“You’re sure that’s what she said she saw?”
“Yes… But I’m certain she must have imagined it! A filly lost in the forest? She could have seen anything out of fright! It’s so dark in there!”
“But, Rarity, how could she have mistaken you? If he’s following you, I—”
“Twilight, think about it. If that was really the Spirit, why would he have led her to me and the library? It makes no sense.”
“Twilight, please, you’re just worrying over nothing.”
“…Is that really what you think?”
“Yes, it is.”
Rarity stared at the two words on her train ticket, idly stirring the tea she’d bought earlier on her way to Ponyville’s train station. She looked away from the ticket and out the window, eyes following the scenery rushing past.
What answers would she find in the mysterious town? And what would its mysterious professor tell her? Would she be any closer to unraveling the mystery behind Twilight Sparkle, or would she again find herself with more questions than answers?
“Did I tell you how many questions Twilight had for Professor Awe?” she asked, glancing at the pegasus sitting opposite her. When Fluttershy curiously glanced back at her, she replied, “Five hundred eighty-six. Wait, no.” Rarity paused, scrunching her eyebrows and visualizing the enormous stack of papers Twilight had earlier presented her with. “My mistake. Five hundred eighty-eight.”
“Five hundred eighty-eight?” Fluttershy repeated, blinking at Rarity. “How are you ever going to remember them all?”
“By having Twilight condense them into ten questions,” Rarity replied. “Which she… did.” Even if she somehow managed to fit the content of fifty questions into just ten. I could have done without her looking like I’d forced her to throw her books away, though.
“That’s good, isn’t it?” Fluttershy continued. “That she wants to learn more? Didn’t you say she didn’t want to talk about the legend when you first met her?”
“Well, yes…” Rarity said, taking a long sip of her tea. She put it down on the table and looked out the window again. “From what I gather, she’s understandably very keen on knowing where the other princesses might be imprisoned.”
But none of Twilight’s questions had to do with the events that led her to be imprisoned, or even the details of what happened after said imprisonment. It was as though she was only interested in the conclusion, not the development. Funny, isn’t it, how she wants to know everything yet refuses to divulge any information? Rarity could still see the heavy frown Twilight wore upon finding out that Rarity still planned to ask about what had led to Twilight and the others’ imprisonment in the first place.
“Do you think the professor will want to come back home with us once we tell him about Princess Twilight?” Fluttershy asked, pulling Rarity back from the daydream in which she was terrible enough to somehow apply a truth spell to Twilight. Were ghosts even susceptible to spells?
“No, he won’t,” Rarity replied at length, levitating her tea again for another sip. “Twilight made me promise not to tell him about her.”
“She did?” Fluttershy asked, surprised. “But why?”
“Well, I’ve told you how she is. She doesn’t want more ponies to be involved with her because of the Spirit,” Rarity said. Then again, Twilight hadn’t been the one who asked to contact the professor, so Rarity couldn’t really complain about her not wanting to be involved. “I thought she was opening up to others, considering she seems to like you and the girls quite a lot, but…” Her sentence dissolved into a frustrated sigh.
Fluttershy shook her head. “Baby steps, Rarity, baby steps. Princess Twilight still needs to learn to trust us fully before opening up that much,” she said, her wise advice eliciting only a whine from the unicorn.
“Baby steps? It feels more like snail steps, if you ask me,” Rarity complained theatrically. She made sure Fluttershy saw just how deeply she was pouting. “It’s so frustrating.”
“Oh?” Fluttershy asked, giggling. “You didn’t seem all that frustrated when you told us all about how she let you call her by her first name, or how you managed to make the princess so happy and smile just for you.”
Rarity allowed herself her own small smile, remembering how she’d practically bounced out of the library after said event. “You win,” she admitted. “Perhaps I’m not that frustrated.” She noticed Fluttershy’s teasing grin and quickly added, “But you would have been thrilled too if you’d seen her smile after weeks of being ‘Princess Seriousness’! And can you blame me for being excited about being on a first-name basis with a princess?”
Fluttershy shook her head. “No, I can’t.”
“But I suppose you’re right. Baby steps it is,” Rarity continued, leaning against the backrest of the seat. She took another sip of her tea and eyed Fluttershy carefully. “It makes sense you would know to be patient. I bet she’d tell you all about her dark and mysterious past.”
Fluttershy blushed. “I don’t know,” she said. “The princess has been kind to me, but I don’t think she trusts me as much as she does you.” She cleared her throat and got up, glancing toward the door. “Why don’t we go get something to eat? I’m a little hungry.”
The two friends exited the car and made their way down the corridor until a heavenly smell wafted into their noses and brought them to a halt. Was it… pastries? The aroma was reminiscent of Sugarcube Corner on the days the Cakes really put their all into their baked delicacies. Goodness, Rarity had yet to even step inside the food car and she already wanted twenty of whatever was for sale in there.
When they slid open the door, Rarity found the surprisingly familiar source of the smell.
Inside the car, all the other vendors were enviously staring at a single small cart and the two hungry foals standing in front of it. Though Rarity had only met her once, she still recognized the pink pony—Pinkie Pie, was it?—carefully putting the finishing touches of caramelized sugar on the second of two yellow cupcakes.
“There we go!” she exclaimed when the task was done, taking a step back to let her hungry customers admire her work of art. It was quite obvious the mare had a talent for decorating confectionaries, especially if she could make something as simple as a cupcake look so enticing. She then reached under her cart and took out two candied lavender flowers and delicately put one on each cupcake. “That’ll be six bits, please!”
Rarity waited until the foals made off with their delicious-looking treats before clearing her throat. “Are there any of those cupcakes left for two very hungry customers?” she asked, smiling brilliantly when Pinkie Pie looked her way.
“Oh! Rarity!” the mare exclaimed, allowing Rarity a breath of relief at being recognized. Seeking Night had been so long ago, and they’d only spoken for a short while, after all. “What a super duper lucky coincidence! What are you doing here?”
“Well, my friend Fluttershy and I were on our way to get a snack, and we couldn’t resist finding out what that absolutely delectable smell was!” Rarity explained, trotting up to the stall. “Going home?”
Pinkie nodded. “Yep! I haven’t been home for months now,” she replied. “I was having a lot of fun with some ponies near Tall Tales, but I had to come home for supplies!”
“Ah, then I take it you’re thrilled to be returning for even a little while? I’m sure your friends and family will be delighted to have you back!” Rarity smiled. Her exclamation, however, resulted in Pinkie wincing briefly. Or not…?
“Oh… yeah…” Pinkie said half-heartedly, before smiling again and looking toward Fluttershy. “Oh! Hi!”
With that unsubtle change of topic, Rarity suddenly realized how rude she’d been. “Oh! Fluttershy, darling, I’m so sorry!” She cleared her throat and gestured toward Pinkie. “Fluttershy, Pinkie was one of the vendors at the fair during Seeking Night! You know, the traveling salespony I told you about?” she explained.
Fluttershy nodded and turned to Pinkie. “It’s nice to meet you,” she said, smiling amiably at her new acquaintance.
“Nice to meet you too, Fluttershy!” Pinkie exclaimed with much more enthusiasm. “So, two cupcakes?”
“Yes, please,” Rarity said with a smile.
“Coming right up!”
“I had planned on visiting your stand after the event was over, but I’m afraid other things got in the way,” Rarity continued, watching as Pinkie bent down under her cart and brought out a tray with a dozen multicolored cupcakes. There were six white ones, six yellow ones, and six pink ones, all devoid of decoration. A lone dark blue cupcake, carefully decorated with a crescent moon-shaped piece of frosting and countless sprinkles, stood out like a sore hoof.
