“...And once the perfect world had been created, the crystals were hidden away forever, never to be found. Of course, this is just one theory among many that attempt to explain the origins of a mysterious figure in ancient history known as ‘The Wanderer’...”
The droning voice of the village elder echoed throughout Geldingstone’s town hall as he presented his lecture on Canterlonian history. He rambled about the origins of the towns and cities that littered the land, each with a miniature lesson on why they were built and the types of ponies who inhabited them. Due to his not-so-keen eyesight, he failed to spot the vast audience he had put to sleep. In front of him sat nearly fifty ponies, all of them there to 'celebrate' the rich and intriguing history of their land. There was only one pony who sat upright throughout the entire lesson, armed with a pen in her mouth that was furiously scribbling notes without pausing. It was a light orange pegasus with a chocolate-coloured mane, which sported a single cream coloured stripe on the side, and a cutie mark of a golden pocket watch on her flank.
Sepia Stripes could confess to having just two loves in her life: history and snow. She listened with great enthusiasm to the lecture she was receiving on the former, and she could see the latter beginning to fall gently and gather on the ground outside the window next to where she sat. As her two true loves began to combine, she smiled to herself. It was, in her mind, the perfect day.
The sky blue unicorn stallion sitting next to her couldn't disagree more. He had lost focus on the lecture somewhere between the mention of 'sacred crystals' and 'lost power', and he felt himself drifting off just as the elder was beginning to talk about the capital city, Piata. Sepia only noticed this when she heard the gentle snoring coming from her left.
"Starflash! Are you getting all of... What are you doing?!" She nudged the sleeping stallion on his cutie mark- a telescope- causing him to wave his hoof at her in a dismissive manner. She furrowed her brows as she heard him groan something incomprehensible. She tried to wake him again and received the exact same response, much to her annoyance. “Starflash?” she whispered angrily in his ear.
As soon as she tried to nudge him awake for a third time, she flinched slightly as she heard somepony violently clear his throat at the front of the hall. She knew exactly who it was from the way that everypony in the room snapped to attention at the same time. Everypony except Starflash.
"Miss Stripes, would you kindly awaken the lazy boy to your left?" the elder asked sternly. "I don't think he is going to learn much about Canterlonia when his mind is frolicking in the land of the lazy, is he?"
Sepia cringed as she saw, what seemed to her at least, a thousand faces turn towards her. Some of them looked disinterested and quickly turned back again, whilst others giggled and shook their heads. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as the faces stared at her. She began to shake Starflash awake with both hooves, desperate for him to awaken to avoid even more embarrassment. He awoke with a jolt, flailing his legs and blinking furiously. Once he had regained his bearings, he brushed his ragged dark blue mane from his eyes.
"Heh... I didn't miss anything good, did I?" He blushed slightly as the elder shook his head.
"Evidently not," the elder replied with a bit of irk in his voice, "as you found it appropriate to take a nap! Would you care to tell the rest of us why you think that?"
Starflash bowed his head, searching the floor for the best excuse possible. “Well... umm... It’s not exactly my fault when what you’re talking about isn’t exactly... uh... interesting?”
The elder rolled his eyes and raised his voice to address the crowd before him. "You ponies need to learn that outside of this tiny village exists a world that is vast beyond your comprehension. The first step to understanding the land you live in is to know the myths and legends that surround it! I’ve put this lecture on today for the entire town in the vain hope that at least one pony out there will learn something. Perhaps it will make the Celebration of Centuries, celebrating the discovery of our land two thousand years ago to this day, all the more meaningful. Am I making myself clear?"
The entire room was flooded with a sea of blank faces. All except a nodding pegasus in the back row next to the window and a slightly embarrassed unicorn sitting next to her.
“Good. Now, allow me to continue to enlighten you all on the history of the northern plains-folk. I promise you that it should only be another hour or so...”
An hour later, the doors of the library creaked open, followed by the large crowd of zombie-like ponies who were beginning to revitalise themselves in the afternoon sun. The only one who bounced from the building was Sepia; she had to stop herself from knocking down several of the less enthusiastic members of the crowd. Once she reached the bottom of the stone stairs she stopped, remembering to wait for Starflash.
She looked around, dazzled by the beautiful scene before her. The large fountain in the centre had completely frozen over, the marble pony sculptures holding onto the water they would normally ‘spit’ in mid-air. Icicles hung from the sloping rooftops in a perfectly symmetrical fashion, like decorations. Fillies and colts were playing in the snow-covered plaza, diving around and tackling each other, hurling snowballs or sculpting great snowy statues. Sepia was ready to join them, had she not been pulled back by some mysterious force. She glanced behind her to see a familiar yawning unicorn gripping her tail with an outstretched hoof.
“Don’t you think you’re a little old to be playing in the snow?” he asked with a grin. Sepia turned away from him and began to walk towards the fountain. “Hey, you’re not mad at me for napping during the lecture, are you?” He got his answer when Sepia shot him an angry glare.
“Why did you have to go and embarrass me like that? You can’t go anywhere intellectual without falling asleep!” She shook her head as she sat on the edge of the fountain, and snowflakes that were beginning to collect on her mane were scattered in a great cloud which fell gently to the ground. “You knew that I wanted you to go, so why did you try to dodge out of it?”
“I didn’t know that you meant it was today!”
She replied with a cold, steely stare. “Despite me reminding you several hundred times?”
“I... Well...” He sighed heavily. “Like I said, that kind of thing bores me,” he replied, knowing that it was useless to lie to her. “Now if it was on swordplay or astronomy—” The rest of his sentence was garbled by a hoof in his mouth. Sepia’s hoof. He gave her an awkward look, and she looked at him with a smile.
“But it wasn’t about astronomy, was it? We don’t live in space! We live in Canterlonia. Or, if you want to be smart about it, in Geldingstone.” She furrowed her brows as Starflash rolled his eyes. She removed the hoof from his mouth, wiping it on the snowy ground to remove most of the drool. “So why did you feel the need to humiliate me in front of everypony like that? All those eyes, staring right at me—”
“First of all,” Starflash interrupted, “I think I embarrassed myself more than I embarrassed you. Secondly, I had that lecture more times than I care to remember when I was in school. I could recite the entire history of Canterlonia, myths and legends and everything in between, in my sleep! And thirdly-”
Sepia held up her hoof, silencing the unicorn. “Before I put my hoof in your mouth to stop you again, which I really don’t want to do, I suggest that we just forget the whole thing. I’m not interested in your excuses anymore. Now, I want us to do something that we’ll both enjoy!” She scooped up a lump of snow and began to form a ball with it. Starflash knew what she was hinting at, and promptly backed away.
“As much as I’d like to play, I can’t right now. I have a practise session to catch up on. I can’t believe I missed three hours of sword practise just to listen to that old coot ramble about the past!” He turned his back to Sepia and began walking across the plaza. “See you in a few hours, Sep. Have fun playing in the snow with the fillies and colts.”
“Well I... Wait, what?!” She leaped from the fountain and ran after the unicorn. “But I thought that you’d at least want to have some fun first! It’s not like we get snow every spring, you know.”
“Of course I do,” Starflash replied. “That’s why I’m heading out into the forest today. I’m going to challenge myself. It’s time to put my skills to the test.”
Sepia stopped as she tried to figure out what he meant by “skills”. She remembered the events of two weeks ago, where he had almost chopped his own tail off after a magical mishap with his blade, and the week after where he had almost lost a leg when he had taken his eyes away from the target he was supposed to attack. Now, she was left wondering how Starflash thought he was ready to ‘challenge himself’.
“Just what do you mean by that? You’re not thinking of hunting something, are you?” she asked with concern. Starflash slowed his pace and turned to face her, hesitating before answering.
“Of course I am. I know I’m ready, Sep! Trust me, I’ve been practising like crazy and I know what I’m dealing with.”
Sepia raised her brow. “And what exactly are you dealing with?”
“A timberwolf,” Starflash replied nonchalantly. Sepia’s eyes widened at the mention, and her jaw dropped for a split second.
“You’re going to fight... but... you can’t do that! That’s insane! You’re not skilled enough to take on something like that!” She ran in front of him, blocking him from further passage. He chuckled and patted her on the shoulder.
“Hey, relax! I wasn’t serious you know. You think that I’d take on one of those things?” He shuddered as the gnarled and twisted jaws of a wolf-like creature snapped furiously in his imagination. “No, I’m just going for regular practise in the woods to take in the scenery. Like you said, it doesn’t snow every spring.”
Sepia sighed with relief and smiled at him. “Well if you’re going to the forest, then I’m coming with you. After all, you need somepony to show off your ‘skills’ to, don’t you? You need somepony to witness the knight vanquishing the monster to save the princess... or something like that?”
The unicorn nodded while stifling a laugh as he briefly imagined himself standing proudly in shining armour. The snowy scenery of the village seemed to fade away as he envisioned himself standing on the edge of a cliff in the middle of a thunderstorm, facing off against the mightiest timberwolf in the land. As he parried and dodged the ferocious beast’s blows with ease, he gracefully lunged and slashed at its bark-like hide. In his mind the battle seemed like a routine exercise, and he could hear the whoops and cheers of a crowd of admirers, urging the heroic stallion to slay the monster. And just as he was about to deal the decisive blow, he could hear—
—Sepia yelling in his ear, which snapped him out of his fantasy. He shook his head and looked at her apologetically, and he cleared his throat.
“Well, if you’re coming along then I’d suppose we’d better get ready. Meet me at the edge of the forest in fifteen minutes, okay? By the old tree stump.”
Sepia opened her mouth to say something, but before she could, Starflash turned away from her and began walking out of the plaza. She decided that it was better to not ask him about his daydream. Sometimes, they were just plain embarrassing. She spread her wings and began to flutter away from the plaza, thinking about getting back home to prepare. The snow was beckoning to her, and she had to get away from it as quickly as possible. There would be time to play later, she thought to herself.
Starflash sat on the tree stump at the forest’s edge, half a mile from Geldingstone, awaiting the entrance of his assistant and audience member. It’s not like her to be late, he thought to himself. The short sword buckled to his right foreleg was beginning to chafe against his skin in the cold; he knew it was a bad idea to leave with the proper attire. The stump was covered in ice, meaning he had to painfully peel himself away from it. He couldn’t tell from the cold, but he swore he got a splinter or two from it. His problems were short lived however, as he spotted a familiar orange pegasus trotting towards him. He hopped from his perch and waved to her, and she picked up speed accordingly whilst adjusting a satchel around her flank.
“Somepony’s a little late, isn’t she?” he asked with a raised brow. “Did you take a detour to play with the fillies in the snow?”
Sepia rolled her eyes. “Oh ha ha, you hilarious stallion, you.” She dropped the bag, opened it and took out a small pastry, holding it out to Starflash. “I stopped by the market and picked up some celebration treats for us. It’s the first time they’ve made these to commemorate the Celebration of Centuries. You’d better stock up on them, because it’s going to be another hundred years before they make them again.”
The unicorn inspected the treat in his hoof. It was small, yet drenched in what looked like a honey syrup. He levitated it towards his muzzle, sniffing it. Without a moment of hesitation, he stuffed it into his mouth, chewing noisily and licking his lips once he had finished savouring the sweet, sticky treat. “Finally!” he said with a beaming smile, “something amazing to come out of these celebrations instead of some boring lecture!”
Sepia prepared to scold him once more about the events that caused her so much embarrassment earlier that day, but she decided against it. Instead, she took out another pastry and nibbled on it, wiping her mouth with her hoof after every bite. “So what’s the plan, then?”
Starflash scraped his tongue around his mouth to catch the last few pockets of chewed up pastry before answering. “Well, you’re going to hide in the forest and prepare some snowballs and I’m going to come in after you. You throw the snowballs at me and I hack them up. It’s a win-win situation! You have a snowball fight with me and I get my sword practise in for today. Deal?”
Sepia nodded without hesitation; if his sword training gave her an excuse to pelt snowballs off of his head, then she was all for it. Once she had finished her snack, she was prompted to run into the forest and get ready by Starflash. She darted into the trees, scooping up a large chunk of snow as she raced by. Once she saw that she was a comfortable distance from the entryway, she searched for a good spot to ambush Starflash.
When it came to getting ready for a battle in the snow, Sepia made sure that she never missed a single detail, no matter how insignificant. She scanned each and every tree trunk and base, taking a mental note of ammo reserves, cover, whether she could get the jump in on the enemy...
Then she stopped for a second; she remembered that she wasn’t supposed to be having a snowball fight with Starflash. She was—
“Ah! What the...?!”
—wondering what had just collided with the back of her head. Her eyes darted around the scene, searching for something. Anything. After a few moments of looking, she tilted her head skyward. The treetops were totally covered in snow, save for a few holes where the light shone through like the beam from a torch.
“It must have fallen from—”
Another collision. This time, it hit her hard on the flank and she turned just in time to see the cold, powder-like snow wash over her body. But it wasn’t from the treetops. This time, she knew it was a snowball. She prepared to call out to Starflash, thinking that he was behind this. Although she wasn’t angry, she was—
—freezing cold from the spray of a third ball hitting her. As she brushed the snow from her coat, her ears pricked as she heard a faint giggle. She stood rooted to the spot, frantically darting her eyes about to find her attacker. Whoever it was, they were going to pay once she had found them.
“All right, who’s there?! Starflash, is that you?” she called out into the dim depths of the forest. After a few silent moments, she furrowed her brows as the culprit revealed herself; a light yellow earth pony with a wide grin on her face, partially obscured by a long, spring-green mane. Both mares stared eye to eye at each other for what seemed like an eternity to Sepia before she spoke up.
“Honeysuckle. Why am I not surprised?”
“Well, it took you long enough!” The yellow mare laughed as Sepia brushed the snow from her mane. “I swear that cutie mark shows your special talent is being slow!”
Sepia glanced behind her, spotting her cutie mark. “Oh how witty of you. Did you skip the lecture just so you could spend all morning and afternoon thinking of that one?”
“Me? Skip the lecture?” Honeysuckle brought a hoof to her face as she gasped dramatically. “Of course I wouldn’t! At least not on purpose anyway. Let’s just say it ‘slipped my mind’ to attend.”
Sepia rolled her eyes as she said this. She was reminded of the excuse Starflash tried to give earlier that day.
“Whatever, like I care. I couldn’t imagine you liking it anyway. Not enough gossip for you,” she said flatly. Honeysuckle stifled a laugh as she began to walk towards the pegasus.
“I suppose you’re right there. But at any rate, the snooping and gossiping business has to be put on hold. The forest flowers hate the snow, so I’m busy clearing it up for them.” She bent down and swished her tail about on the lightly snow covered ground where Sepia stood, revealing a small patch of flowers with purple and yellow petals. Without warning, the earth pony scooped a small rock in both of her front hooves and hurled it at the blanketed treetops. Sepia jumped back as a small chunk of snow rained down onto where she stood. She shot Honeysuckle an angry glance, unaware of the new wave of sunlight that was now beaming down on the flower patch.
So you do have a talent outside of being an irritating, cheeky and sneaky pony, Sepia thought to herself with a smirk. And here I am, thinking that the posy on your flank was just a cruel and ironic way of expressing how annoying you are! What are the odds...
“So I suppose you’re here with Starflash, are you?” the yellow pony asked her. Sepia shook her head as her train of thought was temporarily derailed and she nodded at Honeysuckle.
“I’m helping him with some private sword practise, if you don’t mind. Speaking of which, he should have started looking for me now.”
Honeysuckle let out a slight giggle. “Don’t tell me... he’s probably daydreaming or napping. Honestly, he wants to learn how to become a swordspony and he can’t even be bothered to keep to his practise schedule?” She shook her head while smiling to herself. “If he’s napping, that’ll be the second time he’s embarrassed you today!”
Sepia’s eyes widened as she said this, and she stepped back. The sea of staring faces started to reappear all around her, smiling at her mockingly. She blinked a few times, and the ghostly figures vanished instantly. “Oh... You saw that?”
Honeysuckle leaned down and examined the flowers she had rescued from their snowy prison, brushing away some stray snowflakes that clung to the petals with her hooves. “I may have skipped... sorry, missed the lecture, but I couldn’t resist a quick peek at what was going on in there. It was just as I expected; a lot of bored ponies, save for a certain nerdy pegasus and her unicorn friend who can’t seem to take his head out of the clouds.”
Sepia cringed as she reimagined the whole scene in her head. Although she knew that she shouldn’t let the embarrassment at the lecture get to her, it seemed to for some unknown reason, no matter how hard she tried. The hundreds- no, thousands- of faces turning towards her. Just then, she heard a soft gallop coming from behind her and she quickly turned on the spot.
Starflash stood a fair distance away from the two mares, and Sepia glared him. “Well, you took your time!” she said with a sense of irritation in her voice. The unicorn looked away in embarrassment, spotting Honeysuckle as he turned his head.
“Good afternoon Starflash,” she said with a grin. “I trust you found the history lesson entertaining?”
It took a few moments for Starflash’s brain to catch onto what she trying to say, but thanks to Sepia’s icy look, his silence was short lived. He couldn’t help but laugh and blush while brushing his mane away from his eyes. “Well what can I say? I have a keen interest in history, and the village elder’s lesson sounded like fun. Turns out that it didn’t disappoint!”
“Mm, yes,” Sepia said, “but I think it’s time we got on with your practise. Alone.” She glanced at Honeysuckle, who just smiled back at her.
“Practise? I don’t suppose you mind if I watch you two? Or better yet, maybe I can help you!” The earth pony scooped up a lump of snow and quickly sculpted it into a ball.
“Well, I suppose having two throwers instead of one might help me become a better swordspony twice as fast,” Starflash said. He clapped his hooves together and, with a faint glow from his horn, unsheathed his sword. “All right, let’s go!”
Honeysuckle dashed behind a tree with a giggle, followed by a groaning Sepia dragging herself in the opposite direction.
Well that’s wonderful, the pegasus thought, a perfect day ruined. Hopefully she’ll get bored and go back to her flowers.
She closed her eyes, using her hooves to form a snowball. She began to count in her head. On three, she would let Starflash have it. Honeysuckle didn’t exist, she told herself. It was just him, herself and—
“Hey Sepia, think fast!”
—another snowball colliding with her face. She wiped the powdered cold from her eyes and looked in every direction- behind her, opposite to her and even above her- whilst she gritted her teeth. She began to lump more ammo onto her payload, whispering to herself.
“Ignore her, Sepia. You’re not here to start a war.”
“Oh really?” somepony whispered behind her. She jumped and spun around, only to be met with two blinding flashes of white. She yelped and stumbled backwards, tripping on a tree root.
“Hey!” she yelled. “You’re supposed to be aiming for Starflash, not me!”
“Oh but I was,” Honeysuckle said with a grin, “but I can’t help it if you got in the way, can I?” She spotted the extra-large ball that Sepia had crafted and swiftly crushed it beneath her back hoof. “Honestly, you should stick to your books and dusting off bits of junk in that museum.”
The mention of the museum caused Sepia to pause. The words dwelled in her mind, as if they had some hidden meaning or intent. After a few seconds of thinking, she immediately sprang upright while blinking furiously. “The museum... Oh my gosh, I forgot!” She dashed for the entrance of the forest where she had entered, tripping and slipping on the icy grass as she quickly picked up her saddlebags. Starflash leaned out from behind one of the trees, sheathing the levitating sword he was controlling.
“Sep? Where are you going?” he shouted after her. He glanced to the side as he heard a short burst of laughter. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” Honeysuckle replied, “she just bolted when she remembered something about the museum. She’s so passionate about her work, sometimes I think it totally dominates her mind.”
“She’s going to the museum on a day like this?” Starflash said. “Does she realise that it’s her day off?” He looked at Honeysuckle, who gave him a shrug. “Well, one of these days she’s going to work herself to death.”
Honeysuckle turned away from him and muttered to herself.
“That would be a shame, wouldn’t it?”
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you decided that work was more important than a day in the snow. Good on you! There’s a stack of paperwork that needs doing, so if you’re not busy get to it!
More importantly, I also have a new exhibit sent in by some old coot who thinks he’s got himself a rare heirloom of sorts; a necklace to be precise. You should have seen the letter he sent with it too- the story he gave about how he found that necklace... Well, let’s just say that in the autumn years, your memories often give way to some rather interesting fantasies instead.
The necklace is on your desk next to this letter. Research it. Even though I’m not convinced that it’s antique or that it even has any value outside of that of the sentimental kind, I suppose that it’s our duty to find out as much about it as possible. I can’t date it off the top of my head, nor can I say anything about its region of origin, but I’m sure that you can figure it out!
Well what are you waiting for? Snap to it!
