“Unprecedented! Unfounded! Dare I say, unlawful! That’s what this is. It is a deliberate, flippant and obvious move against Celestia. There is no other explanation, Nightmare Moon still holds sway over her!”
The angry, grating voice snapped Fancy Pants out of his daydream of Rarity. Something that got him angry in turn. “What drivel are you spouting now, Lemondrop?” He scowled at the cream yellow earthpony occupying the speaking platform on the Hall floor.
He wasn’t even supposed to be there, none of them were. That is if it had been a normal day. Fancy Pants occupied a comfortable seat near the top of the Great Court risers, as was his prerogative, being a senior courtier. Exactly four other seats were occupied around the Hall, five being the minimum number of courtiers required to oversee the conclusion of this ridiculous filibuster. As he waited for the inevitable acid response from the yellow earthpony, Fancy Pants cursed the filibuster clause in the Court guidelines.
“This drivel, Fancy Pants, holds portents that may well throw us into another civil war. Perhaps you should pay attention instead of letting your mind wander.” A smug grin spread across the contemptible pony’s face. Fancy Pants narrowed his eyes, then quickly glanced at the hourglass on the Proceeder’s dais. The tired young unicorn charged with turning it rolled her eyes and flipped the device over, allowing the blue sand to pour lazily into the opposite end.
Great, he just bought the loudmouth another twenty minutes of blathering. Sure enough, Lemondrop inhaled deeply, readying himself for another tirade on things ranging from Luna’s supposed illegal movements, to the state of Stalliongrad’s roads. Before he had a chance to begin, however, Fancy Pants cleared his throat and tapped his hoof, signaling that he wished to offer a rebuttal. The poor mare at the hourglass turned it once again.
“First, esteemed Lemondrop, I would like to expound on my interruption.” He gave the annoyed earthpony a cold smile. “I think it should be observed that the Sisters Royal do not engage in politicking like your average pony. Such an idea is quite insulting to be honest. There is no part of our constitution that bars either of our beloved princesses the power to govern directly. This... taking on of additional responsibility is very generous of Princess Luna. There has never been an immigration of this size in our history so I fail so see why you seem to think it being unprecedented is a problem.” The other courtiers nodded in agreement. It was high time this nonsense ended. “Your arguments are wholly unfounded, observing the tertiary clause of your filibuster, I motion to declare your statements as slander. Courtiers in favor of this motion?”
He swept a stern gaze over the room. The other four courtiers briefly made eye contact, then raised their right hooves. Lemondrop seethed on the platform.
“The Court has agreed, unanimously,” the court scribe, Gilded Scroll, announced in her thin but strong voice. “Slander is prohibited and unbecoming of a courtier, Mister Lemondrop. By royal edict, you are hereby on probation for three weeks. Your speaking privileges have been revoked. Pending review, three of your previous votes may be redacted. This session is at a close; we adjourn now and resume in three day’s time.” She was dry and old, but even the unflappable Gilda was pleased to see this particular session over.
The soft creaking of the wooden risers filled the Hall as the courtiers left, eager for their beds. According to the large clock set into the far wall, it was already well past midnight. Fancy Pants sighed, dreams of Rarity would have to wait. He had work yet to do, and most of it involved taking a certain yellow pony down a few rungs.
Moonshadows played on the hilltop overlooking the brony camp. The soft summer breeze pushed lethargic clouds over the Everfree Forest while the stars twinkled above. Cereal sat under a wispy old ash tree. He decided on this location for his meeting with Princess Luna, mostly because it was off a ways from the camp in a direction the bronies seldom went. The tree looked like it could use some company, standing up here all alone. He felt that way himself. He didn’t feel like part of the bronies anymore, but, he didn’t feel like part of the ponies either.
What was he then? Apparently, he was the only brony to have a cutie mark the natives could see. It was his imagination, at least that was what he hoped, that the other bronies treated him differently. Before, he could talk and joke with them, but now, they were all stiff and respectful to him. The Main Six were friendly enough but he was an outsider to them. The other ponies from Ponyville in the camp merely nodded when he asked them favors or when he offered to help with some task. They didn’t know what to think of him. Even Phoe and Seth seemed to be more distant. What changed?
The grass in front of him glowed in a soft blue light. Cereal fed magic into a pair of diamonds set into a large pendant given to him by Princess Luna. The pendant was of a finely wrought gold, divided into three sections by thin bars of silver. In each section was a gem, one ruby, one amethyst, and pair of diamonds. According to Luna, every governor in Equestria, be they mayors, dukes, or duchesses, had one identical to this. They were all unique in some way, though they served the same purpose. Focusing a simple light spell into one of the gems signifies different things. When one gem was lit, its double in Canterlot would glow. The pendants in Canterlot were watched at all hours by messengers, they knew which pendant belonged to whom and what each gem meant. Right now he was signaling the desire to speak with Luna, urgent but not too pressing.
He liked Luna well enough, she was kind and intelligent, but she made him nervous. There was no reason to be nervous around her; he had to tell himself that an awful lot. Something about her intensity, her somewhat impulsive drive, made him uneasy. Or perhaps it was the sensation of her always nearby that was getting to him. He could feel her presence even though she was in Canterlot and he in the camp.
