Chapter 8: Seesaw
"I've opened the city archives for you," Princess Celestia explained as she strode down the marbled halls of Canterlot's library with her faithful student in tow. "I'm afraid you'll be completely on your own in there, but I'm sure a student of your caliber won't be too overwhelmed." They came to a stop at a pair of huge oak doors; Celestia opened them up with a magic nudge and nodded inside. Twilight Sparkle's eyes went wide at the endless rows of shelves and cabinets, all brimming with scrolls, parchments, deeds, records, files... "If you know their names, at least you've got a place to start."
"Absolutely! Thank you, princess!" Twilight cried, gave her mentor a quick hug, and galloped into the archives.
Celestia smiled grimly. If Trixie had gone all her life with no word about her parents, even after she started to see a bit of success as a showmare, then the answers Twilight sought would probably not be happy. But the princess was hardly omniscient. Perhaps everything would work out alright.
On that front, at least.
Lapis Lazuli hated the minions her master had chosen to carry out his will. The only one that was remotely tolerable was the hulking Barbell, and that was mainly because he usually kept his mouth shut and left her alone. But they couldn't send him on this errand because he was a gigantic pile of muscle who drew too much attention. They could hardly send the brothers either, or else Castor would find a book on how to cure depression with flaxseed or something and get into a fight with Pollux and they'd both get kicked out. Comet would probably steal something else again. So would Whiplash. And Razor Edge...well, what would a pony who looked like Razor Edge ever do inside a library?
And so Lazuli hid herself among the shelves and watched warily as Twilight Sparkle rifled through scrolls and files. So she was here to go looking into the mystery of the Great and Powerful Trixie's parents. Fine. It had been an hour already and she had already gone through several shelves, but the work remaining was daunting. She would be at this all day. Possibly into the night.
That might complicate things. Or it might not. If anyone could figure out a way around the watchful eye up in Canterlot Castle, it was her master.
Her heart started to speed up. Of course, even her master had his limitations, and the princess of the night was no small thing. They would be gambling a lot on this little operation. One of their few assets was the ability to move with impunity, unsuspected by the authorities or by anyone else—like, say, meddlesome purple unicorns. Every time one of those knuckleheads stole something and went running back to the hideout, they jeopardized that asset—but now the master had chosen to risk casting it off entirely. Surely Celestia would not leave her star pupil undefended in Canterlot, knowing that there was a Nightmare on the loose.
And yet if this all worked, the one thing that could indisputably bring the whole enterprise crashing down would be gone. Only the Elements of Harmony were guaranteed to neutralize a Nightmare—even one such as her master. And without Magic, that most elusive of Elements, the rest would be useless. It was the one thing that would guarantee her master's survival—indeed, guarantee his victory. Even if he couldn't defeat Celestia and Luna themselves, he didn't have to; Equestria held more than enough secrets and monsters to take care of that.
But it all depended on the plan today working out. How he could be so calm and cavalier when he had staked so much on this plan was beyond her. But she would do her part—and right now, her part was to report back to him. Twilight Sparkle would surely be here for a while, and when she left, they had to be ready.
She spared one more glance towards Twilight and then quietly escaped.
As expected, Twilight Sparkle did not take long to pick up the scent of what she was looking for. Half an hour past noon she found the records from Trixie's first orphanage, in Baltimare. Two unicorns, Starstreak and Shimmer Lulamoon, had dropped off a little blue unicorn foal named Trixie in the orphanage's care. They'd given no reason and the officials had asked for none. After all, surely it was painful for parents to have to give up a child to the care of strangers; why make the pain worse?
That was encouraging. Now she had verification of their names. That made this whole enterprise a little easier. "Starstreak Lulamoon" and "Shimmer Lulamoon" weren't that common. Maybe she could even catch an afternoon train and be back in Ponyville in time for dinner. She wheeled around on the shelves and dove in.
Encouragement quickly turned to frustration and that was the end of expecting to have dinner at home. For all she knew, Trixie's parents had just dropped off the map after they gave her up in Baltimare. Perhaps it shouldn't have been surprising; they weren't exactly famous ponies or anything. Still, if they could live in near-perfect anonymity, how was Twilight ever going to find them? There had to be something.
Minutes turned to hours. Gradually, she narrowed the search down. The shelves were organized into types of records, sorted alphabetically, and none of them had so far yielded up anything since the orphanage file. Twilight idly wondered if perhaps her parents were also wandering magicians, never bound to one place, always on the move, and thus never leaving the kinds of records and evidence that permanent residence usually involved. That was an unsettling thought; she might go through every word on every page of every piece of paper in this entire library and never find anything else about them.
