Twilight Sparkle looked at the pendulum clock that hung on the wall, the hands showing that the night was getting late. Stifling a yawn, she rubbed the bags from under her eyes and returned her attention to the matter at hoof; her friends had become involved in a dangerous, high-stakes, winner-take-all game. One that, at any moment, could send any one of them tumbling into an abyss that was virtually impossible to escape. Success or failure, it all rode on a little strategy, some negotiation skills, and a lot of luck.
She shut her eyes tight, feeling the arcane energy flowing through her horn as she levitated the luck-based artifacts. She gave a silent prayer to Celestia, shook them in the air, and threw them.
The dice rolled across the cardboard Ponopoly game board, until one and two dots came up on the two die.
Twilight Sparkle moaned miserably as she moved her tiara game piece three spaces, landing on one of the more nefarious squares: GO TO JAIL.
"Aw, better luck next time, sugar cube," Applejack said, patting her back sympathetically.
Twilight floated her game piece from one end of the board to the other, where there was a picture of a jail. All along the sides of the board were squares of varying color named after streets in Shetlantic City, railroad stations or utilities. All her friends sat around the board: Applejack sat right next to her, on the left side of the board was Rarity and Fluttershy, the pegasus tending to the play-bits as a banker, and opposite of them was Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie. Applejack and Pinkie Pie had respectable piles of play-bits, but Rainbow Dash's pile and her own (especially her own) were dwindling rather fast.
Just as she had finished putting her game piece down, Pinkie Pie dropped over her head a miniature, plastic cage that wobbled because of her horn.
"Do I have to wear this every time?" she asked, shooting a dirty look at the pink pony.
"Come on, Twilight, it's all in good fun!" Pinkie Pie gathered up the die and begun to shake them, their plastic molds knocking against her hooves. "When we get to jail, we'll have to put it on too!"
"You mean if you go to jail," she replied, sourly. "I don't think I've even 'Passed Go' once since we started."
"Now, now, Twi', it's just a bit of bad luck," Applejack said reassuringly. "It's just a matter of time before you catch a break, Ah'm sure of it!"
Pinkie Pie let the die fly, and they rolled until they stopped with five dots showing. The pink pony moved her horseshoe game piece onto a 'Chance' square. She picked a card from the center of the board, looked over it and squealed.
"'Your donation drive awards you 100 bits!' Woo hoo! Lay it on me, Fluttershy!"
"Oh, yes! Here you go." The yellow pegasus gave a gentle smile, took some play-bits into her mouth, and plopped them onto Pinkie Pie's pile. "Don't go spending it all at once, now."
"Or at all, like Rarity," Rainbow Dash snickered.
Rarity, sitting next to Fluttershy, shot the young flier a heated look. "Pardon me? Was that supposed to be a jab at me, Rainbow Dash?"
"Hey, all I'm saying is the point of the game is to, you know buy things." She shrugged. "Heck, if I landed on even half the stuff you did, I'd be doing a lot better!"
"Hmph. Unlike you, I've actually been to Shetlantic City," she said disdainfully, flipping her mane.
"I don't know why they would make Boardtrot so expensive, it was a complete dump when I was there! I would never want to waste any bits on that."
Twilight Sparkle stifled a giggle. Rarity had been one of the first ones eliminated, if only because she had completely refused to buy any of the properties she landed on, losing them all to the other players. (According to Rarity, Ponyvania Avenue had more in common with rats then ponies, Coltic Avenue had a terrible view, Lope Railroad was never on time, etc.) Eventually the picky unicorn had lost all her money to bad cards, or by landing on owned property.
The librarian's luck had been the completely opposite: she had somehow always managed to roll a number that lead her back to jail, or to get a card that stole away her play-bits. Fluttershy had eventually just decided to give her play-bits to the lavender unicorn, half out of pity, half out of wanting to get out of the game. (Fluttershy had picked a card stating in no uncertain terms she had gained 200 bits by selling off an animal preserve to a logging company. She hadn't been very happy.)
Rainbow Dash scooped up the die in her hooves. "Whatever, it's time for me to get back in the lead! Make way for the Dash Deluxe Die Doubles Drop!"
She shook her hooves, faster and faster until they were a blue in front of everyone, and forcing Fluttershy to use her hooves to keep the cards from flying everywhere. Finally, Rainbow Dash's hooves opened and the die shot out at lightening speed, ricocheting off the board and around the room. Everyone yelped and squeaked as the cubes shot around the bottom floor, bouncing off walls, books, vases, and even Rarity's horn. The unicorn was about to snap something at Rainbow Dash, but had to duck to avoid the other die.
