The City of Pitsburgh
"What are you doing?" screamed her idol. "Dash, run!"
"Not a chance!" Rainbow replied, hauling the black-garbed pegasus to her hooves. "I'm not leaving you here to-"
Above them, there was a crashing of wood, and a burning billboard toppled down through the smoke-filled air, hurtling straight towards them. Rainbow Dash stood paralysed with horror, but her protector reacted quickly, shoving her forward. The push managed to get her numbed legs moving, and the two of them galloped for the end of the alley, as the sign smashed into the concrete behind them. A flaming fragment of wood landed dangerously close to the other mare's black-dyed tail, but they made it out into the relative safety of the main street unharmed by debris or flame.
"Are you alright?" Spitfire gasped, tearing off her mask as they made for the other side of the road. Her coat was matted and filthy after spending weeks on end under the black disguise, and her mane, also dyed black, was greasy and stank of smoke. Her green eyes were watering from the fumes in the air.
"Put it back on!" Rainbow hissed, glancing around in fear. "They'll, hah, they'll see you! - ack, I-" she broke out into a coughing fit.
"Come on, kid," Spitfire insisted, pushing her down the next side street, "we have to get out of the city." Behind them, the fire began to leap dangerously from the burning tower block, spreading to the surrounding buildings and lighting them up too. She had been lucky to get out of there alive. Very lucky.
She had awoken to Spitfire, garbed in black, breaking down her door and clamping her hoof over her mouth, insisting that they leave, now. She had been shocked on leaving the dingy room to see two unconscious unicorns in the corridor, one bleeding profusely from the mouth where her idol had kicked their teeth loose. Not taking any chances, they had set a slow fire on the top floor before coming down for Rainbow, not expecting her to have protection.
In all fairness, neither did she.
Spitfire had practically dragged her from the condemned block of flats where she had been hiding, only unveiling her identity when they escaped into the streets. The fire had continued to burn unchecked, however, and Rainbow's sanctuary had exploded when a falling piece of brick had broken a gas pipe, the fire catching on to the next building, and the next, and the next...
Pitsburgh was beginning to burn. The fire crews, arriving to a lost cause, had practically given up and fled with the screaming civilians after taking one look at the inferno. The proud old mining town was collapsing, street by street. All because I wasn't smart enough to run, thought Rainbow.
The two arsonists had followed her into town and hadn't left her tail. At first she thought they must just have been going her way, but after an hour of walking she had doubled back on herself, once, twice, three times, and they had matched her every time. It was pretty clear what they were after - and they weren't the first to come for it.
The Element of Loyalty was secreted in her saddlebag, the magical glow of its ruby lightning gemstone no longer as bright as it had once been. It was her duty - her sacred task, entrusted to her by Princess Celestia herself - to take it to the place of its creation and protect its unimaginable power from those who would seek to control it.
"Did you come alone?" she gasped, as they ran for the city walls.
"No," Spitfire replied, black mask covering her face once more, her black-dyed mane streaking out of the back. "Wing Commander Soarin is here as well, he's tracking one of the bastards behind this."
"Soarin?" Rainbow exclaimed. "I mean, wait, there are more of them?"
"Yeah, they didn't all come to your place. It was a smart move hiding there kid, but they had a watch on every gate, and on your magic too. They knew you hadn't left the city."
They were beginning to outpace the blaze, but they were two highly fit athletes. Behind them, ponies were starting to lag. Rainbow glanced back, horrified, as a teenage colt who had been on their tail for blocks began to slow down, coughing and wheezing.
"I... Spitfire, shouldn't we - I mean, we gotta-"
"No, Rainbow," Spitfire cut her off. "We gotta get you outta the city."
She had been going for six months now, across the countryside from Canterlot. Staying on the ground on the Princesses' orders, she had been losing pursuers over mountains and in forests for months already, seriously slowing her progress. If she had been able to fly, then she could have been at Port Bridle by now. Heck, she could have crossed the ocean on the day she set off, but Celestia had been insistent. Stay on the ground.
What the Princess hadn't told Rainbow was that she was having her tailed - by two of her heroes, no less. Spitfire and Soarin, the two highest-ranking Pegasi in the Equestrian Air Guard's display team, the Wonderbolts, had been following her from a distance, instructed to only step in if Dash was in serious trouble - and she had been.
I would've burned to death in there, she realised, gulping, as they continued to sprint away from the blaze. And... Oh Winds, this is... This is my fault... She started to slow down, coughing and hacking from the smoke. Tears, independent of the fire, began to pool in her eyes.
"Rainbow?" called Spitfire, slowing down just ahead of her. "Rainbow, come on-"
"Is this my fault?" she asked weakly, sitting down in the street. The horrible cold of guilt began to claw at her, the fire was her fault, ponies were dying because of her, she couldn't-
"No," gasped her idol, "I - no, no, it isn't Rainbow, it really isn't. It's-"
She cut herself off with a shout as she glanced up, horrified. Rainbow looked up and yelled as a pony came plummeting down from the rooftops, a bitdagger clenched in his mouth. As she rolled out of the way, there was a grunt of exertion and a figure in black leapt over her, back hoof forward as Dash's second protector kicked into the side of the assassin's neck. The attacker fell to the floor, smacking his head onto the concrete, and went out cold. The dagger clattered to the pavement some feet away.
"Come on, girls," grunted Wing Commander Soarin, clad in the same black bodysuit and mask as Spitfire. "We gotta keep moving. I, er, I mean, we should be moving, Captain," he blustered as he realised how he had spoken to his superior.
"Just get going, you lummox," Spitfire laughed, setting off once more for the city's edge. She grabbed the weeping Rainbow roughly and hauled her along, until the pegasus' legs started working again. "Did you get them all?"
"No," grunted Soarin. "There's one more, another unicorn. He slipped away while I was trackin' that grunt with the knife back there."
"Maelstrom," Spitfire swore as they entered a thronging crowd headed for the city's east gate. "Stay close Dash, and keep your eyes peeled. Somepony could easily blend in with the herd and get you."
Panic was evident amongst the rapidly swelling stream of ponies. Glancing around, Rainbow saw mothers herding youngsters towards the gate, patriarchs carrying the important family possessions they had been able to gather quickly on their back, grandchildren helping their infirm grandparents along. The city was being evacuated, every building. There was no way to stop the fires from spreading, there simply wasn't enough time to respond as the blazes spread.
She maintained a vigilant eye as the walls came in sight. It wouldn't do to get complacent, to think they were out of the woods. There was still at least one unicorn out after her, and the invaluable treasure in her bags...
"We made it," gasped an exhausted earth pony mother, walking next to Rainbow with her fearful-eyed filly, dark smoke stains streaking down each of their cream-coloured coats. "Oh, Celestia, we actually made it!"
Rainbow smiled at her neighbor's jubilation, then frowned. A buzzing was starting to become audible above the sounds of the evacuees and the roar of the fires. A low, unhealthy drone that grew ever closer... She turned around to look up at the sky, and gasped in horror.
A zeppelin was barrelling towards them, falling out of the ash-filled sky, its gas bag aflame and smoke streaming from its engines. The fire must have spread to the city's mooring-dock, Rainbow realised. Renewed screams came from the surrounding crowd, louder than ever before as the terrified Pit Ponies noticed the behemoth bearing down on them.
"Guys!" Spitfire yelled, panic beginning to creep into her voice, "we gotta get off the ground! That thing could explode if any more gas sacks rupture when it hits the ground!"
"We can't fly!" Soarin shouted back. The throng around them had become hysterical at the mention of a possible blast, and he had to shove his way between a couple of ponies who managed to get between him and his partners. "The Element - damn it, Spitfire, we got orders!"
"Buck that! We don't have a choice!" bellowed Spitfire. "We're taking too much of a risk by staying down here!" Soarin began to stammer a retort, but the crowd had opened up in front of his Captain. Grabbing Rainbow Dash by the hoof, Spitfire had galloped forwards, using the extra space to build up speed and propel herself into the air, Dash taking wing behind her. With a bellow of aggravation, Soarin followed, scanning the crowd for the remaining aggressor, but the great variation in colour and size and race of the ponies below, and the swirling, blinding smoke descending from above made it impossible to pick out such an indistinct individual.
Grey unicorn, he repeated to himself, brown cloak, white mane, average build. Grey unicorn...
Hundreds of winged ponies had taken to the air, if they hadn't already, at the sight of the zeppelin. Engines screaming, it fell through the air, following a flight path straight to the portal in the wall itself. Amongst the flock, Dash and Spitfire had managed to get a safe distance away from the vessel, but that didn't mean they could put it out of mind.
"Spitfire!" Rainbow screamed, "it's gonna come down right in the crowd! We have to do something - ugh..." Soarin swooped up from beneath her, wrapping a powerful foreleg around her and flying away from the inferno below.
"Nothing to do, kid. We got a job to do." But Rainbow wriggled free, and shoved the Wonderbolt away.
"Is it really more important?" she choked, hovering. Her eyes, already red from the inferno, were beginning to glisten with horrified tears. "Is it rea-" She was interrupted by the wrenching, smashing crash as the airship collided with the buildings below. It fell, down, down, down, right into the crowd itself...
There was mercifully no explosion, but the gondola lodged itself right between the two gatepost pillars in the wall, smashing the ancient portals off their hinges so that they toppled, varnished wood ablaze, to the road below. The refugees that had been lucky enough to avoid the burning wreck now found themselves trapped between the gate and the oncoming blaze. Rainbow Dash screamed with absolute distress. "No, no!" she yelled. "Not... Not for me..."
"Celestia thinks it is," Soarin said at length, although his words were heavy. "So... We should think so too. Now come on," he said, gritting his teeth. "We really have to go." Grabbing Rainbow once more, her pulled her onwards, away from the vast columns of smoke rising above the once-proud city.
Beneath them, on the ground, the crowd was descending into chaos. They had pressed themselves up against the wall, clawing at it in terror as the fires advanced behind them.
"Please!" shrieked a cream earth pony, rearing, her daughter clutched in two sooty hooves, holding her up to the pegasi taking wing. "Save my baby!" The young filly was wailing openly as the throng panicked around her.
"Stand back," came a gruff voice, pushing his way through. "Back, if you want to live!" His brown cloak was burnt in several places, and his white tail was filthy with black grime. He managed to shove his way to the wall, where he stopped, and concentrating, ignoring his desperate neighbors as a frown crossed his face. He closed his eyes...
...And his horn ignited, the unicorn's distinguishing feature enveloped in a white aura. Eyes springing wide open, he looked upon the wall with utmost hatred as he reared, and great cracks began to appear in the ancient sandstone blocks. With a bellow, he slammed his grey hooves down on the ground as the giant bricks flew outwards. The crowd, ignoring his feat, desperately scrambled for the newly created hole.
"Thank you, sir!" coughed the mother pony as she passed him, still with her beloved child. "Thank you..."
"Thank the master," he growled. "Not me." Without waiting for a response, he began to push through the crowd once more, scrambling through the hole of his own creation and out of the city, breaking into a gallop as he desperately tried to catch up with the flock of pegasi, and the distinctive pull of magic he felt within...
The city rapidly receded behind them as Rainbow and the two stunt-ponies sailed out into the night sky. Away from the fire, the chill of the Winter night began to set in. Dash began to shiver almost as soon as she'd gotten control of her sobbing.
"We should get down on the ground," Soarin shouted to Spitfire. "The flock's starting to thin, we're getting more noticeable by the second." Indeed, many of the pegasi who had flown out were now wheeling back to search for their loved ones, but Spitfire shook her head.
"I want to put some more distance between us and the city. If anypony with their wits about them sees us dressed like this," she said, gesturing to herself, anything not covered by her black uniform apart from her eyes dyed black so she couldn't be recognised, "they're gonna ask questions, especially if we're still headed away from the city." Soarin muttered an angry response, but not loud enough for his commanding officer to hear.
"Since when do stunt fliers get sent on royal missions anyway?" Rainbow Dash shouted, starting to assess the situation now that they were out of the city and no longer as focused on fleeing. "In fact, why should I even trust you guys?" She gasped. "What if you've been playing me this whole time? What if... You knew I would trust you, you guys are my heroes! What if-"
"Celestia knew you would trust us, Rainbow," Spitfire called, "and the Wonderbolts may be stunts-ponies, but we're trained for combat." She frowned. "Don't tell me you've been aching to get into the 'Bolts for years and you didn't know that."
"I, uh..." Rainbow stammered, "I did, I just, I wasn't - I mean I was expecting somepony - uh..."
"Chill it kid," Soarin muttered. "We're on your side. Now, Captain, we've gotta get outta the air! We're -" he stopped, shock on his face. In the distance, galloping towards them from the burning city, was a unicorn in a brown cloak. Magical luminescence pooled around his horn, glowing a burning white as he readied a spell.
"Dive!" yelled Soarin, pushing himself up above Rainbow Dash with one flap of his powerful wings before snapping them shut, landing square on Rainbow's back, and wrapping his hooves around her, ignoring her terrified scream as they plummeted towards the ground like a statue knocked from the deck of a luxury dirigible, Spitfire in their wake.
The sorcerer on the flatlands below gave a wordless shout as he unleashed his spell. Focusing on the ground, Soarin never saw the bolt of silver lightning as it rocketed towards him...
The two Wonderbolts shouted in pain as the destructive magic made contact. Rainbow, safe in Soarin's embrace, suddenly found herself falling alone again, and stretched her wings out, desperately trying to slow her descent. She grabbed the flailing Soarin by the scruff of his bodysuit, but watched helplessly as Spitfire spiralled the last sixty feet or so to the ground without moving her wings.
There was a sickening thud as the stunt captain landed, with Dash and Soarin falling heavily just behind her. Rainbow grunted in pain as she toppled muzzle-first onto the grass, unable to make a clean landing whilst supporting the large pegasus.
Now, pegasus magic is a remarkable thing. While on the ground they may seem like light, fragile creatures, once in the air the unique power protecting and strengthening their race keeps them relatively safe from harm. Hence, while Rainbow Dash had suffered many crashes throughout her youth careening through the Ponyville skies, she had only been hospitalised twice. But while Soarin leapt up quickly, Spitfire, her hero, her idol, lay on the ground, whimpering in pain.
"Ow," she moaned, "ow, Tempest, Gods damn it." Teeth gritted, she tried to push herself up without resting any weight on one of her forehooves. "Agh, I think - I think I broke my fetlock, guys, I - ow -" Rainbow leapt towards her, lifting her good foreleg with her own so it rested over her shoulders.
"Can you move like this?" she asked. Spitfire nodded, blinking away tears of pain with gritted teeth. "Right. OK, that goon's gonna be close, we gotta get away."
Soarin pointed east to a copse of trees - the only cover in the entire flat grassland surrounding what was left of Pitsburgh. "Get to there and check out the Captain's hoof, Rainbow. I'll take care of this guy." Without waiting for a response, he sprung back into the air once more, moving to intercept the unicorn who was closing the distance between them.
Slowly, Rainbow began to hobble forwards, moving clumsily as she desperately tried to keep Spitfire upright. Behind them, the sound of a brawl reached their ears as Soarin engaged their attacker. It took them twenty minutes to reach the treeline, but the fight hadn't yet finished as Dash led the injured Wonderbolt into the shade.
"He's taking a while," she muttered, worriedly.
"Don't mind it," Spitfire hissed through a clenched jaw. "That's how he does things - he'll be giving the bastard the runaround, wearing him out. You gotta play it safe with a unicorn whose magic is ready to blow." Rainbow gently helped her down so that she lay on the grass.
"Right," Rainbow grunted, "first aid. She tossed her saddlebags unceremoniously to the ground, where they burst open, supplies scattering. A bag of bits. Food. The golden necklace that was the physical manifestation of the Element of Loyalty, the dim glow of its magical ruby weak, sickly. Grabbing the red-and-white first aid kit, Rainbow opened the box and rummaged around within, until she found what she was looking for - a capped syringe and a sterilising swab. "I've never done this before," she admitted. "Where do I -"
Spitfire cut her off with a grunt, gesturing with her hoof. "Forget the wipe," she grunted, "don't get the suit off. Just do it -" she shut herself up as Rainbow plunged the morphine injection into the top of her foreleg, a little more forceful than necessary in her desperation, causing the injured pony to yell in surprise and pain.
"Sorry!" gasped Rainbow, as she pushed down the plunger with a hoof before grabbing the sharp in her teeth once more and tossing it aside.
"It's OK," Spitfire panted, "it's OK... I'll be fine in a couple of minutes when that takes effect..."
"OK," Dash replied. "Now I gotta take a look at your ankle - how should I - "
"There's a zip at the top of each leg," Spitfire interrupted. "Just get that one off and - I dunno what needs doing, just have a look."
Rainbow whistled as she took off the black sleeve covering the injured limb. "Ah, that doesn't look so bad," she said, and indeed it didn't. A little trickle of blood had stained the sun-yellow hair of Spitfire's fetlock, and while it was clearly knocked a little out of place, her idol had been lucky. It wasn't a bad break, and in her inexpert opinion, it was a clean one too.
"I gotta splint this," she muttered. "I got like a - a kinda hoof-brace thing somewhere, hold on -" She broke off as she began to rummage through her scattered belongings once more. "Here. Now hold on, this might hurt a little -"
Spitfire grunted as the younger pegasus clamped the brace around her hoof and shin, tightening a screw to force the limb into a natural position. A steel band was locked onto her hoof, with bars and hinges on either side connecting it to the main body of her leg, up to a second band on her lower leg.
"I... That looks like it'll be alright." Rainbow sat down of the grass, panting, next to her broken hero. She suddenly felt exhausted - they hadn't stopped moving until now since Spitfire had hauled her from the burning tenement. "Oh, um, one more thing," she said, as she reached for a silver capsule in the grass.
Spitfire watched, interested, as Rainbow Dash took the magical flare in her mouth and flung it upwards. For a moment she thought it might be about to give them away, but as it sailed towards the leafless treetops it vanished in a burst of rainbow fire, sucked through the ether to Canterlot Palace.
"Gotta let the Princess know we're alright," she explained. "I bet she knew we were in town at least."
"Yeah," Spitfire agreed, "and yeah, she did know. I sent her a report myself as soon as we lost you."
"You lost me?" Rainbow gasped, surprised. "Wow. I musta done a pretty good job hiding."
Spitfire grinned. "You did, Rainbow, you did... You've been doing a great job, ever since you left Canterlot. This is the first real incident we've had."
"Yeah, I - yeah... Thanks," said Rainbow Dash, quietly. She paused for a moment. Slowly, pensively, she began to talk once more. "But am I?" she asked. "This - if I'd been going a little quicker, if I'd been a little smarter, I wouldn't have been in town tonight. This wouldn't have happened." Her voice began to choke as she looked back in the direction of the town. "None of this would have happened," she went on, gesturing at Spitfire's bound hoof. The pony in black took the moment to reach up with her good hoof and pull her mask back off, revealing a small, sad smile underneath.
"No, Rainbow," she said. "What happens, happens. It's not your fault that those Piners found you in the Penneighns. You weren't to know they were after the Element. Or those two guys back in the forests around Hoofbridge, that wasn't your fault either. You were just... Here, now. It's not your fault."
"Yeah," Dash said sadly. "I guess."
"So come on, then," Spitfire said, cheerfully now, gesturing with her uninjured forehoof. "How come you brought that along?"
Rainbow followed her pointing, through the piles of her supplies, to where there lay a small plastic figurine of a mare, with sun-yellow wings and a fiery mane and tail, dressed in goggles and a distinctive blue uniform, the lighting bolts adorning in completing the famous image. She blushed.
"I, uh," she stammered, "well..." She picked up a second item. A flat wooden box with the cloud and lightning bolt of her signature mark carved on the front. "The same reason I brought this along." She flipped the slats open, to reveal two bright photos of her closest friends. The six of them at home in Ponyville, grinning at the camera, and again in a small café in Canterlot - clad in magnificently crafted, totally ruined dresses and with the pure-white figure of Princess Celestia herself towering over them all with her benevolent smile.
Spitfire smiled. "I didn't want to forget you guys," Dash admitted. "I didn't know how long I was gonna be gone for... I didn't want to - I wanted to remember you all. To remind me why I'm doing this. I'm doing this for my friends, and for anyone who's a friend of anypony. Not even Celestia knows what'll happen if we don't make it. But it's taken so long already..."
Spitfire nodded. "And it's probably going to take a while longer now," she said, with a sad gesture at her injured hoof. "But we'll make it, Dash, I promise. We'll make it together. And we won't drop back again and leave you alone, we'll stick with you now. You don't have to be so alone any more." She picked up the Wonderbolt action figure and held it up next to her face, smiling.
"Yeah... I... Thanks, um, Spitfire," Rainbow said, finally. "I... I think I would be totally freaking out about this if it weren't for... How bad I feel about everything that's happened tonight."
"Don't worry about it, kid," Spitfire replied in a comforting tone. Behind them, they finally began to hear the hooffalls of Soarin's approach. "Just... Don't worry about it. We're gonna get going again tomorrow - you should get some sleep. I don't know how long we'll be walking for."
Rainbow nodded, and lay down on the ground. Somewhere in the back of her mind, a voice told her, man, this is cool. The Princess sent Spitfire to protect you. And now I'm gonna get to be with the Wonderbolts every day! Finally smiling, Rainbow shut her eyes, the horrors of the evening beginning to recede with her newfound hope, and, despite everything, the gnawing, empty despair that had been growing within her since she had set off began to recede.
She hadn't seen her friends in months. She'd only said a proper goodbye to one of them, and only because Twilight had been one of the group asking her to leave - but she felt close to them that night, remembering them as she marvelled at the identity of her travelling companions and the sheer relief of having escaped alive.
But not everypony could live to see the new day - in the morning, when they set off once more, the sky behind them was still stained with rising smoke, as the city burned.
The Palace of Night and Day, Canterlot, three years later
The City of Marble Spires! The Home of the Sun Queen! The Eternal Citadel of Harmony!
The glorious capital of the great nation of Equestria bathed in the luminous glow of the moonlight, its gleaming white buildings and their many windows reflecting the multihued explosions of the fireworks that rocketed out into the clear night sky before letting loose their load, punctuating the air with bangs and bright lights. Below, the streets thronged with all manner of ponies and other creatures as they happily disregarded the midwinter chill to be part of the annual Winter Solstice celebration.
In each of the districts in each of the six Quarters, the sounds of giddy revelry and merrymaking blended with the beating of drums, the singing of ballads, the music of the guitars and fiddles and all manner of instruments. In Steamville, the factory hooves bellowed drunkenly as concertinas and out-of-tune pianos belted out oom-pah drinking songs. The heavy bass and kit could just be heard coming out of central plaza, over the screams of the adoring fans of whatever mediocre group was playing there. Out in Ivory Town, unicorn couples and earth nobles lay on blankets on the grass in Sir Magnus Park, as the flowing melodies of the orchestra drifted out over their heads and into their happy minds.
Oh, Twilight, Rarity wondered, staring down on the city below, Why did you bring me here?
She rested her head in her hooves, not caring for the tutted disapproval of the nobles behind her. She was at the Winter Solstice Ball, having not been home for more than a day before her old friend Twilight Sparkle had shown up at her studio in Amber Square, and dragged her along, first to the Moonraising Ceremony and then on to the reception at the palace. She had planned to have a quiet night. Watch the moon from her studio flat. Perhaps have a little drink...
I wouldn't mind quite nearly so much if she hadn't left me in the company of all these boors, she realised, raising her head. Where did she even get to?
All around the Palace ballroom, the rich and the royal ambled too and fro, eating, drinking, socialising, dancing, all in that polite, moderate manner that high society assumed outside their homes and flung to one side when they were confident nopony was watching. Even the music was moderate to the point of being boring - a string quartet played classical arrangements over in one corner, but the sound was barely audible over the chatter and step of hoof on marble.
Twilight had stood beside her throughout the ceremony, oohing and aahing with the rest of the crowd as the spectacular display of magic, complemented by fireworks and aerial displays, had unfolded, and had walked with her, chatting amiably about her year away as they made their way up the marble stairs of Canterlot's Fourth Quarter to the Palace. But they had become separated in the entrance hall as the Princesses' guests filed through to ballroom, and Rarity had not seen her since. That had been over two hours ago, and, with the desire to mingle with high society having long fallen off her agenda, but without wanting to leave without informing Twilight, she had consigned herself to a table by the bay window, doing what she had always planned to do. Watch the moon. And have a little drink... Her head sank back down slowly to rest on the glass table.
"Is everything quite alright?" a kindly voice asked from somewhere above her head.
"Yes," stated the white unicorn without looking up. "I am stuck in a room with ponies I do not wish to talk to, waiting for a friend who I do not even know if she will return or not, listening to music that I cannot hear over the din of boasting and self-promotion, and all of this after I only returned home from a year touring the country only yesterday. I am quite exhausted. So yes," she concluded, looking up finally. "Everything is quite - Princess Celestia!" she gasped, as the ruler of all Equestria chuckled down at her.
She was quite something to behold. Whereas both her coat and Rarity's were a pure white, Celestia's fur seem to glow somehow, the hair on her body gleaming in a way Rarity had never quite managed - and she had tried - to replicate for herself. Her mane rippled behind her like sunlight through water, the bizarrely flowing colours drifting lazily from her scalp until floating off into the ether at the end of her hair, which floated despite there being no breeze. Between her bright, amused eyes was a long, tapered horn quite larger and sharper than Rarity's own, and her royal regalia glinted in the ballroom's light, her ruby tiara and matching torc providing a relatively simple, if valuable, symbol of authority.
Rarity realised her mouth was hanging open. To be so brazen to anypony in attendance tonight was quite unlike her, but to have insulted the ball that the Princess had thrown in her sister's honour to her face - well. She awaited Celestia's response with a look of growing horror.
"I know exactly how you feel," whispered the Princess. "Come on. Shall we take a stroll?" If anything, Rarity's bewildered gawping intensified as she watched the Princess stride towards the entrance hall. Glancing out at the rest of the room, she looked on the rich and powerful Canterlot elite and realised she was being offered an escape route. Getting to her hooves, she trotted after the Princess as fast as she could without breaking into a run.
Celestia had been waiting for her in the entryway. Once Rarity caught up, she set off again, making for the doors to the front of the Palace. The portal stood wide open, flanked by gold-armoured guards on either side, who saluted the Princess as she strode through, making for the gardens.
"Ah, your highness," Rarity blustered, "I really hope it isn't a problem, my, um, being here, that is. I-"
Celestia, still walking forwards, looked back to give her a curious stare. "Why on earth would it be a problem, dear?"
"Well, I was never invited, as such. I came with Twilight, but she never-"
Celestia smiled. "If Twilight Sparkle asked you here tonight Rarity, then you are as welcome as if I had penned an invitation to you myself. Please, relax. I suppose it's what you've been trying to do all evening after all."
Rarity halted her tirade and stopped still on the path. She took a deep breath, let it out calmly, and then caught up with the Princess once more.
"I'm sorry, Princess," she admitted, "I'm just - I'm terribly tired right now, I only got back to Canterlot yesterday evening and I was hoping for a quiet night in. I wasn't expecting Twilight to hear I got back quite so soon - and she was most enthusiastic to see me.""
"I understand," said Celestia with a knowing smile. "She was much the same under my tutelage. You've had quite the year, haven't you?"
"I should say!" Rarity agreed enthusiastically, "I never imagined I'd be... Well, Sweetie Belle is the performer in the family, not me. But it just sort of... Happened, you know?"
Celestia nodded. "It was very good of you to step in. I hear you were quite the showstopper," she noted. "I was sorry that I couldn't find time to come and see the show myself. The Mare of the Eastern Front is a spectacular book, very moving... I... Well, I remember the Eastern War, Rarity, I remember how cruel it was... The book was very accurate, very well written. I have a copy myself..."
"Well," Rarity went on, "Lucinda Limelight has made an amazing recovery after the accident, and, well, I was quite ready to move on. Curtain Call told me I didn't have to go, that I had done a stunning performance, but I didn't want to linger on in the place of the pony who rightfully deserved to be there."
"How gracious of you."
Around the far side of the Palace, the gardens stretched out to the border with Earth Quarter, spilling down the sides of Mount Canter to the level of the city below. The topiary and statue gardens were situated at the bottom, while flower displays were arranged on the hillside. At the top, on the west side of the palace, were the formal and animal gardens outside the ballroom. But the Princess and Rarity had arrived at an entirely different part of the gardens, Celestia's own favourite area. They stood at the edges of the royal arboretum.
"Have you ever been here before, Rarity?" she asked. Rarity shook her head, the curls of her indigo mane bouncing about. "Hm," Celestia mused. "I think we should have a look around, don't you?" Without waiting for a response, she began to walk towards the shadow of the trees, and once again Rarity found herself trailing in her wake.
"Twilight was very glad when you came to Canterlot with her, Rarity," the Princess went on. "I was worried that she was going to slip back into her old anti-social habits when she came back to study for her PhD. It really was a good thing that you were there to keep her mindful of the values of strong friendship."
"Oh, Princess," Rarity confessed, "if anything it's a good job she was here for me. I mean, I may have... Had a little breakdown shortly after I moved." She looked up at the Princess guiltily, only to meet her ever-present smile once more.
"I know, dear," Celestia revealed. "Twilight told me after she came back from talking to you about it."
"She did?" Rarity gasped, affronted. "But she promised she wouldn't tell anypony!"
"Well, she came to the Castle in a rather sorry state. I think she was rather upset for you," Celestia explained kindly. "I had to find out what was wrong to make sure she was alright. I mean, I was her mentor. I still am, I suppose."
They crossed into the fringes of the arboretum. The artificial forest consisted of specimens imported from all over the world and replanted in the Castle grounds. Sustained outside of their natural habitats and in the deep Winter by magic, mighty redwoods and ancient oak trees stood next to mahoganies, baobabs, and leafy palms, their many varied leaves rustling gently in the night breeze.
"It was a rather embarrassing circumstance," Rarity admitted. "I've certainly gotten over it since then. But I had only been in the city for a week before I realised just how snobbish the landed elite could truly be - and after a lifetime of, admittedly, aspiring to be like them, it was, well-" She faltered a little "-Crushing."
"You'd spent time around them before, of course? I remember Twilight's seventeenth..."
"Ah, yes, haha," Rarity tittered at the mortifying memories. "Well, that proved to me that there are some diamonds in the rough, of course, but-"
"-But you weren't too bothered to dig for them?" the Princess offered.
"Well, I suppose so, yes." Rarity found that quite fitted what she was thinking. "After so long living in Ponyville and imagining what Canterlot life would be like, it... Didn't really match my expectations." She frowned. "Having stayed in the Palace and acquainted myself with that charming Mr. Fancy Pants last time meant I didn't quite get the real city experience. And, of course, this time I was still upset about Rainbow's disappearance, but I trust you and Twilight when you say she's OK. But I digress - last time I was in Canterlot..."
Celestia listened to Rarity's monologue with growing amusement. After letting her talk for some time as they strolled, she sat down on the grass beneath a giant old tree, motioning for Rarity to join her. The unicorn looked up in wonderment at the great plant, the likes of which she had never seen - like many of the trees in the arboretum, it was not native to Equestria, of that she was sure, but unlike the palm on the edge of the grove it did not look out of place.
"I remember Twilight telling me all your woes," Celestia said. "When I came into the ballroom tonight and saw you on your own, I thought to myself, 'Celestia, you have to get her out of there'. I'm afraid I had to give priority to my other guests, unfortunately. Purely out of courtesy."
"I understand," Rarity agreed.
"Quite. I don't think the Prime Minister would be happy if I didn't congratulate him on his successful defense of the party leadership in order to go strolling with a mare nobody knew." She looked up at the sky, where the full moon hung in the clear, mid-Winter sky. Her expression turned philosophical for a moment as she gazed at the orb, thinking about times gone by, but her musings were interrupted by a sudden chattering of teeth.
"P-p-p-princess C-c-c-celestia," Rarity stammered, "is it m-m-me, or d-did it j-j-just get c-c-c-colder?"
"I'm sorry, little one," the Princess replied guiltily. "No, it didn't. I was using my magic to keep you warm after we left the Palace. It is the Winter Solstice tonight, after all - it was bound to be rather chilly. I'm afraid I must have let my concentration slip for a moment."
"Thank you," Rarity said gratefully, as the bitter cold that had seeped into her skin so quickly evaporated once more. "I wasn't aware you were doing it," she admitted. "I've never met anypony who can cast magic so subtly."
"Ah," said Celestia with a conspiratorial wink. "Comes with the job."
Silence fell between them, and Rarity's gaze wandered. The transported woodland around them was a beautiful sight. Illuminated during the dark Winter's night by lanterns hanging on little stands every few feet, she could see above them the spear-shaped leaves of the ancient tree they sat at fluttering in the cold breeze which she herself did not feel.
"It's very refreshing to see green leaves in the dead of Winter," she observed.
"Yes," agreed Celestia, "I have them kept that way by the gardeners. Earth pony magic can do remarkable things when it goes against the flow of nature - although, some may say that nature itself is even more remarkable."
"I suppose that's why I had the arboretum built," the Princess pondered. "Whilst we ponies may influence the world with our magic and our actions, what we really do is help along an old design. I revel in seeing the world as how it is meant to be, not how it is, even if only from my doorstep."
"What do you mean by that?" asked Rarity, confused.
"Oh," Celestia mumbled awkwardly. She swallowed. "I... I think that would be a story better told by Twilight Sparkle."
"What story?" asked the dressmaker-turned-actress. "Princess, I'm afraid I simply don't understand what you're trying to tell me."
I didn't mean to tell you, Celestia berated herself. That's part of the problem.
"I think," she said, trying to extricate herself from the metaphorical hole she was digging, "that we should go back to the Palace and try and find Twilight. I suppose you're owed an explanation. I mean - well, Twilight's recent work has had... Quite a few impacts on your life recently."
"If you mean you and her sending away some of my best friends on secret business, then yes, I suppose you're right. At least Rainbow Dash gave us a warning that she was going to leave, but I was rather annoyed when I heard Spike and Shining Armor were going last year as well." Rarity grumped, indignant at the Princess' reluctance to speak. "But then again, who am I to argue with the Sun Queen?"
Celestia gave her an odd look, only serving to confuse Rarity more. "The Sun Queen?" asked the Princess. "Do you - I mean, is that what you think of me?"
"Is what what I think of you?" asked Rarity, her voice becoming increasingly frustrated. "It's just a nickname, Princess. I - I'm sorry, your highness," she said, as she remembered once again who she was talking to. "I forgot myself."
"Oh, no!" Celestia hastily replied, "don't be! I find it incredibly frustrating when ponies always treat me as the Eternal Princess Celestia and I can't just have a normal conversation."
"Oh yes!" insisted the Princess, nodding. "It's why I came out here in the first place! Of all the scrapers and bowers in all Equestria, the nobles are by far the most insistent."
"But that is what you are, though, isn't it?" asked Rarity. "I really - I mean, you can't blame them. I mean, you've always ruled Equestria, haven't you? I - I'm sorry, but I have to wonder what you did before Equestria was founded."
"I wasn't born when Equestria was founded," admitted Celestia, sighing. She glanced to her right to see Rarity's astounded expression. "You see, that's what everypony seems to think. That I've always been here, raising the sun, and dear Luna has always controlled the moon. Twilight used to think that too. So much so, in fact, that her PhD was in studying alicorn magic - that is, the magic of my race - I had to tell her the truth before she found it out herself, so she would know that I trusted her with it." Rarity's face was still the picture of astonishment.
"And... Well, what is the truth then?"
"Like I said, I think this would be a story better told by Twilight Sparkle."
"Oh," begged Rarity, "but it's your story, Princess. It would be so much more interesting to hear it from you."
"I - I think that - very well, Rarity, I will tell you some of the more important parts," Celestia reluctantly agreed. "However, I warn you now that I may not last especially long in this."
"Whatever do you mean?"
There was silence once more for a moment, before the Princess spoke again. "This tree," she said slowly, gazing up at the fluttering leaves above them, "is a manaleaf tree. The last in the world. It is older than me. It is older than Equestria itself. It grew naturally, not with Earth pony guidance, not with Unicorn magic, and with rain that came independently of the pegasus folk. Once upon a time, all these things came naturally to the world, as did everything. The great fires beneath the earth burned unchecked. Magic was wild and untamed. And the sun and the moon moved across the sky quite by themselves.
"When my grandfather, King Steelmane, found this place, he established a fortress here as a strategic hold. He didn't know that it would go on to become the crown Palace. He also didn't know I would still be here so long after he found it.
"I used to come out here when I was very young, when I had finished my magic lessons for the day with my mother, or on long weekend days when my sister visited from the capital, I would sit out under this very tree and read a book, or talk to Luna about how she had been getting on with grandfather."
"It was under this very tree that I sat and watched as the sun and the moon stopped moving. There was twilight for... At least a month. Maybe more. Under this tree, me and my sister decided that we had had enough, and we commanded the sun to set and the moon to rise with our magic. We hardly expected it to work. We had no idea what it working meant for us. But as time went by, it became clear. The universe wanted us to keep doing what we did that day. It gave us the power to do our job, and refused to let us go. All things used to happen independently of ponykind - the weather, the growth of trees, the changing of the seasons - but, well... Times changed.
"After my coronation as Diarch of Equestria, alongside my sister, we had a portrait painted stood in the shade of this tree. It currently hangs in the Weaver Street Art Gallery. Me and my husband took our wedding vows here..." Rarity gasped at this revelation. "And... And after..."
Her voice choked a little as her story went on. "I came out here after mother died," she continued. "After my... After my husband, and my... All of them... After they passed away," she sniffed as tears began to run down her cheeks. "And... And every night I could, after Luna... After Luna... Left..."
She paused, trying to compose herself, but she couldn't pull it together. Sobs began to rack her ancient body as she slumped, her wings spreading against the ground. "I would come out here, every night I could, and talk to her," she cried, "under this very tree. I would talk to the moon, and sometimes I thought I heard it speak back. But it was probably just my mind, cracking after so long. So many y-years..."
Rarity didn't know what to say. There had been a part of her, a quiet part of her mind, that had thought Celestia had always existed. That she had always done what she did, raising the sun, and, when occasion called for it, the moon as well. She had assumed that the Princess was, to some extent, some kind of deity, a goddess in Equine form, but now Princess Celestia had admitted that she had had a mother and a normal birth and a grandfather and even a husband - she had been married, goodness knew how many thousands of years ago - she suddenly realised that Celestia, despite her initial reluctance, had been aching to tell this story all along.
"Oh, your highness, I - oh, you poor dear," she managed to say, not sure how one should behave when confronted with a crying, ancient, god-like being. She settled for laying a hoof on the Princess' shoulder. "It must be so hard, all this time with only your sister... Still with you. And not even her, at times. Oh, Princess, I'm sorry," Rarity consoled her, "but... Be strong, dear. You've done a wonderful job for so, so, long now, I don't even know how long...
"Ah -" she said, raising a hoof as the Princess made to reply, "a lady never reveals her age." She smiled. "But take pride in what you've done, dear. I'm sure wherever your loved ones are, they're smiling on you now."
Celestia sniffed. "Maybe..." she said, wiping her foreleg across her eyes. "Maybe..." She turned her gaze once more to the leaves of the ancient tree. "And maybe, one day, when my task here is done, I shall join them once more. I always take hope in that." She smiled at Rarity, with the sadness of thousands of years in her glistening eyes. "Because otherwise there is only despair."
She sat up. "I haven't told many ponies my tale," she admitted. "I didn't know if it was right of me. But... Well, Twilight knows. And I told... I told your friend Rainbow Dash before she left..." Rarity had to bite her tongue at the mention of Rainbow. She missed her brash old friend dearly, and only a select few knew where she had gone, herself not included. But this was Celestia's moment, not Rainbow's.
"I don't tell many ponies because I think they might think I long for death," she said, morbidly. "I do believe in life after death, Rarity, magic has shown me truths about the soul and the world that very few others have seen. And, if the myths are to be believed, the Fair Lands beyond the Dread Gate are kind to all who find them. I hope to see them one day..."
Silence fell once more. The stars twinkled in the indigo-blue sky above them as Rarity gazed at the moon, the satellite that she had watched Celestia's sister Princess Luna raise, in front of the whole city, only a few hours ago. She smiled as she remembered that fateful day, eleven years ago now, when she and Twilight Sparkle and her friends from Ponyville had saved Luna from the darkness that had consumed her. Only now did she realise how much that must have meant to Princess Celestia.
Finally, Celestia stood, ruffling her wings and wiping her eyes. She seemed to have finally recovered herself. "Come along, Rarity. We should go and find Twilight Sparkle... Or should I say, Dr. Sparkle. She may be wondering where you got to, although, if she is where I suspect she is, she probably won't have given it too much thought - although that's not a slight on you, of course, she just... Well, we'll see." She smiled down at Rarity, who stood at only half her own height. "Thank you for listening to an old nag's ramblings," she said.
"Thank you for sharing them with me," Rarity replied, smiling back in turn. "I really think that - Eek!"
Suddenly, in a burst of technicolour flame, a scroll materialised in front of Celestia's muzzle and fell to the ground. Rarity fell back, startled, and the Princess' jaw dropped open.
"I recognise that magic," she whispered. "She's alive."
"Who is?" asked Rarity, pulling herself to her hooves, as Celestia tore open the letter with magic and began to read, eyes flicking back and forth across the page at an incredible rate. "Princess, who is it from?"
"By the sun," Celestia moaned. "The Fair Lands... I... Oh, all my days..."
"Celestia," Rarity shook her, forgetting all formalities. The Princess had just trusted her with some of her deepest secrets and now she was determined not to see her upset again. "Who's alive? What's that about the Fair Lands?"