It was three in the afternoon when she got down to the end of one of the last shelves—a towering, imposing set of records that came from the Royal Guard. It was among the Guard's duties to investigate disturbances among the populace, whether they be between ponies or involving creatures from Everfree or whatever else. Twilight felt her heart sank. If this was where her answers could be found, they probably weren't going to be good.
And of course, they weren't; whenever Twilight's bad feeling cropped up, it usually wound up being right. Deep in the files, she found a report from two guards about an incident some years ago in Ghastly Gorge. Two traveling unicorns had been attacked by a timber wolf. Another band of travelers had heard the fighting and rushed over to help, but by the time they arrived, it was too late. The Royal Guard had surmised that the two were on their way to Los Pegasus, but, unable to afford train tickets, they'd decided to walk through the dangerous gorge—and for whatever reason, they had decided to make camp a little too far from the main road, and thus too far from help should anything happen. And then the gorge went and proved what made it so ghastly.
Twilight felt her heart break. How was she supposed to tell Trixie this? She sullenly made a copy of the report to bring back, in case Trixie demanded proof—but that was the least of Twilight's concerns now. Even the possibility that this might bring back the Nightmare did not weigh so heavily on her mind. Trixie would never see her parents again. No one had even told her that this had happened—and it had happened, according to the report, while she was still in one of those orphanages. Twilight's mind's eye filled up with images of Trixie bursting with false bravado about how proud her parents must be of her.
But now things made a little more sense. Left in an orphanage by her parents and now alone in the world, it was clear why Trixie had built this arrogant persona for herself—a persona she still refused to drop even when it fueled a creature that would destroy her. It sent a shock of guilt through Twilight's mind; it meant she'd really lost everything in Ponyville when that Ursa had come raging through. No wonder she'd surrendered herself to darkness. No wonder she'd created and nourished this creature that wanted to kill her. And no wonder she was so abrasive and difficult now.
Twilight looked back down at the page in front of her. For a moment she considered telling Trixie that she hadn't found anything, or even that her parents were actually still alive, to spare her from the heartbreak—but that idea made her shudder even as it worked its way through her mind. Trixie would find out anyway, and besides, how could she be so cruel as to keep from Trixie the truth about her own parents? She'd said herself that Trixie deserved to know. She felt guilty for even considering it.
And yet she knew when she got back to Ponyville and broke the news, things would not be pretty. Trixie was already alone and she knew it, but this would make it that much worse. Most of her friends were still leery of her and she probably wouldn't accept their help and concern anyways, especially not at such an emotionally vulnerable moment. But she would be alone, more alone than ever before, and she was going to need a friend. She would need somepony to be there for her and hold her as she cried.
Twilight looked down at the page and brushed away her tears. She would be that friend.
The sun was sinking beneath the horizon and the moon was on the rise when Twilight Sparkle finally emerged from the library onto the streets of Canterlot, heart as heavy as lead. Two more hours of research had availed little else but some corroborating evidence for the Royal Guard's report, in the form of a few newspaper clippings of which she duly made copies. Trixie would want to know; these little scraps of paper were the only things she'd have to prove it. She wasn't sure if this whole trip had been a bust.
She headed off to the market and bought a sandwich. The trains would run until well past sundown, so she would have plenty of time to get back to Ponyville—and a long enough train ride that she could think of how exactly she was going to break the news to Trixie. Twilight hated to think that she would have to break the blue unicorn's heart, but what else could be done?
Twilight turned at the sound of hooves on the pavement next to her and blinked in surprise at the rapidly familiar sight of a chestnut-brown pegasus. "Seesaw...?"
"Told you I'd be in Canterlot, didn't I?" he said with a smile. "So how did your research go?"
Twilight cringed. He certainly didn't need to know that. "Fine."
"Well, I certainly hope our mutual friend will be back on her feet in short order," Seesaw said with a shrug. "If there's anything I can do to help, please, feel free."
Twilight glanced up at a clock at the top of a nearby building. Still a couple hours before the last train left the station, and if he knew something that might help... "Well, I've been looking for news on Trixie's parents. Family medical history and all that. But what I found in the library, well..."
"Tragic, isn't it?" Seesaw said with a sigh. Twilight blinked.
Seesaw extended a wing. "We had...something of a relationship in years past, I must confess. I was about to go for a walk about the town, if you'd care to join me."
Twilight bit her lip, thought for a moment, and fell into step beside him. If he knew something about Trixie's past, then maybe Twilight could come to an even greater understanding of her charge—and she was going to need that if she was going to have to be there for her in the days and weeks ahead.
"So, 'relationship,' you said," she began awkwardly. "And by that you mean...?"
