I have arrived at Alfalfadale, quite a distance from Ponyville. I hope this letter finds you well and eases your worries. I realize our meeting and departure was brief, and I regret not being able to stay and chat with you further. It is with that realization that I only hesitantly call you 'friend.' Regardless, I must find this thing that pulls at my mind, this missing part of myself. Once I do, I will return to Ponyville and will promise to try my hoof at friendship.
Alfalfadale is farm country, and it's good to see such strong ponies at work. Oftentimes I discredit earth ponies for their uncanny endurance. Normally, you wouldn't catch me out of bed before Celestia raises the sun, but these ponies are up from dawn until nightfall. Their work is so strenuous, yet they wear smiles on their faces. They can be proud without being brash, which reminds me of a certain unicorn that visited this place...
The Great and Powerful Trixie came to Alfalfadale recently, and I had the...pleasure...of meeting her. She pulled off a little stunt show, nothing except a few parlor tricks even first-year students could accomplish. She challenged anypony to out-do her in strength and tricks. Without my magic, I couldn't speak up, but a strapping young stallion put her in her place by bringing down a whole two-level barn with a single buck. Of course, Trixie didn't know that the barn had been prepped for demolition, but it was a sight to see her, mouth hanging open in surprise.
After the show, I approached her and asked her to help me re-learn some of my magic. She agreed and taught me at the very least to make a little orb of light. In exchange, she made me listen to her long and vapid tales of derring-do, which any filly could tell were all fabrications. I smiled and endured it, even the tale of how she saved you from an Ursa Minor. I would like to hear the real version of that story!
I have elicited a service to write and send you this note. Mopsy is not as advanced as I'd presumed, and his letter-delivery magic is significantly inaccurate. I shall write you again when I can. In the meantime, please remember me as I shall remember you.
Twilight responded that all was well on her end, encouraged Moondancer again to return home, and regardless wished her well on her travels. She then elaborated on Trixie's 'story,' telling instead what had really happened when the Great and Powerful Annoyance had visited. Twilight couldn't help giggling to herself as she wrote.
The second letter arrived a fortnight later, sweetening an already-lovely summer night. Twilight was on her upper balcony, watching the night sky and sipping cool lemonade when Spike announced its arrival.
I hope this letter finds you and Spike well. I forgot to mention him in my last letter – I'm sorry, Spike! I have been traveling through lands full of earth ponies with no dragons or expert magic-users in sight. I'm in the city of Dalles, far to the north. The store of bits I was given for my journey has long run out. The hospitality of others is my one salvation. Plenty of small towns allowed me to work for some money, and I have been happy to do so. I have gathered so many stories that I am simply bursting to tell you when I return. One letter would do them little justice.
One story I will share, though. One night, I was working in a cafe in Hoofston. A stallion walked in, brilliant white with a white-blue mane. As I went to take his order, he put his hoof on my arm. I swear he said something like, "We are waiting for you," but when I asked again, he merely ordered coffee. I left to place his order, but when I turned around, he'd vanished completely! Nopony else saw him, either. It's impossible to think he was a ghost, but isn't it creepy?
It's far from the strangest thing that's happened. Sometimes, if we're sleeping on the road or in a forest, I wake up to the feeling of somepony watching me. There's never anything there. I feel Luna's protection all around me, so it can't be anything dangerous. It almost feels like when you were a filly and your mother looked in on you when you were half-asleep. Sometimes, I see ponies out of the corner of my eye, always white ones that disappear when I turn to look at them. Mopsy doesn't see them, but he really doesn't respond very much. He never speaks, and when I give commands he looks at me like he doesn't understand. Still, it's better than being alone.
I have practiced magic so much in the past weeks. I think I'm practicing harder now than I ever was during lessons. I can now move things – very light things like feathers and pens and some clothes. I tried to write you a letter with magic, but I didn't get very far before tiring.
The scholar-pony writing this letter is giving me a look that says my time with him has expired. I will write again soon. In the meantime, please remember me as I shall remember you.
Below her name was a scrawled message, messily drawn with sloppy strokes and barely legible. A large ink splatter stained the bottom corner of the scroll as though spilled halfway between refills. Twilight's eyes brimmed with tears and a warm smile crossed her face as she read the addition:
hi tWiLigHt sEE wHat i cAn do love mooNdanCEr
Twilight responded her congratulations with wishes that Moondancer would once again return. She understood the drive to find oneself, but wasn't traveling to the ends of the earth overdoing it a little?
A month passed with no letter, and Twilight began to worry. The second month soon came to a close, and no message was received. However, as the third month passed its midpoint, Spike's afternoon nap was disrupted by a letter's sudden delivery. Anticipating bad news, Twilight hurriedly opened it.
