The swirling miasma barrier surrounded the entire mountaintop, sealing us in and obscuring the view from below. I panted heavily, exerting every bit of my will over it to keep the barrier in place to keep us aloft, but it was obviously starting to wear on me. At this rate I would succumb to it and the encroaching miasma flow would end up overcoming me and spilling out over the ground below.
It was too much, though. I just... couldn't handle this on my own. With a defeated gasp, I collapsed to my knees and the miasma barrier dissipated around us, causing the mountain to fall. I didn't even know where we were at this point, and for all I knew I was dropping this toxic mountain right on top of the capital city. I'd tried my best, but my best hadn't been good enough. I was so drained that I never even felt the mountain impact as I phased out of consciousness.
I don't know how long I was out, but I was jolted awake some time later by a shout from below. "Ready, girls?" followed by a chorus of "Ready!" I couldn't even process that before a sudden stream of rainbow-colored light burst through the haze and swirled over the mountain in a giant vortex. I shakily pushed myself up on my arms and watched as the rainbow coursed over everything, purifying everything it touched and driving all the miasma in the air and on the ground away in a soothing flash of light. As it washed over me, I felt my strength restored and my own impurities cleansed, and found myself heaving a satisfied sigh of relief.
With the miasma gone, I was practically blinded by the sunshine, blue sky, and puffy clouds that now surrounded us. The barren moutaintop sprang forth with green grass and colorful flowers, and the river now ran a pure glistening blue as it poured softly over the edge of the cliff.
Did... did everything just get magically fixed in an instant? Even though I spent the last two chapters agonizing about what an absurdly time-consuming task it was going to be to clean everything up to the point where I felt okay leaving it? I'd sent Akagane away specifically because of that! If it was actually this easy, I felt a bit... cheated. But sour grapes over NOT having to go through all that was kind of self-defeating.
In the meantime, I should probably go find whoever it was that purified this place to make sure everything was still okay. I floated down over the edge of the mountain and was greeted with a vibrant expanse of landscape full of healthy grass and trees and what looked like a village in the distance. I felt guilty dropping a cursed mountain on top of such a lovely place and hoped that I hadn't harmed any of the residents.
When I landed I found myself in front of a herd of brightly-colored small horses. It looked liked I must have landed in a pasture, then, which all things considered wasn't the worst I could have done. I'd have to find the owner of these horses and apologize to them.
The purple horse at the front of the herd stepped forward and cautiously stated, "I am Princess Twilight Sparkle. What brings you to Equestria?"
They talked? Then again, now that I looked closer, some of the horses in this herd bore horns, wings, or in the case of the purple one that just spoke, both. They must be youkai horses, then, and I'd perhaps stumbled upon a youkai horse village. I'd never heard of such a thing, but then again, I also had no idea where I was.
Bowing my head, I replied, "I apologize for any damage this mountain has caused. It was full of cursed energy and I needed to move it far away from my family so that it wouldn't harm anyone, but I wasn't able to keep it aloft. I had already been prepared to spend many years rehabilitating the mountain and those touched by it, so I am fully prepared to clean up after this damage as well."
There was a sudden shriek of "Wheeeee!" from above me, and a small pink horse came sliding down the waterfall giggling. She popped back up and babbled, "Actually, now that there's no evil cursed energy anymore it's just a regular old creepy mountain with all sorts of neat stuff on it and would probably make a totally awesome theme park and there's still a bunch of other ponies up there like these two who I just found," she said, pulling two other horses out of nowhere.
Huh. Had some of these youkai horses also been prisoners on the mountain? With everything happening I hadn't yet gotten the chance to interact with the kidnapped women. I'd felt bad about having to abruptly leave before releasing the them, but if it turned out some of them were from this village, then just as well.
"What... just happened?" wondered the black horse who oddly sounded like Wakage.
"Agh, light... sun... fresh air... gaaahhh..." croaked the other, pale brown horse with glasses and a greying mane who sounded an awful lot like Kijin.
I squinted at them and wondered, "Did you... turn into horses?"
