three. While the next few weeks will undoubtedly be tumultuous, I hope that we can find the time to just be four mares enjoying socializing together. Now, I suggest that we all enjoy this luncheon I had prepared. We have a lot of serious business to conduct afterward.”
That afternoon, Captain Stone Wall was called into a hearing where he was grilled mercilessly by Celestia and Luna, with Penumbra present. The stallion put up a defiant front at first, but as more and more witnesses were trotted forward to give their testimony, he gradually sunk into sullen silence. While Penumbra had only expected the extent of the captain’s bigotry and discrimination to be revealed, as the hearing progressed, emboldened victims stepped forward to give accounts of cronyism, misappropriation of Royal Guard funds, and actions bringing disrepute to the Crown. While there would be more formalities to deal with, Stone Wall’s career was toast. Almost literally. The Alicorn of the Sun was furious and it had gotten more than a little warm in the room until her sister had calmed her down somewhat. The thestral had remained composed throughout. The Solar Princess was angry enough for both of them and Penumbra was finally getting the justice she had longed for. Stone Wall was arrested pending court martial. When Penumbra had asked who would be in charge of the Royal Guard in the meantime, it came as no surprise to the thestral that Shining Armor’s name had come up among the candidates.
Dinner that evening had been the most lavish that Penumbra had ever experienced. They dined alfresco; the warm evening air conducive to a pleasant atmosphere. She sat next to Luna and chatted with her potential marefriend, hearing about her life back before the Nightmare. Luna learned more from the thestral after she raised the moon following Celestia setting the sun, and Penumbra excitedly discussed the wonders of modern nightlife with her. After the meal, Cadance whispered something to Celestia. The two excused themselves with knowing smiles, leaving Penumbra alone with Luna on a balcony overlooking the city.
Between the moonlight and the streetlamps, the scene was as clear as day to the eyes of both the thestral and the night alicorn. Luna was quite surprised and delighted at seeing how many ponies were not only still out and about but were also actively seeking entertainment or socializing. The alicorn had been too busy the previous evening to notice, so Luna’s new Captain of the Night Guard was kept occupied explaining all the places and activities that were novel to the mare who had missed a thousand years of change. It was quite enjoyable for both and, at some time while they talked, the alicorn’s wing made it around the thestral’s barrel.
Suddenly, a brief flurry of fireworks lit the sky near the edge of the city and Luna cried with delight. Penumbra was reasonably sure that no celebration was occurring, nor was a display authorized. Despite it technically being her responsibility to check out a commotion like that, she did not because the Night Guard was not yet fully commissioned nor personnel allocated to it, so the current arrangements were still in place. The thestral thought the fireworks were a fitting end to the best day in her career in the Royal Guard. If she’d had to find who set them off, she would more likely thank them than rebuke them. She turned her head to see Luna regarding her with a broad smile. Before the alicorn could react, Penumbra returned the stolen kiss from the previous night. It lasted a lot longer this time.
News of the events that occurred at and after the Summer Sun Celebration was only just beginning to disseminate in the minotaur township that Irwin Goodall called home. That gave him much to talk about with his family and his particular role in it. It made him feel good when his parents lavished praise on him for what he had accomplished, and that made it a lot easier for him to broach the subject of moving out.
“I’ve realized what I truly want to do with my life, and it won’t be here. I have accepted an apprenticeship in potion-making with Zecora, and I will also be studying animal welfare with Fluttershy. I will be moving to Ponyville to follow my passions.”
Irwin’s father frowned. He had always urged his son to follow him in a more traditional minotaur profession, and Irwin waited nervously for his dad’s response. Finally, the older bull sighed and shook his head. “If that is your choice, I cannot hold you back. The Sun Princess believes that you will have a greater role to play in the future, and your heart is already set on your chosen career. I wish you the best, son.”
His mother smirked. “You seem to have found the love of your life out among the ponies. Don’t let us hold you back from your destiny.” Irwin’s heart felt ready to burst with happiness, and he embraced his father. “Thanks, Dad.” He repeated the hug with his mother before saying, “I’d better get started packing. I promised to return soon.”
The young minotaur did not have a great number of possessions that he felt he needed to take with him. His father gave him a cart to carry them to the train station and told his son to keep it. Two days later, he took the first morning train service that passed through Ponyville. As he stepped off the train, he encountered Pinkie Pie, and the pink pony reminded him of the “Welcome New Resident” party for him that was scheduled that afternoon. He had not informed anyone beyond his family about his decision to move here, so the party came as a surprise to him. Despite being informed about Pinkie’s extraordinary abilities, he had not truly believed them until now.