The gold necklace lay on Sepia’s desk, the small, smooth white orb-shaped gem which hung from it sparkling with brilliant flashes of blue and white as the light of the evening sun reflected from its surface. She picked it up with a lazy hoof and watched the decoration dangle freely before her. As she stared at it, she gently swung it from side to side like a delicate gold pendulum and one thought filled her mind.
I really hate that mare sometimes.
She looked at the spherical decoration for a few more seconds before deciding to place the necklace around her neck. With the lack of a mirror, she didn’t bother to try and see if it suited her at all. She headed straight for her office door.
Well, I might as well try and get this looked up then. If it keeps me away from her for the next couple of hours, then great. But Starflash... I’m sorry you have to put up with Honeysuckle all by yourself.
The clopping of her hooves against the marble floor of the corridors echoed throughout the building as she made her way to the staircase to the basement. The only other sound which could be heard was the jingling necklace chain. She turned left into a room with a dim blue glow surrounding the walls.
The astronomy section... Even though you’re not here Starflash, there’s absolutely no difference. Nothing is getting done in here, as per normal!
Once she had made her way to the other side of the room, she turned towards the stairs to her left. A sign above the aging oak door at the bottom of the steps read ‘Archives.’
Rows and rows of bookshelves stretched for what seemed to be miles in the dingy basement. Several of the dusty tomes that rested on the shelves looked as if they would crumble and fall at the slightest touch, and some were even covered in cobwebs. Sepia took the half-melted candle that stood on the small table next to the door and lit it with a broken match from the tiny box.
“I should really clean this place out sometime,” she whispered. She took the small dish on which the candle stood and placed it onto her back, being careful not to place it too close to her mane. She had been here countless times, so she didn’t worry about having a naked flame on her back.
Walking carefully, she made her way past each of the bookshelves in turn. She gave an “aha” as she spotted a thick book which rested on a bottom section of one of the shelves in the corner. She placed the candle on the floor and read the gold letters on the spine.
Crafting Throughout History, Vol. I
“This shouldn’t take long,” she said as she removed the book from the shelf, remarking in her mind about the sheer weight of it. Once it was hanging out enough, Sepia picked it up in her mouth and dragged it over to the desk, gagging as she tasted the many layers of dust that had built up over the years. It landed on the table with an echoing thud as she dropped it, sending a cloud of dirt flying into the air.
“Let’s see what we’ve got here...”
Two hundred pages and many hours later, Sepia rubbed her eyes as dry air began to irritate them. The lack of light and all the dust wasn't helping either, as her bloodshot eyes were beginning to itch as if sand had gotten in under her eyelids. She rested her head on her hoof and began to flick through the book one page at a time, whispering ‘nope’ as she compared her necklace to the ones in the book. She squinted, her eyes unable to tell the difference between the yellow of the paper and the golden colours in each picture.
Five hundred pages later, she was gritting her teeth; Not one piece of jewelry in the book matched the necklace. She groaned as she slammed the book shut.
“Nothing?! There has to something on this thing somewhere!” She lumbered to the bookshelf from which she had gotten the first book and took another one of the hefty tomes, this time labelled Vol. II.
“I’m getting to the bottom of this. I didn’t give up an afternoon in the snow for nothing! I don’t care if it takes all night!”
Sepia stood alone. The scene before her stretched for miles around in every direction. The plains were bare: no flowers, no houses, not even another pony. Just her and the grass. The sun was high in the cloudless sky, and the gentle breeze felt cool and calm on her fur. It took a few moments for her to take the scene in, but once she was used to it she smiled.
Where am I? How in the hay did I get here? And who—
She stopped as she spotted a lone figure in the distance, standing there rigid motionless. She cautiously walked towards it, the fresh grass crunching beneath her hooves as she made her way closer. As she approached, she saw that the figure was, in fact, a pony shrouded by a black cloak which fluttered gently in the breeze.
“H-Hello?” she called out to it. There was no response, but it moved its hoof slightly and dug at the ground. Sepia inched closer, trembling slightly. Her shaking soon stopped as she plucked up the courage to stand directly behind the pony.
“Can you hear me? Hello?” she asked again.
Slowly, the figure turned its head towards her until a white snout, and nothing else, was visible. Sepia stared at the pony’s mouth as its lips formed a single word in a whispery, sweet sounding voice.
Sepia stood there blinking. It took a few moments for the mare’s word to sink in. When she finally figured out what it had said, she shook her head. “Follow? You want me to go with you?”
The mare didn’t respond. She simply turned her head back in the direction she was looking in.
“I-I don’t understand,” Sepia said quickly. “Who are you? Where am I?”
She heard the pony exhale, and before she could say anything else, Sepia could feel the wind rushing about her and causing the great field of grass to move in powerful waves. As the wind became more fierce, Sepia’s mane began to move like the grass she was standing on and she felt as if she was about to be lifted off of her hooves. The stranger’s cloak still moved in a gentle motion, as if the wind were still just a breeze. The sun was beginning to become unbearably bright too, forcing Sepia to hold a hoof to her eyes as she felt them burning.
And with a great flash, she awoke.
She sat behind the desk in the pitch black basement, the scent of a smoking candle hanging in the air. She could feel the layers of dust that had been rubbing against her face and groaned, stretching her legs.
“What? I fell asleep?” she said with a yawn. “It couldn’t have been that long, could it?”
Looking about the room, she groped about for the matches. Once she had laid a hoof on the box, she struck it and searched for the door with the meagre light.
Well, I suppose I’ll have to leave it for tomorrow now, she thought. She closed the door behind her as she blew out the match. She shrugged as she noticed that she didn’t have a key to lock the door, and that she was still wearing the necklace.
Ugh... I can’t be bothered to put this back in the office, she thought as she poked the decoration on the chain. I suppose I’ll just wear it home. It’s not like it’s going to be missed between now and tomorrow anyway.
With a slouch, she made her way to the museum entrance and began the short walk back to her house across the plaza, under the cover of the full moon which lit the sky with a pale white light. She shivered, the still air of the night chilling her to the bone. Looking about the scene, she crept through the snow. She noticed that the area was totally deserted and silent, even for such a late hour.
What a day. Maybe sleep will help me to—
Sepia stopped dead. Her eyes widened and her tiredness was instantly replaced with shock.
Standing across the plaza was an ethereal figure in the shape of a pony, which was glowing with a faint white light.
Sepia stared at the ghostly white figure, her eyes like saucers. She rubbed them with her hoof and blinked, but no matter what she did, the spirit still stood there, looking towards the town entrance.
Sepia crept forwards silently, not daring to make a noise in the presence of the mysterious being. When she was just a couple of inches away from the spirit, Sepia stopped and reached out to touch it. She slowly maneuvered her hoof forwards, biting her lip as she did so. Then she stopped; she could feel nothing as she touched the spirit. Sepia gasped as she realised that her hoof had gone straight through it!
She shivered as she quickly pulled herself out of the creature, feeling no resistance as she did so. Before her eyes, the mist began to collect around the hole which she had created. Sepia could no longer see the wound which she had created; she waved away the gathering mist which obscured the hole and blinked. The spirit’s flank was whole again.
Sepia swallowed as she moved towards the creature’s front. Its face was that of a pony, but there were no defining features: no scars or birthmarks and no dimples or freckles. Even its eyes seemed empty, as if they were perfectly flat pearls. The only distinguishing feature was its horn and long, free-flowing mane.
“E-excuse me,” Sepia began, “are you that pony that told me to... ‘follow’?”
The spirit’s gaze was not deterred; It didn’t even acknowledge the pegasus’ question. It stood there with its hooves rooted firmly to the ground, staring at the same spot.
“Can you hear me?” Sepia asked. She moved herself closer to the pony’s face.
The sound of a bell echoed throughout the town— a single, deep ring— and Sepia quickly glanced behind her towards the museum. She spotted the time from the dimly illuminated orange clock face on the front of the building.
“What am I doing?” she whispered. “It’s one o’clock in the morning and I’m talking to this—”
Sepia stopped. The spirit had begun to trot towards the point at which it was staring, leaving a misty trail behind itself. It was moving down the street while making an almost whisper-like noise, like the sound of wind whistling through grass, as it moved.
“H-Hey! Where are you going?!” Sepia called out after it. She galloped towards it, but the spirit broke out into a run as she closed the distance. “Slow down!”
As soon as the spirit reached the town entrance, it stopped, allowing Sepia to catch up. It looked to the sides twice before moving off again. It had slowed its pace, and Sepia could trot alongside it with no effort.
A couple of minutes later, the cobbled road ended at a gravel path that ran along the edge of the forest, just outside of the town. The tree stump where Sepia met Starflash earlier that day made a silhouette in the moonlight, and the mist from the spirit pony swirled about it as they passed by. The ghost stopped walking as it reached a fence that ran along the roadside, causing Sepia to stop just behind it. It looked to the left into the blackness of the forest.
Without warning, it dashed into the darkness, weaving through the trees as it galloped. Sepia gasped and started running after it, keeping herself on the mist trail behind the spirit.
“Wait!” Sepia shouted after it, taking care not to trip over the tree roots. She squinted, her eyes trying to adjust to the near pitch-black conditions. The only sources of light were the trails left by the spirit that created a dust-like stream on the ground, and the moonlight that shone through the treetops in small spots.
The ghost hesitated for a second, turning towards a lighter area in the forest. Sepia stopped just beside the spirit and rested. When she sat down, she felt something tickle her flank, like a duster.
“Honeysuckle’s flower patch?” she said. She stared at the plants to her side and smiled. “Well, if this is a sign of some kind...”
Sepia raised her hoof before slamming it down on the tallest shoot, crushing it. The spirit’s gaze had not shifted from the lighter area of the forest, and it was now moving very slowly towards it.
“The old forest? But nopony has been there for years,” Sepia whispered. “Are you... Are you a ghost from there or something? Did you get lost in there and... well... die?”
The spirit ignored her and began picking up the pace again. Sepia followed close behind while sticking to the mist trail, and the forest became lighter as the two ponies emerged from the denser area of trees. As Sepia kept her eyes on the trail, she noticed that the glow it had was becoming faint as she followed it.
The light shining down on the forest floor was slowly becoming weaker as Sepia followed the path. She looked towards the sky and noticed how thick the treetops had became. How far into the forest is she going? she thought. She quickly glanced backwards to check how far into the woods she had trotted, and she spotted the misty trail fading behind her.
“Better pick up the—”
She turned back towards the thicker part of the trail, only to find that the spirit was nowhere in sight. The mist suddenly ended at a steep drop a short distance away.
Sepia walked towards the end of the trail, only to find that it continued down the edge of a steep cliff face. She scrambled backwards upon seeing how far the mist stretched, breathing heavily, and she watched the light of the spirit drift through the pitch black woods below where she stood. As it moved away, Sepia glanced at her chest as she noticed a glowing white light from near her; it was coming from the necklace.
She took the decoration in her hoof and watched the illumination fade as the ghostly pony ran into the darkness of the old forest.
Fading Scroll trotted through the corridors of the museum, his bones aching from the exertion of moving from his office to the astronomy exhibit across the hall. The morning sun was shining through the windows and onto the glossy floor on which he trotted, causing him to squint from the shimmering light. Once he entered the dome-shaped room, he cleared his throat as he looked around.
“Starflash?” he called out with a hoarse voice. He sat down gently on the bench that ran around the edge of the room and stroked his wrinkled face with his hoof. His ears perked up when he heard a gentle snoring coming from behind a door to his left. “Ugh, not again.”
He opened the door and jumped back as a mop fell in front of him. As the sound of a wooden handle colliding with the floor echoed throughout the dome shaped room, a blue unicorn with an untamed navy mane emerged with a yawn from the cleaning closet. Scroll shook his head as the pony rubbed his eyes and stretched his legs. A moment of silence followed as the unicorn stared at his aging boss, taking the time to figure out who had disturbed his mid-morning nap. He snapped to attention once he spotted the roll of parchment on the elderly pony’s flank.
“Hey Scroll,” Starflash said with a slight smile. “You’re up bright and early.”
Scroll groaned and shook his head again. “Never mind about me. Where’s Sepia?”
Starflash shrugged. “Haven’t seen her since she ran off to get some extra work in last night. I was going to tell her that it was her day off, but she didn’t hear me. She was supposed to be helping me with sword practise, but Honeysuckle helped me out instead.”
“Honeysuckle? The flower girl that’s always snooping about where she’s not wanted?” Scroll’s eyes drifted away from the sleepy pony and turned towards the glowing balls, representing planets, circling his head. Some were surrounded with rings, and all of them were orbiting a brighter orb in the centre. “Whatever, it doesn’t matter. If you see Sepia, tell her—”
“—sorry I’m late,” a voice cut in. Scroll turned behind him and saw an orange pony with a brown mane, which was all over the place. Her eyes were slightly red, and she yawned as Scroll walked towards her.
“Where have you been?” Sepia prepared to answer, but Scroll raised a hoof to her face and silenced her. “Never mind. You look like a wreck, girl! Have you been researching that artifact all night?” He chuckled, turning towards Starflash. “You could learn to pick up a good habit or two from her!”
The young stallion rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah... What was it you were researching?” He walked towards Sepia and inspected the necklace that she removed from her neck, prodding the gem and watching it oscillate on the chain. “Pretty nice. What is it?”
Sepia bowed her head. “I don’t know.”
“You mean you were up all night and you didn’t find anything on it? Not even a fleeting mention or anything similar?” Scroll asked.
Sepia bit her lip and looked away before answering. “No. Nothing.”
“Well, that’s a shame. I suppose we should send it back in the morning. In the meantime, you should take that day off you were supposed to have yesterday. You look like you need it!”
“But sir, I—”
“No, no, I don’t want to hear it,” Scroll said, waving his hoof at her dismissively. “Just go home and get some rest.”
Sepia prepared to argue, but knew that it was pointless. “All right.”
“Good.” Scroll turned towards Starflash and shot him a sinister glare. “And I’m watching you. If I catch you sleeping when you’re supposed to be working, you’re gone!” He began to walk back towards his office, grumbling something incomprehensible. Starflash stuck his tongue out after him as he disappeared from view.
“Bet he’ll miss me when I’m gone,” he said, smirking. He poked a hoof into Sepia’s mane and pulled out a leaf which he had spotted before, letting it drop to the floor. “Now then, where did you go last night? Did you fall asleep in a bush or something?”
Sepia smiled as she watched Starflash’s face switch back and forth between looks of pure confusion and great amusement.
“How about I explain it over breakfast?”
The two ponies sat together on the edge of the plaza fountain with a small bag of pastries, watching the townsfolk prepare themselves for another ordinary day. The snow had mostly melted, leaving only a few white patches and slush between the gaps of the cobbled road as a reminder of yesterday’s cold snap. There were no foals playing in the streets, and there were market traders grumbling about how the brief freeze had impacted upon their pockets. Today, it was business as usual.
Starflash’s mouth had been moving non-stop, and Sepia’s had been doing much of the same. The difference being that Sepia’s was being used to talk, and Starflash’s was devouring sweet treats at a pace of a dozen a minute. Once the mare had finished explaining the events of the previous night, a silence built between the two as Starflash stopped chewing.
“So let me get this straight,” he said, forcing the words past a wall of pastry. “You fell asleep, had a weird dream with a pony and woke up. You then saw this pony in the town— in this very plaza— and followed it into the forest, got lost and fell asleep in a bush?”
“Crazy, right?” Sepia said. Starflash shrugged, levitating another pastry towards his mouth. The pegasus batted it away and gave him an irritated look before it touched his tongue.
“What? So you’ve had a strange dream and ended up someplace else. I’ve done that loads of times. In fact, I’m sure lots of ponies have! It’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”
“No, this is different,” Sepia said. “For starters, I’d expect that from you.” Starflash blushed slightly, and she shook her head. “Besides, I was definitely awake... I even said how it made no sense! Yet I still followed that pony. The funny thing is, this only happened to me after I put on this necklace.”
“Let me see it again,” Starflash said. Sepia handed it over to him and he held it close to his eye. He noticed how smooth the decoration’s surface was, and that the gem itself was a perfect sphere. He also noticed that there was a small plate where the necklace could be disconnected into one long chain. There were a few small symbols engraved on this part, but he couldn’t make out what they read. The gem gave a dull sparkle, causing him to blink. “It’s quite nice, but I don’t really know what to make of it other than that. Whereabouts did that pony take you?”
“Just before the old forest near the base of that cliff. I was going to follow it but...” She looked away from Starflash, and he sighed.
“Good thing too. There’s always a bunch of nasty monsters lurking about after dark down there. I wouldn’t want to see you get hurt.”
He looked at Sepia’s wing on the side where he sat; part of it was deformed and crooked at the point next to her body, and it was bent at an angle different to her other wing. He quickly shifted his gaze when Sepia looked back at him.
“I’m just curious to know who that pony was,” she said. “Maybe it was—”
Sepia rolled her eyes and sighed. “Oh come on. So you think that this pony happens to be the one from a fairy tale? The same pony who supposedly roamed the Canterlonian countryside, looking for something? The same pony that heroically vanquished the dark alicorn Glacius, who never existed either?”
Starflash stared at her. He then grinned before answering. “The elder tells it better, you know.”
“Listen. There’s no evidence of a so called ‘Wanderer’. Not a painting, not a piece of clothing or—”
“Jewelry. Maybe you’re the first to find some evidence!”
Sepia hopped from the fountain, brushing her flank with a quick stroke of her hoof. “I strongly doubt that. Well, I’m going home to take a nap. I’ll see you in the afternoon after work.” She began to trot away towards her home, but turned back and smiled at Starflash. “That is if you don’t get fired for sleeping again while I’m gone!”
The unicorn rolled his eyes, biting deeply into his final pastry.
Bing Bong Bing Booooong
Sepia opened her eyes and looked towards the clock, her ears twitching to the sound of a bell chiming four o’clock. She gave a long yawn and stretched her aching legs; sleeping on the sofa wasn’t ideal for her, but the desire for sleep outweighed her need for comfort. She spread her wings— a sharp pain ran through her left side and she retracted it immediately, rubbing it with her hoof.
She stood up and trotted to a wide mirror mounted above a small wood-burning fireplace opposite to the sofa, watching her wings. She spread them both again; the right one looked perfectly normal, the orange feathers seeming as if they were preened perfectly. The left one could only manage to spread itself half the distance of her other wing, and at a different angle at the base.
Sepia looked into the yellow eyes of the pony in the mirror.
Has it really been that long? I thought that the feeling had completely gone from it. I still can’t fly with it, being as useless... No, it doesn’t matter. You’re happy being on the ground. At least you know how an earth pony feels—
A thundering knocking broke her train of thought and her gaze snapped away from the amber eyes, towards the front door. She went to open it and was greeted by a grinning Starflash with a sheathed sword strapped to his back and padded armour around his body.
“Sorry if I woke you,” he started, “but I was wondering if you’d like to go for a walk?”
“Where to?” Sepia said, leaning to the side to catch a glimpse of his blade. “Across a battlefield?”
“You said that the pony you saw took you to the edge of the old forest, yeah? I was thinking that if we go together, we can find out why.”
Sepia ushered him inside, her eyes widening. “You believe me?”
“Of course! I’m a pony whose life revolves around daydreaming and looking up at the stars. It’s only natural for me to believe in some kooky things.” Sepia gave him a raised brow. “That, and I want to see this pony for myself.”
Sepia practically threw herself at him, embracing him in a choking hug. “Thank you! I would have hated going to the old forest alone, thinking that you thought I was insane... Give me a second and we’ll get going right away!”
She dashed towards the fireplace, grabbing the necklace that hung from the neck of a porcelain pegasus statue. Before Starflash could tell her to slow down, she had already disappeared into the kitchen, re-emerging with half a satchel full of snacks.
“Hey, we’re not going on a picnic!” he said. “We won’t be gone for that long anyway. We need to be back before sunset, otherwise the creatures of the old forest might be feeling peckish for pony!” As both he and Sepia prepared to leave, he stopped. “Can I ask you something?”
“Why are you so excited to go with me? I mean, curiosity is one thing but a hug...” He began to blush, causing Sepia’s cheeks to turn a slight red too.
“Sorry. I guess that I’m just dying to know more about this necklace and that strange pony, but I’m... well... a little nervous about going into the old forest by myself. But with an accomplished swordspony such as yourself, I’m sure I’ll be fine!”
Starflash chuckled, unsheathing his sword with a glow of his horn. “No need for flattery, Sep. I’m just a novice!”
Sepia sighed. Just a little sarcasm, Starflash. But it’s not the monsters that I’m worried about. It’s two other obstacles that worry me.