"Oh, just a brief little fling," Seesaw said with a dismissive wave of his wings. Twilight blinked and suddenly felt a rush of emotion—emotions she couldn't identify. "She was staying a couple weeks in Vanhoover, and I'll admit, I was rather taken with her tempestuous personality." He frowned. "Didn't work out, though. Our mutual friend has quite the wanderlust. Never could get her to stay in one place for long. Even for the week or so we were seeing each other, she'd always go on and on about all the places in Equestria she'd been, and all the places she still wanted to visit."
Twilight bit her lip again and shoved back all the emotions churning inside her. "S-So, um, did she ever talk about her parents or anything...?"
"Oh, heavens no," Seesaw said, "and I imagine now you can understand why. Other than the odd declaration of how sure she was they were proud of her, she never really said anything about it all. I just saw a newspaper clipping at some point and pieced the rest together myself." He shrugged. "As I understand it, she spent her childhood in orphanages and more or less had to raise herself. Which, I guess, would explain all the wanderlust, eh?"
Of course it would. Never raised in one spot, never learned to tie oneself to a particular place. "You, um, don't seem too broken up about it," Twilight ventured.
"Well," Seesaw said with a smile, "that was a long time ago. Besides, it probably wouldn't have worked out anyways. She was a free spirit, and I, well," he glanced over at Twilight, "I had plans."
"Our lives were incompatible, we'll put it that way." He shrugged again. "Besides, to be quite honest, her bravado and bluster was endearing at first, but I'm sure it would've gotten old soon enough."
Twilight frowned. "She's not that bad..."
"Oh, of course. But take it from me, Miss Sparkle, as someone who's known quite a few ponies in his day. There's always something underneath, something everyone wants no one else to see. And in the case of our friend Trixie, well, that something was a scared little filly who wanted the world to think she was tough."
Twilight thought back to everything she knew about Trixie's life already—the hardscrabble upbringing, marching around Equestria with a wagon putting on shows—and cringed at the thought of what was still to come. "I'd say she's already pretty tough."
"Indeed, indeed, but just remember," Seesaw said with an enigmatic smile, "there's always something underneath that kind of bluster and arrogance. Something that they're trying to hide." He flapped his wings. "Anyways, that's pretty much all I really know about her past."
"That's all she told you?" Twilight frowned.
"She mostly told stories the authenticity of which I have some reason to doubt," Seesaw said, "but more than that we were not exactly the talkative kind of pair."
Twilight's face immediately flashed red. "O-Oh."
"Anyways, I don't suppose you can tell me what exactly is wrong with our mutual friend?"
"Oh, well, um," Twilight tried to stop blushing and rearrange her scattered thoughts, "it's, um, a unicorn thing. Yes. Problem with magic, see," she felt a bit of relief rush through her as she made her way back to ground on which she could more easily make stuff up and appear to be speaking the truth, "sometimes some unicorns get these problems related to their horns and the use of magic. Really debilitating, really painful," she nodded to his wings, "like if a pegasus injures their wings. And since the problem has to do with magic, well, who better to help look into it but someone who spends all day studying magic, right?"
"Of course, of course," Seesaw said.
Twilight smiled and glanced around for a clock—and then her smile disappeared. On all sides she was surrounded by walls, in a blind alley that seemed to be cut off from the main street by a corner. The sun was long gone and now she stood in the shadows. She mentally kicked herself again for having lost track of everything during the conversation—but then a feeling of dread bubbled up and she whipped around, just in time to see Seesaw there, wings spread, a strange smile on his face, eerie in the moonlight.
"Wh-What are we doing here...?" she started.
Seesaw arched an eyebrow. "It's very noble of you to go so far to help your friend," he said, "but, remember when I said that everypony has something to hide?"
"Well, so do I."
Twilight's eyes darted around as fear took over and she backed away—and from the shadows emerged six equine forms, all hidden beneath flowing brown robes, cutting her off from escape and backing her up against the wall.
"It's curious how easily you can tell the truth and no one will realize it until it's late," Seesaw said, and then he nodded to the six hooded ponies. "Get her."
The six ponies advanced forward; Twilight pressed herself back against the wall and lit up her horn to ready a blast. As long as she could keep them back long enough to work up a teleportation spell and get past them—
Immediately, the six ponies stalking forward stopped short—just in time for a gleaming white column of light to slam down into the ground, then fan out and send them all flying back to slam into the walls. Seesaw blinked in surprise, and then the ground shook and cracked as another pony landed—a pony with a shimmering, starry mane and outstretched wings.
"Princess Luna!" Twilight exclaimed. "What are you doing here?!"
The princess of the night fixed Seesaw with a furious glare. "Threatening our subjects, are thee? Thou art unwise to do evil under the watch of the moon!"
Seesaw rolled his eyes. "Lovely. Bumping off meddlesome ponies was so much easier before you came back, y'know."