Irwin got another surprise when he arrived at Fluttershy’s cottage. A newly-built small cabin sat at the turn-off to her home and the road into the Everfree Forest. After a welcoming greeting from the pegasus, Fluttershy admitted that she had realized the impracticality of Irwin living on her couch, especially once he brought his belongings. She went to her new friend, Applejack, and asked for her help. The farm mare was glad to lend her assistance and she got her brother involved in the job. Big Mac mentioned it to Gilda who thought it was a great idea to build a home for one of their friends. To Fluttershy’s chagrin, Gilda asked Zecora to join in. Twilight and Rarity learned about it and added their contributions. Insulating spells and tasteful decorations made the cabin look a lot homier. Rainbow Dash contributed a Wonderbolts poster that she insisted was a must for any bachelor pad. What started out as way for Fluttershy to gift him a place to live, became instead an enthusiastic group project. Of course, it became a lot more than the pegasus had envisaged originally, although there was only so much that could be accomplished in the space of a couple of days. Once Irwin put his possessions inside though, it already felt like he belonged. He loved it!
It was only later that Irwin found out that the welcome party was at his place. He was surprised at the number of ponies who turned out for what had to be an outdoor event, but Rainbow Dash’s second contribution was organizing the weather team to provide perfect conditions for the shindig. The minotaur knew then that he was truly home.
When Penumbra returned to Ponyville, she had the pleasure of passing good news to Shining Armor.
“Their Highnesses have stripped Stone Wall of his command. The Royal Guard is now undergoing reorganization and being officially split into the Day Guard and the Night Guard. While there will be a great deal of overlap in our duties, training will in future emphasize tasks that best suit each division.”
“Our duties, Ma’am?” Shining queried.
Penumbra grinned. “Yep. Congratulations, Captain Shining Armor.” She held out a pair of new rank pins. “By royal command, you are now promoted to Captain of the Day Guard. You will be coordinating Guard duties with me and we both answer only to the Princesses.”
The unicorn took off his lieutenant’s pins with his magic and Penumbra attached the new rank badges. They then saluted each other.
“Thank you, Captain. Looks like we both have our work cut out for us,” Shining commented.
“Couldn’t ask for a better comrade-in-arms to do it,” the thestral admitted.
“You already know what my intentions are – what do you plan to focus on first?”
“In just a few days, an unknown but large number of thestrals will be reporting to Canterlot to be inducted into the Night Guard. I’ve already arranged for new uniforms to be designed and new armor made. Care to help me work out a program to integrate the new recruits into the Guard, Captain?”
Shining grinned. “It would be my pleasure, Captain.”
Weeks passed. Gilda genuinely felt at home now. Each morning, she rose early and joined Pear Butter in preparing breakfasts for the farm workers before starting on her baking. Depending on the day, she either accompanied the mare to the Ponyville Market where they sold their goods, or assisted around the farm where her talons often proved useful. Every day, she brought Big Mac his lunch, and every evening, she gave him flying lessons.
While the big stallion had been reluctant at first, Gilda eventually managed to coax him to give it a shot. Bearing in mind lessons from flight school, she started him off easy… if you can call jumping off the roof of the barn easy! She did provide a small cloud bank for him to land in though. He had insisted on trying it out first, skeptical of its ability to hold him. Even when Big Mac stood upon the softly yielding surface, he found it hard to believe that he could now walk on clouds. It reassured him that he would not faceplant in the dirt, and his first take-off proved its worth. Gradually, as the lessons progressed, Big Mac grew in confidence and ability.
Gilda glided alongside the alicorn stallion, correcting his attitude. As they came in for a landing, she called out, “Flare your wings a little more… that’s it… perfect!”
Big Mac touched down smoothly and he folded his wings with a grin of accomplishment. “I think I’ve got the hang of it now.”
Gilda landed beside him and said, “Yep. You’re a natural, Big Red! I knew you could do it.” She leaned forward and started rubbing her beak along the side of his face, humming happily.
“What are you doing, Gilda?” asked the startled stallion.
The griffon blinked and then hurriedly drew back, blushing furiously. “S-sorry, Mac.”
“You didn’t answer the question, Gil.”
“It’s… something griffons do when we want to… umm… kiss. No lips like ponies, so we rub beaks instead. Sorry – I got carried away.
Big Mac smirked. “I kinda liked it.”
Gilda’s eyes opened wide and she stared at the stallion. “You did? Would you like it if… I did it again?” She blushed even more.
The griffon chirped with joy and started beaking him enthusiastically. Big Mac responded with movements of his muzzle that lent pleasure to the contact.
Then Gilda drew back and looked at him with a mixture of nervousness and hope. “Macintosh Apple, I know I’m a griffon and you’re not, but would you consider being my Very Special Somepony?”
The alicorn regarded her with a gentle smile. “Gilda, I don’t care if you’re a griffon. I like you. I like you a lot. I reckon I’d enjoy being your Very Special Somepony.” He leaned forward to give her a proper kiss.
Gilda’s heart nearly burst with joy and she leaped into the air with a screech of happiness. She pirouetted in the air as the stallion watched with a grin. Then he decided to join her. He was starting to really like his wings.
“Hi, Trixie! How has life been treating you?” Irwin asked as the unicorn joined the group gathered at Ponyville’s town hall.