The short walk to the forest was filled with conversation regarding Starflash’s morning: how he had given the same lecture three times to an elderly visitor on how planets were given their names. How he had rescued a pegasus filly after she had managed to land on the beams that supported the model planets in the exhibit. How he had managed to skillfully earn a few bits for a tip by making up a song and dance routine about the solar system on the spot.
“Not bad for a day’s work, don’t you think?” he asked Sepia as they trudged through the forest. Most of the snow from the day before still lay on the ground, due to the shelter from the sunlight provided by the treetops, which slowed their progress.
“Well, thank heavens that I don’t have to embarrass myself like that. I mean honestly, you’re putting on a show for a few bits when you’re supposed to be a tour guide? Typical Starflash.”
“I don’t mind if I look a little silly! That’s part of the fun that the job brings.”
A few steps later, Sepia held out her hoof and blocked Starflash’s path, ushering him behind a nearby tree and ordering him to stand on his hind legs. She aligned her body vertically with the trunk, ordering him to do the same.
There’s obstacle number one, she thought.
“I honestly hate these forest animals sometimes,” she could hear a mare’s voice say. It sounded light and slightly squeaky. “They know that it drives me crazy when they nibble at my flowers!”
Sepia peeked from her hiding spot, catching a glimpse of the familiar yellow coat and green mane of a pony who was busy gathering a bunch of flowers into a small basket.
“Honeysuckle,” she murmured. “Wonderful...”
“Uh, sorry to interrupt,” Starflash whispered, his legs beginning to shake from standing on his hind hooves, “but why are we hiding?”
“Listen, just be quiet and follow my lead,” Sepia said almost silently as she tiptoed out from behind the tree. Starflash followed close behind, looking back towards Honeysuckle.
“Keep moving!” Sepia whispered harshly. “I don’t want her to—”
She gritted her teeth and cursed under her breath as the light voice finished her sentence. Sepia turned around, looking directly into the face of a rather smug earth pony.
“Looks like she heard you,” Starflash said with a smirk.
Sepia glared at the unicorn, giving him a look that seethed with anger. “Well, you caught us red-hooved. Happy?”
“Ecstatic!” Honeysuckle gleefully said. “So, what could be so important that you would feel the need to try and sneak by me?”
Starflash glanced at Sepia, who was mouthing three distinct words at him.
Don’t. You. Dare.
“Well, it’s really—”
“—none of your business!” Sepia cut in, blocking the stallion’s mouth with her hoof.
Honeysuckle shrugged, trotted over to the flower patch and picked up the basket with her foreleg. “All right,” she said, “then I suppose I won’t get in your way. It’s clear to me that your business in the old forest is private.”
Sepia smiled, surprised at her co-operation. “I’m glad you under—” She stopped, the smile vanishing from her face. “How did you know that’s where we’re going?”
“Call it a hunch,” Honeysuckle replied with a grin. “I also have an inkling that you’re going there to find out more about a necklace that you’re researching. The one around your neck? You have no idea what it is, who made it or when it’s from, and you also followed a ghostly pony last night and it lead you to the forest... Stop me if I’m wrong!”
Sepia’s eye twitched, unable to comprehend what she had just heard. The gears in her brain soon clicked and began to grind, causing her to turn her head towards a guilty looking unicorn with an awkward smile on his face.
“I’m sorry, but I had to tell her! She asked me very sweetly about it, and you know how curious and persistent she can be.”
The goofy grin was wiped from his face when Sepia almost turned red, her teeth grinding. She recomposed herself when she heard Honeysuckle’s tittering laughter.
“Oh Sepia... Haven’t you learned anything after all these years? It’s my job to know everything about everypony in town. Call me a ‘current affairs enthusiast’ if you will.”
Public menace, more like, Sepia thought.
“I only tell ponies what they want to know,” Honeysuckle continued, “and you should feel safe in the knowledge that nopony ever wants to know about you.”
Sepia stared back into Honeysuckle’s grin, which seemed to, in Sepia’s mind, disguise something malicious and sneaky. She dwelt on the words for a few seconds before replying with a sarcastic smile.
“Good to know. Now if you’ll excuse me... sorry, us,” she said, grabbing Starflash’s tail with her hoof. He was shocked from his daydream, and he frantically looked about.
“Well I’ve also got some business in the old forest,” Honeysuckle said, trotting past the two ponies.
“Oh, really?” Starflash asked. “We can go with you if you like! What do you need down there?”
Sepia successfully resisted the urge to give him a light smack with her hoof; an evening with Honeysuckle was the last thing she wanted.
“Some mushrooms. These flowers are being made into a tincture, and I need a particular fungus to complete it. And since I have the world’s most talented swordspony and her assistant close by—”
“Please, enough with the flattery! I’m not some legendary hero!” Starflash said with a blush.
“No, I mean it! You’re Royal Guard material!”
Sepia rolled her eyes and began to storm off towards the old forest while trying to stop the irritation inside her from showing in any other way. “Well, if you two are coming then let’s go! I want to be back before nightfall.”
The two ponies behind her quickly trotted after her. As soon as Honeysuckle caught up, she stopped in front of Sepia.
“One second, you’ve just reminded me. If you feel tired again, your bed is over there,” she said smugly. She pointed towards a bush with most of its leaves flattened.
“Very funny,” Sepia said, glaring at her.
It was a brief walk to the edge of the old forest, but it felt like hours to Sepia. She tried her best to block out Honeysuckle’s chatter, but the light and squeaky voice kept on finding ways to induce a migraine in her head.
“So tell me,” the yellow pony asked Starflash, “where are you going once you complete your swordspony training?”
The unicorn shrugged. “No idea. Without an actual trainer or master, I have to rely upon myself for practice. That puts me at a real disadvantage if I want to try out for a Royal Guard position.”
“Not to mention that you already have a job at the museum?” Sepia cut in.
“There’s no reason why he can’t do both!” Honeysuckle said. “Starflash… The monster-slaying, crime-busting, legendary astronomer!”
He gave a hearty chuckle while blushing. “Now that’s a pony to envy!”
The three arrived at the edge of the forest a couple of minutes later. The woods they had just emerged from ended at a cliff face, which divided it from the old forest below. Though it was still light outside, Sepia could still see how gloomy it was below the treetops. The vast expanse of dark green leaves below her seemed to stretch for miles, as far as her eyes could see. Looking back towards the face of the cliff, she immediately stepped back as her legs turned to jelly. Though it was only a few metres to the ground, Sepia’s eyes managed to convince her that it was a few miles. She jumped as Starflash prodded her on the shoulder.
“Y-Y-Yeah. I’m fine,” she replied.
She looked back towards the cliff and saw that Honeysuckle was already beginning to descend using the protruding rocks. She practically bounded downwards with graceful hops, which made Sepia feel sick; to her, it looked as if the earth pony was plummeting to her demise. Once Honeysuckle had reached the bottom, she looked upwards towards both Sepia and Starflash, calling out to them.
“Well, are you two coming or not?”
“Just stick close to me Sep,” Starflash said, placing a hoof on her shoulder. “We’ll be on the forest floor before you know it. I’ll go first, so just step where I step.”
She nodded and tucked herself into his body as Starflash moved first, and she repeated his making sure that she stayed on the side closest to the cliff face. With every step, Sepia gently planted her hoof on the rocks whilst looking back at Starflash, making sure that he was still close by to see where he moved. Their progress was slow but steady, and after a minute of careful climbing they planted their hooves on the grassy ground of the old forest. Sepia gave a hidden sigh of relief as Starflash smiled at her.
“I’m all right,” she said. “Just a little shaky.”
“Good,” he replied with a sigh. “Now, we’d better get moving before the sun goes down. I’m not very sure about what we’re looking for though. Honeysuckle, call out if you find your mushrooms. What do they look like again?”
“Purple caps, long stems,” she replied flatly and quickly whilst adjusting the basket hanging on her leg. Sepia spotted her disdainful look as she walked into the forest, moving onto an old beaten track.
“All right then. Sepia, we’d better keep our eyes peeled too. Let’s hurry it up or we’ll be in trouble!”
Starflash began to trot just ahead of both of the mares, and Sepia began to follow. Before she caught up to Honeysuckle, she stopped. The earth pony had turned her head back to look at her with a furious glare before resuming her walk, which caught Sepia by surprise.
Woah… I knew I was a little slow coming down that cliff, but usually my hatred of heights gets a giggle or a comment out of her. What’s her problem?
The three ponies stuck together as they made their way into the old forest, the growing darkness making them become cautious as they moved. The sunlight was fighting hard to break through the thick masses of leaves above them, making the light much more sparse than the woods they had just came from. The ground was almost bare; few plants, save for some sprigs of grass and weeds that sprouted near the trees, covered the forest floor. The silence unnerved Sepia slightly, as there was no breeze to rustle the leafy treetops, nor were there any chirping birds to keep the three ponies company.
It was as if the forest had known that they had arrived...
After ten minutes of easy walking, the ground was starting to become uneven with gnarled tree roots and thick weeds, slowing the group’s pace to a crawl. The beaten track had largely disappeared, save for the occasional dirt patch. As he brushed past a cobweb-laden spot of grass, Starflash sighed while removing the sticky strands.
“I think we’ve gone a little too far in,” he said, turning his head about. He squinted through the trees, into the darkest depths of the forest, and used some magic to create a faint glow in his horn. “We should probably turn back.”
Honeysuckle sidled alongside him and brushed away the persistent strings clinging to the unicorn’s leg. “But this is the only beaten track, and we’ve come all this way anyway! We might as well go further in.”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Sepia asked. She was lagging behind, taking care not to stray even an inch from the single file line that the three of them had been walking in before.
“Of course,” Honeysuckle replied, grinning at her. “Unless you’re afraid that is?”
“There’s no need for that Honeysuckle,” Starflash cut in. “She’s right, it’s not a smart idea to start wandering about here. We could get lost, and then something like a goliath pony eating spider could—“
“I get it,” she said quickly, furrowing her brows. “Let’s just find whatever she’s looking for and go, shall we?”
Starflash stood still, slightly dumbfounded at her comment. He waited for Sepia to catch up before whispering to her.
“What’s wrong with her? Do you think she’s in a mood because we can’t find her mushrooms?”
“How should I know?” Sepia whispered back. She waited for Honeysuckle to storm away from them a little further before speaking again. “I don’t see why she should be complaining anyway. She was the one who offered to come with us, not the other way around—”
“When you’re done talking about me behind my back!” Honeysuckle yelled back at them. Starflash glanced at Sepia with wide eyes.
“I really hate those supersonic ears of hers,” he whispered.
Don’t we all... Sepia thought as she rolled her eyes and followed the earth pony deeper into the forest. She heard galloping behind her as Starflash shouted for her to wait.
12 Cobblestone Street
Dear Sir or Madam,
I am writing to you today to bring you wonderful news. I have decided to make a donation to your museum, and I promise you that this artifact will be of great interest to you and to to your visitors!
You see, for many years I was an assistant to an international explorer’s group. We travelled the world together, exploring the jungles of the east and the savannah of the south, braving the cold climbs of the northern griffon lands and the plains of the west. The journeys were long and often harsh, fraught with danger at every turn. Well, that may be a slight exaggeration. Then again, you’re probably looking for an artifact with a history of adventure surrounding it!
Well, after many trips and treks through the uncharted and unfamiliar lands, our perseverance finally paid off! The vast southern desert to the south, also known as the ‘Sea of Truth’ by the local inhabitants (zebras... strange folk, let me tell you!), had a rumour surrounding it. Many thought that in the very depths and hidden beneath the dunes was a cave filled to the brim with treasure. Absurd and cliché, I know, but the very thought of adventure excited myself and my peers greatly. We just couldn’t resist the opportunity for fame and, to a lesser extent, fortune!
And what a disaster that trip was. Five of us departed, and we were lucky that all five of us came back. The desert had not given us the most warm of welcomes: sandstorms, the loss of most of our food and water, and worst of all we had lost our sense of direction! As we wandered the barren landscape aimlessly, our hope slowly began to dwindle. How could we, five experienced explorers (well, four explorers and their assistant), become lost in a land that we should have known like the backs of our hooves?
But after four days of tiring trekking, we had found salvation. An oasis! We counted ourselves to be most fortunate, as it contained everything we needed: water, fruit and shelter. Once we had refilled our starving, thirsty bodies, we immediately planned our next move. The only problem was that getting into the desert was easy. Getting back out would be near impossible without guidance. As the trained explorers argued amongst themselves over the best course of action, I was busying myself by gathering resources for our impending departure. That was when I found it. The necklace in the pool.
I was preparing to fill several waterskins in a small pool of water, until I was distracted by a glinting light at the bottom. I thought nothing of it at first, thinking that it was just the sun reflecting from the surface of the water, but soon it became stronger as I worked. I decided to sate my curiosity and dip my hoof into the pool, just to see what it was. And wouldn’t you know it, it was the very necklace that you are marvelling at now! How it had reached such an odd place, I did not know. But what a find! Could this be a clue as to the location of the treasure we had sought?
I returned to my group, keeping my find close to my chest (literally!). The necklace remained hidden underneath my desert robes as my peers squabbled amongst themselves. It turns out that the only thing they could agree on was to get some rest for the following day, so that we would be well prepared for when we would attempt to find our way out of the Sea of Truth. I flopped into my hammock as the day drew to a close, and after a few hours of restless napping... I saw it.
My eyes shot open as I saw a figure, made of mist and moonlight in the shape of a unicorn, standing right next to my hammock! Falling from my bed, I rubbed my eyes once. Twice. Three times, and the figure was still there! It was just staring at something in distance, out towards the sands. I tried to communicate, first by speaking then by touch, but to my amazement my hoof went straight through the figure’s form! I woke my fellows and explained what I was seeing, and yet none of them believed me. It’s hardly surprising... I could scarcely believe my own eyes!
Then the figure began to move. First, it was a slow pace in the same direction it was looking in. Then, it broke out into a full-on sprint. Shouting to it, I ran as fast as my legs could carry me across the shifting sands outside the oasis. My peers following close behind, yelling at me to wait, I ran after the pony. I thanked myself that it was midnight; such a lengthy sprint would have spelled disaster in the heat of day. After an hour of following the mystery pony, I stopped dead in my tracks as it dissipated right before my very eyes! Poof! As quickly as it had appeared, it vanished without a trace.
I turned to my peers with a sheepish look on my face, blushing at my sudden and unexplained dash. Yet they were fixated on something else; they were looking at the edge of the desert, where we had entered! There was no mistaking it, for I recognised the small village that we had stayed at briefly before departing. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The five of us did not find treasure of fame, nor did we ever speak of this experience to anypony, but I found something beyond value: a curious little trinket that saved us all! Since then, the necklace has taken pride and place amongst my collection of medals, amulets and other memorabilia of my days in the explorer’s guild, but I have failed to discover the reason for the misty figure’s appearance. I tried wearing the necklace more often in the vain hopes that it would appear once again, but I had no such luck. Now, after many years, I am passing it onto your museum. Maybe you, or your researchers, can unravel the mystery of the ghostly pony!
I bid you the best of luck,
Mr. Wandering Blade
Fading Scroll finished reading the letter once more and pushed the crinkled piece of parchment on his desk away. He chuckled to himself again.
“Of all the bizarre stories surrounding some of the artifacts I’ve came across...”
He trailed off, looking outside his window at the setting sun, which had almost completely disappeared behind the hills.
“So bizarre that it may actually be true?”
He glanced at his wall clock. Half past seven. He prepared to put his jacket on, taking his keys and placing them in the pocket.
“Well Sepia,” he whispered to himself with a smirk, “maybe that same ghost will tell you what that necklace is all about!”
As the evening wore on, Sepia’s hooves began to ache as the three ponies trudged through the weed-choked labyrinth.
“Hold on you two!” she called out to Starflash and Honeysuckle, who were a considerable distance ahead of her. “I really don’t think that going any further would be a good idea! It’s getting dark, we should turn back!”
Starflash paused for a second and looked upwards. “I can’t tell what time it is, Sep! It’s way too thick up in the treetops to see the sky!”
Sepia rolled her eyes and unshouldered her satchel, letting it fall to the ground with a thud. She stretched her front legs, providing them with some relief. “Well I suppose that means it’s getting dark, wouldn’t you agree?”
Both Starflash and Honeysuckle trotted back towards her. Sepia sat on a thick tuft of grass, pulled out a small paper parcel from her satchel and handed it to the unicorn. She did the same for Honeysuckle and, finally, for herself.
“We should stop here for a minute or two,” Starflash said. “We’ve been walking for a couple of hours, so it wouldn’t hurt to take a very quick rest before turning back.”
Starflash opened his parcel magically to reveal a small sweet, and Sepia noticed his eyes light up at the sight of of glistening honey and crumbly, fluffy pastry. In mere seconds, he greedily devoured the snack in two swift bites, leaving a trail of sugary syrup dangling from the corner of his mouth. Honeysuckle, however, was less than impressed. She grimaced as she nibbled her own treat.
“Sepia, did you make these?” she said, placing the half-eaten snack back in the paper and nudging it away with her hoof. “I’ve got to say that they’re pretty awful! I mean they’re way too sweet, the pastry is sticky and greasy, and—”
“And I didn’t make them,” Sepia cut in, her face like stone. “I bought them, so there’s no need for you to criticize so heavily.”
So don’t try and get up my nose with that one. Seriously, what is your problem?! Have I ruined your day in some inexplicable way, Honeysuckle? Have I said something to offend you, making you act like a total jerk? Oh wait, what am I saying? This is just typical of you. Just the same old obnoxious, annoying, squeaky, sly and downright hateful bi—
“You alright Sep?”
Sepia blinked as Starflash nudged her on the shoulder. His entire mouth was coated with crumbs and honey, and he was busying himself by collecting both his and Honeysuckle’s empty wrappers. She shook her head to clear her mind.
“Yes, of course I’m fine. Why?”
“You were sitting there with an intense look on your face, that’s why! Like you were going to pounce on something.”
Sepia glanced at Honeysuckle, who was giving her a slight, smug smile. She cursed in her mind at how she had let the yellow menace get under her skin in such a sneaky way before preparing to pick up her satchel.
“I...I just blanked for a second. Now, shall we—”
She was silenced as a quiet, low growling reached her ears. Starflash’s and Honeysuckle’s ears both twitched, almost in unison, and the earth pony’s head snapped towards the trees.
“Well Starflash,” Sepia said, grinning, “it seems that you've got quite the appetite for those pastries, haven’t you?”
“Uh, Sep...” His brow was raised and his face straight as he turned back to Sepia. “I don’t think that was me.”
Honeysuckle jumped back from the spot she was staring at, and she rushed to Starflash’s side. Sepia moved closer to him as well as he drew his blade magically, surrounding it with a glowing, blue aura. As he levitated it towards the source of the growling, all three ponies began to tremble.
The fierce, guttural growl tore through the fearful silence. It was followed by five pairs of dim glowing red eyes, which were beginning to brighten against the darkness of the forest. Slowly, as if they were stalking prey, came five hulking beasts on four legs, with gnarled hide of mossy bark and twisted, jagged wooden teeth. Rows of the splintered fangs occupied gaping, hungry jaws in drooling mouths that exhaled stinking breath, which Sepia could smell from where she stood a few metres away.
“S-S-Starflash,” she whispered, stepping backwards as the wolves advanced closer. “What do we do?”
He didn’t answer. He began to sweat as three of the pack had focused their attention on him. He was breathing frantically without rhythm, and his sword was wavering as he creeped backwards.
“Starflash,” Honeysuckle said whilst gritting her teeth, keeping herself close to his body. “Do something!”
All Starflash could do was point his blade at each wolf, but the beasts were not deterred by his threat. They drew closer and closer, one of them licking its lips in a seemingly mocking manner. He was sweating buckets now, his eyes darting back and forth between each of the snarling creatures. When the largest wolf at the front of the pack gave a snapping growl, Sepia flinched as Starflash flung his sword at it, and the blade landed just short.
The three ponies turned tail and fled, the timberwolves barking and howling in unison as they began to pursue.
All Sepia could think about was the snapping of the jaws. That alone encouraged her to keep sprinting through the dank forest. Her aching legs and burning lungs cried for her to her to give in, but the thought of being meat spurred her on. She stuck close by to Starflash and Honeysuckle, both of them panting and glancing backwards.
Don’t look back, she thought. Look and you’ll fall.
She swerved past trees and darted through the choking grass, the timberwolves following her every move with swift strides. She tried feinting in one direction before dodging in another, but she could still hear the frenzied barking keeping a close pace.
Don’t look. Don’t.
