The next morning's gradual return to consciousness is catalyzed by a soft humming that can only mean Minuette is tidying her bed. Burritoed as I am, with my muscles completely relaxed, the gravity holding me in bed greatly outweighs any need to get up. Though it feels as though my muzzle is plastered to the fifth edition of Magics and Meditations, I am content to simply lie there, allowing my roommate's gentle tune to lull me into a dreamlike trance.
Minuette finishes her business quickly and leaves, easing the door shut behind her. In the absence of her humming, the only noise left in the room is the soft sound of Twinkleshine's snoring. I suspect Lyra's out taking her environmental studies exam.
What time is it, anyway? I don't bother opening my eyes to cast my time charm.
I do, however, open them when I launch myself out of bed, scrambling for my saddlebag and glasses because I have an exam in fifteen minutes. My neighbors are playing their stupid song again; the beat thrums against the wall and does nothing to soften the vertigo that sends my head swimming.
Squinting, I frantically shuffle through the notes on the desk, desperately searching for my glasses. In my frenzied rush, all I really manage to do is knock two textbooks, an inkwell, and a commemorative statue of the 999th Summer Sun Celebration to the floor. I just barely zap the items with a cushioning charm in time; their momentum is arrested by a pale pink cloud, and they fall the final inches to the floor in slow motion.
After catching the items and placing them on the desk, I glance at Twinkleshine. She's clutching her pillow tightly, clinging to sleep with all the resigned desperation of a lover facing an inevitable separation. Satisfied that her snoring is still evenly paced, I take a moment gather my bearings.
I inhale deeply, noting with satisfaction that my heartbeat easily slows down to match the cadence of the song next door.
1) Find glasses
2) Get testing supplies
3) Yell at neighbors (optional but recommended)
5) Backup testing supplies
6) QUIT MAKING LISTS AND GET TO CLASS YOU IDIOT
Fully oriented, I spring into action. Casting a magical search field, I locate my glasses and send them flying onto my face, simultaneously tossing quills, inkpots, and scratch parchment into my purple saddlebag. The sight makes me hesitate.
I don't really need to bring a saddlebag. I could get by with that self-inking quill that Stargazer gave me for Hearth's Warming—the exam won't need me to write down anything more complex than a few minor equations. It's Advanced Magical Practices after all; a theorems exam would be another story. If I remember the syllabus correctly,
-Twenty five multiple choice (4 points each)
-Six short answer (10 points each)
-Two practical demonstrations (20 points each)
Maybe it's dangerous, maybe it's sleep deprivation, maybe it's some unknown side effect of "Scholar," but there's an unidentifiable emotion weighing on the edge of my mind, whispering that maybe I don't need to bring so many supplies. Maybe it's not a desire for preparedness that says I need four extra quills and two pots of ink—maybe it's insecurity.
The thought is so out of place it gives me pause. Almost without any effort, I levitate the self-inking quill out of my bag. I stare at it.
Maybe it's insecurity, a fear that I don't know as much as I think I do.
It's like I've never properly looked at this quill. It seems so... ordinary, but at the same time I can almost see the magic within it.
And maybe surrounding myself with instruments of learning bolsters my confidence... subconsciously convinces me that the extra supplies will lend me the answers I seek. That being prepared makes me smart.
My neighbors are listening to a classical piece. I make a mental note to ask Lyra about the tune later—I can't quite hear the violins through the wall.
With deliberate slowness, I tuck the self-inking quill behind my ear, readjust my glasses, and walk out the door. The unknown emotion finally identifies itself.
I feel absurdly free as I trot to my classroom. No saddlebag, no extra books, no unnecessary distractions to fiddle with. I giggle as I think about the look on Twilight's face when she sees how... how dangerously underprepared I'm being—I didn't even bring a quill knife to sharpen the nib. She wouldn't dream of coming to an exam with anything less than every note she's ever taken.
Hmm. Maybe she's figured out a spell that lets her soak up knowledge via conduction, and her notecards just transmit the information directly to her brain as she takes the test. I think Tribald the Tricky might have had a spell similar to that. It would explain a lot, but I soon dismiss the thought—Twilight Sparkle is many things, but a cheater isn’t one of them.