“The Amazing Trixie’s career is going from strength to strength. She is booked solid for the next eight months. In between magic shows, she’s equally in demand for story-telling sessions about our adventures and the amazing beings Trixie knows. If she had not been on the road between gigs, she would have found it difficult to respond to the summons of the princesses. Do you know the reason why we’re all here? Has another emergency arisen since we faced Discord?”
The minotaur shrugged. “There doesn’t seem to be much urgency. Asking the Element Bearers to meet with both princesses after dinner suggests other reasons. I get the impression that Penumbra knows, but she’s not saying anything.”
Zecora and Fluttershy came over to give Trixie a greeting hug while Gilda just smiled and waved, saying “Hey, Trix!”
Big Mac was chatting with Penumbra but they both walked over to greet their compatriot. Just then, Twilight Sparkle entered the building at a trot, panting a little. She was dressed in a smart business-casual jacket. Despite obviously having hurried there, not a hair was out of place in her perfectly coiffed mane.
“Sorry if I’m tardy,” the purple unicorn said breathlessly. “Rarity insisted on me looking my best for the princesses.”
Big Mac said, “You were summoned too? We thought it was just going to be the Element Bearers.”
Penumbra shook her head. “No, there will be a couple more.”
Before anyone could ask for further details, there was the characteristic flash and bang of teleportation. Princess Celestia and Princess Luna had arrived, but they were accompanied by Princess Cadance and Captain Shining Armor.
Celestia smiled at everyone. “Thank you for coming. I see that we’re all here, so let’s get straight down to business. I asked the mayor to set up the conference room for us, so let us proceed there.”
Soon, they were all seated around the conference table. Penumbra had taken up position next to Luna, while Twilight sat between the two princesses. Shining Armor seated himself next to Celestia with Cadance on his other side. Trixie was next to the Alicorn of Love, followed by Big Mac and Gilda. Zecora and Fluttershy flanked Irwin to complete the circle.
Luna was the first to speak. “Several months have passed since my return and, since then, we have all been settling into our new roles and determining our futures.” She grimaced. “And I have been struggling to learn the modern tongue.”
There were chuckles at Luna’s self-deprecating humor.
The Alicorn of the Night smiled and continued. “My sister and I have made several plans that affect you all, especially thee, Prince Macintosh.”
“Still not a prince,” he demurred.
Celestia spoke up. “Yes, you are, albeit a non-reigning one like Cadance. Luna and I understand that the title discomforts you because that’s exactly how we felt when we became princesses. But, because it was not of critical importance, we let you settle into your new identity as much as we could before we formalized it with you."
Big Mac frowned. “But why are you insisting on it?”
“Because it is the law,” Celestia replied. “Back when we were fillies and had just ascended, the pony tribes were still in conflict. It was not until the first Hearth’s Warming that they decided to unite under one banner, and Equestria became a nation. However, there was the problem of deciding who would lead the new country. No tribe wanted either of the others to be their ruler. Their solution was to look to us. Luna and I embodied the traits of all three tribes, and we certainly had the power to back ourselves up. However, other than that, we were political nobodies – just two mares that controlled the sun and the moon. Their solution was to write into law that all alicorns were royalty. Then, we were coronated and officially became the rulers of Equestria. So, whether you want it or not, you became a prince the instant you ascended.”
The stallion gaped and stared for a long moment before dropping his head and muttering, “Oh, buck.”
Cadance said, “Cheer up, Big Mac. It’s not the end of the world. Just because Auntie Celestia is training me for a future role in government, doesn’t mean that you have to do that too.”
“Indeed, young stallion,” Luna said. “We have a proposal that we believe will suit both thee and thy companions, not to mention Harmony’s whims.”
Celestia said, “As I have previously mentioned, “I wish to keep all six Element Bearers together as much as possible. The use of the portal medallion solved Trixie Lulamoon’s travel problem, but it isn’t a solution for everyone. When Irwin Goodall and Gilda decided to move to Ponyville permanently, that was a great relief for us. However, Captain Penumbra is required to spend much of her time in Canterlot.”
“So, that’s why you set up a fixed portal between Canterlot Castle and the garrison outside of town,” Gilda stated. “It wasn’t just so she could work with the thestral recruits.”
“Correct. The greater-than-expected influx of thestrals into the Royal Guard meant that we could not situate them at the Canterlot barracks, and the citizens were somewhat unnerved by so many thestrals in the city. Moving them here was the best solution, at least for their training period, but of course that meant Captain Penumbra needed to be here.”
Penumbra spoke up. “And if there’s one thing that Ponyville is famous for, it’s that the citizens can cope with unusual situations. They soon saw that the thestrals were their first and best defense from the monsters of the Everfree, among other things. My tribe has been constantly surprised at how readily they’ve been accepted by the ponies here. Believe me, appreciation from the local population has made a great deal of difference to the training to bring them up to the standards expected of the Royal Guard. Pride in one’s work is a great motivator.”
Luna nodded. “I have been sure to lavish praise where it is due. The thestral contingent has been a major part of rebuilding the Royal Guard.”
“So, where do I fit into that?” Big Mac asked.
