"Oh, do hurry up, Applejack," said Rarity, pulling the earth pony behind her. "We must find a discrete vantage point from which to observe the two lovers' meeting."
"'Observe'?" repeated Applejack, her eyes narrowing. "Don'cha mean 'spy'?"
"Please, Applejack," replied the exasperated unicorn. "We simply cannot miss seeing all our hard work come to fruition!"
Applejack felt her heart sink at the words 'all our hard work'. Rarity had got so swept up in the whole Rainbow-Twilight thing, she wasn't making a lick o' sense anymore!
"Over there!" said Rarity. She'd spotted some steps not far away that led up to a small garden around the base of a tower. It was little more than a single hawthorn-tree surrounded by low jasminum bushes, sprinkled with white flowers. They were giving off a delightful perfume with the advent of the evening, and the sweet scent wafted thickly on the breeze that was sweeping down from the mountain above them. The unicorn found a larger bush and stepped daintily behind it, pulling Applejack after her.
Rarity snuck her muzzle out the side of the bush and clopped her hooves together. "This is perfect!"
Applejack sighed and sat back on her haunches. "Well, Ah'm of the opinion Twi and Rainbow should have a little privacy," she said. "What, with all the romancin' that's about to occur an' all..."
Rarity sniffed. "We shall make ourselves scarce if anything too intimate occurs," she said, pointing her horn at the arched entrance to the tower just behind them. "I am certainly no 'peeping tom'."
"Then what do y' call all this," muttered Applejack.
"Oh, do hush a little, darling," Rarity whispered hoarsely. "Somepony is coming!"
Rainbow Dash swept out of the night sky and landed on the battlements. She trotted quickly up and down the whole length of them, but when she couldn't find anypony, she sat down on a buttress and waited.
"And now for our other actor to take the stage," said Rarity, breathless.
The night sky, with its myriad of stars, beckoned to Twilight from above as she climbed the final sets of steps that led up onto the battlements. And then she was out in the clear air of the evening, the cool Canterlot winds blowing her mane about her face.
And there, sitting on a buttress waiting for her, was...
The pegasus turned her head at the sound of her name.
"Twilight?" said Rainbow. She hopped off the buttress and trotted up to her friend. "So it was you." A look of concern flashed across her face. "Is everything alright? I-"
Twilight interrupted her. "I was about to ask you the very same thing."
Rainbow blinked in confusion. "I came here straight away, just like you asked," she replied. "So what's up?"
"Like I asked?" repeated Twilight. "But I didn't-"
Rainbow grinned suddenly. "Aw, no need to be so embarrassed," she said. "I think I know what's going on." She gave Twilight a gentle punch on the shoulder. "Don't tell me - you've got a crush on your old pal Rainbow Dash, right?"
"A crush?" Twilight shook her head. "What in Equestria are you talking about?"
"Oh, you know," said Rainbow, twirling a forehoof in the air. "It's the Spring Moon Festival, all that romance talk at lunch... I guess it got you thinking about your feelings."
Twilight broke in. "Rainbow, you're not making any sense!"
"Hey," said Rainbow. "It's not your fault, Twilight. A lot of ponies are totally into the Dash. And I'm actually really, really, flattered you feel that way, but..."
Twilight groaned in exasperation. "Look, Rainbow. Just listen for a moment. I came here because of the letter you sent!"
"I didn't send any letter," said Rainbow, frowning. "You're the one who sent me a letter."
"No, I didn't," said Twilight, firmly. She'd begun to feel very foolish indeed, standing here on the battlements in the cold wind arguing with this exasperating pegasus!
"But then, who-" A sudden rustling from nearby made Rainbow's agile ears twitch, and she looked through the corner of her eye at where the noise had come from.
A secretive smile flashed on the pegasus' lips, and she leaned close to Twilight. "I was starting to think this was all just a Pinkie Pie prank," she whispered. "But look over there - no, not right at them! They'll know you're looking."
Twilight glanced across at the little garden above them. The rustling had stopped, but she saw straight away what Rainbow had spotted. Sticking out of the top of a jasminum bush were a unicorn horn and a Stetson hat.
Twilight's eyes went wide. "Is that-?"
Rainbow nodded. "It's them alright."
Behind the bush, Rarity had grabbed Applejack's foreleg and was squeezing it. "Oh, look, darling!" she gushed. "Their faces are so close together! They must be whispering their confessions to each other."
Applejack winced in pain, and struggled to escape the unicorn's excited grip. "But don'cha think Twi looks awful confused?"
Rarity snorted. "Well of course she is, darling," she whispered. "She's still struggling to acknowledge her feelings for Rainbow, the poor dear."
As they watched Rainbow and Twilight talking, a smile burst out in Twilight's face, and Rarity gasped.
Applejack's eyes went wide. "Don' tell me-"
Twilight was trying her best to contain the laughter that was threatening to explode from inside her. "Do those two really think-"
"-that we're an item?" Rainbow chuckled. "I think they do!"
"But what gave them that idea?" asked Twilight.
"Oh, who knows with those two," said Rainbow. She moved a little closer to Twilight. "But I've just had a great idea for a prank."
Twilight leaned closer to hear what the pegasus had to say, her eyes glittering mischievously. "A prank? Oh, what kind of-"
But her question was cut off by Rainbow throwing her forelegs around her neck and kissing her, hard, on the mouth.
Twilight was so surprised she made no attempt to struggle, but just fell limp in the pegasus' embrace.
Behind the jasminum bush, Rarity gasped. She put a hoof against her forehead and fell back in a faint, and she would have fallen straight onto the ground had Applejack not caught her up in her forelegs.
"Ah think this is our signal to exit stage left," said Applejack, pulling the unconscious unicorn back through the arched doorway. As she did, a relieved smile played across her face. So Rarity had been right all along! Thank Celestia for that!
Twilight squirmed out of Rainbow's embrace and pushed her away, spluttering. "Rainbow, what are you trying to do?"
The pegasus pony was confused. "Aw, c'mon Twilight. It was just a joke! Now, when we go to the supper, those two will think we're an item and we can prank 'em and everypony else even more!"