And then, there was the itch. It was a persistent tingle that resided in the back of his mind, constantly reminding him of Luna’s instructions. When he learned of something that related to his duties, especially anything he needed to report, the itch grew stronger. When Laichonious spoke the words Dream Valley, it felt like an augur was thrust into the back of his head. He could barely stand the rest of the day, dragging on as the itch tried to split his skull in half. He barely listened to the red unicorn’s explanations of the rest of the text, but somehow he remembered everything the linguist had said. Something about the eccentric brony tickled at Cereal’s memory, but it was hard to pin down. After his experience in the Vault with the Princesses, his old life was becoming harder and harder to remember.
The night coalesced before him, starlight streaming to moonshadows made solid. Luna, Princess of the Night, stepped from the shadows as if from a doorway to another plane. For a moment, his breath ceased. Her beauty seemed to make the stars glow brighter, and her presence brought a blessed end to the itch in his head. With her there, he almost felt... complete. He pushed that thought out of his mind as he bowed deeply to her.
“Here I am, Cereal Velocity.” She stepped forward and placed a platinum-shod hoof gently on his shoulder. “I trust you have found one who knows the ancient language?”
He fought down shivers when she spoke. The knowledge that he was on the verge of completing a task made his heart race. It was the sort of intense anticipation one gets when on the precipice of a cliff, looking over the edge. “I have, Princess,” Cereal said, straightening from his bow. “He is called Laichonious and he’s a very accomplished scholar of the language. He calls the letters runes, and they come from an ancient people of our world known as the Norse. He translated the copied pages very quickly, your Highness. Apparently they are very old, but he says that from one page to the next, the runes changed, like they had skipped several hundred years.”
Luna’s mouth quirked in a little smile. “Very good. I had the scholars in Canterlot select random pages to copy. It was my assumption that the pages in the front of the book were older than those in the back. It had the look of a tome that was compiled at different times. It appears that this Laichonious is indeed accomplished.” She paused to regard him for a moment, her smile faded. “Is there something more you wish to tell me?”
A million questions flooded his mind followed by thousands more fears and worries. There was a great deal he wanted to tell her, but his tongue tied itself in knots at the opportunity. “Only, Princess, that he found the name of a location that holds great significance, mostly to us. We asked Twilight if she knew anything about this place, but she had never heard it before. There was only one page that had the name, Dream Valley. The other pages alluded to it but never by name. He said that it was called home several times by the writers of the book. Have you ever heard of such a place, Princess?”
Luna furrowed her brow, her eyes moving as if she were searching an invisible book of her thoughts. After a few moments, she considered him again. “I... do not believe I have. Why does this name mean so much to you?”
Cereal opened his mouth to explain, even going so far as to inhale, then let it all out in an impotent sigh. He couldn’t believe they had gone so long without explaining how they knew of Equestria at all. It seemed like the princesses just took it as a matter of course, though they seemed to know that humans had been here before. Why wouldn’t they know of the place the humans apparently made their home? “I, ah... I don’t know how to explain, um. In our world, there is this thing called television. It’s, um, like theater, I guess, uh... only, you don’t have to be there, at the stage, to watch the show.”
Luna nodded. “So that is why it is called far-seeing? Is this a form of magic related to scrying?”
“I don’t know what that is, Princess,” he muttered.
The Princess smiled at him. “‘Tis a mark of good character to admit that one does not know something. Especially to one they serve. Come, it would be best to show you than to explain.” She turned to face where she had stepped from her dark doorway. Again the night became solid, forming the doorway to the other plane. He tried to look through it but found that his eyes would slide to one side or the other, towards the edges of the opening. He looked to Luna, and in the corner of his eye, he thought he saw through the portal. He looked at it directly again, but could not.
“Princess, what’s that?”
“This is an Adit. A rift that is used to enter the Aether.”
Luna paused in walking through the portal and turned to regard him. “Forgive me, I forget that you have not yet been instructed in magic theory. The Aether is the domain of the Evermind, it is at all times in all places yet residing only in one. Those able to create the Adits can traverse the Aether in order to span long distances.”
“So teleporting, with doorways?” he asked.
“Not exactly. Teleporting, or Blinking, is almost instantaneous and requires a great deal of concentration and energy. Because of this, Blinking has a limited range, however nearly every unicorn can Blink to one degree or another. The Adits are much harder to create. As far as I know, only one unicorn lives today that can Aether jump. Now come along, I will teach you more of magic.” She paused again, holding his gaze in her own. “Try not to touch the edges of the Adit, the results are... unpleasant.” She stepped through the strange portal and disappeared.
Cereal apprehensively put the gold pendant back into his saddle bag and cautiously stepped through the opening, careful not to touch the strange edges, and was no more. He could not see anything, hear anything, feel anything. It was a void, he was the void. He had the vague impression that he was supposed to go somewhere, that he must have come from somewhere...
Cereal blinked at the soft, lush grass beneath his hooves. Moonlight glittered on the surface of an impossibly clear pond. The air was thin, stirring past his face in a breeze, chilling yet gentle enough not to disturb the pond. The sound of water falling in the distance seemed to open the range of his sight. Fading from the infinite nothing of that void, came a sight to steal one’s breath away. Above, the night stretched out, countless stars in a cosmic dance hung above him, close enough to reach out and touch. Below him, wind sculpted clouds waited patiently for their pegasus caretakers to return. Before him, and to all sides, the fair land of Equestria slept. Quilted fields, lush meadows, green forests, sparkling lakes and graceful rivers came together in a dazzling tapestry of harmony that pulled at his heart. He abruptly became aware of Luna’s dark form beside him. She was impossibly close to him, the currents of magic that constantly coursed around her tugged at his soul in eddies like the heat of a bonfire.
