The warm, orange glow of the campfire was comforting as Willow Wisp sat beside it. The Guards who had ambushed them were busily moving supplies between numerous tents surrounding them and generally keeping to themselves. Though, Willow noticed a number of sidelong glances stolen in his group's direction, though skeptical or not he couldn't even begin to guess.
Willow straightened up as Princess Luna emerged from her cabin, trotting towards the small fire to greet them. "We apologize most profusely for the forceful nature of our guards. We were..." the midnight coated mare blushed slightly, coughing gently and changing her tone to a more familiar one, "...sorry, I may have been a bit too strict with my security."
"You do not have to apologize to us, your highness," Witch Hazel spoke up, stroking the purring cat beside her, "you have every reason to be cautious here in the Everfree."
"I'm jus' glad you came in at da right time, majesty," Samba chimed in, "If not for you, dere woulda been one heck of a brawl."
The princess shook her head gently. "It was the least I could do, especially after I recognized one of your party," she turned her gaze to a perplexed Willow Wisp, "I remember you. From a meeting regarding Equestrian safety in Canterlot last month."
"To be fair," Willow flushed, absentmindedly rubbing at his mane with a forehoof, "It was Mayor Mare who did all the talking. I just told her the state of the roads connecting to Ponyville and she wanted me close for information."
"Still, I make it a point never to forget the face of one who serves their country, besides," she shot Willow a small smile, gesturing at the lantern lying on the ground beside him, "your lantern is... rather distinctive, to say the least. However, I regret to say that, though I learned that you were a night guide, I never learned your name."
"Ah, well my name is Willow Wisp, highness," the pale colt replied before pointing a hoof at the the light brown pegasus beside him, "This is my sister, Witch Hazel, and her cat Nero, and these two," he ended by pointing out the red unicorn and the lime-green pegasus, "are a couple of my best friends from Ponyville, Rich Blend and Samba Rhythm."
"A pleasure to meet all of you," Luna said to them as the humbled ponies each bowed their heads gently at the sound of their names, "I must say, for ponies living in Ponyville, I find your willingness to enter the Everfree forest surprising."
"Well, there is a reason for that, your highness," Rich Blend spoke, "You see, Willow Wisp and his sister live here in the forest. Samba and I were accompanying them on a gathering trip."
"I make a living selling herbal medicines and potions made from ingredients only found here in the forest, your majesty," Witch answered, noticing the confused expression on the princess's face, "that's why we were here, but..." She paused, eyeing her companions, her eye lingering momentarily on her brother, who she knew would ask the very same question if he got the chance, "If it's not too rude, your highness, might I ask...why are you here?"
The entire camp must have been listening in, because as soon as the words were out of her mouth, all eyes were on them, and each expression promised violence. However, Luna raised a placating hoof, calming the guards around them. Everypony immediately returned to what they'd been doing as Luna took a deep, steadying breath.
"I understand that you have reason to be suspicious," Luna spoke calmly, "why should a princess, be out here rather than within safe confines of Canterlot castle?" All eyes were remained fixed on Luna as she slowly got to her hooves.
"I am sure you all know of the ancient castle here, within the Everfree," she said, "The Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters, which once belonged to my sister and I. It is a relic of a bygone age, the first castle Celestia and I ruled from, long before Canterlot was ever built. However, after a...certain incident just over a millenium ago, it ceased to be used," She didn't say it, but everypony knew exactly to which event she referred. Nightmare Moon, the manifestation of Luna's jealousy and spite which seized control of body and mind in order to bring about eternal night.
"Even so, that castle still holds many secrets long forgotten by pony kind," she continued, "History, goods, artifacts and much more remain hidden within the ruins of the castle. This camp acts as a resource point for ponies who are up there, excavating the site as we speak. It is far, but this location was the only feasible building site, as the trees nearer the ruins grow too close together any sizable campsite to be possible. Beyond that, the perils within closer proximity of the ruins are great, and this position is far more defensible." She gestured to the rushing river beside them. Standing for a clearer view, they noticed a small, makeshift bridge connecting the two banks.
"Dat makes sense, I guess," Samba said, scratching idly at his chin "but dat still don' explain why you down 'ere yaself, majesty."
"This is true," Luna sighed, "I'm afraid I have accompanied this expedition for purely nostalgic reasons. I feel it is something I must do myself, something... something to help make amends with myself."
"Well, it's not our place to question the judgement of royalty such as yourself, Princess Luna," Rich Blend said, smiling around at the others, "so long as you believe it's right, that's fine by us, right?" Everypony nodded in agreement, but Willow caught Witch's eyes and saw his skepticism mirrored there. There was something Luna wasn't telling them.
"While I am glad to have met each of you, the time has come that I must send you on your way," Luna said, she wore a smile and the gentle quality of her voice softened the somewhat callous sentiment, "I'm sure you all understand that this operation is strictly confidential. I must ask for you to kindly refrain from mentioning this to anypony."
"Understood, your highness," Willow Wisp said, picking up his lantern in his teeth, "I hope you are able to recover everything you need from the ruins."
"Thank you, Mr. Wisp, and do have a safe journey," Princess Luna returned the groups' bows before turning back to her cabin. The group left the campsite, careful to avoid drawing the attention of any guards as they weaved their way to the riverbank.
Once out of earshot of the guards, Willow set his lantern on the forest floor, whispering into the purple flames. "Are they looking?" Willow listened to to an unheard reply, "Good. Dim yourself for a bit, if you please." The violet light of the flame died down to a small ember, and Willow Wisp and Witch Hazel made their way to the cover of the trees, careful to avoid drawing attention from the camp and confusing Rich and Samba even more than they already were.
"Nothing is good enough for you two, is it?" Rich Blend whispered to them as they caught up with the others, "You mean to say that you're STILL suspicious of what's going on?"