Twilight felt strange. It had felt all wrong when Rainbow had kissed her, as if she'd had something stolen from her. Oh, and the evening had been such a wonderful one until that letter had appeared...
Twilight was suddenly fiercely angry. It had all been a joke! She'd been made to worry for no good reason, and she'd been dragged away from spending time with Tia.
Without a word, Twilight turned and galloped away, leaving Rainbow Dash staring at her in confusion.
"Hey, Twilight, wait!" the pegasus shouted after her. "It was just a prank!"
Twilight didn't hear her. She was already racing down the stairs and retracing the path she'd taken from the little garden where shed left Tia waiting.
"Tia! Tia!" she cried, as she galloped through the hall with its murals. She almost fell over as she turned the corner and skidded through the archway - but Tia was no longer there.
The garden was empty. All that was there was the tree that Tia had been so eager to show her. But in the time since Twilight had left her there, the flowers had fallen in earnest, and now the ground was a carpet of little pink petals. There were only a handful of blossoms left.
For some reason, the sight made Twilight feel as if she'd just been bucked in the stomach. She stared at the tree. It looked so dark and twisted and naked now, old and ugly, and a sudden despair filled her.
She turned and fled.
As Rainbow flew back from the castle, she wracked her brains trying to work out why Twilight had reacted so strongly to her kiss. Something strange was going on inside that egghead's head!
But there was no time to worry about that right now. There was awesomeness to be performed, and Spitfire and the Amateur Aerial Performance Team were waiting for her!
She came in low over the little mountain ridge where she had left them, and found the team milling about, seemingly unaware that it was almost show-time.
As soon as Rainbow landed, the black-maned stallion who was wearing the letter Q raced up to her. "Is it go-time, Rainbow Dash?" he asked eagerly.
Rainbow nodded. "The moon should start to rise any minute." She looked about at the disorganised pegasi and frowned. "But why aren't you guys all ready for take-off? Where's Spitfire?"
"We thought she was with you," said the purple-maned mare wearing the letter P.
"Oh, I saw her fly over earlier," said Ditzy, walking up. She was struggling with her harness, and the letter E had fallen on its side to become the letter M. "She went off that-a way." The blonde-maned pegasus pointed towards the castle.
"But I just came from the castle!" protested Rainbow.
Ditzy slapped a foreleg to her head. "Oh, derp! I meant that -a way!" She pointed in the opposite direction.
Rainbow brought a forehoof to her face and groaned. "Are you sure she went that way, Ditzy?"
Ditzy nodded, and returned to messing with her harness. The E had become the number 3 now.
Rainbow grabbed the harness from her and with a swift unbuckling and buckling of belts she fixed it so that it was the right way up again.
"Promise me you won't mess with it anymore, Ditzy," said Rainbow.
"I won't," said the pegasus, smiling indefatigably. "Oh, I mean 'I promise!'"
Rainbow looked in the direction Ditzy had pointed. There was nothing that way but windswept mountaintops. What in Equestria was Spitfire thinking?
She turned to the rest of the team. "I'm just going to go find Spitfire," she said. "Until I get back, you're all under the command of..." She looked across the line, blinking at the black-maned stallion with the Q, the purple-maned mare with the P, until finally she was staring at Ditzy.
Spitfire's voice echoed in her head. "The kid's got heart. She reminds me of another pegasus I know..."
Rainbow smiled at the blonde-maned pegasus. "...you're all under the command of Ditzy here."
Ditzy stared blankly for a while, uncomprehending, but when the truth of the situation finally trickled down to her, she leaped into the air. "Oh, thank you Rainbow Dash!" She saluted with her left forehoof, then with her right, and finally with her left again. "I promise I won't let you down."
Rainbow rolled her eyes and managed a smile. "I know you won't, Ditzy." Then she came closer, and in a whisper she said, "Listen, don't do anything until I get back, okay? Not a thing. Do you understand?"
Ditzy nodded enthusiastically. "I won't do a thing, Rainbow Dash."
"Look, it'll just take a jiffy," said the rainbow-maned pegasus. "Something tells me Spitfire's not far away."
Ditzy nodded enthusiastically. "She was flying really slowly. I guess she probably couldn't see very far ahead, since she was crying so much!"
"Crying?" Rainbow heart sank. "I've got to go." And with that she leaped into the air and swiftly disappeared into the deepening darkness.
Ditzy waved goodbye until she couldn't see Rainbow Dash's shape anymore against the still-light western horizon. Then she turned to find the entire Amateur Performance Team staring at her.
Ditzy's heart bounced around inside her chest like a muffin shoved into a washing machine, but she did her best to ignore it and smiled the widest, brightest smile she could manage.
"So, what should we do, Ditzy?" asked the purple-maned P.
'Yeah, what should we do?" asked the black-maned Q.
Ditzy, still smiling, looked at them dumbly for a few heartbeats. Then at last she cheerfully replied:
Applejack and Rarity stood in Princess Celestia's private garden. A number of tables had been set up, decorated with freshly cut flowers and all sorts of refreshing drinks and light snacks. There was a veritable army of unicorn waiters there as well, all dressed in black tie and carrying trays of hors d'oeuvres and drinks as they wandered about the garden looking for somepony to offer them to.
But with the other guests yet to arrive, they had settled in orbit around Applejack and Rarity, periodically proffering a snack or a drink to the two bemused ponies.
"Where in tarnation is everypony?" muttered Applejack. "This party's as deserted as the farm come bath-day!"
"It is strange," said Rarity. The little cucumber sandwich, which she had accepted earlier out of politeness from an apologetic waiter, hovered in front of her as yet unsampled. "I suppose they might all just be fashionably late."
The waiter whose turn it was to approach them walked up with his tray of drinks.
"Might I interest either of you ladies in some elderflower wine?" he asked, looking at the two eagerly. He was a unicorn like all the others, white-coated with a slicked-back black mane and pale blue eyes.
"No, thank ya kindly," said Applejack. "But ah will take one of those apple turnovers." She trotted over to another waiter and took one off the platter she smilingly offered. "All this waitin' is hungry work!"
