Twilight Sparkle slowly climbed the winding staircase, casting frequent nervous glances behind her to check whether she was being followed.
Canterlot was always busy no matter what time of day it was, but right now the only activity within the castle would be the royal guards on their nightly duties. It was 2am and the young unicorn had had one hell of a day, but this was the only moment when she had felt something approaching fear.
Actually, fear wasn't the correct word anxiety was a better term. If she failed in her mission here, then she was certain that Princess Celestia would be disappointed with her. The alicorn had been her tutor and mentor for most of her life and the one thing she strived for was to make her proud.
But her chances of success were about to take a sudden turn for the worse.
There was a sudden, almighty crash and she spun round to see one of the shields that had been hanging on the wall bouncing down the stairs. She winced at the sound of every metallic clang as it hit each of the stone steps before reaching the bottom, rolling round before toppling onto its back.
Once the cacophony had ended, Twilight opened her eyes and raised her head, ears twitching to hear if anyone had been woken up. After a few tense seconds, she concluded that by some miracle nopony had.
She frowned at her three companions, wordlessly demanding the culprit to confess.
"T'weren't me this time," said Applejack, leaning drunkenly against Fluttershy, "Ah'm being a good girl."
Twilight glared up at Rainbow Dash, who was haphazardly flapping her wings in the stairwell in a desperate attempt to keep herself balanced.
"I don't see why they have to hang all this gear on the walls anyway," said Dash, steadfastly trying to absolve herself of responsibility, "Canterlot hasn't been attacked in what, like, 500 years? And if it did get attacked, why would you have the shields on the walls? Nopony's going to whoops!"
The blue pegasus lurched to the left and her wing collided with the wall, knocking her out of the air and onto the stairs.
"Dash!" Twilight hissed, trying to keep her voice down, "Keep it quiet! Everypony's gone to bed and if you keep on like this you're going to wake them all up. I don't want to have to explain to the princess that my friends can't handle their drink. Have you got that?"
"Aw, come on Twi, lighten up," said Applejack, "We're flavour of tha month right now. Ah reckon we can get away with one nighta debauch deba fun."
The orange earth pony had a point. Earlier that day, the Elements of Harmony had vanquished the draconequus known as Discord. It was difficult to know exactly when they had done so because he had distorted the solar and lunar cycles to the point where Princess Celestia had had to reset the clocks, as it were, but their victory had been complete and the natural order had been restored.
Discord, the god of chaos able to alter reality as he saw fit, for no other purpose than his own amusement. He had transformed Twilight and her companions into the polar opposites of their normal selves and the effect had almost broken their friendship. They overcame it, however, and used their combined power to turn their foe to stone. He now resided on a pedestal in Celestia's garden, his mind-altering powers safely under wraps.
But Twilight had learned, much to her chagrin, that copious amounts of alcohol were also capable of causing plenty of chaos.
"Dash, I'd prefer if you walked from now on," she said, turning back to make her way up the spiral staircase to the bedrooms that had been reserved for them. Several residents from her home town of Ponyville had been invited to the celebration that was staged to mark Discord's defeat.
"I'd rather fly," came the petulant reply, "All that whisky's gone to ma legs and I can't seem to get one hoof in front of the other."
"For pity's sake," sighed Twilight, "Fluttershy, could you take her under your wing? We've got to get to bed."
"Oh, please no," whimpered the yellow pegasus. She was having enough trouble supporting Applejack's weight the earth pony was leaning heavily against her and she had to push back with all her strength to stop herself from being knocked over.
Dash took to the air and the foursome continued their fraught journey to the third floor of Canterlot Castle's guest quarters.
"How did you get this way anyway? You two can normally hold your drink," said Twilight, still on alert for any sign that they were disturbing other ponies.
"Ah was doin' just fine. Had me a few pintsa the royal cider. Ya know they put honey in it? Ah should try that at Sweet Apple Acres one day, ah'm sure we'd sell it by the bucketload," said Applejack, "So ah'm just hanging out in the cantina, then Dash here invites me to take part in a drinking contest."
"Applejack took a shot first!" Dash interjected.
"So we starts out on the whisky," she continued, ignoring the interruption, "Afore ya know it, we've got one bottle down and now we've gathered a crowd."
"Oh no," moaned Twilight, "Please tell me you didn't disgrace yourselves. We've already got a bad reputation after that mess at the Grand Galloping Gala."
"Disgrace, nothin'!" she replied proudly, standing up tall and putting more of a strain on the beleaguered Fluttershy, "They were chanting our names and everythin'! Egging us on, choosing sides ah think ah even saw a few of the more hoity-toity ponies placin' bets. A'course, ah was the winner."
Dash managed to keep herself upright long enough to kick out with a front hoof and knock Applejack's hat over her eyes.