“Oh, yeeeeeah. Spring Showers told me you went into the Everfree Forest,” Pinkie said, her enthusiasm waning ever so slightly. For a brief moment, she narrowed her eyes and stared at Rarity as if deep in thought. However, before Rarity could question it, Pinkie’s cheerful expression returned like it had never left. “I’m glad that you found your sister, though! That forest must have been suuuuuper scary for her!” And suddenly, the serious expression returned. “Did… Did you find anypony else in there?”
“A-anypony?” Rarity repeated, taken aback by the specification. All the other times she’d been questioned, she’d been asked if she found something, not somepony. She remembered Pinkie having mentioned her belief in the “legend” of the four princesses. “Well, I…”
Curses. She’d finally found the one pony who might be willing to believe her without question, and she had promised Twilight that she wouldn’t say anything about it. Twilight would likely never find out if she did say something, but she had already broken one promise to the princess and had no intention of breaking another—no matter how silly it was. She’d have to negotiate with Twilight when she returned home. How in Equestria was she supposed to get the princess out of the library without telling anypony about her?
“…I’m afraid I only found my sister and her friend,” Rarity finally said.
Her answer must have seemed honest enough, since Pinkie quickly let go of the issue. “So!” she said, rubbing her hooves together. “What d’ya want? I have banana, strawberry, and vanilla!” She winked and pointed toward the pink ones. “Strawberry are the best ones, though.”
Fluttershy was the first to choose after a moment of thinking. “I’ll have a strawberry, please,” she said, giggling when the baker congratulated her on her excellent choice. “What about you, Rarity?”
“I don’t know…” Rarity murmured, the lone decorated blue cupcake still catching her eye. Was it blueberry-flavored? That did sound delicious, and surely Pinkie wouldn’t have it there if it wasn’t for sale like the others. “What flavor is the dark blue one there?”
“O-oh! Blueberry, but that one isn’t for sale!” Pinkie quickly clarified, offering the unicorn an apologetic smile. “Sorry… It’s one I make for my best friend, Moonlight Lullaby,” she explained, lifting her hoof to play with the necklace hanging from her neck. It was in the shape of a crescent moon, and Rarity vaguely recalled having noticed it when she first met Pinkie. “I just leave it there with the others because it looks pretty, and it reminds me of Lulla.”
“Oh, that’s too bad… I’ll have a vanilla one, then,” Rarity decided instead. “Wouldn’t want to deprive Moonlight Lullaby of her cupcake, after all.”
“Is blueberry her favorite type of cupcake?” Fluttershy asked when Pinkie let go of the necklace to get to work decorating.
“Oh, no!” Pinkie replied, starting to add blue fondant to the pink cupcake. “Lulla can’t eat any cupcakes yet, but I always make her a special one so she won’t feel left out!”
Can’t eat cupcakes yet? Rarity thought, raising an eyebrow. What an odd remark. Is she on a diet or something? Goodness, I can’t imagine what kind of dreadful torture that would be, dieting while having a baker as a best friend… Rarity’s eyes lingered on Pinkie’s decorating for a moment before going up to the necklace hanging around her neck. But actually… That moon… She lowered her gaze to the forbidden cupcake and realized the decoration on it was nearly identical to the one on Pinkie’s necklace.
“That necklace you’re wearing… I can’t help notice it has the same symbol as your friend’s cupcake,” she said. “Does it have something to do with the ‘Moonlight’ part of her name?”
Pinkie glanced toward the cupcake and shook her head. “Oh, no! That’s not because of her name,” she explained. “Moonlight Lullaby isn’t her reeeal name, see? It’s just a nickname I came up with for her ’cause the first time I met her, she sang me a lullaby to help me feel better after a really awful nightmare.”
“She sounds nice,” Fluttershy said, smiling at how effusively Pinkie nodded. “You must be very close to her.”
“Yep! She’s my very bestest friend in the whole entire world. Ever!” Pinkie confirmed, putting the strawberry cupcake to the side and taking one of the vanilla cupcakes. “Have you ever been to Hollow Shades before?”
“No, this is our first time,” Rarity replied, watching as Pinkie put lavender-colored frosting on her cupcake, “unless Fluttershy has gone on secret world-saving trips that I don’t know about!” she added, fluttering her eyelashes at her friend.
“Of course not,” Fluttershy replied, giggling. “But I’ve always wanted to go there. I read there are a lot of rare plants that grow in and around Hollow Shades, and there are a lot of nocturnal animals that are awake all the time.” She looked at Pinkie with a hopeful smile. “We’ll get a chance to pick some flowers while we’re there, won’t we?”
“Oh, yeah! There’s a park where ponies can pick all kinds of herbs and flowers! I always get lavender from there,” Pinkie replied, looking up from the cupcake. “Ooooh, I could take you on a tour if you want! I’ve always wanted to be a toury-guidey sort of pony! There’s the big plaza, and the marketplace, and the flora park, and the firepit, and—” Pinkie cut herself off, suddenly realizing she’d left the cupcake half finished. “—and lots of other things!”
“Pinkie, darling, a question,” Rarity said, smiling politely at Pinkie when the mare presented the finished cupcake. Her talk of acting as their personal tour guide meant she must know the town very well, and if so… “Do you happen to know if a certain Professor Awe lives in Hollow Shades? Apparently moved there a few years back?”
To Rarity, it was a perfectly harmless question, but the same could not be said of Pinkie, whose grimace resembled nothing so much as that of somepony who’d eaten a long-expired pastry.
“Oh. The professor lives near the train station on the outskirts of town,” Pinkie said, taking out two more candied lavenders and putting one on each cupcake with visibly less care than before. “He’s a real big meaniepants, though,” she added and then lowered her voice. “A super duper big meaniepants.”
Rarity and Fluttershy looked at each other, raising their eyebrows.
“Is he really such an unpleasant fellow?” Rarity asked, turning back to Pinkie. Yes, the magazine had painted him a bit as a slightly distracted conspiracy theorist, but she hadn’t at all gotten the impression that he was… “a super duper big meaniepants.” Actually, considering Pinkie’s belief in the legend, one would have assumed she and Professor Awe would be frightful friends.
“I… I just don’t like what he says about the princesses,” she replied. “And about Princess Denza…”
Princess Denza? What does she have to do with the legend? Or does he simply have a problem with the monarchy?
“The train will be arriving at Hollow Shades station in fifteen minutes,” a voice interrupted from the overhead speakers. “This is the last stop. All passengers must disembark at this time. Thank you for using the Equestria Express, and we hope your journey has been a pleasant one.”
“Oh! I better start clearing up,” Pinkie exclaimed, ears perked. “Are you gonna visit the professor today? I have to go home, but maybe we can meet up in the main plaza later tonight! I should be done by eight! And that’s when the marketplace is out on the street! We’re gonna have so much fun!”
“That sounds lovely,” Fluttershy said, gratefully accepting the cupcake Pinkie made. She took a small bite and smiled for Pinkie, who’d been carefully watching to see if she liked it. Before taking hers, Rarity took out her bitbag, but Pinkie quickly interrupted, waving her hoof.
“Oh, that’s okay! My treat!” she exclaimed, even after Rarity insisted on paying. She then took out a small piece of paper and a pen, and wrote down directions to both the main plaza and Professor Awe’s house. “Here you go! Now you won’t get lost.”
