Two extremely soft knocks came from the doorway. Princess Celestia had nearly missed them.
She had been sitting in her bedroom when the disruption had come. Earlier, she had been reading over various reports and legal documents that had needed her attention, but eventually she had grown weary of reading the legalize and had chosen instead to simply sit and be alone with her thoughts.
"One moment," she called to whomever was on the other side of the door. Standing up from where she had been sitting, she retrieved her crown and necklace. She hadn't bothered to take her golden shoes off.
Celestia took a deep breath and composed herself. Deep down, she knew that she was still terribly depressed and was making a slow recovery. However, she always tried her best to keep her poise and composure when around others. She was still their leader and knew that they were all looking up to her.
When she had reached the door, she lightly nudged it open with her hoof. Standing outside were her two statuesque guards, vigilant as ever, and a very nervous-looking orange pegasus.
"Sunbeam!" Celestia said in surprise, "There you are! You've been busying yourself and hiding from me." The Princess eyed him curiously. "I must've called for you at least four times, but you were always doing something else."
As her highest-ranking guard, she knew that if she had needed an escort or were in danger, Sunbeam would've been there in a heartbeat. However, these needs had not occurred and Celestia had merely wanted to ask for his assistance or to consult with him. These were duties he could pass on to somepony else.
Sunbeam inhaled deeply, looked up to the Princess nervously and said in one quick breath, "Your Highness I know you'd prefer to be alone but I need to talk to you so please let me in." He then winced, as if expecting somepony to strike him.
Celestia gazed at him, bewildered. "Sunbeam, my little pony, what's the matter?" she asked him in a calming voice, "Why do you look so afraid of me?"
He stole a quick glance to ensure that nothing bad would happen to him before sighing and facing her. "I'm sorry, Princess. It's just…I know how you've been feeling and I don't want to upset you by bothering you."
Celestia smiled and shook her head. "Sunbeam, you're only half correct. It is certainly true that I am not my usual self. I am still," she paused, "injured. But the needs of the ponies of this land will always come first. I have a duty to uphold as the sovereign ruler of this nation."
Sunbeam offered a weak smile. "Thank you, Your Highness. Please, if you could follow me?"
The two ponies began to walk down the hallway together with Sunbeam in the lead. They left the bedroom behind them and began making their way into the heart of the large castle.
"How have you been, Sunbeam? I hope everything is well," Celestia said, making polite conversation.
"Oh! Yes, Your Highness, I'm doing fine. Nothing interesting is going on in my life other than this wonderful job that I have," he replied. He then turned back and gave a sheepish look. "Um, if you don't mind me asking, I believe the question on everypony's mind is how you are doing," he enquired cautiously, "I-if you don't want to answer, that's fine. I mean-"
"Sunbeam," Celestia interjected before he could go on a nervous tirade, "Thank you for asking. It shows that you care. I know a lot of ponies are worried about me, but I will be fine with time."
"That's good," Sunbeam replied, smiling softly.
"How is your sister faring?"
His smile vanished. "Oh," he said sullenly, "She's, uh…She's still pretty depressed."
Celestia frowned, thinking of Moonbeam. The pegasus had been offered a new position in the guard, but she had wanted some time off first. Given the circumstances, Celestia was completely accepting of her request. "I'm so sorry to hear that," Celestia replied sadly.
"It really hurts me to see her so upset. She barely leaves the house…"
"Is there anything I can do for her?"
Sunbeam looked back in surprise. "Oh, Your Highness, I couldn't ask that of you!" he exclaimed.
Celestia shushed him. "Nonsense. We share a common ailment, so I think it would be beneficial for the both of us."
"Well," Sunbeam responded, "I mean, if it's not too much trouble…" However, he trailed off as his gaze fell upon a window they were passing that looked out across the grounds of the castle. "Oh my goodness! Your Highness! Look!"
Celestia quickly joined him at the window. She was visibly shocked.
"Everypony! Come to the Mayor's! Quickly!" Rose shouted.
"Something's happening on the TV!" Daisy exclaimed.
"The horror! The horror!" Lily cried out.
There was a thundering of hooves as nearly the entire town stampeded towards the town hall, where the Mayor kept her TV. There was a great cacophony of surprise and confusion as everypony struggled to make their way towards the large building. A crowd slowly gathered and grew in the large room that housed the TV. Not everypony could fit, but those who couldn't get inside gathered around the windows.
Pinkie Pie, Applejack, Rarity, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy were fortunate enough to get inside. They were gathered together near the middle of the room and staring up at the TV. There was a reporter in a studio talking, but the sound from the TV was being drowned out by the crowd.
"Everypony, please quiet down!" the mayor was presently shouting, barely heard above the crowd, "Quiet so we can hear!" The crowd did not comply. Confused and concerned conversations continued throughout the room. "Everypony!!!" the mayor shouted as loud as she could. It didn't work.