"Has there been any word from the Princess?" Rarity asked the waiter with the drinks.
He shook his head. "I'm sorry, ma'am," he replied. "I really have no idea where Her Highness is. It is very unlike her to be late."
Rarity tutted and turned to Applejack. "And we have such wonderful news to share!" Her eyes glistened with sudden eagerness. "Oh, I wonder what our little lovebirds are up to right now. There must have been a tearful farewell, I expect, with Rainbow having to go off and prepare for the show, but promising to hurry back as soon as equinely possible..."
Applejack sighed. "Look, Rarity," she said. "Ah've been fixin' to say this all evening. Ah reckon we've probably meddled enough in the whole Rainbow-Twilight thing, an' should jus' leave things be for a while..."
"'Meddled'?" Rarity arched a single eyebrow. "Darling, that's not the word I would have-"
"Nah hear me out, sug'," said Applejack quickly. "You've gotta admit, you've been real single-minded about the whole situation. So much so, Ah've started to think that maybe there's somethin' else behind it."
Rarity dropped her gaze and stared at the sandwich still hovering before her. Then she sighed. "Perhaps there is," she said.
"An' that's...?" pressed Applejack.
Rarity looked at the earth pony, her expression a mixture of hesitation and eagerness. "It's just that, well, with all our sneaking around, keeping our own romance a secret, I thought that perhaps, if there were another couple in our group of friends, you'd be encouraged to make our own relationship public."
Applejack was taken aback. "Ah... well, ah see what you mean," she said sheepishly. "But don' you think we've been goin' around this the wrong way? Maybe, just a gentle lil nudge here an' there, an'-"
Rarity snorted. "Oh, Apple-jack! As if 'a gentle lil nudge' would have brought us together! Why, if it hadn't been for that storm and you losing your hat, no doubt you'd have ended up in a romance with some rough cowpoke or rodeo-type, and I'd have ended up with some prince or other..." Visions of Prince Blueblood appeared before her, and she shivered.
"Well, be tha' as it may," said Applejack, "Maybe we should let Twi an' Rainbow handle things from here on in."
"Perhaps you're right, darling," said Rarity. "Oh, once again your down-to-earth wisdom has saved me from looking like a complete foal!"
She slipped up close and was about to nuzzle the earth pony when there was suddenly consternation at the far end of the garden. The waiters who had gathered there hurriedly stepped aside as Spike burst through and rushed up to Applejack and Rarity, a look of horror on his face.
"AJ, Rarity! Thank Celestia I found you," he cried, breathless. "Pinkie Pie's been rushed to hospital!"
"Oh, good gravy," said Applejack, dropping her apple turnover. "What in tarnation happened to her? She didn't fall off Mount Snackmore, did she?"
"The doctor says it's a chocolate -overdose," said Spike.
Rarity's eyes went wide. "A chocolate overdose? Oh, the poor darling! Is she alright?"
Spike nodded. "The doctor says she'll be fine, but she'll need to stay there overnight so he can monitor her."
"Well, that explains where everypony else is, then," continued Rarity. "We should go there right away and join them at her si-"
Spike shook his head. "I was the only one there. I just came to find everypony else." He looked around. "Hey, where is everypony?"
"Tha's the sixty-thousand bit question," muttered Applejack. "Ah say we should go round 'em up. With Pinkie asickenin', she'll need all the support of her friends."
"I'll go find Twilight and Princess Celestia," said Spike. "I know the city and the castle best out of everypony."
"Ya might want ta try the Eastern battlements for Twilight," said Applejack. "Ah've a feelin' you'll find her somewhere round those parts." Spike looked at her curiously, but when no further information was forthcoming from the earth pony, he saluted and rushed off as fast as his little legs would carry him in the direction of the Eastern Battlements.
"Then we shall go find Fluttershy," said Rarity. "She said she was going to Princess Luna's private gardens as I recall, so she can't be far away. The dear has probably just let time run away with her looking at all the flowers and so on."
"Then let's get a spur under our saddles," said Applejack. "The raising of the moon'll be happenin' any moment, and it'd be a terrible shame if we all missed it."
"Late, late, late, late, late!" muttered Luna as she struggled, with a combination of pushing and of her telekinetic magic, to get the gargantuan silver-yellow orb of the moon to shift. It was lying in its customary resting place in the centre of the Great Western Desert, in the valley known as the Moon's Repose, surrounded by endless dunes of ochre and russet sand. Usually, it took mere moments for the Princess to make a magical connection with the satellite and set it in eager motion, but for some reason the moon steadfastly refused to move tonight, no matter how hard she tried.
Luna slumped back on her haunches and stared at the gigantic orb. "Have you put on a couple of kilotons since yesterday?" she asked it in exasperation. The moon liked being talked to, but tonight the mischievous shimmer that usually greeted the Princess' joking was replaced by a dull dourness. "Oh, I know. It's stage-fright, isn't it? Come one now, old friend. It's spring! Your time to shine! You have to get out there and wow my subjects with your beautiful light."
Luna began to push again. She put her back into it this time, and her horn began to shine in unison with her exertion. The moon shifted the tiniest fraction, but then settled back into its little hollow with a shower of sand.
She stared at it, forehooves on her hips, and felt an old emotion - frustration - starting to well up within her.
Maybe there wasn't anything wrong with the moon.
Maybe there was something wrong with her.
Try as she might, Luna had been unable to shake the strange feelings of lassitude that had gripped her. She usually delighted in raising the moon - it was, after all, her reason for existing. And tonight was the night of the Spring Moon, when the moon was supposed to be at its brightest and most beautiful. And she, too, was supposed to be at her brightest and most beautiful as well.
But she felt far from it. She felt cold and lonely, and the only thing on her mind were two beautiful cyan eyes, filled with terror, as they gazed upon her. A terror she had caused.
After all her attempts to fit in, why did everypony still expect the worse of her?
Luna's frustration quickly began to sublimate into anger.