“Eight o’clock it is then, darling,” Rarity said, taking the paper and the cupcake. Hopefully, the talk with the professor would proceed smoothly, and she’d have all the answers she—and Twilight—needed.
To Rarity’s disappointment, they’d arrived at the proper house only to find the infamous professor had left and would not be returning until tomorrow. Though Fluttershy had been quick to remind Rarity that they had all of the next day to speak to him, it did little to ease the growing frustration the unicorn felt. The professor had answers she needed, and being so close yet so far away hit her harder than she expected. After griping about her terrible luck for a bit, and with little else to do, the two friends decided to get a head start looking around the village.
As they made their way around, Rarity took the time to truly see Hollow Shades, something she hadn’t done when she’d been otherwise busy going through her questions for Professor Awe.
To say Hollow Shades was not eerie would be a lie, but what could be expected of a village immersed deep within a tall forest that was almost akin to the Everfree? Perpetual twilight reigned, and the little sunlight that fought its way through the treetops struggled to reach the ground. It certainly didn’t help matters that Foal Mountain loomed overhead, almost as if it was guarding Hollow Shades from the sun’s reach.
To ward off this perpetual duskiness, elegant torches were scattered all across the village, lit by some sort of never-ending fire spell. Rarity had taken the time to admire one of them up close, and she was surprised to find that many of them, if not all, had a full moon design amongst the carvings on their bases.
This full moon pattern was not reserved solely for the torches, however. Decorative paper lanterns scattered across the village also depicted moon symbols, and more importantly, so did the houses.
The dark blue homes scattered all over the village were the most visible example of Hollow Shades’ fascination with the night. The doors of the houses had all been decorated with a white full moon. The windows, for their part, were all shaped like crescent moons, and patterns made of stars had been engraved all over the walls.
They’d been told by one of the villagers that they were copied from constellations in the sky, and Rarity had found herself with an odd longing for Twilight to be there. Rarity didn’t know the names of the constellations, but she was sure Twilight did and would have been delighted to share. Perhaps, one day, Twilight herself would be able to come see Hollow Shades? Or perhaps they could skip all of that and look at the sky directly?
There were also quite a number of treehouses, built upon the sturdier branches of nearby trees. She imagined they had been quite the success with the local foals. After her immersion in the atmosphere of the town, Rarity finally understood why Hollow Shades had the reputation of hosting the absolute best Seeking Night events.
It wasn’t a secret that Hollow Shades was one of Equestria’s more popular tourist sites—after all, even Sweetie Belle had been terribly envious of Rarity going. It was admittedly alluring to find oneself in the middle of a town that felt plucked right out of a fairy tale. However, what really sold the entire idea was the locals themselves.
Foals, stallions, and mares: all—or most of them—wore a long cloak, though most had the hood down, and some of the unicorns were levitating old lanterns in front of them. They were also quite friendly, greeting each other joyfully—no doubt because the village wasn’t even half as large as Ponyville, so it was easy to know everypony. Their hospitality also extended to the wandering tourists, recognizable by their lack of cloaks, necks draped instead with cameras on straps.
Speaking of which…
“There!” Rarity exclaimed, watching her camera eject the photograph she’d taken of one of the lovelier constellation designs on a nearby house. She waited for the picture to develop before presenting her masterpiece to Fluttershy. “What do you think? Should I abandon fashion and fulfill my destiny of being a photographer?”
Fluttershy laughed, taking the picture and nodding approvingly. “What constellation do you think it is?” she asked, hoofing the picture back to Rarity and looking at the wall itself.
“We’ll have to ask Twilight when we’re back home,” Rarity replied, giving the camera and photo to Fluttershy for safekeeping inside the pegasus’ saddlebag. She took another look at the moon painted on the door, admiring the care of its brushstrokes. The paint blended seamlessly within itself, and upon closer inspection, she noticed the artist had even gone as far as including the moon’s craters.
“I remember Pinkie Pie told me that the ponies here are quite the admirers of Princess Selene,” Rarity said, still admiring the painting. Though Twilight had mentioned the princess’ real name before—Luna?—it was still hard for Rarity to replace the name she’d known all her life.
“Do you think she might be near here?” Fluttershy asked, glancing around to make sure no locals were near enough to overhear. “Princess Twilight is in a forest, so maybe Princess Selene is in Hollow Shades’ forest?”
Rarity bit her lip. That was a possibility, yes, but… “She’d have already been found, wouldn’t you think?” Rarity pointed out, smiling sympathetically when Fluttershy made a disappointed sound. “Though it’s sound logic, darling. Perhaps we can ask around for more information and see what we find out!”
Rarity recalled that her version of the legend stated Princess Selene—Princess Luna was trapped in a mountain. Of course, she had since grown slightly distrustful of the legend after hers had failed to mention the solution to freeing Twilight or the others. If it wasn’t for the Book Bringer, Twilight might have been trapped in there for the rest of Rarity’s lifetime—or longer.
That was yet another detail on which she wanted to consult with Professor Awe: how to know what was true and what was a lie regarding the legend. Hollow Shades had two very large mountains surrounding it, and she didn’t want to have to dig them out completely unless she was absolutely one-hundred-percent certain Princess Luna would be in one of them.
“Well, I’m sure we’ll find something,” Fluttershy said enthusiastically, encouraged by Rarity’s positivity. “Princess Twilight will be very happy if we come back with news about the other princesses.”
It was almost eight o’clock, however, so the pair decided to finally make their way toward the main plaza. As they got closer and closer, they could hear loud music and all sorts of noise, not to mention the oncoming smell of all kinds of delicious treats.
When they finally reached the place, Rarity wondered how in Equestria they were going to find Pinkie Pie. The plaza was filled to the brim with ponies and stands. Had the entire population of Hollow Shades all decided to gather there at the same time? Street musicians played music that overlapped with the chatter between tourists and locals and the vendors calling ponies to buy their “special discount figurines!” and try their “Hollow Shades–exclusive roasted daisy salad!”
“Look at how crowded this place is,” Rarity noted, standing on the tips of her hooves in an attempt to find their personal tour guide. Pinkie shouldn’t be hard to spot, especially considering her very poofy mane and bright coat should clash with the dark surroundings. “Do you see Pinkie Pie anywhere, Fluttershy?”
Fluttershy furrowed her brow. “I think that’s her over there,” she said, pointing toward a secluded spot where a lone hooded mare stood.
The mare was pawing at the ground, but even with the hood on, her pink mane and coat peeked out. And yet, as far as Rarity could tell, something was off about her. The mare standing in the distance kept glancing around, and more importantly, away whenever a local so much as came near her, as if she didn’t want to interact or speak with anypony. She wasn’t acting like she had on the train, and she certainly wasn’t acting as bubbly as she had on Seeking Night.
“Do you think something’s wrong?” Fluttershy asked, noticing Pinkie’s odd behavior as well.
“Let’s find out, shall we?” Rarity suggested, taking the lead and trotting toward the earth pony. “Pinkie Pie!” Rarity called, waving to the mare in the distance and catching her attention.
The change in disposition was immediate. Upon seeing the two mares, Pinkie Pie quickly waved back with renewed enthusiasm, her hood falling off her mane at the same time. “Rarity! Fluttershy!” she called, practically bouncing toward them.
That was certainly a stark change in attitude, Rarity thought, smiling brilliantly to the mare nevertheless.
“I’m so happy you could make it!” Pinkie exclaimed, rushing in to hug Rarity and Fluttershy. “How did your visit with the professor go? Was he a big meaniepants with you, too?”