"Dang it!" Applejack groaned, "I can't hear a dang thing!"
"Somepony needs to get this crowd under control," Rarity remarked.
The crowd instantly fell silent at the outcry and everypony turned to look at its source in surprise.
"Um…" Fluttershy muttered, "That is…if you want to."
"…covering the situation in Canterlot. Odyssey?" the newscaster's voice said over the TV, finally able to be heard by the crowd. They turned their attention to the screen and listened in silence.
The screen shifted from the newsroom to a white earth pony with some sort of swirl as a cutie mark. She was holding a microphone and an on-screen caption identified her as "Odyssey, Field Reporter"
She began to speak. "Folks, the residents of Canterlot, including the royalty of Canterlot Castle, got an unexpected surprise this evening when they looked out of their windows. The skies above the Canterlot Graveyard were filled with an unusual phenomenon, and it wasn't a pegasus' weather error."
The camera shifted to a shot of the graveyard. All of the ponies in the town hall gasped in shock at the sight. Flying through the night sky were wispy, transparent images of ponies. There were all kinds and colours to be seen and they were all flying around aimlessly, waving their arms in strange fashions. Everypony watching instantly thought of the same thing: ghosts.
"These strange apparitions appeared suddenly with no explanation, sending the workers and nearby residents fleeing in terror," Odyssey's voice was saying, "These 'ghosts', for lack of a better term, seemed to have no interest in harming anypony, and were simply content to fly around the graveyard."
The camera cut to a pre-recorded interview with a Canterlot resident. "Yeah, I saw them suddenly fly into the air," he was saying, "and I thought I'd walked into a ghost story! I don't usually get scared but…I was terrified!"
"Both authorities and unicorn experts were immediately called to the scene," Odyssey continued, "The magic specialists were then able to confirm that these were not, in fact, ghosts."
The camera then cut to another interview with a white unicorn. The on-screen caption identified him as an expert on magic from the nearby university. "Using powerful dousing spells, we were able to discover that the graveyard had been recently infused with a very complex spell. From what we understand, it latches on to those that are buried here and then projects their image into the air above. Basically, what we're dealing with here is a prank."
Odyssey once again continued to speak on camera. "These unicorn experts are now working to defuse this spell, which will hopefully stop the ethereal display. For now, however, the spooky spectres are still here."
A flurry of voices erupted from within the town hall. Expressions of shock and outrage filled the air, as well as disbelief that somepony would have the gall to do such a thing.
"Unbelievable," Applejack said, "Absolutely unbelievable."
"Who would be so audacious?" Rarity chimed in.
"Wait, look!" Pinkie said, calling their attention back to the TV. The crowd's chatter died down again.
The camera was showing a few families huddled together, crying softly. "Families and residents who have loves ones buried at this cemetery are outraged and distressed at this shocking display," the field reporter continued.
"It…it was just so jarring," a brown unicorn was saying to the camera, "seeing my aunt flying around up there, acting spooky like that. It was just horrible."
"These sentiments," Odyssey's voice intercut, "are shared as well by Princess Celestia."
The camera cut to the Princess, who was visibly displeased. "This is a despicable act," she spoke in a disapproving voice, "There are harmless pranks, and then there are thoughtless acts that simply cause pain. This is absolutely unacceptable. If we discover whoever is responsible for this, they will be justly punished for their insensitive actions."
The camera cut back to Odyssey one final time. "The unicorns working on disarming the spell estimate that the apparitions should be gone within an hour or two. Until then, residents are advised that the images are not harmful in any way and should simply be ignored. Back to you in the studio."
As the newscaster in the studio thanked Odyssey and moved onto the next story, a thunderous noise suddenly filled the town hall as everypony began to talk. They all had something to say about the event, none of it complimentary. The room was in an uproar.
"Wow…" Rainbow Dash muttered, "Crazy stuff."
"I wasn't aware a pony could even do such a thing," Rarity remarked.
"Magic can do some pretty crazy junk when yer good at it. Jus' ask Twilight," Applejack responded.
"That's just so mean!" Pinkie exclaimed, "I hope they catch the meanie who did it!"
"Oh, I agree, Pinkie," Rarity concurred, "Could you imagine what those families are going through?"
"I just don't understand why somepony would do something like that. Why? What do they gain?" Fluttershy said.
Dash shrugged. "Some ponies just get a kick out of shock value," she said, "They have fun seeing others sad or upset."
"Simply terrible!" Rarity exclaimed, "Whomever is responsible must be caught!"
"I know right?!" Pinkie agreed.
The conversation died for a few moments as the five had nothing more to say that hadn't already been said. There was a brief moment of silence between the friends before Applejack piped up.
Dash shrugged. "She's got her own TV, remember?"
"Ri'…Well I hope she didn't miss it."
