Apple Crisp was just a foal when he met the Spirit of Chaos.
It happened on a normal day of a normal week of perhaps an unusual year. To little Crisp, there was nothing wrong with the kingdom of Equestria. The wars his father spoke of late at night seemed unreal, distant, and it felt to the foal as if Lone Tree Valley was the safest place in the land—right after his old home, Canter Capital.
On that particularly normal day, the entire Apple Family had gathered around for an early dinner. Uncle Tinder Apple and Aunt Winter had brought steamed vegetables, cousin Green Apple had brought fried apple slices, Crisp’s parents—Iron Cobbler and Pear Crumble—had made daisy and sunflower sandwiches, and his sister Apple Heart had made an apple pie.
The assorted variety of delicious-smelling plates were already waiting on top of the table, their steamy scents wafting into the air and the noses of seven hungry ponies. They were all sitting around the table, idly fiddling with whatever was in reach.
It was, after all, rude to start eating without everypony present.
“I told you she was too busy to be interrupted with this, Pear. She’s a princess, she does not have the time to waste with our—”
“Iron, I could not care less if she was Princess Celestia herself. She may be a princess, but she is young enough to be my daughter, and no daughter of mine misses breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And then there’s the child, and you want him to travel on an empty stomach?!”
Crisp had heard this discussion endless times before, if only because it took place every single night. Though Princess Twilight wasn’t his elder sister—though he wished she were—Apple Crisp’s mother treated her as such. She was perhaps the only pony who dared scold the princess for staying up until early morning working.
“We are at war, Pear! Our second war in less than a decade! In fact, I should be at Canter Capital helping Captain Armor, not here planting apples! I should never have retired from the gua—”
“If I may,” Uncle Tinder interrupted, drawing the attention of all present toward himself. “Why don’t we simply send somepony to fetch them? Dinner is getting cold, after all…”
Now this… This was something Apple Crisp loved to hear.
“I’ll go get them, Papa!” he exclaimed, nearly tripping onto the floor as he jumped out of his chair.
“Don’t take too long!” Pear Crumble warned, though her warning went almost unheard by the foal who quickly left the house and stepped into the valley.
For five years now, he and his family had lived in the large valley south of Canter Capital. He didn’t quite know why it was called Lone Tree Valley, especially when it was anything but lonely.
There were twelve big apple trees his father and uncle had planted; there was the river that went all the way to Horseshoe Bay, filled with fishes and frogs; there was his house, his uncle’s house, the storage house; and finally, there was Princess Twilight’s library.
Though it wasn’t dark yet, the sun was due to set soon, and Crisp didn’t particularly like wandering the valley at night. Looking to the right, he saw twelve apple trees in the distance, and looking toward the left, he saw Uncle Tinder’s house.
Finally, looking right in front of him, he could see a large oak tree in the distance. He sped off toward it and, as he came closer and closer, he noticed an unfamiliar stallion ambling around it.
That was strange… Crisp’s father had said that no one save for them knew Princess Twilight was in her library, so surely he hadn’t come to see Princess Twilight, had he?
Crisp stopped in his tracks, unsure of what to do. His father had once told him that if he were to see an unfamiliar pony lingering near the library, he should let somepony know right away, but… something about the stallion aroused the foal’s curiosity, coaxing him into continuing his path toward the tree and the stranger.
The unicorn stallion, dressed in a large grey cloak, was oblivious to the recently arrived foal. He was mumbling under his breath, walking in a large circle, dragging a stick on the grass behind him. Driven by curiosity, Crisp trotted behind him, surprised to find a white line left by the stick as it was dragged along.
Suddenly and without warning, the stallion stopped, turned around, and fixed Crisp with his crazed yellow eyes.
“Today’s the day!” he exclaimed with a hearty laugh, forcing the foal to jump back in fright.
“Today’s the day?” Crisp asked, his heart beating fast in his chest. “F-for what?”
The stallion blinked and furrowed his brow. “Or it could be tomorrow. Or maybe even the day after tomorrow. Or maybe even on Monday!” He leaned down and loudly whispered, “Monday is the best day for chaos, you know.” He leaned back up, looked around, and said, “Don’t fall into the hole!” before turning and continuing on his circular path.