"Don't move then," she growled, and kicked the huge orb, which resounded with a noise like the ringing of a gigantic bell. "Disobey your mistress, who knows and loves you best. No doubt you hate and fear her, too, like the others. See if I care one jot. I shall never raise you again. Let all of Equestria languish in darkness!"
Then as quickly as it had taken hold, her anger scared her. She fell forward against the moon, wrapped her forelegs around its curvature, and burst into tears.
"Oh, I am so sorry I shouted at you," she wailed. "It's just that everything is going wrong! First with Fluttershy, and then with Twilight Sparkle and my sister, and now with you..." She rubbed her face against the smooth and gently warm surface, moistening it with her tears. "I feel so alone, moon."
She lay against it for a while, letting the sobs wrack her body. After a while, she felt better.
"I can't let everypony down," she whispered finally. "I have to raise you. It is my duty, no matter how I feel."
Once again, she pushed at the moon - but again, it gave just a little, and shifted only a short distance in the sand. It had begun to flicker, but it still refused to light into its full glowing majesty.
Luna stepped back. She rubbed the tears from her eyes, then went to push again, but stopped.
Luna felt that horrible sadness welling up within her again and every bone in her body made her want to slump down into the sand, defeated. But beneath that sadness was that anger, the same dark, black anger that had once taken control of her.
"We are not to be trifled with!" she shouted, slipping back into the Canterlot voice without even realising it. "Thou noisome orb! Thou shalt do our bidding!"
She pushed one back hoof into the sand, and then another, making her body taut, and then, channelling magical energy from every part of her body, her horn began to glow blue. It jetted out and took hold of the moon, the magic growing stronger as she moved forward to push herself bodily against it.
"Nothing shall stand in our way!" she cried. "For we are Luna, Princess of the Moon!"
Her anger exhilarated her.
She felt something give inside of her. It was as if her anger had unlocked some place within her, a place filled with limitless energy, and now more and more of it was pumping along her spine and down her horn, which started to glow incandescent. It was quickly becoming too much for her - oh, where was it all coming from? - and suddenly the welling up of magical energy peaked, and Luna cried out in abandon as she drove her horn forward to touch the flickering surface of the moon.
As soon as the tip of her horn came into contact with it, the magic was released in a torrent. She felt as though every part of her was flowing out, flowing along her horn and into the moon, and the more she gave, the more there was for her to give. It seemed without end, as if she was a conduit between some bottomless well of energy, mainlining it right into the now wildly glowing orb.
With a final, gargantuan effort, she pushed out the last of energy that was threatening to overwhelm her and the moon suddenly skidded forward, all resistive force gone in an instant. It careened across the sand, skipped once, then twice, and then began rolling across the flat sands again, gaining momentum as it did.
Luna was near exhausted by the expulsion of almost every drop of her magic, but she struggled to her feet and launched herself into the air, chasing after the moon.
The mighty orb was picking up speed, fuelled from within by the magic that Luna had bestowed upon it, and she found it a struggle to catch up. It was going much too fast! At this rate, it would roll right past Canterlot and end up somewhere in the Eastern Ocean.
The moon spun across the sand, with the Princess in hot pursuit. She gritted her teeth with exertion as she flew faster and faster, gaining on the out of control satellite slowly but surely. At last it skittered up a mighty dune as tall as a mountain, the largest of all the gigantic dunes of the Great Western Desert, and like a cannonball shot up into the air and was aloft. It flew ever higher into the sky, larger, brighter, faster than it had ever been in all the history of Equestria.
Luna, in her panic, found some tiny hidden reserve of energy and, beating her wings until she felt like they were no longer part of her, she finally caught up with the giant sparkling satellite. She jetted in front of it, and with a blistering spear of her telekinetic magic, she forced it back-
-or rather, she tried to. For the beam of magic sheered from the glowing surface of the moon, boiling away like water skittering across a hot-plate, and Luna's eyes went wide in horror as the implacable sphere smashed straight into her.
Winded and dazed, but unharmed, she clung on desperately as the glittering orb pushed her backwards at break-neck speed through the freezing cold night.
"You will do my bidding!" shrieked Luna, as she struggled to dislodge the magical connection, but it was impossible in her weakened state. "I command you to cease your movement!" But the moon remained taciturn.
It powered onwards through the sky towards Canterlot, with Luna clinging on for dear life, her cry of dismay echoing across the painted sands of the empty desert.
Twilight galloped across the ancient stone floors of the castle's winding corridors in desperation.
She had been so sure that Celestia would be waiting for her at the party, but as she had galloped through the little courtyard that separated the Princess' garden from the bulk of the castle, the pegasus guard stationed there had called out to her.
"Lady Sparkle! Are you looking for Her Highness?"
Twilight came careening to a stop and galloped up to him. "Isn't she at the party?"
He shook his head. "The Princess is not there. A short while ago I saw Her Highness come out from the castle, making for the gardens, but she did not enter them and instead returned this way." The guard came closer to her and whispered. "Lady Sparkle, I fear something terrible has happened. The Princess-"
The guard shook his head, as if he didn't believe what he was about to say. "The Princess - there were tears in her eyes."
The horrible feeling that had begun with the sight of that dark, gnarled tree intensified. Her knees felt suddenly too weak to hold her up, and she feared she would collapse. But the desperate need to find the Princess gave her strength.
She knew she had to find her, or else...
Or else what?
She didn't know.
"God speed, Lady Sparkle!" cried the guard as Twilight turned and galloped through back through the gate to the inner castle. "If anypony can mend the heart of our beloved Princess, it is you."
Mend her heart?
From there Twilight hurried to the Princess' study, but found it deserted, the guards posted at the door completely ignorant of Celestia's whereabouts. And so she galloped willy-nilly in a panic, checking every other place the Princess could be - the throne room, the Tower of Vigilance, her favourite walk along the northern battlements - everywhere she could think of.
Finally, Twilight found herself trotting exhausted into the Royal Library. The chances of Celestia being there were very small, she knew, but she had to be sure.
She checked each of the aisles in turn, feeling more and more foolish the more she looked. Why would Celestia have come here, of all places? She was stupid, so stupid, to think there was any chance of her being here!