“We can’t... outrun... what do?” Starflash wheezed, sweat dripping from his forehead. Sepia glanced at Honeysuckle, who was also dripping and whimpering as she bolted, and—
—she heard a voice. A mare’s voice. Her eyes shot wide; whose voice?! But instead of thinking about it, she instinctively shouted over the baying of the wolves.
Without hesitation, all three ponies swerved to the sprint to the left, the timberwolves scrambling over themselves to follow after being fooled. Sepia could hear the growling become furious and bloodthirsty, and she used this as a cue to burn the last few ounces of energy she had. After what seemed like days of endless torture, she screwed her eyes shut before—
—tripping on a tree root. After realising that she had hit the ground, she gave up. She had lost the willpower to flee, resigning herself to be the meal of the evening. She closed her eyes and trembled, awaiting her fate.
But there was nothing. No howl of victory. No splintered, gnarled teeth clamping onto her legs. Not even a growl. She slowly opened her eyes; they were gone? She remembered hitting the ground... the ground which felt softer and bouncier than before. She sat up and ran her hoof along it, stopping as she brushed a flower with pink and white petals. Then another.
Flowers? Here? But how can they—
Her eyes widening as she looked through the treetops; the moonlight was shining down clearly upon the scene, bathing it in a cool, dim glow. It was as if she had entered an oasis of calm in the middle of the old forest.
“Hurry up and get inside, you idiot!”
The voice rang clear through the scene, and Sepia’s eyes turned towards Honeysuckle, who was waving her hoof frantically, beckoning the pegasus to come in. But all she could do was stare at where Honeysuckle, and Starflash, were. They were standing in the doorway of a large, stone building with worn grey bricks and windows with rainbow-coloured glass arranged in patterns. It stood in a massive clearing amidst a sea of the coloured flowers, the moonlight illuminating the building like a beacon.
Sepia dashed towards the doors, Starflash moving inside as Honeysuckle screamed at her to move. The pegasus glanced behind herself, disregarding her own advice, and gasped as she heard a piercing howl. She turned back to the doors and charged at full speed, leaping through the open gap and immediately springing back to push one of them closed with her remaining strength, Honeysuckle handling the other massive wooden door.
With an echoing slam, they sealed themselves inside.
The ragged breath of the three ponies echoed throughout the massive room they occupied. their panting and puffing dispelling the silence. Sepia and Honeysuckle kept their backs to the doors, bracing themselves for the impending impact of the charging Timberwolves. But, after several panic filled seconds, they glanced at each other.
“They’re... They’re not attacking us?” Sepia asked in a whisper as she gingerly stepped away from the doors. To both hers and Honeysuckle’s relief, there was no reaction. Both ponies stood there bewildered before Honeysuckle spoke up.
“But why?” she said. “We were dead meat back there thanks to you and your clumsy legs!”
“Well maybe they...” Sepia shot Honeysuckle an irritated glance. “Well how often do you have to run from a pack of vicious, snarling creatures?”
Honeysuckle rolled her eyes at the question as Sepia looked around the grand hall. Rows and rows of pews stood in the main, lower area, all of which were facing a slightly raised platform with a font and an altar on it. Behind these was a great stained glass window, which was unblemished and even shining in the darkness. It depicted a light grey earth pony with pink eyes and a black mane, who was wearing a golden crown. Sepia recognised her instantly.
“Queen Octavius the Second?” she whispered to herself. She looked around at the other walls to her left and right, noting the figures that were depicted in the other windows. Although they were smaller than the grand picture at the front of the hall, they still looked as if they were still in perfect shape.
“But I don’t understand. How can a church here be in such remarkable condition after so long? It has to be at least... it’s over five hundred years old!”
She crept across the long, blue carpet that separated the two sets of pews on either side of the hall. The silence that had settled in was strangely calming to her, unlike the hostile and fearful silence of the old forest outside. It was also light on the inside, despite the lack of a torch or a unicorn’s glowing horn. She stepped towards one of the pews and ran her hoof along the wooden seat, furrowing her brow at the massive layer of dust that she collected. She remarked at how everything seemed to be untouched and in perfect shape.
“But who’s looking after it? Surely this place is abandoned? I mean, nopony in the world could live in a place like—”
She stopped as she spotted Starflash sitting on one of the pews near the front of the hall with his head bowed. As she moved closer to him, along with Honeysuckle, she noticed that he had a few tears running down his face.
“It’s funny, isn’t it?” he said with a weak smile. “Here I am, your so-called bodyguard— the Royal Guardsman, hunter and crime-fighter extraordinaire— and I demonstrate my skills perfectly by throwing my sword away, running for my life and crying about it. I mean, have you ever seen anything so pathetic, Sepia?”
Both mares were stunned into into silence at his words. After several moments, Honeysuckle gently touched him on the shoulder.
“But... I don’t... You—”
“I almost got you two killed!” He shrugged Honeysuckle’s comforting hoof from his shoulder. “What was I thinking, bringing you two to a place like this? I’m nothing but a coward!”
Sepia watched Honeysuckle try to form more words, but the earth pony could only sigh and walk away as Starflash closed his eyes, his tears flowing faster. Once Honeysuckle was a comfortable distance away, Sepia placed both of her hooves on his shoulders.
“Starflash. Look at me.”
She looked directly into his teared-up, blue eyes and began to wipe them dry. “Now, I don’t know where all of this is coming from, but you’d better stop it. This isn’t the pony who I believed would protect me! This isn’t the pony who helped me to overcome my fear to get here! And this isn’t the pony who wanted to become a skilled swordspony so badly that he’d spend so much time and effort training by himself! You were willing to guide me through the old forest all on your own, even though you knew of the dangerous creatures in there. You did that for me, and I didn’t even ask you to! Does that sound like a coward to you? And what you did back there... it was five against us! If you had stood and fought, do you really think we’d be safe like we are now?”
Starflash stared into Sepia’s yellow eyes before closing his own. He sighed and smiled at her. “You’re right. I just... I’m not ready yet, Sep. I just can’t thinking about what could have happened. I’d never be able to live with myself if you or Honeysuckle were—”
“Then let’s not think about it anymore, shall we?” Sepia interrupted, her hoof wiping away the last few tears from his cheek. “We’re safe now. That’s all that matters.”
She gently placed her forelegs around him for a friendly, reassuring hug, and Starflash returned it while smiling at her. As Sepia looked over his shoulder, she noticed Honeysuckle standing by the front doors, who was staring back at her with a furious glare.
Now I get it...
(Sorry for this taking a little while, but I'm glad that's it's finished now. Thanks for waiting!)
A stretching sea of leafy green as far as the eye could see, vaguely illuminated by the full moon’s glow. The moat of flowers that surrounded the church, which shimmered in the gentle breeze that blew through the clearing. The calling of a night owl, softly carried by the cool night air. Atop the steeple, Sepia sat silently as she was mesmerised by the scene. Yet in the back of her mind, there were many questions that still plagued her.
Why was it all so perfect? Why was there a church so far from the town? And whose voice did she hear?
The voice… It told me where to go. To come here. Why? Did it know it was here? And it sounded so familiar too! Just like the spirit that—
She pulled the brakes on her train of thought, chuckling to herself as it came to a screeching halt.
Listen to yourself! How likely is it that you have some sort of guardian angel telling you where to run in times of crisis? This is all so crazy… All this over a stupid necklace!
Sepia heard a knocking from behind her and she turned to find Starflash walking up the stairs leading to the steeple. He moved to Sepia’s side and leaned out of the arched window, taking a deep breath of the cool night air.
“It’s a great view, isn’t it?” she asked. Starflash poked his head back and nodded gently.
“Yeah. I’ve never seen a sky so clear. So many stars…”
“What?” Sepia smiled and shook her head. “Typical Starflash… looking at the sky and not the scene.”
“Well…” The unicorn blushed a little. “I can’t help having a talent for stargazing, Sep! I’m dying to bring my telescope here if I get the chance. This is probably the best spot for stargazing I’ve ever encountered.”
Sepia slowly peeked from the steeple window and tilted her head skywards, gazing at the blue and black blanket speckled with glitter above her. As she looked out over the forest, the smile from Starflash’s face faded.
“Can I ask you something?”
Sepia pulled her head back and gave him a curious look. “Oh? What is it?”
“Well,” he started, “we’re pretty high up off the ground and… well… you seem really comfortable..."
A brief silence built between the two before Sepia shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe it’s because it’s so peaceful and gorgeous from up here. It’s like looking out over a whole different Canterlonia. Or maybe it’s because I’ve still got a little adrenaline left in me from that chase. I never realised that I was so far up off the ground until you reminded me.”
Starflash blushed again, brighter this time. “Right, sorry about that.”
“No, it’s okay,” she said as she looked out of the window again. “It’s—“
She stopped as she squinted, catching sight of something moving in the field of flowers below her. She tapped Starflash on the shoulder and beckoned him to look, and she moved aside to allow both of them to look together. She wasn’t sure at first, but after several moments of strained inspection, she thought it looked like a pony.
“Is that Honeysuckle? What’s she doing out there?”
You’re an idiot, do you know that?
Honeysuckle dropped the dusty, empty sack from her mouth amidst the sea of pink and white flowers and began to pluck the posies with her mouth, placing them into the bag. She grabbed each one with equal contempt, ripping the roots without thought of the process.
All you had to do was to cheer him up. “But Starflash, you did a great job!” What was so hard about that?
She took a small cluster of flowers in her mouth and sliced the stems with her teeth, spitting them into the sack. She paused for a brief moment, letting her anger take control.
And then she just comes along and makes it look so easy! Of course she would… She’s just that perfect isn’t she? Yes… Perfectly insane! Ghostly ponies, stories about necklaces… And he believes her! He listens to her!
She swiped her hoof across the flowers, sending a great cloud of pink petals soaring in the breeze. For a second, she stopped. She stopped and let the tears form.
“Are you alright Honeysuckle?”
She jumped at the quiet voice from behind her, spinning around with wide eyes. “Starflash! I was just... I was just gathering some of these flowers. I’ve never seen any like these, so maybe they’ve got some special quality about them.”
He looked to her side, near her hooves. “But why are you using that sack? Did you lose your flower basket?”
Honeysuckle nodded. “During the chase.” She paused for a second, noticing his saddening expression. “Hey, don’t make that look! I thought that you did well. I mean, if you weren’t there they wouldn’t have been so slow to pounce, would they?”
“I know,” Starflash said with a sigh. “But it was Sepia who saved us. If she didn’t tell us to turn left...”
Both pony’s eyes drifted away from each other, and they allowed the awkward silence to build again. Honeysuckle slowly moved towards him, placing a hoof on his shoulder.
“Do you remember when you first came to my rescue? When we were young?”
Starflash scratched his head, furrowing his brow before nodding. “Oh yeah. Back in the park. But back then I was hardly a knight in shining armour, was I?”
Honeysuckle giggled, shaking her head. “No, what I meant was that you didn’t need that sword to be brave, did you? You still stood up for me then, didn’t you?”
“I... I’m not quite sure what you’re saying.”
“What I mean is that you don’t have to be Canterlonia’s greatest swordspony to prove you’re brave. That certainly helps, but...” She sighed. “You don’t have to prove yourself to us. I already know that you’re going to be the knight in shining armour you were, back when we first met.”
Starflash nodded, smiling and chuckling at her. “Let’s hope so. Anyway, why don’t you come back inside? Sep wants to tell us what we’re going to do now.”
Honeysuckle raised her brow, picking up the sack of flowers in her mouth. “What? Why?” She raised her voice slightly through the cloth. “Why is she in charge all of a sudden?”
Starflash stepped back at her outburst. “Woah, wait a sec! It’s not like she’s in charge! She’s just... well.. she’s a bit wiser than I am.” He noticed her apologetic look and moved closer to her. “What’s the matter, Honeysuckle? You’ve been acting really... I don’t know... snappy lately.”
She tried her hardest not to look at him, but after an awkward silence she shot him a glance while smiling slightly. “I’m fine. I’m just tired, that’s all.” She faked her best yawn, dropping the sack which she quickly picked up again. “I need some rest.”
“Alright. Let’s head back inside then. Those timberwolves might come back, and we don’t want to be out in the open, do we?”
Honeysuckle shook her head and shuffled behind Starflash as he made his way through the field, towards the doors to the church. Before she reached them, she stopped as she noticed a small, purple patch near one of the corners of the doorway; a small cluster of purple mushrooms with long stems. She stared at them for a few seconds, gritting her teeth.
Why can’t I just tell him?!
She crushed the patch underneath her hoof, leaving nothing but a violet stain on the grass as she made her way inside.
Sepia sat in front of the modest wooden altar, gently clearing her throat as Starflash and Honeysuckle sat together on a pew right in front of her. A small cloud of dust formed in the air as they seated themselves, and once the consequential coughing subsided, Sepia began.
“Okay, so here’s what I know so far. Yesterday, I was tasked with researching this curious necklace.” She poked the jewelry around her neck, shaking it slightly. “After hours upon hours of ploughing through books, looking for an answer, I fell asleep by accident.” She blushed a tiny bit as she paused, but she quickly resumed explaining the situation. “That’s when I had that bizarre dream, where I was in the field with the white mare.”
“Yeah,” Starflash cut in. “Could you tell us a little more about that?”
“Not a lot happened, to be honest. I couldn’t see her face, and she was wearing a cloak. When I tried to inspect her, I awoke. I decided to return home, only to see another spirit— the same spirit— standing in the plaza! I followed her to the old forest, but I couldn’t go on. I believe that when it leapt from the cliff, it continued to run. It came here.”
Honeysuckle snorted. “So let me guess... If we stay awake for long enough, I’ll see this ghostly pony too? How wonderful... I’ve always wanted to spend the night holed up in the middle of nowhere to see something that doesn’t exist!”
Sepia glared at her, breaking contact as she saw Starflash’s confused look. “Well like it or not, we’re stuck here for the until morning. Anyway this church is in near perfect condition, yet it’s definitely over five hundred years old. The design and obscure location support that, but it looks almost new! And there’s something else that’s bugging me too... What does this place, if anything, have to do with the white mare?”
“Maybe she passed away here, but she left without fulfilling a task or something?” Starflash wondered. “Or maybe she has some sort of agonising regret that she wants to correct, or she was robbed of her life in the most horrific way imaginable!”
The hall fell into a brief, eerie silence as he finished talking, placing an uneasy atmosphere on the three ponies. Sepia shook her head, giving Starflash a disapproving look. “It’s possible, but let’s not think about it that way. Whatever the reason is, I’m sure it’ll present itself soon.” She stepped down from the altar and pointed towards the doors to the church.
“In the morning, we can decide whether we should investigate this place further or if we want to head back to Geldingstone. Looking from the steeple, the way back to town is in the opposite direction from the mountains. It’s lucky that this church has one actually.”
Sepia yawned, stretching her back and legs as Starflash did the same. “Well,” he said, “I think it’s about time we hit the hay. Don’t you agree Honeysuckle?”
She didn’t answer. She was stroking her chin with her hoof whilst giving Sepia an inquisitive look. “Can I ask you just one thing Sepia? Why won’t you let me or Starflash wear that necklace? I mean, surely if there’s a reason for you seeing that spirit, as you claim to, it must be the necklace. After all, you said that you only started to see it after you put the necklace on. So why not let us have the chance to see it?”
Sepia covered the necklace’s decoration. “Because it’s not a toy, it’s not an attraction for a fair and it’s fragile and personal to somepony,” she replied flatly. “This needs to be studied, and it’s my job to study it. I’m sorry, but neither of you can wear or play with it.”
Honeysuckle tutted, shaking her head. “What? You don’t trust us with it? You don’t me or Starflash with your artifacts or work?”
“Hey, I understand what she’s saying,” Starflash said. “It’s alright Sep. If it’s that important then I won’t bug you for it.” He smiled at Sepia, and she noticed Honeysuckle’s irritated look. She couldn’t help but smirk a little.
“Thank you,” she said, smiling back at him politely. “Now, I suggest that we get some sleep. There are some hassocks under the pews that’ll make good pillows and there are some sacks for bedding lying around. I know that it’s not exactly ideal, but I’m getting used to sleeping rough.”
She trotted towards the doors and made herself comfortable on a small pile of dusty sacks. She positioned one of the cushion-like hassocks under her head and curled herself up, like a cat preparing to sleep.
“We’d better go and make our own beds then,” Starflash said, trotting to a cupboard near to Sepia. He grabbed some of the sacks magically and levitated them towards the front of the hall. “Good night, Sepia.”
Just before Starflash reached the spot where he planned to bunk down for the night, Sepia spotted Honeysuckle trotting up to him with a nervous look on her face.
“Umm, Starflash,” she said quietly, a slight quiver in her voice. “I’m a little... umm... scared of sleeping here. Can I sleep next to you?”
Sepia’s eyes shot open at the question, and Starflash nodded without hesitation. “Of course,” he said. “Just grab some more ‘bedding’ and make yourself comfortable.”
Sepia groaned almost silently as she closed her eyes, thinking about how Honeysuckle had managed to pull off such a cheap trick. As she heard somepony trotting past her head, she rolled her eyes as she heard a faint, sweet-sounding yet mocking whisper.
“Good night, Sepia.”
“Where is she?”
A faint, worried voice awakened Sepia. It echoed about her, and she opened her eyes slowly. She found herself in the same, dusty surroundings that she left behind: the rows of pews, the stained glass window, the two ponies at the front of the hall...
Starflash? Honeysuckle? What are they doing?
She stretched her legs, blinking a few times to wake herself up. Walking towards them, she looked about the hall. It was still as bright as it was as they first entered.
Is it morning? Did I sleep in or—
She paused, squinting at the ponies near the altar in front of her.
Wait, what the—?!
She rubbed her eyes furiously, and they shot open as they saw two completely different ponies. One of them, coloured a very pale sky blue with a cream mane, stood at the altar’s base whilst shuffling their hooves about. The other, however, was slightly taller and coloured in a striped black and white pattern. As Sepia moved closer, she noticed that this pony had no cutie mark and its mane was knotted and decorated in a most curious, almost tribal fashion with red and blue beads threaded throughout it.
“Fear not Valour, do not despair. I hear her voice ringing on the air,” he said in rhyme and rhythm.
“Are you sure?” the blue stallion asked, a hint of nervousness in his voice. “What if she forgot? No, that’s impossible. We spent the entire day... no, the entire week talking about it! Maybe she’s—”
“Will you calm yourself Valour?” a gruff voice growled. Sepia’s head, along with the two ponies next to the altar, turned towards a pew at the front of the hall. Sitting on it was a broad, brawny creature with the head and claws of an eagle. The other half of its body was that of a lion.
“How can I stay calm?” Valour replied, rushing towards the griffon. As he did so, he passed straight through Sepia without breaking form, making her yelp slightly. “We planned this night for so long! She can’t just forget, can she?!”
The creature snorted, lounging back onto the pew as he picked up a pair of boxes to his left, dangling them by the ribbon they were tied with. With his other claw, he stroked his grey-feathered chin. “Then I suppose you won’t be needing these then?” he said with a sly grin.
“Very funny,” the unicorn responded, turning away from him. Sepia could only watch in awe at the conversation, finally plucking up the courage to say something after a tense silence.
“E-E-Excuse me. Can you hear me?”
None of the strangers acknowledged her. Just as she was about to reach out and touch the unicorn, her eyes were distracted by a faint glow coming from beneath her. As she searched for the source, she gasped as she grabbed hold of the necklace; the decoration was pulsing with a white light.
“Valour, please, you must not fear. The lady is coming, she draws near,” the striped one said. Valour turned to him, slightly flustered.
“I hope you have some zebra wisdom to help with nerves... Oh Serenity, where are you?!”
“I doubt that she’s going to leave such a brave and confident gentleman such as yourself,” the griffon jested. As soon as he had finished, a faint creaking echoed throughout the hall. Sepia, along with the others, turned to face the doors to the church. When the room was silent once more, she and Valour gasped at who had emerged.
A fragile, graceful-looking unicorn stood in the doorway, her rosy pink mane masked by a white veil. Her coat was a pearl white colour, unblemished and pristine, and her eyes were a clear pink too, lighter with her hair. To Sepia, they seemed to give a faint sparkle. The unicorn moved towards the altar with delicate steps. Sepia stepped out of her way as she walked down the aisle, and the pegasus noticed the mare’s cutie mark: a love heart with angel wings coming from it, beams of light shining from behind it too. The mare gave a gentle smile to Valour as she stood face to face with him.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said, her whispery voice soothing to Sepia. “Leaving without being seen was somewhat difficult.”
Valour’s nervousness seemed to have subsided. He smiled back at the mare, taking her hoof in his. “Serenity! I thought for a second that you wouldn’t come.”