"Speak for yourself," said the Wakage-horse. "Haven't you taken a look at yourself yet?"
I supposed I was so accustomed to walking on all fours that it hadn't immediately dawned on me that I'd been doing so all this time. I looked down and saw that while I was still white like my dog form, my feet ended in rounded hooves rather than paws. Looking over my back, I saw the fur on my back had morphed into fluffy wings and my two tails were now rather horse-like.
"I... I'm a horse!" I realized quite belatedly.
"Not only that, but you're an alicorn," observed the purple horse who had introduced herself earlier as Twilight Sparkle. "I wasn't aware any others existed, especially ones that weren't a princess. Where exactly did you and your mountain come from?"
"Uhh..." I responded eloquently, still trying to process everything that had just been revealed. "From a forest... near a temple...?" My grasp of geography ended there. If the village or region had any kind of name, I was unaware of it, and since I had no idea where I was, I didn't even know how to give a relative location.
"Well, if y'all came from a forest, I reckon it's prolly the Everfree Forest. All sorts of crazy stuff comes outta there," said the orange horse wearing some kind of large hat. "... Not that I'm callin' y'all 'crazy', though. Just that a flyin' evil mountain comin' outta there ain't that far-fetched."
Twilight Sparkle squirmed giddily. "If that's the case, then we have so much to learn! A lost tribe of ponies hidden away in the Everfree Forest, led by a long-lost alicorn prince... Eee, you have to tell me all about it!" The horn on her head glowed pink and a scroll of paper and writing quill floated in front of her. "So, what are you all called?"
"Er, I don't really have a proper name..." I admitted. "My dad called me 'Phantom Beast', but that's not really a--" I stopped and tried to say that again. "Phantom... Beast..." Why... was that not coming out as "bake-inu"?
"My name is Ring Shadow," said Wakage.
"And I am Demon Stallion," said Kijin.
The horses before us stood there in dumbfounded silence. Finally the blue horse with the rainbow mane shouted, "Those names are AWESOME!"
Twilight shook her head out of her daze and wrote with her magically floating quill, "Prince Phantom Beast of the Everfree Forest and his subjects Ring Shadow and Demon Stallion..."
"I'm not a 'subject' of his, I'm just along for the ride," Wakage, er, "Ring Shadow" corrected. "Though now that things have settled down, I'm on the market for a new forest to watch over, and it looks like you've got some fine, healthy trees in this place."
"Oh, you like looking after forest creatures, too?" piped up the yellow horse with the pink mane, although just in an excited whisper. "I'd be happy to show you where there are animals who could use some extra love and care."
Ring Shadow cocked her head from side to side. "Yeah, I'm not so much talking about coddling them as I am about cracking some heads if anyone tries to take advantage of them because they can't fight back themselves."
"Oh. Um, well, I don't know so much about 'cracking heads', but sometimes there are Parasprite infestations that devour the trees and need to be taken care of. How well do you play the tuba?"
Ring Shadow made a little groan, but Demon Stallion suddenly pushed in front of her, his eyes a-glitter. "I can't help but notice just how many horses with horns you have among you. Especially this particularly stunning individual with the violet mane. Is this... is this a village of hybrids?"
The white horse with the horn whom he was addressing recoiled back slightly at his attention, but still attempted a polite, "Oh my... Your compliment is much appreciated, good sir, but I myself can't help but notice that you have come to us in rather... drab attire. Perhaps as a welcoming gift, I could provide you all with new outfits. Ooh, I've never gotten to design an outfit for a prince before, much less an alicorn prince! Ooh, this is going to be so exciting!"
"A gift... for me...?" wondered Demon Stallion, his eyes watering. "I... I've never gotten a gift before! This is truly a dream come true! Thank you, thank you, kind demon pony!"
The white horse made a squeak of offense, then shrugged it off with, "Well, I suppose perhaps that's a compliment in the Everfree Forest, so you are quite welcome."
Ring Shadow was reluctantly herded off with the yellow horse while Demon Stallion went quite willingly with the white horse in an almost creepy stalkerish fashion. Twilight Sparkle, however, was just getting started with me, as she prodded, "So, you said you brought this mountain here in order to protect your friends. So you still have other friends back in the forest?"