I have reached Mount Horlais, the griffin stronghold. The griffins here are surprisingly hospitable, but there is a nervous air about them. They never fail to mention that I am a pony under the protection of Princess Celestia, and they say her name with fear and disdain. They have also hinted rather forcefully that I write Celestia and tell her how well I am being treated. Is there some ill will between our kingdoms? Some malicious past? If so, they will not say.
This place is steeped in legend and magic. With the assistance of the ambassador here, a gruff yet good-natured unicorn by the name of Hallow's Eve, I have learned and perfected a little more of my magic. I can write letters with ease, as you can plainly see, and I can lift heavier objects and manipulate things with precision. I have also had time to research the library here, and what I have found surprises me greatly.
I cannot divulge the information I have been given, however. I fear I will needlessly worry you with superfluous details, especially when I cannot prove their validity. Know that I am well, I am far from Canterlot but protected, and, for the moment, happy. I still feel the urge to travel, and it is strong. A few more weeks and I will venture out once more.
As per the griffin's request, I have sent a letter to Celestia. I will tell you the same: I plan to leave Mopsy here, since the ambassador has no dragon of his own. I fear the travel ahead will become increasingly dangerous, and I cannot risk having my baby dragon injured or worse. He deserves a happy life, one with somepony who can help him more than I. Hallow's Eve is a good stallion, a patient one, and he is happy to take Mopsy from me.
I shall write again soon. In the meantime, please remember me as I shall remember you.
"Great," Twilight murmured. "Tell me not to worry – of course I'm going to worry." She sighed as she pulled out a scroll. Her reply would certainly be full of concern.
A week later, another of Moondancer's letters came through. Spike burped it up in his sleep, distracting Twilight from her studies. This one was very short and blotched with the occasional tear stain.
I have not yet left Mount Horlais. Instead, I have been doing a lot of thinking. I was so stupid. So very stupid. I had plenty of friends, but I only wanted you as a friend. What was I thinking? I was no better, ignoring the friends I had just because one pony wouldn't be my friend. In retrospect, it makes me sound like some sort of stalker or weirdo. I promise I'm not like that, Twilight. Not usually.
I'm so sorry to have disrupted your life like I did. It wasn't fair to you or your friends or to my own friends. Nopony deserves to have friendship forced on them.
I feel like some nerd trying to be one of the popular ponies. Even writing this letter feels foalish. I doubt you even remember me from classes anyway. I was such a loser. I can't make things right by just apologizing about it, but I want you to know I'm aware of the way I was acting. I made some really stupid decisions, but now I'm going to make things right.
Thanks for listening. Please don't forget about me.
Twilight frowned at the letter, already having taken up her reply scroll. Her pen scribbled furiously, half-inspired, half-worried:
First off, don't do anything foalish. Don't hurt yourself; nopony wants that and it won't make things right. I don't think you'd do anything like that, but, well, you're scaring me a little bit.
Second, I do remember things about you from classes. There was a time you made Professor Brightly laugh so hard that he had to dismiss class. We were supposed to turn rocks into gemstones, but you turned yours into a mouse. It ran around and scared every filly in the room half to death. When he asked you later, you said you misunderstood him, but even he saw the mischievous grin on your face.
That time at the Etiquette Ball where you made Wind Whistler spit fruit juice all over Lady Roseleaf? You told Wind Whistler that Mopsy'd peed in the punch. Then, you made a little sculpture with your cake frosting, and everypony else got inspired and did the same. Lady Roseleaf was so mad! She kicked all of us out, even me. I didn't make a frosting sculpture, though.
Come to think of it, I should have. I really hated that Ball.
I remember when Haberdasher was picking on you one day because you'd stumbled and broken one of Professor Brightly's graduated cylinders. He made you cry, and I felt like giving him a buck in the ribs. I didn't want to get in trouble, though. Lemon Hearts came in and hit him square in the jaw. I don't think I've ever seen a colt cry like that. You two have been friends ever since.
Twilight raised her pen, biting her lip in thought. More memories of her school days came to mind, and Twilight began to notice a pattern of excuses. She never wanted to get in trouble. She never wanted to take the risk. She was too worried about what the teachers would think.
She also remembered the dragon in the cave near Ponyville, its smoke threatening the very air they breathed. She remembered facing the hydra in Froggy Bottom Bog, making sure the creature wouldn't harm her friends. She remembered her first footsteps into the creepy, foggy Everfree Forest, prepared to track down an unknown and dangerous enemy with a ragtag bunch of crazy ponies she hardly knew.