Both die finally came crashing back down onto the board, twirling on their corners before finally coming to a rest. Rainbow Dash took an eager look at them, only for that looked to be replaced with despair. Shuddering, she covered her face with one hoof, and used the other hoof to move her Wonderbolt game piece towards its destination.
Applejack looked to see where Rainbow Dash was, and winced. She took her hat and held it in front of her in mourning. "Ooh, Rodeo Place with a couple o' hotels, too. Looks like yer out, Dash."
The cyan pegasus, with a huff, shoved her remaining play-bits over to who had been the most successful player the entire game by far. She turned her back to the player, her forelegs crossed in a pout.
"There you go," she grumbled sourly.
Rainbow Dash fumed. "I just said-"
"Rainbow Dash?" Twilight Sparkle interrupted, flatly. "That's, uh, just what he says, on account of being an owl."
"I knew that," she said, though the hot streak across her cheeks said otherwise. She glared daggers at Owlowiscious, Twilight Sparkle's nighttime assistant, as it perched on a neat stack of play-bits. "How does he even know how to play?!"
Twilight Sparkle shrugged. "Oh, this is nothing. You should watch him play chess."
"Don' you worry none, Dash, there ain't no shame in losin' to a good player." Applejack took the die up and sent them rolling across the board, and moved her wagon game piece appropriately. "It's too bad Ditzy couldn't stick around for this late night get-together, Twi."
The unicorn nodded, the plastic cage rattling. "Well, delivering the mail can be a pretty tough job, not to mention she has her own responsibilities at home."
"It was very noble of you to stick up for her like you did, darling," Rarity said with an appreciative smile. "I think it meant the world to her."
Pinkie Pie clopped her hoofs together. "Oh, definitely! You're really becoming the super-best-friendship pony in Ponyville, Twilight!"
"Oh, come on, it's not that big a deal," the student replied with a blush. The gray mailpegasus had been a staple of Ponyville, but also a target for derisive names and remarks, mostly aimed at her eyes and habitual quirks. After spending a couple days with the pegasus, Twilight Sparkle had finally rose to her defense earlier that day to remind everyone what a good pony she was deep down. "I still have a lot to learn about friendship. I just hope Celestia likes the report I sent."
"Aw, I'm sure she'll find it fine-and-dandy like always," Applejack said, collecting 100 play-bits from Fluttershy. "Don' think you'll be hearin' anythin' 'til tomorrow, though, late as it is."
Twilight Sparkle grinned sheepishly. "I did send the report a little later then normal, didn't I? Well, I'm sure she'll have plenty of time to read it-"
Before she could finish, everypony (and owl) jumped at the sound of a large belch upstairs, followed by the telltale smell of smoke tinged with sulfur.
Groaning tiredly, Spike hobbled down the stairs, his eyes practically closed from exhaustion. He rubbed at his eyes with one claw, as the other held a wrapped parchment with a horseshoe seal.
"Twilight," the baby dragon yawned, "I think the princess sent you something."
"Huh? Now?" Twilight Sparkle got up from her position and walked over to Spike, levitating the scroll from his claws. The dragon gave a big yawn and curled up in front of the stairs, mumbling.
Fluttershy looked at the scroll quizzically. "Why would she send you something so late at night?"
"It's not an emergency, is it?" Rarity asked with an edge of concern. "There's not another hoodlum dragon in the mountains, is there?"
"Give me a second." Twilight unwrapped the scroll, but stopped when she realized the plastic cage was still on her head. With a level look, she floated the cage off her head and plopped it on the gameboard.
"Hey, you just broke of jail!" Pinkie Pie exclaimed, pointing an accusing hoof at her.
"I've been royally pardoned," the unicorn replied flatly. With that said, she cleared her throat and begun to read from the parchment out loud. "'Dear Twilight Sparkle, my most faithful student,'" she started, with a hint of pride in her voice. "'My sincerest apologies to you and your assistant for sending this at such a late hour.'"
"If she was sorry she would've sent gems," the baby dragon mumbled quietly.
"Shh! 'My student, I feel that ever since you've come to Ponyville, you've learned a great deal about the magic of friendship. Your weekly reports have shown that you are making incredible progress in your studies, and it brings me joy to know what wonderful bonds you're forming with your closest friends. It is for this reason I feel confident in passing onto you a new assignment.'" She stopped, and silently read the sentence again. "A new assignment? Now?"
"All right!" Rainbow Dash smacked Twilight Sparkle's back, causing the latter to grunt. "That's our Twilight! Movin' on up at breakneck speed!"
Rarity nodded with a smile. "Indeed! Oh, I'm so happy for you, Twilight! Few ponies get to work with Celestia so closely."
"It is a mighty big honor," Applejack said.
"It really is nice," Fluttershy chimed.
Twilight Sparkled felt her cheeks turn red at the praise. "Everyone, please! You're embarrassing me."