Crisp blinked thrice and looked down at the ground, but couldn’t find any hole to fall into.
“Do you like surprises, Apple Crisp?”
Crisp looked back up, startled by the fact this odd pony knew his name.
“She told me all about you! Princess Twilight and I are terribly good friends. I’ve come to visit her,” the stallion explained, alleviating Crisp’s sudden concern. “So, do you like tricks? I know Princess Twilight loves them!” the stallion continued, stopping to firmly dig the tip of the stick into the ground. “She’s quite good at them, in fact!”
Now that was a hard thought to believe. Princess Twilight was by no means a boring pony, but Crisp could barely picture her as playing tricks on anypony, or being good at them, for that matter. That sounded much more like Spike.
Forgetting he was supposed to pretend he didn’t know the princess, Crisp asked, “What did she do?”
The stallion looked up. “What did she do?”
Without warning, he disappeared and reappeared right next to Crisp, much like Princess Twilight could do.
“She tricked me! Me, of all creatures!” the stallion exclaimed, the crazy gleam in his eyes intensifying. “Well, that’s not true, is it? They all tricked me, but she planned it all! She did it all! To me!” As he spoke, the previous mirth in his voice waned, replaced instead with… anger?
It disappeared just as fast as it arrived, though, and the stallion’s smile returned. “And now it’s my turn!” he said. “I have the greatest surprise of them all!” He stopped and whispered, “Do you want to help me?”
Crisp frowned. He liked playing tricks and surprises—especially on his sister—but playing tricks on Princess Twilight was a different thing altogether. It might make her mad at him, and the idea of making the princess upset was not one that Crisp liked.
“It’s a fun surprise?” he asked tentatively, wanting to make sure nopony would be mad at him. “She’ll like it, won’t she?”
“Of course she will,” the stallion assured, waving the foal’s worries away with a hoof. “She’ll love it so much, she’ll spend centuries in her library trying to figure it out!”
The stallion trotted off toward the stick, and then waved for Crisp to join him. The foal quickly obeyed, rushing over and standing next to the stallion.
“Ta-dah!” the stallion exclaimed, pointing at the stick and looking back and forth between it and Crisp. “The forest!”
Crisp fidgeted in his spot, carefully raising his hoof and poking at the “forest.” “Uhm…”
“Now, I need a name,” the stallion said. “The Lonely Forest? No, too dull. Boggly Woods? No, already used. The Forest No One Is Free From? No, far too long.”
“The Neverfree Forest?” Crisp suggested.
“The Everfree Forest! Perfect!” the stallion exclaimed, and Crisp smiled excitedly. “Now, watch carefully.”
The stallion stepped back, and once Crisp did the same, he stamped his hoof against the floor and a yellow-and-black-tinted magic seeped into the stick. After a few seconds, the magic disappeared, and a single small leaf emerged from the tip.
The stallion gave a satisfied nod. “Now, for her bookcases. Maybe I’ll have them float in the air? Or should I turn the library upside down?”
While the stallion offered ideas to no one in particular, Crisp got hard at work in finding a fun thing for Princess Twilight. As much as having bookcases float in mid-air would be fun, it would be very difficult for Crisp himself to reach them, and having the library be upside down would mess up all the books. He didn’t really want to have to help the princess clean them all up.
“Maybe a maze?” the stallion suggested, and at once Crisp responded with a favorable “Oh!”
Mazes were always fun! He could play hide-and-seek inside them with the princess!
However, before he could voice his approval with proper words, his stomach growled, reminding him of the reason he’d left the house in the first place.
“Oh, uhm… I have to go get dinner…” He drifted off, unsure of what to do next, torn between going into the library with the stallion watching, or waiting until the stallion left. He then remembered his mother used to encourage him to help wandering travelers and offered, “Would you like to have dinner with us?”
“Oh, no! I have too many things to prepare for tonight,” the stallion said. He cleared his throat and, after patting Crisp on the head and thanking him for his help, turned around and trotted off, only glancing back long enough to remind Crisp not to spoil the surprise for Princess Twilight.