"It's Rainbow Dash," Celestia whispered, holding the letter to her chest in a hoof, staring blankly ahead as she processed the correspondence. "I mean, I knew she was alive, I just hadn't heard from her... It's been two years since she last wrote... Now, we really must find Twilight," she stated, and set off at a gallop towards the Palace, and Rarity dashed as fast as she could to keep up, shedding her ball shoes to help her run.
"Princess!" Rarity gasped. "Wait!" Celestia slowed a little. Her long legs and ageless physique meant she could easily outpace Rarity, but as she idled for a moment by the Castle wall she was clearly impatient. Once they remet, they set off again at a pace Rarity could match, ignoring the protests of the guards and the shrieks of the startled ball-going nobles as they dashed through the entrance hall and up the staircase, making for the Palace's east wing. Celestia slowed a little as she entered a corridor, and began to talk rapidly.
"Rarity, listen very carefully and do not interrupt, for what I am about to say is incredibly important. Three and a half years ago, I sent Rainbow Dash away to search for something, something integral to the world itself. I sent her to search for the origin point of the Elements of Harmony, after Twilight realised that their magic was decaying."
"Hush!" Celestia insisted as they rounded a corner. The mixed red and blue hangings of the castle gave way to just blues now. "I sent Rainbow to search for their origins so that she could look for a way to repair them. I told her to go on hoof, because on the ground the magic of the Element she carried with her would mingle with the natural magic of the ground and the creatures that dwell there. That way, she would be harder for our enemies to track her down."
"Quiet!" Celestia barked, as they embarked upon a spiral staircase, winding its long way upwards through the Palace. "It took her a long time to make the trip. Her and her two bodyguards took a year to reach Port Bridle when they could have flown there in less than I day, because I insisted they stay on the ground and avoid conventional transport. After they tried to fly away from the Great Fire of Pitsburgh, a unicorn sorcerer blasted them out of the sky. They were very lucky to escape from that alive."
Rarity gasped. "So then... Did she find the source?" This time, Celestia did not silence her. They came to a stop, bursting through a pair of double doors onto a balcony, which wound round to another set of double doors in the tower they had just ran up. This time, Rarity felt the full force of the cold and wind as she realised Celestia's magic was no longer protecting her.
"No, Rarity, she did not. According to this letter, she has found something else. Another source of magic that has broken down. She does not know what it is, but from her description, I think I can guess at what it might be." She raised a hoof to knock on the door to her sister's chambers. Inside, Rarity could hear the laughter of three ponies, all female.
"I only hope you will forgive me, Rarity, for what must happen now." She paused, and then, with great deliberation, rapped thrice on the door with her golden slipper. "For if I am right, then Rainbow Dash has found the only passage to the Fair Lands. The Dread Gate itself. If I am right..." Her voice trailed off and she swallowed deeply.
"Rainbow Dash has found the only way to the Realm of the Dead, and it is closed."
Rarity could only stare in shock as the doors to the Night Princess' chambers swung open to reveal an appalling scene within.
Princess Luna's chambers
"Oh my goodness!" gasped Rarity. "Whatever happened here?"
"I must admit," said Celestia, as she cast an eye over the debris filling Luna's living area, "nothing too unexpected."
Three of Equestria's most prominent figures lay on the floor at the centre of the room. A scholar, a noble and the younger Diarch herself, the three mares twitched as a dark, red liquid pooled around Luna's head. Then Twilight Sparkle giggled, thrashed a hoof, and knocked her own glass of wine over, spilling to meet the stain in the navy carpet where Luna's drink had been tipped. The three ponies on the floor burst out laughing once more, whilst the two newcomers stood, Rarity looking astounded, while Celestia was merely knowingly amused.
"Twilight," the sober Princess asked softly, earning only a hazy wave in return.
"Princess," mumbled Twilight, "you gotta hear thish... Luna was at the... Luna-"
"Princess Luna," tittered the third mare, Princess Cadence, Twilight's sister-in-law, with no hint of sincerity in her voice.
"Oh, sure," Twilight exclaimed, gesticulating wildly. "An' while we're at it, you c'n call me Doctor, Lady... Mage Twilight..." She frowned. "Twilight... Sp..."
"I think it can wait," muttered Celestia, as she heaved her sister and the magician into the air with her magic. Cadence's eyes followed them, but quickly went out of focus.
"Woah," Twilight blurted, as the comforting stillness of the floor left her and she found herself staring her former mentor in the face, from the wrong angle. "Princess... Why're you standin' on the ceiling?"
"I'm not," said Celestia. She rolled Twilight over, but the studious unicorn flipped all the way around in the air, and remained with her tail dangling just inches off the floor. On Celestia's other side, Luna was still in fits of laughter, Rarity backing off to get away from the smell of alcohol on the alicorn's breath.
"Desperate times," muttered Celestia to herself, dropping the two unceremoniously to the floor. Twilight muttered an unworried ow, while Luna only paused briefly in her gale of hilarity. Across the room from them, Cadence stared with wide, distant, vacant eyes.
Rarity gazed on with amazement in her blue eyes as the regal white Princess readied herself for a spell, her horn lighting up in the golden aura that accompanied all the alicorn's magic. A stream of gold light flowed from her hornpoint to the middle of the chamber, where it split into three and reached out to touch the tip of the horns of each of the drunken mares. Clarity grew in their hazy gazes as the light pulled itself away once more, this time pooling into the ruby on Celestia's gold peytral, its owner gazing distastefully on it as she relinquished her spell, and appraised the room once more.
Furthest away from her, near the door to Luna's study, Cadence sat blinking in confusion. The winged princess' long, multihued mane was quite ruffled, and her tiara had been misplaced somewhere along the line - as, she noticed, had three of Luna's silver slippers. Her sister's starry mane had not suffered the same fate as the younger noble's - science was still trying to decide whether or not her hair actually existed - but she was looking somewhat worse for the wear in every other sense as she sat up, finally recovering from her hysterics.
Twilight had collapsed to the floor, hooves clasped over her head as she tried to come to terms with sobriety. Around the three were scattered glasses, wine stains, empty bowls with had spilled the remaining crisps within out over the ruined carpet, and flat pizza boxes - some empty, others with their formerly delicious cargo sitting cooled within.
"What..." Rarity managed, her class-oriented mind struggling to understand the gathering that had taken place here. Princess Luna's chamber looked no better than her own home back in Ponyville had after one of Pinkie Pie's parties - perhaps even worse.
"Like I said," Celestia told her as the three ponies on the floor suddenly came round, "nothing I didn't expect."
"I really am learning the most interesting things about the royal family tonight," Rarity observed to nopony in particular, but Princess Celestia heard, and smiled. I shall have to ask her about that sobering spell, noted the former dressmaker. It could be useful.
"Ugh..." Twilight groaned as she stood up, shaking herself out. She turned to the two newcomers with tired eyes. "This is something important, isn't it? It was really important last time-"
"You mean you've do this before?" Rarity nearly shrieked.
"Sure I have... Eating and drinking with friends?" Twilight gave her a confused stare. "Heck, I've done it with you, Rarity."
"Yes, well, I suppose, but," Rarity stammered, "the princesses?" This earned her giggles from Luna and Cadence. "What?"
"I told you I didn't care for high society," Celestia muttered. "Yes, Twilight, it is of the utmost importance." She levitated Rainbow's letter, from where Rarity didn't know, and tossed in to the floor at Twilight's hooves. Taking it in her own magic, Twilight pulled it to eye level, and began to absorb the information. A slow, horrified grimace began to spread across her face.
"What does it say?" asked Princess Luna, now listening intently. "Read it aloud, Twilight."
Yes, Rarity wondered desperately, what does it say? The other unicorn paused and looked uncertainly at her mentor, who nodded her approval.
"Oh, um, alright then," Twilight began hesitantly. "Dear Princess Celestia, We-"
"Is Rarity OK to hear this, Auntie?" Cadence interrupted.
Celestia glanced down at the confused white unicorn, who gave her a worried stare back. "Yes," she said. "I have already... Read the letter, Twilight."
"OK. Uh... Dear Princess Celestia...
"We made it to Celagia during summer last year, I don't know exactly when. We were slowed up by followers and injuries - I'm sorry I didn't write to you after the Fire, but we were being chased by the Knights, and Spitfire was broke her fetlock on the way out. I couldn't send a letter straight to you without sticking out like a sore wing - I get what you mean now when you said the Element had a clear trace.
"When we got to Port Bridle, your guy there told us that Captain Royal had been killed by the Knights, but you probably know that by now. We managed to get on board a ship with a pony called Captain Wayfinder. He didn't ask too many questions, but by the time we disembarked he had found out we were working for you. He seemed OK, though.
"From Mareakesh where we disembarked, we continued east. The Knights -"
"Um, excuse me, Twilight?" Rarity asked cautiously. "These knights..."
"I will explain afterwards, Rarity," Celestia cut her off. "You and the others need to understand the letter. Carry on, Twilight."
"The Knights stopped attacking us after we crossed the Eastern Sea, but we had some trouble with the fighting desert tribes. This warlord Sandstrike captured us as w-"
"Ah!" Rarity gasped. "Ca-Captured?"
Twilight frowned. "- Captured us as we headed to the Great Forest. We managed to escape into the woods, I don't think he sent anypony after us. After that, the spell Twilight put on the Element of Loyalty to try and trace its source picked up a second pull. I thought it might be second source of magic, so I convinced the others to track it down so I could report to you.
"We discovered, in the heart of the Great Forest, a great stone gate set in the side of a cliff. It was decorated with letters I couldn't read and there was no sign of how to open it. It was also giving off a lot of magical energy. We're camped within walking distance from it now. We can wait as long as you need to reply.
"Sorry for keeping you hanging waiting. We're still some way from the Elements' origin, as well. I hope we aren't wasting time.
The room was quiet as its occupants processed the letter. Looking for some form of guidance, Rarity's head whipped around as she looked from princess to princess, with Luna and Celestia displaying straight, if sad, faces, while Cadence's hooves were clutched to her mouth in appalled realisation.
"No..." muttered Twilight.
"No, no, no... I know what this is, Princess. I know what you're going to ask."
Princess Celestia hung her head, face downcast. "I'm sorry, Twilight," she said, "but there is nopony else I can turn to."
"Ask what?" Rarity asked, beginning to panic. "Twilight, what's wrong? What did Rainbow find? Is -"
"She found the Dread Gate," Princess Luna answered her. "The portal through which the souls of the deceased cross to the Fair Lands. It is a powerful source of magic and no proof exists of it. Only old memories."
"What do you mean?" Rarity wondered anxiously, glancing at Twilight, who was re-reading and re-reading the letter again, the pained desperation on her face growing more and more total as she reinforced the fears that were growing in her mind.
"I've seen the Gate myself," Luna said, calmly. "But it was not for Ponykind to know of it. I had the records of that expedition collected."
"And hidden?" Rarity asked.
"I won't do it." Twilight snapped, breaking herself out of her revery.
"Twilight..." Princess Celestia stepped towards her, stretching out a motherly hoof, but Twilight backed away, clutching the letter in her magic so tightly that it began to crumple.
"I won't do it, you hear me?" Twilight's voice began to rise feverishly in pitch, cracking and wavering. "I won't! I won't go! I have - I have a life, and -"
"Will somepony please tell me what is going on?" Rarity shouted over the rising argument. "Twilight, darling, what on earth is the matter?"
Twilight didn't reply. She stood shooting fearful, angry glances at the two elder princesses, looking not unlike a cornered animal looking for an escape route.
"Twilight..." came a new, softer voice. A hoof came to rest on Twilight's shoulder. As the jumpy scholar raised her own to brush it off, a third hoof clamped itself down on top of it, holding her foreleg to her shoulder, and pushing the agitated mare gently but firmly to the floor.
Princess Cadence sat next to her, a sad, understanding expression on her face as she consoled her husband's sister. "You should tell your friend... I'm sorry, you should tell Rarity what's going on. She should know."
"Why should she know?" Twilight spluttered. "It's... It's not going to happen-"
"Tell her, Twilight," Cadence said softly. "Please...?"
Twilight Sparkle sighed heavily. She sat down, closing her eyes, and when she opened them again they were watering. "Rarity..." There was a muffled thud to her right as Rarity sat down next to her.
"It's alright, Twilight, darling. I'm here." Rarity placed her own hoof on her friend's shoulder. Twilight sat for a few moments more, breathing deeply, until, comforted by the presences of the unicorn from Ponyville and her sister-in-law, she began to speak.
"Rarity, I..." Twilight gritted her teeth. "I won't do it, Celestia, I-"
"Twilight Sparkle!" shouted Princess Celestia, angry now. "We must remain focused on the matter at hoof. Regardless of your wishes, which you know I respect, this is not a problem that we can allow to go unaddressed." She calmed for a moment, working her jaw from side to side. "Listen to yourself, Twilight. You know what this means for the world." Twilight shut her eyes and began to shake her head slowly from side to side, all the while Cadence's concerned, sorrowful gaze watching.
"What what means?" Rarity pleaded, her eyes beginning to glisten with tears of frustration and distress as Twilight fretted beside her. She felt utterly useless, unable to do anything more than ask questions while her old friend was clearly hurting. "Twilight, please, tell me what this all means!"
"And remind yourself as well," added Luna, who stood over them, her words not unkind. Rarity looked up at the indigo alicorn to see her gazing down at where they sat, pain also clear on her face. What could possibly be upsetting them all so much?
"I - I..." There was a horrible, empty silence as Twilight shuddered, refusing to look at anypony. When she breathed, her breaths were long and ragged, as if she was going to cry - but no-one said anything for fear that she would. It was several minutes before she spoke again. "Fine," she moaned, "I'll tell her."
"Rarity - Luna told me about the Dread Gate when I was studying natural magic for my PhD. It's the point where the souls of the dead enter the afterlife, but if it's closed, they won't be able to pass through."
"Oh, goodness," gasped a horrified Rarity. "I, I - are you sure, Twilight? Is that really what - I mean, where do they go - I, no, what happens to the poor creatures?"
"We don't know," Twilight admitted, "but there are stories of souls having remained behind in the past. Is possible their spirits are trapped in our world."
"Well, then, we have to open it!" proclaimed Rarity, certain. She looked around, hoping to see approval on the faces of her companions, but none of them were looking remotely happy. If anything, Twilight's face fell even further.
"That's the thing, Rarity... It's broken - I... I don't suppose you know about the Year of Twilight?"
"No." Rarity frowned. "Wait, yes. Cele - erm, Princess," she said, indicating Celestia with a bow of the head, "you said something about a month of twilight, but not a year -"
"Nopony knows how long it lasted," Celestia admitted. "Even we don't, and we were there."
"Life in Canter Keep was somewhat repetitive," Luna added with distaste. "The passage of time meant little to us. Even as the sun and moon ceased to move, our Grandfather, the King, insisted that mother continue to school Celestia. He sent me back from the capital to join her as the crisis dragged on - he became very busy, you see. Back then we could only take the time by the cycles of night and day, so the affair was... Disorienting, to say the least."
"So then," Rarity asked, trying to put the pieces together in her head. Celestia had told her that the two sisters had gained their powers by moving the satellites, but... "Why had I never heard of this month, or year, or however long of Twilight before?"
"Because I had it stricken from record," confessed Celestia quietly, shamefaced. She looked away, gazing out of the window at the clear night sky. "I didn't want to... History is such a beautiful thing, and yet..."
"Well then why?" insisted Rarity.
"Because of how it ended," intoned Luna, gravely. "And the same reason there are no records kept of the Dread Gate."
Twilight, who had been sat, lost in angry thought, stirred beside her. She began to speak once more, but never looked up from the carpet, refusing to meet anypony's eye. "The sun and the moon are great wells of natural magic," she explained, with none of the usual excitement she held when explaining the mysteries of the Equine world, as she had to Rarity so many times in the past. "They comprise a key component of life on this planet. But their power... Started to break down."
"I don't know. I started to look into it during my PhD, I was even the first to prove that something happened far in the past to initiate the decline! I never got to what exactly happened, but I was at the cutting edge! I could have made a historic discovery! But..."
"Yes, Twilight?" Rarity coaxed.
Twilight frowned. "But the Princess never let me publish my findings." She stopped speaking, her face twitching around the outline of frown, but she never brought it up to face Celestia. She had gotten over this a long time ago. "I... I guess she was right to stop me. I could have put them out anyway, but in the end I didn't want to."
"The magic of the earth, the sky, and of the world's physics can be attended to by any earth pony, pegasus, or unicorn," Twilight continued, "but these huge magical wells could never be managed by a group. They require a single dedicated controller, but no normal pony has the capability to do it themselves. Once a suitable pony reaches out to the well, it shares its magic with them, giving them the strength they need to care for it, and..." She shuddered. "Becoming dependent upon them.
"For example, now that the sun and the moon have been managed by the Princesses for so long, if they were ever to attempt to let things work as they had before, the celestial bodies would simply hang in the sky. The magic behind them is too badly damaged to allow them to be left alone. So the wells keep their custodians, so as to never be left untended."
There was a deathly hush in the room as Rarity absorbed this truth. "So then... The sun and the moon..."
"They won't let us die, Rarity," Celestia said with finality. "They couldn't, unless there was somepony - someone - to take our place." Once again there was silence, only punctuated by Twilight's heavy breathing. Next to her, Cadence glanced up at the elder Princesses, grief and sorrow written on her face for her elders - and for Twilight.
Rarity looked away, thinking for herself now. The white unicorn stared at a single carpet thread as her brain began to draw the dots together, pulling her foreleg away from Twilight.
"No, Twilight," said Rarity, "I think I understand now. The Gate is another well, and it needs its own attendant now that it has stopped working." She turned to glare resentfully at Princess Celestia. "You want her to do what you do," she said in a low, angry voice. "You want her to be like you, even after everything you told - you must have told her so much more than you told me tonight, over all these years... And she knows that it would hurt."
Celestia lowered her great head once more. "I didn't want it to come to this," she muttered resentfully, "but there is no-one else better suited for the task than Twilight Sparkle is. She is one of the most kind and intelligent ponies I have ever known, and she knows the most about what lies ahead - she studied under me, Rarity. She knows more about ali-"
"Don't say it," moaned Twilight. "Don't!"
"You know more about alicorns than any other pony who isn't one." Twilight drew breath sharply as Celestia said the dreaded word. "You know what pains me, but you know where I find joy, and how I take hope. I -"
"You take hope in the people, Princess!" Twilight ranted. "You look at them and they celebrate you, and you think you must be doing a fantastic job! Maybe you are, but how am I supposed to do that with no-one around! You can attend the sun from anywhere, Princess, but the Gate is a completely different well. I've done my research, if I go there and do... What you want me to do, I won't be able to leave it."
"Nopony lives within three hundred miles of the Gate. Nopony! You want me to go away and be alone forever. And I am not going to do it!" Twilight's voice rose in pitch throughout her tirade, and when she finished she paused for a moment, still giving the Princess a hateful glare - but then she let her hoof drop, as she burst out in tears. Merely thinking about her unwanted fate was too much. Nopony spoke for several minutes, as the purple unicorn wept like a frightened child.
"I don't want to go," she moped. Next to her, Cadence rubbed a hoof up and down her back, struggling to find comforting words.
"In the fullness of time," Celestia intoned, "things will change, Twilight. Once we understand the Gate's power it may be possible for you to come back to Equestria, and watch over it from here."
"No it wouldn't," Twilight insisted, "I'd have to be near it, I'm certain of it. I'd be like - like an immortal doorstop." The Diarchs flinched at the accusation.
"Do you really think that, Princess?" Rarity asked, desperate to learn anything she could use to comfort Twilight or dissuade the Princesses. "That Twilight could come back?"
"I... Yes," said Celestia, uncertainly, "but I have never met an alicorn who has had to watch over such a localised well."
"If you can control the sun from... However many miles away the sun is, how can Twilight be certain that the Gate must be attended to up close?" Rarity continued, trying hard to paint an alternate picture.
"I don't know," replied the Princess, honestly. "There is a certain level of symbolism in my duties - I... I feel that the sun is rather... A manifestation of my power than my power as a whole, if that makes sense. Even if it was here before me," she went on, trying very hard to put her feelings into words. "It's like - like my power is over... Life, as a whole, and the sun is the means by which I manage it. Or maybe an emotion, hope, or pride. I think there is another alicorn whose duty is over life, though we have never met. It's hard to explain," she admitted, with an abashed smile. "I've never tried to tell another pony how it feels... I didn't think they would understand."
"And do you agree with her?" Rarity looked to Luna now, the dusky alicorn already nodding.
"Emotion. My strength is in both the fear of the dark and the comfort of home, in passionate love and calming sleep. All the things that ponies feel at night I hold dominion over - but only as long as it is night." There was no doubt in her voice.
"I... Yes," breathed Celestia, new understanding dawning on her. "And life... Living, working, playing, as the things they do in the day, I give them the day to do it in. Luna, you are wiser than I could ever hope to be."
"I've had a lot of time to think about it," muttered Luna.
"It was very poetic," Cadence mumbled, still holding Twilight tightly, as if she would never let her go. Because if she does, she might never come back, Rarity realised.
"Well then," Rarity pondered, "what if the same can be said for the Gate? The Gate is merely a manifestation of the true power at hoof. Which would be..." She frowned.
"Death?" offered Cadence. She continued holding Twilight for a moment, but then let go, suddenly, realising what she had just said. Her eyes flew wide open and she shuffled away from her sister-in-law. "Oh, no, sorry, sorry, I'm not, that's not helping, I-"
Twilight gave a frustrated, despairing growl.
"Princess?" Rarity asked the pink alicorn, but Cadence just kept apologising.
"I didn't - I'm sorry, that wasn't, I wasn't thinking, Twilight, I shouldn't have-"
"Princess Cadence!" Rarity said, as loudly as she could without shouting. Cadence jumped and turned to face her, suddenly silent. "What do you... I mean, you aren't like your aunts, are you? You're not..." She trailed off, unsure of how to phrase the question.
"No," answered Cadence, "I'm not an... Alicorn proper, as such... There are just so few ponies like me that everyone assumes I am." As if to demonstrate, she stretched out her wings a little, smiling sadly.
Rarity's thinking was constantly interrupted by pathetic whines and moans from Twilight Sparkle. "There's still something I'm missing," she vocalised, cogs spinning desperately in her head as she tried to work out what she wanted. She didn't like the idea of Twilight leaving and being alone, but the Princesses didn't either, they simply thought it necessary. Twilight was also convinced that the experience proposed to her would be awful, but Rarity had very little by which to compare it.
"Why," she said, the answer already becoming clear in her head as she spoke, "does this have to be our problem?" She looked from Cadence, to Luna, to Celestia, ignoring Twilight because Twilight was ignoring her - lost in her own world where she was alone and she was death.
"Because of the very reason I never allowed the Gate's existence, or indeed the very reason for our being, to become public knowledge," Celestia replied, righteously. "We said that a suitable pony could take control of a magical well - but most ponies would count as suitable. If we do not install our own custodian at the Gate-"
"-Somepony else will," Rarity concluded. "And we have no way of knowing whether or not they'd be on our side." Celestia nodded. "So in short, Twilight should go - in your opinion," she emphasized - "because she is smart, kind, understands alicorns and is loyal to you. But she will not go because she wants to live her own life, does not want the pressures of immortality, and is afraid that she may be trapped in a place she does not want to be."
"...Correct," Celestia sighed despondently, her great head sinking despairingly. Beside her, Luna closed her eyes and turned her head away. Cadence had withdrawn even further from Twilight, mortified by what she had implied, while Twilight herself was - well, Twilight was a wreck.
She looked even worse than when she had been drunk. Her mane and coat were utterly dishevelled and her muzzle was streaked with tears. Her eyes were red and bloodshot when they briefly opened, but they didn't stay open for long as the reduced scholar entered another bout of grizzling. Rarity half expected Princess Celestia to tell her to pull herself together, but she loves Twilight as much as I do, she realised. Perhaps even more. Why should she have to send away one of the few friends who truly understands her?
"Princess," she ventured, quietly. All three of them looked up, not sure who was being addressed. In all fairness, Rarity wasn't entirely sure either.
"I think... I think that I understand the issue now. And..." Celestia's eyes involuntarily widened as she hoped, desperately, for a resolution. "And I don't think Twilight should go. But," she added, before the Princess could interrupt, "While I don't think Twilight's fate is as bad as she has convinced herself it would be, she is entitled to avoid it. But we still must send a trustworthy ally to the Dread Gate to prevent the creation of an alicorn pitted against Equestria. So..." The room waited with baited breath. Even Twilight looked up.
"...I shall go. In her stead. I shall go to Celagia, and-"
"No!" Twilight screeched. "No, no, no, no, no-" Cadence once more rushed to Twilight's side as the unicorn thrashed about in aimless hopelessness. "Rarity you can't, you can't do this to yourself Rarity, you've got just as much-"
"Twilight Sparkle!" Rarity snapped. "Stop being so - so selfish!" Twilight froze as if Rarity had slapped her. Her old foalsitter quickly pulled her into a tight hug - partly to keep her still, but partly out of that strange sisterly, motherly concern she had for the unicorn. Unnoticed by the others, the Diarchs leaned their heads together, whispering rapidly between each other.
"You have given perfectly good reasons for why you do not want to take up this responsibility," Rarity went on, "and I am not going to begrudge you any of them! But my decisions are also mine to make. If, by doing this, I can help release tormented souls and ensure the safety of Equestria from a god-like threat-" Twilight gasped. "-Then I will do it, regardless to what it my cost me, because it is for the greater good. I would even save you by doing it, Twilight."
"I think... I don't think you should-," Twilight began to protest, but Rarity wasn't having any of it.
"What? Am I not good enough for the job? Don't you think I could do it? Believe me, Twilight Sparkle," snapped the unicorn, "I've been in enough scrapes with you to care about this. I may not be a mage, or a scholar, but I know enough about evil to know how far I'd go to stop it. Remember Discord? Or Nigh-" She faltered, remembering Luna was in the room, and trailed off, slightly embarrassedly.
"No..." Twilight muttered. "I mean... I'd rather I went than... Than losing you, I-"
"Well, then we're in a bit of a situation, aren't we?" Twilight slumped in Cadence's forelegs.
"Rarity," Luna spoke softly. She glanced away from her reduced friend to meet the Princess' gaze - but the rippling veil of night that flowed from her head made it hard to keep eye contact, as the myriad lights within demanded her attention. She could see infinity in the Princess' mane... Rarity's eyes went distant for a moment - she had to concentrate very hard on Luna's words.
"Rarity, me and my sister would both be very supportive if... I, no, that sounds too formal. Rarity," she tried again, "we're sure you would make a brilliant custodian - that is, to say, a just and gracious alicorn-" Rarity found herself shuddering a little - partly in delight, partly in horror, the odd mix of emotions inspired in her by Twilight's fear and Luna and her sister's beauty. "-But this must be a fate you are absolutely prepared to accept. You have made this proposition very quickly - do not act irrationally, Rarity, because if you do have regrets it will take a long time for you to overcome them. Believe me," Luna whispered, her voice dropping to a sad, mindful hush, "I know."
"It doesn't have to be that way," Twilight spoke up. "I - Oh, Rarity, you're so kind, I - everything you said is true. Maybe I am being selfish. Maybe it should be me to go. Maybe-"
"Don't either of you worry about it," Rarity cut across. "I'm quite set on it now. This prospect seems thrilling to me." This wasn't entirely true. She had the same concerns as Twilight, and less of the knowledge to back them up, but she was convinced that what she was doing was the right thing.
"Well then," Celestia said, sighing. "Why don't you both go?" The unicorns gaped at her. "Oh, come now. It will be a long journey to the Great Celagian Forest - it would be dangerous and lonely for a single traveller. And of course, only one being can control any celestial well, but you'll have plenty of time to discuss that on the way. By the time you get there, I'm sure you'll have chosen the best candidate." Her suggestion was accompanied by a weary smile.
"I..." Rarity thought. Was that right? That one of them should be dragged along, worrying all the while about a fate they would never be subjected to?
Something changed within Twilight, however. For the first time since reading Rainbow's letter, the scholar sat up and met her mentor's eyes. "You... You're right, Princess," she said, voice still shaking but steadier than before. "You're all right... I know what has to be done, I know what's at stake here, I..."
A little grin began to pick at the corners of her mouth. "If we're going to be taking a journey - me and Rarity, that is - we're going to need to make a plan. We're going to need maps and food, and... Lots of things, really. And - oh! Princess Luna, you should tell me everything you know about the gate! The accounts may have been destroyed, but you were there, so you should be able to..."
"Good to have you back, Twilight," Celestia muttered, under her faithful student's tirade. Luna's mouth twitched briefly into a smile, before the alicorn of the night stood, beckoning to Cadence, and the two stood by the door, conversing in hushed tones, whilst Twilight babbled on, excitedly now, the prospect of the journey ahead - and more importantly, the joyous task of preparing for it - eclipsing the fear of what lay at the end.
"Rarity?" Luna called, as the two ponies by the door ceased deliberating. "Would you step outside for a moment, please?" Rarity moved towards them, and Twilight leapt up to follow, but Celestia kindly gestured with a hoof for her to sit once more.
"Stay here awhile, Twilight," she said. "We can start setting out our plans now. The others needn't worry themselves with-" Rarity didn't hear the rest of her words as the balcony doors swung shut behind her.
Outside once again, her teeth began to chatter. Lighting up her horn, she attempted to recreate the warmth which Celestia had given to her before, but only succeeded in igniting her mane around her forehead. With a yelp, she patted at it with her hooves, putting out the tiny flame before her whole head caught fire. With an amused smile, Luna cast her own spell to keep the unicorn warm.
"Thank you, Princess," Rarity said, as the winter chill once again dissipated. She walked over to the parapet, and, resting her hooves on the wall, stared out at the moon above, deep in thought. Luna and Cadence joined her, and the three stood in contemplation for a moment as they pondered that which had just come to pass.
It was Princess Luna who broke the silence first. "Rarity," she began, cautiously, "I do think you did a courageous thing tonight, but you must remember what lies ahead. The journey to Celagia will be long and dangerous, and there will be those who will try to stop you from reaching the Gate at any cost."
"Well, it's a good thing I'm going then, isn't it?" Rarity replied, unconcerned. "Somepony should be by Twilight's side. Or rather, is it her standing by mine?" she mused.
"Whatever it is," Cadence said, taking over, "We just want to remind you that while Twilight is... Well, she's a mage. She's trained in magic, and while she's no real battlemage she can put up a good arcane fight. But you-"
"I am a dressmaker and an actress," Rarity interrupted, nodding. "And that is of no concern to me. I will do what needs to be done to ensure the safety of Equestria, no matter what that means."
The two Princesses once again shared a knowing glance. "While your words are true, young one, I must ask that you question their basis," Luna pleaded. "You - you're making these decisions remarkably quickly, I -"
"If something went wrong, Rarity, if for whatever reason you didn't make it back," Cadence implored her, "then your family, your friends, your career - everything." She paused, swallowing. "That would be it."
"But we've all been very insistent on there being an afterlife tonight, haven't we?" Rarity argued. She wasn't going to let anypony change her mind - her course was set.
"You shouldn't live your life in mind of the next, Rarity." Remorse filtered into Luna's tones. "We can never be sure of what is to come. Live your life to the fullest."
"Well, the fullest it is then!" Rarity squealed with exaggerated enthusiasm. "What better way to spice things up than an adventure, hm?"
"You're incorrigible, you know that?" Cadence gave a reluctant grin.
"I just got back from a year away," Rarity conceded, "but I could easily handle a while more. See some sights, broaden my horizons - you know, maybe this is just my mid-life crisis."
"You're thirty-three, you silly filly!" laughed the pink princess, giving her a shove. "You're hardly at mid-life!" The two guffawed out loud whilst the older princess joined in with a gentle chuckle.
"Princess Luna?" Rarity asked, after they had all calmed down, "I have a few questions that-"
"Don't worry about them for now, Rarity," Luna gently told her. "We'll get down to details in a few days once we've got the arrangements sorted out."
"A few days?" Rarity frowned. "I thought we would be going tomorrow or something. We are in a hurry, aren't we?"
"Of course, there is need for haste," Luna agreed, "but also for discretion. My sister and Twilight will likely be devising an excuse that puts you out of town at New Year and for the rest of your journey, but the Princesses' close friend and respected mage leaving town without so much as an explanation to their friends and family so close to Hearth's Warming would probably raise a few-"
"Oh my goodness!" Rarity shrieked. "It's Hearth's Warming's Eve in three days!"
"Two," Cadence corrected her. "It's gone midnight."
"Ah! But - but I haven't done any shopping, or booked tickets home to Ponyville - I don't even know where I'll be staying, I only got back yesterday, I don't know if my sister is in town, or, or, or anything!" Rarity threw her hooves up in desperation. "Whatever am I going to do?"
"You'll be fine, I'm sure, dear," Luna answered her calmingly, "you should go and rest now - you should be able to shop tomorrow, we will have much to discuss here before you and Twilight depart. I'm sure Cadence would gladly accompany you."
"I haven't done any shopping either," Twilight's sister-in-law admitted with a guilty smile. "I don't like thinking about it too much. I've just been thinking about how much I miss Shining..."
"I've been missing them too," Rarity agreed, "and Rainbow Dash, of course - but you have more reason to miss him - Shining Armor, that is - than I do any of them. Where did they-"
"Twilight will answer all your questions in due time, Rarity," Luna said once more. "But you really should sleep now, if you want to get a full day on the town in tomorrow."
"Yes, Princess," Rarity nodded, tipping her head slightly, but, remembering her conversation with Celestia, not entering a full bow. "I'll go back to my studio-"
"Oh, don't be ridiculous," Luna dismissed the idea. "All the guest rooms in the castle are made up but most are empty. You'd be welcome to stay the night."
"Really?" Rarity gasped, her eyes lighting up. Despite everything, there was still adoration within her for her beloved royal family, if not the squabbling nobles beneath them.
"Of course! It'll give us a chance to talk at breakfast, too," the Princess went on. "My sister and Twilight will likely have the basics of our movements nailed down by then. Anything else will be logistics that we'll sort out while you're in Ponyville."
"Well - that sounds ideal, then." Rarity gave a pleased smile. "After all, neither of us should fret too much over Hearth's Warming. After all, for one of us it may be the last time we spend it at home." Luna gave a brief mental shudder as Rarity said this so nonchalantly, but she didn't let her feelings show.
"It's settled then. Come along, Rarity - we shall find you a room. I think there is a spare guest room near Twilight's own lodgings, actually, it's not too far from here..." Luna began to make her way down the staircase to the castle below, but Rarity paused for a moment, her eyes locked on the tall pink princess who still stood at the balcony. Her eyes glistened...
"Princess Cadence," she said softly, "don't be afraid." Cadence's gaze snapped over to her. "I trust your husband and Spike so much. They're both so brave, and strong - remember, he's got a growing dragon by his side."
"You don't know what they're up against," Cadence sighed, but not in a way that told Rarity she was frustrated with her.
"I will in time, though," Rarity replied. "But for now, enjoy the holidays. I'm sure Songbird wouldn't want to see her mother return home upset." Cadence smiled at that. "So then... Shopping trip tomorrow then?"
"Shopping trip," Cadence agreed, with a grudging smile. "And - Rarity, when you go..."
"Make sure my little sister is happy," Cadence said, pride growing in her voice as she spoke of the filly whose life she had been a part of throughout, blood relation or not. "Wherever she ends up, whether I see her again or not, I just want to know she was happy on the way."
"I will," Rarity promised. "I certainly will. I wish for exactly the same."
They stood in quiet companionship for a moment more, until Rarity turned to go. At the top of the stairs, she stopped, paused, and turned back, to give Cadence one last smile, before running down to catch up with Luna.
"Be safe, Rarity," Cadence whispered to the night, staring up at the Solstice moon. "Whatever may come, be safe."
"Hey guys, look! Snow!" A slightly broken, excitable young mare's voice came from some feet behind them.
"Woah," gasped a male voice, "where's it coming from?"
"The clouds, silly," giggled the first speaker.
"I know that, but... Where are the pegasi making it? What's making it fall?"
"We're on the edge of the World here, Soarin. Things get wild if you go too far," his oldest friend reminded him gently, a little reverence in her voice for the uncharted lands ahead.
"I... Wow. It's beautiful."
"I know, right?"
"Spitfire... I - I'm glad you came out here with us. I-"
"What're you talking about, dummy? I'm the captain here! Of course I was coming!" She shoved him playfully, but he had not been expecting it, and tumbled face first into the fast-whitening ground. Spitfire laughed, then reached out a hoof to help him up. He awkwardly began to rise, and stumbled back down. But two firm hooves reached out this time, and Spitfire pulled him upright once more.
As he stood he found himself staring straight into her face. She had taken her mask off, and her mane, the last of the dye long faded, was filthy and matted from months on the go, but he only noticed its chromatic brilliance. Red and orange against the evening sky, the clouds lit a deep pink by the descending sun, it rippled in the winter breeze. Spitfire's eyes - her deep, green, calm eyes - gazed into his own, with a look of mild concern.
It took Soarin several seconds to realise he was gawping.
"I... Uh, thanks," he blustered, awkwardly, looking around, uncomfortably searching the ground and his mind for a change of subject. He found one quickly - or rather, it found him, as it sailed towards him at seventy miles an hour.
"Oof!" Soarin was sprawling once more, as Spitfire and Rainbow Dash burst out laughing. Snow was plastered across his black mask and obscured his goggles.
"Oh man," Dash spluttered, "That was priceless!"
"Aw come on, girls!" Soarin groaned indignantly. "My mask is soaked. How am I gonna get it dry now?"
"You don't need it, airhead." Spitfire playfully batted at his head with a hoof. "We're miles out. Nopony's following us. You can take it off for good now," she said with a smile.
"You're right, I guess," Soarin admitted, ripping the mask off. His greasy mane lightened as it caught the breeze and flapped around his head. "I..."
"...Nothing. Nevermind." Spitfire gave him a kind smile, and walked over to the tent they had pitched that evening.
"Now what?" Rainbow asked, slowly flapping up behind him to hover at his shoulder.
"Now?" Soarin yawned. "I'm probably gonna go to bed. I'm exhausted," he confessed.
"No, you dingus." Dash grinned at him teasingly. "What're we gonna do now? Wait for instructions?"
"For more, yeah," Soarin said. "But probably for a bit longer than that too. I don't think Celestia's gonna want us to wander far."
"So, what then? How long do you reckon we'll be waiting for?"
"Until Dr. Twilight and her friend get here. They're setting off... Next week, I think the Princess said."
"Next week." Dash's jaw dropped. "But... It took us, like, three and a half years to get here. We don't gotta wait that long... Surely?"
"I hope not," Soarin admitted, "I sure hope not."
The snow fell heavily, piling up around their hooves as the sun set on the camp on the hills. There was only the wilderness around them. Woodland to the south and east, plains to the west... In the far north, there were the slightest shadows of mountains against the horizon But no signs of other ponies anywhere. They were truly alone. The two ducked inside the canvas tent and were gone, as was the world, lost in a swirling myriad of crystal white.
A frigid breeze blew the violet mane from her eyes, and she gasped. Not with cold, but with gratitude - for now she could see properly once more, she could see the night sky in all its majesty stretching across the celestial dome above her. The night was even clearer than on the night of the Solstice - Twilight stood, a giddy, reverent grin on her features as she picked out the Winter constellations in the black-blue of the void. There was Gallae's Horn, reaching up to point to its cosmic neighbour, Onyssia, the Night Dragoness. And to its east, her favourite cluster of all - Luna's little vanity in her night - the Risen Sister...
Her grin grew even wider at the memory of its discovery. Her discovery, sort of. The Princess' grateful thanks...
"Twilight, darling, come on! It's absolutely freezing out here!"
Twilight turned to face the snowbound road one more, grasping the suitcase's handle in her magic and trotting down the dirt track to catch Rarity. The bleak fieldscape around her was dotted with naked trees, their leafless upper branches struggling against the midwinter wind.
"You have to take time to appreciate the simple things in life, Rarity," Twilight said with a wide smile.
"Well, I'll certainly be appreciative of a warm fire and an Apple Family welcome. If we ever get there-"
Twilight laughed. "If we ever get there? Rarity, if a half-hour walk is too much for you maybe you shouldn't be coming with me to Celagia!"
"I was joking, Twilight, honestly - look, it doesn't matter now. There it is!"
The two unicorns crested the hill to see the road sloping gently down to the Sweet Apple Acres gate. Some way inside the white perimeter fence was the cosiest, homeliest dwelling Twilight Sparkle had ever set hoof inside - the Apple Family's farmhouse. Golden light spilled out from the windows, and then from the door as a mare burst out and into the night, her just-as-golden tresses billowing in front of her as the wind caught them.
"Hey! You two!" Applejack shouted as the unicorns picked up their pace, pushing through the blisteringly cold onslaught. "Git yer flanks in here!" Stepping back into the kitchen, she chuckled as Rarity galloped past, gasping and panting. "Come on, Twi'".
Twilight Sparkle made her unhurried way across the yard, the black fabric suitcase leaving a drag trail through the snow behind her. Her face was red with the cold, but she was grinning still as she finally stepped inside and the farm mare swung the door shut behind her. Releasing the suitcase, she reared up, greeting her old, down-to-earth friend in a loving hug.
"It's good to see you again, AJ," she panted, realising just how rough it had been out there now she finally stood in the kitchen. A roaring fire burned in the hearth over by the dining table, at which sat a huge, deep-red earth pony stallion, who gave a tiny, bemused smile as Rarity threw his meek wife opposite him into an enthusiastic embrace.