Twilight fell to her knees, tears starting in her eyes. It was more in a desperate desire to find a place of peace and calm, to work things out, that had drawn her here. But her memories offered her little solace, and instead they fed the great sadness welling up in her heart.
Twilight remembered. Once, long ago, she had come here to find a book - it had been a genealogy of the monarchs of the Griffon Kingdom, as she recalled - and she had been surprised to see Celestia come in. It was unusual for the Princess to come to the Library, as she usually had the Royal Librarian send any books she needed directly to her study.
Twilight had shadowed her as she'd walked to one of the older parts of the library. She'd looked left and right, then with a sparkle of telekinetic magic, had brought down a book from the highest shelf and begun to read it. At that point Twilight had decided to approach her, and the Princess had been startled by the appearance of the little filly...
"Twilight Sparkle!" Celestia said, trying to regain her composure. "What are you doing, still awake? Isn't it past your bedtime?"
Twilight nodded, a little guilty. "Oh, I know it is, Princess. But I was just reading a history book about the Griffon-Pony war and the author made a reference to..."
Celestia laughed. "That's my little bookworm! I should have expected that I'd run into you here. Hey!"
Twilight squeezed past her and got up on the tips of her hind hooves in an attempt to read the title of the book Celestia had tried to hide behind her back. "What're you reading, Princess?"
"Oh, it's nothing," replied Celestia. "Just some old book-"
"An old book?" Twilight's eyes sparkled in interest. "Oh, please let me see!"
With a sigh Celestia floated the book down to her filly-eye view, and she eagerly read out the title.
"Romantick Spellef for the Ardent Swain" She looked up and frowned. "Spell-ef?"
"That isn't an 'f', Twilight," laughed Celestia. "It's just an old-fashioned way of writing an 's'."
"Why do you want to read this book?" asked Twilight. She knew that romantic was just another way of talking about all that love stuff. It seemed odd for her teacher to want to read something like that!
"I just wanted to look up a certain spell in it, that's all," said Celestia. "Now, I think that-"
"Which spell?" pressed Twilight.
"You're not going to give me any peace until you know, aren't you?" asked Celestia in exasperation. Then she sighed and smiled indulgently. "If I tell you what spell I was looking up, do you promise to take yourself off to bed?"
"I promise!" said Twilight eagerly. Oh, what sort of spell could it be? Something powerful and astounding, no doubt!
"Oh, it's a silly little spell," said Celestia dismissively. "It just shows you where the pony who is foremost in your heart is. One of the Princesses of ancient times created it to keep track of a husband with a wandering eye, or something of the sort."
"Sooooo, it's a love spell?"
"Of a sort, yes," replied Celestia.
"Love?" Twilight stuck out her tongue. "Yuck!"
Celestia stifled a laugh. "Oh, Twilight Sparkle. I would tend to agree with you there. Love can be yucky. And yet-"
She never finished the sentence.
"I thought you were looking up a powerful spell," said Twilight, disappointed.
"It is a very powerful spell," said Celestia. "Even though it doesn't make things explode or turn them to stone or anything like that." She came close to Twilight, a curious look on her face, and she whispered "You see, it's one of the very few spells designed to work on an alicorn."
"An alicorn? Like you?"
Celestia laughed and nodded. "Yes, like me. You see, alicorns have a special talent of being close to the source of rainbow magic. It's a great power, but it can also be a great burden. You always have to be careful that it doesn't get out of control. Do you remember what happened during your entrance test for the School for Gifted Unicorns?"
Twilight nodded. "When I hatched Spike?"
"The very same," said Celestia. "That feeling of incredible power surging through you? Well, that was Rainbow Magic in its purest form. Alicorns feel that all the time, and we have to learn to control it. Anyway, having all that magic inside us means that most normal magic directed towards us doesn't work."
"But there's a spell in that book that does?"
Celestia nodded. "In the future, it might be important for me to have some magic at my disposal that will affect an alicorn. You know, just in case."
"But none of the other alicorns would ever want to do anything bad to you, Princess!" protested Twilight. She tried to imagine her foal-sitter Cadence standing up against Celestia and trying to fight her. The image was ridiculous!
A shadow passed over Celestia's face. "Well, perhaps I just want to be careful. Not every alicorn is as kind as your foal-sitter."
"So why do these spells work on alicorns?"
"They go straight to the heart," explained Celestia. "Sometimes, that's the only part of us that is open to the rest of the world." She patted Twilight on the head. "Now, about that promise you made..."
Twilight had forgotten all about that book until today. Something deep in her heart had brought her here.
She raced down to the oldest section of the library, where the spell-books were all written in Middle or Old Eqquish. But there were so many of them! The shelves stretched away from her in every direction, and her heart sank. It would take forever to find it!
She slapped herself on the forehead with a hoof. Twilight, you foal! Are you so flustered that you've forgotten you're a librarian?
She located the card catalogue and with a sparkle of her horn, she flipped her way through the myriad of old, yellow cards. Luckily, they were kept in good order by the fierce Royal Librarian, and she soon found what she was looking for.
She galloped to the far end of one of the aisles and swept book after book down from the shelves, leaving them lying higgledy-piggledy on the floor, until at last she found it.
The book was as ancient as she remembered, a massive volume held together with an iron clasp and gorgeously bound in vellum, each of its pages lovingly illuminated and written in the gorgeous cursive hand which few now knew how to emulate. She quickly opened it and flipped to the spell Celestia had spoken of all those years ago.
A Most Potent Spelle of Location
For the swain, perchance beset by jealousy, who seeks to know where their errant lover may be found.
Twilight, in her haste, was eager to skip the rest of the spell's verse preface, but the final stanza leaped out at her. It was a warning.
This spelle is intended only for those
who are bewracked by true love's throws,
Those seeking not their heart's desire,
shall to their woe find it misfire.