Crisp watched him leave, and when the stallion was out of sight, he turned to the lone stick. He was suddenly aware of an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach; a sensation he hadn’t been able to process while everything had been taking place.
That stallion… he could teleport just like Princess Twilight, and Crisp told himself that any pony as strong as the princess was probably as kind as her too, just like the other princesses were. Relieved by the thought, and the prospect of a fun surprise to play with the princess, Crisp shook his worries away and trotted toward the base of the tree.
He opened the trapdoor and, after taking a minute to gather his courage, stepped down into the dark tunnel and made his way down the stairs. When he reached the last step, he saw a light at the end of the tunnel, prompting him to take a deep breath and run toward it, hoping to spend as little time as possible inside the darkness.
To Apple Crisp, the library was a safe haven. It was where he spent most of his time, reading simple books, and trailing after Princess Twilight when she did her research. He really didn’t understand most of the things she talked about, but Spike was always there to explain to him.
The first thing he noticed was the large saddlebag in the middle of the lobby, filled to the brim with clothes and books, scrolls and quills. He realized that was the traveling bag that Spike would be taking on his upcoming trip to Canter Capital, which meant that Crisp would get to be the princess’s assistant for a whole entire week.
The second thing he noticed were the scrolls plastered all over the walls, depicting drawings of all kinds of odd-looking stone symbols.
The only one that stood out showed a single stone followed by five horizontal lines. There was a symbol on the stone that he recognized, if only because he saw it on Princess Twilight’s crown every day. Below it, the words “Element of Magic” had been carefully written out, whereas question marks had been written below the other five lines.
The third and final thing he noticed, or rather heard, was Princess Twilight and the young dragon she lived with.
Princess Twilight, as per the norm, had her muzzle buried in a book, her back facing the disgruntled-looking dragon. His arms were crossed and his foot stamped against the floor impatiently. Crisp had never seen Spike looking angry at Twilight, so he kept his presence unannounced in the light of this new encounter.
“Twilight, say it.”
“Spike, have you finished packing?” Twilight replied, avoiding a topic with an unrelated question, much like Crisp had learned she tended to do.
His father had once mentioned a pony called Discord, and when Crisp asked Twilight about it he ended up listening to a confusing and unrelated hour-long sermon on the importance of horn care, regardless of the fact that he didn’t even have a horn to begin with.
“Twilight, I’m not leaving until you say it,” Spike insisted.
The princess closed her eyes and then murmured something Crisp couldn’t understand—and neither did Spike, for that matter.
She let out a very audible sigh in reply, and said in a much louder voice: “It wasn’t my fault. There.”
Spike frowned. “Say it like you mean it, Twilight.”
Twilight closed her book in reply, and though she turned around to scold him, her eyes landed on the foal, prompting her irritated expression to vanish instantly. She stood up, her wings unfolding slightly, and offered the foal a large smile.
“Oh! Hello, Apple Crisp,” she said, floating the book away and placing it on a nearby table.
Apple Crisp offered a toothy grin, before waving at Spike. “Are you leaving, Princess?” he asked, gesturing toward the saddlebag, wanting to make sure he had his facts straight.
“Oh, no, Spike is the one leaving,” Twilight explained. “He has to go deliver a few things back at the capital, but he’s coming back tomorrow night.”
Crisp’s ears flopped down. “Oh…”
So much for his week helping Princess Twilight.
“You could at least look like you’re sad I’m leaving, Crisp,” Spike remarked, raising an eyebrow and later smiling at the foal’s flustered assertions that he was sad Spike was leaving for the capital. He was, and no, he did not just want to be Princess Twilight’s number-one assistant!
“How can I help you, Crisp?” Twilight finally asked, putting an end to Spike’s teasing of the poor, flustered colt.
Crisp cleared his throat. “Uhm, dinner has been ready for a while, Princess,” he informed, giggling at Spike’s loud groan.
“Twilight! I told you we were gonna miss dinner again!” he grunted, walking toward his saddlebag. “And Miss Crumble was making my favorite tonight!”
“Finish your packing, then!” Twilight scolded, playfully rolling her eyes. “We’ll meet you there.”