Tardy is not a word that can be used to describe her, either. She raises her eyebrows as I slip into the exam room mere seconds before Professor Top Mark slams the door shut. Her eyebrows rise even higher when I lay my solitary quill atop the desk and lean back.
"Are you crazy?" she hisses. I just grin at her. The smile lingers on my face as I turn to the scroll that's been levitated in front of me.
Twilight Sparkle would never show up to an exam with only a quill. But then again, I am not Twilight Sparkle.
She hasn't performed Meadowbrook's hidden spell.
The exam is trivial.
Three days pass before any traces of Scholar’s effects come to my attention.
I'm sitting on a picnic blanket in the West Courtyard, peeking over Minuette's shoulder as she pages through a cake catalogue from one of Canterlot's many bakeries.
Lyra points a hoof at a modest, single-tiered chocolate cake. "This one is cute! Wouldn't it look nice with the sweetberry frosting?"
"Oooh, it would," I agree.
Minuette shakes her head. "Nonono, you gals are thinking too small. This is whatcha want, Moondancer." She jabs her hoof at a triple-tiered sponge cake with lemon frosting. "Doesn't it look just amazing?"
Everything looks amazing. I tell her so.
"See?" Minuette beams at me, then spots Twinkleshine walking with Twilight and Lemon Hearts across the courtyard. "HEY GIRLS!" she shrieks. "C'MERE AND PICK OUT FOOD WITH US."
Twinkleshine and Twilight visibly flinch at the noise—Minuette's lungs are powerful enough to draw the attention of half the courtyard—but they wind through the throngs of ponies and sit down upon our picnic quilt willingly. Lemon Hearts stretches out, basking in the warmth of the sun.
"Finally... done..." she sighs.
"I finished this morning," I tell her.
"Same," Minuette adds, before shoving the catalogue in Twinkleshine's face. "I need you to tell me your opinion about everything on this page, okay? Lyra's leaning towards the sweetberry and chocolate one, but the lemon frosting kind of looks like Moondancer's coat, so whadya think?"
Twinkleshine frowns, examining the page. After a moment of deliberation, she tosses it aside. "I think Moondancer needs a pie."
I catch the catalogue and levitate it over, examining it further. Across the courtyard, a group of music students begin playing, sending a gentle melody drifting through the sunlit space.
I chew my lip. "I'm not sure," I concede at last. "I don't think I could pick just one."
"That's fine!" Minuette quips. "We can pick one out for you!"
"And then it'll be a surprise. That's something birthday-ish," Lemon Hearts murmurs sleepily, tossing a foreleg over her eyes. "Surprises."
A snippet from How to Win Friends pops into my head. Show sincere appreciation. I gulp.
"Thank you, girls," I begin hesitantly. "For the party, that is. I'm really looking forward to it. It... it means a lot that you're going to all this trouble."
A chorus of "You're welcome" and "No problem" and "Our pleasure!" rings back at me. The warm feeling in my stomach is dampened only by the fact that Twilight is buried in Caprices and Cognizance, but I don't really blame her. Clover's Treatises really are remarkable commentaries—even if Predictions and Prophecies does more storytelling than analyzing.
I suddenly recognize the song playing across the courtyard as the same one the neighbors are so fond of.
"Hey Lyra," I say. "Do you know what song this is? I've been hearing it everywhere."
She frowns. "Summer Sunshine?"
Sure enough, somepony a few feet away is whistling the foal's nursery tune as they trot into the building. I shake my head.
"No, the other one. With the violins."
Lyra flicks an ear, still frowning. She listens for a minute, then shakes her head. "I don't hear it. Are you—"
"Yes I'm sure!" I double check to ensure that I am, in fact, hearing it. The noise definitely has an origin point. "It's coming from the north end of the courtyard, the one nearest to Canterlot... Castle," I say, faltering as a scan of the ponies at that end reveals that there is no one even holding an instrument, let alone playing the discordant violin piece teasing at the edge of my hearing. Minus Twilight, the other girls strain to listen, too, before frowning and shaking their heads.
Lyra shrugs. "That's odd. Maybe you just have good ears."
"I think the exam stress is getting to you, hon," Twinkleshine snorts.
"Maybe," I say distantly. I look back down to the cake catalogue, but the music refuses to relinquish my attention; I may as well be staring at the moss on the courtyard walls. They can't hear it. Why can't they hear it?