"You were not!" she cried, "We took an equal number of shots, then we ran outta whisky!"
The orange pony looked up at her, her hat still covering her face: "That's true and all so that's why ah went round finishing off the dregs of t'other ponies' drinks. Ah drank more, so ah won. Suck it."
Twilight was pressing her hoof tightly against her head: "Classy, Applejack. Real classy. We're never gonna get invited back here again."
Her friend didn't reply. She was struggling to get her headgear straight again but was having trouble balancing on three legs. Fluttershy's body quivered as she tried to take the drunken pony's full weight, but it soon became too much for her and the pair of them collapsed in a heap on the stairs.
Twilight whimpered. She was doomed doomed! There was no way she'd be able to get her friends to bed at this rate. The other ponies in the guest quarters would be woken up, Princess Celestia would be summoned and the four of them would be banished from Canterlot forever. If only there was some way she could get them up the stairs quicker
That was it! She could use her magic! The purple unicorn was one of the most gifted magic users in Equestria and her abilities had grown greatly under the princess's tutelage.
All unicorns were capable of basic telekinesis and some were able to cast other spells. Twilight, however, seemed able to soak up new powers like a sponge with enough studying and training, there appeared to be little that she wouldn't eventually be proficient at.
She thought quickly a teleportation spell would be quicker but she didn't know the layout of the building well enough to be certain about where they'd end up. There was the awful possibility that they could materialise in somepony's bedroom.
No, telekinesis it would have to be. Her power was such that she was able to lift objects several times her weight. Most unicorns were limited to what they were physically able to lift without using magic.
Her horn glowed and her two drunken friends became surrounded by purple vapour, then began to levitate.
"Hey! What are you doing?" cried Rainbow Dash.
Twilight didn't answer. Instead, she indicated to Fluttershy to follow her then marched upstairs, easily carrying her companions to their destination. She placed them down gently on the carpet and started checking the doors, trying to find their bedrooms.
Fluttershy went over to Applejack, noticing that she was pressing herself down flat against the floor, gripping it tightly with her hooves as if she was frightened she would float away again.
"Are you okay?" she asked, kneeling down next to her.
"Ah ah'm fine. Really," she said, trying to convince herself more than anypony else, "Least ah will be once Twilight stops making the room spin."
She gave a worryingly throaty cough, then smacked her lips and groaned pitifully. Her short flight had not done her any good.
Not that Rainbow Dash paid any attention to this. With a big smile plastered over her face, she trotted over to her suffering friend and swiped her hat.
"Hey! Give that back!" shouted Applejack, making Twilight wince. She thought she could hear some ponies stirring in the bedrooms nearby.
"You'll have to catch me first!" laughed Dash, putting the hat on and flying up and away at speed completely forgetting she was inside.
Her head collided hard against the ceiling, causing her to drop like a stone. Fluttershy flew over to her fallen friend, who was now feeling quite sore and sorry for herself.
Applejack also lumbered over, but it wasn't Dash she was concerned about. She picked up her headgear and looked at it mournfully it had been flattened by the impact.
"Twilight, look wut she did to mah hat," she said with a sorrowful pout, thrusting the evidence in her friend's face.
The unicorn sighed in frustration: "Will you guys please start acting your age? You've got to get to bed."
"But it's mah hat," she said, now seemingly on the verge of tears.
Twilight's horn flashed and the hat's crown popped back into shape. Applejack beamed and placed it back in its rightful spot, pushing it down over her ears so nopony could pinch it again so easily.
"I'm fine, by the way. Only a concussion," said Dash, rubbing her head.
"Good. Everypony's fine," said Twilight hastily, desperate for the night to end, "This room here's where you and Pinkie are staying."
She used her magic to pull the bedroom door open wide, then her heart sank as she saw inside. There was no sign of Pinkie Pie in fact, neither of the two beds had been disturbed.
"Oh no," she said, her pulse quickening at the thought of Ponyville's resident party animal still being loose in the castle, "Where is she?"
Dash chuckled: "You missed a lot, didn't you? Pinkie's been knocking back enough toffee vodkas to sink an airship. There's no telling where she is or who she's with. Where have you been all night?"
Twilight breathed heavily, trying to control her heart rate. Just because Pinkie wasn't in her bed didn't mean she wasn't asleep somewhere. Besides, if she was still awake then she would be audible for miles around, especially with a large amount of alcohol inside her.
Dash was still waiting for an answer to her previous question, so Twilight relented: "I spent the night with Princess Celestia. We had a lot to talk about, especially given everything that's happened today. She went off to bed early though a little strange for her, but I guess it's been stressful with Discord escaping and everything so then I had a long chat with Luna. She's been learning how to speak in a modern dialect and she's been making good progress
"Luna? Shouldn't that be Princess Luna? That's awfully informal of ya, Twi," said Applejack.