Celestia replied, “It fits the theme of unity and friendship which you began with your friends. Not only did you join forces with a thestral that you had only just met, but you also united a zebra, a griffon, and a minotaur as well as a unicorn in your quest. This world has never seen such oneness of purpose among such disparate species. Prince Macintosh, you are the Alicorn of Friendship, and we have a mission for you, should you decide to accept it.”
The stallion gulped and rubbed the back of his head. “Umm… what did you have in mind?”
Celestia looked toward Twilight. “My student has proposed the construction of a new building to be the center of learning about other races and cultures. It will have a school for youngsters from all species that wish to participate. It will have a theater to present plays and recitals from all around the world, as well as locally.” The alicorn smiled at Trixie when she said that. “It will also have a chamber specifically for the Element Bearers to meet.”
“And the biggest library outside of Canterlot’s!” Twilight added with a manic grin. “I plan to stock it with a large proportion of books from other countries.”
“Indeed.” The Sun Princess smiled indulgently at her student before turning back to the others. “And to oversee it all, we want you, Prince Macintosh, to be headmaster of this School of Friendship.”
“But… I’m just a farmer,” Big Mac protested weakly.
“No, thou art not, sweet stallion,” Luna said. “Thou art an inspiration. And while thou may feel thou art unworthy of this position, we are confident that, like my sister and I, thou shalt find thy place. And thou dost not have to do it alone. Thou hast friends whose kindness, generosity, honesty, good humor, and loyalty will bolster you.” The Moon Princess regarded all the Element Bearers. “The Elements of Harmony may be our greatest defense against threats, but that is not their true purpose. As their name suggests, they are a tool to bring harmony and resolve conflicts. What better way to do that than to prevent disharmony from ever occurring? We can achieve that through education and friendship, and that is what we task all of you with.”
“I can’t just abandon my work at Sweet Apple Acres! My family needs me!”
Celestia said, “We are aware that your cousin, Caramel Apple, has already agreed to move to Ponyville. The Crown will also hire any additional workers required to ensure that your farm is not disadvantaged by your new duties. That goes for you too, Gilda. We know how successful your baked goods have been at the market. Zecora, Irwin, and Trixie – you will also be compensated for your time if you are called upon.”
Macintosh chewed his lip and looked at the table. Gilda stroked his neck with her beak and said, “I have faith in you, Mac. You can do this.”
The stallion looked at the griffon and chuckled. “You have enough faith for both of us. Okay, I’m in. Let’s hear the details.”
They spent the best part of an hour establishing preliminary plans before winding up the meeting.
“Has anyone anything that they’d like to say before we call it a night?” Celestia asked.
“I do,” Luna responded. “I proposed to Captain Penumbra and she hath accepted. We are to be wed.”
A pair of hooves slammed into the table and everyone turned to see Cadance glaring at the Moon Princess in outrage.
“Auntie Luna! You promised that I could announce my engagement to Shiny first!”
“Wait, what?!” protested Twilight, looking toward her brother. “BBBFF – when were you planning to tell your sister?”
Luna shrugged. “I was caught up in the moment, dear niece. Besides, thou may still have the public announcement; this was between friends.”
Celestia giggled. “Since the cat is out of the bag, I might as well warn you that we have started planning a double wedding. You will all be invited, of course.”
There was a chorus of congratulations before the meeting broke up and everyone headed home.
As Gilda and Big Mac flew to Sweet Apple Acres, they spotted two mares being turned away from the gate to the farm by the Night Guards posted there. They had become a necessity as news of the male alicorn had spread throughout Equestria. Mares from far and wide had begun to come to Ponyville to try their luck at attracting the stallion. When the situation had gotten ridiculous, Macintosh asked Penumbra for help, and she organized guards at the entrance to the farm, as well as a patrol to catch mares trying to sneak in elsewhere. Big Mac now realized that the alacrity with which that request had been fulfilled was due to his royal status. Protecting their princesses, and now their prince, was the Royal Guards’ number one duty.
Griffon and alicorn landed in front of the porch and they entered the house. They went into the kitchen to make refreshments and they chatted with Applejack and her parents about the meeting before they headed upstairs to prepare for bed. They paused in the hallway to kiss, but when they stepped apart, Gilda held him back.
“I’m kinda curious about something,” the griffon said. “How come I never see any Ponyville mares come looking for you?”
Big Mac bit his lip and averted his eyes. “There’s a reason for that.”
“And…?” Gilda prompted.
He sighed. “Come into my room where we won’t be overheard.”
Her curiosity very much piqued, Gilda followed Big Mac into his bedroom and he closed the door behind them.
“First of all,” he started, “do you know why I’m called Big Mac?”
Gilda blinked, not expecting the question. “I would have said it’s because you’re such a big pony, but I’m guessing that’s not the right answer.”
“Yep. It started back when I was a teenager. I was always an unusually big colt, but when I hit puberty, I quickly grew taller than Pa. Like any colt, when I grew old enough, I got interested in sex. Of course, there were also young mares ready to try to snag themselves a stallion. The local mares were in the same state of too many hormones and were eager to hop into bed with me. That’s when they found out that my body wasn’t the only exceptionally big thing about me.”