“You are atop the Shinespire, Cereal Velocity, at the headwaters of the Sweetwater Falls and the mighty River Unity. It is a place very few visit, but it is one of my favorite places in all of Equestria.” Luna gazed fondly over the pond. “I am not as proficient at scrying as my sister. Celestia can use any medium to spy out the unseen. Once, I saw her use naught but the water in the air to call up visions of things afar. ‘Twas a sight to behold indeed.”
Cereal blinked at the impossible surroundings, breathing heavily in the thin air. This was a ways off from what he thought they would talk about, but Luna seemed so happy to teach him something that he kept his peace and focused on staying on his hooves. If he fainted in the middle of her lecture... she might understand, but it was best not to dwell on it.
“Has Twilight Sparkle instructed you in opening the mind’s eye?” Luna asked, turning to him.
“Uh, yes, your highness.” He was out of breath, talking was a lot harder than he remembered it being.
Luna tsked to herself. “I beg your forgiveness, Cereal. It appears that I have once again forgotten that you are not accustomed to any of this. Please, sit, catch your breath. We will continue when you are ready.” She suited her own words and sat next to him.
The grey unicorn gladly took a seat, the high altitude was making his legs tingle. They both sat in silence for a few moments, looking into the crystal waters of the pond, until he could stand it no more. “Princess,” he began in a small voice, “why are you showing me this?” He looked up at her. Luna’s face was blank but her eyes held such a mixture of sadness, anger and pain that he feared he had overstepped his bounds. “You don’t have to answer, Princess. Uh, just, forget I ever said anything...” he mumbled.
“No,” she said softly, “that is a valid question.” She put one hoof on the edge of the pond, touching the surface of the water. She barely disturbed the water, but the ripples, almost imperceptible at her hoof, radiated outwards to fill the whole of it, making the mirror image of the starry sky distort and dance. “Suppose for a moment, that this pool is time. What did you see?”
“Correct. What does that mean to you?”
Cereal had no idea why he was even there. Somehow, a report to the Princess became a philosophy lesson. He felt like a twig in a river again, just along for the ride and hoping there weren’t any rocks. “Um, well... if the pool is time, then what is closest to us must be the beginning and the other side is the end. A change here, even if it’s small, can have a big impact later.”
“Have you heard this lecture before, perchance?” she asked with a satisfied smile.
He grinned sheepishly, looking away from her and hoofed at the grass. “I’ve... watched a lot of movies....”
“What are these, movies?” She was suddenly perplexed. “Or is this another form of this far-seeing you have in your world?”
He resisted the urge to hit himself in the face with a hoof. “Yes, Princess. But they tend to be, um, longer and more elaborate. They aren’t really that important though...”
“If you insist.” Just like that the subject was dropped and the smile disappeared from her face. “Time is a strange thing, Cereal Velocity. To many, it seems to flow in one direction; forward. But to us who can see and feel time in its glory, it is constantly doubling back. The pool is an imperfect analogy, but it has its merits. You said that the edge nearest us would be the beginning, it could be seen as such, I suppose. But to time, there is no end or beginning. There are no borders that hold time in some arbitrary shape. Watch the ehamez closely.” Again she put her hoof at the very edge of the pool.
Cereal blinked at the strange word. Instinctively he knew that it was not english, yet he also knew what it meant; water. How did he know? What was happening to him? He stared at the pool, barely seeing.
The vestiges of the previous disturbance seemed to come alive again with the new ripples. They grew larger and larger until they hit the opposite edge. They struck, then reflected, smaller than before but now going in the other direction, returning to their source. They reflected again and again until they faded from the surface, their energy spent.
“One thing this pool shows to be true: actions will return to their source eventually,” Luna continued. “I have long believed that what has happened, came about for a reason, one that I may not be able to discern at the moment, but a reason still.” She glanced at the sky, marking the position of the moon. “I will be brief, young Cereal, you will need your rest and I would be loath to deny it of you. However, there are a few things you will need to know before bringing the scholar to Canterlot for translating the Vault.” She paused again, and took a deep breath. “I feel the need to help you, and your kind, the bronies. There is a sense of destiny that I cannot deny, an obligation that I must fulfill.... A thousand years is a long time to pay for a mistake. In that time, everything I knew, everything I had, was lost. A decade ago, I began anew. Here you and yours came, to also begin again.... I think there is much we can teach each other, Cereal Velocity.” She flashed him a quick smile, but her tone darkened as she continued.
“There are... factions, here in Canterlot that would lead you to think that I am attempting to pull the past with me here, to change things back to the way they were. Do not heed them, they would poison you against me if they had the chance. Why they feel so threatened is beyond me but their animosity is proving to be troublesome. You need not fear, I will protect you from them.”
The grey unicorn shivered slightly in the chill breeze of the mountain top. Listening to her, he felt that she was talking about more than just protecting him and the bronies from dissenters. Though the night was calm and he felt safe, her worry infected him. Even more troubling, he could not trust his ears. His ears heard, Ia skulu aeso kun teneh vounil, but his mind thought, I will protect you from them. No matter how brief the Princess was in her instruction, he wasn’t going to get much sleep tonight.