"Well, what are you waiting for?" Pinkie Pie asked, hopping in place. "Keep reading! Keep reading!"
Twilight Sparkled nodded, and did so: "'In this world there are many ponies who have important responsibilities, responsibilities that can't easily be shifted or shared. Even if it is their true calling, these can be an incredible burden to them. Thankfully, many have friends and family who they can return to at the end of each day, to find comfort, warmth and joy.
"'However, there are a few ponies who are not granted this precious reprieve. Some, in fact, must dedicate nearly every, waking moment to their duties, as they are too important to leave unattended, and so unique that no other can perform them.'"
"How sad," Fluttershy said, her face morose.
"Yeesh," Applejack added, "even Big Mac and Ah can get some sort o' break in the winter."
"They can't do anything? No partying? No singing?!" Pinkie Pie was reeling from the idea of another pony never having any fun, as if she was just told that ice could burn. (Or, perhaps in Pinkie Pie's case, that gumdrops weren't sweet.) "How's that even possible?"
Twilight Sparkle ignored her, intending to get to the bottom of it: "'One off these ponies, Twilight Sparkle, I leave in your capable hooves. This pony, Mort, is very dear to me, and as long as I've known him, he has barely been able to get so much as an hour to himself every day, if even that. As such, he has never had the time or opportunity to makes friends. I would go so far as to say he has never lived a day in his life.'"
"My goodness," Rarity said, pityingly, "what do you have to be doing to be so tied up like that?"
"Maybe he's a super, secret agent," Rainbow Dash said, a hint of excitement in her voice. She got low to the ground, her eyes darting left and right. "Somepony who's behind enemy lines, blending in with bad guys, who has to watch his back at every turn, or risk being caught!"
Fluttershy looked both fearful and unconvinced. "Would Celestia really uses spies...?"
Applejack scratched her chin in thought. "Maybe he's one o' them fancy aristercats or somethin'? A prince, maybe?"
Rarity huffed. "After what I saw in Canterlot? I sincerely doubt it!"
"Maybe he's a chef!" The ponies, owl and dragon all turned towards Pinkie Pie, who looked at them blankly. "What?" she said, defensively. "They're super-magical princesses who switch shifts! That's a super-metabolism twenty-four-seven!"
"Of course," Twilight Sparkle said slowly, though she had to admit it was more than what she could come up with. In fact, so far the letter was reading very oddly to her, though she couldn't figure out why, exactly.
She shook the thoughts from her mind, and kept reading: "'Fortune has finally decided to smile on Mort, because for the first time in many years, he has found himself with one day where he is free to spend it however he wishes. While he is excited at the prospect of a holiday, I'm afraid he doesn't know how to make the best of it. Nor does he know anypony to spend it with. That's where you come in! My assignment, Twilight Sparkle, is for you to show Mort the wonders of friendship, and make it a day he'll never forget.'"
"Woo hoo! New ponies to be friends with!" Pinkie Pie bounced. "We can play games, party, eat cake, party! Isn't it great, Twilight?!"
Twilight Sparkle bit her lip. "Um, yeah! Great, really great..." She forced a smile, trying to hide the sudden apprehension she felt. Judging by the odd look everypony gave her, she knew she hadn't hidden it as well as she liked.
"Are you okay, Twilight?" Fluttershy moved closer, her face concerned.
"Well..." She opened her mouth, but couldn't bring forth any words.
"I thought you'd be more excited about something like this, dear," Rarity said, standing next to Fluttershy. "I mean, it's a new assignment, and you're going to be spending a day with somepony close to Celestia!"
"But that's just it," Twilight Sparkle said, doubtfully. "If this pony is so close to Celestia, why is this the first time I've ever heard of him?"
Rainbow Dash shrugged. "Maybe she just never had the time to bring him up?"
"Celestia and I used to talk about everything when I was studying under her," Twilight Sparkle said, "including the friends she had. And I definitely don't remember her talking about this one."
Applejack scratched her head. "Okay, so the princess never brought 'im up. Is that th' only thing botherin' you?"
The student shook her head. "No, actually. The other thing is...she's being so vague about him. I mean, she tells us he's so busy, but never actually says what it is!" She sighed. "I don't know, if I didn't know better, I'd say she was trying to hide something."
"Oh, stop being such a worry wort about sorry Mort!" Pinkie Pie giggled. "Celestia probably just wants you to make more friends! It's not like she's making you take a test or anything!"
Twilight Sparkle's gasped. "No, wait! That's it! That's exactly what this is!"
Applejack cocked her head. "Come again, sugar cube?"
"It's obvious!" she said, and she couldn't believe she didn't see it before. "It's a test! You don't just study something and write reports on it, you've got to be able to apply it too! I'm not going to learn about friendship this time, I'm going to teach it to another pony!"