"I've really grown," she said in surprise to no one but Owlowicious, who merely blinked at her. She set her quill back on the scroll.
Sometimes we don't know why we do the things we do. Sometimes we are just foalish and do stupid things. I think that's part of life. I could have been a better friend to you, but I was worried about what everypony else wanted from me instead of what I wanted to do. If I could do it all over now, I would make frosting sculptures and pour fruit juice all over that stupid doily tablecloth. I'd want to make Professor Brightly laugh and pick on Haberdasher's name until he ran off crying, just to show him what it felt like to be teased.
So don't worry about the past. There isn't any way to change it, and all we can do is go forward with the knowledge we've picked up. I think I understand why you had to leave. This is your story, and you have to live it.
Be careful out there, and write to me whenever you can. I'll be thinking about you.
Twilight sent the letter the next morning, when Spike was awake. A few hours later, she got a reply with a gift – a white feather tipped with violet.
Thanks. I needed those words! The feather is from a griffin. Don't worry, I found it. But if anypony asks, you didn't get it from me.
The next letter came at the beginning of fall. Twilight was in the middle of a new experiment when the letter came, but she put off reading it since it seemed like quite a long scroll and the experiment was very important. That evening, after dinner, when things had settled a bit, Twilight read the scroll and immediately found herself wishing the day was a little longer.
I hope this letter finds you at all. I am in a place the griffins call the "Hinterlands." Pony maps call it the "Void Forest" with adequate reason. Black trees are everywhere, leafless, like shadowy cousins of white birches. There is no grass on the forest floor, save a few dry patches at the forest's edge. No creatures live here, at least none I have ever seen. It is a forbidden territory for griffins, and they patrol it from the air only occasionally.
Everything about this forest frightens me. Every instinct in my body tells my hooves to leave, to turn around and never return. On more than a few occasions, my hooves have answered the call, and I find myself back at the griffin stronghold.
The silence is overwhelming and almost deafening. There are no birds, no rabbits or deer. I don't consider myself a coward by any means, but any noise, even a stick crunching under my own hooves, sends me hiding behind the nearest tree. Occasionally, an errant crow or patrolling griffin will send me into a fright.
I write you tonight because I fear this forest is driving me mad. I must remind you again that I am all alone out here, having left Mopsy with Hallow's Eve at the embassy. I fear I now regret that decision. The white ponies are all around me. I can feel them, the same way you know another pony is with you in a dark room. I see them – I KNOW I see them! - but when I turn to look, they fade away. All during evening and into darkness I have chased after them, calling to them until I became exhausted and had to make camp.
Twilight, am I mad?
I fear these ponies. I fear they are ghosts or spirits or some form of malicious magic. I require your sage advice with these matters.
I have tried to send my letter but have failed numerous times. Perhaps I was too far away. Perhaps my magic was not strong enough. I had no choice but to continue onwards.
My maps do not exist past the griffin stronghold. These lands are untraveled by pony hoof. I was hopelessly lost, but the white ponies have led me. I still cannot see them clearly, but I noticed that they did not appear if I turned back or started in another direction. A thick fog covered the area, and even the black trees vanished into the mist. The air became colder, a sharp, bitter cold reminiscent of winter. I was fortunate enough to pack a coat and blanket.
I walked for what seemed like days. The sun never appears to rise or set here, and everything is in a constant state of dusk. Suddenly, the white ponies and the fog vanished, leaving me in a large meadow blanketed with snow. I have made camp and rested, but it now feels a matter of choice. I am neither tired nor hungry, and even the cold doesn't bother me so much.
I fell asleep and dreamed I was standing in a moonlit field. A white pony came next to me and pressed against me, like a mare shielding her foal from a cold wind. I felt it return to me, that bit of my heart that has been missing all this time. I awoke with tears streaming down my muzzle and an overwhelming sense of sadness.
It has been a few days since I've written on this letter. I am still unable to send it. I have written one to the Princess as well, and I try to send them on the hour. I may as well add to it, since another impossibility has happened.
This meadow seems to have no end. There is a stream that runs here and there, creating mild hills. Fog blocks out the distance, although I'm sure the field runs on forever. I followed the stream to a crest of rocks over which runs a small waterfall, covered in fog. Sitting by these rocks, I was visited by a terrific sight. Out of the fog stepped a beautiful pony – a unicorn. Her mane was like sunbeams, and her coat was like the light of the moon. Her eyes were solid white and looked like two bright stars. She stood on the rocks above me, and when I moved toward her, she shrunk away. I have been watching for her for what seems like days. Whenever she appears, she runs at my approach.
After hours of thinking, I have realized who she is. Soul Brust. SHE IS SOUL BRUST.