“I’m afraid the stallion wasn’t even there to begin with,” Rarity sighed, shaking her head. “We’ll have to try our luck tomorrow.”
Pinkie Pie smiled sympathetically. “Aw, well, that’s okay! There’s still lots of fun stuff to do here!” she exclaimed, somehow taking a scroll from inside her mane. She unfurled it and started reading off a list of fun activities she’d apparently planned. “We’re gonna go see the stands, and then try the Hollow Shades roasted veggies, and then buy a nightmare bomb, and then, then— I don’t know! Eee!”
“What about your friend Lullaby?” Fluttershy asked, smiling at Pinkie’s enthusiasm. “Wouldn’t she like to come with us too?”
And just like that, Pinkie’s expression faltered. “Oh, uh… Lulla can’t go out!” she quickly exclaimed, laughing nervously while she toyed with the necklace around her neck.
“Oh? Why not?” Rarity asked. She would have thought that Pinkie would be spending time with Lullaby, especially considering that Pinkie had just returned to Hollow Shades. “Is something wrong?”
“She’s sick at home. She can’t go out yet, but one day I’ll help her get better so she can come out,” Pinkie replied almost mechanically, as if it was a reply she’d given many times before.
Rarity decided not to press the matter, and instead focused her attention on Pinkie’s cloak. “I’ve noticed wearing a cloak seems to be some sort of tradition here,” she commented, raising her hoof toward Pinkie. “May I take a look?”
“Sure!” Pinkie exclaimed, taking the cloak off momentarily so Rarity could have a better look. “Everyone in Hollow Shades has one. I wanted to bring some for you two, but I didn’t have extras…”
“Oh, that’s all right,” Fluttershy said when Rarity didn’t speak up, preoccupied as she was by Pinkie’s cloak.
It was black linen, with a soft velvet lining. A nice design, but Rarity would have perhaps done it differently had she been in charge of making it. Almost without conscious thought, she began redesigning it in her head, until her attention was caught by one imperfect mark on the cloak. Near the hem was yet another crescent moon, this time sewn onto the fabric. Oddly enough, however, the design on the cloak looked messy, unfinished, as if it had been the work of a foal.
She took a closer look and noticed there was some leftover stitching in a perfect circle. Had there been a full moon there before? It made sense considering the emblem of the town, which could only mean Pinkie herself had unsewn it to transform it into a crescent. Curious… doesn’t she like the full moon designs?
“Ya like?” Pinkie asked with a grin, having taken Rarity’s close inspection as a good sign.
“Oh, I do! Very fitting for the town ambiance,” Rarity said amiably, hoofing the cloak back to Pinkie. “Though I must ask… Why does the town decoration have such a heavy emphasis on its nightly theme? Does it have to do with the legend of the four princesses?”
Pinkie giggled. “Well… That’s a spooky story, but I can tell you, if you want…” She trailed off, her amused smile shifting into a sneaky one, obviously trying to create a mood fitting the town. It was sadly ruined by the fact that she was helplessly incapable of hiding her foalish excitement. “Come on! Follow me!” she said, practically skipping off like a filly in a candy store, oblivious to the amused look shared between Rarity and Fluttershy.
The two friends squeezed past the crowd to follow Pinkie Pie into the plaza. Rarity renewed her observation of the surroundings, now interested in the merchandise. The stands they passed were filled with trinkets, which she belatedly realized were all inspired by the legend of the four princesses. She stopped at a stand to take a closer look at the items for sale.
The one she picked had several dozen rows of small papier-mâché alicorns on the counter, which she assumed were Hollow Shades’ interpretations of the alicorns of legend. She immediately recognized the one based on Princess Cadance the First since it was nearly identical to Princess Denza in appearance. The next was a light blue alicorn with white markings and a yellow mane, her sun-shaped cutie mark identifying her as Princess Sunshine. After that came Princess Selene, a black-colored alicorn with a—predictably—full moon-shaped cutie mark.
“Oh! Wanna buy something, Rarity?” Pinkie asked from over her shoulder. She looked at the shopkeeper, hesitating for a second before saying, “Hi, Star Turn!”
“Hi, Pinkie,” he replied, smiling back. “Nice to have you home.”
“These are the princesses, aren’t they?” Rarity asked once Pinkie turned to look at her. “The ones from the legend?” Her gaze finally fell on the last alicorn, and she wasn’t able to stop an amused smile from creeping up her face. She gingerly took in her hoof a white alicorn with a scroll as a cutie mark, and a most adorable pair of glasses on the bridge of her nose. Even Fluttershy was interested, also taking one of the “Twilights” and smiling softly. Maybe they ought to buy one for the real Twilight to have?
“Yep, they are!” Pinkie exclaimed. “That one is Princess Cadance,” she went on, pointing toward the pink alicorn. “Then it’s Princess Celestia, then Luna, and then Princess Twilight!”
“Princess Twilight?” Fluttershy and Rarity asked in unison.
And Princess Luna? Rarity thought. Wasn’t that the very name Twilight had used for the moon princess? Rarity was reeling at all the information. It couldn’t be coincidence, could it? For Pinkie to have Twilight and Sele—Luna’s names right? Now more than ever did she wish Twilight was there to consult with.
“Those names, where did they come from?” Rarity asked, putting down the Twilight figurine so she didn’t break it from the pressure of her trembling hooves. “Who came up with them?”
Pinkie giggled. “That’s what I was gonna tell you, except you stopped to look at the little princesses, silly!” she said, shaking her head playfully. “Come on! I’ll tell you once we get to the statue!” She looked back at Star Turn, and again offered a nervous smile. “Uhm, see you later, Star Turn!”
Star Turn smiled. “Goodbye, Pinkie.” Just as he’d finished his sentence, Rarity could have sworn his smile turned into a smirk as he added, “And do say hello to Moonlight Lullaby for me.”
Pinkie was strangely taken aback by this. “Oh, uh, I will! I will…” She cleared her throat and directed a much nicer smile toward Fluttershy and Rarity. “Let’s go!”
And so the tour continued, Rarity making an extra effort not to linger by the different stands now that her curiosity was so overwhelming. They trotted further into the plaza, still fighting the ponies who insisted on standing in the middle of the path, and finally reached the center of the plaza where they found a large statue of an alicorn princess.
“Here we go!” Pinkie exclaimed, standing under the statue and presenting it with her hoof.
It was unlike any of the princess statues Rarity vaguely remembered from Canterlot. The alicorn—which she assumed to be Princess Luna—was sitting down on her pedestal, her wings and back covered by a long cloak, which the artist had done a tremendous job of sculpting. Her cutie mark was covered by the cloak, but Rarity noticed that a full moon symbol was carved into the stone fabric in the same spot as the crescent on Pinkie’s cloak. Did the residents of Hollow Shades wear cloaks because of the statue, or was it the other way around? As impressive as the details on the cloak were, however, what really struck Rarity was the expression of the princess.
“She looks so sad,” whispered Fluttershy, and Rarity couldn’t help but agree.
Princess Luna looked into the distance, ears resting against her head, and her eyes soft, almost as if in resignation. How could a statue exude such a feeling of resignation and melancholy? The more Rarity looked at it, the more she felt as if somepony was pulling at her heart and weighing her down. Her eyes traveled down the statue and landed on the metallic plaque at the base, the words inscribed on it only worsening the sadness she had started to feel.
Perhaps my fate is to be forgotten, now in dreams as I was in life.