"I don't know," Fluttershy said, softly. "I mean, you're already friends with us, and she must have gotten that report about what you did earlier today."
"She's right, dear," Rarity said, sounding skeptical. "Why test you on something you're obviously good at already?"
Twilight Sparkle felt her earlier conviction fade. "I...I don't know. Maybe there's something special about him? Maybe he's really difficult to be with? Or maybe something about his appearance scares others?"
"I still think Celestia just wants a friend for him," Pinkie Pie added.
"No reason it can't be both," Applejack said. "But we won't know what's special 'bout 'im 'til he gets here."
"Speaking of which, when is he getting here?" Rarity asked.
"Oh, uh..." Twilight Sparkle took another look at the scroll, and noticed that the bottom of it was still curled up. She straightened it, and begun to read: "'Mort will meet you at the library tomorrow morning at nine o'clock. I have the utmost faith in you. Sincerely, your teach-' TOMORROW?!"
Twilight Sparkle's scream caused them all to leap back, staring at her. The unicorn's eyes had grown to the size of saucers, the scroll floating to the ground.
"He's coming over tomorrow?! But it's...I don't...tomorrow's just...!" The unicorn begun to hyperventilate on the spot, panic surging through her body.
"T-Twilight?" Fluttershy took a step back, a look of fear on her face. "Are you okay?"
She whipped her head around to look at them, suddenly feeling very claustrophobic. "You need to go," she said, hurriedly, her horn glowing as she quickly packed up the Ponopoly board before all-but throwing it back onto a shelf. "I'm sorry, but I need peace, quiet and a lot of time to study! We'll try this again sometime! I promise!"
"Go!" Her horn glowed, gathering up all her friends into one spot, and she begun to shove them out the library door. "Go-go-go-go-go!"
Before her friends could utter another word, she slammed the door shut behind them, and spun back around. Spike was still sleeping in front of the steps, and the clock was ticking away, each swing of the pendulum bringing tomorrow a little closer. She had only one thought on her mind then: study.
"Owlowiscious! Bring me copies of the friendship reports I sent the princess! Also..." She looked at the foot of steps, where next to them laid a curled dragon who was already far into dreamland. "Uh, put Spike to bed, please."
The owl hooted, swooped down and grabbed the dragon by its fins. In one, graceful motion the owl flew into the second from, and in a moment came back, holding scrolls in its feet. It dropped them on top of a reading table, flew back upstairs, and came back with more. Twilight Sparkle unwrapped one of the scrolls and scan its contents, her eyes focused on every letter that had been written.
She only had less than a night to study for her most important day yet.
The pony shade and sun princess moved down the halls, the marble floor covered in a royal red carpet that silenced Celestia's hooves. Mort had made himself intangible again, gliding across the carpet beside her. Guards roamed the halls and stood at key rooms, and while they would turn at the sight of their princess walking in the middle of the night, it would be nothing more than a look before they returned to their stoic forms.
They passed a number of paintings and sculptors, all considered masterpieces, all created centuries ago, many considered only "good" or "mediocre" in their time, and more than a few done by artists who had, in some form or another, killed themselves. Mort always felt a little wary when coming for an artist; the few that were depressing were unbelievably depressing. (Franz Calfka, a bovine writer, almost drove Mort to suicide, until the shade remembered he had no idea on how to kill himself in the first place.)
His thoughts were rather tumultuous. When Celestia had suggested the idea of spending a day with Twilight Sparkle, he was initially excited; after all, she was one of the ponies that helped save Luna nearly a year ago, a fact he was forever grateful for. Not to mention she wasn't a complete stranger, given how much Celestia liked to talk about her whenever he visited. He even got to see her a few times in the middle of a magic lesson with the princess. (A little to Celestia's chagrin, as the alicorn would later admit that whenever Mort came on those days, she was afraid some magic lesson would fatally backfire on her student.) And Twilight Sparkle's friends also seemed nice, at least from what little he gathered from their occasional near-death experiences.
Still, it wasn't long before a host of doubts begun to rise up in him. Aside from the sisters, he had never spent a significant amount of time with anypony, even in death. Most would only stay long enough to find out what had happened, reflect on the situation, then depart to whatever came next. Not to mention half of them were understandably upset to see him. It wasn't a great way to build confidence, much less social skills.
It wasn't long before what excitement he had dried up into a pit of dread. He had wanted to voice his thoughts, but by then Celestia was almost done writing, and had just looked so excited about all of it. In the end he couldn't bring himself to say anything.