“Surely you didn’t think that I would abandon my love at the altar?” She laughed, stroking his face with her hoof. She brushed the veil behind her head. “I just wanted to wear at least one piece of a wedding dress, only to make this moment a little more special. It’s a shame that we couldn’t get the full outfits, or a cake, a party or even somepony to watch.”
Sepia glanced back to the empty pews. Except for Starflash and Honeysuckle, both of whom were sleeping soundly next to a wall, the hall was totally empty. It was just her, the two unicorns, the griffon and the zebra. She turned back towards the couple at the altar.
“It doesn’t matter,” Valour said. “We have each other and that’s all we need to make this night perfect. You know our families would never approve of this, being two ponies of different worlds.”
Serenity laughed a little. “Then let them disapprove. There’s nothing wrong with a humble flower pony like myself wedding a courageous, valiant knight, is there?”
All eyes turned towards the griffon who sharply cleared his throat. “While we’re young, if you please? We don’t want to keep this up all night. I have important business to attend to so—”
“Leonardo, we know the hour is late,” the zebra cut in. “But their love must blossom, so you shall wait!”
Leonardo the griffon grumbled something under his breath, crossing his eagle arms as he allowed the two lovers to exchange sweet words again. Sepia listened with fascination to every single one they whispered to each other. She did not notice the sound of hoofsteps behind her.
“What are you looking at, Sep?”
She jumped slightly, sighing with relief as Starflash smiled at her. She wiped her brow and turned back towards the couple at the altar.
“I’m looking at... Wait, you can’t see them? The ponies or the zebra or the griffon?”
Starflash raised his brow. “No... Are you fully awake or are you sleepwalking?” he asked jokingly. Sepia rolled her eyes.
“Well can you see the strange glow? Look where it’s coming from!”
She took the necklace’s decoration in her hoof and thrusted it in his face. He flinched, but once he noticed the white light coming from the orb his eyes grew wide.
“Woah... What is that?!”
“You tell me,” Sepia replied. “You know as much as I do.” Her ears perked up, and she turned to Starflash with a wide grin. “Put it on.”
“Put the necklace on. You’ll see for yourself!”
She removed the necklace and dangled it in front of Starflash. Valour, Serenity and the others vanished instantly and silently, much to her surprise. Cautiously, he caught the necklace with his magic as she backed off. But as soon as she released her grip on the chain, the light from the decoration died. Starflash placed the necklace around his neck, staring at the altar that Sepia was looking at. After several quiet moments, he gave Sepia a concerned, quizzical look.
“Uh, Sep,” he said, as if he was trying not to sound harsh, “I don’t see anything.”
It took a few moments for Sepia to register the statement, but once she did she began to panic slightly.
“W-W-What? Nothing?! But... But you saw the glow! And—” She stopped, letting herself become flustered before recomposing herself. “Why can’t you see them?”
“Relax Sep. I still believe you, but I really don’t know what’s going on.”
He removed the necklace and levitated it back towards Sepia. She reached out to touch it, but once she made contact the gem began to glow once again. Both ponies gasped in awe as their faces were illuminated by the white light once more.
“This thing...” Sepia whispered, tightening her grip around the chain. “But... why is it only glowing when I touch it?"
She replaced the necklace around her head, and the others around the altar appeared before her instantly.
“—so we should start the ceremony now. After all, we don’t want to be found missing in the morning, do we?” Serenity asked Valour. He nodded, allowing her to take her position in front of the altar so that she was standing face to face with him. She turned and nodded to the zebra once the was comfortably quiet. “Mochi, if you please.”
The zebra took up his position behind the altar, clearing his throat. “Is everyone ready, shall we begin?” Mochi asked. He turned to the griffon. “Leonardo, watch for when the gifts are brought in.”
Leonardo rolled his eyes, drumming his claw once on the tiny, brown boxes that lay on his lap. Once the echo had died, Sepia slowly sank onto the pew at the front of the hall as Mochi began the ceremony.
“Tonight we witness unity,
Between Valour and Serenity.
For these two lovers, hidden from sun,
Shall join as halves and form to make one.
Their love is clear, their passion pure,
Throughout their lives, feelings shall endure.
Together they shall weather the tide,
Pain and toil, they shall take in their stride.
They shall now exchange their sacred vows,
Valour, please, your time is now.”
Valour nodded to the zebra. He looked into Serenity’s eyes and smiled. “Serenity, I promise that I will protect you and love you until my last breath. I promise that I will never falter in my duties and that I will provide you with whatever you desire. I will never say anything to hurt you and I will never abandon you in times of need, and I will uphold the honour of both your family, your home and you. This is my vow, Serenity. I shall always follow it.”
Silence filled the room before Serenity began her vow, looking into Valour’s eyes. “Valour, I promise you that I will remain by your side in times of peace or turmoil. I promise that I will smile with you in times of happiness, comfort you in times of sorrow and aid you in times of danger. I will always listen to and support you, and I will always remain loyal to both you and your desires. This is my promise, Valour. I shall never break it.”
Sepia jumped as she felt something prod her on the shoulder. She glanced backwards, and Starflash flinched at the evil look she gave him. “Stop it! You’re ruining the ceremony!”
“Alright, alright,” he whispered, stepping back from her as if she was ready to pounce on him. “Tell me when ‘they’ are finished.”
She nodded, waving him away dismissively. Her attention turned back to the ceremony as Mochi beckoned Leonardo to the altar.
“Now you shall both receive a symbol most grand,
A necklace crafted by our noble artisan.”
Leonardo groaned, stretching his lion legs as he slid from the pew. He grabbed the two tiny boxes with a wave of his tail and he made his way to the couple. Each unicorn was given one of the cases, Valour receiving one wrapped in white ribbons and Serenity taking the one with blue ribbons. Leonardo trudged back to his seat whilst grumbling something to himself, and both Valour and Serenity opened their boxes as they laid them on the floor.
“Serenity, I gift this necklace to you as a symbol of my affection.”
Sepia’s eyes widened as she gasped; from the box, Valour levitated a necklace identical to hers in every way. The milky-white decoration, the delicate golden chain... She galloped up the the altar and held out her own necklace next to the one Valour held. They were a perfect match.
“What? What’s happening?” Starflash whispered, trotting up behind her. Sepia ignored him completely, dumbfounded by the sight of two identical necklaces dangling side by side. She dodged out of the way as Valour levitated the one that he held towards Serenity, and the white mare threaded her head through the loop. Looking down, she levitated another necklace from her own box, almost the same as the one she had received. This one, however, had a blue orb as its decoration.
“Valour,” she said, “I gift this necklace to you as a token of my love.”
Valour bowed his head as Serenity placed the necklace around his neck. The two stepped towards each other so that they were almost touching, allowing the orbs to dangle within inches of each other. For a fraction of a second, each decoration glowed with a dim light in the colour of the stone of each necklace. Mochi raised a hoof to the air.
“The necklaces show an unbreakable tie,
An eternal romance, it shall never die.
Not even time shall separate their bond,
Together forever, they shall be one.
I wish you both eternal bliss,
The ceremony is complete. You may now kiss!”
As soon as Mochi finished, both unicorns leaned close as their lips almost touched each other’s. But just as they were about to wrap up the ceremony, they faded away almost instantly in a rising mist. Sepia blinked, a brightening light irritating her eyes; the sun was shining through the stained glass window behind the altar. She remained totally silent as she took in all that she had seen.
“Oh? You two are up bright and early, aren’t you?”
Sepia and Starflash quickly turned towards the doors to the church. Honeysuckle was standing there with an inquisitive look on her face, and the morning sun was beaming through the doorway behind her. She trotted up to the altar. “You weren’t thinking of leaving here without me, were you?”
Starflash chuckled. “Now why would we do that? We’re not that heartless, are we Sepia?”
The pegasus completely ignored him. She slowly moved, practically lumbering, to the nearest pew and collapsed onto it.
“Sep? What’s the matter?” Starflash asked, rushing over to her.
“I know what this necklace is, Starflash. But now, I have more questions than answers.”
There was something about the morning that always appealed to Fading Scroll. As he unlocked the door to the Geldingstone museum, his hooves fumbling from the chilly air, he thought about exactly what it was. Maybe it was that echo that was created when he stepped inside the empty entrance hall. Maybe it was the grand marble statue of King Regalis, surveying the front doors to the museum and greeting the visitors with a glorious pose. Or maybe it was that silence that built overnight, which Scroll would dispel with a flick of the lightswitch for the chandelier dangling above him. However, after a long, hard think on the way to his office, Scroll decided it must be down to one thing.
It was the start of a new day to make discoveries: new facts, new items and perhaps even a new contact to scout for potential exhibits. There was always something to be learned, and if Scroll ever learned something it was always on the morning.
He unlocked the door to his office and removed his jacket, sighing as he sank into the deep chair behind his ornate desk. The first thing he noticed was the crinkled piece of parchment that had brought him much amusement over the past couple of days: the letter that came with the necklace. He picked it up, skimmed over it for the last time, rolled it into a ball and tossed it with near-perfect aim into the trashcan near his door. But something was slightly off. He was expecting the satisfying sound of parchment hitting the wooden sides of the bin. Instead, there was a rhythmic knocking sound.
“Excuse me sir? May I come in?”
Scroll’s eyes glanced towards the door, realising that it was just an early visitor. He beckoned him inside with a restrained shout, and from behind the door emerged a unicorn with a cream white coat and neatly combed blonde mane. He had a card- an ace of spades- for a cutie mark and he was wearing a dark brown jacket.
“Yes? What can I do for you, my boy?” Scroll asked him. The unicorn gave him a wide grin before cantering up to his desk, taking the seat opposite to Scroll.
“Actually sir, it’s what I can do for you. I have came to you to provide a rare and very beneficial proposal! You see—”
Scroll grumbled, silencing the visitor. “Another salespony... Look, we don’t buy exhibits, we take donations. At any rate, if you have to sell us something then we don’t want it. Too many fakes floating about these days.”
The unicorn gave a hesitant laugh before resuming in his eager demeanor. “Actually, I’m not here to sell. I’m here to buy one of your exhibits, which I believe you received quite recently.”
Scroll leaned on his desk, giving him an intrigued yet suspicious look. “Oh? And what exhibit would that be?”
“Hold on. I don’t believe we’ve introduced ourselves.” The unicorn held out his hoof. “The name’s Lucky Draw. And you must be Fading Scroll, am I correct?”
Scroll’s look became even more suspicious as he returned the hoofshake. “Yes... It’s Mr. Scroll to my employees and to visitors. Now, you were saying?”
“Well Mr. Scroll,” Lucky Draw began, “I believe that you are currently holding a necklace of sorts? Approximately dated five hundred years ago with a small, orb-like decoration?”
“Ah yes. Are you associated with the donator?” Scroll asked. “If so, then you have no need to purchase exhibits back from us. If you can provide ample proof of your ties, then—”
“Actually, I’m a private collector,” Lucky interrupted with a smile. “I’m a collector of rare and antique pieces of jewelry, and I simply cannot allow this wonderful example of craftsmanship to be part of somepony else’s collection!”
Scroll gave him an unimpressed stare, grimacing at the unicorn. “Well it won’t be, will it? It will be part of a public collection. You’ll just have to line up like everypony else to see it.”
The smile from Lucky’s face slowly faded as he cleared his throat. As his horn glowed, a small cloth bag was levitated from his pocket. “Of course, but perhaps you would like to see my generous offer?”
He allowed the bag to fall from a height above the table, and it made an echoing clink as it hit the mahogany surface. Scroll’s eyes were like plates when he saw what spilled out: hundreds, possibly thousands of tiny sparkling gemstones of every colour imaginable. He tilted his head about as he looked at the pile, marvelling at the myriad of precious stones that lay on his desk, and he began to sweat slightly. He glanced back at Lucky Draw, who was giving him a wide grin.
“As you can see, I’m very eager to make the exhibit a part of my private collection,” he said. “All museums need donations, don’t they? Well then I think that this lot should be more than ample to see you through the next few hundred years and beyond!” The unicorn leaned on the table, resting his head on his hoof. “Now then, what were we discussing?”
Scroll swallowed, gritting his teeth and giving Lucky a furious glare. “Now see here,” he growled, “I did not get this post by flogging museum property to any stranger who comes waltzing into my office! You may be desperate and keen, and for that I applaud you, but if you do not remove yourself from my sight within the next ten seconds, dire consequences will occur.”
Lucky sighed, shaking his head as he recollected the gemstones. “Very well then. It’s clear that we won’t be making a deal anytime soon.” He hopped from his chair, walking towards the door without looking back. Scroll scowled at him, reaching into his drawer to pull out some paper. He heard his office door open, and he glanced upwards to see the unicorn eyeing up an orange pegasus.
“Well hello there!” Lucky said to Sepia, blocking her entry into Scroll’s office. “You must be Mr. Scroll’s assistant, am I correct?”
“Oh, yes, that’s... sort of correct,” she replied. “I’m a researcher for the museum, and currently I’m—”
Scroll cleared his throat, letting Sepia know that she was not to waste her time with the visitor. She shook her head and apologised. “I’m sorry, I have something to ask Mr. Scroll, so if you’ll excuse me.”
“Of course! May I ask your name and what you’re researching right now?” Lucky asked with a cheery smile. Scroll rolled his eyes, knowing that Sepia could take years to explain everything about artifacts she was interested in. However, she simply held up the necklace that the collector was so interested in and told him her name.
“Sepia Stripes, eh? Well then, I hope that you’ll find out everything you need to. After all, an intelligent pegasus such as yourself shouldn’t have any problems doing that!”
Sepia blushed a little. “Well, I suppose so! Now, I really have to speak to Mr. Scroll so if you’ll excuse me.”
Lucky nodded to both ponies, gently closing the door behind him as he left the office. Scroll gave Sepia his ‘idle chitchat is the bane of productivity’ look- two furrowed brows and a sharp sigh- before returning to his work.
“Well then Sepia,” he said, “you said you needed to speak to me?”
“Yes. I need to know where that necklace is from. Do you have the original letter that was sent with it?” she asked. Scroll looked up from his papers and chuckled.
“Ah yes, that rather amusing tale...” He stood from his desk and walked to the trashcan, picking out the crinkled piece of parchment. He placed it on the tabletop, inviting Sepia to sit and read it. “You should get a giggle out of this one. This is easily our most bizarre backstory for an exhibit yet!”
For the few minutes that Sepia was reading the letter, Scroll got much amusement from watching her face shift between confusion, shock, smiles and sometimes all three at once. She slowly looked up at him with wide eyes.
“Sir...” She looked back at the letter one more time, and Scroll stifled a laugh as he sunk into his chair.
“Honestly, the things ponies will make up to get attention these days! What a world...”
Sepia hesitated before speaking again. “Sir, may I take some time to go to Piata?”
The smile instantly vanished from Scroll’s face as he gave Sepia a raised brow. He prepared to ask why, but the grave expression the pegasus gave him told him everything he needed to know. He sighed heavily, leaning towards her from behind his desk.
“You... want to ask the donor about the specifics, don’t you?” He shook his head, taking a long pause. “I don’t see any reason to go, but then again, I don’t see any reason not to go either. I don’t know whether you should be chasing up the history of this particular artefact at all.”
“But sir!” Sepia said. “I’ve been trying to find something on this for days and I’m getting nowhere! You asked me to research it, so that’s what I’m doing. If I have to go to the capital and back just to get some useless tidbits of information about this necklace, then I think that the only pony who’s stopping me is the pony who gave me the job in the first place.”
Scroll stared at her eager face, unsure how to feel. On the one hand, he was confused over her desire to chase such an obscure, and quite frankly insane, story. On the other hand, he was proud of her determination and resolve. Smiling, he gave her a nod.
“Of course. I understand,” he said, watching Sepia’s face explode into a beaming grin. “When were you planning on going?”
“Right now!” she quickly blurted out, leaping from the chair she sat on and hurrying towards the door. She suddenly stopped, trotting back up to the desk. Scroll’s ears prickled; he swore that he heard a galloping long after Sepia stopped in front of him.
“Oh, you won’t mind if I take Starflash with me?” she said. Scroll rolled his eyes.
“Go on then.” He chuckled at her. “I don’t think I’ll notice that you two are missing anyway!”
“All aboard for Piata!”
The conductor yelled through the whooshing and whistling of steam that rushed from the chimney of the engine carriage, which lead a group of five large, grand, red cars attached to it. The doors were all closed except for one, the platform at Geldingstone’s train station being almost completely empty at that time in the morning. Only two ponies, burdened with just their satchels, prepared to board the ‘Piata Express’.
“You know, this is the first time I’ve ever been on a train,” Starflash said, eyeing up the tall, crimson carriage that dwarfed him. Sepia trotted up to the open doorway and beckoned him inside, grinning at him.
“Really? Then you’re in for a surprise, especially if you’ve never been on this train before!”
She took him by the hoof and lead him inside to the passenger cabins, a uniformed pony from the station shutting the door behind them. Sepia and Starflash slowly walked through to the private compartments, soaking in the luxurious décor. The delicate, flower-shaped lights that hung from the walls gave the scarlet carpet a warm colouring, and this rug lead past a row of three, crystal-clear glass windows, all with an intricately etched emblem in the centre of each: a grand tree surrounded by a city, with the words ‘Piata Express’ engraved below in cursive writing. Sepia gently opened the nearest sliding door to her right to reveal a table with two cushioned sofas, against the wall, on either side of it.
“Woah, how much did this ride cost you?” Starflash asked, shaking his head after staring for too long down the corridor. Sepia gave him a raised brow.
“Don’t be fooled, this is only second class. Even though I’m a researcher, I don’t get paid all that much. Sadly, the jobs you love never do pay well.”
The two ponies picked a sofa each, removing their satchels and placing them on the one they chose. Starflash magically threw his without care as he flopped onto the seat, bouncing on the cushioning slightly. As he became comfortable with the soft and fluffy chair, he accidentally spilled some of the contents from his bag: several small brown packages.
“Stocking up on those treats again?” Sepia asked with a chuckle. “They’ll have stopped making them by the time we get back, you know.”
Starflash sighed, collecting the sweets and packing them back into the satchel. “I know, and that’s going to be a very sad day for me… no, for the whole world!”
Sepia smiled. “A little overdramatic, don’t you think?”
A whistle blew from the outside of the train, and the two ponies jumped as the carriage jerked forwards as the engine began to lurch along the tracks. Soon, it began to pick up speed as they head the wheels clack against the tracks.
“I’ve always wondered what being on a train is like,” Starflash said, his eyes drifting towards the window. As the train pulled away from the lonely station it emerged into the fields and woods that surrounded Geldingstone.
“To me…” Sepia began, trailing off as she too looked at the sea of grass that ran alongside the tracks, becoming thicker and more untamed as the train chugged its way into the surrounding countryside. She thought for just a split second about how many times she had been outside of Geldingstone before finishing.
“…it feels like I’m going on an adventure.”
Her’s and Starflash’s eyes snapped back towards the door to their cabin, the sound of it clicking open catching their attention. As it gently swung open, they were left silent at the sight of two earth ponies.
“Aww, mommy this one’s taken!” the smaller one said, tugging at the bag of the larger mare. The filly was a light grey colour, like slate, with a dark yellow mane that was wild and ragged.
“Sorry Pebbles. Looks like we’re gonna have to go to the next ‘un,” the mother said, patting her daughter on the shoulder. Her coat was considerably lighter, though still a shade of grey, and her mane was an even wilder mess than the filly’s. It was a dark brown, probably from the thickness and shagginess of it.
“So sorry ‘bout the interruption. Hope we didn’t ruin anythin’ special,” she said. Sepia and Starflash glanced at each other, the pegasus giving a slight laugh as she shook her head. She removed her satchel from her end of the sofa and placing it on the floor.
“Not at all!” she replied. “Sit with us if you’d like, we don’t mind.”
“Really? Thanks a bunch!” the grey pony said, hopping onto the seat that Sepia had cleared for her. The filly trotted up to Starflash’s side and bounced towards him, landing just short of hitting him with her head. As the mother and daughter squirmed in their cushions, adjusting themselves, Starflash gave Sepia a raised brow, making the pegasus shrug.
“Oh, manners!” the grey mare said, holding out her hoof across the table to Starflash. “Rocky Road’s the name, and that’s my daughter Pebbles.”
Starflash glanced to his side, gasping and jumping back as he saw the wide, beaming grin and yellow eyes of Pebbles just millimetres away from his face. He quickly returned the gesture that Rocky offered him as Pebbles fell back and giggled, resulting in one brief, rough shake of their hooves. When Sepia was offered the same friendly gesture, she gave a slight smile as she also returned it.