While Spike busied himself with finishing his packing, Twilight made her way toward Apple Crisp, who felt much like a brave and loyal Canter Capital soldier escorting his Princess outside her castle. Maybe that’s what he’d be when he grew up: Princess Twilight’s personal soldier.
Nighttime had fallen by the time they left the library, and a chilly breeze brushed Crisp’s coat when he stepped outside the trapdoor and into the clear valley. He took several steps forward before looking back, quietly watching as Princess Twilight Sparkle emerged from the library, just as she did every day for dinner.
She took one, two, three steps forward before pausing and closing her eyes, taking in a deep breath. Her chest rose and fell with it, her mane gently flowing with the breeze, and a soft smile painted her lips. The colt took a moment to observe her, and he found himself happy to see the princess so relaxed, even if for a moment. She spent so much of her time in that library, and she never ever came out to play. What kind of a life was that? Certainly not a fun one.
“You can see Monoceros from here.”
Twilight had opened her eyes, and now looked up at the twinkling stars above. The colt quickly followed suit, squinting up at the dotted patterns and nodding, trying to seem as if he too knew all the constellations, their shapes and meanings.
“Oh, I like it,” he exclaimed confidently, pointing up at several stars that looked vaguely… monocerific? They looked like several badly drawn circles, in fact, and surely “ceros” stood for zeros, right?
A laugh from the princess, however, signaled that his farce had been discovered.
“Well, I’m glad you do, but that isn’t Monoceros,” she pointed out, lifting her hoof and gesturing toward a set of stars a ways away from Crisp’s circles. She was about to start speaking again, but instead, she closed her mouth and directed her attention toward the lone stick several feet away from them.
Crisp’s heart fell in time with her brow furrowing. Was he about to be discovered?
“Crisp,” she said, slowly, carefully, turning around and taking a cautious step toward the stick. Her horn lit up as well, and her wings splayed out a little. Her entire disposition reminded Crisp of his father when a questionable stranger knocked on their door. “What is that?”
Panic filled the colt’s body, struggling to come up with an answer. He didn’t like lying to Princess Twilight, mostly because he was sure she was powerful enough to read minds, but he certainly didn’t want to ruin the surprise, either.
And so, in the end, he settled with telling the truth—or, some of it, at the very least.
“I planted it, Princess Twilight!” he exclaimed, quickly rushing toward the stick, trying to shield it from the alicorn and her wary gaze.
“You planted it?” she asked, raising her eyebrow, her body language still failing to shift.
“It’s to protect you!” he explained, standing up strong and proud, like his father did back in Canter Capital. “If something tries to hurt you, a big forest will come and hide you for a little while!”
Twilight didn’t seem convinced, at first, still staring at the stick with a preoccupied gaze.
“I promise!” Crisp repeated, and it was true, wasn’t it? The stranger would help Crisp keep the princess safe forever.
At the colt’s insistence, Twilight finally relented, tucking her wings against her body and stepping back. She lifted a hoof and rubbed it against her temple, closing her eyes and letting out a long deep breath.
“Maybe I am just seeing him everywhere…”
Finally, after a moment, she opened her eyes and smiled down at the colt before making her way toward the distant cottage.
Dinner that night went as it usually did, with a few exceptions. On account of Spike’s big trip to Canter Capital, the Apple family had done everything to make the night as memorable as they could.
Crisp didn’t truly understand why they were making such a fuss. Spike had traveled to distant places many times before, after all. It wasn’t like he’d be leaving forever! Maybe if Crisp left for Canter Capital, everypony would make it a special night for him too? Maybe they’d let him stay a bit later at Princess Twilight’s library!
“Princess, I insist! Give me your plate!”
“Pear, for goodness’ sake, let her be! You already fed her five plates of the thing!”
Sitting in his special spot next to the princess, Crisp couldn’t help but giggle at the familiar scene, a fifth piece of pie landing with a splat on Princess Twilight’s place, right next to the fourth piece—which, incidentally, was still untouched.
“That’s very kind of you, Miss Crumble, but I really am full,” Twilight said, politely pushing the plate away and using a napkin to clean away the mess she’d left on her face. Princess Twilight was by no means a clean eater, and Crisp delighted in his mother’s appalled expressions at the alicorn’s table manners.