The kitchen was a cosy affair. A cooking range stood on one wall, surrounded by counters, the pantry, and with cooking implements, pans, spatulas, knives, hanging from hooks on the walls and ceiling. Photos were framed above the hearth, of Apple family members, of friends, of old, loyal pets long gone. A bookcase stood in one corner next to a battered old sofa, decked out with a sparse few articles. The counter in the middle of the room was cluttered with papers, and it reminded Twilight of her own office. She gave a little grin at the memory of her being the most organised pony in town. Only because she had had an assistant...
"Hello, Fluttershy." Twilight trotted round the kitchen counter to greet the others. "Hello, Mac."
"Hi, Twilight," Fluttershy squeaked as Rarity refused to relinquish her grip.
"Oh, goodness, it's so warm in here, it's delightful-" Rarity finally pushed herself away, unzipping her thick white winter coat as she moved to the sofa in front of the fire. "You have no idea what it was like on the way over!"
"It was really windy," Twilight agreed, "but it's a beautifully clear night." She moved in to give Fluttershy a slightly gentler greeting. "Hi, Fluttershy. You look like you've been doing great. I'm sorry it's been a year," she apologised. "I've been so, so busy with my research."
"It's OK," gasped the yellow pegasus as she pulled away. "I... I know you love your work..."
Twilight grinned guiltily. "I guess I do. Hello, Mac," she said, ambling around to the other side of the table to give the great draft pony a friendly hoofshake. "It's good to see you again."
"Same to you, Doctor Twi,'" Big Mac replied in his deep bass voice.
"Mac, you know you don't have to call me Doctor," Twilight jokingly chided.
"Sure you don't, seein' as she ain't a proper doctor an' all," Applejack joked, as she came to join them at the table, carrying a tray laden with mugs of hot, spiced cider. "You ever fixed a broken hock, Twi?'"
"Twice," Twilight shot back, equally insincere.
"Well, shoot," AJ laughed. "Maybe we should keep you down on the farm so that AB don't keep having to go down to Ponyville General!"
"When was Ah ever at the hospital?" a new voice asked from the door to the hallway.
"Hi, Applebloom," Twilight said, moving over to greet AJ's younger sister. Rarity sat up on the sofa as the younger earth pony strolled in.
"Hi, Twilight, hi Rarity." Applebloom smiled at her older friends. "Glad y'all could make it for Hearth's Warmin'."
"Oh, darling, I wouldn't miss it for the world!" Rarity replied, "there's nowhere I'd rather be right now. Especially not with my parents, you know how they like to spend the winter..."
"I don't really understand it, myself," Fluttershy mumbled. "I-I mean, it wouldn't feel like Hearth's Warming to me without the snow..."
"I know," Twilight agreed, nodding. "I mean, the Eastern Isles are supposedly beautiful even in the Winter, but I'd rather spend it with friends and family - well, friends, I guess." She squirmed a little. "I kinda feel a little bit guilty about not going to my brother's place with my parents..."
"Don't fret none about it, darlin'," Applejack said soothingly, hoofing her a mug of cider before settling at the table with her own. "They're always in Canterlot, but I ain't seen you since last Hearth's Warmin'! How're things in the shinin' city?"
"Oh, same old, same old," Twilight answered, waving the question away with a nonchalant hoof. "I've moved back into lodgings at the castle because I've been working more closely with the Princesses this past year, but nothing else has really changed."
"Don' be daft, Twi'! Movin' in at the castle's a real big deal!" Applebloom gasped. "There are loadsa ponies who'd give anything for just one night in the castle."
"Yeah, well, when you know the Princesses as well as I do, it's not really that special. And I did live there for most of my foalhood, remember," Twilight replied.
"Um, what about you, Rarity?" Fluttershy ventured cautiously. "We... Uh, we saw the reviews for your play... We couldn't get tickets though..." She shrank back into her chair a little. "I'm sorry..."
"Don't worry about it, darling," Rarity laughed it off. "I honestly don't mind. It wasn't like any of us knew I was going to end up on stage, and we weren't exactly in the area, as such. Canterlot was as far west as the tour ever came."
"I would've liked to see you though..." Fluttershy mumbled. She stared down into her steaming mug. "I heard you were very good..."
"Eeyup," Mac agreed, nodding.
"Well, I don't know about that." Rarity was blushing - it could easily have been from the heat from the fire, but everypony in the room knew the former fashionista too well.
"Aw, come on, Rarity, we all knew you were great," AJ insisted. "Y'even got an interview in the National, and they sure don't go into all that fancy celeb nonsense. Now, Ah'm not callin' you nonsense or anythin', but I will say Ah'm surprised you ain't goin' on about it. Back in the day, you woulda been giddy as Pinkie at cider season to be in the spotlight. What changed?"
"Oh," Rarity said, slightly blindsided by the question. "I guess I... I overcame some old delusions, I think. I stopped being so worried about fame when I moved to Canterlot. I don't like to talk about it, but I had a rather horrible experience at a charity dinner I attended quite soon after my move."
"What happened?" Applebloom pressed, but Big Mac shook his head.
"Ain't no place to be pryin', sis. If'n Miss Rarity don't want to talk about it none then we shouldn't push her."
"Thank you, Mac," Rarity said, looking up gratefully at the farmer. "But enough about me - what about you? How's being a father treating you?"
A massive smile spread across Mac's face and his eyes went slightly out of focus. "She gives me reason to be. Family's always been important to me. With a wife and daughter to care for I feel more alive than ever, even if I'm just still an old applebucker." He turned his smile to Fluttershy, who sat opposite him, looking up at her husband from the corner of her eyes as she blushed, facing slightly away.
The two Apple sisters burst out laughing. "You great lug, you!" Applejack chortled banterously, "When'd you get all philosophical?"
"Sometimes it's more like Fluttershy's taking care of you, anyway," Applebloom giggled, no real derision in her voice.
"Eeyup," Mac conceded, now blushing too. "Seems like it."
"By the way, I know somepony mentioned Pinkie before," Twilight cut in, saving the two soft-spoken lovers from further embarrassment. "Did she manage to make it back from Manehatten?"
"Oh, yeah," Applebloom answered. "She's just stayin' with the Cakes an' all. Y'know how much Pound and Pumpkin love their Auntie Pinkie."
Everypony smiled at that. "And Pinkie loves children, too," Twilight said. "I'm so proud of her for what she's doing..."
"We all are, sugarcube," AJ agreed, nodding. "She'll be at the Winter Market tomorrow, y'can find her then."
"Are we going to the Market?" Rarity asked.
"Why wouldn't we be?" Twilight answered, slightly surprised. "It's only here once a year after all, and the Apples... You guys do have a stall this year, right?"
"O'course we do! We'd be missin' a trick if we didn't," Applejack responded emphatically. Her family all nodded, even her sister-in-law.
"There's not going to be anypony back here, Rarity."
"Oh, well, of course! Silly me." Rarity gave a self-conscious smile. "I mean, I... I don't mean anything. I do want to see the market after all, it's always a highlight of the season."
"If you want some time back here on your own, sugarcube, that's fine by me. Yer gonna be here for a couple of weeks, if last year was anythin' to go by," Applejack told her, assured. Twilight and Rarity glanced worriedly at each other, and the farm-pony noticed. "Yer not goin' anywhere, are ya?"
"Well..." Twilight began, unsure of how to respond. I can't believe you didn't plan for this! she berated herself. You were always going to have to tell them!
"Twilight is going to be undertaking a research trip for Princess Celestia," Rarity informed the kitchen. "And I am going to be going with her - to help take measurements and the like. I don't fully understand the scope of things, but-"
"Yer goin' on a trip for the Princess?" AJ blustered. Fluttershy squeaked as old, grief-laden memories came back to her. "Like RD did?"
"I - no!" Twilight insisted. "Nothing like that! We're-" She paused, gulping. "We're not going nearly as far as Dash, and we've got better transport. We're going by train out to the first, uh, observation point. I-"
"You are gonna come back, right?" Applebloom suddenly asked at a yell.
"Ssssh!" Fluttershy hissed. "Angel's asleep!"
"Yes," Twilight lied. "We're coming back. We'll probably be back for Hearth's Warming next year. We're on a schedule, see, that's why we've got to leave so soon."
Silence fell in the kitchen, interrupted only by the crackle of the fire in the hearth. Suddenly, the gap between Rarity and Twilight on the sofa and the Apples at the table felt like a vast, impassable gulf as the farming family absorbed this information. Twilight shifted uncomfortably, giving Rarity a worried glance. The white unicorn was looking downright shamefaced.
It took several long moments before Applejack could bring herself to meet Twilight's gaze again. "Wha... What day're ya goin' on?" she asked, voice wavering.
"Two days after Hearth's Warming."
"And ya only tell me now?" AJ shouted, springing up - but she was quickly pulled back down by the yellow pegasus, whose own eyes were glistening with worried tears.
"Applejack..." Fluttershy murmured.
"I - you - Twilight," the orange mare went on, voice lower but still angry, "RD's bin gone for more'n three years now. Pinkie's off on her own in Manehatten - I know I ain't seen ya in a year anyway, but... Do ya really have to leave us... Just like that?" She shuddered. "Just knowin' yer gone'll make it seem like... Well, yer gone," she finished, simply. "Every year it just seems lonelier around here."
"I know," Twilight admitted, guiltily. "But... But I am coming back, AJ. I promise." Rarity stiffened, hoping Applejack's uncanny sense of truth wouldn't kick in right now - and she was lucky. The earth pony was focusing on calming herself - and anyway, she noted, mentally, it's not technically a lie. Twilight might still come back. It might be - it might be me that stays. No, it should be me that stays! I promised Twilight that I wouldn't let her stay, I wouldn't let her down! She frowned involuntarily, though, as a nagging doubt crept into the back of her mind.
But is it really that simple?
"Well, then," Applebloom said, breaking the hush that had once again fallen, "I guess we better just make sure this is a darn fine Hearth's Warmin', right? Give ya both a... A good sendoff!" Her brother smiled at that.
"Eeyup," Mac agreed. The two unicorns on the sofa glanced hopefully at the other two mares. At length, Applejack finally sighed.
"Alright then, I guess. Ah trust you Twi', Ah really do... Ah just..." She swallowed. "Not to point hooves or nothin', but Ah know you an' Celestia were in cahoots with Rainbow. Can ya not tell us where she's gone?"
Twilight shook her head miserably. "Sorry AJ," she mumbled. "But at least out work should help her come home sooner. It's... Kinda related."
"Alright," the farmer relented. "If yer goin', yer goin', I guess..." Without warning, she leapt to her hooves again. "Right. Ya both most be exhausted, ya had a long day of travellin' - what d'ya say we git you each a room?"
The two unicorns stood up with grateful smiles. "Oh, thank you, darling," Rarity gushed. "I didn't want to say anything, it's been so long since we last talked, but..." As if to emphasise her point, she yawned. "I am, as we said in the company, as awake as the second spot at the Canterbury Royal. My, that was a night to forget."
Applejack grinned. "You'll have ta tell me that lil' tale for sure. Now come on you two, but quiet-like - Little Angel's all tucked in."
"Goodnight girls," Rarity cooed, pulling Fluttershy into another hug, somewhat gentler than before, and the pegasus gratefully reciprocated. "We'll have a good chit-chat in the morning, I promise," she continued, moving to Applebloom.
"Night, everypony," Twilight said. "I - oh, I should probably leave that here." She nodded at the suitcase. "One moment..."
Fluttershy squeaked as Twilight's horn lit up, enveloping the case in a soft lavender aura. "There we go." Twilight beamed. "All locked up."
Applejack frowned. "What's in there that ya don't want us to see?"
"You'll probably find out at Hearth's Warming," Twilight said with a grin. "I don't want a certain little someone cantering down in the morning and going through the strange case that appeared in the night."
"What did you get her, Twilight?" Fluttershy asked.
"Nuh-uh!" Twilight shook her head, grinning secretively. "It's a surprise. You'll have to wait and see."
"It's, um, not anything... Unsuitable, is it? I-I don't want her... I don't... I don't know..." the little pegasus trailed off. Twilight giggled.
"Fluttershy, what would I possibly get her that's inappropriate? You know me! I'd get her, like, a book, or some kinda science kit or something."
"I don't know..." Fluttershy gulped. "Rainbow Dash used to read some... Scary books..."
"I think gritty is the word you're looking for," Twilight humoured her. "But don't worry. Even I know that Dark Draftchester isn't a book little fillies should be reading."
"Oh, Twi', one more thing before ya go," Applebloom said. "You ever seen an antelope before?"
"A couple," Twilight answered, curious. "There are often delegates from other societies in and around the castle. Why do you ask?"
"'Cause there's bin one at the market for a couple a days now," replied the younger mare.
"Really?" Twilight's interest was hooked. "What's he doing there? Especially at this time of year!"
"He's a true-ba-door," Applebloom informed her. "He sings songs an' tells stories. Folky stuff an' that."
"A troubadour..." Twilight repeated. "Sounds worth a look in. He'll definitely be there tomorrow, right?"
"From what Ah heard, he ain't leavin' until day after Hearth's Warmin'."
"Well I'll have to have a talk with him, then. I don't often get a chance to talk to foreigners, even in Canterlot. The ambassadors are always too busy to answer my silly questions." Twilight grinned. "Aw, now I'm all excited about seeing this guy! I'll be up all night thinking about what I'm gonna ask him, and-"
"Twilight, dear," Rarity hissed from the hall, halfway up the stairs. "Would you please come up here? AJ says she won't go clattering around looking for bedding until you're up-"
"Sorry!" Twilight hissed back, coming to join her. "Night, everypony - sorry, Rarity, it's because Little Angel is asleep."
"It's alright, Twilight, I just - I - Ohhh," Rarity yawned. "I'm just so - so tired."
"You get your rest, Rarity." Twilight gave her friend a knowing smile as they reached the dimly-lit farmhouse landing. "We'll talk in the morning-"
"Hope ya don't mind sharin', girls," Applejack whispered, coming out of her own room with a pile of bedding balanced on her back. "Ah shoulda got the ol' camp bed outta Angel's room before ya got here," she apologised, pushing into the spare room with its big old wood-framed double bed.
"Don't worry about it, Applejack," Rarity replied. "I think we'd both much rather sleep in a proper bed than next to the floor."
"Ya pair of sissies," AJ chuckled. "Fair enough. I'll just get this sorted, an' you two can get some shut-eye."
"Let me, Applejack," Twilight offered, taking the bedsheet in her magic. "I should be able to handle this a little easier-"
"You unicorns!" Applejack laughed quietly, trying not to wake the sleeping filly down the hall. "Ah... I'll never unnerstan' you." She grinned at the two tired unicorns as she backed towards the door. "You sleep in if you want to, OK? I know yer not here fer long, but... Don't put yerselves out, girls. If ya gotta go, ya gotta go, an' I don't wanna wave you off dead on yer hooves 'cause ya were runnin' around fer us."
"I-" Rarity yawned again, a great, wide, jaw-popping yawn- "I really appreciate the sentiment. Thank you, Applejack."
"I'll see you in the morning, AJ," Twilight said as she took to one side of the big old bed. "Thanks for putting us up."
"Not at all, sugarcube," AJ replied with a gentle smile. "Not at all." The door shut with a gentle click, leaving the room illuminated only by the moonlight glow in the window.
Half an hour later, Rarity's body heaved gently up and down next to her, deep in her dreamless sleep, but Twilight's eyes were wide still. Gazing to the window, she could see the fringes of the leafless apple orchards stretching up, their woody fingers grasping out at the night sky to touch the celestial array of stars that webbed out above them in the heavens.
An antelope in Ponyville? Twilight wondered. At Hearth's Warming? It's an Equestrian holiday, so I guess it makes sense that he's not at home, but still... Wow. And he's a storyteller - maybe he'll tell us some tales from his homeland! She grinned with foalish glee. I love hearing folk tales from the people who've always known them. It makes them so much more magical...
She sank down into the pillow and rolled to look at Rarity beside her. She smiled a little as she remembered that this probably wouldn't be the only time they would bed down together. Once they left Ponyville, they'd probably spend many nights sleeping rough - if not in Equestria, definitely when they arrived in the wilds of Celagia.
Oh, Rarity, she thought. Thank you for talking me into going... And thank you for agreeing to come... You know it's going to be me, though, don't you? She imagined herself asking her this, and in her mind the snow-white unicorn began to bluster excuses. It was always going to be me. It... Just took you to remind me of that.
Below them, raucous laughter echoed up through the floorboards as the Apples drank and talked. It doesn't mean I'm not scared, though, Twilight's train of thought rolled on, I will miss you all - You just reminded me that some things... Some things have to be done. I - I'm glad - I'm glad you're... But the thought faded as Twilight slipped into unconsciousness. The two unicorns shifted a little in their sleep as the night wore on, both of them lost in Luna's dark night.
One blue eye snapped wide open.
A body rolled over, pulling off the bedcovers as it moved, groaning with the indignity of wakefulness, to face the window.
It got up, grumbling still, stretching across to pull wide the curtains and push open the snow-spattered window pane.
Wait a moment, Rarity realised moments too late. Snow?
The fourth snowball struck her head on. Screaming with surprise and from the cold, she toppled backwards onto the bed, while three foals and one grown mare fell about with laughter outside.
"Nice shot, Pound! I didn't think she'd wake up so quickly, though..."
Rarity had been planning to give the irresponsible adult behind this some strong words of rebuke, but when she heard her old friend's voice for the first time in a year all her anger evaporated. Sticking her head back outside, disregarding the potential for additional missiles, she waved down to the farmyard below.
"Pinkie! Pinkie Pie!" she called. "Oh, thank heavens you made it!"
"Why wouldn't I have?" Pinkie yelled back up as the Cake siblings, Pound and Pumpkin, rolled around in the snow, their little frames shaking with gleeful mirth. Next to them, a white pegasus filly with a deep red mane tittered nervously at the mare she had been accomplice to waking. Pinkie Pie pulled Little Angel into a typically enthusiastic hug as she rambled on. "There's no way I'd have missed spending Hearth's Warming with my bestest, greatest friends in all of Equestria! Not even for, like, a million cupcakes!"
"Come inside, darling!" Rarity shouted. "I'll be right down!"
Wide awake after the rude, albeit forgiven rousing, Rarity summoned her towel dressing gown to her, having had the good sense to remember to bring it up the night before, and galloped downstairs as fast as the garment would allow. In the kitchen, the fire was roaring in the hearth, Twilight was sat, deep in a book, on the sofa in front of it, and standing in the doorway was bright pink mare with fluffy pink hair. The wide grin that seemed to be permanently plastered onto Pinkie's face could only grow wider as Rarity burst in, running to the door and hugging her tightly, the two of them laughing with the simple joy of reunion.
By her side stood her adorers Pound and Pumpkin, the pegasus and unicorn twins who had adopted Pinkie as their aunt, with the filly proudly sporting a cutie mark of her namesake, it having only just come in this past year, while the colt was still as of yet unmarked. Little Angel, Fluttershy and Mac's only child, stood beside them, smiling nervously, although with more courage yet than her mother had borne as a youngster herself. Rarity went to each of the foals in turn, greeting them with vary degrees of sweetness and mock disappointment. Having met the two fillies with gentle embraces, she turned to the colt by the counter with an exaggerated frown.
"Now, Pound Cake," she sighed. "What am I to do with you?" The children giggled. "Throwing snowballs at a lady's face is a most ungentlecoltly thing to do." She pursed her lips as if in thought. "I think," she said at length, "that we are going to have to have a proper snowball fight at some point. You must let me have a chance to avenge myself." Angel and Pumpkin burst out laughing as Pound Cake shuffled nervously where he stood, grinning abashedly at the smiling unicorn.
"Alright then!" Pinkie Pie shouted, saving the embarrassed youngster. "Who wants hot chocolate?" The foals inevitably squealed with excitement as the playful pony clattered about the kitchen.
"I'd rather have a strong coffee, if that's alright with you, Pinkie dearest," Rarity admitted. She glanced to the left as a little hoof poked at her side.
"Miss Rarity?" Little Angel mumbled, a lock of her red mane falling down over her eyes in a fashion that beautifully reminded the former dressmaker of her mother's own partially-blinding bangs. "You aren't a-angry with Pound Cake, are you?"
"Oh, why, no darling, of course not!" Rarity exclaimed. "I might have been if I wasn't so happy to see you all! Especially you-" she said, swooping down to pull her old friend's daughter into another hug, as the pegasus filly laughed, squirming. She quickly pulled away, and Angel pranced off to stand at Pinkie's hooves. Rarity smiled at the child's antics as she moved in front of the fire to join Twilight.
"So then Twilight," she said with a happy sigh. "What's the plan?"
"Oh," Twilight replied with slight surprise. "I'm still waiting on Cele- Princess Celestia to send me the final details."
"No, darling," Rarity said patiently. "For today. Are we going to the market?"
"Oh!" Twilight said again, realising her mistake. "Uh, of course we are! We were just waiting for you!"
"Really? You should have woken me, dear! I don't want to keep the foals hanging around!"
"It's OK, Rarity!" Pinkie reassured her as she dashed over with a tray, loading with steaming mugs of coffee and cocoa, from which the two unicorns gratefully took. "We've been having great fun, haven't we guys?" she said, and the children yelled their approval.
"It certainly looks like it." Rarity smiled as the three foals sat down in front of the fire with their drinks, their coats dripping with a mix of sweat and melting snow. "But I shan't keep you waiting any longer, if I can avoid it. I'll have a quick shower, and then we can head off."
"Don't you want any food first?" Twilight asked, concerned. "You can't have eaten anything since that sandwich on the train last night."
"It's fine, Twilight, honestly," Rarity said with a shake of her head. "I'd rather sample the delights of the market, to be honest. It's probably going to be my only chance to go." She bought the mug to her muzzle and gulped appreciatively at Pinkie's brew.
"Oh, yeah," Pinkie said, her voice slowly slightly as the excitement faded a little. "Applejack told me about that trip you're going on."
Rarity paused for a moment. Of all their friends, Pinkie had been the least angry when Rainbow Dash had left. However, after the Fire of Pitsburgh and Rainbow's disappearance, she had taken it harder than anypony, and even refused to believe Princess Celestia at first when she finally got word from her athletic agent that she was OK. "Oh, Pinkie," she sighed, "I'm sorry-"
"Why?" Pinkie asked with a quizzical look. "What'cha got to be sorry for?"
"I - I just thought that - after Rainbow went missing-"
"Oh, um, yeah," Pinkie said in an tone subdued - at least by her standards. "She's OK, though, isn't she?" Now it was the unicorn's turn to look surprised. "I, uh... I know how I kinda lost it a bit after the Fire, but... I - I think I'm OK with it now." She gave an apologetic smile, her head bowed so that she looked up at Twilight as she went on. "I'm sorry I shouted at you Twilight. I - I really-"
"It's OK Pinkie," Twilight replied, looking up from her book. "We... I think we all wanted to shout that day. I know I did."
"Thanks, Twilight." Pinkie brought her head up once more. "See, at first I was, like, really really worried that something super-bad might have happened to her, but then when I got back to work all the kids were like, 'why are you crying, Pinkie?' And the other carers all said it wasn't good for the children or their parents if we looked miserable." As she justified herself, her voice regained its cheerful bubble, until by the time she finished she was very much Pinkie once more - not quite the over-excitable mare she had been when she first came to Ponyville, but still with a greater capacity for cheer and laughter than almost anypony else Rarity knew.
"I can understand that," Rarity agreed. Four years ago Pinkie had moved to Manehatten to work in a children's hospice for fillies and colts with serious illnesses - foals who didn't have very long to live. There they cared for them and gave them a chance to play like normal children, which was something that Pinkie, with her bubbly outlook and love of youngsters, had proven to be well-suited to. Though she had toned her mannerisms down from being the crazy party pony she had been when she first arrived in Ponyville, she still had an infectious ability to make ponies happy, and still never asked for any thanks more than a grateful smile.
"You're right, they were right," Pinkie went on, "so I thought, 'Pinkie, you gotta trust the Princess, and everything'll be alright.' And I just went back on in and started smiling again."
"You're so sweet, Pinkie." Rarity gave her friend an appreciative smile. "So - you don't mind us going as well, then?"
"Nuh-uh!" Pinkie responded with an emphatic shake of the head. "Like I said, I trust Princess Celestia! If she wants you to go, then she knows you'll be fine, right? She wouldn't send you if she didn't think you could handle it! She'd send, like, royal guards or something."
Rarity felt Twilight stiffen next to her on the sofa. The purple unicorn, who had remained silent throughout the conversation, reading, turned away a little. Before either of the two adult mares could respond, a voice squeaked up at them from the floor below.
"Where's Lady Twilight going?" Pumpkin Cake asked, her orange mane flopping down comically in front of her eyes as she looked up at her foalsitter.
"Pssh," her pegasus brother derided, "she's not Lady Twilight. She's Mage Twilight."
"She's a lady too!" the little unicorn yelled back. "Her brother's a prince!"
"Yeah, but mages are cooler."
"I like Doctor Twilight best," Little Angel admitted with a little smile.
"So do I," Twilight said with a wink. Sensing the tension had defused, she decided to push things on before Pinkie could bring out her greatest weapon - the last thing she wanted was to have to Pinkie Promise a return. "Right then! We want to get to the market before noon, right? You should go get ready, Rarity."
"Yes!" the actress replied, springing up from the sofa, gulping down the last of her coffee.
"Of course! We're meeting AJ and Fluttershy there, I presume?"
"We'll drop in," Twilight said with a nod, "but they'll probably be too busy with their stall to chat much."
"Of course." Rarity gave a little self-focused frown as she realised. "The Winter market must be wonderful for their business. Apple family spiced cider and apple pie on Hearth's Warming is always a treat."
"We have mamma's chocolate log cake at Hearth's Warming," said Pound Cake with a proud grin.
"Oh, well, they're also very nice," Rarity agreed hastily, trying not to offend the egotistical young colt. "I suppose Pinkie is getting you out from under your parents' hooves whilst they do business?"
"Uh-huh," the foal said, nodding. Rarity smiled down at him, then yelped as a pair of white hooves gave her a little shove.
"Go on, Rarity!" Little Angel pleaded. "I wanna see the bard again!"
"The bard?" Rarity asked. "Oh! The gazelle! Of course, you're right, we should get going!" She made for the staircase. "I shan't be a moment, darlings!"
"She'll be half an hour at least," Twilight said with a grin. "So, Pinkie, tell me about Manehatten life. Met any friendly colts?"
"Well," Pinkie said, fidgeting her hooves as a little blush spread across her cheeks. "There's this nurse at the hospice called Soothing Hooves. He's-"
"Ew!" The three youngsters gave retches of childish disgust.
"Come on guys, we don't wanna listen to this!" Pound cried, sprinting for the doorway once more. "Let's go outside and finish building our snow colt!"
"It's a snow mare!" his sister insisted, as she and Angel gave chase.
The two older ponies chuckled at the foals' antics as Pinkie slumped down in Rarity's place on the sofa.
"So then," Twilight said to her. "Soothing Hooves..."
"Oh, wow," Twilight breathed as they stepped into the marketplace. "They really pulled out all the stops this year, didn't they?" Rarity smiled.
Ponyville's octagonal town hall tower was not only covered in sparkling lights and fluttering banners as it was most years, but this year also sported glimmering statues around the upper gantries, seemingly carved from ice, depicting famous Equestrian figures old and new. Above the front door reared the Princesses Celestia and Luna, with the legendary ancient King Steelmane stood just to their right.
"Oh, I love that one," Rarity said, pointing. "That one just on Luna's left. With the big book?" She gave a sly grin.
"The other unicorn? I don't know who that... Oh," Twilight mumbled, as she realised the unicorn with the tome was in fact a likeness of herself.
"They got one of the town hero," Pinkie stage whispered to her.
"Me, though?" Twilight asked.
"Well, sure!" Pinkie went on. "You saved the town from an Ursa! And loadsa other things, too! I think it's because of the Ursa, though..."
"You fought an Ursa Major?" Pound Cake gasped, following along beside Pinkie as they came into the marketplace. "Wow! Those things are, like, gigantous!"
"Gigantic," Twilight corrected him. "And no, it was an Ursa Minor, and I just put him to sleep - I mean, literally," she said, as the two fillies gave distressed squeaks. "With a bottle of milk and everything. Did Mrs Cake never tell you that story?"
"My Mamma told me about that," Angel said with an innocent childish certainty. "She said you're really good with animals."
"Not as good as her," Twilight said, smiling knowingly. "There's not a single creature the Fluttershy can't get to behave."
"Except Angel." The little pegasus grinned meekly.
"Except Angel." Twilight drifted slightly, reminiscing. "Yeah... She had her work cut out with him... I miss that little critter," she sighed.
"So does mamma," Angel said, and Twilight smiled again.
"But now she's got you, and your dad, and all the Apples to keep her company, right?"
"Right!" the white pegasus exclaimed, happily.
"Momma!" squealed Pumpkin, dashing across the square to the market stall opposite. Rarity startled, raising a hoof, about to call her back, before realising where she had actually gone. The homely blue earth mare nuzzled her daughter lovingly as her husband carried on dealing with the line of customers.
"Hello, darling," she said. "Hello, Pound. I - Oh! Dr. Sparkle, Miss Rarity! It's been too long! How are you both? I hope my little ones haven't been giving you too much trouble."
"Oh, we're fine, missus Cake," Twilight said with a grin. "They've been absolute treasures."
"We're gonna look at the market with Auntie Pinkie!" Pumpkin squealed.
"Again?" Cup Cake asked, an exasperated smile spreading across her features.
"Well, yeah," the orange unicorn replied. "We haven't nearly seen everything yet!"
"Well, go on then." Mrs Cake grinned as she pushed her away. "You be back here before it gets dark, alright?"
"Yes, mamma!" the twins chorused back, before galloping away. Twilight and Rarity smiled at the baker and her husband before turning away to catch up with Pinkie.
The ground under their hooves had been trodden free of its white blanket as they traipsed around the stalls, but snow still lay fresh on the stands' awnings and the rooftops of the houses around. With thick, grey clouds oppressing the sky, it was clear that more could be to come.
Despite the ominous outlook, the merchants of Ponyville were out in full force, manning stalls decked out with all kinds of festive wares. Pies, turnovers, quiches, and loaves stood freshly-baked next to their sugary counterparts of puddings, pastries, fruitcakes and sweets. Massive sacks of vegetables and juicy fruits, kept fresh by the raw magic of the earth pony folk, were rapidly unloaded onto housemares desperately making their last preparations for the holiday ahead.
Foals gazed wide-eyed at toys and trinkets, wooden train-sets and plastic swords, child's dolls and story books. Unicorn children pestered their mothers for a "real" arch-mage's cape, while pegasi fathers and sons both looked on in want at Skyball flightsuits and Wonderbolts memorabilia, the image of Spitfire, the team's most famous captain who had left abruptly three years ago to travel the world, stuck and signed in multiple frames.
As they walked around, Twilight's ears began to prick up as a strumming noise started somewhere close by. With a giggle, the foals in their charge broke into a run, Pinkie close behind.
"Come on, girls!" called the excitable mare. "You're going to want to see this!"
"Wha..." Rarity began to ask, but the answer became clear all too quickly. A ring of ponies stood around a platform at the edge of the square, raised ever-so-slightly off the ground to give performers a chance to be seen, and the crowd a chance to see. At the very centre of the stage sat a strange being, fiddling with a peculiar instrument, and singing in melodious tones a folk song Twilight had never before, the audience stomping out a rousing beat.
"...farmer, baker, tailor, mayor,
Labourer, widower, sailor unafeared,
We'll come together and together we'll sing!
For all are equal in the dear old inn.
The dear old inn, the dear old inn,
The tat and trappings strung within,
Just another guise for why we're really here -
For good company and better, strong beer!"
A little chuckle spread through the crowd as the song wound on. Pinkie's head started to bob up and down in time with the music, the poofy curls of her mane being left slightly behind each beat.
"I told my wife one morning that a walk I'd take that day,
She bid me fond farewell for now and sent me on my way,
Afore I reached the hills o'course, 'fore I gazed upon the land,
I were sitting at the bar table, with the sound of this awful band! They were singing -
The dear old inn, the dear old inn,
The tat and trappings strung within,
Just another guise for why we're really here -
For good company and better, strong beer!"
This time Twilight joined in the laughter. The children laughed too, although Twilight expected they did not know quite why.
"I came back to the farm that night, to greet my lover dear,
She took one whiff of my stallion's breath and claimed I stank of beer!
She were awful angry then, I thought it unwise to stay,
So I walked back down to the village inn to drink 'til the new day!
He paused, holding the note, one cloven hoof tinkling the same string on his guitar-like possession, the other waving to the crowd to join in, which they did gleefully. The instant failure in tuning was compensated for by the massive volume suddenly produced by tens, if not hundreds of singers, of whom only the bard himself managed to get all the words right.
"The dear old inn, the dear old inn,
The tat and trappings strung within,
Just another guise for why we're really here -
For good company and better, strong beer!"
Cheering had broken out before singing really stopped, the last words of the song disintegrating into the cacophony of appreciation that the crowd let loose. Pinkie Pie whistled as the performer stood up and took a bow, giving Twilight the chance to appraise him.
He was definitely an antelope, possibly some kind of gazelle. His coat did not have the typical technicolour variety of the pony races, rather it had the orange body and white underbelly shared by most of his kind. His two horns curved slightly backwards from his skull, as he rose from his bow he flipped his only garment - a green fedora with a red feather stuck in its band - deftly back atop his head, two holes in the hat's brim accommodating the two prongs.
"Thank you!" he called out, his accent central Equestrian with only the slightest hints of otherness, suggesting to Twilight he had been in the country for a long time. "And thank you for lending your wonderful singing voices," he added, to further amusement.
"He's good," Twilight decided, approval in her voice.
"What's that he's playing?" Rarity asked her over the applause.
Twilight gave his instrument another appraisal. It had the fingerboard of a guitar, but its body was teardrop-shaped and rounded, unlike the flat double oval of the commoner instrument. "I think," she said after a moment, "it's a mandolin."
"Mando-whuh?" Pinkie sputtered.
"It's like a guitar. They come from the Eastern Isles and the Roan area. You don't really see them this far west," Twilight explained.
"It sounds really pretty," Angel enthused. "I wish I could play an instrument."
"Your father plays the banjo, doesn't he?" Rarity reminded her. "You should ask him to teach you one day."
"Ooh!" the little pegasus squeaked. "Yeah! Daddy really loves his banjo."
"If you learn the banjo and I keep practicing my clarinet, we could start a band!" Pumpkin Cake exclaimed, and the two youngsters began to plan their career in music to the general amusement of the adults.
"A banjo and a clarinet would certainly make for an interesting combination," Rarity noted.
"You can get anything to work in music, so long as you've got the vision to see it through," Twilight told her. "Have you ever hear the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Bayton?"
"No." Rarity frowned. "What're they, then?"
"Exactly what they sound like," Twilight said with a smirk. "They play pretty much everything... Just only on ukeleles."
"The ukelele is a beautiful instrument," a new voice asserted, "but I find that they don't quite match up to the mandolin when it comes to entrancing a crowd. You need at least two for a decent tune."
Twilight gasped and her gaze shot forward. The crowd had dispersed a little, for the bard had finished his act for now. He had clambered down from his platform and now stood just before her, wearing his hat, an amused smile, and his instrument slung across his back.
"Oh, hi there! I - um..." she stuttered.
"We absolutely loved your performance," Rarity gushed. "It's good to meet you, Mr... Um..."
"Call me Longhorn," the antelope said, smiling.
"Mr. Longhorn," Rarity went on, "We only arrived in town last night and we were told that your act was a must-see. Will you be playing again later?"
"You can count on it," he told her. "But I have some things to attend to first."
"Mr. Longhorn?" Twilight cut in, desperately, "I was wondering - um, if it's OK with you, that is - if you had a moment later, if you would mind talking to me a bit about, uh... Well, I'm an academic, you see," she said with a little self-conscious grin.
"A learned mare, hm? What is it you study?"
"Magic, mostly," she admitted, "but... I minor in, well, pretty much everything," she said with a grin. "Or at least, that's what Princess - um, that's what some ponies say."
"Really now?" Longhorn replied with interest, eyebrows raising. "You weren't about to say Princess Celestia, were you?"
"I - uh-"
"I think what she's trying to say is yes, darling," Rarity interrupted, cutting through Twilight's babbling. "She was hoping you could tell her a little about where you come from." Twilight gave her a grateful smile.
"Um, that is, if I'm not presuming - I mean, I don't know, you are, I mean you aren't, uh," Twilight blustered desperately, "if you aren't from around here, that is. I mean, you might be, I don't know - I'm not being, ah, insensitive, right? I mean, I don't want to intrude-"
"It's fine, miss!" the gazelle laughed, "absolutely fine! I'm not from around here, no, and I'd love to talk to you or anypony about where I've been, what I've witnessed. But I'm rather pressed for time as it is," he admitted, sounding disappointed. "I fear I have already placed too many obligations upon myself." He looked down as Twilight sighed. "I'm sorry, Miss, but I already agreed to visit other families and venues and such... If you only arrived back yesterday, I'm afraid that may be where the issue lies. Had I seen you sooner I might have been a bit more available."
"That... Makes sense," Twilight said disappointedly.
"I'm sorry," he said, genuinely apologetic. "I wonder though, what are you doing tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow's Hearth's Warming!" Pinkie exclaimed. "She's probably just going to be sat in the farmhouse talking and eating and playing and reading and singing with everypony else!"
"I see." Longhorn grinned. "Which farm do you live on?"
"I don't live there, but I'm staying on the Apple family farm, just on the western fringe of town," Twilight replied.
"Hmm..." the Antelope mused. "Well then, I suppose that if you're there... You wouldn't mind, would you, if I dropped in tomorrow should I find time? It's not entirely possible that I'm being over-cautious... You never know, I may have a moment. No promises, mind."
"Oh, wow, really? Thanks!" Twilight gasped. "I-"
"Pinkie, when are we gonna do something?" Pound Cake whined, poking at his adopted aunt's leg.
"Yeah!" his sister shouted. "I wanna get cookies!"
"I'll let you get on, shall I?" Twilight told the bard. "It was great to hear you sing. Thank you."
"I'll be back later," he reminded her, smiling. "Just a few things to sort out first. Other ponies I've made arrangements with. I'll see you later, Miss..."
"Sparkle. Twilight Sparkle."
"Oh!" he gasped. "Well, well! Dr. Sparkle?"
"Please," the scholar replied, her purple cheeks turning bright red as she blushed with modesty. "Call me Twilight."
"Very well then, Twilight! If you are indeed the famous student of her highness Princess Celestia, you can be assured I shall find time for you, even if I must cut short some of my other visits. After all," he went on, "you've done so much for the world that I could hardly begrudge you a favour of my own."
"I - Uh, well, I'm honoured, but I'd really rather you didn't - eep!" Rarity had given her a firm push, moving to catch up with Pinkie and the three foals who had walked on and were now stood in line at the stand of one of Ponyville's many bakeries. "Ah, goodbye!"
"Goodbye, Twilight Sparkle!" Longhorn called back. "I shall see you tomorrow, Harmony willing!" Amusement flickered at his lips and mouth as the renowned scholar was shoved away like a drift before a snowplough.
"He doesn't just sing drinking songs, does he?" Rarity asked when they joined the others.
"Nope!" Pinkie replied with an emphatic shake of the head, her fluffy mane bouncing this way and that as she did so. "He does all kinds of things! He sings love songs and tells stories, too!"
"He's handsome," Pumpkin Cake decided, drawing her brother's ire.
"Ew!" The foalish complaint was met by a blown raspberry from Pound's sister, which the pegasus reciprocated. "Phbt!" he spat. Not wanting to let him have the last word, Pumpkin also responded in kind, and the two stood in the queue, tongues out and cheeks puffed up, mocking back and forth. Twilight giggled.
"Don't encourage them," Rarity whispered. "Now, come on you two," she said, speaking at normal pitch again. "There are other ponies around." The siblings finally stopped, but continued to glare daggers at each other as best as children were able.
"Pinkie, if it's alright with you I'd like to walk on a little," Twilight said.
"Huh? Don't you want any cookies?"
"I'm not too bothered," Twilight replied, "I'd just like to see a bit more of the town just now."
"Oh, sure! Fine by me! Ooh, I know! I'll just get more cookies and give them to you later, OK?"
"That'd be great, Pinkie," Twilight said, smiling at her ever-happy friend. "Coming, Rarity?"
"I think so," the unicorn mare replied. "I just think I'd prefer to to see a bit more of the town right about now." Smiling and giving little waves to their friends, they began to pull away.
"Twilight, darling," Rarity asked, concerned, as the wind began to pick up. "Aren't you a little cold?" Realisation flashed in Twilight's eyes as she realised that while Rarity was wearing her thick Winter coat, a white scarf, and fluffy white earmuffs with her cutie mark emblazoned on each side, she herself hadn't dressed for the cold at all. That is to say, she hadn't dressed.
"Oh, uh, oops," she muttered. "I was practicing Magus Pyrelight's Inner Glow spell. Uh - the one you said Celestia used to keep you warm on Solstice night. I guess I forgot I was doing it."
"You might have to teach me that one," Rarity said, lips pursed. "It could come in handy for our... Excursion."
"I'll see," Twilight replied, nodding. "It's, uh... It's not too tricky, but it almost never goes right first time. Most unicorns... Um, I don't wanna put you off, but they-"
"Set their manes on fire?" Rarity supplied, smiling, and Twilight smiled back, relieved at her friend's unconcernedness.
"Yeah! Not that that's a good thing..."
