"I'm sorry that we came here on such late notice, Miss Sparkle" said Witch Hazel.
"Please, call me Twilight," the violet librarian responded to her in a gentle tone, "besides, you got here before I closed up for the night, so there's really nothing to apologize for."
The group scoured the Ponyville library in search of any information on the flowers they had seen back near Princess Luna's campsite, making sure not to alert Princess Celestia's young protégé of anything they'd learned so as not to break their oath of silence to Luna.
Instead, Witch Hazel had asked Twilight to borrow the best botanical books the library had to offer. The young librarian rose to the task with practiced ease, scouring the highly organized shelves built into the very walls of the library's ground floor. Soon, a pile of seven or so thick manuscripts began to form before them, and showed no sign of slowing.
"This is the last one I recommend: Hidden Treasures of the Undergrowth by Silver Bells," Twilight Sparkle said, levitating the final book into place before the gathered ponies, "These books contain the accumulated knowledge of all Equestria's known flora, dating back nearly 2000 years. Though I could also recommend looking through some of the lesser broad articles. I have over 150 of them, so..."
"Not to worry, Miss Sparkle," Willow Wisp smiled and cut her off before she could make their load any heavier than it already was, "I think these will do us just fine. Thank you very much."
"It's no problem at all," Twilight smiled, "I hope you find what you're looking for."
"I'm sure we will," Rich Blend said, levitating the pile of books. They made their way to the exit, but just as they reached it, the door was flung unexpectedly inward, knocking Rich Blend aside and scattering the stack of books across the floor. Witch and Samba helped Rich Blend to his hooves and gathered up the books as a stallion entered into the library.
His pale blue coat was devoid of any warmth his body held, complemented by a perfectly coifed mane the color of steel, streaked with lines of silver which betrayed his age. Pale amber eyes gazed lifelessly down upon the sprawled red stallion upon the library floor.
"You ought to be more careful, child," he spoke with a gentlecolt's accent, but his words were devoid of any honest sympathy, "You should avoid the door if somepony is entering."
"Well, it's not like he heard you coming," Witch spoke up in Rich's defence, "You didn't even knock; you just barged right in."
"Oh, is that right? My deepest apologies," the stallion chuckled, a sardonic smile creeping across his features, "I did not anticipate that other ponies might be using this library at such an hour, especially ponies young as yourselves, shouldn't you be in bed by now?"
He trotted past under the angry glare of all four ponies. As the stallion moved passed him, Willow examined his cutie mark, a strange ornate, though seemingly innocuous, silver knot. But there was something about the twisting design that stuck in his mind, something out of place which he couldn't quite put his hoof on.
"Regardless, I have come, admittedly at later hour than is customary, to retrieve the book I asked to be put on hold," the stallion smiled as he approached Twilight Sparkle.
Twilight blinked for a moment before realization spread across her features and she darted off to a nearby shelf. "Of course, sir! I remember the book you requested," she hurrying to the bookshelf, she pulled out a single book, a slip of paper protruding from its pages, "I left your letter in there just to make sure I didn't forget it, Mr Silver Tongue." Willow scoffed mentally, the name seemed fitting.
"If you simply remembered the book I needed," he gently chided as he took the tome from her, the smile on his lips not touching his eyes, "there would be no need for such a thing, silly filly. I would expect one under direct tutelage of the ruler of all of Equestria to be able to handle such a simple task."
"She held the book for you, didn't she?" Willow growled, earning a cold stare from the older stallion, "Maybe you could just be grateful. Even students of a princess can't be perfect."
"I was merely remarking upon the fact that she is well versed with organization, I believe she should have had no need to mark the book," Silver Tongue replied to him, that smug smirk still plastered across his face, "And I believe you may have misspoken. 'A princess?' I'm certain you meant to say 'the princess'."
"Ya make it sound like dere's only meant to be one," Samba Rhythm chimed in, flying to stand beside Willow, "Where you been to not know dere's two princesses ruling Equestria togeda?"