“I’ll have it!” Spike exclaimed immediately, practically crawling over the table and snatching the piece of pie away. He opened his mouth and dropped the entire pie inside, then leaned back in his chair and let out a satisfied belch. “That was goo— Ow!”
“I will not have you going to the capital with such bad manners,” Pear exclaimed, taking back the wooden spoon she’d bonked Spike with. Her last few words were accompanied by a glance in Twilight’s direction, and the alicorn visibly flinched, no doubt afraid of receiving a bonking as well.
“It’s getting late now, child,” Iron Crumble said, looking at Spike. “You must leave now if you want to reach the capital before Princess Cadance raises the sun.”
As Spike got up to get his things, Crisp looked up toward Twilight and gingerly tugged at her coat. “Princess Twilight?” he asked, waiting for her to look down at him before proceeding. “Why is Princess Cadance raising the sun? Is Princess Celestia sick?”
“Apple Crisp!” Pear said immediately, her voice harsh and alarmed, and Crisp didn’t understand what was wrong with his question until he looked back at Twilight.
For a brief second, Twilight simply stared at the colt, and then her expression shifted. Her eyes widened, her ears drooping, and she did nothing but stare at the colt, making him feel as if he’d asked a terrible question.
Twilight looked down, tearing her gaze from his and closing her eyes. She took one, two, three deep breaths, before whispering something under her breath. After a moment, she looked back up toward the elder mare.
“Princess, please forgive him, he doesn’t kno—”
“It’s all right,” Twilight said, smiling at Pear and then at the confused colt. She cleared her throat and looked toward Spike, who now lingered near the door. “Are you ready?”
Pear sat up suddenly. “Oh! Wait, I made a batch of apple jam for you, Princess!” she exclaimed, looking toward a very large bowl sitting on a nearby table.
She got up from her seat and made a move toward the bowl, but Crisp was faster. “I’ll carry it, Mamma!” he exclaimed, eager to assist and be in charge of anything belonging to the princess.
“Sugarcube, that’s too big for you! You’ll drop it!” Pear said, but her warnings fell on deaf ears, for the colt was already reaching out toward the big bowl.
He stood on the tip of his hindlegs, determined to get the bowl because he was a big pony, and he’d show Princess Twilight just how strong he was. Once more ignoring his mother’s warnings, he used his foreleg to push the bowl toward him. Only belatedly did he realize he wasn’t as strong as he thought when the bowl tipped over, too heavy for him to carry it. With an eep!, he tripped back, the bowl tumbling down and landing on the floor with a crash, the jam spilling all over.
“Apple Crisp!” Pear snapped, scolding the forlorn and jammed colt. “Why won’t you ever listen?!”
“I-I’m sorry, Mamma,” the colt squeaked, feeling not so sorry about the bowl, but more about having failed in front of the princess. He later felt even sorrier when he was forced to pick it up while everypony left to say goodbye to Spike.
It took him a good fifteen grumpy minutes to clean up the mess he’d made, and he barely left the house in time to see Spike leave.
The dragon was talking to a forlorn-looking alicorn, and for a split second, the colt felt envious of the drake.
“Twilight, it’ll be fine. It isn’t like I’m leaving forever. I’m coming back tomorrow night,” Spike said, putting the last of his things on the little cart the Apples had lent him. “I’m more worried about leaving you alone…”
“It’s just one night,” Twilight said, though it felt like she was reassuring herself more than she was reassuring him. Her ears flopped down and clamped tight against her head. “You know how he is, Spike. If… If you see anything… chaotic—”
“I’ll let Princess Celestia know,” Spike finished, nodding promptly.
“Don’t you worry, Princess,” Iron Cobbler said. “The path to the castle is a safe one, and we have guards posted on all the roads. That beast won’t be hurting anypony tonight.”
Twilight looked back and forth between the drake and the stallion before relenting. “All right…”
Spike, reassured by Twilight’s acceptance, let go of the handle of his cart and stepped forward to hug the alicorn, receiving a nuzzle in reply. Crisp looked away, a pang of envy once more coursing through him. It was obvious who was Princess Twilight’s favorite, wasn’t it?