1) The music is coming from Canterlot Castle, and I do have good hearing.
2) There is no music, and I am insane
3) There is music, but I am the only pony that can hear it for magical reasons, rather than physical
My first option doesn't hold up well to scrutinization. I've never shown any indication of possessing superb hearing during any of my yearly checkups, and after getting stuck in the back half of a lecture hall for two class periods, I'm fairly positive my hearing is about middle-range, if not lower. Additionally, the odds of none of the other girls being able to hear the song are extraordinarily slim. Granted, Twilight hasn't been asked, but I'm willing to ignore that gaping hole in my sample size because it's Twilight—if it isn't in a book, she's not noticing it.
I don't like the second explanation very much.
But the third...
There's a plethora of reasons why I might be the only one capable of hearing something. We've all exposed ourselves to different combinations of enchantments, researched different subjects in our spare times, possess unicorn magic operating on slightly different frequencies...
I'm not even going to try to deny it to myself. Not even for the sake of scientific analysis—there's no need to explore every possibility when one of them is glaringly, painfully obvious. I will bet all the money I spent at the bookstore last weekend that the song I am hearing is related in some way, form, or fashion to Meadowbrook's uncast spell. Though I suppose referring to it as the 'uncast spell' is no longer correct.
I blink. The girls are staring at me. All of them—Twilight tears her eyes from her book long enough to furrow her brows in my general direction before turning a page with her horn.
“Uh, yeah?” I ask.
Lemon Hearts clears her throat. “Minuette was asking if you wanted to have the party indoors or not. It might get pretty hot outside, and if you want ice cream, well…”
“Temperature maintenance charm,” I supply absently, staring back across the courtyard. The music grows quieter and quieter, until I can’t hear it at all. “Outside would be nice.”
The music follows me. It’s lurking in the corners when I walk to the library, levitating my textbooks behind me. There isn’t a soul in sight, and the most effective silencing charm I know isn’t enough to quiet the tune. Not that I expect it to—not when it’s Mage Meadowbrook’s spell that is serenading me so.
It echoes through the baths when I wash off the toils of the week—the mournful singing of the violins reverberates off of tiled walls and polished floors, skipping across the water in a ghostly lamentation. None of the other students splashing around seem to hear it. I levitate my washcloth out of the way, take a deep breath, and sink beneath the warm water. The song is quieter in the deep, and by the time I surface again, gasping for air, it has quieted once more.
It’s there when I read—book opened and quill poised over a blank piece of parchment, ready to jot down any interesting segments. I hear it before I fall asleep and it’s the first sound to greet me in the mornings. I can’t even finish casting my morning time charm before it fills my ears. In the evenings, Historian seems to look at me knowingly, but I suspect my attempts to untangle its scribbled equations would be fruitless even without the melody dancing through my head, and it keeps its secrets locked in well-scribbled pages.
Sometimes the notes are soft, and it plays for hours before I truly notice it. Then there are the times when it positively roars in my ears, cutting me off from the surrounding world in a tidal wave of sound. These are the moments that nearly convince me to find a teacher and fess up: when my classmates laugh and chatter around me while Twilight buries herself in a book and I pretend to do the same, staring blankly at pages to hide the fact that I’m drowning in plain sight.
But in the end, the song always quiets. In the end, the determination to figure out its purpose grows stronger.
Since the summer lull has left us with no classes and an abundant supply of free time, it was inevitable that my roommates and I would eventually get around to cleaning out our bags. There’s simply so much stuff that one accumulates throughout the semester. The clean-up begins innocently enough—Twinkleshine’s already got everything in her quarter of the room tidied and fresh, and the rest of us have so much to sort through that the first hour is filled with nothing but the steady rustling of paper and clapping of book on book. I spend the time sorting my used scrolls from my new ones by hoof.
Then, there’s a sharp pat as a ball of parchment hits me in the face . My glasses go flying off my nose and into the nearest pile of scrolls, knocking them all out of order. I levitate the black frames back onto my face and turn around.
Lyra is giggling behind a hoof, but Minuette seems to be carefully avoiding any sort of eye contact, making her the clear perpetrator. I pick up one of my old essays (a long one—the introduction alone was nearly three pieces of parchment) and send it flying towards her head. It hits her horn with a satisfying fwap, a sound that is quickly followed by an indignant shriek as she recoils violently. Lyra just laughs all the harder.