Why would anypony make such a sad statue? she wondered. The ones in Canterlot had been hopeful and pleasant to look at, but this one… It was beautiful, yes, and the carving was exquisite, but the expression… It suddenly hit Rarity like a crashing train just why she felt particularly saddened by the statue: because she’d seen that same expression before. The same expression of somepony who’d lost all hope; she’d seen it on Twilight, when she told Rarity that she would never be freed of the library. Was Princess Luna, lost to all, truly as forlorn and resigned as the statue portrayed her? As Twilight once was and, to Rarity’s discontent, possibly still was?
“Why would they choose to depict her like this?” Rarity thought aloud, horrified at the idea of somepony making a similarly depressing statue of Twilight.
Pinkie, failing spectacularly to notice that neither of her new friends were exactly thrilled by the statue, looked terribly excited to answer the question. “Weeeeell, it’s because—”
“That’s how the founder of Hollow Shades saw her in his dreams.”
Rarity and Fluttershy turned around to find an elderly pegasus mare next to Fluttershy, leaning on her cane while looking up at the statue of the princess. The old mare wore a cloak similar to Pinkie and the rest of the villagers, but Rarity noticed that unlike Pinkie’s, the symbol on her cloak was that of a full moon. So Pinkie did modify hers…
“Oh! Elder Moonshine!” Pinkie exclaimed, rushing over to the elder and offering a gentle yet enthused hug. When they broke the hug, she gestured toward Rarity and Fluttershy, introducing them.
Elder Moonshine smiled warmly at Rarity and Fluttershy. “Visitors are always welcome to our small village. It is not often that we get visits from Ponyville.” She then turned toward Pinkie Pie with a bigger smile. “Ah, I must say it’s good to see you have come home, child. Hollow Shades is not the same without you,” she said. She lifted her cane and used it to gently tap Pinkie’s head. “Have you learned to love and appreciate the town that raised you, rather than skedaddling away whenever you can? Where did Hollow Shades’ traveling baker run off to this time?”
“Tall Tales!” Pinkie exclaimed, skipping in place. “Lullaby sent me there to ask about her sister!”
“Lullaby? As in Moonlight Lullaby?” Immediately the elder’s expression fell, taking back her cane and shaking her head. “Pinkie… We talked about this before… How do you expect the rest of the villagers to take you seriously when…” She glanced at Rarity and Fluttershy, remembering they were, in fact, present, and petered out. “Child, perhaps we need to have another talk soon…”
“Oh, Elder…” Pinkie said, crestfallen. She lifted her hoof and grabbed on to her necklace in a curiously pitiful motion. “You Pinkie promised…”
Elder Moonshine stared at Pinkie, tapping her cane against the ground. “I did, didn’t I?” She let out what Rarity could only describe as a resigned sigh and smiled at Pinkie. “In that case, let us hope Lullaby will be able to use whatever information you acquired.”
And just like that, Pinkie’s expression lightened up again, looking terribly relieved. “O-oh! Oh, she will! She will!” she exclaimed, once more skipping in place. “She’s going to be sooooo happy, Elder!”
The elder grunted. “I should hope so, sending you off to those faraway places.” She then looked back to Rarity and Fluttershy, tapping her cane against the statue. “Now, you were curious about this statue, weren’t you?”
“Oh, yes!” Rarity exclaimed, happy to be able to participate in the conversation again. She glanced at the statue, an image of Twilight again flashing through her mind. “It’s one of the princesses from the Legend of the Four Princesses, isn’t it? Princess Sele— Er, I mean, Princess Luna?”
“Yes, it is,” the elder said, tracing the contour of the statue with her cane. “A long, long time ago, when there was a dark forest where we now stand, the old stallion Hollow Shades lost his way in the forest and was cornered and attacked by bandits. They left him to die with the forest as his resting place and Foal Mountain as his looming tombstone. As such, he let himself be taken by what he thought would be his last sleep, but instead was attacked again by a nightmare of the bandits.”
“Here comes the part with the princess!” Pinkie Pie whispered, poking Rarity excitedly.
The elder chuckled before continuing. “Just when the dream bandits were about to snuff out the last of his life, she appeared.” She tapped her cane against the statue lightly. “The fabled lost princess of legend came to save him in dreams. He later spoke of her immense beauty as she chased the dream bandits away, of her mane made out of a sliver of the night sky and all its gentle loveliness, and of the cloak she wore which she used to wipe him clean of the blood the bandits had drawn.
“Days later, when he’d reached a nearby town, delirious and famished, he would speak of her incessantly, consumed by the dream he’d had of her. He took down trees and built houses for his family, hoping they too would be visited by the princess. When he passed away months later, believed to have gone mad in his last weeks of life, the villagers made a statue to honor him and the dream that had led to the village’s creation. They fashioned a statue of the princess just as he’d always described her: a lonely mare who thought she would never be found.”
“How sad…” Fluttershy whispered, and Rarity wondered if she too was picturing Twilight in the same position.
Rarity looked back at the statue with a different perspective. “Is… Is that true?” she asked. “Did all that really happen?”
“I fear I don’t know. It’s been far too long since the village was founded,” the elder continued, lowering her cane to the ground. “Did he truly see the princess, or did his desperate situation lead him to dream himself a savior? Was it perhaps an embellishment of a far less interesting tale? It’s up to you to decide. Whether it’s true or not, it at least makes quite the story for the tourists,” she added with a grin.
“It’s not a story! It really happened!” Pinkie protested, stamping her hoof against the ground.
The elder frowned, like an exasperated adult confronting a misbehaving child. “Did Moonlight Lullaby tell you that, Pinkie?”
“Y-yes…” Pinkie said helplessly before shaking her head, stamping her hoof again and confidently repeating: “Yes, she did, Elder!”
This Moonlight Lullaby knows quite a bit about the legend, doesn’t she? Rarity thought. Now she wondered if perhaps it would do her good to visit Moonlight Lullaby and not just Professor Brazened Awe. Though if she was sick, would Rarity even be able to visit her? Sales in the boutique hadn’t really been magnificent enough that she could afford a second trip to Hollow Shades anytime soon, but…
The elder grunted, and let out yet another weary sigh. “Pinkie…” She shook her head and tapped her cane against the ground three times. “Well, enough about this old statue. There’s still plenty left to see of our village,” she said, pointing toward some stands in the distance. “Have you tried Nightshine’s roasted vegetables? They’re so good, sometimes I think they’re the reason we get any tourism at all!”
“Oh! That’s a good idea!” Pinkie said, taking a sniff out the air and narrowing her eyes. “They’re over there!” She said goodbye to Elder Moonshine and then bounded off, urging Fluttershy and Rarity to follow.
Fluttershy said her goodbyes to the elder and started off after Pinkie, but Rarity lingered a bit longer, stopping Fluttershy to ask for her camera before telling her to go ahead.
Rarity noticed the elder still standing by, and asked, “Excuse me, Elder Moonshine? The names of the princesses—where did they come from?”
“Who knows?” Elder Moonshine replied with a one-shouldered shrug. “I believe they came from around the same time as Hollow Shades, but there’s no way of knowing for certain. Perhaps ‘Princess Luna’ told them to him?” she suggested, laughing afterwards. Something about it made Rarity uneasy, seeing for herself how little the elder actually believed in the tale.
“So,” the elder said, resting on her cane and looking up at the statue. “Do you believe in the story?”