“Right there is perfect, darling,” Rarity said. The dusky grey pegasus stallion next to her smiled widely at having remembered where to put the various eating utensils in relation to his plate. Rarity presided over perhaps the most absurd dinner table in Equestria. It started in her pavilion and didn’t end until you got to the hill almost five sceptres away. Forty-eight bronies sat to either side of the long, hodgepodge table on the grass. Three separate table cloths were draped over the thing, unfortunately, they were all garish and didn’t match at all. The table dressing wasn’t the most bothersome thing about it though. It rose and fell with both the uneven ground and the several different portable tables that were used to fill in the gaps between the larger, proper tables. Such was necessary to accommodate the large number of ponies in attendance.
Thank Celestia they didn’t have to worry about food at the moment. This was only a dry run for bringing together their several classes and to practice in a more hoofs-on situation. No less than four sets of cutlery and dishware adorned the haphazard and empty dinner. “Now, I would like everypony to locate the appetizer fork please.” Rarity had to speak very loudly in order to be heard at the end of the long table. She was going to most definitely split them into smaller groups for the next practice. A few of the bronies around the table regarded their utensils with blank stares. “Can everypony pick up their appetizer fork?” Forks lifted from the table in clouds of magic of every color. Soft clinking skittered around the table as the various other ponies tried picking up their forks with their hooves, with varying degrees of success. Not all of them had gotten the hang of it just yet.
A pale green stallion a few ponies down automatically went for the fork with his mouth, bending over the table. “Ah, ah, ah...” Rarity scolded him. “Remember to use your hoof, Tone Shift.” The green stallion slowly straightened and picked up a hoof. He looked at is doubtfully, but did as he was told. Rarity nodded in approbation. After a few moments, a quick study of the table showed that all of the ponies had found their forks. “Very good everypony! You all are doing very well. We’ll have you brushing shoulders with the Canterlot elite in no time!”
A bell tolled from the center of the camp, signaling the end of the morning class block. Rarity waited a moment before speaking again, watching the bronies at the table. They all put their silverware down but obediently stayed in their seats. Rarity tried not to smile, it was almost too easy. “I’m very impressed,” she said airily, “congratulations on remembering the first rule of dinner etiquette: wait for the hostess to lead. Very well done indeed. You are all excused. Class dismissed!” She stood and walked to the side of the table, so that the ponies at the end would know that they were done, they couldn’t always hear her. “Have a nice day!”
A chorus of polite farewells answered her as the ponies left the pavilion, heading off to their various classes. She started going around the table, gathering up the silverware into baskets for the next group to set up and humming contentedly to herself.
“Would you like some help, Miss Rarity?” A pastel olive unicorn stallion stood by the now empty table, grinning ear to ear.
Rarity blinked in surprise, didn’t she just watch all of them leave? “Um, oh yes, of course. That would be very gentlecoltish of you. Thank you....” She recognized the unicorn, but he had one of those strange brony names. She had the most terrible time remembering them.
“Artimas, and I’m glad to help.” He provided his name with a smile and started levitating silverware in clouds of grey magic.
“An unusual color for magic, did you know?” Rarity said conversationally.
“Really? It wasn’t like that yesterday though.... Can your magic change color, Miss Rarity?”
She thought for a moment, “Well, it’s been known to happen from time to time. Very rare. It’s like having one’s eyes change color.”
“Hm, so, does it depend on eye color?” he asked, looking at himself in the the back of a spoon.
“Not necessarily, but it tends to work out that way.”
“AHA! There you are Rarity! Yeesh, you wouldn’t buh-lieve the trouble I went through to find y--oof! Hey, who put this table here?” A grey pegasus mare with a blonde mane regarded the offending furniture with a lopsided glare.
Rarity smiled and rolled her eyes at the pegasus. “Don’t worry about it, darling. Do you have some mail for me? I do apologize for not leaving a note, I should have let you know I’m working elsewhere for a while.”
In her peculiar way, the pegasus focused on Rarity in a two-stage shift of her brilliant gold eyes. “Oh yeah, I’ve got a letter for you from Canterlot.” She trotted wide of the table, shooting a distrustful glare at it as she pulled an envelope from her saddle bags.
Rarity accepted the envelope with a smile. “Why, thank you for coming all the way out here to deliver it. I imagine this is out-of-the-way for your route.”
“Nah, I like getting to see other places sometimes. Flying the same route gets boring after a while. Hey! I like your new statue there. He almost looks real.”
Rarity paused in opening the letter to raise a brow at the pegasus. The bubbly mailmare was walking around Artimas, who stood stock still. “What? Oh, no. He isn’t a statue, darling.” Rarity went over to the brony and gave him a little nudge on the shoulder. “Go on, introduce yourself.”
The olive unicorn blinked, giving a quick flick of his red-streaked black tail. “I-I, ah...” He cleared his throat. “I’m Artimas. I’m plea... pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Hooves.”
“Hooves?” the pegasus slowly forced her other eye to focus on the flustered brony.
“Um, you’re Derpy Hooves, right?” He smiled apologetically at her.
“Oooooh, no. Derpy is my twin sister. I’m Ditzy Doo, the mailmare. How do you know Derpy?”
His eyes shifted around the pavilion, at last resting on Rarity. He seemed to be silently pleading with her, for what, she hadn’t the foggiest so she returned his gaze with a raised eyebrow. Finally, Artimas hoofed at the ground a little, laying his ears back. “I, um, h-heard some... gossip, yeah, gossip. Some other ponies were talking about a gray pegasus, blonde hair... uh, said her name was Derpy, um...”
Ditzy blinked at him, then scrunched up her nose with distaste. “Hmph, I hope it wasn’t anything mean. The other ponies are kind of rough on her....”