Going to Ponyville wasn't the only thing weighing heavily on him. To the left of him, there were giant windows that took up entire walls, and in the sky shone a moon that brought with its light guilt and anxiety. Celestia, in the process of writing Twilight Sparkle the letter, had explained to him what was probably making her sister so upset that night. They both knew Mort had no choice in the matter, but that did little to sooth him.
All in all, the night had been a roller coaster of emotions, and Mort wanted desperately to get off and demand his bits back.
And there was one more thing bugging him:
"Did you really have to throw that line in there?" he asked, suddenly.
Celestia turned to him, raising a questioning brow. "What do you mean?"
"'He has never lived a day in his life?' Are you trying to clue them in or something?"
Celestia rolled her eyes in good humor. "Oh, I'm doing no such thing."
"You italicized 'lived!' That's, like, 'nudge-nudge, wink-wink' or something!" He shook his head, exasperated. "Might as well have just wrote, 'He's dying to meet you.'"
"Last I checked, you're hardly dying." Celestia brushed a wing through Mort's form, and he could feel the warm, radiant life that existed in each of those feathers, each one boosting his spirits and making sparks fly within his being. He believed if she did a couple more times, he might start to feel only slightly anxious.
She suddenly stopped, and Mort scrambled to a halt when he found himself in front of a pair of giant, oak doors. A pegasus guard stood at each side of the door, both who bowed deeply in Celestia's presence. "Has princess Luna left her room yet?"
"No, your majesty," one of them intoned.
"Alright, then. Could you two leave for a moment? I need a little private time with my sister." The guards simply nodded, and trotted away from the door, soon disappearing from sight. Mort watched them go, then turned back towards the doors, looking more ominous with each passing moment.
He waited. And waited. As the seconds ticked by he looked at Celestia, his head tilted in a questioning manner. Celestia, in response, gestured at the door with her head, making it clear she wasn't going to be the one talking. He sighed, and tried to remember the instructions Celestia gave him when visiting her.
He turned tangible, and with an audible gulp he lifted a hoof up and knocked on the door three times. "L-Luna?" he started, his voice wavering. "It's, uh, m-me. Mort. Um, look, I'm really sorry about what happened tonight and everything. He just...I-I mean, you know how it is, right? Um..." He dug at the floor and looked at Celestia pleadingly, who only smiled back at him. He couldn't help but feel a little aggravated at the moment.
"A-anyway," he continued, "Celestia told me what happened, and I just wanted to, er, m-make sure you were okay. So, I was, uh, kinda wondering if I could come in...?" He paused for a moment, then quickly added, "But you know if you don't want to, that's fine! I know you're upset and everything so..."
The door creaked open, cutting him off. Mort stood rigidly at the spot, watching the door expectantly, trying not to shake. Within the tiny space, a single, teal eye looked out, regarding him. Mort felt like the eye was staring through him.
"Come in," a soft voice said from the other side. The eye disappeared, and the door swung open the rest of the way, revealing a darkened room that was basking in moonlight.
"Uh..." Mort stood at the doorway, trying to remember how the ponies usually did this. He stepped away, performing what he believed was a courteous gesture with one hoof. "Mares first? No, wait, was it 'fillies?' Am I even using the right hoof...?"
"You're fine," the taller princess said, humored, and strode past him, with Mort following afterward.
It was Mort's first time in Luna's room., since she had been sealed away all those years ago, anyway. Standing inside felt like standing in the past. There was polished furniture that had gone out of style centuries ago, its carpenters long gone in the tide of history. Not just the furniture, but also the fireplace, the vases, the bedsheets, even the wallpaper. Combs, brushes, perfume bottles, books, and even the stuffed animals...everything that had been here a thousand years ago was here tonight, meticulously restored to their prime condition.
It was virtually no different from how it was a thousand years ago. It was incredibly nostalgic, and though Mort would never admit aloud, also somewhat eerie. He turned in slow circles, taking everything in, until his eye rested on Celestia, lightly nuzzling Luna.
"Um, Luna..." He struggled for words, but couldn't find any. The princess turned to look at him, and even in the darkness, Mort could see her eyes were red from crying. Despite having no organs, his insides felt twisted. "I...l-like I said..."
"Mort," she said, shooting him a disarming smile, "you can calm down. It's okay, I understood a thousand years ago, and I still understand today." She walked over to him, and gently nuzzled his hood. Whereas Celestia's touch would be warm and radiant like the sun she raised, Luna's was incredibly cool and peaceful, a calm that you wanted to be carried away in. The life of every pony was always different, no two feeling exactly the same.
And right now he was incredibly relieved that Luna still hadn't held anything against him. The room wasn't the only thing that was nostalgic.
Luna pulled away, and gave him an apprehensive look. "I-I just...I have to know. Did Red Shrimp...suffer?"