They continued to amble, breaking away from the marketplace to cut down a side street. Rarity shivered as the Winter chill began to bite ever-deeper, but Twilight remained disconcertingly unfazed. As they pulled away from the centre of town, their surroundings grew quieter and quieter, until they were the only ponies in the street. Though Rarity had been away for a year now, she knew her hometown well enough to know where Twilight was leading her. She swallowed nervously.
"Twilight, darling..." she began, nervously.
"I just want to see it again, Rarity," Twilight said, a hint of regret entering her voice. "One last time."
At the end of the road stood an ancient tree. Rivalling the manaleaf in the Canterlot Arboretum in size, the giant oak had been built into a home by some clever soul in Ponyville's early days. But the library tree was no longer a place of shelter or knowledge - the front door swung on its hinges, flapping in the growing breeze. The windows had been smashed in, whether by stones or storms Twilight didn't know. The balcony, where she had spent many long summer days studying or entertaining guests had collapsed into a pile of rotten wood at the foot of the tree, and the trunk itself was stripped of bark in many places, the hideous scars revealing the lifeless core within. Though the books and artifacts within had been saved, Twilight still felt an immeasurable sense of loss when she was reminded once again that the tree was dead any there was nothing more she could do for it.
The library had been moved in to a new building on the edge of town, Twilight knew. She had first found out two years ago, when Fluttershy wrote to her - the tree had caught a horrible illness off a parasite carried by a travelling lumber merchant. Though most of Ponyville's leafy boughs had been saved, the library had refused to heal. The scholar knew that there were scientific explanations - the tree was too old to be receptive to magic, Ponyville didn't have its own tree specialist and inexpert care was given, decades of being used as a public building had damaged it anyway - but that didn't make it easier to accept.
"They'll cut it down soon," Twilight noted, her voice shaking ever-so-slightly.
"No, Twilight, they promised they wouldn't," Rarity reminded her. "It's an important part of the town's heritage and history - they said they'd leave it-"
But Twilight shook her head. "It's dangerous like this."
"It's fine, Twilight! The groundsponies have been keeping it safe, it's virtually the same now as when - when it died..."
"It's not worth it, Rarity," Twilight insisted. "It's just an ugly old tree now. They haven't even bothered to fix the windows. One day they'll realise that they just don't care and take an axe to it." Rarity didn't bother to protest further. The branches of the old plant creaked in protest as the wind picked up. Above them, flakes of white began to drift down from the cloud blanket, swirling down, sticking to their manes and the ground around them. Twilight Sparkle began to shiver, sniffing.
"L-let's go," Twilight sniffled. "W-we'll find Pinkie and A-AJ, and probably have another w-walk around..." But she couldn't get going. She couldn't bring herself to move. She sat down in the road and began to sob, shaking. Magic failing, the cold finally took ahold of her and shivers wracked her body.
"Twilight. Twilight, sweetie, look at me." Twilight looked up and stood ahead of her was Rarity, her face concerned but her tone firm. She unzipped her thick coat, holding it out to her friend in a selfless offer of comfort. "You aren't going to keep doing this now, are you?"
"D-doing what?" Twilight asked, making no move to accept the garment.
"You keep breaking down, dear. I - look, I know we have to leave soon, but you should just enjoy the season. Stop - I mean, I know it's hard, but you have to stop fretting!" The older mare sighed. Around them the snow was beginning to blanket the ground once more. Moving to Twilight's side, she slid her jacket over Twilight's frame with her magic. The younger mare shrugged slightly, as if to resist, but her heart wasn't in it.
"Twilight," Rarity went on after a pause, "I - you're acting like this is your last chance to see Ponyville. This isn't goodbye, you know."
"But it is," Twilight insisted miserably.
"I said I'd stay, Twilight, you - oh, for goodness sake! Let's not argue about this now." She reached out, offering Twilight a hoof up which the studious unicorn slowly accepted. "Just relax, dear. You're only making everything harder for yourself."
The lavender mare sniffled. "I... I guess you're right," she admitted reluctantly. "I should..." She stopped, shivering a little. "Oh, stars, It's so cold," she said. "Thank you, Rarity, I - are you sure you'll be alright without this?" She indicated the snow-white coat on her person, her expression torn between thankfulness and concern.
"Of course, darling!" Rarity dismissed the worry with a carefree laugh. "You know me. I wouldn't be happy if I was convinced you weren't either."
"I guess not," Twilight admitted with a smile. Around them, ponies were beginning to head for home as the snow drove them from the market to take shelter indoors.
"Come on, dear." The pale actress turned and began to stride back towards the market. "If everypony is leaving then the Apples may be starting to pack away. We can lend them a helping hoof."
"Ugh," Twilight groaned, "I'm sorry for dragging you away, Rarity. We didn't even buy anything."
"Well, it's a good thing we did all our shopping in Canterlot then, isn't it?" Rarity replied, unworried. "And anyway, I'm making assumptions. Most of the stands may still be open. I guess we'll only find out when we get there."
"Well, then, let's go! Oh, and, um, Rarity? Thank you for lending me your coat. You aren't too cold, are you?"
"I'm fine, Twilight, honestly." Rarity smiled. "Now then, come on. If we're lucky there may still be a food stall open, I'm starving! I still haven't got around to breakfast yet."
"Ooh! I think I saw Horse Chestnut selling roasted chestnuts before! You know what he's like, it'll take more than snowfall to move him on, ever if there's nopony to sell to." Chatting amiably as Twilight brightened up once more, they left the old tree behind as its dead branches groaned against the wind.
As the former librarian's old home faded in the distance, she tried to put it out of her mind once more. Whether or not she ever saw Ponyville again, she knew that the grand oak would not be there when whichever one of them returned came home. It would be gone, cut to sawdust and chucked away, the diseased, magically preserved wood good for nothing. But there were greater things in her life to mourn than the loss of a tree.
It was so important to her. So, so important. It was her home, where she'd had her first real party, her first sleepover, where she'd cared for Spike and lived and learned and grown. In a way, it was more home to her than Canterlot, and now it was gone, no more to be a part of her life. But maybe that's the way things have to be, Twilight thought with a resigned sigh. Stop worrying about it. Don't fear that what's good is gone, just be glad that it ever was.
At the end of the street, though, as they turned a corner and the once-library slipped from view, she turned back. The snow was falling faster and thicker, but beyond it she could just about make out her old home.
"Goodbye," Twilight Sparkle whispered, as the Ponyville library was lost from sight as its old curator left it behind for the last time.
"Will this do?"
"Yes, Applejack, that'll be perfect."
"Alright then." AJ stepped back to view their work. In the big barn next to the Sweet Apple Acres farmhouse, they had cleared a space amongst the tools and hay bales for Twilight and Rarity's travelling supplies. Princess Celestia had promised to teleport them in using magic, with Twilight's guiding her aim. They had agreed to put them in the barn so as not to clutter the already heaving farmhouse, which was even busier now that Pinkie had come over - instead of staying with the Cakes for Hearth's Warming, she had come over to the farm as well.
"Alrighty then," the farm pony said approvingly. "You, uh... You got somethin' you need to do?"
"I have to wrap some presents for tomorrow," Twilight replied. "Why? Is there anything you need help with?"
"Well, um," Applejack faltered briefly, "Ah did kinda wanna ask you somethin', but it might be too late now."
"Well, you never know," Twiligh said, grinning. "Magic is my special talent. I might be able to pull something off. What is it you want?"
"Take me with you."
Twilight fell silent, surprised. AJ was completely serious. She had neither asked nor demanded of Twilight, she had simply stated her request, and caught Twilight unprepared.
"If it's just some research trip you're goin' on, then it can't be a problem me taggin' along now, can it?" Applejack reasoned. "And if it's just food and clothes their highnesses are supplyin' then it can't be too much to ask fer one set more, surely?"
"Oh," Twilight blankly responded. "Um, I guess?" In her mind she was clutching desperately at straws. She didn't want AJ to know just why they were going, in case she tried to stop them, for reasons Twilight totally agreed with. She didn't want this Hearth's Warming to be the last time she saw the farmer, but she had made an agreement, and she was beholden to it. "But, uh, AJ, don't they need you on the farm?"
"Well, kinda, Ah guess, but we got time between now an' Spring to take on a hired hoof or two, and now we got Fluttershy helpin' us economise we can afford to do that," Applejack replied. Twilight went quiet once more. She had her there.
"Have you told anypony else that you want to come?" the scholar pushed. "What do they think about it?"
"Nothin' yet," Applejack admitted, "but they know I got good reason fer wantin'."
"Really?" Twilight asked. "Why do you want to come?"
"Ain't it obvious, Twi?" AJ sighed. "Jus'... Just look at yerself. You got yerself a PhD, and a job at Canterlot Uni', an' yer goin' off Celestia-knows-where for work. An' not just you!" she went on, "Rarity, she's, uh, she got into showbiz, didn't she? And Pinkie's off in Manehatten, RD's on her own adventure, and Fluttershy's even gotten herself married. To mah big brother, no less. An' most of y'all are younger than me!"
Twilight stared down at her hooves as she realised what her dependable friend was getting at. "Me, though, Twi'," Applejack continued, "I'm just the same as ever. Day-in, day-out, life on the farm... I want a shot at somethin' new too. Do... Do ya follow?" The unicorn shuffled a little, uncomfortably as she realised she couldn't rightly begrudge her to come along, with only the issue of why they were going in the first place hazing the matter.
"Well," she said, reluctantly, "I'll see what I can do. A lot of our travel arrangements have already been made. I'll write to the Princess tonight."
"Alright," the orange farmer said, nodding acceptingly. "I suppose I can't ask fer better 'n that." She began to walk towards the barn door, Twilight following on behind. "Ah suppose that the Princess'll just give ya a time an' drop the gear here?"
"I expect so," Twilight replied, as they stepped out into the thick covering of snow outside. The snow had stopped falling and the cloud cover had cleared. Unlike the night before, there was no wind, and the beautiful vista was only spoilt by the oppressive, biting cold that the two mares hurried to get out of. Walking thankfully back into the kitchen, they immediately made for the warmth of the fire and settled down with appreciative sighs. Applejack slumped on the sofa and lay back, closing her eyes, but whatever form of respite she hoped to get was swiftly denied as a tiny form flung itself through the air to land on top of her.
"Oof!" wheezed the farmer, snapping alert once more.
"Hi, Auntie AJ," Angel giggled. "Did I scare you?"
"Darn straight you did, scamp," Applejack playfully rebuked her niece, rolling so that the little white pegasus fell and landed next to her on the sofa. "I bet your mamma never went around jumpin' or poor ponies like that, now, did she?" Angel only continued to laugh, thrashing her little legs and in serious danger of toppling to the floor. Twilight, who had been sat on the rug on the floor, stood, pushing Fluttershy's daughter with her magic to the middle of the sofa, and sat on it herself, leaving the chuckling filly between her and AJ.
"Are you excited, Angel?" Twilight asked gently. "Looking forward to tomorrow?"
"You bet!" Angel replied, still laughing. Her eyes widened as she anticipated every young foal's favourite day of the year. "Auntie Applebloom bought a big stuffed marrow, and water chestnuts, and, uh, lots of carrots!" she remembered, gleefully, bouncing in her seat. "They're my favourite!"
"Just like another little Angel I used to know," a soft voice added from the hall.
"Mamma!" Angel yelled, leaping up and over the back of the sofa as Fluttershy entered, smiling demurely. She pulled her daughter into a loving embrace with her wing.
"Hello, dear," Fluttershy near-whispered. "I'm sorry I couldn't join you all sooner, I just had to make sure the chickens were all tucked in for the night. It's awfully cold out there, but they have plenty of bedding hay in their coop. I think they should be alright."
"That's not true!" Angel squealed. "You were upstairs, wrapping my presents!"
"Not just yours, Angel," her mother admitted with a smile. "Now why don't you run upstairs and get the Hearth's Warming story from your bedroom? I'm sure everypony will want to hear it tonight."
"Ooh! Yeah!" Angel squeaked approvingly, running for the stairs. She shouted something back down to the kitchen, but nopony could hear it over the sound of her hooves rampaging up the wooden staircase.
"What an adorable young lady you're bringing up, Fluttershy," Rarity cooed, once she was certain Angel was out of hearing range.
"Bit more bounce in her than her parents, though," Applejack noted, jokingly.
"Oh, yes," Fluttershy agreed, "but I think that's a good thing for all of us." She smiled gently. "I think she's brought the excitable side of me out a little more."
"We're all so proud of you and Mac," Twilight added. "I think-" She was cut off, however, by the returning one-mare stampede as Angel entered again, a book tucked under her wing. Without explanation, she hoofed the storybook onto the sofa next to Twilight and jumped up to take back her old place.
"What's this?" Twilight asked with a grin. "I thought you were going to read us the story, Angel? Your mamma says you've gotten really good at reading since you started lessons with Miss Cheerilee."
"You could read it better," Little Angel insisted. "Mamma says you read for a job. She said you read magic. This has gotta be easier than that! Even I can read it!"
"Oh! Heh," Twilight laughed at the filly's innocent assumption. "No, Angel, I, um..." She floundered, trying to fit the life of a researcher into a sentence. "I, uh, I read textbooks, sorta, and write my own. I teach a little, too."
"That sounds boring," Angel whined. "Don't you wanna read this instead?"
"She's got you there, Twilight," AJ said, grinning. Twilight smiled reluctantly.
"I suppose," she relented. "I think we should wait for your daddy and everypony else first, though. They'll want to listen too."
"OK," Angel agreed, reclining on the sofa. Seconds later, she shot back up, turning her head to her mother. "Mamma, can I have some hot chocolate?"
"It's nearly bedtime, sweetie," Fluttershy replied, shaking her yellow head. "You don't want to be up all night now, do you?" Angel didn't reply, she merely gazed at her mother with wide, soulful eyes. "Oh, alright then," the pegasus relented, "but only because it's Hearth's Warming."
"Yay!" shouted the filly, leaping back up and following her mother into the kitchen.
Letting her voice drop to a near-whisper, Twilight turned to AJ. "Once we're done here, I'll write to Celestia. But Applejack... Just make sure this is what you want."
"Of course it is," AJ replied, confused. "Why wouldn't it be?"
"Do you want to leave Fluttershy all alone when Pinkie goes back to Manehatten?"
"Aw, Twi', she wouldn't be alone," the applebucker insisted. "There's Mac an' Angel an' AB back here. And all her animals, too," she added. But there was a hint of doubt in her voice, and as they both turned away to face the fire, Twilight made her mind up. No matter what AJ had said, she couldn't face her coming.
It's not fair for me to make this decision, she thought, but it's not fair to force the alternative on her family. After losing Granny Smith only last year, and now waving goodbye to not only the rest of their friends and one of their own? Not to mention they'll find out sooner or later that... She swallowed, nervously. That we lied to them...
I'll run it over with Celestia, of course, but I'll make sure she knows I don't want it and why, she decided. I'm sorry, AJ, but I don't think this is right. I just don't don't... Her mind fell quiet as she gazed into the flickering orange flames. She frowned a little, and sighed a little more, but the conflict wouldn't go away. She was leaving, betraying her friends, and yet trying to convince herself that she was really doing the just thing.
But it's for the right reasons, she supposed. Isn't it?
The Great Forest, Celagia
Rainbow traced an idle hoof across the map. From the far eastern edge, she trailed it from the fringes of the Great Forest, over the grasslands and the desert beyond, through Kabull and Islamabay, and finally to the port city of Mareakesh in the west. There she paused, lifting away from the page, and allowing her eyes to wander left across the sea to where she knew Equestria was. Sighing, she rolled over on her cloudy perch and clutched the chart to her chest to stop it blowing away - not that it was of any use to her now.
"Ugh," she grunted, twisting back round to lie on her stomach instead. Unable to get comfortable, she wriggled around, sitting up and rolling over again, until eventually she had to give up. With a resigned groan, she rolled once more - to tumble off the edge of the cloud towards the treetops below. The well-hooved parchment of Princess Luna's map slipped from her grasp, only for her to catch the edge of it in her mouth and pull it back down to earth with her. She gave a yell of delayed shock as she snapped her wings open to slow her fall, and nearly lost the chart once more, but years of top-level fight had left her with lighting reactions, and another bite-mark was quickly added to the map as she recovered it for a second time. With a thud of frost-hardened soil, Rainbow Dash's hooves touched the ground of the Great Forest once more, shortly followed by the rest of her body as she collapsed again. Much to her dismay, the frozen earth was even less comfortable than her cloud.
Stupid Gaia, she mentally grumbled, stupid Tempest. Why you gotta make this so difficult for me? There was no reply, however, her only answer Tempest's wild winds gusting through the endless foliage around. Ugh!
Rainbow did not deal well with boredom. Very little could entrance her to the stage where she would stop hovering and sit in rapt attention. Even when talking to her friends, or reading one of her favourite adventure novels she was known to hover, or else amble about the room - although, that wasn't an option for her right now. She hadn't been inside anything more than a tent for over two months now, and with the wild Forest Winter drawing on, she was grateful for the inherent magic that kept all pegasi warm. It wasn't perfect, but the inexplicable heat was enough to keep her and her companions comfortable in the average Winter winds and snows. When the blizzards picked up they would bundle into the tent and ride the storm out.
When the weather was good, Soarin would go out foraging, often with Rainbow or Spitfire but never with both - one always stayed behind to watch their belongings. He would dig for hardy tubers and roots that could survive the Winter, seek out the more resilient grasses, or search for the Great Forest's native wonder, the needlefruit. Growing on some of the more exotic pines of the mixed woodland, the prickly-skinned tree-pods bloomed in the Winter. When they were ready to seed, their heavy bottom ends dragged them through the air, the lower spike hopefully penetrating the ground on impact and planting itself, the seeds being spat out into the earth by the force of the collision. They didn't spread very far, so the needletrees were often found in groves of tens, if not hundreds, but Soarin insisted on seeking out a new one every so often so as to ensure each tree had a chance to seed. Rainbow grumbled a little about the extra time they spent searching, but it was always worth it, for, if skinned and de-seeded correctly, the flesh inside the tough outer shell was delicious and filling - and pretty much all they had to eat. Any other wild foods were few and far between, and the two Wonderbolts insisted on saving their imperishable travelloaves for emergencies - so then, not only was her day to day life boring, but so was Rainbow's food. And as for the company...
Rainbow grimaced, rolling around again as she struggled against an itch, an itch that tickled at every aspect of her being, telling her to move, to talk, to fly - anything but sit here alone doing nothing.
"Ugh!" she groaned to herself. "Stupid Gate... If I hadn't... It's my fault we're here waiting, I said we should check this out!"
She stood up, folding the map behind a wing and starting to trot agitatedly around the clearing she had landed in. "And why do I gotta wait for Twilight and Rarity? What're they gonna do that I can't?" Muttering under her breath, she circled the glade twice, thrice, four times altogether, before slumping with another moan at the base of a tree.
Six months, the Princess had said. Six months of waiting around with nothing to do but forage and sleep. Maybe when Spring rolled around she'd be able to stretch her wings and fly, but for now the untamed winds above the Great Forest were too dangerous for her to throw herself out there. Climbing up to the cloud before had been a chance Soarin would be annoyed to hear she had taken, and it hadn't been worth it, for instead of being a work of art born in a pegasus weatherworks like that in Cloudsdale, it was a crudity, nature's poor replica. While a scholar like Twilight or a dreamer like Rarity might think it a wonder, Rainbow knew only one thing - it wasn't nearly good for lying on. Neither were any of the tree boughs, their rough bark branches untempered by earth pony guardians, and with the ground frozen solid more often than not, the only place she could really, truly relax was the tent. And that presented its own host of problems...
With a resigned sigh, she stopped, finally, staring at the map once more. In the lower-right corner of the map was a strange compass symbol, the western half a sun, the east a moon, perfectly bisected by the north-south marker. Gazing up at the true sun above the treetops, her thoughts drifted like the cloud she had tried to nap on as it slowly blew away from her.
It's gotta be getting close the Hearth's Warming, she noted. The nights have stopped getting longer, I think... Is it selfish to hope that they miss me? The girls? she thought. Her eyes misted as she began to reminisce. They always spent the holidays together, normally on the Apple family farm, and on one occasion with Twilight and her brother's family at their Cambridle estate. Soon it would be four Hearth's Warmings since she had seen them, since she had properly celebrated Equestria's founding. Travelling life was hardly conducive to great occasion. A little childish, nagging thought picked at her mind, telling her that this wasn't fair, that she should be at AJ's, sitting by the fire with a mug of spiced cider and her friends. Her beloved friends... Did they still care about her now that she was gone? Did they blame her for leaving?
I dunno, she decided, but I sure know that I miss them.
Sweet Apple Acres, Equestria
Twilight was content. The kitchen was warm but dim, lit by the glow of the fire - always the fire - that she had started a short while ago in the hearth. Comfortably nestled on the much-used sofa, she pondered over two pieces of parchment - one she had received, and one she was still preparing to send.
To my dear friends, the draft read, I hope that your holidays have been as enjoyable as mine, and that your families and loved ones are safe and happy. I write to thank you all for your kind and generous gifts, but also to make an apology - I will not be returning to Canterlot in the new year, and neither will Rarity, although I know she has written to you all herself.
I know this comes as a surprise, but it is as much a shock to me as it is to you. Princess Celestia approached me as I was preparing to leave for Ponyville with a request - to take note of celestial happenings taking place beyond her or her sister's control. I can't say much more on the matter than that - these are really the Princesses' affairs, not mine - but the research I am going to be undertaking will consume several months of my time. I hope to be back home before Hearth's Warming next year, but I can make no promises. Rarity has graciously offered to travel with me, to assist me in my work while my usual assistant, Spike, is himself away - I know she has written to you each herself.
We will be travelling to a series of observation sites across the country, listed by the Princesses, to watch the sky for unusual occurrences. While the journey is projected to take ten months to visit every locality and return, the list of sites is not final, so I can make no promises. While I will endeavour to write to you, again, I cannot assure you that I will, for the sites we are heading for are mostly off the beaten track.
Once more, I'm sorry for springing this on you all without a chance to meet and say goodbye. When we return, I promise we'll catch up properly - with a drink and a view, true Canterlot style!
Happy Hearth's Warming to you and yours, and a happy New Year too!
Your loving friend,
She smiled as she layed the missive to one side. It didn't take a great stretch of her imagination for her to accept her own falsehoods as true, and so she took them, thinking happy thoughts of days to come rather than worrying about the possibility that they could never truly be. Rarity was right - the journey may end up turning her life around, but her worrying could just as easily destroy it anyway.
She yawned, for it was still only the small hours, the sun only just beginning to poke up above the horizon as Princess Celestia nudged the great well of all life through the sky. Six pieces of parchment floated up to her from one side, along with ribboned seals, and, with her magic, she instantly copied her letter onto each piece, before folding them and securing their bands, a waxen, purple, six-pointed star embellishing each of the bindings. There was one for each of her closest in Canterlot - while her friends in Ponyville would always be her nearest and dearest, since returning to the capital she had met with new friends, making full use of the life lessons she had learned since leaving.
There were copies of her letter for Bright Eyes and Glimmerhoof, two of her fellow researchers at Canterlot University, as well as one for Aurora, a PhD student who she had grown close to. A fourth was penned to Silver Service, the jovial modern butler who Princess Celestia had hired after the retirement of her old servant Faithful Heart, and a fifth to Lanerya, Rarity's fellow designer, an antelope originally from the South-Celagian city of Asmarea who had crossed the Eastern Sea to try and make it big in Canterlot. The sixth letter, bound and wrapped, was for Twilight's very own tutor at the University - Professor Sharp Mind, one of the ponies she respected most aside from her friends, family, and the Princesses themselves.
Contented, she smiled again, before reaching out take the letter addressed to her in her grasp. Breaking the red sun-stamped wax, the unfurled it and started to glance down the page at speeds only a true academic could muster. If she had been hoping for Celestia's total agreement with her previous correspondence, she would be disappointed.
I received your letter late last night and fully understand your concerns. I agree that Miss Applejack could be a threat to the integrity of our plans if they are revealed to her - I find it very unlikely that she would agree to swear to secrecy, and revealing our intents, either to your other friends or a third party, would almost certainly result in unwanted outcomes. Competition or emotive appeals would seriously reduce the likelihood of you and Rarity reaching the Gate before any other, if at all.
I think, in a way, that makes it sound like I do not care about what you feel in your heart. Trust me, Twilight, when I say in many ways this is not the way I wanted things to be either. I realise that what I am asking you to do is hard, but I will say no more on the matter. Just know, my faithful student, that your happiness is precious to me and I would not wish to see you disheartened for anything - I want you to know that while I am asking a lot of you, it is also asking a lot of me to let you go, but this is beyond either of us now. Some things may be hard, but I know we both truly want what is right. I am glad you wrote that you had realised that now - I can sleep a little easier for it.
But to the matter at hoof - Miss Applejack's argument is perfectly acceptable based on the story we have established for ourselves. There are excuses available to us, but as I was detailing them I couldn't help but start to note the advantages that having her along would provide. For a start, she is an earth pony, and so has earth magic. Her profession and her pastimes have rendered her, I believe, with a greater knowledge of outdoor pursuits than possessed by you or Rarity - and she can also handle herself in a fight, which, I am loath to admit, may also be useful. Nevertheless, these qualities do not overcome the issues her understanding may cause, as I detailed above. I believe we should discuss this matter further, and resolve it between you, myself, and Rarity as soon as possible.
Twilight's frown deepened. 'Discuss it further'? She hadn't been expecting to see the Princesses again before they returned to Canterlot in two days, and even then not for very long. It would be too late then to ask Applejack along - she could think of only one other way Celestia could speak with her sooner, and that would mean...
The creak of the hallway door interrupted her thoughts, her head whipping round to see a little white filly nosing her way into the kitchen. Little Angel blushed abashedly as she smiled, face tilting downwards but eyes coming up to meet Twilight's gaze.
"Why, good morning, Angel!" Twilight exclaimed as quietly as she could. Angel giggled and raised a hoof to her lips.
"Ssh!" she insisted. "Mamma and Daddy are still asleep."
"I bet they are," Twilight replied with a grin. "I know both of them will like a nice long lie-in on Hearth's Warming."
"Aw," the filly whined, "but I wanna open my presents!"
"Could you not get back to sleep?" Twilight asked, hopefully, but Angel shook her head.
"Nuh-uh!" she insisted. "Why would anypony wanna sleep in today?"
Twilight couldn't help but laugh. She patted the sofa beside her, motioning to Angel, who trotted around to jump up onto the couch. It was an old furnishing, made of fabric and stuffed with wool, with a worn blanket striped with blues, greens, and whites lying across the seat and back. It sagged a little as the young pegasus sat down, Twilight gently nudging her papers out of the way to make room.
"Doctor Twilight, are you writing a story?" Angel asked, staring around at the papers littering the floor and couch.
"No, Angel," Twilight laughed, "just a letter." The filly looked a little disappointed at that, so she added, "but I suppose I could write a story one day, if I ever have the time."
Angel grinned. "Really?" she gasped.
"Well, why not? I've read plenty of novels, and had enough adventures to give me ideas."
"One day, I want to go on an adventure," Angel decided, raising her hooves to warm them from the fire. "Like you and mamma and Auntie AJ did, and like Rainbow."
"You still remember Rainbow, huh?" Angel gave her as disparaging a look as Twilight had ever seen on the face of a child.
"Well, duh!" Angel righteously proclaimed. "She's only, like, the most awesomest pegasus I've ever met!"
"He he," Twilight giggled, "I think she'd be happy if she heard you call her that. And I'm sorry for thinking you'd forget, it's just... Well, you were only four when she left."
"Where did she go?"
Twilight grinned conspiratorially. "On an adventure," she whispered.
Silence fell between them for a while. The dark sky outside slowly brightened as the sun rose, peeping over the horizon to bathe the orchards outside in a deep reddy-orange, while the snow that its radiance graced blushed a warm pink, the fresh blanket that had fallen overnight pure and undisturbed. As the outside world began to see day, so did the kitchen, light streaming through the windows, slowly eclipsing the fire's light-giving role. Twilight was pleasantly surprised by the youngster's mature quietness. She was remarkably still and calm, despite it being Hearth's Warming.
She remembered her own fillyhood back in Canterlot, when she and Shining Armor would wake some hours before dawn, and dither excitedly outside their parents bedroom. The debate about whether or not to rouse the adults passed between them in whispers growing ever-louder, until their frantic voices would wake them anyway, the grumbling adults calling them in with only half-hearted reprimands.
"Psst," hissed a voice from the doorway, Twilight and Angel both looking round to identify the newcomer. "Twilight," Pinkie Pie whispered, her mane flattened in places from where she had lain on her curls in the night. "I couldn't sleep," she admitted with a little smile. "Either," she added, when she noticed Angel was already up.
"Oh, Pinkie," Twilight replied, also smiling. "I'm hardly surprised. You've always been a foal at heart, and I mean that in a good way." Pinkie giggled. "Do you want coffee?" Twilight asked.
"Well, sure!" the earth mare replied chirpily. "Why not?" As Twilight stood and moved around into the kitchen, they came together for a friendly embrace.
"Happy Hearth's Warming, Pinkie," Twilight said quietly.
"And you," came the reply, "happy Hearth's Warming."
"Happy Hearth's Warming everypony!" Angel shouted, leaping down and cantering round to join in the hug. From upstairs, there came a murmur and a thud as a body slowly heaved itself out of bed. "Oops," the filly said, wide-eyed.
"Oops indeed," Twilight grinned. "I think we're gonna need more than two coffees."
It wasn't long before the rest of the farmhouse's inhabitants began to pile into the kitchen, all looking somewhat tired but happy. Holiday greetings passed between them over steaming mugs of coffee and tea, Angel drinking her own cocoa while her father heated spiced cider for himself in a saucepan on the range. Twilight sat next to Applebloom at the table, chatting animatedly to the red-haired mare about the little things. Rarity and Fluttershy, sat on the sofa, shared a laugh at one of Pinkie's jokes as the earth pony stoked the fire.
The only pony missing was Applejack, who could just be heard in the parlor next door, bumping around quietly. Angel finished her hot chocolate and began to fidget, shuffling anxiously in her seat, the adults noticing and sharing little grins. She didn't have to wait much longer though, and it was just as Big Mac began to pour his drink into a wooden flagon that AJ pushed in wearing a secretive smile.
"...And then then your parents, Rarity, of all ponies, suggested that they move it into your old shop, an' Ah said, uh, 'Miss Mayor', I said, y'can't rightly turn somepony's house into a library w'out askin' 'em, whether they still live there or not! Ah mean - oh!" Applebloom gasped, "mornin' sis! Happy Hearth's Warmin'."
"And you, AB, and you," Applejack replied with a smile. "Yer tellin' Twi' about how they chose where to move the Library to?" Applebloom nodded. "Ya get to the bit about the barn yet?"
Twilight giggled. "Not yet," Applebloom admitted. "But, long story short, Twi', they asked if they could move it into the old barn. Mackie wouldn't let 'em, would ya, Mac?"
"Nope." The big rust-red stallion shook his head as he dipped once more into his drink. Little Angel clattered across the wooden floor to look up at her aunt with wide, pleading eyes.
"Can we go in the parlor now, Auntie AJ?" she begged. "I wanna open - I mean, I want to give you all my presents I got for you!"
"Aw, shucks," Applejack said. "I was gonna say go on through anyhow, but when ya make that face ya know I can't say no." Squealing with anticipation, Angel galloped from the room and into the parlor, with the adults following on behind. Pinkie was first out of the kitchen, walking as quickly as she could whilst still containing her youthful excitement, closely followed by AJ who called to her niece not to touch the gifts until they had lit the fire. Rarity brought up the rear, bags under her eyes and coffee held firmly in her magical grasp, although she still smiled through her exhaustion.
The parlor was, in comparison to the rustic kitchen, a more comfortable affair, with furniture the likes of which one might expect to find in any Ponyville cottage. The sofas and armchairs were not nearly as worn-in as the sofa in the kitchen, and the room had a full carpet covering it, instead of merely a rug over floorboards. In one corner there was a coffee table, in another a bookcase. The hearth was empty and unlit, and by it stood two piles. One, on the carpet, of brightly wrapped gifts, and another on the slate in front of the fireplace of small, heaped logs. Applejack took one of these in her hooves and held it out to her niece.
"You wanna start, Angel?" she asked. "Come on, we'll do it together." Twilight and the others watched on with growing joy as Aunt and Niece initiated the millennia-old ritual that was being celebrated in hundreds and thousands of homes across Equestria right now. With AJ's support, the filly guided the log into the hearth and placed it neatly at the back of the fireplace. Fluttershy and Big Mac followed, placing their log together just ahead of the first. As they backed away from the hearth, the little pegasus kissed the stallion on the cheek, smiling and blushing, before letting the others take their turn. Pinkie put a third log in, with Rarity and Twilight going fourth and fifth, placing their branches on top of the pile by hoof, not magic. Applebloom went forth last, a calm smile on her face as she completed the stack and walked back to join her family and friends in the semi-circle around the hearth.
"Who wants to say the Heartpoem?" Applejack asked. When nopony volunteered, she chuckled. "Aw, come on, y'all. Can't light the Hearthfire without a Heartpoem. Twi', why don't you say it? Yer good with words."
Twilight blushed, grinning. "I guess... I did do it last year, though."
"Well, never mind that!" AJ insisted. "You do it anyway! Ah know I cain't make 'em sound half as pretty as you."
"Twilight," Fluttershy said, half-whispering from her husband's embrace. "Can you remember the one we read when we went to Cambridle? When Cadence lit the fire with Songbird?"
"That was a beautiful Heartpoem," Rarity agreed. "Oh, go on, Twilight, I would so love to hear it again."
"Alright then," Twilight relented. "Let me see... I think... Yes, I remember it. Here goes." With a pause for breath, she launched into the Heartpoem, the ancient words spoken from memory, as joyfully as a song and as reverently as a hymn:
Come Winter's grip and biting frost,
Come ancient moonlight cold,
Come joyless days and icy sleeps,
Come all ye young and old,
Come ye and share my Hearth this day,
We'll fear the darkness not.
For I am thine here where I lay
I share all I have got.
Our love is deeper than Winter dark,
Your friendship warms my heart.
And whether from near or far you hark,
The cold will not keep us apart,
Forever yours my shelter is,
Forever thine my soul.
So when you go, as go you must,
You'll still be of my whole, my heart,
Forever of my whole.
As Twilight finished, AJ leant forwards clutching a match between her teeth. With that strange earth pony dexterity she struck it against the striking-strip on the side of the fire and tossed it onto the logs, where it caught, the fire beginning to crackle and burn. The farmer slid the grate in front of the hearth, and turned to face her loved ones, a wide smile on her face and a tear in her eye.
"That was beautiful, Twi'," she whispered, "beautiful. Ah just wish Granny could'a bin here to hear that..." As she trailed off, Applebloom leant in to give her sister a hug.
"I know, sis," she whispered. "I know." Around the room, everypony nodded silently. Even Little Angel was silent for a moment, sniffling as she remembered the great sadness the family had had forced upon them last Hearth's Warming, but before she could start to cry, her mother's hoof stroked against one of her wings. Looking up into Fluttershy's blue eyes, she started to smile again. The butter-yellow pegasus pointed with a hoof to the pile of gifts, specifically at a rectangular package that lay to one side.
"Go on then, Angel," she said. "You should start off. Why don't you give Rarity your gift?"
"OK," the filly whispered, and walked quietly to the pile. Nipping at a fold of the wrapping paper, she carried it over to the snow-white mare and laid it down in front of her, backing off slightly as she did so. "Happy Hearth's Warming, Rarity," she said, quietly.
"Oh, sweetheart, you shouldn't have," Rarity replied, kindlily, although there was still a certain regretfulness to her smile. The little package hovered in her light-blue magical aura and the paper slowly folded itself neatly off, collecting itself into a pile by the still-wrapped gifts, and leaving the unicorn with a thick book, bound in faux-leather, hovering ahead of her.
"From the Amphitheatre to Velvet Street - A History of Equestrian Theatre..." Rarity read aloud. "Oh, my, Angel, thank you so much! Such a grown-up thing to give, too," she exclaimed, pulling the little pegasus into a hug before she could back too far away. "I - my, this can't have been cheap, though..."
"Mamma helped me pay for it," Angel admitted. Rarity glanced over at Fluttershy, who was blushing but smiling still.
"All the same - oh, nevermind. I have a present for you too, Angel, now let's see..." Angel's face lit up like the Hearthfire as Rarity hovered an immaculately wrapped object covered in shiny blue paper in front of her, and the whole room broke out into laughter as the youngster began to tear frenziedly at the packaging. And all the while, the Hearthfire burned, its merry crackling symbolic of the loving warmth of friendship first shared in Equestria this very night, so many thousands of years ago...
Several hours later, Twilight was sat back in the kitchen with most of her friends, AJ and Pinkie bustling around at the range while they cooked their Hearth's Warming lunch. Rarity and Applebloom were at the table, Rarity fawning over the earrings the earth mare had carved into diamond shapes from apple wood as her gift to the former fashionista. As Fluttershy walked in from the parlor, the inexpert strumming of a banjo could just about be heard, and as for Twilight herself, she was back on the sofa. She had a new book this time - The Night Alone - an interesting read about the night sky during Princess Luna's absence, although Twilight had already noted a couple of assumptions the author had made about the power of the Princesses that were false. She shut the book and pushed it to one side as Fluttershy came to sit next to her, settling quietly onto the sofa with her legs folded underneath her.
"Thank you for helping Angel choose her gifts, Fluttershy," Twilight said with a twinkle in her eye. "This account really is something. I think Luna would be amused to read it for herself."
"Oh, it was really nothing, Twilight," her soft-spoken friend replied, "really. Oh, and thank you for getting her that little telescope," she went on, "I only hope it wasn't too expensive. I know you used to have to spend a lot of bits on those..."
Twilight waved the thought away. "It's a gift for one of the only two little fillies important in my life. It could never be too much. But Fluttershy, all these books you - um, Angel got everypony... And then your gifts, and AJ's, and Applebloom's? And then Angel's present..." There was a moment's quiet as the two pricked their ears up, hoping to hear the strains of the banjo from the next room, but the noise of AJ and Pinkie's cooking drowned them out. Twilight lowered her voice so that the ponies in question didn't hear her concerns. The Apple family had a certain reputation when it came to talking about money. "That can't have been... Well, cheap."
"Oh, no, Twilight, it's not a problem, really," Fluttershy insisted. "The farm's been doing much better recently, especially now I'm helping to balance the books, and since we picked up that contract with the New Bridleburg Hoofbrauhaus... Oh, and we have a new land deal, come next year we'll be adding another... I think a hundred and twenty acres to the west orchards."
"Oh, wow, Fluttershy," Twilight said, gasping. "That's a lot of land! Why did nopony tell me before?"
"Well, um, I guess we never really got the chance. I mean, I didn't want to talk about the farm in our letters..."
Twilight's brows furrowed together as cogs began to turn in her brain. Now she had an excuse. "You're gonna need all the help you can get if you're going to plant all those new acres and manage the ones you've already got," she noted.
"I suppose, but, um, the Hoofbrauhaus sent us on a, um, generous introductory payment," Fluttershy admitted, as if she had wanted to avoid telling Twilight this all along. "We're going to take on some hired hooves, and there are a couple of young ponies in the village who we already know would be interested in helping out. For payment, I mean. Some of the younger ones looking to travel..."
Twilight smiled. "It's good to hear the farm's doing so well."
"That it is," Applebloom cut in from the table, Twilight only then realising that her and Rarity had fallen silent some minutes ago.
They must have been listening, she deduced, not that that's a problem...
"I'm so glad to hear that the Apples are finally branching out of the Heartlands," Twilight continued, now speaking to the whole room. "I mean, you guys have orchards from Hockfall to Hornfort. It's great to start pushing new frontiers," she said with a grin.
"Darn straight it is," Applebloom said, grinning back, "we even got invites to their Hocktoberfest celebration next Autumn! Ah've never been nearly as far east as New Bridleburg," she added with a slight hint of longing.
"Sorry, darlin', but I already told ya that might be a no-can-do," AJ apologised as she stirred a pan of boiling carrots on the range. "It's more'n a week by train to New Bridleburg, an' the festival's in the middle a Harvest season. It's gonna be all hooves on deck if we're to make enough cider to keep the contract fer next year."
Twilight felt slightly uneasy at her friend's mild hypocrisy. The mare had told her younger sister that she couldn't take a three-week holiday when she herself was trying to ask her way onto a year-long expedition off the edge of the map - well, as far as AJ knew, it was a research trip and nothing more, but the point remained the same. Although I guess she hasn't told Applebloom that she wants to go yet, Twilight reasoned. She may just be keeping the facade up, in which case she's doing a really good job, considering that she's AJ. She smirked. Applejack's capability to lie was extraordinarily limited. A persistent Rarity could get anything out of her in fifteen minutes, Rainbow Dash in seven. Get Pinkie Pie on the case and it could only be a matter of seconds until the earth mare spilled the beans.
"Huh," muttered the mare in question, "looks like somepony's been up here this mornin'." Opening the window, she took a glance around, before sticking her head back in, trying not to let the cold follow. "Yeah, look. Hoofprints in the snow, comin' up to the mailbox."
"Was it the mailcolt?" Rarity asked, but Applejack shook her head.
"New mailcolt's another pegasus. He wouldn't'a walked all the way from the fence, if at all."
"Do you want me to go out and get the mail for you Applejack?" Twilight offered.
"Well, sure, but here's the thing, see - I already got all the letters and cards in this mornin', when we were makin' breakfast," the farmer explained. "This has gotta be from someone local who weren't doin' nothin' else today - but I can't think of nopony that'd walk all the way from town to deliver a letter on Hearth's Warmin' and not stop by to say howdy."