"Somehow," Dash deadpanned, "I highly doubt that she did."
The day in Ponyville continued after the wild events that had happened at noon. The story on the news programme was still fresh on everypony's mind, but life in the small town was progressing fairly normally by late afternoon.
The five friends had each gone off to do their own daily chores and routines. Fluttershy went to tend to her animals, Applejack and Rarity returned to their work and Pinkie went off to be Pinkie.
Rainbow Dash's day ended up being a little less interesting. For the second time in less than two weeks, she had found herself without any duties to perform for Ponyville's weather. Usually, such an occurrence would mean that she would be out practicing new stunts and tricks.
However, Dash had been in a rut lately. She had already mastered all of her old tricks and was having a difficult time coming up with anything new. After the gathering at the Mayor's house, she had spent quite a few hours flying around and trying to find something interesting to do, but soon she found herself simply too bored to continue.
So Dash decided to read a book. It hadn't been long ago that she had fallen in love with the Daring Do books and had realized that reading could indeed be fun, as long as one was reading something one enjoyed. With this new plan in mind, she had raced home, excited. Her elation had fallen, however, when she had arrived and realized that she had already read all of the Daring Do books that she currently had in her possession.
So, as Celestia's sun began to set and bathe the nearby clouds in a beautiful orange glow, Dash made her way to Ponyville's library. After knocking and entering, she found the library in a slightly cleaner state than the last time she had visited. It was as if whoever had started cleaning had simply given up halfway through, which was more than likely what had occurred.
Spike was nowhere to be seen and Dash needed help to find the books she was looking for. She glanced around the building but its resident was not visible, although Dash had a fairly clear idea of where she was. With a sigh, she walked over to the door leading to the basement.
"Twilight? I need your help!" she called as she knocked. The door swung open before her, offering a glance down the stairs and into the basement.
"Oh! Rainbow Dash? Is that you?" Twilight called back, glancing up the stairs at the pegasus.
Dash stole a furtive glance at the television, which was the only thing operating in the room as it had been during her previous visit. However, something different was upon the screen this time.
"Oh, so you caught that, eh?" Dash said, deciding to step into the basement instead, "Pretty wild stuff."
The news broadcast from earlier was on the screen, paused during the shot of all the ghosts above the cemetery. "Yeah," Twilight muttered, "absolutely unbelievable."
"I didn't know spells could do something like that," Dash remarked as she reached the bottom of the stairs.
"To be honest, I didn't know either, although now that I've given it some thought, it's not too complicated," Twilight responded.
"It looked like Princess Celestia was really upset."
"I'm not surprised. It really hurts me to see her upset like that. She's been through too much already."
"Well, hopefully they'll catch whoever did it…"
Dash glanced at the rest of Twilight's workspace, which hadn't changed since her previous visit. The only noticeable difference was the increase in the amount of notes. From a distance she could see diagrams and lists. "So, you working hard?" Dash asked, understating her own thoughts.
The shift in conversation caused Twilight to perk up. "Oh!" she exclaimed, glancing at her notes and workstation. There were a few moments of silence as Twilight stood still. She seemed to be considering something and having trouble coming to a decision.
"You almost done down here, Twilight?" Dash asked, "The ponies of the surface world are starting to miss you."
Twilight still said nothing as she glanced at a few particular sheets and then up to the screen. Finally she broke the silence. "I…think I am."
Dash wasn't sure why, but she felt a strange feeling of finality in her friend's words.
Twilight turned to face her. "Actually, now that I think of it, it's good that you're here."
Twilight nodded. "Come here," she said, motioning to the screen.
With a feeling of déjà vu, Dash stepped over to the large TV where Twilight indicated for her to look. "Uh, Twilight? Is this going to be another Where's Wallhay? exercise?" she asked, remembering what Twilight had told her to do last time.
"Not really," she replied, "Just look. Trust me."
When Dash was standing next to her before the screen, she pushed a button and the frozen image began to move. It played through a section of footage from the news that was about 15 seconds long, and then it looped back to the start and played again. The entirety of the clip featured the ghosts flying over the graveyard.
"Okay. So you saw the news report, right?" Twilight began. Dash nodded. "Right, so you know that the spell's intention was to connect with the bodies there and project their image into the air?"
Dash nodded again. "For all intents and purposes, these are images of those ponies' ghosts, right?" she replied.
"Right," Twilight continued, "And this is The Canterlot Graveyard. It's one of the largest graveyards in all of Equestria. Even though it's so big, this clip I have here shows the whole thing. You're not missing anything."
"Now, Canterlot Graveyard is also very famous. Many very famous Canterlot ponies are buried here and, as a result, you can see their images here." She pushed a button and paused the footage. "See right there?" she asked, pointing, "That's Albert Hoofstein, famous for his work with physics and his development of the theory of relativity."