“Hey, what gives?” Minuette yelps, rubbing her horn.
I look from her indignant expression to where Lyra is rolling on the floor, caught in uproarious laughter, then begin backpedaling, because the odds of Minuette having initiated the conflict just dropped down to a measly 17%.
“Sorry, sorry! I just...” I squeak, before a familiar note catches at my ears from somewhere outside the window. It fades after a moment—an all-too-common occurrence. Turning back to my roommates, I open my mouth to ask Minuette to repeat herself.
Minuette seizes the opportunity to stuff a week’s worth of used scrolls into my mouth.
Gagging, I tug at the paper with both hoof and horn, the familiar tingling of magic buzzing across my tongue. The parchment comes out soggy. Sputtering, I turn my glare to Lyra.
“Hehee—uh oh.” Her poorly-stifled sniggers quickly turn into a tiny scream as I empty my exam-overloaded saddlebags onto her. Her cream-and-mint mane is promptly buried by half the library’s magical theory section.
I freeze, still levitating my emptied saddlebag above Lyra’s head. The music winds around me confidently, slipping into my ears and brushing up against the most intimate parts of my mind, where it whispers tantalizing tales of love and sacrifice.
The smack of a laboratory notebook against my flank makes me leap; for a split second, my hold on the bag slackens. It dips a few inches towards the ground before I reassert my hold.
A second or two later, the music softens, only to return to full strength immediately. The accompanying realization stares me in the face, as blatantly obvious as the third section of Clover’s Magics and Mediations (magic is energy, and energy is everywhere [Clever, 237]).
The music is tied to my spellcasting.
It’s obvious. It’s so obvious that it makes me giddy, and I’m grinning wildly as I add book after book to my magical grasp. Into my saddlebag goes Aristrotle, then Carneighgie, and then Clover and Morari and every bit of paper I can get my aura on. With each addition, the music grows stronger. Deeper. More intoxicating.
Sound rushes through the air, filling my ears and sweeping across me in a dizzying wave of sensation. It tugs at me, pulls at my mane and my tail and the fluting of my horn. I’m beginning to see things, even. Shadows dance before my eyes, morphing and scattering like so many leaves caught in a storm-borne wind. If I squint, I can almost make out a group of ponies standing—
Something smacks me on the back, snapping my attention out of the vision and back into the dorm room. I whirl around.
The overloaded saddlebag whirls around with me, locked in the grip of my levitation spell. I’m opening my mouth, about to protest angrily, but Minuette’s face is there, right there, and the saddlebag’s hurling straight for her. Time seems to slow, the notes in my ear stretching and distorting as I pour every ounce of magical ability into pulling the bag back.
I barely stop it in time. One of the corners—stretched hard and pointy around a hardcover book within—comes within millimeters of hitting Minuette in the eye. The canvas brushes against her brow instead (softly, like the eddies of music swirling around my horn) before being yanked back. The change in direction proves to be too much for the tired old seams to handle, though, and the strap pulls clean off.
It’s enough to kill the satchel’s momentum; it falls to the floor, spilling books everywhere.
Minuette and Lyra stare at me with wide eyes. My stomach twists, and the sour taste in my mouth isn’t because the music has died back down to a whisper. The girls are looking at me as though they’ve never seen me before.
It’s Minuette who speaks first, letting out a low whistle and an uneasy, “Dang, girl. You were, uh, holding out on us.”
Lyra laughs nervously. “Remind me to never disagree with you. Like, ever again.”
“Tactical display of force,” I offer weakly. Something in their eyes tells me they don’t quite believe it. As I look down at the books and crumpled scrolls scattered across the floor, I don’t quite blame them.
I need to find the source, I think to myself in the courtyard later that week, burying my head in my hooves to try and rub away the headache. Today was supposed to be a planning day with the girls—though the balmy weather turned it into a bit of a free-for-all in terms of organized activity.
Lyra and Twinkleshine are buried in Daring Do and Berry Trotter novels, respectively; Minuette is arguing with Lemon Hearts over cake batter; Twilight is a no-show, and I’m trying to mend the broken strap on my saddlebag. My stitching has a faint musical accompaniment—the strap is simply too thick for me to use anything but magic to force the needle through the fabric. The additional noise is doing nothing to relieve my headache.
