"The Owls Are Not What They Seem"
written 2011 by Dave Van Domelen, using properties created by Hasbro
It was the night of the Grand Galloping Gala, and several ponies from Ponyville had high hopes for the evening. But the fact that the night turned out rather differently from their expectations is not what this story is about.
Rather, in the depths of the Everfree Forest, a conclave of owls and a scattering of other avians met to discuss matters of grave import. They were confident that any who might have recognized the meeting for what it was were safely out of the way in Canterlot. Well, all but one, but that individual wasn't a concern. Had any of those remaining in Ponyville been daring enough to enter the forest that night, they wouldn't have known that the seemingly random hoots and birdcalls were anything but the noises of dumb animals.
"Well, 'Owlowiscious,' we have received your official report," the lead owl hooted, faintly amused by the name the ponies had given his apprentice. "But I would like your personal evaluation of those bare facts. You spent time among the ponies, what do you think?"
"I think they're a danger to the forest," Owlowiscious shrugged, a motion that only another owl could have recognized as such. "But they've always been a danger to the forest, to the ideals we've nurtured since the dark princess was sealed away. They want to control everything, much like their creator did. The flying ones still crudely control the weather, leaving the forest to deal with the chaos that flows outward from their efforts. The groundlings till the soil and force plants and animals into their desired patterns. But it is no worse than it was a thousand years ago, and perhaps somewhat better."
"True," another owl added. "They are at least slightly less apt to use their magical talents to bend nature to their will. I like to think that our subtle influence over the years has had something to do with that."
The lead owl nodded. "Would you say they show the forest more fear, or more respect, my young protege?"
Owlowiscious cocked his head ninety degrees to the side as he pondered this. "Most of them fear the forest, and for good reason. The monsters that still remain after the brief reign of the dark princess are protection enough against all but the stupid and the brave. But the pony you asked me to observe most closely, I think, respects the forest now. The fear is still there, especially the way the forest eludes her finely honed sense of order, but some of the experiences you and the others have arranged for her and her friends have taught her that while there are dangers here, there are also wonders. That there's something positive about an uncontrolled environment."
"That is my assessment as well," the lead owl agreed, "although I must rely on the facts of your report rather than the evidence of my own eyes. I'm afraid if too many owls came a-calling, the ponies might grow suspicious."
"I think the baby dragon is already suspicious," a fourth owl scowled, blinking with deep concern.
"The one called Spike?" Owlowiscious was taken aback. "That was simple childhood jealousy. I displaced him in the unicorn's attentions, and he resented that."
The lead owl shook his head. "No, do not discount a dragon's senses too quickly. Spike may even now believe it was base jealousy, but it's likely he only started down that path because he sensed something duplicitous about your mission. And when he couldn't consciously figure out what was wrong, his negativity latched onto the next most obvious target. I suspect that even should we try to send an owl that greatly resembles you into Ponyville, the dragon would notice the difference, if only subconsciously."
"Perhaps," Owlowiscious admitted grudgingly. "That aside, while the unicorn is not yet as enlightened as the striped pony who actually lives within the forest, she does seem capable of learning. And the cadre of other ponies who surround her might then learn from her example. It is a small thing, perhaps, but the greatest spark of hope I can recall there ever being."
The lead owl laughed gently. "Yes, your great wealth of years lends weight to that statement. But, no, you are not wrong. The tales we elders pass down have never mentioned such a cause for hope, hope that the ponies might be able to learn that the world need not be under their absolute dominion in order to flourish. What say you?" the head owl turned to one of the few non-owls in attendance, a bird with brilliantly flame-colored plumage. "Your years *are* a great wealth, Philomena."
The Phoenix nodded deferentially, as suited an ambassador in a foreign court. After all, it's what she was. "I agree with young Owlowiscious in all of his major assessments. In fact, I have had opportunity to interact with the ponies of Ponyville myself, and while several of them are still rather controlling by nature...especially young Twilight Sparkle...they do seem to be learning. Slowly, but surely. But there is a danger you may not be giving enough attention to: now that Princess Luna is back from her exile, it is only a matter of time before ponies consider reclaiming her old castle. Even if Luna herself makes no movement in that direction, somepony may think it would make a good gift. And that means the ponies are likely to enter the forest in greater numbers in coming seasons, regardless of fear or respect. The great experiment may be in danger."
There was much hooting and concerned ruffling of feathers. "But can you not have the sun princess intervene in some way?" one of the owls asked.
Philomena sadly shook her head. "Princess Celestia believes in your experiment, but feels that her direct intervention would run contrary to its spirit. She wishes to do for the ponies what you do for the forest, you see. She wants her children to leave the nest some day, and that cannot happen if she always keeps them covered with her wings. And if that means letting them make mistakes, letting them blunder blindly into things they do not understand, she's willing to take that risk. Just as you risk that a manticore or cockatrice might kill one of your own rather than let the ponies come in and make the forest safe."
The owls weren't happy with this, but they seemed to be grudgingly accepting of the argument. A few feathers were still ruffled, but it was little more than a pro forma protest.
"So...what do we do now?" Owlowiscious asked, breaking the uneasy silence that followed.
"We're owls," the head owl replied. "We will think. We will plan. And I strongly suspect we will send you back into Ponyville, to enact whatever plan we devise. But if it takes another thousand years, we will find a way to make the entire world as free as the Everfree Forest...."