"Ah'll go look see if ya want, sis," Applebloom offered, but Twilight was already half way to the door, her horn lighting up as she called upon the Inner Glow spell to help her brave the Winter cold.
"Don't worry about it, Applebloom," said the unicorn, smiling at her younger friend. "If I go you don't have to go looking for a scarf or anything."
"Mah coat's right there on the rack!" Applebloom exclaimed, having not realised the purpose of Twilight's spell. "Boy, that filly sure has a crazy streak sometimes."
Outside, Twilight gave a little giggle as she easily repressed the cold. Pyrelight's spell was simple to cast, and yet inherently complex. Earlier warmth spells had simply reduced the body's ability to feel the cold, but had not protected it from the effects of the chill, causing mages to lets themselves freeze to illness or even death without realising what was going on. Pyrelight's version, however, worked by copying pegasus magic, warming the body internally when faced with all but the deepest cold snaps, leaving its caster comfortably warm even in the dead of Winter.
Trotting to the mailbox, relishing the sound of the crunching snow beneath her, she noticed that the prints leading away from it were of hooves much smaller than a pony's, and the imprints were cloven at the tip. She frowned as she realised that she knew of only one creature in town who could have delivered this. Opening the box, she found inside a folded note, made out not to Applejack or any of her family, but to Twilight herself. It was from Longhorn, she assumed. Using her magic to nullify the wind's attempts to pluck it away from her, her eyes rolled over the missive, a growing sense of disappointment began to pull at her as she read.
Dear Dr. Sparkle, it read,
It is with great regret that I admit I have been unable to pull out of any other arrangements to make time for you and your friends today. I did dearly wish to speak with you, and I know you felt the same, but unfortunately this was not the way things were to be. Hopefully we will meet again one day soon under less constrained circumstances.
May the fire burn always in your Hearth,
As it does for you in my Heart
Twilight sighed dejectedly, reading through the short note once more, before folding it gently.
Oh well, she thought. Hopefully there will be another time... Sighing again, she glanced around to the east, towards town, trying to see where the bard had come from. Expecting not to see anything but the familiar view of fields, her jaw dropped open when instead she saw a familiar pair of ponies walking down the snowbound road towards the farmhouse.
"Yoohoo, Twilight!" called the smaller of the two, rearing and waving, while her taller sister settled for a quiet wave and smile. Twitching nervously, Twilight stood stock still for a moment, panicking internally and looking back at the farmhouse for a moment before throwing caution to the wind and running to greet the newcomers with a joyful shout.
Applejack was about to get the most unexpected Hearth's Warming guests gracing her family's kitchen in all of Sweet Apple Acres' history.
"So we're gonna be raisin' a new barn out in the western fields," Applebloom was saying as Twilight slipped back into the kitchen, holding the door ajar with her magic for the moment. "All the cider-makin's gonna happen in there for the Hoofbrauhaus an' - uh, hey, Twi', you gonna shut the door, or...?"
"Um, one moment," Twilight replied nervously, turning to whisper in Pinkie's ear by the range. Nopony else heard what was said, so they could only guess that at what they were being let in for as a Pinkie's head snapped around to face the door, a massive grin slowly spreading across her muzzle. Said door was shortly after nudged open once more by a tentative indigo-blue hoof.
"Um, Twilight?" Princess Luna asked from the doorway. "Can we come in now?" Four more mouths fell open in much the same expression of shock that Twilight had worn mere moments ago as the night alicorn pushed walked cautiously into the Apple family home, her sister following her with somewhat greater confidence and a bemused smile.
"Well, shucks, uh-" Applejack started to mumble, but she was cut off by a high pitched squeal from the hallway, where Angel stood agape, her father's head sticking out comically above her as he looked to see what all the fuss was about.
"Princess!" the filly shrieked delightedly, galloping across the kitchen floor to Luna's silver-shod hooves where she stopped, blushing, and remembering her manners, curtsied. "Um, I mean, happy Hearth's Warming, your highness."
"You don't have to do that for me, kid," Luna replied, ruffling the filly's mane with a hoof. "We're friends, remember?" Angel only giggled at that. Turning her head to face Mac, the Princess greeted the landowner with a heartfelt, if archaic, scrap of verse. "My body feels the warmth of your fire upon my hide," she began, "but far greater is the heat of friendship now burning in my Heart." Macintosh merely stood and stared.
"Um, uh, happy Hearth's Warmin' to you too, Princess," AJ said, stepping in. "Princesses," she corrected herself as she remembered Celestia, who had not yet said anything, but had moved to sit by the sofa where Twilight had once again stationed herself. Although the Princess sat on the floor, the alicorn's massive form meant that only now were her and Twilight at roughly the same height thanks to the unicorn's raised position.
"And to you, dear Applejack," Celestia said serenely, "to all of you, a happy Hearth's Warming." She smiled around at them all, joy radiating from her like heat from the sun.
"I, uh, thanks, um, yer Highness," Applejack blustered, "but, uh, to what do we owe the pleasure? Um, ah, Ah mean, it's not that - I mean, Ah'm real pleased to see you an' all, but-"
Celestia shared a little smile with Twilight before interrupting. "Can I not spend Hearth's Warming with those close to me? I only wish that when we were here last year it were under happier circumstances."
"Ah, uh, I guess," AJ admitted, looking down at the floorboards. "I, uh..."
"Thank ya both fer comin' to the funeral," Big Mac finally managed to say. "I think Granny would... Will have liked that."
"Not at all," Princess Celestia said, a little sadly. "There is a little bit of business I need to conduct, though. Twilight, Rarity, would you come and show me where you want me to place your supplies? Then we can come back and - oh, what time are you planning to eat?"
"Pretty soon!" Pinkie exclaimed happily, but then frowned. "Uh, we only cooked for eight, though. Well, a big meal for eight. There's still enough for everypony if-"
"Oh! No!" Luna cut across, shouting happily. "Ha! I told you, 'Tia, I told you that this wasn't a bad idea!" Moving to the counter, she gestured at an empty space, glancing questioningly at AJ. The farmer, having no idea what the Princess intended, nodded uncertainly, and then blinked in surprise as a flash of deep-blue light engulfed the work-surface. When she opened her eyes, a deep, red earthenware pot had made itself present to the side of a glass dish filled with what looked like an incredibly moist chocolate pudding, at the sight of which Pinkie squealed with delight.
"There!" Luna giggled, "we contributed! Now there's enough for everypony!" All Applejack could do was stare as the Princess, normally so refined and distant, loosened up - in her kitchen of all places. At the dining table, Rarity gave her wineglass a thoughtful look before getting up to follow Princess Celestia and Twilight into the Winterscape outside.
"I did wonder when you thought we would have time to talk, Princess," Twilight was saying as they crossed the snowy farmyard to the barn. It was a big old structure, much the same as when it had been first built in Granny Smith's youth. Sturdy beams painted red and white created a cavernous shed in which the Apple family stored much of their crops, hay, and tools, although with the Acres' expansion they had put up additional storage so as not to have to trek all the way back to the farmhouse with every cartload of goods.
Celestia, walking slightly ahead of the other two, looked back to smile at her old student. "I'm hope you don't mind us imposing on you and your friends, Twilight," she said. "But please, though, this isn't an all-business visit - I've always said we needed to meet up at Hearth's Warming at some point, so why not take the chance now?"
"Why not indeed," Twilight agreed with a slight smile.
Raising a golden-shod hoof to push the barn door open, the Princess paused, as if expecting Twilight to say something further, but her former student merely pushed ahead, walking into the surprisingly warm interior and over to the space she and Applejack had made the night before. Rarity followed, skirting around the largest piles of loose hay that were scattered over the ground, and blushing self-consciously when she realised that the Princess herself felt free to walk straight through them.
"Now then," Princess Celestia said, "we should get this over with. I do not want to cast a pall over your holiday celebrations." Her horn glowed briefly, and the door swung gently shut. "Firstly, Applejack." Twilight nodded.
"What about Applejack?" Rarity asked, confused.
"She told me last night that she wanted to come along," Twilight explained, slightly uncomfortably. "She made her case quite well, but of course she doesn't know the true reason we're going. I think if she found out she'd change her mind, and try and stop us from going too."
"Those were my worries exactly," the Princess agreed, glancing back over at the door. "But you must admit that she may well be an asset if... Well, if the Knights catch wind of you."
"We shouldn't have any trouble with them, Princess," Twilight replied, uncertain as to why Celestia had brought the mysterious organisation up. "It was only because Rainbow was carrying the Element of Loyalty that they followed her at all."
"Yes," Celestia acknowledged, "but that is exactly the problem. I plan to send each of you with your respective Elements." Twilight began to gasp a protest, but the Princess cut her off. "You understand the nature of the Elements, Twilight, you sure know they would be of great assistance to you on your travels. Anyway, I trust that an experienced magic user such as yourself would be able to mask their trace more or less adequately."
"I... I guess," Twilight grumbled.
"Would somepony please explain to me just who these 'knights' are?" Rarity asked, now thoroughly lost. "I keep hearing you mention them but the details still elude me."
"Twilight will explain when you are on the train out of Canterlot," the Princess assured her. "I've arranged a special carriage for you on the Heartland Express. It's the one I send my advisors in when they travel east, and has been enchanted to protect its passengers' privacy. It should carry you all the way to Hockfall in the Fetlochs before you change trains there." She frowned momentarily. "I expect you both to go through our plans on the train, but I really must stress that you do not tarry in Hockfall. The Knights are rapidly gaining presence in the Fetlochs, but have not reached such prominence as to justify me taking action against them."
Rarity nodded, still confused, but allowing the Princess to continue. "From Hockfall, your next train will be to Oslokai in the north, where you'll be heading to maintain your guise as researchers. After that, Canterlot University has lent a research vessel to carry you all the way to Port Bridle."
"We're going by boat from Oslokai to Port Bridle?" Rarity asked, brow furrowing, "I heard it takes three months just to navigate the fjords to Clopenhagen."
"Oh," Ceslestia realised, smiling with amusement. "It's not a boat, it's an airship." Rarity gasped. "They use it to monitor the aurora and other atmospheric spectacles in the north. Again, it supports your cover story."
"Once we get to Port Bridle it's fairly simple," Twilight took over. "We're crossing to Mareakesh, and then going on hoof to Islamabay and Kabull, the same way that Rainbow travelled. Then it's out over the grasslands and into the Great Forest, and we're pretty much home dry."
"I've arranged for a guide to meet you in Mareakesh," Celestia informed them. "He will help you cross the deserts and fit in with the locals - just don't open the envelope with his details in until you get to the city. If something were to go wrong and you never crossed the Eastern Sea, the Knights could use you information to track him down. Their presence in Celagia has increased dramatically since Rainbow and her escorts eluded them." Rarity and Twilight both nodded, Twilight hming with approval.
"That's pretty much everything I wanted to talk about covered," Twilight said, looking up at the Princess, "is there anything else you wanted to discuss with us, Princess?"
"There is nothing more to plan," Celestia said, her smile growing wider and yet so much sadder, "but I feel like there is infinitely more to say. Twilight, I - both of you," she corrected herself, "I am so, so very proud of you. While I know you do not go unquestioningly, you have agreed to so much." Her voice fell to a near whisper. "So very much. It warms my heart to know that there are ponies who would do such a selfless thing that I have asked of each of you."
"And it feels like goodbye," she went on, tears starting to pool in her eyes before their timeless, knowing blues. Twilight gasped involuntarily and put a hoof to her mouth. "I don't truly think it is, but... But goodbye, both of you. Each of you has made me proud in the time I've known you. You... I think you are two of the ponies who best understand me. Not as a ruler, but as a person... Both of you, be strong for me," she begged. "Loss has become a great part of my existence, but I don't think I could bear it any longer if I knew it was my own fault."
"Oh, Princess!" Twilight cried, running over to her mentor's side, rearing up to hug her great neck as the alicorn started to sob gently. "Don't worry about us, when have we ever failed you before?" Rarity cautiously made her way over to stand by Celestia as well, sympathy plain on her face.
"We'll see you again, your Highness, one way or another," the indigo-maned mare added. "I promise this isn't goodbye."
Celestia sniffed, and, slowly, began to compose herself once more. "It always takes so long before a pony looks on me as a friend, and they must always go in the end," she said, regretfully. "The least I can do is make sure that when they go, they go prepared."
Turning to the space on the floor, the Princess readied her magic once more, her horn burning a bright, majestic gold. The barn had not been dark before, but the hornlight blasted the few shadows that lay in the corners from existence, if only for a moment. With a crack, two pairs of saddlebags materialised on the floor, alongside a small chest, and they collapsed into a small, tidy heap. Next to them, a larger wooden crate also landed, slightly battered, with 'fragile' written ironically on one side.
"In the crate there are notebooks, telescopes, arcanometers and the like. You won't have to worry about that one so much, I shall have them taken care of once you reach Canterlot," Celestia explained. Her voice still shook slightly, but she ploughed on regardless. "The chest contains your two Elements - they are relatively safe whilst in there, but I would hide them, Twilight. Mask their trace."
"Alright." Twilight pondered briefly. "Will Lady Mask's Netherspace work?"
"Yes," the Princess replied, her smile returning at her student's astute response. "That will adequately safeguard them. Knowing you, Twilight, you could probably make good use of that spell for many things, including - ah-"
Celestia flipped open one of the saddlebags. They were solid affairs, each made of a thick, brown pseudo-hide, but still with the cutie marks of the two unicorns on either side so as to identify them easily. With the three-diamond bag lying open, Celestia drew out two short, sharp objects, one polished and flat, the other curved, sparkling in the light. Rarity gasped.
"P-princess," she stammered, "is t-that...?"
Celestia rotated the conical latter object in her magic. "This is a hornblade, Rarity. It's made of crystal. It amplifies certain types of magic and has a sharper tip than your own horn. And this, of course, it just a normal dagger," she added, indicating the other tool. Rarity gulped, and Celestia picked up on it. "I'm only giving you these as a precaution, Rarity," she reassured her. "I should hope that you never have to-"
There was a thud, and the Princess started, dropping the two weapons into the hay. "Ah should hope she don't have to use them none neither," came a voice from the open door. Three heads snapped around, and there was Applejack, fury clear on her face. "Why in all Tartarus do ya think ya need to be armin' mah friends, huh, Princess?" she nearly spat.
Twilight glanced desperately at the Princess as Applejack walked resolutely over to them. Any hope of guidance was quashed as she realised that the Princess looked just as uneasy as she was sure she did, if not more - the slight tired redness around her eyes was clear from when she had wept slightly, and her smile had a nervous twitch to it.
"Merely... A precaution, little one, as I said," Celestia replied, unconvincingly. AJ wasn't buying it.
"Yeah, sure. Ah'm sure I'd want ta take a knife with me if I was goin' stargazin'," the orange earth pony snarled, glaring daggers at the solar alicorn. Twilight noticed a change in the Princess' expression after the accusation. Finally dropping her false smile, the alicorn tried to take control once more.
"Maybe not," she intoned in a low, threatening, but yet unsteady voice, "but these ponies are going north and east for me, Miss Applejack. They are leaving the Heartland, do you understand that? It will hardly be comfortable for them before too long. They are dear to me and I would not see them go unprotected."
"Is Rainbow Dash dead?"
A sudden, shocked silence pervaded in the barn as everypony turned to stare at AJ. Rarity gasped at the unexpected question, and even the Princess was lost for words for a moment.
"No, AJ," Twilight started, desperately, "she isn't, she's fine, in fact, we-"
"We're going to find her!" Rarity blurted out, before snapping her forehooves over her mouth and sitting down heavily when she realised what she had done.
"Oh. Right," Applejack said slowly. "Research trip."
"I believe you wanted to go," Celestia said, equally slowly, the anger in her voice diminished but still clearly present. "Does this change that?"
"Wha- well, no, o'course not! If yer goin' ta find Rainbow, then ya can count on me comin'!"
Celestia frowned. "Even if I think it dangerous enough to merit arming those I have chosen to send."
Applejack paused for a moment, unsure. "Well... Maybe Rarity should stay-"
"It's too late," the Princess snapped, "she knows too much. And so do you, now."
"But ya barely told me anythin' yet!"
"No, I didn't," said Celestia, shaking her head. The rippling waves of light that made up her mane swirled in their curious flow with the motion. "But already you know enough to put you and your friends in danger should anypony connect you to this. You will go, and you will swear to me that you will not tell your family that you are going to find Rainbow Dash. If you do break my trust, you can stay in the Heartland instead, in a safe-house in Canterlot in case anypony decides to track you down. Do you understand?"
Applejack gulped as she realised that the situation was more serious than she had first thought. "Um - it does seem mighty unfair to leave P-pinkie and Fluttershy out of the loop..." she said, cautiously.
"I don't really think they'd be up for the journey we've got planned," Twilight said, calmly. "I don't like lying to them either, AJ, I didn't want to lie to you, but this is something that's got to be done. I'll tell you everything on the train - that is, if you decide to-"
"There will be no deciding, I thought I made that clear," the Princess insisted. "She will go with you, and she shall not interfere with your plans. It is a choice between that, moving to Canterlot for the year, or me wiping her memory with magic which is something I swore never to do again." The room fell uncomfortably quiet.
Celestia sighed with disappointment, softening. "I'm sorry, Twilight," she said, quietly. "I said I wouldn't ruin your Hearth's Warming..."
"It's fine," Twilight mumbled, voice devoid of emotion. My last Hearth's Warming in Ponyville and AJ's arguing with the Princess, of all ponies...
"I'm mighty sorry, y'all," AJ said, breaking the new silence. "Ah... I guess I didn't know what Ah was gettin' mahself into. I'll keep quiet to the others. I promise."
"Alright," Celestia said quietly. "Thank you." She frowned a moment later. "I will admit though, I am surprised that you were listening. What was the first thing you heard?"
"First thing?" AJ asked, confused. She thought for a moment, tapping a hoof against her chin, and then answered, "you were sayin' about the research gear. I guess it's the stuff in that big ol' box, right?"
"Right. Yes, alright," Celestia confirmed, relieved that the farmer hadn't heard her breaking down. "It's just that I asked Luna to make sure nopony intruded on us. I expected our privacy to be respected... Why did you choose to listen, Applejack? I have always known you to be a... A understanding and integral young lady. I - not that this changes my opinion of you, only..." She tailed off, unable to finish the lie. She couldn't rightfully say that she still trusted Applejack fully. Now she would merely have to hope that the earth mare would begin to act respectfully once more. Although to be fair, she reminded herself, I did just burst in on their family holiday. Perhaps a little suspicion is warranted...
"Ah'm sorry, Princess," AJ mumbled, genuinely, "Ah just... Twi' knows what this means to me, the chance a goin' away fer once... I got a lil' desperate, Ah think. An' when yer sister - uh, I mean, Princess Luna, she had her eye on the door after ya stepped out, real suspect-like. I was worried ya might have bin' talkin' about me," she mumbled, apologetically, gazing down at her hooves. "Ah'm real sorry, but Ah just had to know what you were sayin'. This means a lot to me, Princess."
"I see," the Princess said, nodding gently, understandingly. "Yes, Twilight conveyed your concerns to me in her letter. I thought it very brave of you to show her your honest feelings. If it were any other thing I would have come straight to talk to you, I truly would, but this is... Different. I hope you will see why in due course," she half-pleaded, half-asserted, her need to control the situation warring with her desire not to make things any tenser than they already were. "Now, if you don't mind my asking... You said Luna got distracted?"
"Well, uh... I think you'd understand best if Ah just showed ya," Applejack said with a wink and a grin. "Should put a smile back on all yer faces. If yer done in here, that is?" She asked. The Princess nodded with bemusement, and the farmer turned, walking out of the barn with Rarity following curiously along.
"Shall we?" Celestia asked Twilight, gesturing towards the open portal. Twilight stood still for a moment, concern still etched on her face. "Twilight?"
"Oh," the unicorn said, shaking her head a little as she focused once more. "Um, sure. I mean... I was just thinking that - that if-" Celestia motioned her on with a hoof. "If she offers to take up the Gate as well, I'm going to leave her in Oslokai," she grumbled. "I'm not arguing that out between the three of us." Celestia couldn't help but laugh gently.
"Um, Princess," Twilight continued as they crossed the farmyard once more, the snow covering the path from the barn to the house now despoiled with multiple hoofprints, "did you give me any, um... Weapons," she managed, fumbling over the word, "or just Rarity?"
"Ah," Celestia said with a conspiratorial wink, "that would be telling." And she pushed the door to the kitchen open, the sounds of music spilling out into the farmyard as two instruments wove a playfully fast duet. Angel's gleeful laughter could just be heard over the top.
Stepping in, Twilight grinned as she realised what had distracted Luna. Big Mac was sat in front of the fireplace, his father's banjo slung around his neck as he plucked away at speeds the boggled even Twilight's scientific mind. On the sofa, with Angel grinning at her side, was the night princess herself, sat with a guitar and grinning desperately as she tried to match the farmer for rhythm and style. Eventually, the her frenzied strumming stopped as she gasped, panting, but Mac had no intention of giving up now. He may have proven himself the better player, but like any true musician, he was set on finishing his piece.
"Wow," Princess Luna huffed, "that's quite something." Celestia's face was beaming widely, any annoyance at her sister's negligence wiped away by Luna and Mac's performance. Pinkie was dancing an excitable, slightly out-of-time jig in the open area behind the sofa, having dragged Fluttershy along with her. The pegasus, normally incredibly self-conscious whilst dancing, had seemed completely comfortable, until the others came back inside and she realised she was being watched once more. She slipped away from Pinkie, blushing, but the giddy earth pony didn't stop. She continued to leap and spin, rearing onto her back hooves before losing her balance and tumbling into a giggling heap in the hall. Applebloom sat all the while, grinning from the dining table where she sat with a flagon of cider and a bowl of dried fruit.
Mac finished with a flourish, staring down at his instrument for a moment before grinning unabashedly at the Princess on his sofa. "That was some mighty fine playin' there, your Highness," he said, slightly out of breath.
"Not nearly as good as yours," Luna noted jovially.
"Heh," the draftpony laughed, before glancing back down at his beloved banjo. "Mah Daddy taught me to play on this when I was just a little colt. Now I'm gonna pass that learnin' on to my beautiful girl." He smiled, and Angel blushed, looking up at the Princess beside her with mild embarrassment.
"That was wonderful, sister," Celestia said quietly, coming to stand behind her sibling. "I'm so glad you chose to pick your music up again after you came back to us. And Mac, that was very impressive," she went on, grinning. "In a way I envy the earth ponies who are so skilled with their crafts, they put the rest of us to shame when they match or better us with not nearly the same magic."
Mac's grin widened at that. "Well, Ah appreciate that an' all, yer Highness, but there's still a little magic in it," he said, "in the hooves. Couldn't play none of them chords without it."
"I suppose there so," Celestia agreed.
"Dinner'll be ready in twenty, y'all," AJ called from the range, having just checked on the marrow. "Uh - Princess - I don't suppose ya would - um -"
"Oh," Celestia interjected, quickly realising what the farmer would be getting at. "Yes, everypony, I think I should tell you this myself, because from what I gathered, Miss Applejack didn't... Ah, that is to say, I have asked Miss Applejack if she would accompany Twilight and Rarity on their journey to Ce - to survey the night skies. She said yes."
Luna frowned slightly at this, and the faces of the other ponies noticeably fell. "AJ... Why?" Mac said slowly, uncertainly, hurt beginning to show in his eyes.
"Well, ya know," Applejack said off-hoofedly. "Somepony's gotta make sure these two don't git themselves into no trouble. Ah bin worried sick jus' thinkin' about it. When, uh, when her Highness here asked me to go along, I couldn't say no."
"Aw, AJ!" Pinkie squealed, "that's so awesome of you! I mean, you're totally right, I should go as well-" Twilight Sparkle, unnoticed by anypony, gasped at this, "-but they really need me back at the hospice. A couple of carers left last year so they're kinda understaffed."
"Oh, yes," Fluttershy agreed, nodding. "And I suppose the farm will need the help this year... We should be able to get by if we take on another farmhoof, but I'm afraid I'll have to stay behind to... Make sure everything's running smoothly. Um," she added, blushing at her husband, "not that you wouldn't be able to do that yourself, dear, of course, it's just that-"
"Aw, shush, Flutters'," Mac said softly. "We all know you got the better head for numbers around here." Fluttershy's blush intensified, but it was accompanied by a delighted smile. Out of the corner of her eye, Rarity glimpsed Twilight's relieved slump.
"I also... We also have a little something for each of you," Celestia said, smiling, mainly with relief after the potentially volatile situation had been easily defused. "It felt only right, given that... Well, it's Hearth's Warming. Do I really need an excuse to give you a gift, even if I am a Princess?" She chuckled.
"Aw, but I didn't get either of you anything!" Pinkie said with a strange kind of excited sadness, an odd manner of speaking that she adopted when she was disappointed, but not truly upset.
"Don't worry about it, Pinkie," Princess Luna told her, the royal grinning cheekily in a way that would almost never be seen in court. "We don't want for much back up at the Palace, do we, sis?"
"A present doesn't have to be a thing, though," Pinkie insisted. "It can be a different kind of thing, like, uh, a card! I could've got you a card, to remember today by!"
"Oh, somehow I don't think I'll be forgetting this Hearth's Warming anytime soon," Celestia said, flashing Twilight a knowing smile.
"As I was saying to Twilight and Rarity outside before, you are some of the few ponies who I feel truly know me and my sister," the Sun Princess explained. "I could think of no-one else I would rather spend Hearth's Warming with, right now - I don't think we've ever had the pleasure of spending the holidays with you before, even though each of you mean so much to both of us."
There was a pause as the smaller ponies in the room took this in. At varying paces, their faces lifted - Twilight quickly burst into a proud grin as she was reminded again by the Princess that she was important to her. Fluttershy smiled quickly, but then blushed and looked down at the floorboards. Big Mac frowned, before comprehension spread slowly across his features and his gaze, fixated on the solar alicorn before him, went from confused to awestruck.
The moment was interrupted by a flash of deep-blue light, and Celestia gave an uncharacteristic yelp as an assortment of objects scattered themselves around their hooves. The Princess turned a half-hearted frown on her sister, who responded with a grin, motioning with a hoof as if to say get on with it!
"Oh, ah, so," Celestia mumbled, trying to maintain her regal assertiveness but failing noticeably, "I- With Twilight's help, I picked out something for each of you, to thank you for all you have done for me and my sister over the years, for... Um-" She stared down at the objects scattered around her with mild annoyance. "You didn't wrap them, Luna," she complained.
"Half of them are already in boxes," Luna griped back. "And the only wrapping paper I could find was that roll with the pink hearts Cadence left behind. You didn't want to have to-"
"There are plenty of shops in Canterlot that sell - oh, nevermind," Celestia grumbled. "I suppose it doesn't matter in the end - let's see... Ah," she decided, floating up a white, hooded garment in her magic. "Rarity, this is for you," she said, hovering it in front of the unicorn, who took it in her own magic, looking over it with a grateful smile. "While I provided travelling cloaks for you and Twilight from our research budget, I know that form is something you consider very important. This is from me personally, and I hope it will be of service to you in your travels."
Rarity gazed down at the hem of the cloak, where her three-diamond insignia was emblazoned on either side. "Why," she gasped, "thank you ever so much, Princess, this is... This is truly something beautiful. The stitching is perfect, I can barely tell that it's not just one piece of cloth. And so warm... Thank you," she said again, containing her inner seamstress, "I shall certainly be thinking of each of you when I wear this, I - thank you."
The two sisters shared a glance then, Celestia smiling happily at the acknowledgement, Luna grinning at Rarity's blustered acceptance.
"Macintosh," Celestia continued, "I will admit that maybe I do not know you as well as your friends, but I have enjoyed those few times that we have shared. I am sorry that the last time we met was in grief, though grief itself is well-known to me. It warms my heart that you and yours welcomed me in your sorrow." Big Mac mumbled something about his sister and looked away, but Celestia continued regardless.
"I was not sure what I could give you that would seem meaningful, but I think my faithful student here was quite happy with her solution." Twilight blushed at that. "I - we - well, mainly my sister and Twilight, they went down into the royal cellars and... After significant tasting, I believe, they found a vintage they think you would appreciate. A fine wine, gifted to me in 980 by an Itailian noble." The Princess turned her eye to her ever-grinning sister, whilst Twilight's blush deepened at Rarity's amused glance her way. "It is not here right now, I doubt the barrel would fit comfortably into the kitchen. I will deliver it later."
"B-barrel...?" Big Mac quietly asked, astonished. "Princess, Ah... I'd happily accept a bottle-"
"Nonsense," Princess Luna insisted, "I refuse to see it wasted on Canterlot's politicians. You can keep the firkin when you're done with it," she added. "As far as casks go, it's quite the work of art. And believe me, I know my wine casks." She grinned again, and Mac blinked and looked away, thoroughly disconcerted by the Princess' openness. Celestia busied herself with rubbing at the gemstone in her peytral.
Luna took her sister's silence as a nod for her to continue. "Miss Applejack," the Princess of the Night said, standing and striding over to Celestia's side, Little Angel leaping down at following at her hooves, "this is for you." She levitated a polished wooden box from the floor, bound shut with a brass clasp and with three apples carved onto it's lid. Luna opened it to reveal a padded case holding a beautifully crafted hatchet, its handle made of the same wood as the box and equally as well-shined, its head made of gleaming steel and with AJ's name carved onto the top of the shaft. Two leather straps towards the base of the handle allowed for it to be bound onto a pony's foreleg, and a thick rubber pad between them accommodated space for it to be taken in the mouth without damaging the wood. Everypony who could see it gasped, while Angel jumped up, trying to catch a glimpse. Taking the box in her hooves, Applejack placed the hatchet on the counter, and then allowed her niece to clamber onto her back for a better look.
"Well, Ah'll be," she said, quietly. "That's sure somethin' right there."
"We didn't know you would be travelling with Twilight and Rarity when we had it commissioned," Luna admitted, "but if you were to choose to take it, I am sure you would find use for it." AJ nodded slowly. "The handle is made from mahogany wood, from across the Eastern Sea."
"Woah," Applejack breathed. "I... I appreciate this, yer Highnesses. That's somethin' special right there, that is. Thanks," she added, and made as if to bow, but Luna's hoof pushed her back upright.
"You don't need to do that," the Princess admonished. Applejack met her gaze, expecting anger or at least annoyance, but only found an amused grin on Luna's face. "We're not in court today, are we?"
"No, Princess," AJ admitted.
"Then call me Luna, OK?" the dusk-blue alicorn insisted, smiling still. "I'm not here as your Princess today, nor is 'Tia. Well, mostly. Oh, that goes for all of you, OK?" she added to the rest of the room, pointing down at Angel and staring until the filly giggled and looked away. Looking back up, Luna's grin was wider than ever.
"I got something for you too, kid," the Princess continued. The third item rose up from the floor, a thick book, bound in faux-leather. "Dr. Twilight told me you liked to read."
"Uh, yeah," Angel admitted, shuffling nervously. "But, that looks like... Uh..."
"It's certainly a big book," the Princess told her, "but it's not quite what it looks like. Come on, let me show you." She walked over to the table, sitting herself down opposite Applebloom. The tome landed heavily on the table, and Angel squeaked, causing Luna to smile once more. With her magic, she gently opened the book, flipping through the first few blank pages until she came to a title. "Here," she said, putting her hoof to the words. "What does that say?"
"Eq..." Angel tried, straining her eyes at the page. "Equestria Tales from... From Times Gone By?"
"Equestrian tales," Twilight corrected impulsively from the kitchen.
"Wow," Angel said quietly, looking at the book's thick sides. "Mr. Times sure did write a lot..."
Luna stifled a giggle. "Times gone by isn't the name of the author," she told the filly, gently. "That's when the stories are from. This is a collection of folk tales from before I left Equestria," she explained. "Over a thousand years ago." Angel gaped at her.
"Wow," repeated the filly, voice awed. "Would you read some of them to me?"
"I - sure," the Princess agreed with a delighted smile. "Maybe after dinner."
"Speakin' of which, Pri- uh, Luna," Applejack cut in, "what's in that there pot of yours? I can heat it up if ya want."
"That would probably be for the best," Princess Celestia told her. "I think you said it was a... Carrot and potato stew, sister?"
"Mainly," Luna confirmed, "but there's a bit of everything in there. Well, vegetable-wise."
"That sounds delicious, your Highness," said Rarity, "Do you, ah, I'm not sure how to put this... Do you cook much?"
"I used to, back in the day," the Night Princess answered, nodding, "but now the kitchens are a... Far more industrial affair. It's almost always far too busy for me to go in there." She cracked a smile as her story continued. "After the staff left last night I went inside and just took what I could from the stores. 'Tia told me that... She thought you'd have already eaten by the time we got here, I didn't think we were expecting to be sharing your Hearth's Warming dinner with you - for which I am very grateful," she continued, suddenly feeling slightly awkward. "After all, we are, ah, imposing on you, I suppose. This wasn't a... Well, it was a last-minute idea, I'll admit."
"Not a problem, yer Highness - Ah, uh, Ah mean, Luna, um, Princess, I, uh," Applebloom stuttered, her attempt at nonchalance falling apart rapidly. "Shucks, I don't think Ah can jus'... I can't stop tryin' to call you yer Highness, uh-"
The laughter of the two alicorns mingled with Twilight's, cutting the younger earth mare off. "Hey, what did Ah say wrong?" Applebloom asked, confused.
"Oh, it's... It's, ah hah hah hah!" Celestia chortled. "It's not, ah hah, not you, I-" But before she could finish, she broke off into pure, unbridled laughter.
Those unaffected by the unknown joke stood in quiet, helpless confusion, sharing mystified asides as tears of mirth began to run down Twilight Sparkle's face. Princess Luna, recovering first, finally managed to explain the source of their hilarity.
"Young one, you remind, I think, all three of us of Twilight when she was younger," gasped the younger Princess. "Not long after she came back to Canterlot my sister told her she was welcome to call her by her name... She was in the Castle a lot then, you see, and she just couldn't do it." She smirked. "At all. It was rather amusing to see her flounder about even when only trying to greet us."
"Breaking the habit of a lifetime does tend to take some getting used to," Rarity added from the kitchen. She had slipped into the white travelling cloak, her forelegs wrapped in its sleeves and the hood hanging behind her neck. "This is remarkably comfortable," she said, appreciatively. "I wonder if there would be a market for such garments?" She cast a questioning look at the white Princess, who was just starting to pull herself together.
"Perhaps when you return I can help you on that front," Celestia offered, when she finally recovered. "I still have a few things to... Hm, this one is fairly self-explanatory," she mused to nopony in particular, pulling up another box. It seemed to be carved from the same wood as that of Applejack's new hatchet's handle, with a pair of similar brass clasps holding it shut. A swinging handle on the top had another protective rubber bite-grip, and another mark was carved onto its front - a saw layered not-quite-horizontally over an apple. Applebloom gasped as it she noticed the emblem.
"This is for you, young one," Celestia said, placing the toolbox gently on the table in front of Angel's new book. "A true artisan seeks beauty in every aspect of their craft. We thought this would be a good addition to your collection," she explained, with a twinkle in her eye. "Or at least, somewhere to put it."
"Oh, gosh, Princess," Applebloom breathed. "T-that's... Y'didn't have ta... Ah mean, I know mah sis' an' Twilight an' everypony have done a lot for ya, uh, with ya, um... But ya really shouldn't a..." Her voice trailed off, the tell-tale glint of a teardrop forming in one eye. "It's beautiful..."
"I remembered the letter your sister sent me of the day you received your mark," the white alicorn went on quietly as the red-maned mare tried to hold herself in, but Applebloom was clearly deeply touched by Celestia's gift. "She said you were scared that your family might not appreciate you for who you were. We may not have met much before, but your story resonated deeply with me."
"And I," Luna added, "I think we can both relate to it, after a fashion."
"Be who you are, little one," Celestia said, smiling, "that was what I wanted to say when I first read that letter. But I think we see now that there was never anything to fear, was there?"
"No," Applebloom replied, lifting her head to face the Princess. She was now crying unashamedly but a smile as wide as the Princess' graced her features. "I guess there wasn't."
"Speaking of letters, I thought a simple gift for a great heart would be appropriate." Celestia brought forth a second book. This one was slightly thinner, but more intricately covered, a familiar circular emblem gracing its front, five gemstones making up five points around the edges with a sixth emblazoned in the centre. "Miss Fluttershy, Twilight told me that you are contented with life. That there is very little you wish for beyond the continuing love of your friends and family. This, then, should hopefully help you remember that which you shared in the past."
Fluttershy took the book in her forehooves, sitting down for balance. "The Magic of Friendship and all it Brings," she whispered, reverently. "Volume One. This is... I think this is..."
"Open it," was the Princess' only reply, with a small smile and a twinkle in her eye. Nodding, the slight pegasus turned through to the first entry, skipping the foreword, and took in a surprised breath.
'Dear Princess Celestia,' it read. Flipping the page to the next letter, she found it started in much the same fashion, as did the next, and the next, and the one after that... Each and every one of her and her friends' letters to the Princess had been reproduced, printed in perfect copies of Spike's well-trained clawwriting. Every one of their thoughts on kindness and friendship were now there in her hooves, a collection of memories. She gently closed the book, and pulled it close to her chest.
"It's perfect, your Highness... Um... Celestia," she said, hesitantly but thankfully. "I couldn't have asked for anything better."
"Volume One?" Mac asked inquisitively from over his wife's shoulder.
"More in hope that I will ever be able to compile a second selection," Celestia said, her voice full of her natural calm amusement. "Not because we are ready to do so."
"Uh, not to ruin the moment gals, uh, yer Highnesses, but, uh, would ya mind just givin' me a little bit a space?" Celestia turned to see Applejack standing at the counter beside her, loaded a tray with crockery and cutlery. "Grub's nearly - I mean, food's nearly ready."
"Of course - actually, let me get that for you," Celestia offered, floating the tray over to rest on the cluttered table. Applejack watched, eyes nervously widening as her grandmother's beloved china sailed through the air, but Celestia's control was perfect and the tray's contents set themselves down without a hitch. "Do you need any help with anything more?"
"Uh, Ah think Ah've got it from here. Thanks Prin- uh, Celestia," Applejack said, nodding her slightly shaken thanks as she bustled past. "AB, would ya gimme a hoof with this mess?" she said, starting to take objects in hoof or jaw and clearing room for the plates. Applebloom, who had been inspecting the inside of the wooden toolbox, nodded, shutting the Princesses' gift without taking her eyes off it, and putting it to one side.
Meanwhile, Celestia had readied what appeared to be the final gift, the smallest one of all. It was a single framed photo, a group shot taken after a wedding. She passed it to Pinkie, who took it gently and looked upon the image held behind the glass. There stood ten ponies, herself and her friends alongside the three Princesses, with Cadence and Shining Armor on their wedding day. All of them looked a little worse for the wear, except for Princess Luna, who stood smiling benevolently on the left side of the frame. The moon hung more or less directly above her in the night sky, as the group stood on the marble terrace in the palace gardens, the towers of the city of Canterlot just peeking into view in the distance behind them.
"You were right, Pinkie," Celestia said, "sometimes memories are more important than mere tokens, and Twilight tells me you often care more for the happiness of other ponies than your own. But we thought we should go further than granting you a simple token, and decided on something that we should have chosen to do a long time ago. My sister and I have made a donation from our own funds to the Helping Hooves Hospice, which we shall be making annually." Pinkie gasped, smiling. "I hear your organisation has been struggling a little over the past few years."
"Oh my goodness, yes, Celestia, it has!" Pinkie replied giddily, having no qualms with calling the Princess by her name, unlike her friends. "Thank you so much!" Her chatter slowed down as she continued. "Everything went downhill after Mr. Freely's manor burnt down at Pitsburgh..."
"Ah," Celestia said quietly, nodding, "yes. Sir Freely was a noble and generous soul. I miss him greatly..." With a little shake of her great head, she brought herself back into the present. "And, while I can make no promises, I will try and arrange for me and my sister to make a visit at some point in the near future, but keep a wary eye out," she cautioned, "I don't like the press knowing when I make these trips. They come running in their packs and make the whole affair much more impersonal. We may just arrive on your doorstep again." She grinned.
"That looks like it!" Luna exclaimed, clapping her hooves together, her glinting slippers colliding with a moderate ting! "I think we are nearly ready to eat, as well!" she added, joyfully, as AJ opened the oven and the sweet smell of the stuffed marrow filtered out into the kitchen.
"Not quite, sister, and you know it," Celestia responded lovingly. "I have one last gift, for my most faithful student." She turned her smile onto Twilight who stood beside her, grinning bashfully.
"Two years ago, as you all know, Dr. Sparkle here-" Twilight blushed at that "-was honoured with the title of Mage by the Royal Arcanists' Committee. She resisted my attempts to arrange a formal ceremony, and insisted that it be a quieter affair. She dearly wished for you all to be in attendance. So then," she said, a long, white, wooden box appearing before them all in a flash of golden light. "Twilight?"
Still meekly grinning, Twilight came to stand before her mentor and the box. With her magic, Celestia opened it out to reveal a long, wooden Mage's staff, its length smooth and unblemished, until reaching the crooked top where a jagged curve looped round in a sickle-like shape with jagged edges. A multi-faceted, imperfectly shaped amethyst was housed within the crook, though at no point did the gemstone touch the sides. Instead it floated, spinning lazily on an invisible axis. Wondered noises filled the kitchen as Celestia levitated it out to float it in front of Twilight's eyes.