"Ah, yeah..." I replied absently. "Well, not in the forest, though. I... sent him home."
Twilight looked between the remaining horses with her and announced, "Girls, it looks like we have a friendship problem on our hooves."
"A what?" I wondered dumbfounded.
"A friendship problem," she repeated. "My official title is 'The Princess of Friendship', and it is my duty and pleasure to help ponies who are having problems. So please tell us aaalll about it and we'll do whatever we can to help!"
My mouth moved but nothing came out. Most of my life everyone I met had been extremely reluctant to help me, and even if they did it was on a quid-pro-quo basis. Even Akagane had initially been indifferent to my needs for quite a while after we first met. Behavior that he continued to beat himself up over to this day, true, but it didn't change the fact that even he took a long time to become anything resembling my "friend". And now these horses were willing to accept me right off the bat with open arms... er... hooves.
"I..." I began, my voice wavering and my eyes watering. "I miss my dad..."
Twilight looked a little stunned, then looked to the others and admitted, "This... might be a bit heavier than I originally thought. Let me talk to him someplace more private and I'll let you know if there's anything you can do to help after that. Is that okay with you, Prince Phantom Beast?" I made a small sound of consent, and in a flash of pink light I found that I was no longer standing outside at the base of the mountain, but was on a couch inside a building that looked to be constructed of violet crystal.
Twilight sat next to me and soothingly prompted, "Now... tell me about what happened between you and your father..."
And so I told her. About my mother's abduction, about meeting Akagane and helping him with his own family problems, and how he in turn accompanied me to retrieve my mother and defeat Souzou Tennou. Although, I found myself unable to articulate the more graphic imagery and for some reason everyone was a pony in my retelling, but I think I still got the point across.
This was illustrated by Twilight helpfully summarizing, "So an evil pony kidnapped your mother to use her alicorn power for his own nefarious ends, but she ended up gifting her power to you so that you could defeat him. But because your father was an earth pony with great strength but no magical powers, it wasn't a battle he could fight so you had to send him away for his own safety. Did I get that right?"
"Yeah, pretty much..." I confirmed.
She rubbed her hoof under her chin in thought. "Hmmm.... normally my response would be that times of great difficulty are when you need your friends the most and shouldn't be pushing them away..." I began to sag, but she continued, "But in this case, it may have been the right choice. My dear friend Spike is very important to me and we've been together since he hatched, however I usually leave him behind on missions specifically because I know they're beyond his abilities."
"That's the thing, though... I sent him away because he'd just become a liability and was in over his head... but now that you all fixed everything like it was nothing, I feel like I had been unnecessarily dire with him. If I go back to him one day later after making this big a deal of never seeing him again, what would he think of me?"
Twilight placed her hoof on my arm. "Well, if he's your friend, I think he'd be very happy to see you."
I allowed myself a little smirk and a sniff. "Heh... you're probably right. It would be awkward going back, but I'll take a moment of awkwardness over never seeing him again."
Twilight nodded. "Absolutely. And if you were expecting to be gone forever, it's not like you have to go back right away. You need time to organize your thoughts, and in the meantime I'm sure Princess Celestia would be eager to meet you."
"Mm... and I need to confirm that everything really is fixed," I stalled. "No more miasma, that all the other ponies on the mountain are well-adjusted and content with their situations..."
"Of course," said Twilight. "But take a bit of advice from personal experience: Accept when you're done. If you insist on everything being perfect, it really will take forever and you'll never be able to move on to anything else. Set yourself some realistic end conditions, and when those are met, let it go."
"Heh..." I stood up and wiped off my face. "You sound like you've been through this sort of thing before."
She blushed a little and looked away with slight embarrassment. "Weelll... not exactly what you've been through, but being entrusted with the powers of all the other Princesses in order to battle a monster that was stealing other ponies' power for himself...? Yeah, there's a bit of overlap..."