Gilda’s eyes widened. “You mean…?” Her eyes drifted to his hindquarters.
“Eeyup. Sex was uncomfortable at best, painful at worst. No mare ever came again after that… so to speak. My reputation spread rapidly – Macintosh is too big, they said. ‘Too Big Macintosh’ was the nickname they gave me. That quickly got shortened to Big Mac.”
Gilda’s cheeks puffed before she let out a snort of laughter. “You mean to say that everyone who calls you Big Mac is inadvertently referring to your penis?!”
“Fraid so. When Ma and Pa realized what had happened, they started a campaign of spreading the word that they had taken to calling their son Big Mac because I was so much bigger than my dad. That soon obscured the real reason I got the nickname, but the young mares never forgot. That’s why none come calling. They know that it’s hopeless.”
Gilda grew serious. “Since you’re being candid with me, I suppose I should return the favor. You already know how I was sent to flight school in Equestria as a youngster. Back then, I was about the same size as the foals my age. As the years passed though, I quickly grew larger than the average pony. It’s perfectly normal for a griffon to be half again as big as a pony, and I was bigger than average. That didn’t deter the horny colts though, and I was equally hungry for sex. So, I had plenty of colts, but they were all too small compared to me. Sex was meh, but better than nothing. After I left school, I wasn’t interested in griffon cocks – either meaning – so I’ve been celibate since.”
“We’ve both had unsatisfactory sex lives, haven’t we?” Macintosh said.
“Yeah, but I think we can change that. I finally met a stallion who is larger than me, and he’s a loveable hunk.” She turned away from him, lowered her forequarters, and raised her tail. She looked over her shoulder and said, “Are you big enough for me, Macintosh Apple?”
The alicorn grinned. “Let’s find out.”
Gilda lay contentedly in the embrace of her lover after they had extremely enjoyable sex. She warbled happily before saying, “This room and this bed are plenty big enough for both of us. I’m moving in with you tomorrow, okay?”
Irwin Goodall walked down the Ponyville street, waving occasionally to the now-familiar faces of many ponies. He paused at an intersection to look up the bisecting road toward the hills that featured on that side of town. He could see the construction work in progress there. Land had been cleared and foundations were already in place for the new School of Friendship. It always fascinated the minotaur by how fast ponies could go from conceiving a project to actually building it. While he was sure that the relevant persons were still working out the fine details, once the basic plan had been approved, the project had moved forward with amazing speed.
Irwin chuckled as he resumed his walk. He figured that he should not be so surprised, considering the number of times this town was damaged by some disaster and was repaired so quickly. These ponies were alicorn-level experts at construction. They even kept a warehouse of materials for such eventualities.
The minotaur reached the marketplace which was his destination. He had a lot of shopping to do today, which is why he had brought his cart along. He worked his way from stall to stall through the unusually large crowd until he reached the Apple Family Produce stand. Two people always manned it, but which two constantly varied. Either Pear Butter or Gilda was there for the baked goods side of business, while the apples and other vegetables were attended by Bright Mac, Applejack, or occasionally, Big Mac. Between the latter’s work on the farm and his new duties, it was rare for the alicorn stallion to work the market nowadays, so it came as a surprise to Irwin to see his best male friend behind the counter with Gilda.
“Hi, Macintosh! Hi, Gilda!” the minotaur greeted them when they finished attending to their current customers.
“Hey there, Irwin!” Big Mac replied.
“Good to see you, Beefy!” Gilda said.
Irwin stuck his tongue out at the griffon. The nickname had come up as a joke at one of the meetings of the Element Bearers and had stuck. It was a good-natured jest and the two were firm friends. “I’ve got a big shopping list to fill,” he said while holding it up. “Seems like everyone has had the same idea today.”
“Well, yeah,” Gilda replied. “Everypony is stocking up for the Season.”
Irwin blinked uncomprehendingly. “What season?”
Big Mac chuckled. “Minotaurs don’t have that season, Gil.”
The griffon’s eyes widened, then she grinned. “Mating Season, my naïve friend. Much of Equestria is going to practically shut down while ponies everywhere make whoopee.”
Big Mac snorted and shook his head. “Don’t go exaggerating things, love.”
Gilda smirked back at him. “Why not? I plan to.”
The alicorn stallion might have been blushing but it was difficult to tell from his normal red coat. He turned his attention back to the minotaur. “This time of year, the mares go into heat and the stallions into rut, and we get a very strong urge to mate. That might be fine for ponies who have partners that want to have a foal, but for everypony else, it’s a problem. Resisting the urge to have sex is almost impossible and unwanted foals would be the unintended consequence. So, for two weeks, virtually everything shuts down while males and females isolate from each other to prevent unplanned pregnancies. And that’s why everypony is stocking up on essentials.”
“Oh. I see now. That’s why you’re here today too, I guess. Everyone is preparing for this Season.”