“I don’t know,” Rarity said honestly. If that had really been Princess Luna, and she’d really been able to communicate with him… “Why didn’t she just tell him where she was? Somepony would have found her already, wouldn’t they?” She was, after all, unlike Twilight, who’d made it a point to stay hidden from ponies who wandered into the library.
“Well, that would mean you would first have to believe in the tale, wouldn’t it?” the elder pointed out. “Let me ask you, if you dreamt of a princess asking you to wake up and rush into the dangerous mountains to ‘save’ her, would you do it? That is, if you even remembered the dream in the first place?”
“I… I would,” Rarity said belatedly. Even if it was with hesitation, after knowing Twilight, Rarity was ready to believe almost anything.
The elder stared at her thoughtfully and then smiled. “Then you would be the second,” Elder Moonshine said, turning back to the statue. “Perhaps the first ponies living here once believed in the legend, but now it’s largely become an attraction for the tourists and foals.” She nodded toward two foals playing, one of them wearing makeshift cardboard wings and a matching crown. “I’d say only the foals in our village believe in the princesses as if they were as real as Princess Denza. But they all outgrow the fairy tale eventually.” She drifted off and glanced toward Pinkie Pie in the distance, showing Fluttershy a dreamcatcher at one of the booths. “Well, all but one.”
Now that she thought about it, Pinkie had mentioned believing in the legend during Seeking Night, but Rarity had hardly believed her, thinking the earth pony had just been trying to act for the sake of showponyship. I didn’t believe Sweetie either, Rarity scolded herself. She really should apologize to Sweetie for it. If it hadn’t been for her sister’s fervent belief in the Princess in the Library, she might have never gone into the forest, and Rarity would have never met Twilight.
“Pinkie Pie? You mean she…”
The elder nodded. “Tell me, has she told you about a mare named Moonlight Lullaby before? She usually refers to her as Lulla.”
“Yes… She’s her best friend, isn’t she?” Rarity said. “We asked Pinkie why she hadn’t invited her to be with us tonight, but she said—”
“Moonlight Lullaby is sick at home, and though she can’t go out yet, Pinkie will help her so she can come out soon,” the elder interrupted, effectively finishing Rarity’s sentence for her. “Yes?”
“Y-yes, that’s what she said,” Rarity confirmed, blinking at the elder mare. And word for word, too…
The elder sighed, looking at Pinkie sadly. “She seems to like you and your friend quite a lot. Perhaps she might listen to you better than she listens to me.” She paused, as if thinking her words through carefully before finally speaking again. “Moonlight Lullaby isn’t real.”
“I beg your pardon?” Rarity asked, blinking at the mare. “What do you mean ‘isn’t real’?”
“She’s Pinkie’s…” Elder Moonshine faltered, and stared at Rarity in a way that very much made her feel judged and analyzed. After a moment, it seemed the elder had found whatever she’d been looking for, and continued: “She’s her imaginary friend, so to speak.”
The elder nodded. “Yes, though Moonlight Lullaby went by a different name when Pinkie was a foal.” She lifted her cane and tapped it against the statue. “Princess Luna, her friend she claimed visited her in dreams.”
Rarity’s eyes widened. “Why, that’s just like the story you told us earlier!”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, young one,” the elder said, again lowering her cane to the ground. “Look at the foals all around you. It’s not rare to hear them waking up their parents to say Princess Luna visited them. We humor them, of course. It helps them sleep at night, to believe the princess is guarding their dreams, and so we humored Pinkie when the little filly would run around town talking about the princess. Of course, then the other foals grew up and the princess stopped ‘visiting’ them, but Pinkie…”
Her expression softened, and she looked toward the ground, burying the tip of her cane in the dirt. “Pinkie is a stubborn child, for good or for worse. Spent all her time telling ponies about Princess Luna and how they had to rescue her. It was a silly quirk at first, but after months and years, ponies grow tired of having a full-grown mare trying to get them to believe her claims. Most of them just ignore her by now, but others…”
She sighed. “Others started making fun of her—the ones she’d grown up with, especially. Came a time where I never saw her with anypony, or I saw them snickering behind her back. A good swing of my cane made them stop, but that didn’t help much, I fear. She acts oblivious to them, but one day Princess Luna was gone, replaced by the eternally ill Moonlight Lullaby. It’s sad, but I understand why she runs off whenever she can.”
“That’s awful,” Rarity whispered, feeling an indescribable compassion for the smiling mare waving back at her from the stands. “Poor Pinkie Pie…” To have been tormented like that? Would that have been her own destiny, had no one ever believed her about Twilight? Rarity thought back to the comment the shopkeeper had made earlier, and she was glad she’d decided not to buy anything from him.
“I want to believe her,” the elder continued, her expression even sadder as she looked at Pinkie in the distance. “But when the questions you asked earlier arise in our conversations, there’s never an answer. Where is the princess? She never knows. It’s hard to believe her when she herself cannot, well, produce evidence of Princess Luna. If she could, even in my old age, I’d follow her to the princess, but…”
“I understand, but I’m sure she appreciates your support nevertheless,” Rarity said, smiling sympathetically at the mare. She finally used the camera to snap a picture of the statue before deciding it was time to move on. “Thank you for everything, Elder Moonshine. I give you my word your trust is not misplaced.”
“I hope not, child,” the Elder said. “You seem like a good pony, and the princesses know Pinkie needs a friend in this town.” She went quiet for a moment before looking up at the statue. “Sometimes I hope Lullaby really is there keeping the poor child company.”
“Rarity!” Pinkie called out to her, unknowingly interrupting a conversation all about her. “The line for the veggies is getting longer!”
“Just a moment!” Rarity called before once more turning to the elder. “I don’t know Pinkie very well, Elder, but even so, I have a feeling that what friends she lacks in Hollow Shades, all her friends beyond the forest more than make up for it.”
“What were you and the elder talking about, Rarity?” Fluttershy asked, throwing away her paper plate. They’d just finished eating the most scrumptious vegetables, which Fluttershy had liked enough to buy a second helping of. “You two talked for a while.”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you, darling. Or not yet at least,” Rarity replied, throwing her own plate away into the trash.
“O-oh, I didn’t mean to pry,” Fluttershy quickly said.
“I know, darling. Believe me, I want to tell you, but I believe it would be best to talk with Pinkie first. It does concern her, after all.”
In reality, Rarity had been planning on asking about “Moonlight Lullaby”—or should she say “Princess Luna”—immediately after joining them, but she’d eventually decided against it. Pinkie seemed to be having a nice time with her and Fluttershy, and the last thing Rarity wanted was to accidentally ruin the night for the mare by bringing up an unpleasant topic.
There was also the fact that she had avoided talking about her conversation when Pinkie asked what the elder had told her. A hint of recognition had shot through Pinkie’s eyes—as if she knew they had talked about her and “Moonlight Lullaby.” It didn’t help that Pinkie stopped trying to press the subject immediately after that, which Rarity assumed meant she didn’t want to talk about the issue.
“Speaking of Pinkie Pie, where did she run off to?” she asked, looking around for the pink pony. She had admittedly been too busy scowling at a stallion somehow fitting an entire plate of vegetables into his mouth at once to pay attention to what Pinkie said before leaving.
“She said she wanted to buy something for us,” Fluttershy replied. She furrowed her brow, biting her lip thoughtfully. “Nightmare bombs, I think?”