Twilight's heart sank. Her heart's desire? Oh, but surely that meant a romantic love, not the love of a student for her teach-
She shook her head. It didn't matter. She had to try. The spell had to work. She had to find Tia, or else something terrible would happen. She felt the truth of that in the very marrow of her bones. Something inexorable and irreversible was going to happen, and she was the only one who could stop it.
Twilight quickly read the spell, letting the words unravel and reform together in her mind into the blueprint that would channel and balance the magic to alter reality in just the way it was intended to. The strange symbols in the margins glowed and leaped off the page, spiralling about her like errant fireflies, and then they lodged themselves one by one in her mind - and straight away she was flooded with images of Tia, from the first moment she'd seen her at the Raising of the Sun, to those final awkward moments at the dying tree - every moment they had spent together went flashing through her mind, like the cards in the catalogue she had flipped through to find the book. The spell fed on the information, and then she knew.
She knew exactly where Celestia was.
The Princess was in a room, deep, deep within the centre of the castle. A place Twilight had never been to, a place not even on the most ancient of maps she had pored over in the Royal Library, a place filled with reflections and refracted light, like the inside of a crystal.
But Twilight knew something else now, as well. The spell in its machinations had finally proven it to her. She'd been so stupid! So stupid that it had taken a spell to prove to her a thing she'd known for such a long time.
Twilight closed her eyes. Like the spell which had knitted itself together in her mind, the realisation that had been stealing up on her all this time had at last taken form and as it burst out into her conscious mind, it drove her down onto her knees, and the love she at last recognised in her heart burned her like a hidden flame deep in her chest.
It wasn't the love you felt for a beloved teacher, or a dear friend, not that warm and reasonable and generous love. It was a fiery love, an acquisitive love, an incandescent and inexorable love that had been there all along, demanding recognition, niggling away and draining her, every moment she had refused to acknowledge it in her blindness.
She was in love with the Princess, with... Tia.
Twilight struggled back onto her hooves and broke into a gallop, quickly leaving the Royal Library far behind her.
She found the archway in a forgotten corner of the castle that opened out into an ancient corridor that plunged straight down into the depths of the castle, spiralling down to the unseen room where Tia was at that moment. Twilight's hooves struck the stones of the ancient corridor and resounded like thunderclaps, as it led her down, deeper down, into the heart of the castle, the air growing ever colder until she could barely breath. She galloped so hard that her chest hurt and her legs ached, but the pain felt strangely distant from her.
All she could see before her was Tia, crying. And she had to find her and tell her that she loved her, or else something terrible would happen. Her heart told her that, as well.
Rainbow's voice echoed through the night.
The windswept mountaintops loomed out of the darkness, capped in white snow that glittered in the starlight. But the beauty was lost on the pegasus in her desperate search.
At last she found her - a tiny black speck against the barely lighter grey of the mountain meadow where they had been taking a break together earlier. As she came clearer, she saw that the Wonderbolt was sitting beside her cooler, drinking from a bottle. The harnesses with the fireworks still lay where they'd been tossed.
Rainbow swooped in and landed near to her. Spitfire barely looked up, but too another drink from the bottle.
"Hey D," she said. "Back so soon?"
Rainbow trotted up to her. "I've been looking for you everywhere. Couldn't you hear me shouting?"
"I was busy," muttered Spitfire. Her eyes were red, and she avoided looking at Rainbow in the eyes. She took a drink from the bottle and lay back against the rock, staring up at the night sky.
Rainbow frowned. "What in Equestria do you think you're doing?"
"What does it look like?" snapped Spitfire. "I'm drinking."
"You know what I mean," said Rainbow, taken aback by the Wonderbolt's attitude. "The show?"
"To Tartaros with the show," muttered Spitfire. She took another hit of the bottle and then brandished it in Rainbow's direction. "Care for some, D?"
"What's going on, Spitfire?" demanded Rainbow. The look of pain on the pegasus' face had driven away the hot anger she'd initially felt, and it had been quickly replaced with concern. "Look, I'm your friend - you can tell me anyth-"
"This is my only friend now," said the pegasus, brandishing the bottle. "You know, I usually find it pretty difficult to maintain relationships, D, but with my buddy here-" She hugged the bottle close to her. "-things are going just great." Spitfire looked at up Rainbow, but quickly turned away, tears in her eyes. "Just like you and that Twilight, I guess."
"Twilight?" said Rainbow.
Spitfire nodded. "You guys seemed pretty chummy on the battlements."
"Oh, that!" Rainbow laughed. "We were just messing around. Twilight's my friend, that's all."
"Friend, friend, friend," muttered Spitfire. "I never knew I'd ever hate that word." She tossed her hair. "I'm sure that Twilight Sparkle is a very special friend, isn't she?"
"All my friends are special," replied Rainbow, matter-of-fact.
"And what am I, then?" asked Spitfire, her eyes glistening. "Am I a special friend, too?" The word 'special' was bitter on her lips.
Rainbow shook her head. "You're my hero," she said.
Spitfire stared at her, as if she'd been slapped in the face. The bottle fell from her lips and rolled onto the ground, the brown liquor spilling from it onto the ground.
She buried her face in her forehooves. "Oh, I've been such a total dweeb! Why didn't I just ask you if you had a filly friend? Then I could've just-"
"What?" Rainbow couldn't help but smile. "Twilight's not my filly-friend!" She shook her head in disbelief. "Why does everypony think I have a thing for Twilight Sparkle all of a sudden?"
Spitfire took her forehooves from her face and blinked in surprise. "But the letter-"
"The letter? A silly prank," said Rainbow. "Actually, I don't know whether it was a prank or just a screw-up." She looked up into the sky. "It's certainly screwed up a lot of things, that's for sure."
"I'm the one who's screwed everything up," said Spitfire. "Now the entire show's ruined!"
Rainbow shook her head. "We've still got time. The team aren't going anywhere - I told Ditzy not to do anything until we get back."
Spitfire's eyes went wide. "You put Ditzy Doo in charge?"
Rainbow nodded. "Like you said, the kid's got heart."
Spitfire managed a weak smile. "You really believed me when I said that?"
Rainbow laughed. "Hey, you're my hero, right?"