"I am well aware that Equestria used to be ruled by two princesses, but I'm afraid Luna lacks any right to the throne." Silver Tongue's smirk turned to a small, thoughtful frown as Willow and Samba stared at him, dumbfounded, "Celestia has ruled Equestria alone for a millenium with no ill ever befalling the land under her watch. Why should Equestria need two princesses if one has proven to be more than enough?"
"The rule of Equestria isn't about efficiency," Twilight shook her head in answer, "Equestria was founded on the principles of harmony and equality, and such a nation cannot be lead by just one pony. That's why we need both Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, to maintain balance."
"Correct me if I am wrong, but I do not recall Equestria crumbling to pieces in Luna's absence," Silver Tongue replied, "Besides, how can we trust a pony who, for the longest time, wanted nothing more than to bring about nighttime eternal?"
"But you're talking about a different entity entirely," Witch Hazel spoke up as she and Rich Blend trotted to Willow's side, "it may have been Luna's spite which created her, but Nightmare Moon took over the princesses mind and controlled her, she was not herself. Luna was as much a victim of Nightmare Moon as anypony else."
"And if you believe her to still be a danger to us, explain to us why she has yet to attack us?" Rich Blend cocked a brow, "Nightmare Moon was completely removed from Princess Luna, thanks in no small part to the mare standing right over there, and Luna has not once shown any sign of ill-will to anypony in the months since then."
Silver Tongue shook his head, chuckling in amusement. "Never show your hand if you have the winning cards," he remarked to the ponies, "True, I may not be able to say for certain whether or not her intentions remain malicious, but can you?" His words hung in tense air, "Regardless, I was merely voicing my opinion. Whether or not you choose to accept it is your choice to make. But I'm afraid I must be on my way. It is getting late, and I would rather not keep you all up any longer. Good evening." With that, he trotted into the night, leaving the gathered ponies staring at the door in his wake.
"What a snake," Rich Blend snorted as they finally wrenched their eyes from the door, and Willow was struck with a sudden realization of what exactly had seemed so off about Silver Tongue's cutie mark.
"Yeah," he narrowed his eyes in thought, "definitely a snake..."
The trip to Willow and Witch's home didn't take long after they'd left the library, the border of the Everfree Forest being so close to Ponyville. Still, their place wasn't the easiest to find. Anypony who didn't know the forest and its paths would never manage to stumble onto the place without a ridiculous streak of luck. The house was made up of a cluster of huts, the largest acting as the centre and standing two stories, with a trio of smaller huts branching out around its base.
The exterior was heavily rustic, being comprised of haphazardly placed stone pieces of varying sizes and shapes. The inside of the house wasn't much to look at either. Hard flagstones lined the floors, with a single discolored rug in the centre of the circular lounge room accenting its own failure to cut through the cold stony design. However, while cool, dilapidated, and seemingly ready to collapse into rubble at a moment's notice, Willow and Witch have never thought of a better place to live. This place may not have been much of a house, but it was always their home.
Immediately setting to work on their search, they laid all the borrowed books out across every available surface and set about flipping through page after page. With eight books between the four of them, the task hardly seemed daunting, but the books' thickness, both in size and language, made for slow progress, with each page reading like essays, with small printed words crammed in until the page seemed fit to burst. Nearly two hours into their work,Willow was barely a third of the way into his first book as the door to the house opened.
"'ello, mes chéris," spoke Scarlet Mist as she stepped through the door. The very presence of Willow Wisp and Witch Hazel's mother seemed to lift the weight of urgency off their collective shoulders. The cream coated mare's gentle nature caused her to give off an aura of warmth and security. Willow had yet to meet a single pony who didn't feel safer just for being around his mother.
"Tough time at the hospital, mum?" he inquired, as the unicorn mare began setting down her bags.
"Oui, mon cher," she huffed in exhaustion, "Quite a few poniez checked into ze 'ospital tonight, vith similar illnesses. Probably a bug going around, zo we'd all best be careful," She turned her attention to the ponies gathered around the coffee table of her sitting room, "Zo, vat are you all doing?"