"Oh, nah," he said casually, feeling much better already, "when that giant skull came down the first thing it did was shatter his...uh..." Luna's eyes had grown wide, and looking behind her, Mort could spot Celestia frantically shaking her head, and made a zipping motion across her mouth. "Um...no, no he didn't suffer."
"Well, at least there's that," she said, relieved. Her eyes became inquisitive again, and she asked, "Did he say anything before he...you know, left?"
"Ah, not really," he said, scratching the back of his hood. "Most of them follow the threes 'ohs.' 'Oh, I'm dead,' 'oh no, I'm dead,' and 'oh well, I'm dead.' Realization, angst, and acceptance, basically. Oh!"
"There's four 'ohs?'"
"No, I just remembered something! Uh, wait, where is..." Mort's horn glowed, and from within his hood the autograph floated out, where it unfurled in front of Luna. "As I was saying, I did get that guy's autograph before he passed on. Um...y'know, I have a bunch of these already, so if you really want...?"
Luna smiled joyfully, and the autograph glowed a velvet blue as she levitated it towards her desk. It was stacked high with books, documents, plus one abacus that looked ancient enough to belong in a museum. The wall it sat in front of had a bulletin board crowded with pictures of her after her return, letters addressed to her, and a few photos of the various bands she had taken a shine to. She stuck the autograph beneath them, sticking it with a tack.
"You know, I think this is the longest time you've been able to stand still since I got back," she said, looking at him curiously. "Slow night?"
"Yeah, it's pretty dead," he said, then inwardly groaned at the unintended pun. "Uh, actually, that's why I came all the way here in the first place."
"As it just so happens," Celestia said, cutting in, "Mort doesn't have any appointments in the near future."
"No appointments? Then..." She gasped delightfully. "No pony is supposed to die? That's wonderful!"
"And not just that," Celestia said, patting Mort on the back. "It also means Mort here can finally have some time to himself."
"That's great! What are you going to do, Mort?" Luna closed the gap between them, looking at him expectantly. "You must have been planning something in case this happened."
Mort laughed sheepishly. "Uh, ha ha, uh, funny you should say that, because...uh..."
Luna blinked, looking confused. "What is it? You...do have something in mind, don't you?"
"Um...not really," he admitted, lamely.
"I actually just got finished writing a letter to Twilight Sparkle," Celestia said. "Tomorrow morning, Mort will come by and spend a day with her. If they can make the Gala interesting in a few hours, I'm sure my student and her friends can think of something if they have all day. "
Luna clapped her hooves excitedly."That's great! You must be so excited, Mort!"
"Y-yeah, excited," he said, more halfheartedly than he would've liked. The moment Celestia had started talking about the letter, all his self-doubts reared their ugly heads, gnawing away at the inside.
Luna cocked an eyebrow, and then positioned herself directly in front of him, staring straight into his eyes. Mort couldn't help but squirm a little under that gaze.
"Are you excited?" she asked, slowly.
Mort gulped, his knees wobbly. "O-of course I am..." he muttered weakly, feeling smaller and smaller as Luna continued to stare at him.
She gasped. "You're lying!" she exclaimed scandalously.
Mort felt a sudden heat up inside him. "Okay, you got me! I'm not excited, I'm kinda freaking out, okay?!" His shout caused both sisters to take a few steps away from him. Their shocked expressions caused the earlier anger to simmer immediately. "I...I mean..." Unable to find the words, he sighed miserably, his body sunken.
"But, Mort..." Celestia stepped forward, her expression one of concern. "You seemed fine with it just a while ago..."
"I-I know, but..." He sighed again. That's how the night was starting to feel, like one, big sigh. "Listen, I appreciate what you're doing, I do, but...I've never mingled with other ponies like that before. And I mean actually mingle, not move around while invisible, intangible, inaudible and in...uh, ineverything, I guess. I don't know what I would do, or even talk about! This," he said, tapping at his horn, "is practically all I do know!"
"You're too hard on yourself," Luna said, reassuringly. "You get along fine with us."
"Yeah, and it took me a really long time to get that far."
"Luna's right," Celestia said with a warm smile. "You'll have to adapt a little, but being with them shouldn't be that much different from being with us."
"But I know you," he said, helplessly. "I hardly know anything about them!"
Celestia shrugged. "Twilight Sparkle didn't know Applejack, Fluttershy, or the others very well when she met them, either. That didn't stop them from forming bonds. Don't think of it as a hindrance...think of it as an opportunity. You can only discover a pony once, after all."
Luna came forward, her face sober. "Please give them a chance, Mort. Everything my sister's told me says they're good ponies, and I'm sure they'll be happy to have you. I know you're lonely sometimes. I know how awful that can be, so...I really think this is something that can help you."