Spitfire got onto her hooves unsteadily. "Look, Dash, I... I'm sorry I overreacted. After we get the show done, are you still interested in maybe-"
"Just try and stop me!" said the rainbow-maned pegasus, striking a pose. Then she suddenly blushed. "Spitfire, you- you were jealous, of Twilight?"
Spitfire's cheeks reddened, and she opened her mouth to reply, but what she said was drowned out by the suddenly, ear-splitting roar of a giant glowing orb flying overhead, and of the high-pitched cry of a pony in peril.
They stared at the moon as it sped like a bullet towards Canterlot, rapidly dwindling into a tiny ball in the distance.
Spitfire turned to Rainbow in disbelief. "Was that... the moon?"
"And Princess Luna," said Rainbow. "I don't know anything about raising the moon, but I'm pretty certain that's not the way you're supposed to do it."
"The moon's heading straight for the castle!" said Spitfire, horrified. "If the Princess can't stop It in time-"
"-then everypony is going to get a closer view of the spring moon than they were bargaining for." Rainbow grabbed up Spitfire's harness with the fireworks arrayed on it and tossed it to her.
"What's this for?" asked Spitfire, staring at it.
"I've got an idea," said Rainbow.
"But what about the show?"
"The show?" Rainbow grinned. "Oh, we're going to give everypony a show all right! Now let's go." She grabbed Spitfire's forehoof as she struggled to pull on her harness and plunged the two of them off the mountaintop into the freezing darkness. "We've got a Princess to save!"
Twilight was gasping for breath as at long last the ancient corridor came to an end, opening out into a wide, high-ceilinged vestibule lit by a myriad of torches. It was far broader than it was long, as the wall on the opposite side of the entrance was entirely dominated by a massive door. Circular in shape and covered with an astonishly intricate design made of gold and silver, like the workings of a gigantic clock, it reminded Twilight of the door to some giant's treasure room, the cap of a massive vault.
She didn't stop to catch her breath and straight away began to look for the handle on the massive door among the delicate filigreed metal. And so she didn't notice the ancient pegasus guard, dressed in the decorative golden armour of a hundred years ago, who stepped up to her from the dark corner of the room where the light of the torches did not reach.
"Stop!" he cried. The strength and tenor of his voice belittled the fragility of his aged appearance, and Twilight stepped back in alarm. "Nopony shall pass!"
"But I must," said Twilight, her eyes desperately pleading. "The Princess -"
He stepped in between her and the great door, his armoured wings unfurling to their full breadth. "It is by decree of the Princess herself," said the guard. "None are permitted to enter this room save the Princess of Equestria herself."
"Not permitted?" Twilight arched a brow. "But the Princess has given me the freedom of the entire castle!"
"None may enter this room, besides the Princess herself," said the guard. "Even you, Lady Sparkle."
Twilight's already frayed patience threatened to crumble into anger, and she glared at him. "I need to see her. She's upset and I need-"
"The Princess is always upset when she walks through this door," said the guard, simply. "But never once have I seen her come out without a look of beatific peace on her face." His stern visage suddenly softened. "Lady Sparkle, please do not concern yourself unduly. The Princess will return to us all soon. You should wait for her back above ground, far away from this cold and draughty place." He coughed by way of illustration.
Twilight shook her head. "I must see her. And if you try and stop me, I'm afraid that-"
The guard smiled. "I would never wish to fight you, Lady Sparkle. But thankfully there is no need for me to." He slowly inclined his grey-maned head backwards, indicating the door behind him. "You see, it can only be opened by one with a Princess's power. In all of Equestria, only Princess Celestia or perhaps Princess Luna would be able to open it. The mechanism is far too complex."
"And what is inside this room?"
"I do not know," said the guard. "As I said, none are permitted to enter. Does it matter?"
For some reason, the guard's dismissiveness angered Twilight.
She stepped back and ground her hooves into the floor and jerked her horn in the direction of the door. "You'd better stand back, sir."
The guard shook his head. "This is folly, Lady..."
Twilight ignored him, and from deep within herself she drew on the wellspring of her magical energy.
It coursed along the length of her horn and sprang out of her, and as soon as it came in contact with the great door she gasped in horror. It was beyond complicated! Every single part of what she had taken as an abstract design was in fact the lock mechanism itself, cogs within cogs, wheels within wheels, all of it protected with a myriad of powerful warding spells.
Twilight split the focus of her magic again, and again, and again, as she struggled to resolve the wards and activate the magical links that would set the machine in motion. It was like trying to take a clock apart and rebuild it, with no idea what it looked like, as cyclonic winds were striving to blow each of the pieces in a thousand different directions at once.
"I... I can do this!" cried Twilight, her horn growing brighter and brighter. "I... I need to tell her!"
"What, Lady Sparkle?" shouted the guard over the noise of the magic pouring forth from Twilight and spreading throughout the door. "What is it that you need to tell her, that you would attempt the impossible?"
"That... that I love her!" cried Twilight, tears in her eyes.
The guard's eyes went wide, and then a look of deep, inconsolable sadness settled on his ancient features and he retreated back into the shadowy corner from which he had come.
The thought of not being able to tell Tia was like a dismal hole that threatened to open up within her, sucking all energy, all concentration down with it. The few wards she had broken through, the few cogs she had turned all sprang back into place, stronger, tighter than before.
Despair suddenly gripped her, and she felt her focus slipping away. She could see Tia's smiling face before her, sipping her pomegranate martini, laughing at her stupid oatmeal joke - all of it melting away as if it had never happened.
I'm too late. I've- I've already lost her.
Then, just as the coldness of despair threatened to engulf her and drag her down, a sudden burst of warmth welled up from deep within her... and she felt as if some secret part of her heart had been opened. She cried out as magic surged through her body, coursing up her legs and tail and spiralling up her spine to blossom in her mind, a rainbow born from the white light, all seven colours springing out like the petals of a flower within her. Limitless, the light poured into the bottomless hole of despair and filled it rapidly to overflowing...
...and Twilight's eyes began to glow.