“I’m Sepia Stripes, and this is Starflash,” she said, pointing to the unicorn when she mentioned his name. “We’re currently on our way to Piata to complete some work for the museum in Geldingstone.”
“Geldingstone, eh?” Rocky said, stroking her chin. “Hey Pebbles, what d’ya know about Geldingstone?”
“It’s old and boring,” the filly answered quickly, causing the three adults to chuckle.
“It’s old, yes, but I wouldn’t say it’s boring,” Sepia said.
Especially with what’s been going on…
“Well, each to their own!” Rocky said, leaning back into her chair. “We’re on vacation, aren’t we?” The filly nodded.
“Really? Where are you from?” Starflash asked.
“Little Rock, a minin’ town near the northern border. That’s where I was born and raised to be a miner, as you might've guessed from the mark.” She pointed to the pickaxe cutie mark on her flank. “Never been before? Nice place, but it’s seen better times…”
Sepia watched the earth pony’s face flicker for just a fraction of a second, but soon Rocky was back in her cheery mood.
“Mommy, where did the nasty diamond doggies come from?” Pebbles asked. Rocky jumped slightly.
“What? Oh, they… I can’t remember how the story goes after that bit. How ‘bout I tell you another one instead?”
“Diamond… doggies?” Sepia asked. “I’m sorry, what story is this? I’d love to hear it, it would pass the time! Piata’s still a long way away even for an express train. How about you Starflash?”
Rocky hesitated, giving a sharp sigh as she frowned slightly. “No, I don’t wanna tell a story unlessI know I can finish it. Besides, it’s kind of sad for a lovely day like this.” She stroked her chin again. “Either of you two got one to share?”
“Oh no, please don’t ask Sepia that!” Starflash said. “You’ll be here for days with the stories she has!”
Sepia shot him an irritated glare before turning to Pebbles. “I’d love to tell you a story or two. In fact, I think I know just the one!”
The filly shuffled closer to Starflash, making him squirm slightly. Sepia leaned across the table and looked into the little pony’s eyes.
“Have you ever heard of a wonderful character known as ‘The Wanderer’?”
“Nuh-uh,” Pebbles replied, shaking her head. Starflash rolled his eyes, mouthing to Sepia.
I thought you didn’t believe in him?
Sepia gave him a quick, disapproving glance before she started.
“In the days of old, back when we didn’t have trains or electric lights or anything modern that you might use every day, the world was a dark and scary place to live in. The countryside, sandwiched between the northern icelands and the southern desert, was a barren wasteland and the many monsters would terrorize the ponies who tried to make a home anywhere they could. Very few places could grow food or trees, and these special spots were often fought over not just by the ponies, but by other species too.”
“Griffons were the strongest and most dangerous adversaries they met with, proving to outmatch the pegasi of the settler tribes, and zebras, too, would sometimes try to sneak into the lands of the ponies to steal their crops. Everypony had to keep their guard up to survive. But soon, it all began to change.”
“As they managed to defend their lands, the ponies soon began to build towns and invent new ways to live off of the land. The many places that could grow food began to trade with each other, making some ponies very rich and others very poor.”
“The rich ponies often became knights who would fight valiantly against the attacks from those who tried to take the land that they had built up over generations, or merchants who traded their wares across Canterlonia. The poor ponies, on the other hoof, were the smithies and the flowerponies who would use their talents to gather and create everyday items, and to build the towns and villages that were becoming increasingly common. Working together, they managed to create a world that was liveable for everypony.”
“But one question remained: how was all of this possible? The world was slowly becoming green and alive with wildlife that wasn’t going to eat you up if you dared to go near it… but how? The attacks had lessened almost to the point where they had stopped completely. The griffons and the zebras were nowhere to be found, but neither were they missed. Where did they go? Nopony knew. Some said that everything was the work of a lone unicorn known only as ‘The Wanderer’.”
“Some ponies had claimed that they had seen a shrouded figure wandering the countryside, yet nopony had seen his face or even his coat or cutie mark. He always kept himself at a distance; nopony could even get close enough to speak to him. As quick as he appeared, he would vanish as if he was a ghost. There was no waiting for him in any spot, for he was often sighted across all of Canterlonia, but one thing was known. Whilst ponies still believed in him, there was peace.”
“That was until a dark power appeared from the north… a wicked, evil alicorn named Glacius. Her coat was as black as her soul, and her eyes were piercing like a razor sharp icicle. It was said that wherever she appeared, ice and snow would shroud the land, and the cold would be so chilling that it could freeze you solid in mere seconds. Her heart was as cold as her very being, without mercy or emotion. Those that saw her could not flee for their lives, their hooves frozen to the ground in fear, and those that could get away lost hope. The spreading chill would follow them like a plague; they believed that Glacius’ dark power would cover all of Canterlonia.”
“However, all was not lost. A farmer who was fleeing from the area that Glacius had emerged from saw a shrouded figure walking in the opposite direction. He cried out for him to stop, thinking that this pony was foolish to approach the wicked alicorn, yet the unicorn was not deterred. Fearing for his life, the farmer stayed and watched the pony wander to his death. And he stayed until the hour was late, his heart pounding from the tension but his eyes becoming weary from the chilly night air.”
“A day passed. The farmer was awoken by a small colt and his family, who were staring into the distance at a miraculous sight… an enormous tree that defied pony eyes! It stretched to the heavens, the entire area surrounding it and beyond being covered in wonderful flowers of hundreds of colours. The farmer looked around him in awe; grass, flowers and wildlife covered the entire ground for what seemed to be miles and miles, and everypony from the surrounding villages came to witness the miraculous sight. The farmer suddenly remembered the shrouded pony… had he saved Canterlonia from Glacius’ power? Was this all his doing?”
“From that day, every hundred years, we have celebrated the passing of the century as a tribute to the Wanderer’s sacrifice. We have a lot to thank for him, for had it not been for his hard work and bravery we would not be living as we do today.”
Sepia finished, sighing with contentment as she leaned back into her chair. “So, did you like my story?”
Pebbles glanced at Starflash, who was resting his head in his hoof and snoring gently with his eyes shut. She giggled, poking the unicorn awake and making him jump.
“He thought your story stunk! You’re mean Mister Starflash!” she said, jabbing him with her hoof. He winced with every stab of her leg, squirming about as he tried to escape the assault.
“Hey, hey! She knows I like that story. I was just sleepy, that’s all.”
Rocky laughed loudly, shaking her head. “You should have more manners when your girlfriend’s tellin’ you a wonderful story like that!”
Sepia’s eyes widened. “My… Wait, he’s not my—“
“Yeah, I’m sorry,” Starflash cut in. “I’ll be a little more sensitive next time Sep. I hope you can forgive me.”
Sepia blinked at him, briefly shaking her head as he winked at her.
“Oh, of course! It’s alright. Just don’t do it again.” She was distracted by a faint rumbling coming from below her, and she glanced at her stomach. “Well it seems that I’ve been talking a little too long! Starflash, how about some lunch? The dining carriage should be open right now. How about you head there while I head to the little filly’s room?”
“Sure! I’ve got enough treats to last for days, but a little extra couldn’t hurt,” Starflash replied. Sepia nodded and Rocky allowed her to exit the cabin. Pebbles did the same for Starflash, the filly waving at the two of them as they exited the cabin.
“Bye Miss Sepia! Bye Mister Starflash!” she yelled, and the pair of them smiled back as Rocky waved them off too. After closing the door, Sepia gave Starflash a warm smile.
“Your girlfriend?” She chuckled. “You know, you’re really good with kids… Mister Starflash!”
The unicorn grinned back at her. “That’s just a part of being a tour guide!”
Sepia stretched her legs and groaned, the cramped seats making her flank numb from the constant rattling and bouncing on the tracks. She whispered to herself to save more bits ahead of time just for the comfort of first class and trotted to the end of the third carriage, back towards the dining car where Starflash said he would meet her.
Shouldn’t be too long now, she thought as she looked at the fresh, green and unfamiliar countryside roll past the windows. Grey clouds were beginning to gather in the sky. It’ll be another ten minutes before we enter the Wintervale Forest, then from there it’ll be just another couple of hours until—
“Why Sepia! Isn’t this a happy coincidence?”
Her heart froze and almost shattered when she heard the light voice coming from right behind her. She slowly turned on the spot, inches at a time, and groaned as she saw the familiar grin of a light yellow, green-maned earth pony
“And why are we riding the Piata Express this afternoon?” Honeysuckle asked. Sepia didn’t bother to answer, knowing that the flowerpony probably eavesdropped ahead of time. Or she asked Starflash, one of the two.
“Alright, what are you doing here?” she asked, furrowing her brows. Honeysuckle patted a satchel on her flank, the sound of glass clinking together as she did so.
“You are aware that I have other business outside of selling flowers, don’t you?” She giggled. “No, of course not. You’re too busy hanging over your books to notice anything even remotely interesting.”
“Yeah, good one,” Sepia said as she rolled her eyes. “Come on, what’s in there?”
Honeysuckle tutted, opening up her bag to reveal many glass vials filled with liquids of different colours. “I make mixes and tinctures with flowers and sell them in the capital. You honestly didn’t know that?”
“No.” Sepia stepped forward, moving her face closer to the earth pony’s. “And I don’t believe you for a second. Why would you travel all the way to Piata to sell them if you can do it in Geldingstone?”
Honeysuckle laughed at her, shaking her head. “You don’t know anything about ‘customer demand’, do you?”
“Give it a rest,” Sepia said, making herself sound serious. “You and I both know that you’re on this train for something else other than that flower juice you make, and I think I know what it is as well.”
Honeysuckle stepped back, her face quivering for a second. “Oh? What’s that?”
Sepia gave her a smug grin. “You know that Starflash is on this train, don’t you?”
“What?” The earth pony seemed to panic for just a second before recomposing herself. “So what if he is?”
Sepia giggled. “You’re totally in love with him! You can’t fool me. I saw that look you gave me when I hugged him in the church.”
The pegasus expected Honeysuckle’s face to crumple into complete shock or desperation. But her smile soon faded when the earth pony gave her an angry glare.
“You think you’re so smart, don’t you? You think that you can just trick him that easily into liking you with cheap hugs and sly comments about me? You’re the sneakiest little—”
“Woah!” Sepia suddenly said, silencing Honeysuckle. “You... You honestly do like him! I knew it!”
“So what if I do?” Honeysuckle growled. “What’s it to you?”
“Oh, this is just too funny, and just too cute as well! I can’t wait to tell him...”
“Go right ahead. I’d love for him to know that he’s got an admirer. In fact, I’m pretty sure he prefers me anyway.”
Sepia snorted. “Oh please. He doesn’t prefer either of us, both as friends or as admirers. Do you really think he’s that petty? Besides, you can’t be with him because—”
She immediately stopped, her eyes darting about as she bit her lip. Honeysuckle raised her brow at her.
“Because of what?” she said. “Go on, why can’t I be with him?”
Sepia hesitated. “Because... Because I’ve already asked him out and he said yes. Didn’t you know? We’ve been going out for at least a month now.”
A heavy silence built between the two mares, Honeysuckle’s face never changing from something resembling disappointment and anger. She stared down the pegasus’ calm eyes as she scratched her head, running a hoof through her spring-green mane as she sighed.
“Well then,” she said, her voice barely louder than a whisper, “I hope he’s happy with the choice he’s made.” She turned, preparing to leave the carriage before stopping. “But there’s one thing that I don’t understand.”
“Oh? What’s that?” Sepia asked.
“Why did you go with him on the train? Surely if you’re just going to the capital for work, you could just fly there by yourself. Oh wait! How could I forget?” She turned back to Sepia with a malicious, evil smile.
“You can’t, can you?”
Her question was like a punch in the stomach to Sepia, the words echoing in her mind like a mocking whisper. The calm expression was wiped from her face as she stepped back from the earth pony, her voice quivering slightly.
Honeysuckle giggled, moving closer to the pegasus. “How does it feel to know that you’re completely useless with just one wing? You can’t fly, you can’t use magic and you don’t have the strength of an earth pony like myself.”
“I said shut up.”
“And how did you cripple that wing anyway?” Honeysuckle continued. “Did you get careless one day and get into an accident during a flying lesson as a foal? Is that why you’re such a coward when it comes to heights? You should know that Starflash finds it absolutely hilarious when you’re so afraid of being up so high!”
“You’re lying,” Sepia said, on the brink of tears.
“Am I? You know me... the ‘snooping pest’ that meddles where nopony wants her. I know everything that goes on in everypony’s life around Geldingstone, and I’m rather impressed that you’ve managed to keep your love life a secret from me for so long. But to be honest, I’m shocked. I don’t know what Starflash sees in a pathetic loser like you.”
Sepia remained totally silent as she stared through the veil of tears at Honeysuckle’s menacing face. The earth pony laughed as she walked past Sepia, patting her on the shoulder as she went in the direction of the dining carriage.
“There there, Sepia. It’s not your fault,” Honeysuckle said in a comforting voice. “Some ponies are born stupid, clumsy, useless and worthless. I’m just thankful that you are one of them.”
It was some time before the carriage door was pulled open with a click, then slamming shut a couple of seconds later. Sepia was totally alone, her head bowed and her face flushed with a bright red as she broke out into tears.
The rain was spattering against the window of the carriage as it trundled along the tracks.
Honeysuckle grinned widely. It wasn’t an evil, malicious grin like she had given to Sepia, nor was it one of happiness as if she had heard or told a funny joke. It was one of satisfaction; she had put the pegasus in her proper place, where she belonged. She began to trot in bouncy rhythm towards the dining carriage, where she had heard that Starflash would be, with her head held high.
She opened the door to the carriage before the dining area- the third class cabins- and slowly walked through. There was no real difference between the decor of this carriage and the second class one, with the exception of the lack of lamps of the walls, which made Honeysuckle wonder why they bothered to make the distinction anyway. Even so, she hated how she could barely pay for the third class seat in such short notice.
A building darkness crept over the carriage as the train entered the Wintervale Forest. Honeysuckle looked out of the window, staring with intrigue at the trees rolling past. At least, what seemed to be trees. She recalled why the area carried the name ‘Wintervale’ in the first place, thinking about a small article in a textbook she often flicked through when she had nothing better to do. The trees weren’t actually dead, as their dishevelled appearance would have suggested, but rather they grew without ever needing leaves. They looked like they had permanently shed their leaves for a long forgotten winter, thus creating the mystery of how they absorbed the sunlight. The forest was notoriously chilly as well, often being the first area to see snowfall in Canterlonia.
Honeysuckle turned away from the scene, resuming her gentle trot towards her destination.
“So how long until the block then, do you think?”
She paused halfway through her step, her ears pricking as they picked up a quiet, almost growling voice. She looked to her left, noticing a crack the width of a hair between an open door and its frame. She leaned closer to it.
“Dunno. Maybe five minutes, maybe twenty,” a lighter voice said. “This forest... wide. Where did he order this ‘emergency stop’ then?”
Honeysuckle tried to peek through the crack, nudging the door open as gently as she could without forcing a creak from the hinges. There was one pony she could see just the flank of, a red coat with a cutie mark of a pair of dice being the only clue of the stallion’s identity. She couldn’t tell who the other was from where she stood, but she dared not to let her curiosity get the better of her.
“A couple of hour’s walking from the forest’s edge. Who knows how long that’s going to be,” the quiet growling voice said. The red pony moved his face past the crack, which made Honeysuckle almost leap back as she tensed. “Do you know how many are on board?”
“Five passengers, three staff and the driver. Of course, I’m posing as one of those staff members... seven.”
“Do you know where the couple are?”
“Second class cabin, room seventeen apparently. They’ve probably gone exploring the train or for lunch. I don’t blame them... starving here. You?”
The quiet growler laughed slightly. “They don’t serve the kind of food I like here. I’d be amazed if they did.”
Honeysuckle scratched her head for a second. The couple? Who were they talking about? And why was the number of ponies on the train important? She leaned back towards the crack and tuned her ears back into the conversation.
“Do you know where the pegasus is now?” the quiet voice said in its familiar growl.
“No, but I know she doesn’t have the necklace around her neck... her luggage maybe?” the red pony said. Honeysuckle’s eyes went wide.
“Pegasus... necklace?” she whispered. “Sepia!”
“And the unicorn you told me about?”
“Currently stuffing his face in the dining bit,” the lighter voice said. “Keeping him and the pegasus apart would make things easier for everyone involved.”
“Starflash!” Honeysuckle whispered again. “What’s going on... what?” She squinted as hard as she could through the crack to catch a glimpse of who was speaking, but with no luck.
“What of the others on the train?” the quiet voice said.
“Two grey mares and a staff member. That’s all... I think. I haven’t seen the driver, obviously.”
There was a short silence before the growling voice spoke again. “I wonder where he gets his information so quickly.”
“Spies like me,” the red pony replied. “I followed her from the museum when he told me to... started before you arrived actually. That must mean his device is working, yes?”
“Yes. I would have went with him into Geldingstone, but it seems that country ponies do not take kindly to my type,” the quiet voice said, its growl becoming more fierce but still restrained when he finished. “I sent the order to the underground pack upon his request. We’ll probably be arriving at the point shortly so get ready.”
“Right. I hope those... things can move quickly enough,” the red one said. Honeysuckle stifled a yelp and darted behind the nearby corner as the door to the cabin slowly creaked open, the crimson pony slowly emerging.
“You’ve never seen a diamond dog dig before, have you?” the quiet voice said with a slight chuckle as the pony left, the door closing behind him. Honeysuckle watched him leave towards the carriage where she had left Sepia, the crimson-coated unicorn in a smart, white shirt sweeping his blonde mane behind his head. He sighed, not looking back towards Honeysuckle’s hiding spot, and once he had left, silence built in the carriage. The mare was left alone, her mind trying to connect the dots as she breathed heavily.
“An emergency stop?” she whispered. “Diamond dogs? And... Oh no...”
She bolted straight for the dining carriage.
Fifteen wrappers. Starflash counted fifteen greasy, sticky and brown wrappers lying on the lace-covered top of the table in front of him, the contents missing from each and every single one. He licked his lips, his muzzle practically soaked in honey and caked with crumbs from five minutes of frantic snacking to satisfy his whining belly, and he leaned back in his chair as he magically arranged the rest of the evidence in a brown paper mountain. After giving a loud, gut-rumbling belch, a slight smile of guilt appeared on his face as he thought to himself.
Maybe I should take it easy on the sugary stuff… Sep’s always telling me that I’m going to get fat eating stuff like that, and that’s no way to go if I want to be a swordspony! Still…
His grin slowly turned to a frown as he glanced out of the window.
…I should have been honest back there. It’s not like that mare would have cared if I told her the truth, would she? No, of course not. She’d never see me again after I get off this train anyway. It’s not like I’d be hanging around Sep all the time either. But…
He shook his head, deciding to take in the scenery rather than think about his troubles. It was mysterious to him how the trees looked as they were dead, but rather than think about that, he glanced behind him and doubled back as he saw Sepia standing directly behind him in front of the dining carriage’s bar counter. He slowly looked upwards, from her hooves to her face, and gave her a concerned look as he noticed her eyes were a slight red.
“Sepia? What’s the matter? Have you… been crying?”
“No,” she replied in a quiet voice, looking away for just a second. “I’m fine.”
Starflash rose from his seat, gently placing his hoof on the pegasus’ shoulder as he tried to get a second look. “It’s alright, you can tell me if something’s upset you. I’m here for you, aren’t I?”
She looked at him meekly, her eyes welling with tears ever so slightly. She sniffed deeply, letting some of her sadness drip and run down her cheeks. After a long silence, where Starflash could do nothing but look at her with a comforting expression- not smiling, but not frowning either- she spoke with a quivering voice.
“Starflash… You don’t laugh at my fear of heights, do you?”
“What?” the unicorn said with slight shock, his eyes widening. “No, of course I don’t! Why do you think I do?”
“N-No, it’s…” Sepia sighed, her tears seeming to dry up slowly in her eyes but her worry still visible. “…it’s just that I’ve been… thinking about it lately. I can’t help but worry about how stupid and humiliating it is to be scared of something so laughable, especially for a pegasus!”
“Sep, you know I wouldn’t be that insensitive,” Starflash said, almost in a whisper. “You didn’t laugh at me when I practically peed myself in the forest, so why would I laugh at yours or Honeysuckle’s fears?”
“I don’t know…” Sepia trailed off, shaking her head. “No, forget it. I’m being an idiot about this.”