Irwin pursed his lips and his eyes focused on the stand while looking at nothing in particular. “Hmm… that might explain why Zecora and Fluttershy have been acting a bit unusual the last couple of days.”
Gilda’s eyebrows rose and she looked at the minotaur keenly. “How so?”
“Well… they’ve always been very kind to me. Fluttershy makes breakfast and dinner for us, and Zecora provides lunch when I’m at her place to learn potion-making. But lately, both have been doing a lot of little extra things for me. It’s a bit embarrassing because I don’t feel I deserve it.”
Gilda face-palmed and shook her head. She said, “Mac, honey, would you take care of Irwin’s shopping list? He and I need to have a talk.”
“Eeyup,” the stallion replied, taking the minotaur’s list with his magic.
Gilda came out from behind the stand, took one of Irwin’s strong hands into her talons, and drew him away to somewhere at least semi-private. The minotaur looked at her with a befuddled expression. That made the griffon sigh and shake her head once more.
“Irwin, my dear friend, I wanted to keep my beak out of your private life, but you’re such a sweet and innocent bull calf that I’ve changed my mind. Both Flutters and Zecora have the hots for you. There’s something about you that strongly attracts that painfully shy pegasus, so much so that she’s almost the pillar of confidence in comparison when it comes to you. And the zebra liked your personality and matching interests ever since we quested together to defeat Nightmare Moon. Why do you think she offered to take you as her apprentice? And why does Fluttershy find any excuse to spend time with you? And all those little extra things they both do for you? Both mares want you badly, but they’ve been waiting for you to make a move. Mating Season is just about here and neither is going to restrain themselves when the urge hits. So, you’ve got a decision to make. Are you going to be a big bull and accept the advances of one of them? Or will you chicken out and let them deal with their hormones by themselves for two weeks?”
Irwin gaped at Gilda, stunned by the revelation. Looking back, he now recognized some of the mares’ actions for what they were. He was indeed naïve. “But… I’m a minotaur and they’re ponies… well near enough in Zecora’s case. Why would they want me?”
“Does Big Mac look like a griffon to you? No? We love each other despite being different species. We haven’t spread the word yet because we want to wait until after the royal weddings, but Macintosh and I are going to get hitched. We don’t need a big fancy wedding, but I’ve been warned that a lot of the Apple side of the family will want to attend. You’re invited, by the way. The point is – they love you for you, not your species. The question is – can you do the same? Spoiler – I think you can. You’re an awesome bull and you could hardly do better. Now, we better get back to the stand.”
Gilda led the stunned minotaur back to the stall. Big Mac was busy attending to other customers, but he had piled Irwin’s order onto his cart. The bewildered bull finished his shopping in a daze before heading home. He walked slowly, spending the time thinking hard about what Gilda had said and examining his feelings about it. By the time he reached the cottage, he had made a decision. He unloaded his cart before heading into the forest to see Zecora, but not for a lesson. He would bring the zebra back to his cabin where he would ask Fluttershy to join them. The three needed to have a serious talk.
Everyone expected the dual royal wedding to be an exciting affair, but nobody expected the drama. The six Element Bearers glared at the defeated changeling queen who lay on the floor where they encircled her.
“How did you expect to get away with impersonating Cadance?” Gilda spat. “She’s one of our best friends, not to mention Shiny. Of course, we’d notice anything wrong about them!”
Chrysalis reached a hoof to her horn, feeling the nullstone band locked there. She dropped her hoof and glared at the griffoness. “Only Shining Armor’s sister grew suspicious before you lot turned up. Her friends were all too easy to distract.”
Big Mac said, “You didn’t think Captain Penumbra would see a problem?”
“I avoided the Night Guard completely. I saw no reason to complicate my plans by dealing with them. I didn’t expect to see batponies out in the daylight!”
Penumbra said, “Except, Shining Armor is not just my colleague but also one of my dearest friends. As Royal Guards, we’re supposed to be always alert for problems. And when my friend starts acting out of character, then I’m going to act on that.”
“You and your damn thestrals ruined everything. And what did that cursed rainbow beam do to me? I feel so… apathetic.”
Irwin answered. “The Power of Harmony brings balance. Your extreme desires were neutralized and your hostility ameliorated. So, now that you aren’t trying to be a megalomaniacal conqueror, tell us why you did it?”
The changeling queen narrowed her eyes and pressed her lips into a thin line. Moments later, perhaps due to the influence of the Elements, she relented. “I wanted to gain control of Equestria so that my hive might prosper once more.”
The six friends looked blankly at each other. None of the bearers expected that answer.
“What do you mean by that?” Trixie finally asked.
“Since the Night Guard was established, the Royal Guards have made it too difficult for my infiltrators to return love to feed the hive. We were living on the edge before then, but now we’re slowly starving.”
Princess Celestia had recovered from Chrysalis’ attack but had not joined the Bearers until then. “If your hive exists within Equestria’s borders, then your welfare is of concern to the Crown. If your situation is as perilous as you describe it to be, then you should have approached me about it.”
“If it helps,” Gilda said, “She’s told nothing but the truth so far.”