“Oh, no, no, no it wasn’t mean or anything like that, uh... they were just talking about how... how cute she was....” Something was getting to him, he was sweating bullets.
“Oh, hahaha! Is that all? Well I hope the Doctor doesn’t get wind of it. He might have something to say to that.” She giggled some more.
“The... Doctor?” Artimas squeaked.
Ditzy nodded, “Uh-huh. The Doctor. Derpy likes to call him Doctor Hooves, embarasses him something awful,” she confided with a giggle. “I don’t see why the two haven’t hitched up yet, really. She’s been galloping around with him for quite a while now.... Oh, sorry. You probably don’t want to hear about that.”
“That’s... alright,” he said slowly. His face was all scrunched up, his gaze not quite with the here and now. He was pretty well shaken up; Ditzy had that effect on ponies sometimes.
“Aww well, can’t chit-chat all day. Got some more mail to deliver before noon. It was nice meeting you!” She spread her wings and jumped into the air.
“Ditzy! Wait!” Rarity tried to warn her.
“Waaa!” Ditzy collided with the roof of the pavilion, nearly falling on her face. “What the--who put this tent here?!”
“Do be careful Ditzy, dear. Are you alright?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” She hovered off to one side to get out from under the pavilion, keeping at least one eye up to make sure she was clear. “I’ll see you later, I guess. I’ll drop by to see if you want to send a letter back or anything. Bye!” And with that she was gone as suddenly as she appeared.
Artimas sat down heavily, letting out a long sigh. “I talked to Ditzy Doo...” he whispered, sighing again.
Rarity shook her head at the strangeness of bronies. “You aren’t going to be late for your next class, are you dear?”
“Oh, yeah. No, I’m heading over to Miss Lyra’s class next, it’s just over there...”
“Well, just make sure you aren’t late then.” It didn’t look like he was paying much attention. She went on to open the envelope and smiled at the familiar lettering that adorned the thick stationery.
I believe you will be pleased to hear that you and your friends have created quite a stir here in Canterlot. Why, I haven’t seen this much upheaval since the return of our dear Princess Luna. Even so, I find myself tiring of the constant antics of the courtiers in recent days, and find myself craving a vacation. I also must admit that I have been missing you terribly and would like to see for myself that you are well and back on your hooves.
The Modern Party has reached a new level of idiocy recently. Just last night they staged a filibuster in the Hall to ramble about Princess Luna’s jurisdiction over your new friends. I don’t know how much more of this silliness I can take. I would have walked away some time ago if I knew that the Traditionalists would fare without me. Unfortunately they tend to stray into the same underhoofed politicking that the Modernists do. What’s worse, rumors have reached my ears that they are planning on nominating me to be a Voice in the High Court. I feel a leave of absence is in order, a few days at most.
I am very curious about these bronies. Celestia’s official proclamation concerning them perhaps raised more questions for me than answered. I hope this isn’t too sudden and warning enough for you, but I plan to be in Ponyville on the mid-morn train tomorrow. A day should be plenty of time to organize the Traditionalists so that they don’t do something rash whilst I’m away.
Before I forget, I think you would like to know that the Nocturne Guard has been marshaled. I’m not sure of what this means but I hope you know more than I on the subject.
With great anticipation,
Rarity carefully folded the letter and placed it back inside its envelope with what she knew was probably a wistful expression. That Fancy Pants was a strange pony indeed. As soon as he got here, she was going to have to have a word or two with him. He wasn’t about to throw away an illustrious political career for her, as much as she would love to spend more time with him.
“Look!” Rarity’s head snapped up at the shout. It was followed by several others. All around, ponies stopped in the middle of their tasks and looked to the southeast, pointing with their hooves. Rising over the treetops of the Everfree was a ring of colors. It sped outwards at an impossible rate, like a sideways rainbow. Gasps of awe echoed around the camp as everypony seemed to collectively hold their breath. After a few moments, a cerulean blur appeared over the trees, trailing a brilliant rainbow.
Rainbow Dash soared through the air laughing with glee and shouting, “We found ‘em! We found ‘em!”
Twilight watched closely as Laichonious worked on the plank of wood. Her quill scratched along the parchment next to her, methodically documenting his every move. He seemed to have gotten the hang of using his hooves to hold the strange utensils, though it would be faster to use magic to make the symbols on the wood. The interior of the scholar’s tent was thick with the smell of sap, charcoal, and freshly-cut wood. All of this was overlaid by the sweet, heady scent of incense that the red unicorn favored. Retsamoreh had stepped out for a while with a sly grin on his face, a parcel wrapped in a blanket floating by his side. Twilight suspected that he had swiped the curious floating board and was doing something with it, but Laichonious didn’t seem to mind, that is if he saw that it was missing. She couldn’t tell if he ever noticed anything other than what currently held his attention. He seemed constantly lost in deep thought, somewhere far away from where he was, but would surprise her with his observations.
Pissfer, the electric blue unicorn, was chatting quietly with Cereal in the sunlit rectangular entrance of the large tent. The Steward seemed especially tired today. Even as she glanced over at him, his eyes drooped with his ears. The blue unicorn didn’t seem to notice Cereal’s lack of participation.
The vigorous tapping of Laichonious’ hoof on the end of the strange tool he used, brought her attention back to the plank of wood and the strange otherworldly ritual. It looked like he was putting the finishing touches on the carving, enclosing the winding line of runes in a double border of square spirals that alternated directions. She made a quick note; The lettering, or runes, are angular, as are the designs that often accompany them, but their path on the wood flows as I imagine water would along its surface--avoiding the knots and following the grain. “What form of magic did you call this?” she asked as she finished the last word of her notes.