Once the hug ended, the rest of the Apples bid their farewells and returned to the house, leaving only Iron, Crisp, and Twilight to see Spike leave. But, before he did, he repeated the same question he had hours before.
“Say it, Twilight?” he asked, a concerned expression flashing through his eyes. “Like you mean it?”
The princess was silent for a moment, before finally rolling her eyes playfully. “It wasn’t my fault,” she said, almost in a whisper, and yet it was enough for the dragon, who promptly nodded and set off, waving at the ponies.
It wasn’t until Spike had disappeared over the horizon that Iron Cobbler spoke up.
“Princess Twilight, are the rumors true?” he asked, his voice calm and controlled. “That there is no way to stop that beast…?”
“There is a way, Captain,” Twilight replied, still staring toward the spot where Spike had disappeared. “That’s why only Cadance stayed in Canter Capital. Everypony else is looking for the…” She drifted off, looking up toward the night sky. “Spike sent a letter to Princess Celestia a few days ago to inquire about her results, but she hasn’t replied yet.”
“And Princess Luna?”
Twilight looked back down, now at the ground. “I… I still haven’t heard from her, either… I’m going to wait a few more days, and if I still don’t hear anything…” She drifted off again, leaving the end of her sentence hanging in the air.
“We can look for her together!” Crisp suggested, obviously the answer the princess wanted. “Momma says I’m the best at hide-and-go-seek!”
“Twilight,” Iron said, having only briefly smiled at the colt before speaking up again. Crisp was surprised to hear his father address the princess without her title. “If what Captain Armor told me is true, then I agree with Spike. You are not at fault.”
After a moment, Twilight looked at Iron and smiled gratefully. “Thank you, Captain.”
Iron Cobbler yawned, the late hour starting to catch up with him. “Well then, Princess, we better get back inside. My nephew should be arriving from his trip tonight, and somepony should be awake to greet him.” He looked down to his son and nodded toward the distant oak tree, offering a teasing smile. “Would you like to come with me and escort the princess?”
Crisp puffed out his chest. “Mh-hm!”
The three ponies slowly made their way back toward the library. It was odd, but it felt to the foal as if the princess and his father were trotting slowly on purpose. Maybe she didn’t want to go home just yet? Maybe she wanted to sleep-over? They could read bedtime stories together!
But then, he remembered Spike’s question.
If Princess Twilight had done something wrong, then she probably felt bad about it, and nopony should go to bed feeling sad.
Truth be told, though, Crisp didn’t know what to say to cheer her up. He often felt that way, unsure of how to act with the princess, and so rather than words, he gingerly pressed his hoof against her foreleg and patted it thrice.
“Do you want me to read you a bedtime story, Princess Twilight?”
Bedtime stories always made him feel better after a bad day. Surely they’d help the princess miss Spike a little less.
“A bedtime story?” Iron asked playfully, just as they’d reached the base of the oak tree. “Are you trying to get out of going to bed early?”
“How about tomorrow?” Twilight suggested, interrupting the argument between father and son. “I need to finish some research tonight on the elemental magics and essences of Equestria. Though, you did remind me of something…”
With a spark of magic, a book appeared in front of her, which she offered to the foal.
“Here you are,” she said with a wide smile. “It’s a book on ancient Equestrian myths. Why don’t you read the first chapter, and we can read the second one tomorrow?”
Crisp blinked twice, before looking down at the book. It looked brand new, and on the cover, he saw a wide variety of beasts and ponies in armors. “Just like Papa!” he pointed out excitedly, showing both ponies one of the armored stallions before carefully opening the book and feeling his heart jump.
There, right on the first page, the words “For Apple Crisp, from Princess Twilight” had been written in perfect calligraphy. He could feel his own eyes twinkling as he looked up at the grinning princess.
“It’s for me?! Thank you, Princess Twilight!” he exclaimed, barely giving Twilight the time to welcome him before he practically threw himself at her, book and all.
“It also has illustrations,” Twilight added once the hug ended, her own voice bubbling with excitement. “Princess Celestia illustrated some of the final chapters. I marked them out for you.”
“Can’t we read it tonight?” Crisp insisted, letting out a disappointed whine when the alicorn shook her head.