She pushed the button twice more to move the footage forward to another point. "And there you can see Ludwig van Beethooven, a very famous musical artist. You can still hear some of his piano compositions being played at-"
"Twilight," Dash interrupted, "where are you going with this?"
"Oh! Sorry, I was geeking out," Twilight said sheepishly. She pushed the button again and the loop resumed. "Anyway, my point is that a lot of famous ponies were buried there and you can see them clearly flying around."
"But there's one very famous, very important pony who was laid to rest in this graveyard. A pony that everypony knew. Perhaps the most famous pony of all of them."
Rainbow Dash gasped. "Princess Luna…"
"That's right. And I've been staring at this footage for longer than I'd like to admit, but-"
"She's not there…" Dash interjected, completing Twilight's thought.
Dash's mouth hung open slightly as she stared intently at the screen, trying to see if she'd missed the alicorn's image somewhere. She watched through ten loops of the footage, but was unable to see anything.
"But…are you sure? I mean maybe she's…" Dash trailed off, leaving her question incomplete.
"Luna's a lot larger than most other ponies and she has features like her cutie mark that are pretty hard to miss," Twilight explained, "The simple fact is that she isn't there."
Dash turned to face her. "But…why? What does it mean?"
"Well, what do you think it means?"
Dash mulled over this question in her head a few times. "Well," she said, struggling to find her words, "maybe the spell doesn't work on alicorns."
Twilight shook her head. "I highly doubt that. Like I said, I didn't know such a spell existed, but it was pretty easy to figure out. The spell works by attaching itself to the ponies' physical forms, so it wouldn't matter what kind of pony it was."
"Are you sure?"
"But what if…Maybe something…" Dash tripped over her words, struggling to come up with a logical explanation.
"That spell was working properly and everypony else in the graveyard showed up," Twilight said.
"I'm sure we just missed her," Dash remarked, turning back to the screen, "Play it again!"
"Dash," Twilight said, reclaiming the pegasus' attention, "she's not there. Plain and simple." Her voice was serious and to the point. Dash could see that Twilight wasn't fooling around with this.
"But…" she began again.
Twilight pushed another button and the television suddenly switched off. With the screen no longer active, the only light came from the single illuminated lamp hanging overhead.
"Dash, follow me," she said simply and began ascending the stairs.
Dash opened her mouth to protest, but quickly shut it and followed Twilight up the stairs. The unicorn led her out of the basement and then out of the library. Twilight took a moment to lock the library's door before leading Dash around behind the large tree. Dash stared in surprise as she saw Twilight's hot air balloon stationed there, fully inflated and ready for travel. She found herself demanding to know how she had not seen it when she had arrived.
Twilight came to a halt before the balloon's basket and turned to face Dash. "Like I said, it's fortunate that you're here," she said, "I'm going to Canterlot to check some things out and, since the trains aren't running until morning, I can get there in half the time with your help."
"Well, I can get you there in a quarter of the time," Dash replied, her ego flaring up momentarily, "but why are you going to Canterlot?"
Twilight hopped into the basket. "Something's not right, Dash. Something's going on, and I'm going to find out what it is."
There was a moment of silence as the two looked at each other. Dash had never seen Twilight look so serious before. She had a no-nonsense look upon her face that was simply off-putting to Dash. It looked foreign.
"Will you help me or not?"
Dash briefly considered the question. With the way Twilight had been acting for the past couple of weeks, she still wasn't sure if Twilight was in a proper state of mind. Yet, the mare she saw before her was determined. She could see that Twilight was dedicated to seeing her plans through and wasn't going to give up.
"This all has something to do with what you just showed me, right?" she asked.
Twilight nodded. "I'll explain everything once we're there."
Dash glanced around. "All right, fine. If this is really something you need to do."
Twilight breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you, Dash. Thank you so much. This'll be so much easier with you helping me."
Dash gave a light chuckle. "No problem. Hey, maybe I should charge ponies for express transportation. I can get anypony anywhere in ten minutes flat!"
Twilight echoed Dash's chuckle as she reached down and grabbed a rope, which she tossed to Dash. "As long as we get there."
Dash took the rope and tied it to herself so that she could tow the balloon along behind her. When she was sure she was secure, she turned to look at Twilight sitting in the basket behind her. She briefly considered what was occurring. Whatever was happening inside Twilight's head was becoming both concerning and intriguing for Dash, and now she found herself actually getting involved. She honestly wasn't sure what to make of the situation.
However, she knew she couldn't let her friend down.
"All right, Dash. Whenever you're ready. And, thanks again," Twilight said from the basket as she increased the torch's intensity. The balloon and basket rose slightly off the ground, and then Dash began to taxi it through the air.
"One way or another," Twilight said as they began to make their way to the grand city on the mountain, "questions are going to get answered tonight."