Mort looked between the sisters, his thoughts drifting back to a few hours before, when the only conversation he had was with an ex-drummer that had moved on rather quickly, and a fellow shade that, like all the others, seemed to ignore everything except the creatures they reaped. His thoughts lingered on the ponies who partied with their friends, singing, dancing, but more than anything, just being happy.
"I...okay," he said, reluctantly. "Maybe you're right. I mean, this could be my only chance to try a day as a 'normal' pony, right? It'd be a nice change of pace. And they do seem like nice fillies. Still..."
His eyes landed on a mirror near the wall, and he approached it. Staring out of the reflection was a bleached, skeletal pony with bright, burning eyes, wearing a cloak that would make the color black look pale. A horn jutted out the top of the hood, gleaming in the moonlight, and looking sharp enough to cut right through it.
"I'm not an expert," he said, "but I'm pretty sure this would attract a lot of bad attention."
"You don't have to look like that, though," Celestia reminded him. "You could look like anything you want, can't you?"
"That's right!" Luna added. "I know your earlier attempts weren't too...successful, but you must've had a lot of practice since then?"
Mort shuddered. He didn't like thinking about those first, few attempts to look like a flesh-and-blood pony. He had decided on the skeletal form because it was the closest he could get to looking like a pony, while not looking deformed at the same time. Bones were relatively easy. Muscle and tissue, on the other hoof...
"I-I guess I could give it another shot." He lowered his head to the ground, and begun to concentrate, forming the image of a pony in his mind. His body, in response, begun to shift and churn from within. His legs begun to feel fatter and his abdomen more bloated as he focused on the bulbous waistline of the ponies. (This part was hard, because in the process he would imagine walking around with wet, water filled organs bouncing around in his body, creeping him out.)
Once he was satisfied with the general shape, he begun to create the fur and skin, mimicking them as best as he could. The long mane came next, flowing from his head down into his cloak. Finally the horn begun to twist in circles until it had elongated and thinned, forming a regular, if long, unicorn horn. In his sockets he formed spheres, and begun to make them reflective, forming rings of color to mimic the iris, and filling the center with black to make a pupil.
He put on the finishing touches, adding fur and hair where he thought it needed to be. Finally he was finished, and though it had taken a lot of work, he felt that it really might be his best attempt yet. There was only one way for him to know.
"What do you think?" he asked, and raised his head to look at them.
There was no reaction at first. Then Luna's eyes widened in what could only be mortal horror, and with a squeal of fright she buried her head in Celestia's wings, her body wracked with terrified sobs. Celestia's stared at him with wide eyes, her eyes twitching as the color seem to drain from her mane.
Mort was a little taken aback. "It's...that bad?"
There was another squeal of terror from Luna, and Celestia nodded in a slow, deliberate manner.
"Seriously? I could've sworn..." He turned to look in the mirror, and was face-to-face with what could only have been an eldritch creature. It almost looked like a pony, but its head was swelled to enormous and lumpy proportions, balancing atop a tiny neck that seemed ready to snap in two. The creature's hooves could be seen peeking out from underneath the cloak, and by their size, obviously stolen from some unfortunate, baby elephant. Most frightening of all, however, were the giant eyes that could only stare, glassy and soulless, ready to swallow all who looked into its depths...
With a yelp of fright, Mort shook himself furiously, and the abomination vanished in a black mist, leaving behind a skeletal pony, who was still shaking from the earlier sight.
"Um, alright, it looks like I've only gotten worse at this," he said, his voice small. "Um, it's okay to look now."
Luna took a quick peek, then pulled her head back, wiping away tears. "I-I'm sorry," she said, "it's just...I think we need to go with something else."
"Right, something else. Hmm...how about..." An idea formed in his head, and he did the opposite of concentrating; his skull head faded out of sight, taking with it the eyes as well. He looked to the mirror, and was pleased to see that there was only complete darkness in the hood.
"How about this?" He trotted over to the sister, walking in circles as he showed off his empty hood. "I mean, really, the head and everything's mostly cosmetic. I can see perfectly fine without them, and this way no one sees a pony skull."
"True," Celestia said, some color returning to her mane, "but I don't think it's possible for a hood to hide so much so well."
"I don't even think it looks dark. Just empty." As Mort was walking near her, Luna suddenly stuck her head within the hood. "Hello!" she called, her voice echoing within his hood, and in turn, his head.
Mort stumbled back a way, shaking his hooded head before finally reforming the pony skull and eyes. He groaned in annoyance, stomping his hooves on the ground.
"Alright," he said, annoyed, "I look even creepier trying to look like a normal pony, but getting rid of my head altogether looks wrong too. So how do I go around Ponyville without scaring all of them?"
"Hmm..." Luna's horn glowed, and from a bookshelf there came a thick tome, floating over to her. She flipped the book open, and begun to flip through the pages with her magic, her eyes looking at the paper intently.