"Twilight Sparkle, it is my honour as Princess of Equestria, to bestow on you, for your contributions to peace and knowledge, the title of Magus and all the rights that come with it. Take up your staff and wield it only for the sake of the realm and the strength of your cause."
Tentatively, a hint of purple intruded on the golden light encircling the staff. Slowly at first, but then more steadily, Twilight took it from Celestia's magical grasp and held it in her own, rotating it every which way and looking adoringly over every angle. Suddenly, her eyes snapped forward to Celestia, and she dropped her head to the floor in a bow before the Princess could stop her. Luna giggled.
"Twilight Sparkle," Princess Celestia said gently, "you know you do not have to honour me as such." Twilight rose quickly and instead threw herself against her old teacher, nuzzling against her side lovingly as the Princess returned her embrace.
"That was perfect, Princess," she whispered. "Just the way I hoped it would be." She pulled away, and gazed up into the white alicorn's eyes and at the streams of light that rippled out behind them. "Thank you." Twilight's eyes misted over a little as just how much this meant to her hit home. Recognition for her years of diligent study and practice, honoured not with a formal affair at Harmony Hall, in the great Arcane Chamber, surrounded by hundreds of academics and dignitaries, but in a place she could almost call home, with only those closest to her standing by. Blushing, Twilight turned her gaze to the floor as a happy teardrop escaped, leaving a dark streak down her muzzle as it fell to the floor.
"And that," Celestia said, happily, "is that." She watched Twilight with interest and the now formally-recognised mage couldn't not meet her gaze as she looked up once more. The diarch's bemused smile forced Twilight to crack one of her own, and the alicorn walked forwards, stretching out a wing to embrace her student once more. "I know you didn't want to be the centre of attention, Twilight, but I just have to remind you how proud I am of you. Whatever you choose to do, I want you to know that you will always have my support, and my thanks for carrying on despite all I have put you through."
"I... It's fine Princess," Twilight said, picking up on the veiled apology, "you did what you had to do."
By the counter, Rarity frowned. What did Celestia put Twilight through that we weren't privy to? she wondered. Maybe something after she returned to Canterlot, or perhaps as a student. Of course, it could be something old, they've clearly reconciled... Her musings, however, were abruptly interrupted by the crash of cutlery that accompanied AJ's placing of Luna's heavy pot on the dining table. She lifted the lid, and the room was filled with the fragrance of thick onion gravy.
"Now that is what I call a stew," the farmer appreciatively told the room. "Come on, y'all, take a pew. Might be a bit of a squeeze," she said, looking round with mild embarrassment at the two Princesses. "Uh, sorry, yer Highnesses," she apologised, "we're not really used ta feedin' so many at once."
"Oh, I'm sure we can all fit round," Celestia said, smiling and unworried. "If me and my sister sit around by the window, and Macintosh opposite me..." Twilight giggled a little as she watched her mentor shepherd her friends into a workable arrangement. She ended up sat herself at the head of the table, with Angel between her and Princess Luna on her left, and Rarity on her right. AJ sat at the opposite end of the table next to Mac, both of them ready to play host and fetch drinks or anything else that might be called for. There was an awkward silence for a moment once everypony had taken their place, in which no-one was quite sure what they were supposed to do.
"Uh," AJ ventured, but left it at that, not quite knowing what she had planned to say.
"Well," Celestia attempted in her stead, "I'm afraid I don't really know how things are done these days. It's been a long time since I shared a traditional Hearth's Warming dinner," she admitted with an unimposing smile. "Should somepony carve the roast, or...?"
"Uh, normally we'd say grace," AJ told her cautiously, "but, uh, Twilight says you wouldn't think much a that, an' especially since yer here an' all..."
"You mean to say you thank 'Tia for your Hearth's Warming?" Luna asked, incredulously.
"Well, both of ya, as a matter a fact," Applejack went on, growing steadily more and more uncomfortable, "but I guess under t' circumstances it don't... Quite seem appropriate."
Luna giggled. "I thought you weaned ponies off that kind of thing, 'Tia," she teased her sister.
"I did, Luna, we did together," a bashful Celestia reminded her, "but in your absence it was so much harder to keep quite everything together, and the tradition crept back into the Heartlands."
"You shouldn't thank either of us for your meals," Luna said with mild, amused reproach. "Thank yourselves who cooked them and the farmers who grew you the food."
"Well, then, I guess Ah oughta thank you, at least, Luna, 'cause you did cook," AJ joked. Luna smiled, pleased with the complement.
"I remember an old grace that we taught the Heartlanders back in my day," the dusky Princess told her. "I can say that one for you, if it pleases you," she offered.
"Ah think that'd work nicely," Applejack accepted. Eyes turned to Luna as she recited the ancient lines of gratitude.
For the crops we eat that earth has grown,
For the ones before whose seed was sown,
To the harvesters with names unknown,
We thank thee,
For the fire hot and flames ablaze,
For the food cooked in that boiling haze,
To the friends with whom we share our days,
We thank thee.
"I will always be proud of your ability to recall verse, Luna," Celestia praised her sister. "I am always ashamed to be called a figure from the past when I can barely remember that which made it different." She looked around at the expectant faces at the dining table. "Now then," she said, gesturing to the steaming roast marrow, "shall we eat?"
Rarity fell back on the sofa, and could have almost sworn it sagged more with her individual weight than it did with that of two ponies, even when one of them was Big Mac. In Canterlot, it would have been seen as quite unseemly for one to have eaten quite so much in a single sitting, but the alabaster unicorn cared little for such opinions any more. And a good thing too, she noted to herself, otherwise I would have been mortified by my own display of gluttony. Although there was a little of everything left over, so I can hardly say I wasn't being generous...
She turned her gaze to the table, where Pinkie, Twilight, and Luna still sat, the earth mare spooning through her third bowl of Luna's chocolate pudding whilst the Princess herself lay asleep with her mane dipped into her second. Twilight, sat beside her, giggled in mildly intoxicated amusement as a globule of chocolate sauce soaked into the royal's mane, and seemingly fell away into its mysterious cosmos, lost amongst the stars.
I wonder what my mane would look like as an alicorn, Twilight mused, before mentally berating herself. Going down that path of thought was not appropriate today. She turned her gaze to Celestia, who stood talking with Fluttershy and Mac by the range. Over the course of dinner, her friends had finally got used to the idea of having the Princesses in their home and had opened up to them, chatting amiably about their lives, the farm and Ponyville, with Pinkie adding in tales from Manehatten and the hospice. In return, they were regaled with stories of Palace life and the various gaffes that Celestia had witnessed during the Modernist Party's leadership race.
Twilight gazed on in interest as Celestia pulled a pocket watch from thin air, excusing herself as she flipped it open and frowned at the display, then glanced out of the window at the lengthening shadows. "Oh dear," she muttered, "look at the time."
"What is it, Celestia?" Fluttershy asked, worried, "do you need to leave soon?"
"Oh, no," Celestia replied, smiling benevolently, "I'm fine for as long as you are." She gestured to where Luna lay with her head against the table. "I'm just concerned that my sister will need rousing in the next few minutes to perform her... Her duties."
"You mean raising the moon, don't you?" a voice from around Celestia's knees asked.
"Yes, little pony," the Princess replied with a quiet laugh, "yes, I do. Twilight, would you...?"
"Sure thing, your Highness," the mage responded, before summoning her new staff from the corner and tapping its butt against Luna's side.
"Whuh...?" the Moon Princess muttered, confused, as she looked up from the table to see Twilight burst into an uncontrollable fit of giggles.
"It's dusk, dear sister." Luna's head snapped around the other way to see Celestia standing by the door, about to open it. "Time for you to weave your magic."
"Uhn," Luna groaned, laying her head back down, "give me two minutes..."
"It's Hearth's Warming, Luna," Celestia reminded her playfully, "I'm sure that there are many ponies waiting on this particular moonrise."
"Fine," the alicorn grumbled, heaving herself to her feet. "Anypony who wants to watch is welcome."
"You should all see this," Twilight stage-whispered as Luna exited through the doorway and into the frigid outside air. Celestia's multihued tail ahead of her, Twilight followed the alicorns into the farmyard with Angel prancing along behind her, Fluttershy chasing her daughter with a hat and scarf. Pinkie wolfed down the remainder of her desert and walked out alongside a bemused Big Mac and excited Applebloom. Rarity debated the situation for a moment, before heaving herself up and summoning her brand new travelling cloak from a hook by the door. Applejack, finding herself alone, tried to convince herself that she would rather stay in the toasty kitchen than deal with the worst of the biting draught that blew in through the open portal, but sighed, realising that it simply wasn't true, and trotted reluctantly to join her family and friends in front of the farmhouse.
The cold cut deep and AJ shivered as snow swept around her fetlocks, and she desperately wished she had grabbed a coat as the wind pressed against her sides. Her hat threatened to blow away, but the well-worn piece of old leather was well strapped to the farmer's head. Stopping beside her sister, she pulled Applebloom into a rough her on the pretence of sisterly love, but neither pulled away, favouring the warmth the embrace provided over the cold of separateness.
"Ah've never seen a raisin' before," the younger pony said quietly.
"I saw one once," Applejack whispered back. "When we were in Canterlot fer Twilight's graduation. Same week as the Summer Sun Celebration. There ain't nothin' compares to it," she whispered, her voice hinting awe at the memory even years later.
"The Sun Raising is certainly majestic," Rarity said from beside them. "But there's a certain mystère that only the Moon's ascent has. Plus," she added in an off-hoof manner, "it's not just the Moon for which our beloved Princess takes responsibility for..."
Frowning in mild confusion, AJ gazed at Rarity for a moment longer, before turning to watch Luna, as if for an explanation Everypony save Twilight and Celestia gasped as, after standing with her head bowed for several long seconds, Luna's neck snapped upwards and her wings shot out, sparkling blue light gathering itself around her cruelly-pointed horn. The stars in her mane and tail sparkled with increasing intensity as the Princess reared, drawing in a deep breath. Fluttershy, who had been standing close behind, squeaked in surprise and stumbled backwards, tripping and falling onto her hindquarters. Her eyes watered a little as she slowly looked up, but once they met the sky the traces of hurt vanished as the thick, deep-purple clouds cleared to reveal the infinite night sky.
Big Mac reached down with a hoof to help his little wife up, which she accepted, but even she only had eyes for the night. The constellations blazed in the dome of the heavens, and, as Luna wheeled to the east, a sliver of silver peaked up over the horizon. The crescent moon ascended, slowly, righteously, illuminating the farmyard in a pure light that bathed the trampled snow in a gentler white. There was silence for a time, the observers standing by quietly as Princess Luna's hooves trod snow once more, breathing slightly heavily, little wisps of white vapour trailing from her mouth as she panted. Twilight murmured something under her breath that only the Princesses heard. Little Angel crept towards her parents without looking away from the sky, and clasped herself to her mother's leg, hugging her tightly as Fluttershy gave her affectionate nuzzle. An awed teardrop trailed it's way down Pinkie's muzzle, unnoticed by its owner.
"Never leave me again, Luna," Celestia murmured, she too unable to tear her gaze from the starscape above.
"Never," Luna whispered back, "I promise."
They stood there, for how much longer nopony knew. But the time had to come, and it did, when the little ponies below had to rend themselves from the night and, loath to leave it and all its passions, stepped back inside to follow their own. Little Angel was one of the last to leave, waiting at the hooves of the Moon Princess until Luna moved into the light and warmth of the kitchen herself. In the end, only Twilight and Celestia were left.
"I think," Celestia said, slowly and quietly, "that soon little Luna will have many adorers of her own. Not just in the way that many of them are, respecting her but always remembering me first. No, the new generation will see her as an equal, I think, and she will finally share her night as she always wanted to." Twilight said nothing, content to listen to her mentor's reasonings.
"The night is so much kinder to creatures now," the Sun Princess went on. "Back in the day there was little more than sleep to be done then. The only real nightlife was in our own castles, and Luna hated that. She wanted everypony to share in her night, not just the selfish nobility." She looked down at Twilight with surprising indifference, stating history as if she had not been there herself. "Back then, ponies were starving, Twilight, but there was little either of us could do about it. We were trapped by the nobles. Outside the Heartlands, many turned to others for help. It wasn't until the Nightmare was banished that I could begin to regain their trust." Twilight nodded, distantly, and the Princess sighed. "Luna never had her night quite the way she felt it should be. It pains me to think that it was only in her absence that the night truly came alive."
"Come, Twilight," she said at length. "I would spend a few hours more with you before we both must go."
"Yes," Twilight whispered, soulfully.
"But first... I think we have one more gift to give," the Princess added, drawing a small package from nowhere. Twilight finally smiled, and gazed at the little object as it span, enveloped in a golden cloud, and vanished, off into nothingness and beyond, and they were left alone in the moonlight.
A figure fell slowly through the flowing veil of whiteness. Twisting, rolling, it pulled up just below the ground and landed with the slightest of noises, sitting and staring at the light peeking between the canvas flaps of the tent.
For a second she sat, but then the second was a minute, ten, thirty. She could hear them - laughing inside - but she did not move from her spot. The snow reached up to her hooves, then her ankles. Her feathers rustled as she shifted uncomfortably, but nopony heard it over the wind and snow.
Rainbow Dash sniffled.
Suddenly, there was a shriek and the light from the tent flashed bright for an instant. Rainbow glanced away, involuntarily, for a second, and listened silently. The mumbling from within was indistinct at first, but not for long.
"Oh Goddesses, Soarin, it's from the Princesses," came Spitfire's muffled voice. "Look - open it, open it." Rainbow's leg twitched, but she held herself in place, as stoic as before. "Oh gosh."
"Ow, hey - what?"
"It's for you! And there's one for me, and this is to - Rainbow! Hey, Rainbow!" Spitfire's head thrust itself out into the snow, her brilliant mane dulled by the night's gloom. "Rainbow?" she half-called, half-asked. "What are you doing out here?" She sounded worried. "Why didn't you come inside? I - Gods, it's horrible out here!"
"I-" Rainbow started, but whatever was about to follow caught in her throat and she couldn't go on. She looked down at her hooves, miserably.
"Rainbow," the former stunt flyer groaned sympathetically. "What's wrong?" The dejected pegasus gave no indication that she had heard, but her chest rose and fell heavily as Dash worked herself up.
"Come inside," Spitfire said, quietly. "The Princesses sent you a Hearth's Warming gift."
"I-it's Hearth's Warming?" Dash stuttered.
"Yeah," Spitfire confirmed, face downcast. "We wanted to... I don't know, we wanted to do something to mark the occasion, but you weren't there when I woke up. Ah, not that we had anything to celebrate with, I guess. Heh." She gave an empty laugh. Rainbow remained where she sat.
"Aw, come on, Rainbow," the yellow mare pleaded. "I - I know this can't be like last year - we had a good time last year, remember? With Captain Wayfinder? But - ah, Dash, I know something's been eating at you for months," she sighed. "We can talk about it if you want, OK? I won't push you, but's it's killing me seeing you so apart. I - you're good, kid. I can't stand seeing you like this. Let's work it out, OK?"
There was a silence for a long moment, but Rainbow finally managed to raise her head and whisper, "OK."
Spitfire smiled at her. "Come inside," she said, gently, lifting the tent flap a little. "See what Celestia sent you." Rainbow didn't quite manage a smile of her own, but there was a tug at the corners of her mouth as she ducked inside to find the mess of sleeping bags and blankets and the dishevelled Soarin much the same as she had left them.
Soarin gave a weak "hey" as she lay down on her front, and she gave a tiny grin back. The light blue stunt colt held a letter in his forehooves.
"Celestia wrote it," he explained, attempting joviality but nervousness clear in his voice. "She, uh... She says Twilight and your friends are setting off in two days, and, uh..." he trailed off limply. "I, um, you should probably read yours first."
Dash reached for the envelope and package still lying in the centre of the shelter. "Princess Celestia sent me a gift?" she asked, slightly surprised. "What did she send you?"
"She didn't," Soarin answered. "It's OK, she kind of wrote about it, saying she didn't really think there was anything she could send that wouldn't seem hollow. She, uh... I don't think she wanted to talk business."
"No," Spitfire added, quietly. "She didn't."
"Read the letter, Rainbow," Soarin urged her, gently. "See what she has to say."
Nodding slowly, Rainbow dug her hoof under the envelope's flap and opened it with a quiet ripping sound. Taking out the folded parchment inside, she read it slowly and calmly before turning to the package. Soarin raised an eyebrow but neither of the two Wonderbolts commented.
It was a small, flat rectangle, tied up with brown paper and string. Nipping at the knot with her teeth, Rainbow Dash pulled away the bindings and gently opened the parcel up. Inside lay a book with a faux-leather cover, and three pencils. Flipping it open on the floor, Rainbow turned page after page after page, and smiled.
"It's blank," Soarin murmured in mild surprise. Rainbow ignored it and turned back to the letter. The colt had been right about one thing - that the book was blank. But the letter was not from Celestia.
Dear Rainbow Dash, she read again,
I miss you so, so much. We all do. You're so much braver than me, going willingly, but I think knowing you're at the end of my journey makes it a little easier for me.
I feel like I should say more, but I kinda wrote everything in my last letter, with our plans. It's actually only a few minutes later that I'm writing this one - I feel a little bad about it, I don't know when I'll next be able to write, but that's the way things are, I guess.
We'll see you again soon, as soon as possible - We'll be setting off two days, I think, after you get this. The Princess thinks we can make it in four months if we're quick and the weather's good. I don't know if we can do it, but we'll try, Rainbow, we really will.
I know you don't like sitting in one place for too long, so I wanted to send you a gift that you could relax with, like a book. I thought about getting you an adventure story, but there was a problem with that - books end. Quickly, if you've got nothing else to do. So I thought - why not write your own?
You must have had such an adventure, Rainbow. Put it down in words, tell your tale. Who knows what could become of it! A lot of travellers turned their experiences into novels or biographies... And I know it'd give you plenty to do and think about. Talk to Spitfire, talk to Soarin, and get it all down. I know for sure I'd love to read it.
I'll see you in the summer, OK? Don't go stir-crazy, and don't go near the Gate.
We all miss you,
Finally smiling happily, Rainbow clutched the book and letter to her chest, much as she had the map that morning, and fell back against the bedding. Spitfire said something that she didn't hear. She was lost in her emotions once more, but this time, finally, she was happy.
The colt was struggling, that much she knew. He was going to have to stop, and soon, but the clopping of hooves against stone behind them was growing insistently loud and they both knew that there was no easy way out this time.
A crossbow bolt bounced off the cobblestones beside her hooves. Looking back in desperation, she saw two things - their pursuers drawing ever closer, one reloading his weapon, and the headlights of a train on the rails beside them.
With a desperate grunt, she barrelled into her companion, pushing them both out over the train tracks. She nearly froze in terror of the danger she had just put them in, but she kept going, running sideways, until they toppled down onto the lower 'Duct.
The sickening thud as they hit the stone below was drowned out by the roar of the freight train as it raced along the upper bridge to their left, where they had been standing but moments ago. But the pair were earth ponies, and they were friendlier with the ground than most. The blue mare grabbed her tan partner roughly by the scruff of the neck and hauled him over to the balustrade. Below them, the River Hock plunged down into the great valley, hundreds of metres below. They paused there, gasping, holding each other's gaze.
Bluebell's eyes wandered over her friend's face. If he had been in a bad way before, her reckless attempted 'save' had pushed him even further out of it. Blood trickled from his nostrils from his collision with the stone. He was panting, tongue lolling out of his mouth, and his eyes were dim and despondent.
"'Bell," he whispered, "I can't go on much longer..."
"No," she gasped back. "You... Just a little more, Thistle, please, we're so close! We're so close..."
"I'd only slow you down..." he managed, breathily. She made to protest, but he cut across. "They only need one of us, alright? If they find me here they'll leave you alone."
"Please, Thistle, don't give up!" she cried, her voice rising in panic.
"I'm not a quitter, I'm a fighter." He grinned at her. "But a good fighter knows when to quit, right?" He pulled her close, hugging her roughly, briefly. "I won't let 'em get to me, sweetheart, but it's more important that they don't get to you."
"I-I know," she said, quietly. "But it's so hard-"
"Don't cry for me, Bluebell, please," he begged her, "just remember me."
"I won't leave you!"
"Bluebell, listen!" he hissed with quiet intensity. "When that train is gone, they'll cut across the tracks first to see if we were hoping they'd leave, or in case we jumped." As he spoke of jumping, he glanced back at the chasm behind them. "If I come with you, you won't have time to make it back into town. There's a bit of fight left in me, but not a flight. Now go," he insisted.
"OK," she whispered, turning, finally accepting. "Don't tell them anything." She walked a little further, following the train towards the far side of the Terraduct, but stopping before she had gone ten paces. "I love y-"
"I know," he cut in again, "but this is only making it harder. Please, be strong for me," he pleaded. "Don't let them hurt you."
His fiance merely nodded, her white mane sweeping out behind her as the train gusted along just above them. Then she turned and moved on, this time running, and never looked back, fading into the darkness.
The breathless, bruised, bleeding colt leaned against the stone railing, watching as the train rolled past. It was a long one, and was slowing down as its engine started to enter the depot on the far side of the great bridge. The pursuers would not let the trucks stand in their way, though, and would easily be able to cross between the wagons and descend. He had until then to make his choice. Face his cruel enemies... Or the crueller Hock.
Over the falls...
He gulped and looked backwards. Behind him, there was nothing. The world simply fell away to the river, far below, concealed in an inky blackness his eyes could not divine. With a screeching of brakes, the train slowed to a halt, and instead of the rumbling tons of wood and metal, the whooshing of the water filled his ears.
It would be so easy, a quiet part of his mind told him, to slip away now. To fall. Into the night, never to be seen again. Never to be caught. And anyway, he reminded himself, a good spy wouldn't let himself be caught.
Not yet, his rational side urged. You can still make yourself useful. For Bell. You can still-
"There!" came a cry from further up the Terraduct, off to the side Bluebell had run. The struggling pony turned his head to see his pursuers galloping towards him, weapons drawn. But he didn't care. If they were coming for him, they would leave Bluebell alone and that was all that mattered.
That and that he didn't tell them anything.
He closed his eyes and braced himself, gulping.
"Got ya, ya wee scumbag," the brawniest of the three shouted, pinning him to the barrier with a rough hoof. The crossbow in his magical grip swivelled to point at the earth pony's throat. The rough-hewn marble dug into the captive's back, grazing against it as the bulky unicorn forced him upwards. "Where's yer wee lassie, now?"
"Careful now, Boulder," cautioned a scrawnier unicorn. "No sense in damaging him now, for the world to see."
Boulder grunted and released the earth pony, who fell to the paving, gasping.
"Get up," the second speaker ordered, "and tell me where your dear associate went."
"So you can hunt her down and kill her?" the spent brown pony groaned. "Not likely."
"Kill her?" The apparent leader grinned. "Oh no, I'm not going to kill her. Mere torture should be enough to loosen her tongue - or yours, of course, you'll have a front row seat." The third thug - who could only be assumed to be another unicorn, given the bulge atop his face-obscuring hood - gave a disturbingly pleased chuckle at the threat. The earth pony swallowed with involuntary audibility.
"Ya've bin a thorn in the Master's side fer too long, Thin Thistle," Boulder spat, dragging him to his feet with his magic before turning away. "He's gonna enjoy watchin' you squirm."
"You won't find my Bluebell, Boulder," Thistle whispered as he tensed, "and they'll certainly never find you."
"What?" The giant, dark brown unicorn wheeled around, rearing, but the rage in his eyes quickly became confusion, became fear as Thin Thistle grabbed one of his raised forelegs and literally swung his oppressor, slamming his forehead against the balustrade with a loud crack. As the hooded pony leapt forward to aid his ally, Thin reared, lashing out with his forehooves, connecting several times and forcing him back.
The lead unicorn shouted something, but Thistle was beyond listening. In a single motion his forehooves dropped to the ground as his back legs kicked out. Boulder, draped over the railing, felt the full force of an earth pony buck, which, even from an injured colt, was more than enough. The giant sailed over the edge of the Terraduct and into the night below.
And then Thin Thistle was gone, rolling up and over the edge himself. Terra could have only carried him a few more feet, but a few feet was all he needed. The tug of raw unicorn power grasped at his limp hooves, but it was fading quickly. Hockfall dropped out of sight as the battered stallion fell. Ten seconds, twenty, thirty, a minute, all the time the roar of the Hock drowning out any hope of coherent thought.
Goodbye, Bluebell, he managed, the unspoken farewell bubbling to the surface of the panic in his mind, fighting to break free, but he denied it. He was not going to give the Knights that satisfaction, even if they would never know. He went willingly so that they could go no further. Be safe.
Then there was a great crash, and the darkness took him.
The Heartland Express
"I don't wanna say it," mumbled one of the two ponies as the wind whipped at her hat, trying to snatch it away.
"Of course you do, darling," her companion replied. "I can see it in your eyes."
"But, but, uh," the first stammered as she pushed her wide-brimmed stetson down with an orange hoof. "Don't you think it's, uh, a little... Uh... Contrived? Or, uh, overdone? Yeah, that's it, it's overdone. Ah say it all the time. For little things. This ain't a little thing, don'tcha think? It needs something more."
"Of course it's not a little thing," the white unicorn reasoned, "but then again, I think it would be fitting. Characteristic, if you will. Say it, dear. Shout it out for the world to hear!"
"Alright then." The earth pony stopped, panting, working herself up. "Alright." Then she reared, planting one hoof against the guardrail and snatching her hat up with the other, waving it high over her head as she bellowed, "Yeeee-ha!"
Rarity couldn't help but laugh at Applejack's exuberance. It was appropriate, admirable, and, above all, infectious. She joined her friend, planting both hooves up on the rail and giving a wordless shout of joy as the Penneighns rushed past them, the train coursing downhill through an ancient valley. To their right a great mountain peak stretched skywards, reaching hopefully out to Celestia's sun, whilst on the other side a dizzying drop cut away to the valley floor below, where woodland stretched from side to side. At the far end of the valley, and growing further away with every clickety-clack of the train's wheels, they could make out the receding town of Maresden, and while they could not see ahead, they knew they would soon be emerging into the great Homeplain, where lay New Pitsburgh, the risen pheonix-city, and its coalfields that powered the Heartland's railways.
"Look!" Rarity gasped, pointing down into the valley. Below them, the dense forest, leafless oaks interspersed between proudly needled pines, gave way briefly to a clearing, where a little log cabin sat on the side of a frozen pond. A foal and its mother sat on the porch, where who they assumed to be the father helped a younger pony to their hooves as they skated on the ice. "Hello! Down there!" she shouted, waving.
AJ nudged her with an elbow, smiling. "They won't see ya, Rarity, we're too far away," she gently chided. But Rarity's efforts were rewarded when the pony on the porch pointed up at the rapidly receding train, waving back. "Well, maybe they can't hear you, at least."
Rarity smiled, watching the family scene until the trees dominated the view once more. She lowered her forehooves back down to the floor of the carriage, turning away from the mountain view. "Come along, Applejack," she called, "I think Twilight may well be ready for us now."
AJ's face fell slightly as she continued to look out across the valley. With great difficulty, she too managed to tear her gaze away, and, hooves clanging against the metal deck, she followed Rarity inside, sliding the door shut with that satisfying swish and click that train doors tend to have.
"Ugh," Rarity quietly moaned. "That wind has completely ruined my mane. I shall have to re-do it this afternoon."
"I thought you were all over all that fancy stuff," Applejack said.
"Just because I don't care for certain members of Equestrian society quite the way I used to doesn't mean I no longer take pride in my appearance," Rarity informed her, smoothing down her mane with a hoof as they strode back down the corridor. "I shall have to ensure I look at least passable again by dinner tonight."
Applejack grinned at her. "It was worth it though, weren't it?" Rarity was quick to return the smile.
"It was absolutely worth it, darling. I've always wanted to see the world by train. Airship travel may be so much more efficient but you never really get the chance to admire what you pass."
"Well, we got a five-hour stop in New Pitsburgh this evenin'," the earth pony reminded her. "You'll get plenty a chance to do some admirin' then."
"I do hope so," Rarity agreed as they passed through the dining-car. Four-seater dining booths lined the right-hoof side of the carriage, which was the same side as faced the valley below. Part of the reason for the long stopovers at some stations was so that the train crew could swap the dining car with a mirrored alternative, to ensure that diners sat on the side with the best scenic view. For now, the carriage was empty, but come five o'clock it and its sister car near the front of the train would be heaving. Rarity, however, had insisted the three of them dine in New Pitsburgh that evening, since Twilight had refused to disembark at any of their prior stops.
"An' we're both gonna make sure Twi' comes this time, right?"
"Right." Rarity nodded with a mock grim expression playing about her lips. "Honestly, we take her out on holiday and all she does is work!"
"Hardly a holiday, Rares," AJ chuckled.
"Of course," the unicorn replied, "but you have to admit it feels a little like it. The accommodation, the cuisine, the decor here all far surpass that of any other train I have had the pleasure of travelling on." Passing through the little hallway between carriages, they stood respectfully to one side to allow a porter to pass. It was only a few moments more before they walked through into their own carriage - provided by the Princesses themselves - and paused outside the door.
Rarity raised a hoof and rapped daintily against the panelled wood. "Twilight, darling, it's us," she called. "Are you quite ready yet?" There was no reply.
"It's soundproofed, Rarity," Applejack reminded her.
"Of course," Rarity said, flatly. "I knew that." With her magic, she lifted a set of keys that she had been wearing on a chain around her neck. As she gently pushed one into the lock, Applejack snickered. "Hush, you," Rarity chided her with a gentle smile.
Sliding the door half-open, Rarity stuck her head into the cabin. There was Twilight, sat at a table, working by lamplight. Although she sat just next to a window, the blinds were down, no doubt to satisfy Twilight's paranoia. As she entered, the mage's gaze snapped to her, staring her down with wary eyes.
"Twilight, are you ready now?" Rarity asked again, quite unsettled by the younger unicorn's behaviour. "You said to give you an hour." Twilight seemed to take a moment to think about that.
"Hm? Oh, yes, I suppose I am ready," she agreed. "Come on in." Twilight watched the other two enter, but didn't turn her gaze from the door until it was fully shut and her friend had turned the key in the lock once more. As Rarity took the blind-pull in her magic, the scholar flinched away, nervously, like a timberwolf from fire. "Don't!" she gasped, causing Rarity to raise a sceptical eyebrow before lifting the shutters to allow daylight into the cabin. Outside, the craggy mountain face blurred past.
Twilight sat, twitching, staring out of the window as the others sat opposite from her. The official carriage was certainly luxuriant, but Twilight had very much made it her own. The lacquered table had been completely covered with papers, some in Twilight's hornwriting, others in Princess Celestia's, but most were blank and seemed to simply serve to fill the space. A liquor cabinet stood against one wall, but the scholar had forgone alcohol in favour of hard caffeine, as evidenced by the coffee stains on various parchments and the steaming mug set to one side.
The double bed was neatly made, although Twilight had no influence there - she seemingly seldom slept, allowing Applejack and Rarity to share the bed whilst she fought on with hot drinks and power-naps. As a result of a week's such existence, the scholarly mare was thoroughly dishevelled.
She looks rather like I did during those all-night dressmaking sessions I used to have to pull off, Rarity mused. My, those weren't much fun, but they were worth it in the end to see the smiles on my clients faces. And their money, of course, but that's by the by.
Although, her mind nagged her, I highly doubt she's about to say anything you'll like. Far from it, in fact. Rarity grimaced as she politely waited for Twilight to begin, but the mage didn't. She just sat in her place, shuffling sheets around and constantly glancing from her companions, to the window, to the door.
"Come on, Twi'," AJ cajoled her. "You've kept us hangin' for a week now. Don't go puttin' this off any more. It's like you don't trust us or somethin'."
"It's not that," Twilight muttered, "it's just-"
"It's not like anypony's going to burst in on us, darling," Rarity added. "Please, speak your piece. Applejack has a right to hear what you have to say, as do I."
Twilight had watched them both as they spoke, but as Rarity finished, she glanced back out of the window again. She swallowed, quite obviously, before turning back to face her friends.
"Alright," she said, finally. "I should start from the top. Applejack, please, let me finish before you ask any questions, I don't want to get bogged down or sidetracked, and we've got some heavy stuff to get through. OK?"
"Alright, I guess," AJ agreed, nodding.
"OK, good, thank you," Twilight replied, smiling slightly, before her face strained itself again with nervousness. "So then, first things first - we're going to meet up with Rainbow Dash. She left Ponyville four years ago - or thereabouts - at the Princesses' request to search for the origin of the Elements of Harmony, the necklaces that contain their power or represent them or whatever. This is because their magic was starting to break down."
"Break down?" Applejack gasped. "But-"
"Please, AJ," Twilight begged, "I've been in here all week sorting out how I was going to tell you all this. I need you to trust me and listen, just for a little bit."
"...OK, Twilight, I'll listen," Applejack agreed, but she was clearly less certain than before.
"Thank you," Twilight said, gratefully. "As I was saying, the Elements were beginning to break down. I'd been studying them for a short while when I noticed this, but we had very little to go on. Nopony knows where the Elements come from. Princess Celestia literally found them during the Fifty-Years War, buried in a box near Canter Keep - that is, old Canterlot. I should probably add that when I say they were - are - breaking down, I mean their power is diminishing. Unless they're restored, we wont be able to cast magic through them of the scope we have achieved in the past.
"Now, we - me and the Princesses - discovered that we could not re-energise the pendants ourselves. They draw on a well of natural magic - much like the sun or the moon - which means they were probably created by an alicorn. Now-"
"Hold up a sec," Applejack interrupted. "Ah know I said Ah would keep mah mouth shut, but yer gonna have to fill me in a little there, Twi'. An ahleecorn?"
"Uh... Like the Princesses, I guess," Twilight admitted. "Uh... You haven't heard of them?"
"Yeah, I've heard of the Princesses, Twi', jeez. What d'ya take me for?"
"No," Twilight replied, patiently. "You didn't know there were other alicorns?"
"There are other ahleecorns?" Applejack seemed incredibly surprised by this news - but it wasn't news.
"Yes, I said that the Princesses didn't create the Elements, but they were created by an alicorn. Ergo-"
"Ah, right, Ah'm with ya now. Sorry, Twi'."
"That's alright, AJ, it's all pretty new to you... I - I guess ponies don't talk as much about the Princesses in the smaller Heartland towns, like Ponyville," Twilight relented. "There's a lot of gossip in Canterlot about... About how old they are, if they'll ever abdicate..."
"About their sex lives," Rarity chipped in with a sly grin.
"Rarity!" her companions gasped, shocked.
"I'll have you know that there is absolutely no truth in those rumours," Twilight fumed. "Princess Celestia has been perfectly chaste ever since - since - well, we'll get to that, but she's not been in a relationship for thousands of years."
"Twilight!" Applejack turned her aghast gaze on the other unicorn now. "I can't believe the two of you are talkin' about her highness that way!"
"Like I said," Twilight said with a grimace, "there's not much talk about them in small towns."
"Applejack, what do you think the Princesses are?"
AJ frowned. "I'm not sure Ah understand."
"Just say whatever pops into your head," Twilight pressed. "So long as it's relevant, anyway."
"Well, uh," AJ blustered, "they're like... They bring day an' night, right? The Sun an' the Moon. And they got so much experience, so they make great rulers, Ah guess, they got plenty to judge by."
"So..." Twilight shuffled around the papers in front of her, pulling one up ahead of her and taking a quill in her magic to make notes. "You think they're, like, goddesses, then, right?"
"Well they are, aren't they?"
"Not as such," Twilight cautioned, scribbling. "This is the important thing, AJ, the Princesses haven't always been responsible for the Sun and the Moon. There are... Big wells, we call them, of natural magic, that sustain life in this world. If they start to break down, a creature can reach out to them, and take control over them, and these pools of magic sustain their guardians for however long they control them. If they were to give it up... They would quickly die, and somepony would have to take their place, or the mechanisms would cease to operate. The Sun and the Moon would hang still in the sky, for instance, should the royal sisters cease to guide them."
There was a pause while Applejack took this all in. "They may be god-like, but their power is not entirely their own, and they aren't infallible," Twilight summarised.
"I getcha, just... Hoo, boy." Applejack sighed. "I kinda thought... That they'd bin around for ever, ya know?" She frowned. "How long have they been around, then?"
"About eight thousand years," Twilight replied. "After King Steelmane died, his daughter, Princess Pureheart, forwent the crown and decreed that her daughters should rule together. They ascended during Steelmane's reign - that is to say, they became alicorns then."
Silence fell, disturbed only by the continued clacking of the train on its rails. Applejack stared at something between Twilight's head and the carriage wall behind. Rarity stood quietly, moving to the cabinet from which she withdrew a large glass bottle of spring water.
"Here, Applejack," she offered, pouring the farmer a glass, which she took and drank. "I would offer you something stronger, but then Twilight would probably ask for some too, and she is in quite enough of a state as it is."
Twilight looked away, guiltily. "I'm sorry, Rarity," she said quietly. "It was just hard... Going over all this again, and again and again until I'd got it right. It got easier every time, but... It still isn't easy."
"What's so bad about it?" Applejack asked, setting down the now-empty tumbler.
Twilight fidgeted in her place. "We'll get to that," she told her. Throughout the days of travel, she had locked herself in the room on the pretence of planning her speech, while she actually already know exactly what she wanted to say. The thought of having to admit to Applejack that one of them wouldn't be coming home, and that she had lied to Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie was eating away at her. While the fault was not entirely her own, the guilt certainly was, and she had staved off her discussion as long as she could, but there was only so much time in which to tell Rarity and Applejack everything, and she wasn't going to leave it to the last minute.
She also might not tell them quite everything.
"So, to continue, neither Princess Celestia or Princess Luna could repair the Elements of Harmony because they were created by a different alicorn. Rainbow Dash left, escorted by Spitfire and Soarin of the Royal Equestrian Air Force to travel east to find where the Elements were created, as well as hopefully the alicorn who created them, or their successor. Obviously, it's incredibly important that the Elements be restored, seeing as they've been integral to Equestria's security in the past."
"Alright," Applejack said, nodding. "So where do we come in to this?"
"A perfectly good question," Twilight answered. "There are several reasons for our involvement, not least of which being Rarity's presence at the castle in Canterlot on Midwinter's-"
"Twilight, dear, you're stalling," Rarity reproached her. "If you are going to keep dear Applejack in suspense then I shall take it upon myself to relieve her."
"Oh, um, right. I - uh - thanks, Rarity," Twilight blustered. "It's just - AJ, you probably won't like this."
"Go on." The earth mare motioned her on with a hoof.
Twilight was becoming noticeably uncomfortable as she continued to speak. "So, um... Well, Rainbow never got to her destination. Wherever it is that was. It took her three and a half years to get to... Where she is now. She had to walk as much of the way as she could, because it's really easy to track alicorn magic when it goes airborne, and she had the Element of Loyalty with her. Well, the necklace, that is.
"She found... She found another well, another thing that could have an alicorn watching it - like the Sun, like the Moon, like the Seasons. I - I'll tell you about that later, it's not important, really," she added, urgently, seeing the confused faces that her friends pulled. "Really. Um..."
"What did she find, Twi'?" AJ asked. "Something important?"
"Very," Twilight confirmed, nervously. "She found the Dread Gate. It's... It's..." But she trailed off. "The Princesses believe it's the entrance to the world of the dead. It's a well of magic, it's broken down, and somepony needs to step in and open it up again. They'd have to become an alicorn to deal with the massive amounts of magic involved. And... That's were we're going, I guess," she finished, lamely.
Applejack sat in silence for a moment. She masked her expression well, and Twilight could not tell if she was angry, or sad, or confused, and it was killing her. Every second that AJ remained quiet was another second for Twilight to worry about her reaction. Applejack was about to realise she had lied-
"And what's the big deal about that?"
-Or maybe she just hadn't told her enough for her to notice the falsifications. "Um," Twilight mumbled. She had hoped that Applejack would glean the rest of her meaning from the little she had already said, wanting to speak as little as possible on the awkward subjects of immortality and isolation as she could, but the farmer wasn't quite following her as well as she'd hoped.
"Well, whoever opens the Gate would have to stay there. Forever," the scholar mumbled. "We agreed with Celestia it'd either be me or Rarity." Hate me already.
"Oh," Applejack said, numbly. She stared down at the papers on the table, her expression still unreadable. Rarity and Twilight shared worried glances.
She won't be angry herself, Twilight bemoaned, she'll be angry for Pinkie and Fluttershy. They never even got to say a proper goodbye to me.
"You sure about that?" Applejack asked. Twilight suppressed a scream of frustration with incredible difficulty.
"Yes, AJ, I've been studying alicorn magic for six years now. I'm pretty sure-"
"How much d'ya know about this Gate?"
Twilight had to stop. She fumed for several moments before admitting, "not much."
"See? How can ya be certain? It's not like Princess Celestia has to live on the Sun to control it."
"The two things are different," Twilight yelled.
"I told her as much myself, darling," Rarity said, calmly ignoring Twilight's outburst. "But she seems set on creating a worst-case scenario. Doctor Sparkle is very good at that, I think we can both agree."
"Twi'," Applejack interrupted, forcefully staring down the unicorn, insisting Twilight meet her gaze. "Yer tellin' me yer certain about somethin' ya know nothin' about?"
"Not quite nothing-"
"That ain't the point." Applejack turned to Rarity. "Do you believe her Rares?"
"I... I don't know," Rarity admitted. "But Applejack, whether she is right or not, there are very important reasons for our going. Twilight still has more to explain."
"So do you, Ah think," Applejack said, the first hints of anger entering her voice. "But I ain't no high-strung know-it-all. I'll wait until I understand before I get mad at you both."