Celestia nodded. “Thank you, Lady Gilda.”
“Why should I trust you to help?” snarled Chrysalis. “You ponies have never been kind to changelings in all the centuries we’ve shared the world. Whenever an undisguised drone is found, it is chased away with torches and pitchforks.”
“When was the last time that happened? Times change, Queen Chrysalis, and so do ponies.” Celestia exchanged glances with Luna before returning her attention to the changeling. “It is time that we talk, royal to royal. But after the wedding ceremony. Captain Penumbra – please take Her Majesty to confinement and have her needs seen to until my sister and I can have a conversation with her.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“And Prince Macintosh,” Celestia added, “please join Luna and me then. I believe this is the perfect opportunity for the Alicorn of Friendship to show what he can do.”
Big Mac bowed his head slightly in acknowledgment. “As you wish, Princess.”
As Penumbra directed a couple of Royal Guards to assist Chrysalis to her hooves and escort her away, Trixie grinned and said, “Now, aren’t you all glad that Trixie insisted that we all wear our Elements to the wedding?”
Zecora replied, “You can’t fool me, my showmare friend. Their use was a means to an end.”
The unicorn smiled unrepentantly. “Trixie knows when it’s time to make an impression, and a double royal wedding is certainly one of them.”
Gilda chuckled. “Don’t argue with success, Zecora. I’m glad I wore mine.”
Irwin said, “Speaking of weddings, they’re trying to restart this one. I suggest we go help.”
“Why? Want to learn more about them, Beefy?” Gilda asked with a smirk.
The minotaur blushed and left without answering the griffon.
“Goldspur Apple – haven’t you finished your breakfast yet? We have to get going!” Gilda called out.
“Coming, Mom!” the young hippogriff colt replied as he hurried out of the kitchen, shrugging on his backpack. “Bye, Grandma!” he said with a wave.
Gilda lowered herself to the floor. “Hop on,” she told her son.
Goldspur eagerly climbed aboard his mother. He loved it when she gave him rides. As soon as they emerged from the house, Gilda spread her wings and took off.
“Wheee!” the colt cried.
Gilda smiled, enjoying this bonding moment with her son. Soon, he would be going to flight school and he would start taking long flights on his own, but for now, she would take delight in these opportunities.
They came in for a landing near the Apple’s produce stand, but before the griffon’s feet hit the ground, Goldspur leaped off her back and glided toward the large alicorn stallion there.
Big Mac caught the colt in his magic and pulled him into a hug. “Mornin’, Spur.”
“Watcha doin’, Dad?”
“Your grandpa and I are getting some things ready for the Summer Sun Celebration that starts tomorrow. Gotta do that before I head off to the School of Friendship.”
“Ooh! Can I go too? Everypony else is!”
“Sure thing, son. You and all your friends will get to go. Aunties Celestia and Luna will both be there and want to see you. Speaking of friends, here are some of them.” Big Mac smiled at the approaching minotaur and zebra with two youngsters in tow.
Both the children were bipeds like their father and had their sire’s strong upper body build with dark blue fur. Unlike him though, they had pony hooves rather than his cloven ones. They also had pony heads although they possessed a pair of small horns. Where they differed was that the female had a pair of wings and a pink mane while the male had white stripes and a mohawk-style mane.
Goldspur raced over to meet his friends while the adults greeted each other.
“Good morning!” Gilda said. “Where’s Flutters?”
Irwin replied, “She’s got a very sick skunk to nurse. She apologizes for not coming today.”
“Too bad. At least there’s nothing wrong with her.”
“Nothing but a little morning sickness,” the minotaur replied.
Gilda grinned. “You’re having another? Good on you! What about you, Zecora?”
The zebra shook her head. “Don’t look at this cow. One’s enough for now.”
The griffon chuckled. She still remembered the incident where Zecora’s young son got into her potions which she had thought were safely out of reach. Fun times! “Don’t speak so hastily. Fluttershy obviously got in the mood for another, and I’m looking forward to this one.” She stroked her gravid belly.
“How long before the foal is due?” Irwin asked.
“Less than a month now, judging by when Goldspur popped out.”
“Who’s popping out?” came a familiar voice.
Everyone turned to see a blue unicorn walking up to them with a colt by her side.
“Trixie!” Gilda cried out. “Good to see you and Spotlight. When did you arrive?”
“Dowser and Trixie hastened to get to Ponyville before dark yesterday, but we were too late to come visiting. But at least Spotlight can have some playmates today.” She looked around for her colt, but he had already joined the other children. She smiled indulgently before turning back to the griffon. “No need to answer Trixie’s question – she can see who will be popping out soon. She’s only surprised you didn’t have another cub sooner.”
Gilda shrugged. “Mac and I were both very busy. Now that things have settled down since the School of Friendship opened, we’ve been making time for our son and ourselves. Particularly in the bedroom,” she added.
“Gil was most insistent on the latter,” Big Mac said with a grin.
“You’re the one who said you’d like a big family,” Gilda retorted with a matching smile.