A great peace all at once settled over her, and no longer was she in the centre of a cyclone, but aloft, alone, floating above the clouds in the endlessness of a blue sky, and before her sat the mechanism of the clock, laid out for her with every part visible.
It all seemed so simple, now! It was merely seven to the power of seven individual mechanisms that required they be triggered within a nanosecond of each other, each with its own magical ward protecting it. She split the conduit of her magic into seven streams, red and orange and yellow and green and blue and indigo and violet, and each of these into seven more, and again, and again, and rapidly went from cog to camshaft, hundreds at a time, stripping them of their wards and taking control of each of the devices.
Then she set the mechanism in motion. The myriad of tiny elements of the lock all slipped into place, and the intricate design on the door spun and slid and slotted together, until the emblem of the sun was revealed. Restored, it shone bright, brighter than even the real sun itself, and both Twilight and the guard fell back, shielding their eyes from the incandescent glow.
And then the lock clicked.
The door began to slide open, so heavy that it was like a fragment of a mountain pushed aside by a powerful earthquake. The floor shuddered, and the guard fell to his knees, horror on his face, staring at the door as if it were a hideous monster. "Lady Sparkle! You... you opened it!" He struggled onto his hooves, and tottered towards the door, throwing out his wings. "Halt! Thou shalt not pa-"
But Twilight had already galloped past him and through into the bright room beyond.
The stallion with the Q and the mare with the P half-hopped, half-flew to Ditzy's side, all aflutter with excitement.
"Ditzy, Ditzy!" cried the Q. "The moon's on its way!"
"And it's moving really, really quickly!" said the P, breathlessly. "It'll be here in just a few minutes!"
Ditzy turned in the direction of the two pegasi's extended forehooves - and she saw straight away that they were right.
The moon was still far off, about the size of a bit, and travelling just a little above the western horizon - but rather than its usual stately ascent, it was moving very quickly indeed.
Oh, Rainbow Dash - where are you? thought Ditzy in desperation. Why did you have to leave me in charge? I don't know what to do!
The black-maned Q and the purple-maned P turned to Ditzy Doo, their eyes questioning.
"What should we do, Ditzy?" asked the Q.
And once again, Rainbow Dash's face suddenly appeared before the blonde-maned pegasus' eyes, and she saw it mouth the same advice as before.
"Noth-" she began to say, but only half the word escaped before her mouth slammed shut of its own accord.
She couldn't say it.
No, 'nothing' wasn't the right thing to say, Ditzy knew. If they did nothing, then all their hard work, all those weeks of practice, would be wasted. Oh, the audience would be so disappointed and the Spring Moon Festival would be ruined!
She shook her head, as if trying to knock the confusion of cotton wool that was threatening to clog it, and for a moment her jangling eyes went straight. A strange feeling suddenly gripped her, a feeling she'd seldom felt before.
The eyes of the stallion Q and the mare P followed her as she hopped onto the ridge and scrambled up to its highest point. She looked down at the crowd of pegasi milling before her, and she cleared her throat.
Every eye turned to look at her. The pegasi went quiet and stared at her, waiting for her to speak. The entire Amateur Aerobatic Performance Team.
Ditzy gazed across at the faces of all the pegasi lined up in the meadow. Some looked confused, others nervous. But all were looking at her expectantly. She knew couldn't let them down.
I'm so sorry, Rainbow Dash, she thought. I know I'm probably just making another derpy mistake, but I have to try. I have to do something!
Ditzy shook her head and, with as loud a voice as she could muster, she began to speak.
"Hello everypony!" she began. "It's me. You know - Ditzy Doo!" She blushed, suddenly unsure of herself. Was that how Rainbow or Spitfire would start a rousing pep-talk? She tried to still her rapidly beating heart and threw herself back into her speech.
"Now, I know everypony is wondering just what's happened to Spitfire and Rainbow." There was some nervous muttering in the crowd. "I don't have any idea, either. I'm sorry! I hope the two of them are okay. But just because they're not here, doesn't mean we should all just give up. The show must go on! "
Ditzy looked down at the pegasi arranged before her. There was some murmuring and nodding of heads among them.
She continued, feeling a surge of confidence. "Now, Rainbow and Spitfire have trained us well. We all know what we have to do! We have to get out there and do it, just like we've done it a dozen dozen times before. No, wait, a dozen dozen dozen dozen times! We don't need Rainbow and Spitfire to hold our hooves for the performance, do we?"
"No!" came a smattering of shouts from the assembled pegasi.
"We can hold our own hooves, right?"
There was a number of cries of "Yes!", but also quite a few confused faces.
"I wanna go on with show, don't you?" cried Ditzy.
"Yeah!" came a chorus of shouts.
"Is everypony with me?"
"Yeah!" It was louder this time.
A tear appeared at the corner of one golden eye, and Ditzy threw her forelegs wide.
"Is this going to be the most awesomest Spring Moon Spectacular ever?" she cried.
"YEAH!" It was a roar of voices now.
"Then let's get out there and entertain Equestria!" yelled Ditzy.
The shouts and whistles of her team were echoing in her ears as she flicked the switch on her harness. All at once, the lights on her torso lit up, making the pegasi blink their eyes at the sudden square of brightness that had flashed into existence. And when they could see again, the blonde-maned pegasus standing on the hill was a glowing figure of pure white.
But it was when Ditzy unfurled her wings and leaped into the air that the assembled team gasped in unison. For now, with her torso aglow and the light of the rapidly approaching moon striking each of the grey feathers of her broad wings, Ditzy Doo looked for all the world like some glittering angel rising slowly into the heavens.
First the purple-maned P, and then the black-maned Q, turned on their own lights, red and green, and then one after another the rest of the team followed suite, until within a few moments the entire ridge was alight with all seven colours of the rainbow.
Then they unfurled their wings and leaped as one into the air, settling quickly in formation as they had been taught, and soon the entire Spring Moon Festival Amateur Aerial Performance Team were aloft, with Ditzy at the tip of the V-formation, cutting through the night sky like an errant constellation as they flew on their way to Canterlot castle.
To be concluded in Part 8