We walked out the front of the castle, only to be greeted by a shower of streamers and confetti. I leapt back in shock as the pink horse from before sprang up and shouted, "Surpriiiiise!"
Twilight was similarly perplexed, which encouraged me that I wasn't missing something, and wondered, "Pinkie, what's all this about?"
"It's Prince Phantom Beast's welcoming party, silly!" she replied, zipping over to something that looked like a smaller, rounded version of Demon Stallion's metal tube, except instead of an energy blast, it shot out more confetti. "He was looking super upset, so what better way to cheer him up than with a party showing him how many new friends he has?! Applejack brought the food..."
"Heh, hope Everfree folks like apples. I recokoned everyone likes apples."
"Rainbow Dash brought games..."
"Let's see if you can beat my high score in Dressage Dressage Revolution!"
"Rarity brought the party outfits..."
"I have the most fabulous garment selected for you, most befitting of a Prince, I believe."
Demon Stallion was with her and pranced around shouting, "Look, look, Young Master, I have clothes! Real clothes!"
"And Fluttershy brought the party animals!"
"Just as long as Angel gets to bed before sundown, otherwise he gets cranky."
I looked at the one called Fluttershy and wondered, "I thought Ring Shadow went with you."
"Oh, she did, but when Pinkie Pie told us there would be a party she suddenly vanished. Maybe she doesn't like crowds? I certainly wouldn't blame her..."
Suddenly the little white bunny that was with her leapt up and grabbed some of the apple pies that Applejack had brought, then grabbed a bunch of balloons and floated up in the air, dropping the pies on us like pie bombs. Fluttershy gasped indignantly and softly shouted, "Angel! This is bad-mannered, even for you!"
I sighed. "Actually, that's probably Ring Shadow. Ring Shadow, these ponies are being so nice to us, why are you acting like this?"
Suddenly a second white rabbit appeared before me holding another pie and said in a deadpan voice, "Because it's a party, doofus. Lighten up." It then threw the pie in my face.
I wiped the pie from my face and looked up to see the two rabbits high-five each other, then the one that pied me transform back into Ring Shadow. "When we heard about the party, Angel and I came up with a way to crash it. It's been ages since I've been able to play a trick on anyone."
Twilight blinked. "Ring Shadow... is a Changeling?"
"Something like that..." she replied offhandedly. "But I heard someone declare a challenge in a game, and I accept! I don't even know what it is, but I'll beat you."
Rainbow Dash smirked. "Oh yeah? We'll see about that. But if you're a Changeling, no cheating by growing extra hooves."
"Oh, perish the thought," Ring Shadow quipped innocently.
I watched as Ring Shadow and Rainbow Dash began spastically jumping on a mat of some sort, while Demon Stallion continued to admire his new attire while making fond eyes at Rarity and any other pony with a horn. A red pony and a tan pony pranced around together in the background, the red one missing a hind leg, the tan one missing a foreleg, but neither seeming to mind.
"Brother! I'm a real unicorn now! A real pony! This is the best birthday EVER!"
"Yes, my brother, it would be quite foolish to maintain my previous displeasure in light of these events."
I let out a sigh and allowed myself a small smile. Maybe they were right. All of them. Twilight said I needed to accept things were done and just let it go, no matter how much I had emotionally invested in it being otherwise. There was no reason to stay sad just because I believed I was obligated to be so.
"Thanks..." I finally said to Twilight. "It's good to know that even if my dad isn't around, I still have other friends."
"Exactly!" she said with a smile. "And now you can go back to him whenever you want."
I rubbed my hoof against my leg. "About that... I'm not really sure how. I still don't even know where I am in relation to his village... You said there was a forest, but how do I know it's the right place?"
"Hmmm... Well, I do have a magical map in my castle. After the party, maybe we can consult it to see if it can show you where you need to go." She put a hoof on my back. "But for right now, just relax and enjoy yourself. You've had a rough time."
"Yeah... It's been so long, I've almost forgotten how to have fun anymore..." I admitted. With a relieved sigh, I made my way into the crowd to participate in the food and games, and just for a while, forget about everything and enjoy the company of friends.