“Tomorrow,” she said, firmly. “I promise.”
Knowing when to quit, Crisp sighed and nodded, watching as the princess teleported a little saddlebag for him to carry his book in. In the back of his mind, Crisp found comfort in the fact that he’d be seeing Princess Twilight again. After all, the surprise hadn’t started yet.
“Thank you, Princess,” Iron said, bowing his head slightly.
Twilight waved him off with a shake of her head. “No, Captain. Thank you and your family.”
That said, Crisp watched in silence as Twilight lifted the trapdoor to the library, and he felt sad at the prospect of saying goodbye already. Every time he saw her go down the tunnel, it always felt like she’d never come back out.
“Good night, Princess Twilight,” he said with the biggest smile he could muster, holding his book close against his chest.
Twilight, who’d been staring down into the abyss of the tunnel, looked behind her and smiled at the colt. “Good night, Apple Crisp. Good night, Captain Iron,” she said, before looking away and stepping down into the tunnel, the door closing behind her—just like that.
The two ponies stood there for what felt like forever, staring at the trapdoor. Finally, Iron Cobbler hurried them along, and Crisp followed his father, barely glancing at the stick planted firmly on the ground.
“What did Princess Twilight do wrong, Papa?” he asked as they trotted along, the concept of tact something he hadn’t quite learned yet.
The tension in the air went unnoticed by the foal, as did the fact that his father’s expression flickered from relaxed to serious. It took a second, but Iron Cobbler looked down and managed a smile.
“Princess Twilight thought she could carry a big bowl of jam all by herself, too,” the stallion said, carefully, slowly. “And she also dropped it.”
“Oh…” Crisp looked away, toward the blades of grass folding under his hooves. He furrowed his brow and glanced up. “But we can help her clean up!”
“We can,” Iron Cobbler said, glancing back at the tree. “And we will.”
Fifteen minutes went by, and Crisp was already in bed, reading and rereading Twilight’s dedication.
Twenty minutes went by, and he’d already read almost half of the first chapter, even despite the dim candlelight and repeated calls from his mother to “go to sleep!”
An hour went by, and the foal had already fallen fast asleep, face pressed against the pages of the open book.
Two hours went by, and his dreams became a nightmare of dragons and beasts chasing him through an endless forest, and cry as he might, no Princess Twilight came to his rescue.
Finally, two and a half hours went by, and Apple Crisp woke from one nightmare straight into another.
He blinked once, twice, the images fresh in his mind, and glanced around the room. His sister was fast asleep in her bed, and all the adult ponies were gathered around the table, speaking in hushed whispers around the dim light of five candlesticks.
There was a loud knock, and Crisp watched as his elder cousin stepped into the house, his eyes weary from traveling all day, and his back packed with saddlebags containing all kinds of merchandise.
The half-asleep foal watched silently, unable to make sense of the hushed whispers shared between the adults and the teenaged stallion. In fact, the only sentence he managed to make out was because his father said it so loudly.
“A unicorn asked about Princess Twilight?” he asked, but there was an edge to his voice, much like when he was about to scold Crisp for misbehaving.
His cousin, Tattle Apple, visibly recoiled. “Yes,” he said, having forgotten to whisper. “I… On the way to the city, I met a wandering traveler asking about Ponyville and Princess Twilight…”
“And you told him about her?!” Uncle Apple Tinder yelled. “What were you thinking?!”
“B-but, he had Princess Luna’s crown!” Tattle Apple blurted out in his defense.
“He had the princess’s crown?” Iron Cobbler asked, his tone now threatening. He immediately got up and trotted toward his bed, pulling out a sword from beneath it. “This isn’t good. This has Discord all over it.”
“W-wait!” Tattle Apple exclaimed, watching as his uncle made his way across the room and toward the exit. “I-I didn’t mean—! I thought—!”
“I’m going to get the Princ—”
And then, it happened.
It was hard to determine what came first: the deafening crack that filled the valley, or the tremor that shook it, throwing all the ponies down onto the ground.
“Papa!” Apple Heart exclaimed, having immediately woken up and looking around in fright.
Iron raised his hoof, immediately silencing the filly.