That comment gave Twilight pause for thought. It was true she felt much more relaxed around Luna than she did around her big sister. It felt like they had more in common, probably because they were both socially awkward.
Fluttershy spoke up: "I think it's time for everypony to get some sleep now, don't you? Perhaps the two of you should share this room. I don't think Pinkie'll mind."
As soon as she finished speaking, one of the doors at the end of the corridor burst open and an irate pony strolled out: "Will you loudmouths keep it down? Ponies are trying to sleep!"
Twilight grimaced: "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry! My friends had a little too much to drink and we're just
"Ah already told you, ah'm fine," said Applejack stubbornly, "The Apple family are renowned fuh being ableta hold their drink."
"Applejack, you can barely walk!" replied Twilight, instantly realising she'd regret what she'd just said.
Her friend snorted with derision, then decided to prove just how sober she was by walking down the corridor. She managed to keep going in a straight line for a few steps, but then staggered to the right. In a vain attempt to keep herself balanced, she overcompensated by leaning too far left.
She stumbled sideways and hit against one of the doors with her full weight, causing it to burst open. Slightly dazed, she looked up and realised she had caught a couple in the middle of a rather intimate moment.
"Ah'm sorry! T'was an accident!" she said, lowering her vision while hastily pulling the door closed, "Jus' carry on as you were. Ah didn't see nothin'."
Fluttershy, however, had seen everything. She was now sitting back on her haunches, eyes wide in shock, her face flushed as pink as her mane.
The commotion had roused many of the other ponies who had been trying to sleep and they were all coming out into the corridor to remonstrate with the culprits.
Twilight cringed, too mortified to even offer an apology. Her two drunken friends were now looking ashamed of themselves, but too late: the damage had been done.
We're in so much trouble, she thought, fighting the urge to roll into the foetal position and cast an invisibility spell. Things can't get any worse than this.
Of course, as soon as anypony tempts fate it feels the need to make good on the threat.
One of Celestia's guards had been alerted by the noise. He marched into the corridor, the expression on his face making it clear that he wasn't going to stand for any nonsense.
"What's happening here?" he demanded, taking in the scene at a glance and quickly noting the four most likely perpetrators.
Only Rainbow Dash was in any fit state to speak at that moment: "Nothing's happening! We were, ah, we were just going to bed and made a bit of noise, that's all. Sorry."
The guard flicked his head in response, indicating to the four friends to go to their rooms. Dash followed his order, flying swiftly through the open door. There was an almighty crash immediately afterwards, as she failed to stop in time.
Fluttershy, having recovered from her unexpected sex show, took Applejack under her wing and guided her to bed.
The earth pony began to look a little peaky again as she rested her head on her pillow, while Fluttershy pulled the blankets over her and tucked her in. There was no surprise in that, given the amount of cider and whisky she had drunk that night. It felt like the room was spinning, though not in full circles it would make a half rotation before suddenly skipping and returning to its original point.
Fluttershy took one look at her and decided it would be prudent to leave the room's waste bin near her bed, just in case of any mid-night upsets.
She went to tuck in Rainbow Dash but the pegasus already seemed to be asleep. Flying wasn't the only thing she was fastest at.
Fluttershy pulled the door closed slowly, keeping an eye on Applejack at all times. She half-expected to hear a bout of thunderous vomiting at any moment, but nothing materialised.
The ponies whose sleep they had disturbed were still standing out in the corridor, shooting withering looks at the two remaining friends.
Fluttershy shot a nervous grin: "Um, does everypony here want me to tuck them in too?"
The gathered crowd weren't keen to take her up on her offer instead, they returned to their rooms, grumbling to themselves. The guard, satisfied that the disturbance was over, left the corridor and returned to his duties.
Twilight glomped her friend with a hug, before whispering: "Thank you, thank you, thank you. I don't think I would have been able to handle them without you."
"Oh, it's no bother. I just hope I wasn't being too loud myself," she hesitated as a thought struck her, "Would it be alright if I slept in your room? I'm supposed to be in with Rarity but I wouldn't want to disturb her beauty sleep."
Twilight agreed readily it was the least she could do. She truly was thankful that her friend had been there to help tonight. Fluttershy wasn't the bravest pony but she could be depended on to lend a hand in times of trouble as long as there wasn't too much peril involved.
She allowed the yellow pegasus to go on in ahead of her, then suddenly realised there was still another pony in the corridor with her.
The mint-green unicorn had been standing in the doorway to her room, patiently waiting to speak to her. Now she trotted forward, a slight sadness apparent in her golden eyes.
"Heartstrings sorry we woke you up," said Twilight, "The girls hit the drinks pretty hard."