Zecora, Trixie, and Irwin laughed. Just then, a bat-winged pony swooped down and landed next to them.
“Good morning, everyone! You too, Most Dread Imperator!”
“No, I’m not that either … How do you keep coming up with these titles?”
The thestral strode up to Gilda and patted her distended belly. “You’re right. Most Potent Potentate is more appropriate given the state of your wife.”
Big Mac grumbled, “That’s it. I give up trying to get in the last word.”
Penumbra chuckled. She loved teasing her friend with new titles which, while semi-legitimate, weren’t required for a non-coronated prince.
“How come you’re here?” Irwin asked.
“I’m in charge of security for the Summer Sun Celebration, and because Princess Celestia insisted on holding it in Ponyville again this year, that means I have a lot to prepare ahead of the event. But that can wait for the moment. Seeing as we’re all together again, what’s the news?”
Gilda said, “Irwin’s having another child with Fluttershy, mine’s due in a few weeks, and we’re all wondering when you and Luna are going to have one.”
“Funny that you should mention that. Luna plans to ask Macintosh to sire a foal in her.”
“What?!” squawked Big Mac.
The griffon laughed. “Oh, come on, hot stuff! It was obvious that you’d be a perfect target for both the princesses. If Celestia was married to a mare, I’d expect her to come knocking too.”
“Doesn’t it bother you though?” he asked.
“Why? You know I’m more like a pony when it comes to social mores, and this is something I absolutely expected. It’s totally up to you if you want to do it, Love. Just remember that Luna is our good friend, not just any mare looking for an alicorn foal. And she’s your size too,” Gilda added with a smirk.
For reasons unknown to his friends, his face turned a slightly darker shade of red and he clammed up.
“And what about you, Penny?” Trixie asked. “Feeling the urge yet?”
“Nope, but I’m not saying that’s a permanent thing. I might prefer mares, but I can appreciate a handsome stallion. Someday, I might feel like it’s time to be a mother and go looking for a good prospect. Don’t worry, Macintosh – it won’t be you. I like the smaller, cuter stallions. Someone like Trixie’s husband, perhaps.”
The blue unicorn said, “While Mark Wells is small in stature, he is a Great and Powerful Stallion where it counts. If Dowser is amenable to the idea, Trixie will not object.”
Irwin said, “Aside from all this foal talk, any other news from Canterlot?”
Penumbra nodded. “Yes, actually. Queen Chrysalis petitioned the Crown for permission to travel to the Crystal Kingdom. She intends to ask Princess Cadance for the right to establish another hive there.”
“So, the reforms that were put into place after Chrysalis’ attempted coup have been working out for her. That’s good to hear.”
“Yep. And she’s been a surprising breath of fresh air too. I love her snarkiness. It’s a pleasant change from the obsequious nobles. Being a princess’ wife means you have to put up with a lot of horsesapples. At least, because I’m still Captain of the Night Guard, I get to yell at thick-headed recruits to let off steam. Anyway, I’ll be heading the security detail that will be accompanying Chrysalis to the Crystal Kingdom, so we’ll have plenty of time to chat if she’s in the mood.”
Big Mac said, “I never thought I would see the day that changelings would become a common sight, but now I have one going to my school.”
“How’s that working out?” Trixie asked.
“She’s made several friends already. It just proves that if you give a creature a chance, they will usually prefer to make a friend than an enemy,” the stallion said proudly.
“Thus spoke the Alicorn of Friendship!” the showmare declared.
“Oh, hush up,” Big Mac said. “Seeing as you’re here today, you can give a friendship class.”
“The Amazing Trixie anticipated your request and has prepared materials. There will be much joy and laughter!”
“Talking about school,” Irwin interjected, “it’s about time we dropped off our foals with Cheerilee so that we can get on with our day.”
Big Mac said, “I’m just waiting for Pa to return from the fairgrounds so that I can head off to my school. Lots for me to get done today before the holiday tomorrow.”
“And I’ve got to get back to my job,” Penumbra said.
Zecora said, “It’s good that we’re all gathered here this way. Can we meet up for dinner to end the day?”
“Great idea, Zecora,” Gilda said. “Come on around to Sweet Apple Acres. I’ll let Ma know to expect guests.”
“It’s a date!” Trixie declared.
Gilda, Irwin, and Zecora headed off to Cheerilee’s schoolhouse with their children, and Trixie came along to keep them company. Penumbra moved over next to Big Mac and gave him a surprise kiss on the cheek.
“That’s from Luna,” she said. “She also said that she hopes you say ‘yes’.” She grinned, spread her wings, and departed.
The stallion watched them all leave and shook his head with a lopsided smile. “I have the weirdest and best friends in Equestria,” he murmured before turning his attention back to the produce stand. An alicorn prince’s job was never done.
Equestria, canon MLP characters, and other My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic elements are © 2023 Hasbro.
All other original characters and story copyright © 2023 Bernard Doove.
Art is © 2023 SwedishRoyalGuard, Pocki07, Rated-R-Ponystar and KlaraPL.
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