And so, a suffocating silence filled the room, the calm before the storm, every pony present frozen in place and waiting. Waiting for the next move, the next tremor, the next something. It seemed, after a minute, that whatever was happening had ended. Slowly, the adults began to rise from the floor, only to be thrown back down when another tremor came—and it did not come alone.
A loud sound filled their ears, and the wooden floor began to crack, splintered by a massive tree growing straight up inside the house, tearing through the roof and nearly taking Crisp’s bed with it.
“He’s here!” Iron roared, scrambling away from the tree. “Pear, take the children and get away from here!” He looked toward Tinder Apple and nodded toward the door. “The princess!”
Tinder Apple nodded, and both stallions rushed out, leaving aunt and mother to deal with the panicked foals.
“Come on, children!” Pear yelled, holding open the door and allowing the children to escape the house.
Crisp watched with horror as the valley, his home, became a forest in front of his very eyes, trees of all sizes growing all around him and plunging him into darkness. It wasn’t a forest like he’d imagined, like the ones in the books Princess Twilight read to him. It was the forest from his nightmares, the forest where Princess Twilight wasn’t there to help, now with howling in the distance.
He hadn’t wanted this.
It was almost instinct that drove him, made him gallop, disregard his mother’s panicked yells for him to come back, and forced him toward the one safe place he knew. Tears filled his eyes as he ran, and with a strangled cry he called out to the stallion, to please come back, that the surprise can end now, Mister, please, please, please.
In the distance, finally, he saw it. The great old oak tree, still standing out amongst the new trees, calling to him and beckoning him to safety. Crisp shut his eyes and galloped as fast as he could, and a small glimmer of hope rose within him the closer he got.
And then, without warning, the ground beneath him disappeared just as he approached the tree, and with a panicked scream, the foal fell down, twisting his ankle in the process. Tears filled his eyes, the unbearable pain shooting up and down his foreleg, and he could barely open his eyes enough to see that the tree had sunk, as if a hole had been dug below it.
Crisp had never been more scared in his entire life. He closed his eyes and thought of Princess Twilight, pictured her face as clearly as he could, helplessly whispering her name.
“Ten deep breaths, Crisp. Whenever you’re scared or nervous, take ten deep breaths.”
And so he did, shaky, fast, panicked breaths, trying to ignore the pain in his leg. He finally looked up and saw the trapdoor in the distance.
“Princess Twilight!” he called out, desperately, helplessly, tears clouding his eyes. “Princess Twilight, please come and help me!”
He heard howling in the distance, louder than before, and he called for her even louder, louder, louder, and louder still, until his throat hurt and until he saw the trapdoor budge.
His heart felt like it’d come to a stop, and with difficulty he stood up, determined to take the steps toward the trapdoor where the princess would emerge any second now. She had come to his rescue, just like she always would.
“Princess Twilight!” he called out, watching as the trapdoor was flung open and out emerged his father. “Pa-Papa!”
“Apple Crisp?! What are you doing here?!” Iron Cobbler gasped, rushing to his son, who clung to him and cried in his forelegs.
“P-Papa, wh-where’s Princess Twilight?” Crisp asked, trying to look past his father and toward the trapdoor. Why wasn’t she coming out? It wasn’t safe, it wasn’t safe! She needed to leave with all of them!
Moments later, another pony emerged, which he recognized as his uncle.
“That barrier!” Tinder Apple exclaimed, stepping away from the trapdoor and looking at it with an almost panicked look. “What is it?! The princess—! That monster—!”
Without hearing his protests, Iron Cobbler grabbed Apple Crisp and threw him on his back. “We need to leave! Now!”
“But the princess—!” Tinder Apple protested. “She’s still in there!”
“We need the other princesses!” Iron Cobbler roared, once more disregarding his son’s screams of protest. “We’ll get killed by those wooden beasts if we stay here!”
“N-no! Papa! No! Princess Twilight is in there!” Crisp protested, weakly banging his hooves against his father before turning back to the tree. “Princess Twilight! Please, come out!”
And, without another word, Iron Cobbler and Tinder Apple rushed off, taking with them the little foal, too injured to try and fight back, too injured to try and rush back to the library and the princess he would never see again.