Twilight flinched, the stinging accusation without the rage she expected far worse than her expectations. She was at once ashamed and insulted, ashamed that her friend her put her down so harshly and offended by her rejection of her knowledge. But even to her that certainty was slipping away, now. As much as she hated to admit it, Applejack had a point.
"Um." The scholar struggled to get going again. "Well... It's important that one of us take control of the Gate for several reasons. Firstly, in it's broken state, it's closed. And... It's supposedly the portal to the world of the dead. The afterlife, if you believe in it. So while it's shut, souls can't... Pass on."
Applejack nodded. "That sounds pretty serious to me."
"That's not the half of it, though," Twilight cautioned. "Stewardship of the Gate would also bestow the custodian with the powers of an alicorn. They'd be a force to rival the Princesses, so we have to make sure that whoever takes control of the gate isn't one of our enemies."
"You can see why we feel an obligation to go now, dear," Rarity told the orange mare. "Our home lives simply could not come before such a possibility."
"I understand," Applejack accepted. "But why you two? Surely there are older or stronger knights - uh, from the Royal Guard, that is - or magicians who could go instead."
Twilight shook her head softly. "The Princess doesn't trust anypony as much as me, except maybe Luna. I know that sounds obnoxious, but believe me when I say it's true. Also, I know more about alicorn magic than almost any other creature alive who isn't one. Again, I'm being self-indulgent, but you have to believe me."
"I myself am going because I am convinced that, despite all her qualifications and vast capabilities, Twilight's display in the Palace two weeks ago was more than enough to convince me she is not suited to this task," Rarity added, earning herself an ireful glare from the scholar, which she pointedly ignored. "I think it is fair to explain that she was... Rather unhappy at the Princesses' insistence that she undertake this particular journey. I offered to go in her place and - well, that was what did it. She refused to allow me to go alone, so, here we both are." She smiled, wanly. "You may be incredibly smart, Twilight, and, if I might add, of enviable magical capability, but," she cautioned, "I do not know if your mind, or your heart could stand the fate you face."
"And yours could?" Twilight asked, bluntly.
"I would rather face it myself than know of your suffering, dear," Rarity replied with calm honesty. "It was quite clear to me on Solstice Night that you dearly wish to escape this."
"I know..." the scholar replied, quietly. "But I don't know if I could... Push it all onto you and not regret it."
"Then prove to me you can do it, Twilight. You have the time, at any rate." She sighed. "To put it bluntly, Applejack, neither of us is truly ready to go, but we both know that we have to. I... We understand if you're angry at us, truly we do."
"Ah... Ah'm not," AJ quietly replied, "I think I get it. This is... It's a big deal, isn't it?" The farmer paused and frowned, though. "Ya'd better make sure that you do come back, whichever one of ya ends up... Uh, stayin', or Pinkie an' Fluttershy are gonna be mighty upset."
"I know," Twilight replied, shamefaced. "But there are other problems as well. You see, no pony knows the truth about alicorns. If a new one suddenly shows up in Equestria and somepony recognises them-"
"Then ya come up with some kinda story," AJ interrupted.
"Or you assume a disguise," Rarity suggested. "I hear their highnesses in Canterlot use them all the time when they've had enough of being treated like royalty for the day. Well, being treated like normal, I suppose, seeing as they are-"
"I don't know, you guys, but I'll try. I promise," Twilight cut her off. She sifted through her papers again, looking for some unseen document, but cut herself off with a yawn. "I - ugh, I'm so tired," she complained.
"I'm not surprised," Rarity replied, unsympathetically. "Subsisting on caffeine and disrespecting one's beauty sleep is a surefire path to ill health. You must finish up here as fast as you can, and then get some sleep. I don't care how tired you are, you will be coming with us to dinner in Pitsburgh tonight."
Twilight grinned weakly. "Looks like I don't have much choice. Alright then. Our main opposition is a group, led mainly by Mid-Equestrian nobles, called the Knights of the Bloodied Cross. They chased Rainbow and her companions all the way to Mareakesh before we took steps to throw them off the scent. They were after her because she was carrying the Element of Loyalty, which they want for it's alicorn magic."
"And what exactly do these 'Knights' stand for, then?" Rarity pressed in the desperate hope that she was finally about to receive some answers.
"They follow in the hoofsteps of an old alicorn, who's now long gone. Dead. The Twin Princesses destroyed him with the Elements of Harmony at the Battle of the Steel Citadel, at the culmination of the Fifty-Years War."
"Which war?" AJ asked, confused.
"An old one, long ago, there aren't many records of it-"
"What was his name?" Rarity insisted. "What did he control?"
"His name was War," Twilight said, simply. "And he was an anomaly. Nopony knows what well he drew his alicorn powers from, even the Princesses. They had to use both their own powers and the Elements of Harmony to kill him, and nopony succeeded him, which means if he did hold a well, it now lies broken."
"Surely that's for the better, if he was some kind of warmonger," Applejack said, to general agreement.
"Now, here's the thing. The individual methodologies of the Knight Commanders vary. Some wish to try and resurrect their old leader using alicorn magic, like the Elements of Harmony," Twilight explained. "Some would rather succeed him using a well of their own - the Dread Gate would suffice. A smaller, third faction would overthrow the Princesses in Canterlot, take their wells, the Sun and the Moon, and ascend. But they all want one thing - the end of the current regime. Celestia and Luna toppled from power, and the only way to remove an alicorn from their well would be to kill them."
"Why would anypony want that?" Applejack gasped, horrified. "The Princesses are great leaders! They're kind an' understanding an' don't want no war with nopony!"
Twilight shuffled, awkwardly. "You say that, but we're all from the Heartlands here. Equestria is a giant country. We get the best treatment near Canterlot, but the further away you get, the less influence the Princesses have. If you go to Stalliongrad or Roan or Vallequus, they'll only think of them as immortal tyrants, or as unsympathetic to their own plights. In some parts of the world they're worshipped as goddesses, but these are normally the places that know the least about them, and that they can't help."
She sighed, despondent. "It's a sad state of affairs, and they're constantly trying to reach out, but the Knight Commanders have a lot of political power. They put out all sorts of propaganda to make things harder for the Princesses. It's only worsened by the fact that the Canterlot Parliament itself continues to reject a united national legislature, saying it'd be too hard to conduct elections and a load of other political rubbish. At least each of the Equestrian legislatures have equal power. Sometimes it's all that stops independence movements turning violent."
"Oh," Applejack said, quietly. "I-I never knew."
"Not many in the Heartlands do."
Applejack's face adopted an expression it rarely experienced (although it did grace her features more than most ponies first thought) - one of deep concentration. When she spoke again, she faltered slightly, uncertain of her own thoughts. "Now, hold on a minute, both of ya," she began. "If - Twilight if yer really convinced that ya'd have to stick by this Gate, whatever it really is... Then, uh, what's the problem if somepony else gits themselves stuck there? Surely they couldn't be much of a threat if they've got their work cut out for them like... Well, like you think."
"I'm not willing to take that risk," Twilight put back, bluntly. "We're acting on the Princesses wishes here, not our own. They think I'm - if I am wrong, and you're right, and the ties between the Gate and its custodian aren't too strong and they can come and live back in Ponyville then that's fantastic, OK? Even if I don't believe it's going to be that easy, I don't think it'd be a bad thing. But," she cautioned, "if that's the case, then there's also the risk of creating a threat to Canterlot. And anyway, a skilled magic user could be able to test us even from that distance - using spells or by manipulating their own well. You said it yourself, we don't understand the Gate, so why should we risk putting it into our enemies' hooves?
"We have to remember that this is about death. About ponies dying, about souls, about... The afterlife, and even maybe judgement, paradise or damnation, and I say all of this because we don't know anything for certain. Nopony comes back from death. And... Well, while I can be certain about some aspects of alicornhood, there's never, never in all of history been an alicorn of death. We don't know what they'd be capable of, beyond basic alicorn immortality, nigh invulnerability, godly magical prowess and the like. I can't just say everything'll be fine and leave them to it for the sake of my pride. Which," she noted with a little grin, "has taken enough of a beating recently as it is." Rarity gave her a tiny smile in return.
Outside, the mountain face finally dropped away. While the Penneighns continued to stretch on to the north, they were now on flat grasslands, expansive, unblemished, seemingly endless. They had reached the Homeplain of Pitsburgh. The three of them gazed out of the window, each deep in thought.
"So then," Rarity said, breaking the silence with slight trepidation. "I think I understand it all now. Save Equestria from bloodthirsty, power-hungry nobles?" She smiled. "Given all we've been through together I can hardly say I don't like our chances. Granted, there may be more obstacles on our way than usual, but..."
"We'll make it," Applejack asserted. "Again. Don't you worry about that, Twi'. We're gonna save Equestria again, right?"
"Right," Twilight agreed, smiling softly. "Thank you both for understanding."
"Promise me you'll stop always fearing the worst, Twilight," Rarity gently asked her. "You are quite intelligent, dear, but you need to make sure you don't apply that brilliant brain of yours to worrying, because Celestia knows you have an amazing capacity for that."
"Alright, I'll try," Twilight agreed. "Promise!" she rectified, catching Rarity's pointed stare.
"Excellent. Now, get some sleep," the white unicorn instructed. "We'll wake you in New Pitsburgh. I shall rectify what nature and physics have, in malevolent partnership, wrought on my mane," she went on, indicating her hair, wind-tossed from her time on the back of the train, "and Applejack shall..."
"I think Ah'm just gonna sit here fer a bit," AJ said, quietly, gazing down at the papers covering the table. "Ya both have given me a lot to think about."
"Alright," Twilight accepted, yawning. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I need to... To..." The actress and the farmer both gave little smiles as Twilight tottered to her hooves. It was perhaps only five steps to the bed, and yet she didn't quite make it, toppling forwards to come to rest with her check on the duvet but her hind still on the ground.
"Bless her," Rarity whispered, lifting Twilight gently with her magic so that she was fully on the bed. "She only wants to do what's right, but she doesn't seem to think about what's right for her."
"That's why you're here, right?" AJ asked, equally quietly.
"I suppose so." Rarity's gaze turned to the window, where she watched the endless plains roll by. In the far distance, she could see but a single farm, incredibly isolated, surrounded by fields that lay dead for the Winter. It was a mild day, and there was no frost, but the Midwinter aura of desolation still pervaded the world under the bleak grey clouds.
Her philosophical musings were interrupted by a clinking of glass behind her. She turned to see Applejack rummaging in the glossy liquor cabinet, pulling out individual bottles and examining them with a keen eye.
"Mark my words, Rares, one day there'll be Sweet Apple Acres cider in this here cupboard and every such one in all of Equestria."
"What are you doing?"
Applejack frowned, as if the question was the stupidest she had ever heard. "Getting a drink. Why?"
"Miss Apple, absolutely not!" Rarity hissed. "We will be sharing dinner in but a few hours and I will not have you roll into one of New Pitsburgh's smartest venues smelling of whiskey!"
"Smartest... Uh, Rarity, have ya already picked a restaurant?" the earth mare asked, nervously.
"Haven't I ever!" Rarity grinned, deviously. "And you, my dear countrymare, are going to fit right in by the time I am finished with you."
"It shan't take long darling, I promise! We don't quite have the time or resources for perfection, but you must wash your mane, and I picked out the perfect dresses for you and Twilight to wear during our stop in Canterlot."
"Don't you wish."
The Palace of Night and Day
Silver Service frowned. Something was very wrong here. Something terribly, terribly wrong. A flaw in the system, a disaster for his career record a fallacy by the standards of any royal butler worth his salt.
There was a letter in Princess Celestia's 'in' tray, and she had already gone to bed.
"Missus Landing?" he asked the secretary at the desk beside him. "Why did the Princess not receive this letter?" This would not have happened, he reasoned, if it were not the middle of winter. Shorter days meant shorter hours of obligation for the Princess, and while she did take time to enjoy her sister's night most nights, today she had retired quite early, citing exhaustion. She had gone straight to bed after sharing a quiet meal with Princess Luna in her chambers.
"What letter?" Lore Landing grumbled good-naturedly. The elderly former scholar prided herself, much like Silver Service himself, on efficient service with a sense of humour. So too did the Princesses, which was perhaps why they had made the appointments.
"This one, here," the palomino butler replied, levitating the envelope to her eyes.
"It must have come in late," the secretary suggesting, shrugging the matter away. "Leave it until the morning."
"It says 'confidential' on it. It may be important."
"The most important letters go straight to her majesty through the mana-mail system. If it's here, it can wait."
Silver Service was not convinced. "What if the pony who sent it didn't have access to the mana-mail?"
"Then it would have come in with the rest of the post this morning."
"I guess that makes sense... Alright, you're right, I'll leave it until the morning. If her highness asks, it arrived tomorrow morning." He was joking about saving face, but they both knew they could never lie to Princess Celestia's face.
Bluebell's letter fell back into the tray with the slightest of thuds.
The Heartland Express
Rarity's body gently rose and fell as the unicorn slumbered. She twitched occasionally, murmured, but little more than that. She was deep in the dreamscape, so much was obvious to anypony who spent so much time around Princess Luna. But what filled her dreams? That was harder for a mortal mare to say.
In her past, it would have been too easy to say a high-society party, or some form of romance - a date, or possibly what came after. Sometimes. Twilight didn't have any experience on the matter anyway.
But her friend had grown in the past few years. Matured, even though she was already one of the most mature mares Twilight had known, diva-ish episodes aside. She had had fantasies realised, setting up shop in Canterlot and producing fashion lines famed throughout the Heartland's great cites - but they had been broken too, her imaginings of high society dashed against the capital's marble walls by the callousness and pride of others.
And then there was the year gone by. Everything had upped and changed for the dressmaker, setting aside her home, her job, even her special talent on a whim, to set hoof in the world of theatre. Rarity had been incredibly upbeat about the switch, and had returned home happy and with plenty of stories to tell, but Twilight couldn't help but remember her first couple of letters back, and the horrible accident which had given her her opening.
But the older mare slept with a smile on her face, and so Twilight smiled too. Her friend was not trapped in some horrible realm of social conflict or, worse so, one of broken wire harnesses and hospital emergency rooms. Rather, her dreams were clearly of happier times.
It was a shame it fell to her to wake her up.
"Rarity," she whispered, trying for a gentle approach. But if there was one thing she had learnt about her friend over the years - apart from that she held high standards of character, higher standards of appearance, and an extraordinarily confined concept of romance for somepony who talked about it so much - was that she was a deep sleeper.
"Rarity," she said again, louder, eliciting only the slightest response from her dozing companion - a tiny flickering of her right, upwards-facing ear.
"Ugh!" Twilight moaned, head drooping. She'd hoped not to have to resort to more intrusive methods-
"...Hm?" Rarity murmured slowly, eyes flickering open. "Twilight, darling... Did you - did you say something?"
Looks like that did it. How ironic, Twilight realised with a wry smile. "Oh, sorry Rarity. I was trying to wake you without having to do something like shaking you, or pulling the covers off. I know you like your beauty sleep, but..." Except it's not really ironic, all I did was speak a little louder. Nothing dramatically different or unexpected. It would have been irony if-
"Wake me?" Rarity asked, blinking sleepily at her. "Why did you have to wake me?"
"We're getting off in twenty minutes," she was informed. "Then it's a two-hour walk to the city from the East Ridgeroad Station."
"Two... Ungh," Rarity moaned, quite inelegantly. "Twilight, there's a station in Hockfall, we don't have to walk anywhere!" She rolled over in the bed, pulling as much of the covers around her as she could.
"But Rarity, everypony always says that you have to see Hockfall from a distance!" Twilight pleaded, "it's supposed to be one of the most amazing views in all of Equestria - heck, in the whole world! Look - you know how beautiful you say Canterlot is when you draw near?"
There was a muffled noise from underneath the blanket that Twilight took to be assent.
"Well, think about what it would be like to see that again for the first time! And besides, you'll only get another twenty minutes sleep if you stay here, they'll be clearing the train as soon as it stops."
"Surely they'll make an exception for the royal carriage," Rarity pointed out, sticking her head out near the headboard.
"Probably not." Twilight gestured in the direction of the pair of crates at the far end of the carriage that held their telescopes and such, masking their journey's true purpose. "They'll want to be moving those into storage as soon as possible."
Rarity sighed, pausing. "Twenty minutes more sleep sounds like a better deal than two hours of walking to me, I'm afraid."
Twilight didn't smile. "We're going to have to walk for weeks when we get to Celagia. There's no railways to speak of between Mareakesh and Kabull. If a two hour walk is too much for you..."
You should turn back now. The implicit message was enough for Rarity - she wasn't about to disappoint Twilight now, having been the one to get her going in the first place. "Alright," she resolved, "I'll come." She rose as smartly as she could muster the energy for, stretching lightly as she stood. "I suppose you're about to tell me there's no time for me to shower, aren't you?"
"I'll be the judge of that, thank you," Rarity said, striding over to the door to the en-suite - one of the luxuries of being in the Princesses' carriage. "I can at least-" She frowned, as, having raised her hoof to open the door, the handle refused to move. She shook it, irritated, before resorting to magic, rattling the lock for little reward. Disconcerted, she put her ear to the door, to hear the hiss of running water and a mare humming a country dance.
"She's doing this deliberately, isn't she?" Rarity growled. "Applejack Apple, you get out of there right now!"
"What was that, Rares?" the farmer called from within. "Look, I'll be out in a few, just hold on until then, would ya? If ya gotta go, there's a privy down the hall..."
Twilight had to try to hide her giggle with a hoof as her friend flailed at the door, her bed-mane falling down at random intervals across her face as she cursed in a most un-Rarity-like fashion. It didn't take long for her to give up, at which point she turned, and, back against the door, slid to the carpet looking thoroughly miserable.
"I can't walk into town looking like this, Twilight," she moped, "what will ponies say? There are bound to be some who recognise me from that Spotlight cover story last year, I have a reputation to uphold!"
"We're meant to be keeping a low profile," Twilight reminded her. "I guess your cloak's got your cutie mark on and all, we won't go completely unseen, but we still don't want to attract too much attention."
"I suppose," Rarity murmured, slightly dejectedly, "just - just let me at least run a brush through my mane, alright?"
It was not long after that little exchange that the Heartland Express pulled in at a tiny station on the mountainside, and they disembarked. With a rock face to the north and a valley straight south of them, Rarity was quite glad she hadn't noticed the precariousness of the track until now. To be fair, the line out of the Penneighns had been much the same, but here the heights were more distinct. The looming mountains towered far above their heads, and the valley was at least five times further below them than the one she had watched from the caboose. Had a little family lived down there, she didn't think she would have been able to make them out at all.
The station itself was tiny. A little waiting room and an even smaller ticket office held no passengers. The only ponies in sight were those disembarking with their bags and setting off along a footpath on the hillside.
"Are all these fellas just gettin' off now to catch the view?" AJ asked, skeptically, her mane still glimmering with water as she spotted the crowds.
"For some ponies, the only reason to go to Hockfall is to see the view, and they still go," Twilight replied, pulling up the hood of her brown travelling cloak. They were each donning their own vestments, Twilight and Applejack wearing rough brown capes which reminded Rarity of burlap, while she herself had the white one that the Princesses had given to her on Hearth's Warming. As the ponies around them began to shiver in the wintry chill, Rarity suddenly became much more appreciative of the Princesses' gift.
"Well, didn't that just sell it to me," Applejack was muttering.
"OK, fine, not the only reason then - the main one!" Twilight sputtered, holding back her exasperation as best she could. "There's - look, it's not exactly like they've got a lot of space there. There's an art gallery, I think, and a theatre, not much really. All the old stately homes got converted into housing to make room for families."
"The Bridge-City," Rarity murmured, "I've seen paintings and photographs, of course, but never really paid them much heed."
"There's a really famous picture, painted from the view from a hot-air balloon," Twilight said, "hovering just slightly above the Terraduct, and some way away, so you really get a feel for the waterfall. Princess Celestia borrowed it from the national gallery, it's hanging in the map room at the palace. I can never remember its name, though..."
"So what's this Terraduct then?" Applejack asked, as they stepped down from the platform and onto the trail, gently following the curve of the hillside. It rose a short way above the tracks before levelling and widening out, allowing the three to walk side-by-side.
"You'll see," Twilight told her, slightly smugly, "it's basically the train bridge, built separately so that it doesn't go through the centre of town."
"If it's just a bridge, Ah don't see why ya have to keep going on about it," AJ grumbled, eliciting disgust from her scholarly companion.
"I honestly can't believe neither of you actually know about any of this! Hockfall is one of the Equine world's greatest feats of engineering!" complained Twilight. "I - you can't just not know about - ugh!" she exclaimed, words not enough to convey her irritation.
"There are a great many wondrous works of architecture in the world, Twilight," Rarity replied, perfectly calmly. "Take for instance the Golden Gate, in the Ukrein."
"Or the Canterbury Cathedral," Applejack added.
"And even Canterlot itself!" exclaimed Rarity. "Twilight, you can't expect us to know every detail about every little building. Anyway, this Terraduct is surely just one more facet of Hockfall's image. We certainly knew of the city itself, at any rate."
"I guess," Twilight said, only half-trying to hide that she wasn't convinced.
A short distance on, the dusty hillside road turned to meet an open field. With the cliffside stretching north and the railway falling below a dip in the rolling plain, both left them and their fellow travellers behind as they hiked out into the grassland.
"What about the, uh..." AJ began, but trailed off nervously, giving Twilight concerned glances. "Didn't ya say somethin' about the nobles east of us... Bein' trouble?" she finished at a whisper.
"Hockfall's not a noble town," Twilight reassured her, "it's run by an elected governor. The colt in office before him was the son of a Laird - a noble in the High Fets, he was definitely an anti-Canterlot type, but his kid's out now. The guy they've got now is pretty lazy and completely harmless. There's no way he'll get into actual politics, it could blow his career." Rarity let out a snort of laughter at that.
They walked on in silence, each calming their thoughts as they strolled through the sloping meadow. The grass around them was for the most part white with frost, but the path they followed had been trodden into existence that morning by their fellow passengers, creating a green and brown swathe in the icy field. It squelched underhoof rather than crunched, its former crystal coverings having melted to muddy the ground beneath them. While it was not so bad as to divert their course, there was enough muck to make certain self-conscious ponies tremble at its touch.
Rarity suppressed a shudder as the thin layer of sludge sucked at her hooves while they walked. The mud's unpleasant touch was only worsened by the knowledge that she was going to have to walk through a whole city with its taint still around her ankles. How mortifying! Her pristine coat tarnished when it should have been at its best, standing out in the crowd as a symbol of pure beauty! Oh, stop it, she told herself. That last thought was just too vain.
While it will be a travesty to present myself as such, it is hardly an occasion demanding perfection, nor do I expect there will be one again for some time. It is time to put such concerns behind me. Us, if me forcing Applejack to beautify herself counts. She smiled, pleased with her own resolve. Naturally, it didn't take long to waver. Although this muck is quite disgusting, if I can't get it off me before lunchtime I think I shall have to scream.
The slope of the plain and the walkers before of them obscured the view ahead spectacularly. All Rarity could see of what lay beyond was the slightest hint of grey poking out in the distance, far beyond the ridge. That, and there was a hissing, growing in her ears, as if they were nearing a river.
That must be the Hock, she realised. The Fetlochs' greatest river, spawned in the high mountains from the runoff of hundreds of tarns, lochs, and bogs fell away beyond the city to feed the swamps of the Marshlow, or so she had been told. She began to realise the throng of passengers was thinning out, spreading left and right with many pausing at the peak of the ridge they were climbing.
Ahead of them, Applejack had reached the tip of the hill and stopped. The unicorn nearly stopped still as an awe that Rarity could not comprehend appeared on the countrymare's face. Awe was not typically an emotion she associated with Applejack, but now it was truly, undeniably present.
"Girls," she called, "I-I think you should see this." There was a breathiness to it, one that rarely found its way into the farmer's tone. Rarity would have been shaken by it if it weren't for the reverence suffusing her friend's words.
"What is it Applejack?" She frowned as she upped her pace, making for the crest of the ridge at a fast walk. Behind her, Twilight gave a knowing smile as she too sped up to meet her companions.
Rarity stood gaping, her mouth hanging slightly open as she tried to comprehend the sight before them. There below them lay Hockfall, the Bridge-City - but only now did its nickname start to register with her. For there too lay the Hock itself, with and within the city, for the two were the same.
The great river, over two miles wide and roaring, sped through its gorge towards the great waterfall at the Marshlow cliff. But the city itself lay above the river, spanning it as if it had been built on a bridge, although no signs of such architecture existed. The city simply began and the city simply ended, all in grey stone where there should merely be foaming fluid. The Hock ran straight under it before gushing out the other side to plunge hundreds of feet to the great valley below.
The tower that Rarity had seen over the ridge was clearly the city's tallest building, the highest point of what seemed to be a palace in the north of the town. Walls separated the bridge from its surroundings, but the city spilled out beyond them. Having grown too large to remain within its confines, houses had been built on the earth outside the capital of the Fetlochs' boundaries, around which ponies could be seen milling and trading. She began to find herself wishing she had indeed paid more attention to those many depictions of the city, for if they were half as incredible as the place itself then they could only be masterpieces.
Her gaze then fell onto the train tracks, curving around across the fieldscape, on the edge of the cliff, towards the river's edge, but not going into the city. Instead, they went straight out over the chasm, before the waterfall itself, for there was built the Terraduct. The mighty stone bridge, set into the sides of the gorge, bore on its top level the two railway lines, and below it a promenade across which many figures strolled. The bridge was set slightly below the city, but was built far away enough to avoid most of the spray from the waterfall. The worst of the damp, Rarity imagined, would be felt on the staircases that connected the bridge to the city, up and down which ponies could be seen roaming.
"My goodness," Rarity breathed, breaking a silence of several minutes. "I-I've never seen anything quite like it. I mean, of course, I've been over the Fetlochs many times - we flew, of course, by airship, but I wasn't paying attention, so I never-"
"Hush, Rarity," Applejack said softly, and the unicorn lapsed back into an uncomplaining quiet, content to merely take in the panorama before them.
Her gaze wandered southwards now, to look beyond the cliff edge where below she could now fully see the extent of the Marshlow, stretching out as far as pony eyes could see. Where the mountains behind them at the edge of the field ended, so too did those across the valley, leaving the flatlands completely open to view.
Although they could not see the bottom of the waterfall from where they stood, they could see the Hock winding its way out into the lowlands, great grasses and still pools surrounding the river on either side. If the Homeplain had been stark, it was bustling in contrast to the sheer wilderness of the Marshlow. And though Rarity could see as far as the distant horizon, not a single building lay in sight in the valley, despite its proximity to the city above.
"Do you think the two hours includes time to admire the view?" she whispered to Twilight, earning herself a little giggle in response.
"I think it might do," Twilight replied, taking a couple of steps down the hill towards the city before turning back to face them. "Two hours, my flank. Come on, girls, it wont be long now until we're there. We can walk down the Terraduct if you want, see the view from there."
"Can we get ourselves some breakfast first?" Applejack asked. "I don't like to complain, but to be honest with ya both food's far higher on my list than sightseein'."
"Of course!" Twilight replied, brightly. Rarity was grateful, for her own stomach was protesting somewhat fiercely at its own lack of content. "But not if we stand here all day. Come on!"
In high spirits they set off once more, grinning at the new promise of the town before them. Ambling at first, they found themselves grinning, flashing smiles back and forth between one another as they tripped downhill. They couldn't help but speed up, getting faster and faster, until with a joyful whoop, Applejack broke into a gallop and the three sped away, laughing freely, to the city on the Hock.
The Great Forest, Celagia
Despite their winter nakedness, the trees still rustled in the wind, bare branches and needled pines founding the forest's ambience. To that was added birdsong, the chatter of squirrels, the rippling of the grass that, just hours before had sparkled with frost, now glistened with dew. But below it all was something else - a pair of sounds a pony who knew these woods (had such a pony existed) would have been quite surprised by, pleasantly or no.
One was the back-and-forth conversation of a mare and stallion, and the other was a scratching of pencil on paper. But unfortunately for Rainbow Dash, of all the minimalist symphonies around her, it was the conversation - the typical, exclusive conversation so favoured by ponykind - that filled her mind.
"What did you say?" she called, holding back her irritation.
"Oh, sorry Dash - I said their arena was a total dump. No wonder you never get any superstar athletes out of Hockfall."
"No." Rainbow found it was quickly becoming difficult to keep the impatience from her tone. "Before that - about when we passed by?"
"Oh!" Spitfire sounded only mildly surprised. "That it was just to be safe. I mean, it's not a Knight town, is it?"
"No," Rainbow confirmed from across the glade, "but after Pitsburgh I was happy to stay out of the cities for a while. That whole business was messed up."
"Yeah..." Spitfire agreed, becoming disinterested once more. "Hey Soarin!" she called upwards, "remember that time we had that fat colt from Hockfall try out? You know, the one with that great Fetloch accent?"
"When?" Soarin's voice drifted back down from the branches of the thaw-apple tree. It was a weird fruit, seeming to only bloom on the mornings when last night's snow was melting away. They had discovered it only days ago quite back accident, grateful for the reappearance of fresh fruit.
"About a year before we left," Spitfire told him as he tossed another two fruits down into the sack she held. They were odd apples - in all her years of hanging around with AJ, Rainbow had never seen ones this shade of ice-blue. They reminded her in a way of the zap-apples from which Granny Smith had made jam. That homely, delicious preserve. Rainbow smiled a little at the memory of its strange, tangy aftertaste that reminded her of a day's work bucking thunderheads. Maybe they could bring some seeds back, for Granny-
No. Rainbow stopped herself, head drooping. Granny Smith was gone. Twilight had told her as much in her letter before Hearth's Warming. Granny was gone, and she hadn't had the chance to go to the funeral. The news had seemed slightly unreal to Dash, having not seen - well, any of them for years. She kept forgetting what she knew to have changed, and she hated herself for it.
"...And when he bailed, Gods that was brilliant!" Spitfire was saying. "And he just... Like, upped and walked away, it was fantastic. Seriously, he had so much drive I was half-tempted to take him on anyway, even though he was about as aerobatic as a gargoyle with hummingbird wings."
"You could have recommended him a trainer," Soarin said, gently drifting down to earth now that Spitfire's saddlebags were bulging.
"I don't think he would've taken it the right way," Spitfire said, uncertainly. "But I don't think he let it get him down. I know I've seen him somewhere else since then..."
"Some Skyball team somewhere?" Soarin suggested, as they turned and started back for the camp, flipping an apple out from under his wing and catching it deftly in his mouth.
"Maybe," agreed the yellow mare, "but they all look so similar with their flight suits on. So many of our applicants break into things like that when we turn them down, I can't keep track of all of them..."
Rainbow simply sat, there under the thaw-apple tree, and watched them go. There was a moment then, when she did not think. She merely sat there, and was. As their small talk - that beautiful, hated thing - drifted away into the distance, Gaia's symphonies returned. The trees, the creatures, the wind, all taking her away once more from the pettiness of all ponykind - and herself.
Soon the scratching of the pencil once more intertwined with the sounds of the forest.
Rarity closed her eyes and breathed deeply. There was a freshness to the air - a certain essence which one simply did not feel in cities lesser to this one. It was indeed a fine city, rich in history and culture, although not in the same way that Canterlot was. There was no escaping from its joyous bustle, just as in Canterlot one could not move three feet without seeing another reminder that it was indeed Canterlot - home of the princesses, on top of the world itself.
Mayhap there were greater similarities than first met the eye between the two. In Canterlot while wealth and high society were the norm, they were not all-inclusive. Take Steamville, for instance, the factory-town at the foot of the mountain that Rarity had visited only once. A humble place with down-to-earth citizens, and yet the heady nature of industry had not fully suppressed the capital's own qualities. There was still an air of prosperity, of pride - even a certain aloofness to it, although not so as to rival that of High Town itself. And even then there was the Castle, high on the hillside, above all rising, ever dominant.
So too in Hockfall was the river, for while it may be beneath them, while it was indeed out of sight, it could not be put out of mind. The noise made sure of that.
The unicorn let out her breath and opened wide her eyes, allowing the rush of the river to once more fill her mind and for the wind to pluck at her mane. Just as before she had leant with Applejack on the rail at the back of the Heartland Express, now she leant with her again. And while the view from the Terraduct was static, it was no less spectacular. More so, perhaps, for it felt like she could see forever.
Before them lay the unblemished Marshlow. She could see further than before, but still there lay no signs of civilisation there. Far below them the mighty Hock reformed from its fall, meandering away through the thick reeds and hardy grasses of the salty swamps. Still pools dotted the landscape, mirroring the sky above - but they're probably infested with midges, Rarity reminded herself. Nasty little things.
Twilight had not joined them at the rail. The academic remained some distance away, trying to keep an eye on their surroundings without making herself suspicious. She sat on a bench some way to her friends' east, her eyes flicking left and right as she pretended to be focusing on the view herself. Sure, she was probably being paranoid - but, better safe than sorry.
She tried not to meet ponies' gazes as they walked past. She may have been an accomplished magician, and she'd saved the world several times to boot, but outside the Heartlands her face at least was virtually unknown. Only the most enthusiastic intellectuals, royalists, or conspiracy theorists would be able to pick her out for who she was.
Them and the conspirators themselves.
A bulky middle-aged stallion rumbled past her, wearing a thick brown cloak with all the qualities of burlap, puffing and panting as he went. The garment could easily hide a weapon of some sort, but who was she kidding? It was cold, they weren't about to be attacked in broad daylight, and the man himself wasn't exactly... Lightweight.
Relax, Twilight, she soothed herself, that's how you're going to make it through this. Just... What was it Spike always said? Chill. Take a chill pill, Twilight. She giggled. What a stupid notion. Maybe I could infuse pills with a calming spell. That'd probably sell quite well, if only for humorous purposes...
"Well, may Celestia herself bless my soul! Doctor Sparkle!"
Twilight nearly jumped out of her hide. The realities of nature preventing this, she settled for leaping from the bench, looking wildly around her.
"Calm yourself, friend," came the voice again, "I'm right here. Don't tell me you don't recognise me?" it added, with mock affront.
"What?" Twilight gasped, wheeling around to see an unmistakable figure on the bridge beside her. Orange and white, two horns, instrument slung on his back, slightly conflicting hat - and she only knew one creature who could fit that description. "...Longhorn?" she hazarded.
"Indeed," the antelope replied with a smile, bowing his head in slight acknowledgement. "I had hoped to see you again, but would've never imagined it to be so soon. I was planning to catch you when I return to Canterlot, although heaven knows when that would be. What brings you out here?"
"Oh! Uh..." Twilight did her best to refrain from being flustered, she really, truly did - but the bard's appearance had surprised her and she suddenly found she wasn't prepared to be put on the spot. "It's a research trip," she finally managed, "we're heading up to Oslokai to view the aurora."
"The aurora?" Longhorn repeated. "A truly beautiful sight, indeed, but - humour an amateur magician - how does that pertain to your research?"
"Well, you'd be surprised, but nopony knows what causes it," Twilight explained, flicking a strand of hair out of her eyes. "Princess Luna has always loved it, but she didn't have time to make the journey herself."
"Ah, immortality." The gazelle grinned. "Strange, isn't it, how the creatures who have more time than any of us are also the ones with no time at all."
"Actually, since Princess Luna returned they've both had a lot more time to themselves," Twilight informed him. "Princess Celestia takes most Sundays off now, and Luna doesn't always have much work during the night. Not many ponies come to Night Court, you see, so she can go out into Canterlot and - oh, I'm sorry," she cut herself off, eyes widening in self-mortification. "I-I shouldn't be talking about them so openly, th-they might not approve."
"Oh, don't worry," the bard reassured her, still smiling. "I know all the stories about our dear princesses. There are so many I don't even know which ones I believe any more."
Twilight thought about that for a moment, pondering. "You're a singer and a storyteller, right?" she asked.
"That's right," Longhorn replied, "I only have what I need to live and make creatures happy. Nothing more."
"If we hadn't already met, I'm not sure I would believe that," Twilight said, wryly. "But you seem pretty honest. How does the hat fit into that equation, though?" she asked, pointing to his trademark headwear. It was a green fedora, two holes in the rim accommodating the gazelle's majestic horns. A black band encircled it - Twilight hoped it was of pseudo-leather, but Longhorn seemed pretty well travelled, it could easily be from somewhere where leather was acceptable. Finally, stuck into the band was a big, red feather, seemingly the same one as last time, although Twilight was certain it couldn't have endured that long. Dead feathers were hardly hardy.
"It helps my act," the bard answered her. "A little prop, a personal image. Something people will remember."
"Around here, not being a pony is enough for people to remember you by," Twilight said, but without malice. "Anyway, I'm not knocking it. I think it's really nice, it certainly adds an extra touch," she told him, earnestly, earning herself another smile. I doubt Rarity would agree though.
He smiled at the compliment. "I'm glad you do," he said, "Otherwise I might have to stop wearing it, but I rather like it myself, so I'm quietly glad that's not the case." Twilight giggled at that.
"Twi', stop dallyin' around back there an' come take a look," Applejack called from the balustrade. "This ain't somethin' ya get to see every day. Uh, who's your friend?" she asked, finally looking around. She frowned briefly, at the sight of the gazelle, not even attempting to hide her suspicion.
"Oh, come on, AJ, it's just the singer from the Winter Fair," Twilight replied, trying to catch the farmer's eyes.
"And how d'ya know we can trust him?"
It took a great effort of will on Twilight's part to prevent her face and her hoof from meeting at that comment. "I'm pretty sure he's not going to try and rob me, AJ. Right, Rarity?"
"Aha, yes, right, of course!" Rarity stammered, throwing a hoof over Applejack's shoulders and slowly leading her away. "It's not like we've got anything to hide from him, is it, darling?"
"Oh!" the earth mare exclaimed. "Uh, yeah! Nothin' at all! We should - uh - I'll just let you two catch up. I'll-"
The rest of her words were drowned out by the waterfall as the dressmaker dragged the cowpony into the crowd. Twilight made no attempt to hide her irritation, turning back to the bard with resigned eyes.
"Not hiding anything, eh?" Longhorn said, eyebrows bouncing in mock interest. "It's a good job I found you first before some stranger tried to strike up a conversation with you. That would have gone much worse."
"Probably," Twilight sighed. "You're not going to ask me about it, are you?"
"No, of course not," the gazelle replied, shaking his head. "I'll find out eventually, anyway."
"Uh..." Twilight frowned. "What makes you so sure?"
"I make it my business to know every story there is to be told," he answered, simply, "but yours is not yet over, I sense. I shan't interfere."
"Well, that's the best I can hope for, I guess," Twilight said, not entirely certainly. AJ's untimely interruption had been a close call, and while she certainly liked Longhorn, she barely knew him, let alone trusted him. Maybe she would write to the Princess about the situation when they were out of the city - but not before.
Without Spike's dragonfire, she needed another way to send letters to Canterlot. When she was in the Palace it hadn't really mattered - if she wanted a word she'd just pass it to whichever sovereign needed it. In Ponyville she had used a simple, long-distance teleport. But she wasn't willing to risk that over hundreds of miles. If there had been a challenge put to her, she would have been certain she could pull such a spell off, but her letters were pretty sensitive. No, she was making certain nothing intercepted her writings.
She was using alicorn magic.
The Elements of Harmony bore it, enough of it to let their bearers cast spells otherwise unattainable by mortal ponies. Rainbow had been using the Loyalty pendant to write to Canterlot from another continent without interference, and she was a pegasus - she'd never teleported anything before in her life! Alicorn magic was pretty obvious to anypony looking out for it though, it had a very different feel to other pony magics, so she didn't want to be using it near the city.
Celestia would want to hear about this strange fellow's claim. A whole letter just about him might seem paranoid, though, so she'd have to include some other details. Maybe she could write about their night in New Pitsburgh and talk about how well the city was coming on? Ugh, no, that won't work. The princesses are really paying attention to the reconstruction, it's not like there's anything I can tell them that they don't already know.
With unspoken consent, the two began to walk in the direction Rarity had headed. With a bit of luck she would have been able to calm Applejack's nerves, but normally, Twilight remembered, those roles were reversed - Applejack using her country-folk common sense to talk the unicorn out of her more obnoxious episodes.
"So then, if it's a scientific journey you're undertaking, what part do an earth pony farmer and the surprise star of the Mare of the Eastern Front play?" Longhorn asked, conversationally.
Twilight eeped, the tiny sound not even reaching the gazelle over the sound of the waterfall. Had anypony heard? Such a comment had implications for their safety should it reach unfriendly ears - but not a head was turned nor eyebrow raised. Even the sight of the gazelle, lanky, patterned, was not enough to make the stoic Fetlochers stray from their paths.
Little could, Twilight noticed, as they headed into the city itself. She took great care ascending the staircase from the Terraduct, trying not to keep to the middle, away from the edges and the torrents of water below, but the flow of ponies around her knocked her about, forcing her to the side. She gasped in terror as she bumped against the guardrail at the ascent's edge, spray gusting into her face as the Hock fell from beneath the city, mere feet below her, but Longhorn put himself between her and the edge and, with a smile, continued to lead her up.
"They're here to help me with my equipment and observations," she told him, confident now that nopony cared for there conversing. "When you're investigating magics, sometimes I like to have a pony on board who doesn't quite understand magic like I do. Sometimes I tend to overlook the more obvious details, looking for the science behind it all, when they're often the most important of all."
The citizens of Hockfall seemed a gruff bunch - many burly, many bearded, many grey and brown, red and black. They pushed and shoved, the narrow streets of the confined city not allowing for personal space. Twilight tried to stifle her grunts of annoyance and slight pain as she was jostled.