Celestia looked over her shoulder. "What are you looking for, Luna?"
"Wait a moment. Let's see, I could've sworn...ah ha!" The pages came to a sudden halt, and Luna brought a hoof to the words, trailing under each line.
"What is it?" Mort tried to take a look, but finding his vision blocked by Luna's outstretched leg, formed a pair of skeletal wings and floated up until his head was level with Celestia's.
"I remember how a long time ago, unicorns were struggling to find ways to turn themselves invisible," Luna said, her eyes focused on the pages in front of her. "But they faced many obstacles, such as finding a way to bend the light with their magic, while also still being able to see. Even if they could get around both, their remained the problem of how much magic such a spell would use."
"Um, alright," Mort said, slowly. "I can turn invisible pretty easily, but I don't think they'd be easy to hang out with if they couldn't see me."
"That's not what I'm getting at," she said, her eyes now focused on one, particular passage. "Before they could make ponies invisible, they used other methods. One spell, in particular, could make those nearby remember only the vaguest of details about a pony's appearance. A face in the crowd, basically. Some ponies used this spell to walk in broad daylight, and not be noticed in the slightest."
Celestia nodded her head, a grin beginning to form. "Could this spell hide anything?"
"Kinda," the moon princess said hesitantly. "The spell is not without downsides. The spell can only blur the details, not hide them outright. Mild scars and facial features could be hidden, but anything significant, like an eyepatch or the color of the caster's coat, could still be seen. Looking hard enough for a length of time could be enough to see through it as well.
"I believe," Luna said, closing the book, "that if Mort could darken his hood just a little, the spell would be enough to hide the skull. Somepony looking at him could just assume he has a white coat, and maybe a little thin."
"Keyword being 'believve,'" Mort said, feeling unsure of the plan.
Luna shrugged. "I think it's the best shot you have of fitting in right now. Anything more may draw more attention than needed." She levitated the tome onto the foot of her bed. "Besides, I was always pretty good at magical theory, and I'm confident it should be enough." She smiled at him. "Have a little faith in me."
Mort looked at her smile, and like that, he felt his insecurities drifting away. "Well, if you really think so..."
Celestia, at that point, let out a great yawn, her wings stretching to their full length. "Oh my goodness," she said, a hoof to her lips in embarrassment. "Excuse me, I don't know what came over me."
Luna stared at her, then looking at a mantel clock above the fireplace. "Oh my goodness," she exclaimed, "Celestia, you should really go to bed! You have a lot going on tomorrow, don't you?"
"I really do," the older sister said, thoughtfully. "Still, I could probably stay up another hour or two and help-"
"Nuh huh," the darker sister said, beginning to push her sibling towards the door. "You need all the sleep you can get! I'll help Mort from here. You just go to bed."
Celestia giggled, and glanced at Mort with an amused grin. "Good luck tomorrow, Mort."
"Oh, uh, thanks," he said. "Have a good night."
As Celestia was pushed past the doorway, the princess turned and nuzzled her sister one more time, wishing her a good night. Luna closed and locked the door, and quickly trotted over to the bed.
"Mort," she asked, "how much practice have you had with magic?"
"Well," he said, scratching the back of his hood, "there's the levitation thing, my scythe, turning intangible, but I think that last one's more physiology than magic..."
"Well then," she said, opening the tome again, "we have until sunrise to get this spell memorized. After that we can go over some etiquette and manners, just in case. And if we have any time left..." She tapped her hooves together, smiling. "Maybe we could play a board game?"
Mort considered for a moment. "...Did Celestia save the Candy Mountain game?"
Luna's horn glowed, and from underneath the bed came a box, its cover portraying two, ecstatic unicorns alongside an obviously grumpy unicorn as they trotted around a mountain cover in candy canes, lollipops and chocolate.
"Um, I don't suppose we could play that first?" he asked, hopefully.
"Lessons first," she said, putting the board game next to her, "Candy Mountain later."
Mort resigned himself to the lesson, and was soon following Luna's instructions as he tried to cast the spell. Despite the considerable magic that had to flow through him, he was manipulating the arcane arts in ways he had never done before. It would take a little time and practice before he would be able to use it on his own. After which Luna would teach him how to act around other ponies, as others were going to see and hear him now, meaning greater importance on what, where and when to say something. Not to mention great consideration of his surroundings, as he simply couldn't pass through them anymore.
Outside, the moon shone down on a small town, situated near the Everfree Forest. The town's librarian poured over books and scrolls while jotting down her own notes, preparing herself for a pony that could be coming from anywhere in Equestria.
Into the night, the pale pony and the lavender unicorn prepared themselves for their future encounter.