Canterlot's silent, evening streets were not graced by the moon's rays, as a thick veil of storm clouds blocked it from view. The calm before the storm was chilling, the entire world holding its breath in anticipation of the first drop of rain.
And when it fell, it came in torrents, crashing over rooftops and spilling into overflowing gutters. A streak of lightning illuminated the entirety of the peaceful capital, the violent rumble of thunder following quickly on its heels.
However, the solitary pony ensconced within the Canterlot Palace archives paid no mind to the storm outside. She'd come to the archives on a mission; a mission of which nopony was to know. If news of this got out, all her careful planning would be for naught.
Her only company came in the form of a single candle, wax dripping slowly into the smooth, brass holder beneath it as time wore on. A pile of books lay sprawled in front of her. Each carelessly tossed aside when it was deemed unimportant to her.
"It must be among at least ONE of these books," she growled under her breath. The words rising in a hazy mist in the frigid air, as she gazed at the walls of books surrounding her, "These archives contain anything and everything discovered in Equestrian history. I will find it...I MUST find it..."
Her hooves made quick work of flipping through the pages of the book before her, her face tensing more with each page that failed to bring her any closer than the others to discovering her goal.
She'd all but given up hope as her hooves flipped the next page, another clap of thunder masking her gasp. As she double checked to ensure that it was indeed what she sought, a grin broke across Princess Luna's face as her surroundings were illuminated in a brilliant flash of lightning, and before her lay the stilled image of a dazzling flower.
-One week later-
Willow Wisp moved to the next fern in his line of sight. The pale, Earth pony stallion bowed his head low to the ground, the soft, violet glow of his grandmother's lantern guiding him. He followed the same routine he had for the past 2 hours: harvest fern leaf, check for fungi, and move on to next fern. While happy to be helping his sister, Witch Hazel, gather herbs and such for her potions, he lacked her flair for the task, his foraging thus far had proven less-than-fruitful. Something the spirit of his grandmother seemed was important to point out after this millionth search. Willow took several deep, calming breaths to help him persevere through the rest of the night and to prevent himself whacking his grandmother's lantern from its spot, floating in the air beside him.
Rich Blend seemed to have more luck than he did, having been able to find about 3 small clusters of the fungi they were looking for. The crimson unicorn trotted up beside Willow as he made his way to another fern.
"Why is it that you seem to be getting all the luck?" Willow said to his friend, trying to hide his impatience.
"It's just a curse for somepony like me," Rich replied, with his usual air of 'subtle' vanity, "Not even the fungi who seclude themselves in the darkest corners of this forest can keep from me. Oooh, another one."
Before Willow could respond, Rich dipped his head and used his magic to pull out 2 small fungi. However, that didn't stop Willow trying to snatch at them from his magic.
"Hey, what are you doing Willow?!" Rich spoke, tackling the earth pony, "I found those fair and square!"
"Oh yeah?" Willow growled through the mouthful of fungi, "Well, this would've been my next fern, which means I was going to find them eventually!"
"Well you were beaten to the punch!" Eventually, their bickering was cut short as the fungus was snatched from between them by a black cat.
"Honestly, you two, it's a wonder you haven't woken the dead"
Willow looked up to see the familiar shape of Witch Hazel dropping down beside them and furling her wings, the black cat hopped up onto her back, depositing the fungi into her saddlebag.
"What in Equestria were you two doing, anyway?"
"Just messing about, Hazel," Rich added as he got up, "Two friends having a playful bout."
"Good to know. To the untrained eye, there's another word ponies use to describe what I saw you guys doing," Witch laughed, "You're just lucky I'm not so quick to judge." The spirit of their grandmother couldn't help but add her amusement, even if only Willow could hear it.
"If you were quick to judge, my life would be very unpleasant by now," Willow laughed with them, "Actually, has anypony seen Samba Rhythm?"
As if on cue, a flash of green dropped next to them, signalling the arrival of Samba Rhythm. Before speaking, he shook off the loose assortment of twigs and dead leaves caught in his wings and cobalt mane.
"How you guys know left from right in dis crazy place is beyond me," Samba spoke in his heavy Jamanecan accent, "I been looking all over da place fo' ya."
"Witch and I have lived here most of our lives." Willow offered, brushing away several twigs Samba had unknowingly shook onto him.
"I'm still wondering HOW you managed to get yourself lost," Rich Blend intoned, "Being unable to spot a pale buck and a lit lantern must be a new feat, even for you."