"It's alright. I'd wanted to speak to you tonight anyway, but this is the first time I've seen you," she said, not fully looking her in the eye, "I just wanted to say goodbye. I won't be coming back to Ponyville tomorrow."
Twilight's eyes widened in surprise Heartstrings hadn't given any indication until now that she was leaving.
They had known of each other since their late teens. Heartstrings had come to live near the castle grounds to be taught music by the royal orchestra's academy, much as Twilight had relocated to be close to her own tutor, the princess.
They had connected after discovering that they had both been bullied at magic kindergarten Twilight for her nerdiness, Heartstrings for being a slow learner. Though Twilight was too heavily engrossed in her studies to allow herself any true friends, Heartstrings had been among a group of mares that she occasionally hung out with.
The mint-green unicorn had left Canterlot a few years ago after failing to reach the grade needed to join the orchestra. The pair met up again when she moved to Ponyville, shortly after the Elements of Harmony defeated Nightmare Moon. It was only then that they really got to know each other properly.
Heartstrings had always appeared to be the sort of unicorn who was happy with her own company, though she didn't shy away from getting involved in public events. She could often be heard practicing on her lyre, though she never performed.
"I'm sorry to hear that," said Twilight, "Where are you going to go? What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to stick around here for awhile, see my parents. After that, I'm going to go travelling, see a bit more of the world, you know," she said, "I just felt I should say something, seeing as we've known each other for so long."
Twilight smiled: "I'm just sorry we didn't get to know each other sooner. It's my fault I used to be quite the unsociable pony. Why didn't you let everypony else know? We could have held a farewell party."
She shook her head: "I don't like long goodbyes. If there'd been a party I'd probably have got overemotional and spent the whole night crying, and that wouldn't have been fun for anypony."
"Probably for the best, then," giggled Twilight, "Aw, I'm going to miss seeing your face around Ponyville. Be sure to drop in on us once in a while, okay?"
"I'll try. Goodbye, Twilight," Heartstrings gave her a brief hug then trotted back to her room, closing the door behind her.
The purple unicorn smiled. She was glad to have had the chance to say farewell, even if they hadn't been the closest of friends.
What she didn't know was that Heartstrings had an ulterior motive in following her to Ponyville in the first place.
She went into her own bedroom and shut the door gently behind her. Fluttershy had already drifted off to sleep and was snoring delicately.
Twilight didn't blame her. It had been a long, hectic day. The fight against Discord had already taken a lot out of everypony and to have a party on top of that well, it was no wonder she suddenly felt so exhausted.
As she prepared for bed, her thoughts drifted to the mischievous draconequus. He had been a different brand of villain to Nightmare Moon. She had wanted to drench Equestria in endless night, which would eventually have led to the planet's life withering and fading. Discord, meanwhile, simply wanted to have fun at the expense of everypony.
But what a fate to suffer being turned to stone for all eternity. Granted, she couldn't see any other way they could have stopped him, but she had been turned to stone herself once and knew how painful it was.
Her memories had been fuzzy shortly after Fluttershy had saved her from the cockatrice's enchantment but they soon came back. She infrequently had nightmares about it the sensation of her entire body crystallising, hardening, being placed in suspended animation until somepony came to free her.
In the last such nightmare she had, just a month ago, nopony ever did.
Discord wouldn't feel anything, she was sure of it. From her own experience, she knew that once you had been turned to stone it was like being asleep.
No, that wasn't quite right. In the hours she had spent frozen, she hadn't had any dreams or unconscious thoughts, nothing. It was more like being dead.
She shuddered. She needed to go to sleep, not overthink things and keep herself up all night.
But as she settled down to sleep, a buried memory flashed back into her head. Something that Discord had said to Celestia after he had first revealed himself to them.
"It's quite lonely being encased in stone but you wouldn't know that, would you? Because I don't turn ponies into stone!"
Twilight's eyes widened at the horror implied in those words. No. There was no chance. The kindhearted, caring alicorn who acted as her mentor would never put anypony through such torment.
But then again, her garden was filled with statues. Statues of ponies. Life-sized statues of ponies.
What if Discord hadn't just been a special case? What if that truly was the fate that awaited anypony who wronged Celestia?
Twilight grimaced. No. No, this was another cruel trick by Discord, finding a way to get into her head even after he had been defeated. There was no reason to believe the trickster God had been telling the truth. Celestia hadn't even reacted when he said it, not a flinch, not a flicker of recognition.
But there was another terrible possibility inherent in what he'd said he was lonely. Did that mean he had been conscious the entire time he'd been imprisoned?
Stop this, she ordered herself. You're being a silly pony. The Celestia that Discord had described was nothing like the alicorn she knew. She rested her head on her pillow and forced such thoughts to back of her mind, back to the deepest, darkest recesses of her imagination.
Which is where they stayed.