"Insolent fool!" roared Luna, and a swirling storm of light began to build around her. Clattering hooves caught everyone's attention—just in time for six of the Night Guards to appear from around the corner in the alley, and for more to appear on the rooftops, all armed and all with their eyes fixed on Seesaw in the center of the alley. "You dare disrespect the crown?!"
Seesaw looked back at Luna with an bored expression. "And things were going so well."
Luna advanced with magic crackling around her horn. "You will stand down, citizen, or I shall put you down."
Twilight blinked in surprise as a second wind blew through the alley—and this one was not coming from the princess's powerful magic. She looked back up, past a surprised Luna, where Seesaw stood in the middle of a growing cyclone of fire, an eager grin on his face.
"Well, as long as we're taking off masks and revealing our true forms or whatever, I suppose I ought to throw my hat in the ring too."
And then he vanished behind a towering column of flames. Luna, the guards, and Twilight backed away from the blinding heat—and then the flames dissipated and there before them stood a tall black stallion, with wings and a horn, and a mane and tail made of undulating fire. He flapped his wings imperiously.
"Nightmare Inferno, pleased to make your acquaintance!"
Luna dug in her hooves. "So you are the Nightmare that has prowled the ossuary!"
"Ten points to the royal Canterlot voice there for deductive prowess!" crowed Nightmare Inferno. "Celestia never figured that one out! Guess you got all the brains in the family, eh?"
"How dare you!" Luna cried, and rushed forward—and the two ponies met in a clash of horns, Inferno still grinning wildly. "I will end your reign of terror right here!"
"Will you, now!" Inferno cackled—and then with a blast of magic, he hit Luna square in the forehead and sent her staggering back. His six fallen minions lifted into the air and drifted closer to him, as another ring of fire leapt up around his feet. "I'd love to stay and chat, Your Highness, but I've got quite a lot of work to do and I'd really hate for some meddlesome little foal to go screwing it up!" He took a mocking bow. "Good night!"
And then the flames whirled up around him, the heat sent everyone scurrying back, and then the fire winked out of existence—and Inferno and his minions were gone.
Luna blew out an angry breath. "Teleportation," she snarled. "We never should have let that spell become public." She turned back around towards Twilight. "Are you hurt, Twilight Sparkle?"
"N-No, I'm fine," she said, "but, was that—"
"The other Nightmare, yes," Luna said, and glanced back at her guards. "Troops! Spread out and search the city! You know what to look for!" The guards promptly rushed off into the city, and Luna heaved a sigh. "For all the good that will do..."
Twilight looked back at the last flickering remnants of the flames behind which Inferno had disappeared. "I bet he's got something to do with how Trixie turned into a Nightmare." Luna perked up at the sound of that. "He kept telling me he had this past relationship with her. If he was the other Nightmare all along, then he must have helped turn her into this!" She stamped a hoof on the pavement in determination. "I have to get back to Ponyville and ask her—" She paused, looking back up at the sky. "Err, well, I would have, but all the trains probably stopped running by now..."
Luna swept a wing over Twilight. "Worse than that, I fear, Twilight Sparkle. I will take you back to Ponyville. I wish to check on this second Nightmare myself."
Twilight cringed. "I hope everything was okay while I was gone."
"We will find out soon enough."
Princess Luna's horn flashed to life and enveloped them both in a blinding white light, and in an instant, the dark alleyway in Canterlot disappeared and instead the open courtyard in front of the town hall came into view behind the shimmering bands of magic.
But as the light died down, Twilight frowned. It wasn't so late at night that there wouldn't still be ponies out and about, and yet the square was empty and the lights in the houses were all dark. She looked around with mounting concern. "Something is off..."
And then she and Luna looked back at the sound of a shout, and jumped apart—just in time for Rainbow Dash to come skidding to a halt on the pavement between them. She blinked and stared up in a daze at Twilight and Luna for a moment, and then shook her head.
"Twilight? P-Princess Luna?! What—how did you get—"
"Boy howdy, ah'm glad to see you!" Applejack's voice added, and Applejack herself came galloping out from behind a house—followed by Fluttershy, Rarity, and Spike. "We got somethin' of a problem here."
"A problem?" Luna asked, stepping forward. "Explain—"
Before she could finish, another high-pitched noise tore through the air—and then Pinkie Pie landed with a crash on the pavement in front of them all, smoldering streamers raining down with her.
"Okay," she laughed, "so Nightmare Snootypants really didn't like the party cannon!"
"Nightmare what?!" Twilight exclaimed. "Did she...?"
The sound of laughter and hooves on stones silenced her, and all eyes turned down the street, at the twisting smoky mane, the glowing green eyes, and the shadowy approach of Nightmare Storm.
"Yeah," Applejack said, "she, uh, came back."
Twilight gulped as Nightmare Storm's laughter filled the air.