"It's not like I choose to be suspicious," Willow muttered in reply, "but it's rather hard to buy. Nothing the Princess said made any sense."
"Sounded a'right to me," Samba chimed, "what'd she say dat sounded so wrong?"
"Well, for starters," Witch said, "there are plenty of nice open spaces near the ruins of the castle where they could set up camp. Willow and I have been over there a few times."
"OK, but what about the danger?" Rich replied, "The princess said that there were too many dangerous things near the ruins."
"But why would that stop her?" Willow shook his head, "beside herself, an alicorn princess, she has about a score of guards with her. Royal Guards, serving Luna or otherwise, I'm sure are tough enough to tangle with any danger near the ruins and come out on top. Besides, if danger was an issue to her, why would she set up the resource point here? This area is just as dangerous as the ruins, but that never stopped her." Slowly, Willow's and Witch's words began to sink in, their logic slowly creating doubt in Samba and Rich.
"But why?" Rich stammered, "What reason would Princess Luna have to lie to us? Is whatever she's doing so important and secret, that even SHE had to lie?"
The distant sound of approaching voices cut the conversation short. Hoping that they had yet to be discovered, the group ducked down amongst the ferns to conceal themselves from the newcomers. From the clinking sound of metal against metal, Willow assumed that they were more guards. Soon after came the sound of rustling leaves as the guards entered the foliage. Willow started to panic, fearing that they'd been spotted, but the sounds of hoofsteps and rustling leaves grew more distant as they instead moved deeper into the forest.
Believing the coast to be clear, the group slowly rose and caught the glimpse of the three ponies trotting off into the dense underbrush, but it was not, as Willow had assumed, three guards, rather there were two guards trotting on either side of a pony in a pristine white lab coat. Willow watched in puzzlement as they made their way up the hill and deeper into the forest. Turning to his companions, Willow knew they were all thinking the same thing.
"We gonna follow 'em, ya?" Samba prodded, and wordlessly, they made their way after the guards and the lab pony.
Careful where they trotted, the group kept wary eyes on their quarry, cautious of any of the guards turning to see if they were being followed. Willow was glad he'd asked his grandmother to dim her flame; any brighter and they would risk the guards noticing. After a couple minutes of tracking, the guards and their companion abruptly stopped. Ducking down, Willow crept closer, his companions on his tail. Stopping close enough to get a good look but far enough away to avoid detection, the team found a cluster of ferns for cover. The ferns opened at the bottom just enough to give a decent view of the forest floor.
"OK, the area is clear and secure," one of the guards said, "We'll drop the forcefield and you can get to work, professor."
"Forcefield?" Witch whispered in confusion, looking through the gap in the ferns at the area the guards were indicating to, "Forcefield for what? There's nothing ahead but plants."
A transparent field of magic took on a soft, blue aura as it slowly diminished, dissolving like sugar under a faucet, and from behind the collapsing barrier shone a soft light. The undergrowth visible through the barrier melted away with it, revealing the true treasure.
"Plants indeed," Willow spoke under his breath as he gazed at the splendor before him.
Flowers. More dazzling than any Willow had ever seen in his entire life. Each at least a foot high, the stalks composing just over half of the plant itself, but their true splendor lay in their petals. Shining with a remarkable light blue hue, they rose into a glorious trumpet and before spiraling out at the end. The tips of the petals were dotted and streaked with grey, and out from the trumpet rose a pair of bright violet stamina capped with star-shaped anthers. Most remarkably, though, the petals glowed and producing their own form of bioluminescence, making the flowers evoke a reminiscence of a galaxy, spiralling away in a vast cosmos.
Finally snapping himself from his reverie, Willow watched as the professor made his way among the flowers. The unicorn stallion stopped at one, carefully uprooting the plant with his magic. Satisfied with the specimen, he made his way back to the guards who raised the forcefield once again.
Feeling as though a beautiful piece of art was being locked away forever, the soft glow of the flowers was soon replaced by the illusionary undergrowth that the forcefield projected. Soon, the sounds of the three ponies drifted away as they moved back towards the camp, allowing Willow and his friends to safely make their way back towards the forest edge. Once safely over the river and well on their way back to Ponyville, they finally felt safe enough to speak.
"Flowers?" Rich Blend managed to say, "So the princess lied to us...to protect...flowers?"
"Not gonna lie, wasn't expectin' dat," Samba added, "dose flowers back dere must be freaky important." The lime green pegasus turned to Witch Hazel, his gaze questioning.
"Don't look at me," she shook her head, a frown creasing her brow, "I'm just as confused as you all are."
"Sorry, girl," Samba apologized, "jus' figure if anypony gonna know about freaky forest plants, it gonna be you."
"We've never explored this part of the forest," Willow spoke up, his grandmother's lantern floating at his side again, "it's always crawling with dangerous creatures, we never even considered foraging around here before now. Regardless, can't say I don't see why the princess is protecting them. There's something about them..."
"What tipped you off, Wispy?" Rich Blend added in with a sarcastic tone, "The fact that they were glowing or the fact that they were encased behind a heavily fortified forcefield spell?"
"Bite me," the pale stallion annoyingly said, "What do you think we should do know, Witch?" Willow turned to his sister, who seemed to be deep in thought, ignoring Nero mewling for her attention, "Witch?"
"I think...I think I remember seeing those flowers once before," Witch Hazel said as she finally addressed her brother, "in a book I read during my studies with Zecora... but... I can't remember what the book was called."
"Well dat's sometin' at least, ya?" Samba said, "But how we supposed to find it?" Witch Hazel mulled over the thought, and suddenly turned up to look at the night sky, gauging something.
"Well, when in doubt," a smile crept onto her face as she stroked Nero and turned to face them, "go to your local library."