Rarity raised an eyebrow. “Nightmare bombs? My, doesn’t that sound interesting.” She chuckled afterward. “And fitting for a village decorated after Princess Selene!” And possibly actually protected by her…
Fluttershy gulped audibly. “I think it sounds frightening…”
Rarity only smiled, directing her attention toward a nearby merchandise stand. Her eyes landed on an odd-looking shadow creature, the label “Spirit of Chaos” beneath it. She picked it up, pretending she really was capable of defeating him just as easily she could hold the statuette in her hoof. The feared spirit who’d trapped Twilight. What did Twilight say his name was? Discord? Maybe she ought to buy it for Twilight to give her some way to vent the anger she must have toward the Spirit.
“We also have warding objects,” the shopkeeper said, noticing Rarity’s interest in the figurine. He pointed toward two identical necklaces hanging from the top of the stand, the words “Spirit Warding Matching Necklaces” labeled above them. “You can buy one individually, but it’s better to buy the set.”
Rarity levitated the necklaces closer and took a better look. The clear crystals had been carved into a long, slightly rounded shape. “You say they protect from the Spirit of the legend?” she asked, considering the possibility that she might actually need such a thing.
“Yes, ma’am! They’ve had a strong protection spell cast on them, and it works even better if two ponies wear them! You keep one and give one to somepony you care about, and not only does the protection spell keep you safe, but it makes you protect each other, too! And there’s nothing that makes you grow closer to somepony than the mutual fight against a common enemy, right?” he coaxed, no doubt just a ploy to trick foolish tourists into buying more merchandise.
And yet, though Rarity was hardly a foolish tourist, she found herself considering buying the two necklaces. A gesture for Twilight that would make them grow closer sounded rather nice, didn’t it? “What do you think, Fluttershy?” she asked, showing the necklaces to her friend. “Should I get the other one for Twilight?”
“Oh, I think that would be a lovely idea, Rarity,” Fluttershy replied, lifting one of the pendants with her hoof.
“Hmm… Would it?” Rarity continued, taking a closer look at them. “I don’t believe she’d be able to put it on, considering her… condition?” Rarity made a move to levitate the necklaces back to their proper place. “I think I’ll have to get her something else, perhaps.”
“Oh, but I’m sure the Prin— Twilight would love it, Rarity! Maybe she can use it for something else?” Fluttershy suggested. “A bookmark? Or decoration?”
Rarity mulled it over. “A bookmark? I actually quite like that idea!” she exclaimed, taking out her bitbag. One necklace to protect her from the Spirit, and another to… protect Twilight’s books from him?
Once she’d bought the two necklaces, she put one on and then asked Fluttershy to keep the other one inside her saddlebag. Afterwards, they went back to the food stand to continue waiting for Pinkie. As they did, Rarity played with her necklace, trying to imagine how in Equestria the teeny things were supposed to protect her from a spirit capable of ghostifying powerful alicorns.
“What if the Spirit really is following me?” Rarity asked, mostly to herself. It was a very real worry of hers, but she’d said it with such nonchalance, it threw Fluttershy off.
“Th-the Spirit? F-f-following you?” Fluttershy asked, understandably alarmed. As much as the pegasus accepted the legend, Rarity knew the idea of the Spirit still lurking around frightened her.
“I don’t know,” Rarity continued with the same nonchalance. “Do you remember what I told you? About the filly from the Apple farm and what she saw?”
“But I thought we agreed that the poor thing had been frightened into seeing things?” Fluttershy replied, her voice ever so nervous. “Didn’t we? Even Princess Twilight agreed with us.”
“I suppose we did!” Rarity exclaimed, realizing perhaps Fluttershy wasn’t the best pony to talk about those subjects with. Besides, it wasn’t far-fetched to think Apple Bloom had been victim to a fear-induced hallucination or mistake, was it? Rarity had no actual evidence of another “Rarity” wandering about, and the last thing she wanted was to worry Fluttershy or even Twilight needlessly.
“Rarity! Fluttershy!” Pinkie was standing a distance away, motioning for them to follow. “I have everything ready!”
Fluttershy and Rarity followed Pinkie back into the crowd of ponies, and after yet another battle to move through the crowd, they exited the conglomerate of stands and arrived next to an abandoned white house. Right next to the outer wall were several campfire sites, of which several were lit. Rarity couldn’t help but think the heat must be anything but good for the wall’s paint and wondered why in heavens anypony ever thought that was a good place for a campfire.
Three foals were huddled next to one of the lit campfires, the only unicorn of the three floating a large red spherical object above his head. Rarity hoped they weren’t intending to roast and eat whatever that was, considering it looked less than appetizing.
“Look, look! That’s a nightmare bomb!” Pinkie whispered, gesturing for Fluttershy and Rarity to watch closely.
The unicorn giggled for a moment, glancing at his two companions before unceremoniously throwing the nightmare bomb into the fire. The bomb crackled and burst in the heat, spewing some kind of blue smoke. The red flames abruptly grew in size and turned the same shade of blue, much to the foals’ and Pinkie’s delight, Rarity’s surprise, and Fluttershy’s horror.
Well, that certainly wasn’t as scary as I imagined it would be, Rarity thought, finding herself clicking her tongue in disappointment. Her disappointment, however, was short-lived. As the flames flickered and hissed, a blurry shadow emerged from the fire and slithered up the wall, taking the shape of a large pony with leathery, bat-like wings. The three foals huddled together, staring, entranced by the shadow.
Rarity was similarly transfixed, staring at the mostly motionless shadow until the blue flames swirled a few moments later. The shadow disappeared as the fire returned to its normal color and size. The delighted giggles of the foals finally snapped her out of her stupor and brought her back to reality, and, for a moment, she wondered if she ought to bring some nightmare bombs back for Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo. The two fillies would probably never get enough of it.
“Wasn’t that fun?!” Pinkie exclaimed, bounding up to the fire. “During Seeking Night, the elder always throws in a really, really, really big one, and the shadow moves and everything!” Pinkie giggled in absolute delight and took out an orb similar to the one the foals had used from her mane. “I bought one for us, too! It’s just a normal smallish one, but it’s still super fun!” When the foals brought out another of their own bombs, Pinkie looked around for a moment before gesturing to a lit campfire in the distance. “Let’s go to that one instead.”
Rarity and a reluctant Fluttershy followed Pinkie to the secluded campfire, where the pink mare excitedly hoofed the red bomb over to Rarity. Rarity took a moment to observe the spherical device, but found nothing special about it. It just felt like powder compressed into a ball. What kind of magic powder made shadows like that? Had some spell been cast on it? Once again, she wished Twilight was there to explain.
Pinkie took out a small paper from her mane and read it over. “Okay, lessee… This one is supposed to turn into a… dragon!” she said, glancing back and forth between the paper and the two friends. “I’ve never seen a dragon before! Have you?”
When both Rarity and Fluttershy shook their heads, she frowned for a second. She almost seemed disappointed that her newfound friends weren’t adventurers. “Do you think they’re scary?” she asked at length. Fluttershy’s loud, uneasy gulp answered for both of them. “I bet they must be the scariest things ever! Brr!”
“I imagine they must be quite frightening, yes,” Rarity agreed.
Though, frankly, she could think of something far scarier than dragons. She had no idea what the Spirit of Chaos looked like, but perhaps that was the very thing that made him terrifying. A creature of such power, hiding himself amongst ponies by taking a new shape when it suited him? Cold shivers ran down her spine at the thought.