“Don’t say that,” Starflash said, bringing his hoof upwards to ease Sepia’s face to his level. They stared at each other for just a few seconds, Starflash’s look of deep worry penetrating the pegasus’ teary eyes. “Honeysuckle had this very same conversation with me a year or so ago. She told me that she was having nightmares, and she also asked me if it was alright to be afraid of something as strange as—“
He stopped himself, his face looking as if his brain had shut down completely. He sighed as Sepia’s look prompted him to explain, but he couldn’t finish the way he wanted to.
“I can’t tell you what. She doesn’t like other ponies knowing, and even when she first admitted it to me she was in tears about it. I can understand why though. She doesn’t want me to talk about something she feels so humiliated by.”
Sepia blinked at him; something that resembled shock and intrigue mixed together had replaced anything resembling sadness on her face. “What’s she afraid of? What happened to her?”
Starflash shook his head. “I can’t tell you. I swore to her I’d never tell anypony about it.”
The sound of a heavy door sliding open distracted the both of them, their heads turning to the left to see a yellow earth pony dart towards them.
“Honeysuckle?!” Starflash exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”
Honeysuckle panted for breath, Starflash watching her glance towards Sepia. Their gazes locked for just a few moments, the earth pony’s look of restrained worry colliding with the pegasus’ confused stare. The two mares stayed silent, Sepia not saying anything about the mysterious and sudden appearance of the flowerpony, none of this seeming to register with her to Starflash.
“We have to get off this train. Now.”
Honeysuckle’s quick demand made Sepia and Starflash raise their brows at her, the unicorn giving her a smile. “What?” he said. “What do you mean?”
“Listen to me!” Honeysuckle said, seemingly in a panic. “There’s something going on up ahead, and I think the both of you are involved! I heard two ponies… well, one pony talking about a plan of some kind with something else, and they’re planning on stopping this train because of her!”
She thrust her hoof at Sepia, making the pegasus’ flinch slightly. “What?” she said. She batted the earth pony’s hoof away from her. “Yeah, nice try. Even when we’re on important business, you just can’t help but try and get in our way, can you?”
“No, you have to listen to me!” Honeysuckle yelled, her voice sounding almost like a plea. “I overheard them talking about a block of some kind that we’re about to hit at any second, and when this train stops… they mentioned something about diamond dogs and the number of passengers. They mentioned you and Starflash specifically!”
“Woah, woah!” Starflash called out, placing a hoof on her shoulder to calm her. He waited for her to take deep breath before allowing her to continue. “Let’s be rational about this. Now, did you get a look at the ponies who were talking?”
“Yes! There was a one with a crimson coat, but I couldn’t see the other one. This other one sounded quiet though, as if he had something wrong with his voice. I swear I’m not making this up, you have to believe me!”
“I don’t know, Honeysuckle,” Sepia said, a hint of aggression in her voice. “It wouldn’t be the first time you’ve lied to us before, would it?”
Honeysuckle blinked at her. “What?! What do you mean by that?! No, I… Look, just please hear me out! I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we have to—“
She was brought to a stop as she yelped, the sudden lurching of the train sending the three of them flying across the room and crashing to the ground. The tables and chairs were scattered with them, the sound of wood and metal hitting the carpet ringing above the screeching of the wheels against the tracks outside as the ponies screamed from the emergency stop. Starflash’s hoof almost smacked Sepia in the face as he was sent hurtling towards the far end of the carriage, and Honeysuckle almost rolled into the both of them as she tumbled across the floor. Before they managed to crush themselves, the train was quickly brought to a complete halt. All of them were breathing heavily, slowly standing as they groaned.
“What the…” Starflash said after a while, stretching his limbs to ensure no damage had been dealt. He helped Sepia up as she shook herself. Honeysuckle was already standing up against the window, looking out of it.
“Why have we stopped?” Sepia asked. She turned to her satchel, patting it to make sure none of the contents had spilled out or been squashed. She reached in and pulled out the necklace, placing it around her neck as she glanced towards Honeysuckle.
“No, no, no!” the earth pony said quickly, rushing towards the dining carriage doors that lead to the back of the train. She turned back to Starflash and Sepia and waved her hoof at them frantically, beckoning them to her. “Hurry, we don’t have much time!”
The two ponies glanced at each other as Honeysuckle darted off to the third class cabins, hurriedly following her. She did not slow down for them, and neither did she look back as they sprinted through the third class carriage. The whole train had become eerily quiet, the only sounds being Honeysuckle’s quick breaths and the galloping of hooves against the carpet, and nopony was to be found investigating the source of the sudden halt.
“Come on!” Honeysuckle whispered back at Sepia and Starflash harshly. Suddenly, she stopped. Her ears pricked as she heard a clicking noise, followed by a creaking. Her eyes went wide in horror; one of the doors had opened behind Sepia, who was at the back of the group.
“Quick!” she mouthed, pulling Starflash behind the corner of the carriage. Sepia hurried to where they were, staying quiet on Honeysuckle’s order that was made clear by her bringing a hoof to her mouth and furrowing her brows.
“Starflash, take a look for me. See who it is,” she told the unicorn. Starflash nodded, peeking out from behind the corner that they hid behind. He didn’t know why they were being so cautious, especially after what could have been a serious accident, but when he saw what emerged from the cabin, he gave a slight gasp.
Standing at the doorway was a tall creature with greyish-black fur on its body and perfectly preened white feathers covering its head. Its eyes were a piercing red, like orbs of blood, and its eagle-like beak looked sharp enough to slice him into pieces from where he stood. He gulped upon turning back to Honeysuckle, glancing at both her and Sepia.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said quietly, stepping up to the door of the final carriage- the staff storerooms- and opening it with the most gentle of touches. He ushered Sepia and Honeysuckle through as he closed it again, but not all the way to prevent it making noise.
They all dashed towards the final door on the end of the train, the rusty hinges swinging open with a loud creak as they dived outside. The freezing cold rain immediately began to pelt the three of them as they gasped, Starflash shivering from the cold downpour that was falling upon them relentlessly. Honeysuckle began to look left and right, stepping off the tracks and whispering to herself.
“What are you doing?” Sepia asked whilst sounding irritated, walking up to her as she brushed her immediately soaked mane from her eyes. Honeysuckle ignored her, giving a slight squeal as her eyes widened. She was looking towards the other end of the train.
“Hide! Now!” she ordered quietly, pushing Sepia with her as she hurried behind a nearby tree. Starflash followed quickly, the three ponies huddled together behind a thick trunk that was just a few feet away from the tracks. Honeysuckle stayed totally silent, her back to the bark but with her head high in the air. Her ears were twitching, prompting Starflash to give her a curious look.
“What is it?” he asked. Honeysuckle held out her hoof without looking away from the air as she stared at nothing, and Sepia shook her head and rolled her eyes.
“This is ridiculous! I’m getting back on the train.”
Starflash held her back as she tried to walk away from them, giving her a grave look. “Sep, no! She’s telling the truth. I saw the other one who she was talking about, and...”
“Shh!” Honeysuckle whispered. “You two go and look whilst I listen to what’s going on.”
Starflash nodded, poking his head out from behind the tree. Sepia did the same, though she couldn’t see as far due to the unicorn getting in her way. He squinted into the distance, the pouring rain obscuring his vision slightly, spotting a group of figures ahead. He could see, standing at the doors to the train where they had embarked before, a group of creatures that stood on two legs with hunched backs, though this was the only thing he could see about them. After a few moments of waiting, the only distraction that his stare facing being the freezing rain, he saw something else come from the train. A pony. Then two ponies. Then another three. They were immediately grabbed by the figures, the creatures holding onto them tightly as they wrestled about. Finally, and to his fear, the black and white griffon that he had seen before strode from the middle carriage. It was leaning over one of the ponies and yelling at him, though Starflash could not tell what it was saying.
“There’s a lot of them there. What can you hear, Honeysuckle?” Starflash asked quietly. Honeysuckle didn’t look away from her spot, and not seeming to blink either.
“One of them is screaming about a pegasus... the pegasus. And I can hear another pony sobbing and squealing.” A short silence. “The screamer is telling her to shut up, and...”
A shout rang out, followed by roar. The forest was quiet all of a sudden.
“That pony just shouted... I think she said ‘Leave Pebbles alone’... what?”
“Rocky!” Starflash whispered, stepping out from behind the tree with a furious look on his face. Sepia pulled him back, pushing him against the trunk and pinning him there lightly.
“Wait! Starflash, please don’t do that! You can’t help her if there’s so many of them there! Don’t be a fool! You can’t be the hero here, especially if you’re not armed!”
“Sepia, I don’t know what they’re doing but it sounds like they’re hurting her and Pebbles! What about the others too? We can’t just sit here and do nothing!”
“I know that, but think about this for a second. Don’t go rushing in without a plan, and even with one you wouldn’t stand a chance!”
Starflash began to fluster. “But... But they’re—”
“Don’t. You don’t have to redeem yourself for what happened back in the old forest. There’s being brave and then there’s just being stupid! I know that we can’t just let whoever is doing this get away with it, but now is not the time to be an idiot!”
Sepia stared long and hard into his burning, hate-filled eyes with a concerned and calming look. He closed his eyes, breathing in deeply and whispering to her. “Okay. I understand.”
Honeysuckle gave them an irritated glare before her ears pricked once more. “They’re arguing amongst themselves for some reason… Hang on a second, they’re arguing about where the unicorn and the pegasus are. They…”
Starflash raised his brow. “What is it? What are they saying?”
“I can’t tell,” Honeysuckle whispered. “All I can hear is—“
A scream rang out through the forest, followed by a great rumbling that came from all around them. The three ponies hit the deck, burying their heads in their hooves as the deafening roar echoed throughout the forest and caused the ground to shake wildly. The earthquake only lasted seconds though, the sound soon fading as the rain suddenly faded to a drizzle. Sepia looked up first, her head turning every which way as she prodded Starflash on the shoulder.
“What in Canterlonia was that?!” she yelled. Honeysuckle dived towards her, planting her hoof on the pegasus’ lips as she shushed her harshly. There was no reply from anywhere after a few tense moments, making Starflash step out from behind the tree.
“Hey, they’re gone!” he shouted. He sprinted to the spot where the group of figures had stood, Sepia and Honeysuckle lagging behind him as the rain dripped from their manes as they ran. Starflash was standing in front of three narrow holes, scratching his head as he cautiously approached one of them, and he made his horn glow as he leaned closer. All that he could see as he stared into the darkness was various chunks of dirt tumbling downwards into the depths; he could hear nothing else come from it.
“What happened? Did they disappear down these holes?” Honeysuckle asked. Sepia sighed heavily, her eyes drifting towards the front of the train. Starflash looked up with her, and the two of them gasped as they saw what lying on the tracks just inches away from the steel guard at the front of the engine carriage. A giant tree had been felled across the train’s path, the immense size blocking any progress if the Piata Express had tried to continue at full speed. They stared in awe at the sprawling, tangled roots that were hanging rigidly from the bottom of the tree.
“Can somepony please tell me what’s going on here?!” Sepia demanded, storming back to Honeysuckle, who was inspecting one of the holes. She scrambled backwards upon seeing how deep it was.
“Like I said,” Honeysuckle explained, “they were after you and Starflash! But why did they take the other ponies too?”
“And who exactly are ‘they’?” Sepia asked, furrowing her brows.
“I don’t know,” Starflash said, Honeysuckle nodding with him, “but if they’re serious enough to try and stop an entire train just because they’re looking for you, we’d better stay well away from them. But… why would they be after you in the first place? And why were they after me as well?!”
“They’re after you because you boarded the train with Sepia!” Honeysuckle said. The unicorn and the earth pony both turned slowly towards Sepia, who was checking her necklace. The three of them looked down at the orb that hung loosely from the pegasus’ hoof, a pregnant silence building over them. Sepia only spoke up after the chilly rain made her blurt out her thoughts.
“Did they mention the necklace at all?”
Honeysuckle nodded. “The crimson pony was talking about how you didn’t seem to have it on you at the time.”
Sepia glanced back to the milky-white decoration, unhooking the necklace from around her neck and placing it in her satchel. “I’d better keep it hidden from now on. I don’t what’s going on, but…” She sighed heavily. “…I believe you now, Honeysuckle.”
The earth pony blinked at her for many quiet moments, giving her a sly smile afterwards. “Yes… you should really listen to me more often.”
“Hey, could we talk about this later?” Starflash said, shivering as water dripped from his coat and mane. He was shivering violently. “I think we should head for somewhere warmer… much warmer. Like a furnace that I can dive into, it’s freezing here!”
Both mares gave him a curious look before giggling at him, watching him try to warm himself up by doing a slight dance on the spot. Sepia shook her head. “Yeah, we’d better make ourselves scarce here in case… they come back. We can follow these tracks all the way to Piata if we need to.”
“But they said that this ambush spot was a couple of hour’s walking distance away from the edge of the forest, and then the capital must be another day away! We can’t walk that far!” Honeysuckle groaned. Sepia rolled her eyes.
“Well then,” she said with an angry glare, “why don’t you jump down one of those holes and see where it leads to? Maybe there’s an underground railroad waiting to ferry you right to Piata!”
Starflash grinned to himself as the two mares argued, the three of them shivering together as they walked alongside the tracks to the edge of the Wintervale Forest.
It shames me to admit this, but something has gone drastically wrong with the plan. It seems that either our information was incorrect, or the pegasus and the unicorn have become aware of our presence. As such, I am currently interrogating each of the ponies that were found on the train, your spy included, to get to the bottom of this outrage. Nevertheless, I shall return to your side shortly so that we may assess our position.
Your faithful servant,
Sunlight was a welcome blessing on Sepia’s coat, the warmth of the afternoon’s glow washing over her as she, Starflash and Honeysuckle emerged soaking wet and dripping from the forest. After a heated discussion with the earth pony, she had remained totally silent for the rest of the walk that lasted for two gruelling hours, which were filled with nothing but icy cold sensations and annoying chatter coming from Honeysuckle.
“Finally!” she exclaimed, shaking herself about to send droplets of freezing cold spray in every direction. Starflash did the same, galloping away from the edge of the Wintervale Forest and gasping for breaths of the warmer air of spring.
“Man, it feels good to get out into the open again!” he yelled into the clearing, galloping forwards as he laughed.
“I thought we were making ourselves scarce?” Honeysuckle said with a slight smile on her face. She looked around the countryside, trotting up to Starflash and poking him with her hoof. “I can see a house in the distance!”
Sepia darted up to the both of them, squinting at what the earth pony was pointing at. She could see a small home just across the other side of the train tracks, near to a road that ran alongside it. This road looked to be just a couple of minute’s walking away from where they stood.
“Let’s go!” she said, trotting towards the house. Starflash and Honeysuckle followed close behind, their still cold coats making them short of breath in just a few seconds. However, they managed to reach the dirt road in just seconds, Sepia stopping in front of a fence and gate that stood in front of the group. Above this gate was a sign, which read Golden Brown’s.
“Hey, I know this place!” Sepia said excitedly. “I recognise it from back when I was a filly, though I’ve never set a hoof in it. It’s just a place I remember travelling past.”
She rested her front hooves upon the wooden fence, looking over the fields of yellowing wheat and the apple trees that grew near to the house. The home itself was painted a rustic golden colour, the outside looking what some ponies would call vintage- other ponies just plain old- and stylish. There was a small windmill standing near to a red barn, the blades turning lazily in the light breeze, and what looked like a chicken coop near to the back of this huge building. Sepia lifted the latch on the gate, opening it with a creak.
“We should ask if we can dry ourselves off here before we head for Piata,” she said as the three ponies walked up the dusty tracks that lead to the front door of the house. “I can’t stand being this cold for any longer, and Starflash looks like he might shatter from just a light smack!”
The unicorn gave her an unimpressed look as she laughed, his teeth chattering as he forced his words out. “Yeah, I’m not th-th-that cold! I’m just… s-s-slightly ch-chilly, that’s all.”
They stepped up to the green door and Sepia noticed how the paint was peeling, possibly from the many years of weathering. She gently knocked on the door twice, standing back as it burst open widely to reveal a dark yellow earth pony with a brown mane that was hidden mostly between a cream-white cowboy hat. He adjusted his ten-gallon, revealing his golden eyes and a gentle smile on his young-looking face.
“Well hey there!” he said merrily, beaming at the three of them. “How can I help you—“
He stopped suddenly, his eyes widening at them. Sepia gave him a raised brow. “Uhh… Hi?”
“Well, would you look at that! You’re all soaking wet and it hasn’t been raining for days here! You ponies just came from the forest?” He pointed towards where they came from, making Sepia turn her head back. As she looked, she noticed that Starflash was staring at the stallion with a slightly shocked expression.
“Oh, that’s right,” she said. “I’m Sepia Stripes, and this is Honeysuckle and Starflash.
She introduced Honeysuckle and Starflash in turn, the earth pony giving a friendly hello as the stallion tipped his hat to her. But Starflash just stood there with the same expression as before, only responding with a stammer.
“I- I- I- I… Hey,” he said quietly, finally turning away. The stallion gave a slight laugh.
“Are you shy?” he asked. “I don’t mind, we’re all a little nervous around meeting new folks. The name’s Autumn Breeze, and welcome to Golden Brown’s!”
“Thank you,” Sepia said. She brushed her wet mane behind her head, her teeth chattering a little. “May we please come in? We need to dry ourselves off and rest for a moment.”
“Why sure!” Autumn said. “Not many ponies come round here, but any that do are more than welcome. The family’s inside so make yourselves at home!”
Sepia thanked him, trotting inside along with Honeysuckle. Starflash, however, still stood rooted to the spot with the same look on his face as Autumn gave an amused stare of his own. The unicorn could only stand there and look into his eyes, shaking slightly and biting his own lip.
“Well,” Autumn said, adjusting his hat, “you coming in or not? I don’t bite, and trust me, I’d not be as shy to if I did!”
Starflash shook his head, nodding at him after a short, awkward silence. “O-Of course!” he stammered as he gave a slight blush. “I just… blanked for a second.”
He quickly walked inside, glancing back to Autumn’s smiling face as the door to the home was closed behind him.
To say that Golden Brown’s was a family farm would be both a truth and a lie, Sepia learned. Though Autumn Breeze’s company that he lived with in his home were related to him- this company being his mother, Cherry Blossom, his father, Haystack, and his twin sister, Bluebell- they seemed more like friends than family. All of them seemed to be on the same level as each other, referring to each other by names instead of titles like ‘mom’ and ‘sir’.
After being introduced to the family, Sepia, Starflash and Honeysuckle were quickly shown the way to the washroom so they could dry themselves off. Privacy was not a luxury for them in the cramped room - even though Autumn advertised it as ‘cosy’- though none of the ponies would let themselves freeze over for the sake of taking turns. Sepia and Honeysuckle finished together long before Starflash; the pegasus watched him as he slowly dried himself with a most curious look on his face, his eyes slightly wide and a curl at the corner of his lips. To her, it looked as if he was trying- and failing- to his keep his best poker face as he brushed his mane into a neat arrangement with his towel.
Once they were ready, the three ponies descended to the dining room. Lunch had been laid out for both them and the entire family, a variety of veggies, fruits and desserts all cooked in their own special ways into pies, cakes and other pastries which Sepia had never seen before. Every dish was packed onto the top of the creaking, gnawed wooden table that Autumn and the family was sitting around, the sight of such a feast making Sepia’s mouth water and her stomach rumble, but she, along with Starflash and Honeysuckle, was reluctant to approach the food. Autumn gave the three of them a cheery smile.
“Well don’t be shy!” he said, removing his hat and throwing it, with perfect aim, onto the tip of the pillar at the end of the stair railing. He ushered Sepia and the other’s over. “There’s plenty here for all of us and the pigs, and don’t think you’ve got to make pigs of yourselves to please us. Cherry loves cookin’ and the pigs love eatin’!”
Sepia smiled and nodded, taking up her seat alone at the free end of the table. Honeysuckle sat next to Bluebell, the creamy-cyan pegasus offering her a plate of apple pie without saying anything. This left one empty spot to Autumn’s left, which Starflash stared at for several awkward seconds before he was invited over.
“I-I’m sorry,” he stammered, saying nothing more as he gingerly took his place. Autumn shot him quick, friendly glance; Sepia thought that she saw Starflash blush for a fraction of a second. She grinned to herself.
“So tell us,” Haystack said loudly after everypony had taken some food, “what brings you three to Golden Brown’s today?”
Sepia finished her mouthful of apple pie, wiping her muzzle before answering. “Well, we were going to Piata as a group for...” She paused, looking at Honeysuckle. The earth pony’s face had a disapproving expression spread on the half that was turned to her, and she thought about how much this look would have annoyed her normally. This time, she got Honeysuckle’s message.
“...for a vacation.”