"We're... we're helping Witch with some research, Mrs Mist," Rich Blend replied, careful to avoid revealing any specifics, "She's looking for information on a particular plant she heard about at the market today. We thought we'd pitch in and help."
"Ah! Très bon," Scarlet exclaimed with a warm smile, moving to look over Willow's shoulder at one of the scattered books, "It iz alvays nice to zee you all vorking togezer like zis, rare zough it may be. Vould you like any of my help, peut-être?"
"No, thank you, mother," Witch smiled, rising from her seat to hug the older mare, "I'm sure it won't take us long to find what I'm looking for. Besides, you just got back from work. Sit down and relax."
"Zat is very kind of you to say, mon cher," the cream-coloured unicorn patted Witch's cheek with a hoof, "I zink I'll do just zat. I'll just go and make myself a nice pot of tea."
As Scarlet trotted off to the kitchen, Samba leaned in closer to, speaking to Willow in hushed tones, "Don' see why we can' tell her what's goin on. I mean, she your modda, ya? Surely, it be safe to tell her."
"Believe me, I would love to tell her," Willow sighed, shaking his head gently, "But we made a promise to a princess. We can't just break that trust, no matter how much we may trust somepony."
They returned to scanning through the books, searching page after page, but finding themselves no closer to their goal than when they had begun. After hours of scouring his first book, Willow finally moved onto the next, which proved just as daunting as the first.
"Is anypony else getting the feeling that this is a wild cockatrice chase?" Rich Blend said as he examined his own face in the mirror, poking at the dark shadows forming under his eyes, "We're down to two books, and we're still in the dark."
"Ah, but patience iz a vonderful virtue, mon ami," Scarlet Mist said as she approached them with her cup of tea floating beside her, "Persevere, and I'm sure you'll find vat you're looking for."
"I know," Willow chuckled, " but still, it would be nice if patience rewarded us by this point." As if on cue, Willow turned the page of Precious Plants that Have Perplexed Ponies and gazed upon a familiar sight. His heart in his throat, he double checked that what he saw was the flower. White trumpet petals, check. Dotted with grey streaks, check. Violet stamens with star-like anthers, CHECKMATE, "Ask and ye shall receive!" Willow exclaimed.
"You found it?" Witch's face lit up with glee as she carelessly tossed aside the book before her.
"Well,," Willow paused, glancing furtively at their mother and remembering Rich's insinutation that they knew the plant by name rather than sight before passing the book to Witch, "I'll need you to confirm the name, but I think this is it." Witch, Samba, and Rich all looked at the image, their faces lighting up at the sight of the familiar flower.
Scarlet Mist peeked over their shoulder to get a look at the flower and gasped at the image before her, "Si belle! I can zee vy zose ponies vere talking about it, its beauty alone..."
Witch Hazel gawked at the flower's name, "This is indeed the plant they mentioned, but the scientific name is... baffling, to say the least. Look at all those Qs and Xs..." Her voice trailed as she retreated into her own mind, only returning, blinking, to reality when Nero began pawing her muzzle, "Oh... sorry. Anyways, I'll read the description. Ahem... 'This flower, known as the Star's Euphonos, was once found within most forests regions of Equestria, and was well known to the ponies of Equestria for two reasons. The first, its beauty: this plant's petals were stunning enough on its own, but its bioluminescence added to it in full. This natural luminescence allowed the plant to attract specific insects in order to aid in pollination.'"
These flowers don't sound that important for a princess to be so secretive about them, he thought, listening to Witch's words, and how they're talking about it is like...
"However," Witch spoke up as she continued reading, "This species was well known to ponykind for its use in the medicinal world. The stems and petals of this flower formed the primary ingredients of...an all-purpose medicine!" Witch put incredible emphasis upon those words, and each pony in the room held their breath as she continued, "Although impossible to create using the Star's Euphonos alone, combined with several other key plants, ancient ponies were able to craft a medicine capable of curing many of the diseases known to ponykind. Even more remarkable, this pseudo-panacea's healing properties were so potent that it could even cure a number of deadly diseases in their later stages of development. This medicine soon became thoroughly used by ponykind under the decree of the Royal Pony Sisters."