I bet Rarity's not enjoying this, she thought to herself. Wait a minute - Rarity!
"Wait!" she said to her companion. "I have to find my friends - I - I can't believe I nearly forgot, they wandered off somewhere-"
"Relax," Longhorn reassured her, "they're just up ahead. We both saw them go this way, right?"
"Are you sure?" Twilight asked, uncertain. "I can't - unf!" she gasped as a large black earth stallion shoved roughly past.
"Certain," the gazelle replied. "There's a square just up ahead, it should be less packed down there and you'll be able to spot them."
Twilight nodded, slowly, still not convinced but willing to believe her newfound companion. She didn't want to try and turn around now anyhow - there was a mare walking barely inches ahead of her, a stallion close behind, and ponies flowing towards the waterfall on either side. Longhorn weaved between them skilfully, but she was certain any attempt on her part to reverse the flow would merely cause an upset.
The road was narrow, with maybe space for six ponies side-by-side, but in reality holding eight or nine. The feeling of claustrophobia was merely condensed by the grey stone of the buildings that loomed, five or six stories, jutting out above the street. Twilight assumed that they were mainly apartments - most had no front windows on the ground floor, only doors into which pedestrians occasionally ducked. The occasional storefront bore nothing special - a grocery shop, a pub, a launderette with washermares inside, shoving bundles of clothing around steaming, soapy vats with wooden poles.
The crowd lurched as a drunk staggered haphazardly across the way, ponies flinching into other ponies as they tried to avoid his stench. Conspicuous green and brown fluids bubbled from an unidentified building on the roadside into a rusty drain. Above their heads, two ponies bellowed to each other from opposite flats across the avenue. A single pony dressed in a suit scurried by, clearly unnerved by his very surroundings.
It's like Canterlot's High Quarter, but for the working class, Twilight mused. A reversal of geographies. The similarities were clear. Both built improbably out of stone, one on a mountainside with the other spanning a waterfall. Busy and vibrant, but with a clear lean in the wealth trend, although not so much as to remove the alternative extreme from the area. There's the social scientist in me. Stars above, she doesn't show up much.
"It's not all like this," the gazelle reassured her as they moved north, away from the falls, noticing her conflicted expression. "The further away from the Terraduct you get, the nicer it is."
"Yeah, I know. I'm just - I'm just trying not to let myself think too badly of this place. I, uh, I mean, I'm used to Cant- To the Heartlands, aren't I? It's just a, uh, a social experience, that's all."
"A culture shock?" Longhorn suggested, grinning at Twilight's blustered self-assessment.
"No," Twilight gasped, gaping at him momentarily. "Well, maybe a little bit. Oh hey, look, this must be it now."
Just ahead, the oppressive tenements ended, the road widening out into a plaza - still mostly grey, but with more shops, and where colour did exist, there was more of it. While the bleak few taverns they had passed on the way up had sported faded paintings as signs, here the only establishment - The Pony and Pool - featured a spectacularly chromatic depiction of a waterfall, a mare stood beneath a deluge of water far smaller than the Hock. The shops too held bright signs, and the sky above was not hemmed in by tower blocks, giving the whole place an uplifting sense of freedom.
Pony society, equine minds rebelled at the idea of monochrome life, and Twilight's heart leapt just a little as they made their way into the square. Even the people there seemed brighter - the dark, heavy colours of the road from the waterfall being replaced by a roughly evenly distributed palette - all of the pony spectrum was present in this place.
They walked to the fountain, grateful for their newfound breathing space. It was a landmark in more ways than one - marble white among the nondescript slates and granites of the rest of the town, and depicting a rearing alicorn with water spewing from her spiral horn and outstretched wingtips.
"That's odd," Twilight said, "I thought the alicorn of the sea was normally depicted as male."
"Yeah. Neptune, god of water," she explained. "Ugh. I hate referring to them as 'gods'."
"Really?" Longhorn asked again. "How so?"
"Well, they aren't - look at Princess Celestia, and Princess Luna. They're not all-powerful. They're quite powerful, but I've seen them to be weak and to fail. Shouldn't a god be perfect?"
"Perhaps," the gazelle agreed, gazing at the statue, "but what if it simply isn't possible for something to be stronger than they?" He gestured with a hoof at the marble figure, who pointedly ignored him.
"It is, at the-" Twilight halted herself. She had nearly begun to talk of the wedding, nine years ago, where the Changeling Queen - pumped full of a deadly emotional cocktail of love and arrogance - had knocked Celestia out in a seconds-long duel. While the story hadn't been suppressed as such, a certain level of shock surrounded it - as if those loyal to the Princess couldn't quite believe that she had fallen.
There were rumours in Canterlot and the surrounding Heartlands, that perhaps Celestia had set it up, for her young niece to show her true alicorn power. Or that Celestia herself had been a changeling, and the bizarre series of events had led to the true Princess' restoration. Some refused to believe that it had happened at all, denying what had happened in front of their very eyes, and in all the debate and conjecture, the truth was lost. Those who knew it had for once, bizarrely, agreed to grant Celestia some privacy and kept their muzzles shut, for the most part, and so the urban legend remained merely a personal embarrassment for the Princess, rather than a public disgrace.
"...Celestia told me that she'd failed in the past, sometimes," she offered instead, "that she hadn't always been able to win her battles, even when not fighting alicorns. Like when she and Luna struck down Discord, they - they couldn't do it first time," she explained.
"First time?" Longhorn gave her a curious look.
Oops. Yeah, that story had been suppressed.
"Um, yeah, first time they fought, that is," she managed to bluff, "he, uh, manipulated them or something, drove them away. It took them a while to recover and try again, that's all Celestia told me."
"Seventeen years," the gazelle said.
"It took them seventeen years," he explained, turning to face her fully. "That's how long legend says it took them to resolve themselves, and even after that they were changed. Discord changed something within them, so they say. Luna, the star warrior, trained from birth for battle was transformed by him into a frivolous, carefree creature, while Celestia - ever destined to rule - was hardened towards her people and their needs. He turned them inside out," the gazelle said, his voice dropping as a couple of ponies passing particularly close to the fountain glanced their way.
"Of course, these are just stories, you understand," he added, "but they say that Princess Luna's insecurity was created by Discord's meddling. It was at that time she began to find joy in her own night more than ever, but nopony would share in it with her, and she lost herself. She became the Nightmare."
"I know," Twilight whispered, sadly. "She told me, she told me how - how she couldn't bring herself to hate him, in the end. She was lonely before that, but she hid, behind... You said she was trained for battle?"
"So the stories go." Longhorn nodded. "Celestia, the elder, was trained to rule, while Luna, the younger, was mentored to fight. Of course, this is only in the tales where they aren't described as twins," he added, frowning slightly as the histories conflicted within his mind.
"Yes, well, she certainly was mentored for battle, even if they were the same age," Twilight agreed, "she hid behind her armour and her military training, before Discord. But... Like you said. He changed her."
Suddenly she flushed, embarrassed. "Oh, goodness," she exclaimed, "I'm so - I'm sorry, I shouldn't have told you that! I - it wasn't my place, I - please, don't tell anypony I told you all those things," she pleaded. She had felt safe with the bard, with a soul who had been willing to listen and share, and she had let her guard down.
"I've already been telling that story for years," he said wryly, and Twilight was unsure whether this was reassuring or not. "But for every town that hears one tale, there is another that gets the opposite version.
"And speaking of versions," he continued, "sometimes the water-lord is a mare, sometimes a stallion. Some say - and this is the version I believe myself," he confided, looking left and right in mock-conspiracy, "that while Neptune now rules the waters, it was only when he killed Aqua Marine, the lady you see here, during the Fifty-Years War that he ascended."
"I never heard that tale," Twilight said, looking back at the fountain once more.
"Aye, it's a rare one," the buck replied, "Aqua Marine was rarely seen by mortal eyes before the marauding hordes of War came west. They killed her trying to take her power to their crusade," he explained, bitterly. "I know not how alicorns are made, truly, but of all the legends, the only ones I can bring myself to believe tend to include death. Sadly."
This was getting to close for comfort for Twilight. Time for a change of subject. "Can you see AJ or Rarity?" she asked, glancing around the square. But with nothing to stand on, the see of multihued manes and tails gave nothing away.
"No." The bard began to amble eastwards, "but from what I've gathered about them, Miss Rarity will have likely sought out a pleasant cafe, from which to pony-watch, and your friend Applejack will have accompanied her with some degree of irritation."
"That sounds about right," Twilight agreed. "But, wait, how did you know all that? You barely met either of them over Hearth's Warming."
"Well, word travels fast in a small town. I was in Ponyville for around a week at Hearth's Warming," he reminded her. "You are all sort of local celebrities there."
"Emphasis on local," Twilight grunted. "You'd be surprised how little of the truth ponies beyond the Heartlands know."
"But that's for the best, surely? You must be glad of the privacy such a factor awards you."
They had zig-zagged through the equine traffic to a small establishment on the side of the plaza. There, ponies sat at wooden tables with steaming beverages and fancy, cream-topped cakes. It didn't quite match up to the standards of Canterlot street cafes, but it beat the taverns of south-side Hockfall by a country mile. However, of Applejack and Rarity she could see neither hide nor hair.
"Well, they're not here," Twilight muttered, turning to face Longhorn, who had merely seated himself at an empty table. "Look, I really need to find them - it's kind of important that we don't - I don't want them to get into any trouble," she explained.
"How are you going to find them if you just walk away?" the bard replied, pulling his mandolin from his back. "If we stay here, they will come by sooner or later." He smiled, plucking at the strings.
"You can't be sure of that."
Longhorn simply smiled at her. "I am a master of attention, Dr. Sparkle. I would wager you that I could draw them in, and hundreds of others besides with just one song."
"They could be anywhere in the city by now!"
"Trust me, it'll be a very good song." He fiddled with the lute's tuning keys for a moment, all the while smiling her way. "What do you know of Hockfall's history? Do you know how it was built?"
"Neither how nor why," Twilight said, earnestly. "The most common theory is that Laird Bluehorn wanted to build a bridge so he could control trade between the Heartlands and the rest of Equestria, but Hockfall was built before his reign. He became ruler of the city after the Fifty-Years War, but it had been a stronghold during the conflict."
"The whole thing was just architects posturing," the bard informed her. Twilight was taken aback by the certainty of the statement.
"How can you be so sure?" she asked, incredulously. "Historians have been trying to figure out the city's origins for centuries, and you just know?"
"I know many versions," he corrected her, smile never wavering. "Here, let me give you another. It's a horrible mangling of history, but it's still well written." By now a curious few of the cafe's customers had turned their eyes their way, and were watching in bemused expectation. "Hey-ho, pony folk!" he shouted suddenly, "come listen to my words - for in this tale I shall regale a story yet unheard."
Now many were staring, both in at the tables and from the crowd. Twilight, having sat down opposite the gazelle, shrunk self-consciously into her seat. So much for keeping a low profile, she bemoaned, as Longhorn continued to drag in his audience.
"From whence comes the Hock?" he called, addressing the crowd.
"The high mountains?" somepony suggested, timidly.
"Aye!" Longhorn grinned in the direction of the voice. "And to where flows the Hock?" he asked.
"The Cerulean Sea!"
"All true, all true," the gazelle confirmed. "And one final question for all you knowledgeable folk. Where did Hockfall itself come from?"
"The Princesses built it!" one voice cried.
"Nay, t'were Laird Bluehorn," another replied, indignantly.
"Bluehorn was mad!" the first retorted.
Sensing a potential fall-out, Longhorn stepped in once more. "Ah, ah, please, friends - maybe the good Laird were mad, maybe he was not. But surely you'd have to be a little mad to build a city in a river?"
There were no shouted replies this time, merely mumblings. "So listen," the bard continued, "and I'll tell you a story of the maddest king of all - whether or not tis true is for you to decide." And without further ado, he began to pluck at the frets for real this time, and upbeat melody - not an unhappy one, but certainly with a heaviness, a seriousness to it.
"Discord sat on his marble throne,
His gaze like iron and his heart like stone,
He said to the ponies 'why should ye I save?
Ye can offer nothin' to me.
"'Yer men are weak, they be all the same,
All of ye boring, all of ye sane,
If like me ye cannot behave,
You mean nothin' to me."
Twilight couldn't help but grin, tales of the trickster generally being far more entertaining than her actual encounter with him. The crowd, it seemed, agreed, with smiles gracing almost all of their faces - some amused, some wry, some simply joyous at the entertainment, but barely a downturned muzzle in sight, despite the underlying threat in Discord's supposed words.
"Said the steward there, trembling on his hooves,
'Of what, my Lord, would ye approve?
And show you we be worth your time,
To give back somethin' to thee.'
"Discord laughed from his marble throne,
'Make a home, fit to be my own!
With stone and water, sky and land,
Prove chaos is in thee.
"Build me a castle through the waters flow,
The ground is there where the high winds blow,
With stone and water and ice and snow,
That'd quite surprise me."
"'But that's impossible!' complained the crowd." The gazelle imitated the voice of a Canterlot noble as he ceased his melody and lapsed into speech, strumming insistent chords on his instrument. "'You want us to build a castle, on a mountain, in a river?'"
"'Your old rulers built Canterlot on the side of a mountain,' Discord reminded them. 'surely a city in a river is only the next logical step,' he sneered, for what does the god of chaos care for logic?"
"So the ponies spread out far and wide,
To search for a place where, side by side,
Earth and water and sky did reside,
But no such place could they see.
"'Til one day high in the mountains high,
A raging river did an earth mare spy,
True to the ground yet not far from sky,
Could a home for Discord this be?"
Twilight turned her head away for a moment. Now much of this side of the square was still, watching, a few hooves stomping in time to the beat. Behind her, pegasi watched from rooftop perches rather than try and slip into the throng below. But she couldn't see either of her friends yet - she hoped that they were merely in the crowd.
"Back in Canterlot, Discord was getting impatient. He had let the ponies talk him down from destroying them, so that he could build his world of chaos - but he was in no way bound to his word, and so, deciding that he had given the smaller creatures enough time, he flew out into the world to see just how they were getting along. It didn't take long for him to find the earth pony, stood on the riverbank high in the hills."
"'A impossible task you set," she wept,
'But I think we could do it here,' her heart leapt,
'A castle in the river in the sky,' she said,
'Would that be enough for thee?'
"'Aye,' laughed Discord, with his fangs agleam,
'Some pony-made chaos in this raging stream,
But could you even do it?' said he,
'I don't see it in thee.'
"The mare to herself her success did pledge,
Set herself to work on the river's edge,
But the task was a feat far beyond her strength,
And tire slowly did she.
"Heaping dirt on the riverbed,
She hoped to build a mound, but she found instead-
The soil wouldn't stick, and away it swept!
'Oh, 'tis hopeless!' wept she!
"Then came a pegasus, bold and proud,
He tried to built a castle on a floating cloud,
But the mountain wind did sweep it down,
And aggravated was he.
"Third came the unicorn wise and old,
And with planks of wood he did rope with hold,
Above the river so deep and wide,
And quite happy was he."
"But Hockfall isn't built out of wood!" someone shouted from the crowd.
"It isn't?" Longhorn asked, faking surprise as he continued to strum chords during the unexpected interlude, "thank you, good sir, for letting me know - I doubt I would have noticed elsewise!" The crowd roared with laughter, and Twilight couldn't help but giggle along with them.
"The mage's work was good and strong,
But stone on a branch does not belong,
When the bricks were laid there atop his work,
They fell straight through, and mourned he.
"All seemed lost for the pony folk,
Facing Discord's axe or yoke,
Victims of his cruel joke,
And having failed to please he.
"Then came a new mare, fire in her stride,
Set stone in the banks from side to side,
A bridge on the river great and wide,
And greatly pleased was she.
"Discord gaped at her flowing mane,
Her good sense having fooled the insane,
He yelled and called her by her name,
And quite furious was he.
"'You cheat!' he yelled, 'you've wrecked my fun!
This bridge is not a pony one!
Celestia, ruler of the Sun,
You've come up here and tricked me!"
"'Earth could never swim this river,
Unicorns a bridge could not deliver,
Only alicorn could this be,
But I shan't let this stop me!
"'You may be back,' the Trickster yelled,
'But your subjects are still under my spell!
I'll end them all and thee as well,
And my own world shall this be!'
"Celestia smiled with a knowing grin,
Brought forth a box, and from there within,
Drew forth her weapons, rare and true,
Adorned herself did she.
"A glimmering crown upon her head,
She faced down Discord and struck him dead!
Onto the stones of the bridge he bled,
No more to trouble ponies.
"'What shall we do with this bridge?' she said,
'Let us stay here to live instead!'
The ponies asked with thankful hearts,
For saved them all had she.
"'Alright,' she said, 'I think you could,'
'With sky and water, rock and wood,
Build a home for the true and good,'
And gave it to them did she.
"The bridge stayed strong, held by magics pure,
A home for all who one did look for,
In the Princess rich, from the devil poor,
A great, strong, true home for thee."
The crowd burst into rapturous, stomping applause, the clopping of hooves on the stone floor drowning out all else. Longhorn tipped his head and hat in a sitting bow, and Twilight applauded politely. Some began to throw gold and silver coins at his hooves, the gazelle laughing and shaking his head, but unable to protest over the roar of his new admirers.
However, Twilight saw that not all in the crowd were pleased with his song. There were some frowns, some grimaces, which she noticed come on during the last few verses. Did these ponies follow a different history? Were they proud of their city's traditions? Celestia was not focal to the theories of its founding - and of course, comparing their home to one desired by Discord himself would easily put anypony off.
Anyhow, Twilight reminded herself, it couldn't be the true story anyway. Discord's reign of chaos was long after Hockfall's construction - the city had been around during the Fifty-Years War after all.
The crowd was beginning to disperse, and Twilight politely excused herself, hoping for a better look around - Rarity and Applejack would hang back to speak to the bard, she assumed, if they spotted him, especially if they saw her at his side. Longhorn's plan had been a good one, really - he'd certainly drawn an audience, and held their attention for a good while for a single reel.
She mingled with the reds and yellows and greens and all other manner of shades in the crowd as she weaved between the thinning herd. She kept her eyes open for telltale signs - AJ's hat in particular - but saw nothing. Five minutes later, the square was back to normal, with no sign of her friends.
Damnit, she groaned, maybe they went back to the bridge after AJ calmed down? Or to that other cafe we passed before, the one that Rarity liked the look of the pastries at. Yeah, that'd make sense.
As she turned to do one last scan of the crowd, however, she spotted something she hadn't been expecting at all. If she wasn't keeping a wary eye out, she might have missed it altogether. But a pony in a rough brown cloak was moving across the plaza, pushing ponies roughly aside as she hurried in one direction - facing Twilight head-on, he rushed towards her at a pace just short of a gallop, face hidden beneath a rugged hood.
The scholar's mind, despite her mouth's assurances, immediately thought the worst. He's coming for me. He's coming for me. He knows - he knows something! He - could he be a Knight? Some other enemy? Oh, stars, I have too many of them. She turned, trying to stay calm, walking back towards Longhorn, the gazelle scooping coins off the tiles into his green fedora. But whoever they are, they're coming for me.
He won't try anything in public, she reasoned, if I can stay with Longhorn, he'll help me talk them down, and we'll be safe. But what if he follows us? He could follow us out of town! If we try getting away on the train, he'll probably have cronies further up the line! What am I going to-
She nearly walked right into the figure before her. Tall, broad and stocky, glad in chain barding, the earth pony guard and his patrol partner stared her down. Twilight glanced back, petrified she would be caught, but to her relief the mysterious figure was gone.
"Oh, thank Celestia you were here, officers," she sighed with gratitude, "you couldn't have come at a better time."
"Really?" The two guards looked at each other, one making no effort to hide a smirk. "They still surprise ya sometimes, don't they Alf?"
"Aye, laddie, that they do. I tell ya, lass, 'tis a strange day when I stop a pony an' they give me their thanks."
"Stop a pony?" Twilight frowned, confused. "Whatever do you mean?"
"I mean exactly what I said, bairn. Lady Sparkle, ye're under arrest."
The stallion looked up from his work, contemplating the room in which he sat. He had worked so very hard to get here, and now he had to wonder if it were worth it.
Varnished brown wood made up the furniture, with bookcases and end tables and such all scattered around the humbly opulent interior. Two red, high-backed fabric chairs stood near the window, the perfect seat for any two gentlecolts to share intelligent discussion. A great map of the Equine world hung against the left wall, expertly inked on yellow parchment. The office felt like his reward for years of service, and he was grateful for its offerings - comfort amidst his work, work amidst his comfort.
I merely hope that I am not about to throw it all away, he ruminated. More comes with a job than merely an office. Lost in thought, he fixated on a single golden pin on the edge of his desk. A momento. Ah, but what use would it have otherwise? I would hardly stick gold into my corkboard for any greedy maid or civil servant to pilfer.
There was a knock on the door, which opened silently, revealing three ponies beyond. Two stallions and a thoroughly dejected mare.
"Yes, Sargeant?" asked the room's occupant, wearily.
"Lady Sparkle ta see you, yer governership, as requested."
"Thank you, Sargeant. See her in, would you please?"
Twilight Sparkle shot the brusk guard an unamused glare as he ushered her in to the chamber, but it was nothing like the one she spared her new host as the door clicked shut. She gave him an icy, unblinking stare one could liken to that granted by the judge to one who, in such a barbaric society where as would be allowed, was about to sentence the defendant to the brutal reprimand of execution - or, failing that, community service.
"An arrest, Pool?" she seethed. " Tell me, please - your men didn't, after all - with what crime am I charged? Convince me that this isn't a simple abuse of power, please. I'd love to hear what felonies I could have possibly committed." Twilight was furious. The calm facade she had almost failed to keep on her escorted way to the mansion boiled away as the injustice and untimeliness of it all set in.
"Rejecting an invitation from the governor," replied the very same. He sat at a desk carved from dark, oiled wood, writing in swirling hoofwriting. Despite being a unicorn, he wrote with a quill held to his fetlock with what appeared to be a leather thong. He was an unassuming individual, grey with a sea-blue mane, both his hair and fur flecked here and there with white.
"Forgive me then, Pool, as I never received your letter," Twilight said, angrily.
"You never received it because I never sent it. I knew you would reject it, you see," the governor explained. "This way, I have saved myself parchment and ink." He finished his work with a flourishing signature, before removing his quill and standing. "Now then, what can I do for you?"
"Do... Do for me?" Twilight sputtered. "You brought me here on false pretences! You can start by telling me what you want!"
"Very well," he said, unaffected. "May I offer you a drink?" Governor Pool gestured to where a liquor cabinet stood against the wall, brimming with crystal bottles filled to varying degrees with red-brown liquids.
"I'm alright, thank you."
Twilight examined the governor carefully. Plunge Pool was, she knew, a career politician who'd barely made a career. He'd been a low-ranking minister in the Braytish cabinet, elected on the tailcoats of his own Prime Minister, and had been spectacularly lazy in office. He'd only secured Hockfall's governorship thanks to the incompetence of his incumbent opponent. The ponies of the Bridge-City had been quite happy to rid themselves of the incompetent Needlebottom, and the princesses in Canterlot had been happy to see him go, for his father was an outspoken opponent of the crown, even if he never acted on it.
"Very well then, we shall get straight down to business. Tell me, what do you know of the alicorns?"
Twilight was glad then that she hadn't accepted the governor's offer of a drink, or else it would by now have been sprayed several feet ahead of her. Her eyes flashed with surprise that she struggled to control, afraid that any answer would be enough to give away her concerns.
Is - He's not one of the Knights, we know that, we checked him out! He's just curious, surely, just curious. My PhD was in alicorn studies, after all. "A bit more than most," Twilight said, cautiously, trying to keep her voice even. "The princesses have the right to their own privacy, and as a friend of theirs I'd be doing them a disservice to ignore that." She hoped that the governor wouldn't notice her avoiding his eyes as she spoke, instead focusing on the wall behind his head.
"Of course, of course," the governor replied. "I hear you are truly a virtuous mare, Lady Sparkle."
"Doctor Sparkle, please," Twilight insisted, impulsively. She couldn't help herself, it had become a reaction. Ever since she had earned her PhD she couldn't help but feel a stab of annoyance whenever someone called her by her older title. It made her feel as if her brother's marriage was more important than any of her achievements, which was amongst the greatest insults any tongue could utter.
The governor merely raised an eyebrow. "Of course," he said. "My apologies. In any case, though, I have a question for you. Do they seem... Fit to rule? An eternity of leadership surely must place great strain on their faculties."
"If anything, I think it's made them stronger," Twilight replied, suppressing indignation. "So much of their role now is apolitical, they only - mostly, they only wade in to put down extremism. I - you've never lived in the Heartlands, have you?" When Pool shook his head, she continued, "I think I should tell you that they have a great deal of time for their subjects there. I know you may see little of Princess Celestia here in the Fetlochs, but if the Lairds in the north would stop complaining that she's 'had her time' then it would be a lot easier for her to arrange a visit."
"I don't understand what visiting has to do with this," the governor told her, now turning to move to the liquor cabinet, from which he withdrew a bottle of brandy and a single tumbler. "Are you sure I can't get you anything?"
"I'm perfectly fine, thank you," Twilight said, firmly. "The princesses, Celestia especially, have great empathy for their subjects, from watching over their lives for so many thousands of years. No elected leader could ever have their experience."
"Well, now we get to the point, you see," Plunge Pool replied.
Yes, tell me why you had me arrested, Twilight thought. The governor took a slight sip of his drink, setting the glass down on his desk as he began to speak once more.
"There are rumours, of course, that you yourself were selected as Princess Celestia's student because she thought you would make an appropriate successor."
Twilight's eyebrows flew up. "I - yes, I know of those," she conceded, "they flatter me. But I think I should tell you, governor, that I was completely out of touch when I first came to live in the Palace. The princess certainly didn't choose me for leadership qualities. I didn't really start to... to understand real life until I actually left, and that wasn't because of where I had been to begin with, but because I never bothered to try and see the world."
"But now you have?"
"Now I have."
The governor sighed, scratching his head as he shut his eyes and stood there, breathing deeply, for several moments. "Ah, well now," he said, at length, "this is where things could potentially get... Awkward. You... You are the Element of Magic, am I correct?"
"No," Twilight replied, "the Element of Magic is a tiara locked away in Canterlot. I'm merely one of the ponies capable of channeling it."
"Well, perhaps." Plunge Pool gave a sly grin. "But it isn't in Canterlot, is it?"
Twilight blanched. It suddenly became very obvious where this was going. The office around her suddenly became immaterial - only the governor's words mattered as the realisation sunk in that this was not somepony looking for greater influence in Canterlot. Well, he was in a way - but not in a way, had Twilight known, that she would have given any time to.
There was a certain level of malice in that grin.
"A source informed me a little over a week ago that three of the Elements of Harmony were removed from storage and sent east, in the same direction that another one, which I am informed by another source was removed a year before my election. I would assume at least one of them is on your person," the older pony explained.
"Your sources are wrong," Twilight told him, flatly.
"I don't think they are. You see, Twilight Sparkle," Pool said, as he started to pace around her, "you may be a learned mare, but-"
"For Celestia's sake, Pool, when did you fall in with the Knights?"
The governor snapped. "You really think it's that simple? Would it kill you to just listen to me? I am trying to save your life!"
Twilight flinched, stepping backwards. One hoof hovered uncertainly as Plunge Pool panted slightly, hastily raising his drink to down it. The door on the far side of the study creaked open, and a robed pony trotted in. Twilight couldn't see their face under the red hood he wore.
"Is everything alright, master?" he asked, softly.
"Yes, Cowlmane," the governor replied, his voice trembling lightly. "Please tell Laird Highpine that we are nearly ready for him."
Twilight's mind whirled. Highpine was a Knight commander, from the High Fets, but Plunge Pool wasn't one of the Order. He wasn't an enemy of the crown, he'd just spoken against it to gather votes. And that was when he was running against Needlebottom, who was...
"Would I be right in saying that the Pine Clan actually thought you were anti-noble?"
"Yes," Governor Pool answered rubbing at his temple. "After I beat his son in the election, Highpine invited me to his estate and practically indoctrinated me into his organisation."
"He indoctrinated you," Twilight said, skeptically. "You say that like you don't agree with him."
"I don't!" the governor replied, "and I do! It's not a black and white issue! Twilight Sparkle, Princess Celestia has ruled for far too long. It's time for her to step down as Princess, and - even her sister! Her sister can stay, she's only just coming into the public eye now!"
He was gesticulating wildly now. "But Celestia has been on the throne for - I don't know how long, tens of thousands of years! There are ponies out there who would remove her and her allies by force, but you, Dr. Sparkle! You could take that seat from her and nopony would have to get hurt. Otherwise - there are ponies that would go to war. Maybe not in our lifetimes, yet maybe tomorrow - these ponies are powerful, Dr. Sparkle. You didn't think I was one of them? This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are stallions of import out there who are willing kill thousands, and you could stop that!"
Twilight stared at him, shocked. His slight frame was heaving now, and he toppled backwards, landing heavily on his rump. He sat there, in the middle of his office, quite undignified.
She hadn't been expecting that outburst, not at all. Yes, there were ponies who could start wars. Over Celestia - Could I... Would it stop them?
She shook her head from side to side, angry at herself. "I won't call you a liar, Pool, but the Knights don't just want Celestia off the throne, they want themselves on it, and they want to get it through war."
"Not all of them..." Pool gasped. "Just... Most."
"And that helps your case?" Twilight half-yelled. "I can't help you. I won't. The princesses are my friends, Pool, and I won't betray them. If you're with the Knights, surely you know that if Celestia puts her alicorn powers aside, she'll die?"
"She doesn't even have to do that!" the governor insisted. "She could just - go, away. Leave. Like all the world's other alicorns, and leave you in charge. Leave us mortals to our own business."
"And then the whole world goes to Tartarus without its steward."
The governor let his face fall, staring into his own carpet. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Dr. Sparkle. I tried. But I can't offer you any more chances. You've brought him the Elements, three of them. That's more than enough for a stallion who wants to go to war."
Twilight swallowed, as another knock sounded. Plunge Pool rose and walked to it, and she couldn't help but wonder what exactly she had just done.
"Rather dark in here, don't you th-"
"Ssh!" hissed a voice, and Rarity fell mute. "Later." There was a creaking of unoiled hinges, a brief flash of light, and then darkness once more. Beside her, Rarity could hear Applejack's deep, steady breathing. If the farmer was calm, surely she could afford to relax too?
But the cellar was dark, and the Hock roared somewhere beneath them, muffled only by the thick, cold flagstones on which they sat. Rarity trembled, biting back an uttered complaint. It was going to be a difficult wait.
The Governor's Mansion, Hockfall
Twilight stood in defiance as the hulking beast of a stallion stamped towards her. His green-brown coat heaved with anger as he puffed, near-hyperventilating as he worked himself up. The titanic earth pony halted just inches from her, his black eyes staring her down. To her credit, she did not tremble. She stood her ground.
She did not resist. He had raised his hoof with his shout and, without warning, lashed it against her cheek. Twilight gasped, flinching sideways as it connected, far harder than she had expected, for the stallion's hooves were shod with iron and he had hardly held back. If she hadn't been through worse she would have been sent sailing into Pool's desk. As it was, she merely staggered, coughing as she realised the inside of her mouth was bleeding.
'As it was' wasn't exactly much better than the alternative.
Yet still she held herself proudly, turning back to her aggressor with rage in her eyes. "Is this a typical Fetloch welcome then?" she asked, angrily. "Impudence and violence?"
"Impudence!" the giant roared. "Ah'll give ye impudence, bairn. Sittin' high on her mountain in her pretty wee Palace ignorin' all the woes of us lesser, greater creatures? I am nae impudent. Celestia is impudent. She is impudence itself, and ye defend her!"
"I would, if you would give me the chance!" Twilight yelled back.
"Gentlemen!" came a shout, grabbing both of their attention. Twilight's head snapped around to see Pool, wringing his hooves nervously by the door. "Er, that is, Lad- Doctor and, uh, your Lairdship. Dr. Sparkle, this is-"
"-Laird Highpine," she interrupted. "I know all about you. You think the princesses don't know about you and your little secret society? Oh, we know." Highpine wasn't the head of the Knights - there wasn't one. But he threw a lot of weight around,
"We?" Laird Highpine mocked. "Oh, so ye fancy yerself a princess too, do you lass? Ah'm sure ye'd make a fine example. What do ye know about the poor, workin' pony who hasn't had the good fortune ta be born in the Heartlands? Nothin'!" he spat. "Ya think ye're smart with yer titles and yer theses - or is there a thesis? And y'know what? Know that Ah think about it, Ah don't recall it ever bein' published. Ah know all about you too, Lady Sparkle."
Twilight hissed under her breath, provoking a smirk from Highpine.
"Aw, did Ah touch a nerve there, bairn?" He moved to the desk, where Plunge Pool had set down the whiskey and tumbler. Ignoring the glass, he unstopped the bottle with his teeth and took a swig, causing both Twilight and the Governor shudder. "Mah man in Canterlot tells me that the Princess removed the Elements of Harmony from their hiding place on Hearth's Warming, just before she left fer Ponyville. Ye clearly have at least one of them about yer person. Ye will give it ta me."
"I don't have it," Twilight said, almost immediately. She hoped she hadn't been too quick, lest the brute pick up on it.
"Ye're a terrible liar, Twilight Sparkle," the Laird replied.
It's just a bluff. He can't know. "Maybe, but I'm telling the truth," Twilight insisted. "I don't have any of the Elements."
"Don't make me strike ye again lass. Ah don't like ta hit a lady, but if ye give me no choice, then-"
"That won't me necessary," Governor Pool chipped in, nervously. "Cowlmane, search her bags, would you please?"
The slight, cloaked colt scurried over to the wall where Twilight's bags lay. She hadn't noticed either the guards putting them there nor Cowlmane's presence in the room. She was definitely going to have to pay more attention if she wanted to get out of here unharmed - or at least, no more so that she already had been.
As the servant - was he a servant? Twilight wasn't sure - rummaged, she began to run through her options. I could teleport out - no, they'll be onto me too soon. I've got to hold on, hope for a chance to slip away.
Cowlmane was turfing out her belongings all over the governor's floor, but finding nothing that took his interest. A manebrush, a blank notebook, quills and ink - very typical things for Twilight to travel with.
Maybe if I can hold out long enough they'll have me locked up. That'll give me time to think, at least - as long as Highpine keeps his temper in check. She suppressed the urge to gulp. If a stallion introduced himself to a mare with a punch, how bad could he be if he flew off the handle?
"No sign of them, sir," the mysterious colt reported in his soft, patient voice.
"What about any weapons?" Pool suggested, frowning. "Anything that might indicate she's hiding something, at least."
"Nothing, sir," Cowlmane insisted, shaking his hooded head.
"Wha' about her staff?" Highpine snarled. "Celestia secretly made ya a mage, too, didn't she? Just like she made ye a doctor. Tell me, lass, what have ye actually ever earned?"
"Everything," Twilight growled back. Right now there was nothing she wanted to do more than to let fly at Highpine with all her magical might. She could quite easily take him - but she still didn't fancy her chances of getting out of the city with her friends beyond that.
"Quite astute, your Lairdship," Plunge Pool said. "Please, mage, show me your staff. I assume you would know a way to store it magically?"
"Uh-" Twilight's words caught in her mouth. Her capacity for improvisation failed there. She had stored her staff in a magical pocket along with all their other weapons - including the Elements of Harmony. Take one thing out and Cowlmane would probably spot the rest. "I don't have it," she blustered.
"Lies!" yelled Highpine, taking the bottle in his teeth and flinging it towards her. She saw stars as it clunked against her head and she fell to the ground, whimpering. The carpet grew damp underneath her and she feared she was bleeding - but the awful stench that accompanied the moistness told he that the bottle was simply spilling over.
"You, point-head," the brutal Laird ordered, "find her staff."
Where she lay, Twilight began to notice a strange pressure. It poked and probed at her, at a part of her she could not quite lay a hoof on, because that part did not technically exist. Her magical 'muscles,' as they were, were well trained enough to notice his intrusion.
More so, they could practically ignore it. Twilight found this incredibly amusing. Cowlmane was clearly strong, she could feel it, but nopony had been able to match her magical prowess for years now. It was her talent, it was her being. He could not even comprehend what it meant to touch it, nor how.
"Well?" Highpine snapped.
"She - she's definitely hiding something," the unicorn murmured, uncertainly. "B-but I can't quite-"
"Useless!" the noble barked. "Pool, get yer best magician in here. We're gonna be needing him."
"Cowlmane is my best spellcaster," Governor Pool replied, testily. "Nopony else in the city has a tenth of his capability. It was him who sensed the Elements on her in the first place, I don't understand how they - it's like they've just gone!"
"Well, ain't that inconvenient?" Highpine roared. Twilight snapped out of her reverie, having been disillusioned by her own prowess, as there was a hiss of air and Highpine's hoof connected with her side. She groaned, then groaned again as she thudded back to the floor, the force of the giant stallion's kick sending her off the ground for a moment. The pain was not unbearable, far from it - she had taken harder knocks - but it still hurt, a lot, and a fillyish whimper escaped, unbidden, in response.
"That's enough!" Pool snapped from somewhere over Twilight's head. She couldn't tell where, she had shut her eyes to stop the room from spinning. "If you- if we push her too far, we could quite easily kill her. I may not be a unicorn, but I do know that it's much easier to unravel a spell with the help of its caster, willing or no."
"Pathetic," the Laird spat in disgust and disappointment. "Fine then, stick her in a cell. A few days spent ne'er eatin' nor drinkin's as good as a hard beatin'. She should talk before too long."
"Agreed," Pool assented. "Cowlmane, escort Doctor Sparkle to the holding cells, if you please. Then return here and replace her possessions into her bag. I shall keep hold of them."
"Cap her horn first," Highpine insisted. "She's a tricky lass, no matter what ye could say about her."
Twilight didn't have a moment in which to retort. She was calculating hard, staying cool despite knowing full well that should she make a mistake now she may well never leave the city. If Cowlmane capped her horn - placing a dampener over it to stop her casting magic - she'd have no way to get herself out of whatever cell Highpine had her thrown in. But if she tried to teleport out now, she'd likely bring the whole of the guard down on not just her head, but her friends as well, wherever they had gotten to.
There really was no answer.
Cowlmane came back into view - she'd been concentrating so much she hadn't seen him go. He floated before him what she knew to be a suppressor cap, a metal object that neutralised a unicorn's magic as effectively as sticking an earth pony on a blimp.
It was a cold grey metal, dull, iron-like in appearance, although Twilight knew that it was likely alloyed with other minerals to enhance its dampening capability. Made to fit over a horn much like the hornblade Celestia had shown Rarity, rather than having a sharper tip, its point was rounded, so as to stop prisoners using their own natural weapons against their jailers.
In that moment, she nearly panicked. To most unicorns, magic was an integral part of their being, but for Twilight it was somehow more than that. Magic was her talent, her niche - without it she was crippled, alone and powerless she would be completely helpless.
That was what her captors would think, anyway. She had plenty of tricks up her metaphorical sleeves. She understood magic far better than they, and her wits failed her, she still had friends on the outside. But most importantly, submission was her best chance at keeping the Elements from the Knights.
It's funny, she thought as the robed pony slipped the cone on, but all I can think is that we weren't supposed to run into these idiots nearly so soon. Guess I was only fooling myself. There was an audible click as something within the cone pressed against her horn, all around its base. On reflex, she shook her head, but the cone held tightly in place, locked onto her body like a mollusk to a rock. Cowlmane gave the governor a satisfied nod.
"Get her out of here," Highpine ordered, and Twilight allowed herself to be led away. She could feel the suppressor not just on her, but within her, squeezing on her magic. But as she left, a small smile crossed her features as a pin rolled, unnoticed, off Governor's desk. It was not like her to boast - boastful pride was something she had long since learned to discourage. But there was a certain something, a real pride in realising that these ponies were taking on more than they could handle.
They were picking a fight with Twilight Sparkle, and they were going to lose.
Rarity gazed into the inky blackness of the basement. She had long since grown accustomed to it, and by now could make outlines out - the rough table, the wall to the cistern, the padded bedroll on which Applejack gently snored.
The snore turned into a splutter as the door creaked open and golden light spilled in. Barely a moment passed before it swung shut again, shadowy figures moving in, and an iron bolt was dragged across with a worryingly loud scrape.
The sudden rush of brightness and following return to darkness jarred Rarity. She could see no longer, until the whoosh of an igniting match heralded a candle's lighting. The tiny speck of light was set down on the table with careful hooves, and Rarity was surprised to see not one, but two new faces.
There was there previous self-styled 'saviour', lowering her hood to reveal a shock of white mane strewn across her face. She was breathing heavily, and wore a concerned expression. But Rarity was more worried by her company - somepony - or rather, some gazelle - she hadn't been too keen on seeing before.
"Why are you here?" she hissed at Longhorn. "And where's Twilight?"
"That's exactly the reason I've come, the bard replied, laying his instrument gently against the wall. "Twilight was with me. We were looking for you, and then she got arrested. Our mutual friend here tried to warn her, but Twilight panicked, it seemed."
"Really, now?" Applejack asked, having stood. "Why should we believe it's not you we have to be worried about?"
The blue mare grumbled quietly under her breath for a moment. "You've been pretty happy to believe me for the last couple of hours," she replied.
"No, she's right," Rarity chipped in. "We came on the pretence of a promised explanation. I'd like to have it now, please."
"Fine," the mare said, grudgingly. "My name is Bluebell. I work for the Equestrian Secret Service. And I have to tell you that, thanks to a filing error, Twilight Sparkle has been captured by the Order of the Bloodied Cross."