“Oh, is that so?” Cherry said, wiping away some pie crumbs from her light pink chin. “If you three came from Geldingstone, then did you decide to walk the whole way? Or—”
“I think we should have told you this earlier,” Honeysuckle interrupted, “but... our train was stopped suddenly and we just barely managed to escape.”
“Escaped?” Autumn asked. “From what, boredom? You folks bored when you’re not movin’ around?”
Honeysuckle’s face remained sullen. “Actually, when the train suddenly stopped, the other ponies were taken outside and... I don’t know. They just vanished after we listened in on whoever was there. I think they were kidnapped.”
The family gasped together, Autumn leaning upwards towards her. “Kidnapped?! You’re pullin’ our legs, Miss Honeysuckle! Who’d want to kidnap a bunch of ponies?”
Honeysuckle hesitated. “Well... Starflash told me that he saw some creatures standing over the ponies when they were gathered outside. We were hidden behind some trees at a distance and I told him to take a look. He said they stood on two legs and had hunched backs, and--”
“You’re serious?!” Haystack exclaimed, making Starflash flinch. He dropped the piece of pie he was holding, turning to the blue unicorn. “Are you positive? Did’ya see their faces?”
Starflash blinked. “Oh, uh... not really. There were maybe five or six of them though.”
Haystack jumped from his seat, rushing over to the front door. “Cherry, they’re up to somethin’. First they’re prowlin’ in the fields and now they’re out kidnappin’ ponies! You three should have said somethin’ as soon as you walked through the door.” He grumbled to himself as he ran into the kitchen, taking a jacket and throwing it onto his body. “Chances are they’ve found the train, but the Royal Guard’s ain’t exactly bright. They won’t know that those dogs are back...”
Before anypony could stop him, Haystack had stormed out of the house and slammed the front door shut, the sound of galloping being heard outside over the silent group of ponies left in the dining room. Nopony moved until the noise had faded away, leaving everypony looking at each other awkwardly in turn. Cherry cleared her throat, everypony looking at her with the same confused expression.
“Forgive him, dears,” she said, addressing Starflash, Sepia and Honeysuckle, “but there have been a number of thefts from the fields lately like ears of corn and cabbages. Haystack has kept his eye out... he says that he sees something called a ‘diamond dog’ now and again, lurking about the crops. I tell him not to worry, but he’s insistent on making his troubles known at the outpost not far from here, until somepony puts a stop to them. But it seems that the Royal Guard has better things to do than to help us deal with a hungry diamond dog...”
Autumn dipped his hoof into the selection of food again, picking out a piece of vegetable bake. “Speakin’ of hungry, we shouldn’t worry ‘bout any of that now. Everythin’ will be sorted soon.”
Cherry gave him a serious look. “Come now, Autumn. This is very serious, and it’s quite irresponsible to say something like that.”
“Yeah, but what can we do? We’re all sittin’ here with lunch gettin’ cold and dad’s already out reportin’ it, so...”
Sepia stayed silent, wondering just what exactly a ‘diamond dog’ was. She decided not to ask, instead taking another piece of pie and staring about the room. She began to think about why the farm carried the name Golden Brown’s, her eyes drifting and taking in the golden-yellow walls and aging willow furniture. The worn wooden ceiling beams and brownish-red ornaments of ponies and farm animals dotted about the tables and the mantelpiece above the fire, next to where everybody sat. She had the feeling that autumn had invaded the home, settling until the winter. Autumn Breeze cleared his throat.
“Well, let’s jus’ handle this lil’ problem right in front of us... too much food, too few ponies!” he said cheerily. “So, why don’t you folks tell us about yourselves then?”
Sepia saw Starflash tense up slightly, and she intervened. “Well, I’m a historian for the Geldingstone museum. I research artifacts and items that come in. Starflash is a tour guide for the astronomy department for the museum as well, and Honeysuckle...”
She paused, her mind spinning with possible job titles for her.
A gossip. A pest. A nuisance. A two-face. A malicious, evil, mean, sneaky--
“A flowerpony,” Honeysuckle said, making Sepia blink as she carried on eating her meal in silence. Autumn nodded slowly, stuffing the whole slice of pastry into his mouth and chewing slowly. Swallowing loudly, he gave a hearty belch that was probably meant to compliment his mother’s cooking skills, but was met with a disapproving eye all the same. Sepia remembered how Starflash always gave that excuse whenever he did the same in her company; the pegasus glanced at him, noticing him smiling slightly as he began to eat faster.
“A flowerpony?” Cherry said. “So you must know a lot about the land and how to grow things then, am I right?”
“I... well...” Honeysuckle shook her head. “No, not really. I only only know about flowers... little things like that.”
“I see... That’s a shame. We were thinking of planting ourselves an apple orchard, but we really don’t know where the best spot is for the trees. Imagine that, a bunch of farmers not knowing where to sow their seeds!”
“Well, none of us really know anything about farming, so we can’t help you there,” Sepia said. “We don’t really have time to learn anything about farming either. I’m sorry, but--”
“Hold on a sec, Sep!” Starflash said, a wide smile on his face. “Maybe we do have time!”
“Come again?” Autumn said, giving him a curious look. Sepia raised her brow, baffled by Starflash’s sudden statement.
“Well,” he explained, “we wouldn’t get to Piata until nightfall on foot, so I’m thinking that if you guys could give us all a ride there on your cart or something tomorrow morning, we could help you out on the farm in return!”
His suggestion was met with silence as all ponies stared at him. Bluebell and Cherry Blossom could only blink, Sepia almost looked shocked and enraged and Honeysuckle gave him a long, thin frown. Only Autumn gave him a wide grin.
“That’s a good idea if I’ve ever heard one!” he said. “Most folks are a lil’ workshy when we cook up a feast for them, but we don’t mind either way. Since you seem so keen, I guess we can’t stop you even if we wanted to. Three extra sets of hooves will sure come in handy!”
“Autumn, please,” Cherry said, turning to Starflash. “There’s no need to feel like you have to work for a favour, dear. We’d be more than happy to take you all to Piata in the morning and for you to stay for the night.”
Starflash shook his head. “No, I wouldn’t feel right. Besides, I’m sure there are a couple of messy jobs you’d like to have taken care of without having to get dirty yourself.”
“They save those jobs for me!” Autumn said. “We could get ‘em done together, if you’d like--”
Autumn flinched at Starflash’s outburst, and the unicorn quickly laughed and nodded. “I mean sure, I’d love to help you out there.”
“Alright then,” Cherry said. “If your friends don’t mind helping out... Honeysuckle, do you buck a lot?”
Honeysuckle looked up from from her empty plate. “What?”
“You know, bucking. Kicking hay bales onto carts and such? Ever done anything like that?”
“Oh!” Honeysuckle nodded. “Sure, I’ve kicked a lot of trees and other things before.”
“Perfect! You can help Bluebell out with piling up the hay bales near the pastures then. It’s tough work for just one pony, but since you’ll be there to take Haystack’s place the job should go smoothly.”
Sepia smiled slightly when she saw Honeysuckle’s lips flicker into a grimace for a fraction of a second. She wondered what job she’d be left with.
“Now then Sepia,” Cherry said, sighing as she waved her hoof over the top of the table, above the food and empty plates. “You’re going to help me by cleaning all of these dishes.”
“That’s it?” Sepia asked, her brow high. Cherry nodded, smiling sweetly at her as she collected the dirty china and stacked it up on the corner of the table.
“Of course! I can’t have you doing any heavy work with your... you know... your wing being as it is.”
Sepia was left silent, a blank look left on her face. She could only stare back at the light pink mare as the smile on her host’s lips remained. She glanced at Honeysuckle, reading a clear, cutting message from the earth pony’s calm and collected glare.
See what I mean? Useless...
“Oh... I understand your concern,” Sepia said quietly. “In that case, I’d be happy to help you with that.”
“Excellent!” Cherry chirped. “Now then, there’s much to be done before dinner, so everypony snap to it!”
Autumn and Bluebell nodded, darting from their seats and out of the front door. Starflash quickly followed, Honeysuckle slowly coming after him. They left Sepia sitting alone at the table, sighing as she looked at her crooked, deformed left wing.
Starflash tried to keep his distance from the pig sty as Autumn slipped on his own hoof boots.The unicorn stood a good ten metres away from the wooden gate as he watched his partner get ready for work, a second set of four shoes near the latched side of the entryway that were waiting to be put on. Yet there was something, which he couldn’t figure out, that was stopping him.
He could only watch Autumn get ready with no particular look on his face as he tried to think about why he couldn’t go near. It wasn’t the foul stench of the pigs that he was to tend to, nor was it the thought of blisters from the boots or even the urge to nap after having a fill of the feast. He slowly began to walk, Autumn glancing up at him.
“You ever cleared out a pigpen before, Starflash?” he asked, adjusting his slipping hat with his booted hoof. Starflash shook his head.
“No, never. Is it hard?”
“Hard? Only if you’re not good at shovellin’. Pigs are the nicest of critters you’ll come across, but they’re awful messy and they don’t half stink!”
Nicest… Starflash thought. Yeah, that’s something good about him. Nicest and...
“I don’t mind the smell,” he said, levitating one of the boots towards him and slipping his hoof inside. Autumn wheeled a barrow with two shovels inside up to the gate. “In fact, I actually like it. Reminds me of my family, in a way.”
“Say what?” Autumn gave him a curious look. Starflash smiled at him, fitting on the rest of his boots.
“I had a pretty large family… well, a huge family actually. Fourteen brothers and sisters, my mom and dad, my grandparents and myself, all cramped together in the same house.” He gave a slight laugh at Autumn’s surprised yet amused look. “Of course, with that many kids fighting with each other, playing around outside and just being messy all the time, it was pretty frantic. Add to the fact that my mom really couldn’t keep up with who's bath time was when and then… well, you could tell just by the scruffy coats and the smell who’d bathed and who hadn’t.”
“Uh-huh,” Autumn said, scratching his head. “Fourteen brothers and sisters? How’d you cope with that many? All I’ve got is Bluebell, and she never says a word ‘cept when she wants to.”
“I kept myself to myself, I guess. I often just spent time outside the house looking for spots to set up my telescope, and then I would wait until the night to look at the stars. Oddly enough, that’s how I met Honeysuckle and Sepia.”
“Ohoho, I see,” Autumn said with a grin. “Used your brains and not those muscles to impress the ladies, eh?”
Starflash paused for a second. “My… Well, I guess I…” He bit his lip, sighing as he shook his head. “No. I’m not… I’ve never really liked them in that kind of way, even though they’ve been my best friends for years.”
“Oh. Well, is it another lucky mare?”
“No. At least, not a mare… that knows,” Starflash said, a flicker of happiness showing for just a fraction of a second that vanished almost instantly. “I’m a bit too nervous to tell her how I feel. I barely even know her.”
“Hmm…” Autumn gave him a reassuring look, smiling at him. “Well, why don’t you try to get to know her, then tell her how you really feel? I mean, it’ll only be embarrassin’ for a lil’ while, but who knows! Maybe it might go somewhere good. After all, who could resist such a handsome stallion like you?”
Starflash blushed a little. “Well, I don’t know about handsome but—“
He stopped dead, the flushing red colour in his cheeks drained for a pale blue as he blinked at Autumn. The earth pony asked him what was the matter, but he didn’t even grunt or breathe to acknowledge him. All he could do was gulp as he began to sweat slightly.
“W-W-What did you say?!” he quickly stammered. Autumn raised his brow.
“I said who could resist such a handsome stallion… like…”
He trailed off completely, the two ponies staring at each other awkwardly for what seemed to be the longest ten seconds of Starflash’s life. His eyes darted left and right as he tried to look away, and Autumn cleared his throat as he fumbled about with his hat. Neither of them could say anything to each other until Autumn sighed heavily, giving Starflash a comforting smile.
“I’ve gotta ask, Starflash,” he said quietly, the unicorn looking at him meekly, “are you offended by me callin’ you handsome or somethin’? Like, does it sound weird comin’ from another guy?”
Starflash stared at the warm gentle look with wide eyes. He gave a quick, almost silent laugh. Then another. Then a longer, louder one. Soon, he was in roaring laughter as Autumn stepped back, looking as if he was on guard from his fit of giggles. Even if Starflash didn’t have a reason for his sudden joy, he now had one for why he couldn’t go near the gate before.
“Autumn…” His laughter died slowly as he wiped a tear away from his eye. “I have to be honest with you. You know how I should tell that mare I know how I feel? And have you noticed how I’ve been a little shy around you?”
Autumn nodded slowly. “Yeah.”
“Well… I’ve kind of been lying to you. There is somepony I like, but… Umm… Autumn, I actually think that you’re… well…”
“So Sepia, how’s working at that museum? How long have you been there?”
Cherry placed a small stack of recently washed and bone-dry dishes in the cupboard under the kitchen sink, dusting off her hooves as she asked her question. Sepia dipped another dirty beneath the tub of frothy, soapy liquid, taking a sponge to it as she thought.
“Oh I don’t know… At least five or six years, I think,” she replied, passing her dish to Cherry for drying and taking another one. “I took up a job therewith Starflash because it’s somewhere we loved visiting together when we were younger. He loved guiding me around the astronomy department, telling me about the planets and stars and stuff. Anyway, I began working as a librarian for the archives, but Mr Scroll made me a researcher when he found me investigating an exhibit that had been carelessly left on one of the bookshelves. He told me I had passion and enthusiasm.”
“And Starflash?” Cherry asked. “What does he do?”
“He’s still a tour guide after all these years. He loves making the night sky so entertaining with his on-the-spot songs and lively ways of explaining things, but I have no idea how he copes with being the centre of attention! Then again, I feel awkward with just one pony looking at me for any reason at all…”
“I suppose it takes a certain kind of pony for that,“ said Cherry. “What about Honeysuckle? She says she’s a flowerpony but she’s awfully quiet, just like my Bluebell.”
Sepia stopped scrubbing the plate in the sink, staring at her own submerged hooves as she tried to stop Honeysuckle’s words coming back to her.
Some ponies are just born stupid, clumsy, useless and worthless…
But she couldn’t…
I’m just glad—
one of them.
“She’s friendly enough,” Sepia said quietly, slowly passing her sponge over the plate again. “She’s… a little forward when she speaks, but she works hard and takes her love for flowers and—“
“—botany seriously. I haven’t known her for as long as I’ve Starflash though, and they knew each other long before I even met him…”
“I see,” Cherry said. She completed another stack of dried dishes by crowning the pile on the kitchen table with the last plate that Sepia gave to her. “Well, that’s that finished. Now, since I managed to finish most of the housework before you three arrived, how about we get the dinner started?”
She turned to Sepia as she closed the cupboard, her cheery smile fading as she saw the pegasus’ face; her lips were straight but quivering slightly, her eyes glistening.
“Is everything all right, Sepia?” Cherry asked her. She didn’t respond. She kept staring out of the window, her eyes seeing past Starflash and Autumn laughing and talking together and not even noticing Bluebell and Honeysuckle struggling to stack hay bales into a pile. Her eyes welled up as she felt a familiar pain.
It was coming from her broken wing.
“I-I’m sorry,” Sepia said, sniffling as she wiped her eyes.
“Hey, I’m sorry for what I said earlier… about your wing?” Cherry said in a comforting tone. “I was just concerned, that’s all. I’m sorry if I upset you.”
“No, I…” Sepia regained her composure, looking at Cherry seriously. “It’s just that talking about the past and how I met Starflash reminded me of my wing, and… I still can’t forget about what happened after so many years.”
A short silence lingered between them as Sepia gave a heavy sigh, looking out of the window once more.
“When I was a little filly,” she said, “all I loved to do was read. My mother owned her own bookshop when we still lived in Teralow, the underground town, so I grew up with everything from stories about knights and princesses and history books about ages gone by around me. I would spend hours reading about everything I could, getting up and picking out another book literally seconds after I’d finished one. Sometimes I would wake up with my face buried in the most fascinating novels, but I always loved history books the most. I loved learning about our own world both past and present, and I always tried to learn more whenever I could.”
“My dad though… He never liked me reading so much. He was the captain of the town guard… many a guardspony called him a hulking beast of a pegasus with a look of constant, pure hatred in his eyes, and a temper to match. He was always telling my mother about how I was wasting my life just sitting alone with nothing but books. He thought I should be outside, becoming stronger and discovering a world outside of fiction, but neither of those things appealed to me. I was happy the way I was.”
“But he wasn’t satisfied,” Sepia said, bitterness in her voice, “because I didn’t have my cutie mark then. All my classmates- most of them sons and daughters of my father’s garrison- all had theirs, but I was still a blank flank. My dad wanted a daughter he take pride in, but… I don’t know why he did it. Maybe he was just too anxious about me never getting one? I didn’t care though—“
“I’m sorry,” Cherry cut in, “but what did he do to you?”
“Oh…” Sepia sighed. “One day, he got into an argument with my mother. I listened in, hearing him telling her that he was sick of letting me just let the world fly right by my head without doing anything meaningful, and that it was her fault that I was so obsessed with… with letting him down. My mother just said to him that I loved my books, and there was nothing wrong with that.”
“He didn’t agree. He came into my room after he finished talking to her, telling me ‘It’s time you learned something useful for once. Get your things, we’re going to the surface.’ The land above the city was so exciting and fresh for a filly, so every chance I had to escape the dimness of Teralow was taken without a second thought.”
“I asked my dad where we were going, but he didn’t answer me as we took the brisk walk through the cobbled streets, the glow of the lamps above us flickering and pulsing gently. He just said, once we reached the steam-powered elevator to the surface, that we were heading for the cliffs overlooking Regalis Forest for my first flying lesson. I was pretty nervous when he said that, as any filly would be. I’d never used my wings before… I hadn’t even given them a flutter before then, so flying seemed like a huge step up. What use would flying have been in an underground city anyway?”
“We were both silent as we make the long walk to the cliffs, away from the entrance of the city… that’s pretty much just a giant cave where the elevator is. It took us maybe an hour to get there, neither of us saying anything until my dad trotted ahead of me, suddenly stopping at the top of the hill we were walking up. I quickly caught up with him, stepping back from where he was when I reached him and looked down.”
“We’d actually reached the cliffs. The gentle slope that we’d walked up to lead up to a rocky cliff face and a sheer drop to the forest below. I gulped at the impossible height of the outcrop, feeling sick just thinking about it.”
“My dad suddenly said ‘Sepia, I want you to learn how to fly the same way I did. I want you to—“
Sepia paused, taking a deep breath that stuttered with a sniffle as she wiped her eyes. “He told me to run and the cliff edge and flap my wings.”
“He… What?!” Cherry whispered her eyes wide. Sepia nodded once. “But that’s the most insane thing I’ve ever heard!”
“I thought that too. I told him I couldn’t do it. I told him I was scared, but… but he just yelled at me! He started getting angry, demanding that I stopped acting like a coward and do it. He just kept growling at me when I refused, but I was so afraid that I had no idea what to do… I couldn’t believe that he was doing this to me, all for the sake of his stupid pride, his selfish notion of his own image and having a daughter that could do something ‘useful’, like he put it.”
“Sepia…” Cherry said. “I had no idea—“
“And you want to know what the worst part is?” Sepia snapped, tears falling from her eyes. “He called me a disappointment! He looked straight into my eyes and said that I was useless to him, leaving me behind as he walked back to town! He… There was something inside me that snapped. Something that made me run towards that cliff face. I ran as fast as I could, screwing my eyes shut and spreading my wings as far as I could! I prayed that the wind would carry me through the air! But... I…”
She could say no more, burying herself into Cherry’s hug as she was cradled by her. She let out great sobs as Cherry tried to console her, the earth pony stroking her mane gently while she whispered comfortingly in her ear.
“There there, Sepia. It’s not your fault. Don’t think for a second that you’re a coward or you’re useless. You’re helpful and kind, with two friends that I’m sure will follow you wherever you go. I’m sure those are all worth a heck a lot more than a father who wants to be proud of you for something that doesn’t even matter.”
“B-But…” Sepia said, forcing her words past her sniffles. “But… my wing… and I can’t fly or use magic or—“
“That’s right,” Cherry said. She looked Sepia in the eyes. “But being able to do any of that doesn’t make you any better. It’s not what you can do, but what you do do and letting yourself blossom because of that.”
Sepia blinked a few times, wiping away her tears. “Thank you,” she whispered with a smile, Cherry returning it. “I… I feel better after telling you about this. Only you and Starflash know.”
“You mean you’ve never talked to Honeysuckle about this? Why not?”
Sepia glanced out of the window; she thought she saw a spring-green mane disappear from view from the bottom of it. A stern look spread across her face as she stared at Honeysuckle, who was walking away from the house and glancing back when she was far away.
“She never bothered to ask about my wing,” Sepia said.