I grit my teeth. The song is enticing. I want to know what I saw, who those ponies were, why I’m seeing echoes of them after casting Meadowbrook’s ancient spell. Was it even Meadowbrook’s spell, or one that his apprentice left when copying the journal? Regardless of the author, what was “Scholar” intended to accomplish? Music-induced insanity?
I need to track down where this song is coming from and record my observations. Maybe that’ll clear it up.
I tie off the needle and thread. This is getting ridiculous. If I can’t figure it out soon, I’ll have to get help from an academic supervisor. And that could lead to a hearing, and, and who knows what sort of magical usage violations they could find me guilty of—let alone the consequences!
A quick mental rundown of the Code of Conduct at the School for Gifted Unicorns turns up the following potential outcomes:
2) Dishonor via expulsion
3) Dishonor via losing Twilight’s trust (maybe? She did loan me Historian to begin with)
4) Dishonor via imprisonment in some dark laboratory in the School for magical experimentation and observation purposes…
Okay, maybe the last one is a bit much. Take a deep breath. The probability of any combination of those consequences occurring is statistically insignificant. I can do this. This is the opportunity of a lifetime.
Reassured, I glance at the mares around me, engrossed in their own activities. I'll just excuse myself, see if I can follow the music, figure out how it's connected to “Scholar,” throw something resembling a journal article together, and bam. Eternal academic glory is mine.
And then it'll be Twilight starting the conversations.
This plan reeks of evasion and irresponsible magic use. It also promises knowledge, adventure, and an unparalleled understanding of one of the greatest enchanters in history—beginning with this mystery spell. My mind's already made up. I’ve already cast Scholar, haven't I? There’s nowhere to go but up.
I have the perfect alibi, too.
"I'm going to go stop by Professor Sharp Wit's office," I announce abruptly, rising to my hooves. More confidently, I add, "I'll see you girls later!"
They murmur assent, and I set off across the courtyard, strategically levitating my half-mended saddlebag at my side.
It's not difficult to follow the music; the elusive tune seems to tug at my horn the closer I get, though the volume remains at the edge of my hearing, likely due to the meagre effort required to carry my bag.
The sound seems to have a direction, though, and it leads me back past the Main Hall, through marbled hallways and down secluded stairwells. Turn after turn, door after door, step after step—each brings me closer to what is beginning to feel like a ripple in the arcane fabric of the universe. I don't immediately realize when I’ve left the School again—the music takes me out of the building through a creaky door half-hidden in the hedges, and I merely think I've looped around to one of the courtyards.
But then I look up at the towering white walls looming over my head, and the thought is dashed upon the battlements staring down at me. Canterlot Castle is magnificent from every part of the city, but it's easy to forget how imposing it is up close. I'm briefly worried about getting inside—I'm not Princess Celestia's personal student, after all—but a glance around me reveals no guards in sight. The entryway in front of me doesn't even look like it should be an entrance to the castle; the chipped, wooden door set within the castle's pearlescent walls shows as much signs of traffic as the library's inventory records. Even Twilight won't touch those books.
Nopony stops me as I pull the door open and slip into a deserted corridor. The hallway is dark, unlit by lamps or candles, and the cool air kisses away the sun-warmth lingering upon my coat as I move forward. My hoofsteps are muffled by thick navy carpeting—the soft shushing is the only sound in a wing that seems to have been left forgotten.
Dust is everywhere, adorning framed artwork and empty sconces with lusterless trophies of neglect. It lingers in the air and itches at my nose; I barely restrain a sneeze as the stuffy air envelops me.
It's like walking through a tomb, I think, as the music pulls me onward. I round a corner, and then the music is all I can think about; the shadow of a tune has swelled into a proper melody, wafting down a spiral stairwell at the end of the corridor. I climb the steps in a daze, stumbling a bit as I reach the top and a solid wall of energy barrels into me. I force myself to look up
A furnace of magical power thrums before my face, raw and dangerous and overwhelming in its magnitude. I just barely manage to catch a glimpse of a glittering sea of blues and violets before the world flashes white.
The last thing I feel is the unmistakeable pinching of magic upon my consciousness.