“This is called inscription, the ancients believed that the runes themselves held power when carved into elemental materials like stone, gold and wood. Heh, they were right it seems.” The scholar blew on the most recent carvings, removing small pieces of debris.
“I see several other symbols there, does that mean that there are other... runes?” The word felt very strange on her tongue; it was different, strange and exciting.
“Well, there are only twenty-four runes, these other runes here are called stacks. When a rune is stacked on itself, it signifies its own name like this one here.” He tapped his hoof on a rune with one line straight up and down with two sets of three short lines branching out from it, pointing down. It reminded her of how a foal would draw a pine tree. “This rune’s name is teiwaz,” the red unicorn continued, “either referring to the ancient god Tyr or to the gods in general. It often starts and ends an inscription, which I understand is supposed to be what gives the inscription its power and why normal writing has none.” He went back to his work, adding more spirals around the border.
Twilight quickly wrote down everything he said. The implications of such things as written spells were mind-boggling. This could revolutionize the creation of makina for one; they were simple devices that could only do one thing. If they had an entire language to use, makina could do more, be more sophisticated and all around more useful for the average pony.
“So, what’s this inscription you just finished do?” she asked, dipping her quill.
Laichonious brushed a few flakes of wood from the carving before answering. “I can’t be certain....”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “But I thought you were an expert, shouldn’t you know exactly what will happen?”
He shrugged. “I may know the language, but I have never practiced the art. I only figured out that the magic worked yesterday. There’s bound to be all sorts of nuances and rules that I don’t know.”
“Oh, that’s right. Cereal told me that there’s no magic in your world. Well, um, what do you think it will do, then?”
“When I put the last stacked teiwaz at the end, it should activate. What I think it will do is create a shield for the plank and make the wood light as a feather.” He paused, regarding the plank and its runes with a critical eye and a tilt to his head. “Or it could burst into flame. I’ve had that happen a couple times already...” He picked up the carving tool once again.
Before he had a chance to finish the last rune, a very excited Retsamoreh galloped into view, running into Cereal. Their heads connected with a hollow thunk like coconuts banging together, almost knocking the sleepy gray unicorn off his hooves. “Guys, guys! You gotta come see this!” The collision didn’t seem to phase the tan unicorn. Twilight even thought she caught a satisfied smirk on his face for a split second.
“See what?” Pissfer asked.
“I think it’s a sonic rainboom! Rainbow Dash must’ve found the the lost bronies. Just come ‘ere!” He disappeared from the opening of the tent, leaving a dazed and grumbling Cereal behind.
Laichonious set his tools down and adjusted the spectacles on his nose. Twilight frowned at the unfinished plank, slightly disappointed that she wasn’t going to see this new magic at work. She put away her notes and inkwell, following the others out into the daylight. The street was full of ponies. All of them stood facing the southeast, the excited babble of hundreds of ponies filled the air as they pointed with their hooves to the sky. Spreading over the clear blue of the summer sky was a fiery ring of colors that produced gasps of awe from the surrounding bronies. Twilight could just barely make out the blur that was Rainbow Dash, streaking towards the camp over the dark canopy of the Everfree.
The blue pegasus buzzed the camp, flying low to the ground and rustling tents and banners in her wake. She laughed and yelled, “We found ‘em! We found ‘em!” as she passed overhead.
Cheers erupted all around, ponies cantered in the road, jumping and stomping on the ground. Twilight even thought she saw the grey fist of a minotaur thrust into the air at one point. She made a mental note to start an official census. She smiled and stomped on the ground along with the other bronies as Rainbow made a victory lap over the camp, the bright form of her namesake fading as she slowed to land. After a few more waves to the bronies, she disappeared behind the tents.
“Looks like she went to the medical tent,” Twilight said, putting a hoof over her forehead to block the sun. “We should go see if she needs any help with the returning bronies. Laichonious, would you accompany us?”
Cereal seemed to shake himself out of his stupor, stepping away from the entrance to the tent and giving the red unicorn a heavy lidded look. “Yeah, you should come with us. I have a few things that Princess Luna asked me to relay to you before she arrived anyway.”
Twilight snorted. “Wait, did you say that Princess Luna was coming here? Why didn’t you say anything before?”
“Oh,” Cereal rubbed at his eyes with a foreleg. “I guess it slipped my mind. My meeting with her last night went longer than I thought it would and, uh, I didn’t sleep well on top of that, so...”
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Twilight took a concerned step forward. “I can ask Zecora to whip up a potion for you that will help you sleep better. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind.”
“No, no, it’s fine.” he said, shaking his head and attempting a convincing smile. “I’ll be right as rain in a little while.... Just gotta get used to, um, the time changes and stuff.” He cleared his throat. “Yeah, well, we should head on over to the medical tent and see what’s going on with RD and....” He mumbled something else unintelligible under his breath as he trotted past them, shaking his head again.
Laichonious lifted an eyebrow at Twilight, as if to ask ‘is he alright?’. Twilight shrugged at the silent question. “So, care to join us?”
“Yeah, sure, I should grab a few of my reference books though. Won’t take but a minute,” he said as he ducked back into the tent.