If he had—hypothetically, of course—been following Rarity already, had he already shape-shifted and fooled her? How many times had she met him already, talked to him even, thinking he was somepony else? She understood some of the terror Twilight felt. After all, it meant that essentially no one could be trusted—not even one’s self. Had Apple Bloom really hallucinated out of fear? Or… Or had the Spirit perhaps now noticed Rarity’s involvement in the aftermath of the terrible tragedies he caused?
“Okay! You ready?” Pinkie asked, snapping the unicorn out of her thoughts.
“Oh, er, yes!” Rarity replied, lifting the nightmare bomb up in the air as the foal had earlier done. “What do I do exactly?”
“You just throw it in, silly,” Pinkie said, gesturing for Rarity to throw it already. “And then you look at the shadow and cover your eyes with your hooves! And if you scream, it’s even more fun!”
“I see!” Rarity exclaimed, laughing softly at Fluttershy’s apprehensive expression. “Come now, darling, it’s just a toy.”
The pegasus only frowned in reply, taking a step back near the over-excited Pinkie Pie. Rarity looked back toward the crackling fire, feeling rather thrilled by the entire affair. Her mind kept drifting toward Twilight, still wishing the alicorn were there to watch. I’m sure she’d like this, she thought, making a mental note to ask Pinkie where she could buy two or three packages of nightmare bombs. That done, she took a deep breath to increase the suspense, and with a childish giggle, threw the bomb into the fire.
Just as before, the flames burst to life, changing in size and color. Rarity was barely cognizant of Fluttershy’s gasp as a large shadow emerged from the blue fire and loomed over them on the wall, taking the shape of a fire-breathing dragon. Rarity was again transfixed, a soft “ohhhhh” escaping her lips as she took a step closer to the fire.
And yet, this time, there was something else that kept her watching. She couldn’t exactly pinpoint what, but there was something about the shadow that was both chilling and beguiling. Before she could properly figure it out, the illusion ended. Over as quickly as it had begun, the flames snapped back into red and the shadow disappeared into the ground—and yet, the chill on her back remained.
“See? That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Pinkie asked the nervous pegasus standing very close behind her.
“N-no…” Fluttershy said after taking a big, deep breath.
“’Kay then! Let’s keep going!” Pinkie exclaimed, clapping her hooves together. “We still have to see the botanical garden!”
“Oh!” Fluttershy said, brightening up quickly, obviously glad to find a less frightening activity to do next. “Oh, yes. We should go there now. That’s a very nice idea.”
Pinkie nodded and trotted off, Fluttershy close behind. “Ohhh, I have to show you the super secret daisy flowers!” Pinkie’s voice drifted off into the distance, she and Fluttershy disappearing into the crowd of ponies.
Rarity turned away from the fire to follow them, but stopped when she heard a soft hiss coming from the flames. She turned back toward it and to her surprise, the flames once more grew in size and turned blue.
“What’s this?” she whispered, taking a step toward the fire. Had the nightmare bomb not been fully used up?
She watched, waiting for the shadow dragon to re-appear, but instead, the flames flickered again and turned a deep, dangerous purple. This… Is this normal? she thought, turning around to ask Pinkie Pie but realizing her friends were already out of earshot. She turned back to the purple fire, and watched as it hissed and danced, a sign of the oncoming shadow. What greeted her, though, was something infinitely more terrifying than a dragon.
A dark shape slowly slid up the wall, and rather than taking the form of a dragon, it began to resemble the silhouette of a unicorn facing sideways. The unicorn, its edges shifting as if made out of black fire, seemed to be wearing a cloak similar to the ones the locals used. The previous shadows hadn’t moved, but this one’s cloak fluttered as if caught in a breeze.
More than the shadow’s movement, what frightened Rarity to her very core was its glaring, eerie yellow eye, and the three familiar diamond-shaped marks right where the dark unicorn’s cutie mark should be. And just as she noticed the diamonds, the flames flickered once more, and a second, smaller shadow symbol appeared right in front of the unicorn’s horn: a six-pointed star surrounded by five smaller ones.
A symbol she instantly recognized as Twilight’s cutie mark.
Rarity wanted to call out, look away, put out the fire. Anything to make the frightening image dissipate, but she found herself unable to move a single muscle. She could only watch in horror, every inch of her body filling with a suffocating dread, the image of her doppelgänger mixing into the shadow on the wall. The horn of the shadow unicorn began to blur, almost as if it was summoning a magic uniquely its own—a magic able to turn even alicorns into ghosts. It didn’t last more than a few seconds, but to Rarity it felt like an eternity as she waited for the inevitable to happen.
And it did.
The unicorn lifted its hoof, its horn releasing a burst of magic, and in horror Rarity watched Twilight’s cutie mark burst into pieces. Once Twilight’s cutie mark had been completely destroyed, the unicorn lowered its forehoof and shifted. It faced Rarity head-on, the trio of diamonds on its flank disappearing from view. Just when she thought that the worst was behind her, the head of the shadow split in half with a bright yellow light. Rarity felt as if she was going to have a heart attack when the simple line curved upwards at both ends, and she realized that the shadow was smiling. And not just smiling; no, it was smiling at her.
The flames flickered a final time. And just like that, shadow Rarity disappeared back into the fire from which she had risen, leaving the genuine article standing there, too terrified to move. Too terrified to even breathe.
Pinkie’s voice snapped Rarity out of her reverie, and she finally found herself capable of moving again. She quickly turned around to find Pinkie and Fluttershy trotting toward her, neither one of them seeming to have seen a single nightmarish thing. Which was all part of his plan… she thought, still feeling as though the silent yellow grin was watching her every move.
It was Fluttershy who noticed something wasn’t right with the unicorn. “Rarity?” she asked, looking with concern at the still-trembling unicorn. “Is everything all right?”
“I… I…” Rarity looked back toward the fire, not sure of what to say, or what she even could say.
Was everything all right? No, it certainly wasn’t.
If she’d been wondering before if the Spirit of Chaos was following her, that terrifying spectacle had answered her doubts in the worst way possible. After all, it wasn’t just that he was after her, but if the shadow’s display meant something, it was that he was still after Twilight too.
If that was the case, would telling Fluttershy put her in similar danger?
“Rarity?” Fluttershy asked again, putting a hoof on Rarity’s shoulder.
“E-everything’s fine, darling. I’ll tell you later, all right?” Rarity said. She smiled shakily at her friend before taking a very deep breath. She noticed Pinkie lingering a few feet away, looking similarly concerned, and so she tried to reassure her with an honest bright smile. “So! Botanical garden, you were saying?”
“Yeah!” Pinkie exclaimed, happy to see Rarity past whatever had frightened her. “It’s super duper fun! And it smells super duper nice, too!”
Rarity nodded toward the stands. “Shall we, then?”
Pinkie and Fluttershy nodded, trotting off once more. Rarity glanced at the fire one last time before following Fluttershy, the terrifying image of her shadow self still vivid in her mind. Moreover, she couldn’t get the image of her doppelgänger destroying Twilight’s cutie mark out of her head.
She stopped and reached up to clutch her necklace, hoping it would protect her. The rational part of her mind told her that, even if it did carry a protection spell, it probably wasn’t adequate to stop such evil. Twilight had been a recurring thought the entire day, and now she wished she could give Twilight her necklace immediately. The idea of that… that… monster doing anything to her… Rarity shivered again and clutched the necklace tighter.
“Rarity! Come on!” Pinkie called, looking back at Rarity stopped mid-trot.
“Oh, er, coming!” Rarity called, finally letting go of the necklace and rushing to catch up.
She couldn’t wait to get back to Ponyville. Somepony had to make sure that Twilight was safe, after all.