I fear her more than any pony I have ever seen. Still, my heart longs for her touch. The books I read in Horlais told me only Soul Brust will be able to mend my broken heart and shattered spirit. I need her, and I shall wait here until the end of time for her to approach me. Please, Twilight. Please keep me in your thoughts. Your memory is my bravery. Please, even in thought, stay with me right now. Stay with me until the end.
Dear Celestia, please give this letter wings...
Twilight dropped the scroll, feeling her stomach twist. The letter arrived after noon – what had happened between now and then? Had she let Moondancer down? Had her friend been suffering while Twilight was wasting her day?
Flying from her chair, Twilight searched her bookshelf for something on 'Soul Brust.' The name sounded familiar, but Twilight couldn't place its exact meaning. Finding her copy of "Who's Who in Equestria: The #1 Source on Royalty and Legend." she flipped hastily to the section.
"Soul Brust: one of the four 'stars' of legend that will awaken Nightmare Moon. Soul Brust is considered the Northern Star. The other stars, Star Catcher of the South, Prince Astron of the East, Buckhoof of the West...blah blah blah...oh, here: Soul Brust has only been seen by those close to...c-c-close to d-death...w-with accounts of those brought back to life having seen a white unicorn with no mark. Some speculate that Soul Brust is not a real pony at all but an amalgamation of the souls of ponies gone before. A pony of death."
Twilight froze, a fainting dizziness swimming in her head. She teetered a bit, managed to steady herself, and shouted, louder than she meant, "SPIKE!"
"Wha? Wha's goin' on?" The baby dragon rubbed his eyes, having just dozed off.
Twilight shoved a pack into his hands. "Start gathering my things. We're going to Mount Horlais. That's at least two days. No, with magic, it'll only take a day. I'll push the balloon non-stop. Oh, why did I wait so long to read that letter? Right now, she could be...could be..." Spike stared at her, clueless. She began telekinetically shoving things into the bag – compass, maps, books, binoculars. "Who cares if the Hinterlands is forbidden? If I fly over it, I can find her. I can find her. I can bring her home. Where is that -"
Twilight jumped as a burst of green smoke and a scroll appeared in front of her. She yanked it open, ignoring the acrid look on Spike's face.
"That taste," the little dragon said, curling up his lip and holding out his tongue. Realization struck as he remembered that particular metallic tang. "Twilight, wait!"
It was too late. Twilight had unfurled the letter and was reading. Color drained from her face. The scroll fell to the ground with a light swish as Twilight's legs collapsed from under her. The letter, stained with little red spots and lined on the corners by red hoofmarks, read as follows:
i climbed up the rocks to meet her
i have found her she is me she is the heart
i have found my heart i am now complete
thank you twilight thank you for not forgetting me
i will always remember you and everything you have done for me
your friend always moondancer
"I'm...too late." Twilight's head hung. "I forgot her. I neglected her. How could I?"
A loud crash made Twilight jump a foot in the air. She dashed to her upper story balcony, where whatever made the sound had landed. She opened the door to a pair of white, long, and familiar legs.
"Hello, Twilight," Celestia said, oddly solemn. She stepped into the library, descending the stairs, Twilight following with an aghast look on her face. "My dear cousin told me something happened tonight, and I thought I'd visit you before you did anything rash." Her gaze fell on Twilight's half-packed bags. "I see I'm just in time."
Twilight gave an embarrassed blush, looking abashedly at her own bags. Celestia saw the crimson-stained scroll laying on the floor and picked it up, giving it a scan before rolling it and placing it properly on a desk.
"I see. It seems you're owed an explanation, Twilight. This is a difficult thing to understand, especially in the state of mind you must currently be in, but I shall do my best to inform you. Please, sit with me."
Twilight shakily dropped to her knees, still stunned by the Princess's ex machina appearance. Celestia dropped beside her and let a few moments of contemplative silence pass. With a heavy sigh uncharacteristic of the fun-loving princess, she began.
"As you're aware, the pony we once knew as Moondancer is no longer of this world. However, she did not die tonight. On the day Luna and I attempted to free Moondancer from the grip of the Nightmare spirit, Nightmare managed to lash out at her one more time in a devastating attack. Moondancer was still weak in body and spirit. We tried to heal her as much as we could, but she died that day of shock.
"And normally, that would have been the end of her story. As I prepared a letter for you telling the events that had occurred, a guard stepped in my quarters to tell me a unicorn named Moondancer was awaiting my council. Imagine my surprise when I saw her in the court, as real as air. She had a few physical changes but seemed to be perfectly fine. I saw no harm in letting her go on her way, but my niece Star Catcher wanted to speak with her.