"Ha ha, laugh it up, mon. I still managed to find some a dis freaky fungus." Samba beamed as he opened up his saddlebag for Witch to inspect, with her satisfied smile, they moved off to a new area to search.
Willow could hear the sound of rushing water as they neared the river which cut through the heart of the Everfree forest. Willow tensed as they continued forward, as this part of the Everfree was considered dangerous even by the few ponies who called the forest home.
"You're sure nothing is going to attack us here?" Rich said, his voice slightly shaky, "Because I do not want any of you to have to break the bad news of my demise to the lovely mares back in Ponyville."
"Ya, dat'd be a major loss, mon," Samba chuckled, "Your coffee skills could never be replaced. Mindless romantics, on da otha' hoof, dey a dime-a-dozen." Rich shot him an
un-amused look, and turning an annoyed glare on Willow and Witch as they struggled to stifle their chuckles.
"But, in answer to your question, Rich," Witch spoke up, "You don't have to worry. Father made sure to clear this area for us to forage for the past few weeks. The puppy dog eyes worked like a charm."
"Yeah, after about 7 tries," Willow snorted, "Honestly, Witch, you'd be better off trying to..." Willow cut himself short when he looked ahead. Without a word, Willow dove for the nearest cluster of ferns.
"Willow, mon, what'chu doin'? Samba said first, the others being as confused as he was. However, Witch looked ahead and followed Willow's example. Taking the hint, Rich did the same and dragged Samba down with him.
"Care to explain why we're doing this, Willow?" Rich finally said. Without a word, Willow pushed some fern leaves aside to give the group a decent look of the view ahead.
Just ahead lay the fork of the river as it split in two. The stretch of land caught in the centre of the fork rose up into a small heavily forested hill, and sloped down to a flat point, devoid of trees. On this flat area of land, a small cluster of tents accompanied by a small cabin could be seen. From the flickering lights that were dancing off of the ground and walls of the cabin, it was clear a campfire was hidden from view by the tents.
"OK, so we hid because somepony decided to set up camp here?" Samba asked "I don't really see what da problem is."
"That somepony even THOUGHT of setting camp here is what the problem is," Willow growled in a hushed tone, "This area of the Everfree is too dangerous, even for a temporary dwelling, and I doubt they knew about our dad clearing the area prior."
"That still doesn't really explain the need to hide," Rich said as he turned to Willow, "If anything, shouldn't we tell them to get out of this area if it is so dangerous?"
"Which brings us to our next problem," Witch chimed in, "If they weren't aware of the dangers of this place, then it stands to reason they're not from Everfree, and you have to ask yourself: why would they come to the forest in the first place? Ponies don't just come to the Everfree forest for a bit of fresh air."
"Exactly," Willow finished, returning his gaze to the campsite, "They're here for a reason...but what?"
However, Willow had little time to think as all four ponies were pulled from the ferns by their tails. As they were released, Willow quickly sprang to his feet to get his bearings. It was apparent that they'd been discovered by a rather large group of ponies, with Willow counting at least a score. As the others got to their hooves beside Willow, the group of ambushers blocked off any possible escape route. Willow had dealt with large numbers of ponies before, but they'd had no sense of organization; these ponies seemed to know how to make a tight defence. It was then that Willow noticed that each of the ponies was wearing suits of familiar blue armour.
"Who are you," one of the stallions said in a gruff tone, "and why are you here?"
"Why should we have to give you an answer?" Samba replied in an agitated tone, "If anyting, we should be asking you what you doin' here!"
"Don't try our patience!" another of the ponies interjected, this time a mare, "Answer the question and we won't have to use force." Willow turned to Witch, and as he thought she too recognized their armour.
Rich Blend scoffed, "By the way you're speaking, it's as though you think you hold some authority"
"Uh...Rich?" Willow finally spoke up, "I think they do, because I think they're..."
"Quit stalling!" the first stallion growled, "Answer the question now, or we'll...!"
"CEASE THIS AT ONCE!!"
The words echoed through the clearing as though every tree had spontaneously grown a mouth with which to shout. Everypony turned to regard the figure descending upon them. While the attackers quickly bowed to the newcomer's arrival, Willow and the others watched in awe as the regal figure finally landed on the ground before them.
"P...Princess Luna..." Willow stammered he and the others bowed in the presence of the princess of the night.