Twilight didn’t even have a chance to protest. True to his word, he emerged from the tent with saddlebags laden with books about a minute later. Cereal had backtracked with a fairly annoyed expression a few moments before when he realised that he was walking the road without them.
“Alright, all set? Yes? Good. Let’s go,” Cereal droned. He turned back down the road, grumbling under his breath again.
“Um, okay....” Laichonious muttered as he joined Twilight in Cereal’s wake. The red unicorn turned back to his friends, “Hold down the fort, will yah? Oh yeah, Rets, you should take all that crap off of the hoverboard before it falls over and breaks stuff.”
“Looks perfectly fine to m--That is, if I knew what you were talking about....” The tan unicorn coughed nervously into the back of his hoof.
“Whatever, just don’t stress it too much. It might catch fire, the last shield staff I did got really hot the more we hit it, remember? I think all of those spells might have the same flaw. Just be careful, kay?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on ‘im.” Pissfer said in his calm, even voice.
Somepony cleared his throat ahead of Twilight. Cereal stood in the street a couple sceptres away, tapping a hoof. Laichonious ducked his head and trotted over to the grey unicorn. Twilight picked up her own pace to follow closely behind the bronies, trying to be as invisible as possible. Curiosity burned within her; what was going on in Canterlot?
Cereal gave Laichonious a tired, sidelong look. “So, all done?”
“Yeah,” the red unicorn said stiffly.
Cereal sighed. “Sorry, I don’t mean to be so short with you.”
“That’s okay,” Laichonious said with a grin. “I am taller than the average brony.”
Cereal rolled his eyes, and blew out his chops in exasperation.
“Sorry, sorry. I just can’t help myself sometimes. Go on, I’m all ears. No more interruptions.”
The grey unicorn breathed deeply for a few moments. “The Princess is very pleased that you are willing to help, but there are a few things you are going to need to know about working in the Vault.” He looked incredibly relieved to finally talk about Luna’s instructions.
“Hey, hey! Little Fox!” A voice called from above. Laichonious’ head snapped up at the strange salutation.
Cereal bit his bottom lip and puffed out his cheeks, making a strange whistling sound as his eyes almost went crosseyed.
Laichonious shot a worried look at the grey unicorn but addressed the newcomer. “What’s up, Motor? Besides you, that is.”
The owner of the voice was a warm seafoam green pegasus hovering a sceptre or two from the ground. “Ha! Quick and sly, as always, huh, Little Fox?” The pegasus dropped to the road beside Laichonious, holding up a hoof.
Laichonious chuckled and bumped it with his own. “It’s good to see you, dude. But I can’t talk right now, I’ve got an assignment from Princess Luna and Cereal here was about to give me the what’s what about it. Top secret, y’know. Hush hush.” He winked at the other pony.
“Oooh. Little Fox isn’t quite so small is he? Moving up in the world eh? Guess I should’a known, seeing you with a mare like her, mmmm?” The green pegasus elbowed the slightly embarrassed scholar.
“Aww, c’mon, dude. Cut it out. She’s standing right there...”
“She doesn’t understand Brasileiro, dude. What’s the big deal?”
“Yes she does--” the red unicorn tried to explain.
“Pfft! You’re pullin’ my leg--”
“Am not. Isn’t that right, Twilight?” he said turning to her.
Before she could affirm to his friend that she did indeed understand, Cereal wearily interrupted. “If we are going to have conversations that I don’t understand, can we at least get going?”
“Uh, yeah. Sorry, Cereal.” Laichonious mumbled under his breath as he ducked his head.
Cereal started walking down the street again, a little bubble forming around him as the other bronies walking by caught his mood.
“Ishi, well I guess I better leave you alone with grumps there. Take care, Little Fox. Oh, and treat the lady to something nice for me, eh?” The strange pegasus ruffed up the red unicorn’s mane with a hoof before launching himself into the air with a laugh.
The scholar chuckled and shook his head, cantering after Cereal. Twilight caught up to him, “Hey, who was that?”
“Oh, that was Motor, he’s sort of like an adoptive brother from Brazil.” He grinned at the thought.
“Is he always like that?” she asked.
“Yeah, he likes to swoop in, cause a ruckus, and then breeze out.”
“Why does he call you ‘little fox’?”
“Uh, that’s kind of a long story--”
“One that we don’t have time for,” Cereal interrupted again. He took another deep breath, squeezed his eyes shut, and whispered something to the sky. “Look,” he said, looking back at her and the red unicorn. “I just need to tell you, like, three things okay? Is now a good time? Yeah?” Laichonious nodded his head. “Alright then.... First, the Vault is off-limits to everypony except you and the Princesses. Anypony else the Princesses decide to bring to the Vault are not to be told anything about what is written there unless they ask you, explicitly. Second, Luna is your Princess; you report to her before anypony else.” Cereal gave the other brony a hard look that made Twilight notice how he didn’t say ‘even Celestia’.
“Third, you are to stick to your guard ponies like glue. They go everywhere with you, and you go everywhere with them. They’ll help you with anything that you might need.” He shot a quick glance behind him at Twilight. She narrowed her eyes at the back of his head; that glance held a furtive element to it, like he would say more if she weren’t there.
Laichonious furrowed his brow and studied the ground in front of him. “Why all the secrecy?”
Cereal shrugged. “Beats me. All I know is that Princess Luna wants it that way... and I’m not gonna butt heads with her.” He closed his eyes and heaved a small sigh. What was he so relieved about?
“So waddayah think, Doc?” Rainbow’s uncharacteristically diffident voice drifted from the massive medical tent. Cereal had set a faster pace than she thought.