"Wait...dat don' make sense," Samba spoke up, everypony turning to face him, "If dese flowers are used to make dis ultimate medicine, why are dey speakin' about it in da past tense?" Equally interested, they continued reading.
"However, these flowers and the medicine they helped to produce soon disappeared from Equestria all together, with the coming of Nightmare Moon. As she fought against beloved Princess Celestia, she managed to destroy all stores of the pseudo-panacea, and burn every last Star's Euphonos flower they could find. All searches to try and find any remaining flowers have proven fruitless after Nightmare Moon was sealed away in the moon. Thus, the tale of the remarkable Star's Euphonos shone and faded, to be marked in history as one of Equestria's most important moments. ----- Professor Blackthorn, Canterlot University, Year 257 A.N.M (After Nightmare Moon)"
Willow Wisp couldn't sleep, simply staring at the potion bottle on his bedside desk for what an eternity after everypony had gone their separate ways to sleep. The discovery of the history behind the flowers, the Star's Euphonos, had left them all in shock, but as time stretched on after the fact, everything seemed to be clicking into place. Luna's secrecy, the significance of the flowers, everything.
Witch made everypony a small vial of sleeping potion to help them all get a good night's rest, but Willow's remained on his desk, not one drop taken by the stallion. All he did was stare, thinking... pondering...
"Correct me if I'm mistaken," a voice drifted into Willow's mind, bypassing his ears entirely, "but I believe that, in order for the potion to work, you have to drink it. You could at least do the sensible thing and not let your sister's work go to waste"
While not foreign to Willow, the voice did surprise him enough to make him jump slightly in his bed. He rolled over to look at the table on the far wall, where flickers of violet flame still glowed within his grandmother's lantern. The curious glow within the lantern was not truly fire, but rather the spirit of the lantern's former owner, and it burned beautifully in the darkness of his room. Willow thought she had finally drifted off to sleep, but it seemed she was aware of his restlessness. Though Willow occasionally thought it a curse that only he could hear his grandmother's voice, he found comfort in the knowledge that they could always rely on one another.
"I know," Willow muttered into the still night air, speaking quietly so as to not disturb the others sleeping within the house, "I should feel at peace, but I can't stop thinking about what happened tonight..."
"It is easy to piece together, my dear," his grandmother's voice was wistful, "the flowers we saw are likely the last of their kind, and her highness has rediscovered them. I believe it is likely that she considers this to be her chance to redeem herself of Nightmare Moon's follies. We cannot fault her for that."
"I know, I know, and I should be satisfied with that," the pale stallion groaned, his brows furrowed in contemplation, "but why does she feel the need to keep this secret from us all? If she's doing this to redeem herself, wouldn't letting the ponies know that she's at least trying show them that she's no longer Nightmare Moon?" Willow rolled back to face his desk, "The way Silver Tongue spoke of her back in the library made me feel ill. There's just as much prejudice against Luna now as there ever was. She doesn't deserve that."
"There will always be ponies with different perspectives on any matter or importance, my child," his grandmother chided, "it is no different with the princesses. There might be some ponies out there who do not care for Celestia as much, but such is their opinion. If Luna wishes to keep this a secret, we must have faith in her judgement as our princess and assume that it is for the best interest of everypony in Equestria. Besides, you spoke with her tonight for yourself, and I witnessed no evil in any of her words or actions."
Willow took several deep breaths as he let his grandmother's words sink in, and it helped. There was still doubt within him, but it was drowned out by logic and understanding, and he felt his uneasiness calm.
"Thank you, grandma," Willow smiled, "but don't you ever get tired of being insightful all the time?"
"It's a curse, deary," she chuckled, "I gave plenty of insight for your father. I have no intention of slowing down for you. Now, drink your sister's potion and get some rest."
Chuckling to himself, Willow did as told and drank the potion left for him. Within minutes, he slipped into a blissful sleep, unaware of the world around him as it was overtaken by his dreams.