"What Star Catcher discovered is that Moondancer had, indeed, passed on. However, when Nightmare attacked her, the spirit separated Moondancer's will and...well, let's call it a 'heart,' though it may be closer to what ponies call a 'soul.' With the heart gone, only the will remained, and Moondancer's will was so strong that it allowed her to continue in this world as though she had never died. Are you all right? Are you understanding?"
"I-I think so," muttered Twilight shakily. She was trying to connect the ideas, but her mind was a flock of birds that kept trying to land only to be chased away.
"The Moondancer that came to you, the one you saw walk out into the world, never actually existed. It was only a projection, no matter how physical it appeared, of her strong will and your memory."
"Only through your interaction was Moondancer able to stabilize herself into this world. It's been said that reality is merely the perception of yourself confirmed by others. Moondancer's strong will brought her into this world – your memory confirmed her existence, tied her to reality. Because of this, she was able to recover her heart."
Twilight thought for a moment, and Celestia knew much of the conversation was going over her head. She was still a young unicorn and not well-versed on the ways of the heart. After a moment, Twilight asked, "Soul Brust?"
"My cousin," the Princess confirmed, "though not often a welcome visitor. She is not a harbinger of death, as some have said, but a guide for wayward souls. She bridges the gap between life and death. She feared Moondancer was still alive, but I assured her that her guides would not have led Moondancer if that was the case."
Guides? The white ponies, Twilight thought. Her eyes fell upon the red-stained scroll on the table. Celestia followed her gaze, but it was Spike who asked the inevitable question.
"Did...did they hurt her? Was that really blood I tasted?"
"No." Celestia's gentle smile returned. "What stains that scroll is a rare spirit essence found only in Elysium. The path to Elysium and the Void Forest are shrouded with certain magics to deter visitors in the mortal realm. To a mortal, this essence looks like mere snow. It would actually be considered quite valuable in certain circles of study, not that I'd want you to give up such an important letter."
"But didn't I fail Moondancer? Her letter – I put off reading it until just a few minutes ago. She said my memory would be the only thing that would help her, and...and I just forgot about her. I let her down."
"Twilight, why did you put off reading the letter?"
The scholar-unicorn looked at the floor. "Because I was too wrapped up in other things I thought were more important. Because I thought...I thought maybe this letter would say she's coming home, or just some other story. I didn't really think it would be this important."
"Would it be safe to assume that you thought Moondancer would always be waiting for your reply?"
"Then you did not fail her after all." Celestia ignored Twilight's confused look, instead unfurling one of her wings. She tapped Twilight on the forehead with the crook. "You stopped remembering here." She moved her wing down and pressed it against Twilight's chest. "But you started remembering here."
The meaning sunk in, and all at once a floodgate of emotions flowed from Twilight's heart. The reality that Moondancer was really dead – that she would never share the stories of her travels, that she would never return to Ponyville as she'd promised, that she would never study magic or play with Mopsy or drink tea or...or...
Twilight burst out in loud sobs. Celestia recoiled, not anticipating Twilight's reaction. Surprise gave way to sympathy, and Celestia covered Twilight with her still-outstretched wing, pulling her pupil close.
"I should've gone with her," Twilight sobbed. "I should've tried harder to make her stay."
Celestia pressed her neck to Twilight's, allowing the comment to pass unanswered. It would be tyrannical to deny Twilight the full doubts and 'what-ifs' of her grief. A stream of 'should haves' and 'could haves' flowed from the young unicorn until she seceded into silence broken only by hiccuping sobs.
The fervid tidewave of the day soon ebbed out, and before long, Twilight's full weight rested against Celestia's side. The Princess smiled as Twilight's breathing evened and her body relaxed.
Spike, however, who had been re-reading all of Moondancer's correspondence and trying to make heads or tails of Celestia's words, jumped up, concerned. "Princess?"
"Some tea would be lovely, Spike," the Princess began in her usual professional manner. "And then off to bed with you. Don't worry about Twilight; I'll put her to bed when she's ready."
As soon as the baby dragon was out of sight, Celestia spoke softly in Twilight's sleeping ear. "You ponies with your mayfly lives. You often forget that life is full of meetings and departures, too often neglecting the beauty and joy in the brevity of your days. This world escapes you too quickly. Revel in its majesty, for without you the world does not exist. I'll share with you part of an ancient poem, Twilight, one that comes to mind especially for you:"
Chains of memories do not bind but allow us to ascend.
Every link we forge connects us to a foe or friend.
A heavy mail do these chains make, the weight we can't bemoan,
Because it is this heavy mail that shows we're not alone
And never forgotten.