“Well, considering how many others have the same symptoms, I would have to say that it’s not a natural illness for certain. I doubt there is anything we can do for either of them. This afternoon, those who have been affected are being moved to Ponyville hospital.” Dr. Valor’s calm, cultured and concerned voice answered.
“Should I have them just take Lexicon straight there then? I saw ‘im myself and he’s in worse shape than any unicorn here.”
Twilight, Cereal and Laichonious walked into a strange and alarming sight. She blinked several times, just to make sure she wasn’t seeing things. Much as they were the day the portal collapsed, every cot and bed was occupied by a brony. Wait. She took a second look at the cots nearest them. These were the same bronies. There were even some new ones. Many of them had blankets heaped upon them, as if they were freezing. But what made fear clutch at her chest and her breath catch were their colors. A few she recognized; they once had bright and vibrant coats, but here they lay, colors weak and dull. Several ponies moved around the tent, she recognized Nurse Red Heart from Ponyville Hospital, tending to the stricken bronies. Stunned, Twilight stared at the faded colors and shivering forms, her mind reeling.
“Twilight. Twilight! Hey! Snap out of it, Twilight!” Rainbow Dash had Twilight’s shoulders in her hooves, shaking her side to side. “Twilight!”
Twilight blinked away terrible visions of a dark and painful future to stare into Rainbow’s rose eyes. “Wha--?”
“We’ve been trying to talk to you but you were just standin’ there. What’s up?” Rainbow cocked her head, lifting a concerned eyebrow.
“Whe--I... I, uh...” She shook her head and took a deep breath. “Doctor Valor?” Rainbow gave her another concerned look but moved to the side so that she could talk to the doctor.
“Yes, Miss Twilight?” Valor’s face was perfectly placid, though a nervous flutter of his alabaster wings betrayed his concern.
“When did you notice the changes in their color?” Her mind raced, calling up everything she had learned about magical ailments over the years, foremost among those were the events of almost ten years previous, when she truly started to delve into the depths of magic’s substance.
“Mmm, well, I first noticed it in the unicorns who were near the staging grounds during the portal collapse. Most notably, the three who came through the portal looked a bit... washed out.”
Twilight’s heart pounded in her throat. “You said, ‘first’ in the unicorns, have other ponies begun to turn grey? When did this start happening?” The words came out of her in a rush, blending into one another.
Dr. Valor blinked at the intensity of her questions. “The first came here two days ago, an earthpony... um, Bit, yes that was his name. Why?”
“Can I see him?” She took a step towards the doctor, making him lean back slightly.
“Yes... of course. He’s right over here.” He gave her a sidelong look as he turned to take them to the one in question.
Twilight was practically treading on his tail as he led her along the rows of cots. Hoofsteps and a slight fluttering behind her told her that the others followed. She saw several pegasi, most with a wing or a leg in a cast or bandages, all of them dull shades of their former colors and shivering in the summer warmth. Two days? Only two days? She had seen this ailment only once and in special circumstances, but it was progressing much faster than the incident she knew. The majority of the bronies affected seemed to be unicorns, again, worrisome and alarming.
The doctor stopped at cot more than half-way down the length of the tent. It was one of the portable beds from the Hospital and nestled in its aquamarine sheets beneath a pile of thick blankets was a grey pony. He wasn’t merely washed-out and dull like the others, but devoid of hue and a sickly pale grey. Despite the blankets, he quivered on the bed, his teeth chattering. His eyes were heavy lidded and wandered over his surroundings lethargically, never focusing on anything. His lips moved, air rasping through his chattering teeth as if he were speaking to somepony only he could see. Twilight moved closer, trying to hear what he whispered. At her approach, he shied away, bringing up a hoof to shield his eyes as if from something bright.
“Does he always do that when somepony comes near?” she asked, baking away from the grey brony.
Dr. Valor sighed. “Only to native Equestrians. There are four others who are grey like him, they whisper and ramble, symptoms consistent with a waking fever dream; but they are all cold to the touch.” He cast his gaze around the tent, face suddenly weary, his ears drooping slightly with an air of helplessness. “Do you know what this is, Miss Twilight? I have tried any and all remedies that I could think of, nothing works...”
Twilight shook her head. “I know what it is, but I don’t know why it’s happening. It doesn’t make any sense.”
The bright sunlight that basked the tent interior with an even glow through the white canvas walls suddenly vanished. Everypony shifted in the sudden gloom, heads darting about in confusion.
“What in the hay.... There isn’t a storm scheduled today,” Rainbow muttered, eyeing the ceiling. She looked back at Twilight. “Do yah think ther--”
Trumpets split the air in a sinister chorus. Perfect silence followed the sustained note only to be obliterated by a booming voice. “BRONIES! THY PRINCESS OF THE NIGHT HATH ARRIVED!”
Without a word, Cereal, Laichonious and the doctor began to trot to the entrance of the tent. Cereal bore a mask of determination. Laichonious laid his ears back, anticipation practically bleeding off of him. Twilight turned to follow, but paused when the poor gray brony whispered louder.
He looked at her from under his still raised hoof, barely keeping his eye on her as it tried to wander. “Like you... just like you... want... to belong... just like you... alone... to belong... belong...” Like a mantra he repeated it over and over again, his words soon lost again to the constant hissing and chattering of his breath.
Ice slid down Twilight’s back. Alone. To belong. Just like you. To belong.