The crystalline tinkling of laughter drifts through the torchlit spaces of the Throne Room, borne aloft by the soft currents of conversation that slide between murmured breaths. Inquiries and pleasantries drip from every tongue—some genuine, others as halfhearted as a summer sunshower—but despite the mingling, the focus of the Court never wanders far from the tiered dais at the head of the hall, nor the young princess seated upon its rightmost throne.
She is smiling. Her mane, flushed with the rosy hues of dawn, ripples through the air behind her in the gentle eddies of some distant cosmic wind. The flecks of morning dew interspersed within her tresses glimmer with but a fraction of the energy that dances behind her eyes, but oh, how those eyes glow. Her lips part in a small O of delight as the cerulean stallion before her gesticulates wildly, fending off an imaginary foe with an equally-intangible weapon.
Not all of the petitioners bring grievances to lay before the Morning Star. A notable tale, a loaf of bread, a carefully-selected daffodil—tokens of gratitude hide scattered amongst the crowd, each carried on its bearer's pilgrimage with the hopes of tempting a smile from the Jewel of the Everfree's refined features. Upon her throne, the princess claps her golden-shod hooves together as the stallion finishes his tale with a grandiose flourish. Her peals of laughter ring through the air, high and clear. The stallion bows deeply before taking his leave, and the next petitioner—a winged mare with a coat the color of honey-wine—eagerly steps forward.
Before the mare can present her case, the doors to the Hall are thrown open, allowing the faintest whisper of autumn to breeze into the chamber on the haunches of a shrouded figure. The draft's chilled edge slices mercilessly through the idle chatter, and the remnants of the petitioners' conversations are quelled with each sharp tap of silver-shod hooves upon the wooden floor.
The princess's attention is the last to be captured. But finally the Morning Star looks up, a puzzled frown crossing her brow at the change in atmosphere. Her confusion quickly melts away, replaced with an expression of polite interest, and then delighted recognition as the approaching figure lowers her hood.
Waves of rich indigo shadows spill free, rushing down in a sinuous mess of cosmic ether to writhe behind a young alicorn. The Dreamwalker's zircon-blue eyes are unwavering in their serenity; a disquieting stillness lurks in the depths of her gaze, hinting at the immensity of the dreamscapes she has traversed. No longer burdened with the mundane fabric of the cloak, the second princess approaches the throne with the elusive grace of an errant daydream. She halts exactly four paces from the platform.
The pegasus petitioner might as well have vanished, so absolutely does the Princess shift her attention to the newcomer.
"Sister," she greets, and her smile is daybreak after a long winter's eve. "To what circumstances might I owe such a pleasant surprise?"
The Dreamwalker speaks with icy clarity. "We would ask of you a boon."
The Morning Star's smile does not waver for a second. "Name it, and should it be within my power, it shall be thine," she swears. The room collectively holds its breath.
"Our subjects hath gifted you with a mark of your authority," the younger sister says, gesturing to the Morning Star's golden tiara. "But upon Our brow, We wear naught but a circlet of Our own creation."
The Sun Sister looks at the Dreamwalker's twinkling crown of stars with an expression close to bafflement. "I am not certain that anyone in the realm could craft for thee a more fitting diadem, Sister. Thou dost possess a finesse unmatched by the finest of metalworkers."
"Is Our request not within your power?"
The Dreamwalker's even-toned question appears to grate at the Morning Star; a faint blush tinges her pale cheeks, and she rises to her hooves rather abruptly.
"Let it not be said that a Princess of Equestria was denied within Her own hall," she announces grandly. "Should it be a tiara She desireth, it shall be a tiara She receiveth."
Ignoring the excited tittering that sweeps through the room at her proclamation, the Morning Star lifts her chin, illuminating her horn with the soft golden glow of first light. Outside, the sun seems to lessen in intensity; shadows begin to stretch across the floor, creeping steadily toward the dais and the alicorn's pale horn.
Titters turn to sharp inhalations and shocked whispers as the shadows deepen suddenly, stretching and twisting as they are pulled free of the surfaces upon which they were confined. Droplets of liquid darkness—blacker than a night without stars and twice as forbidding—hurl through the air, coalescing into a single pool of shadow suspended before the princess. Her brow creases in concentration.
The pony-sized orb seems to suck the luster from the glittering aura holding it; the Sun Sister's horn burns with all the brightness of a dying star, but only reluctantly does the shadow-drop begin to turn. Slowly, at first, but it rotates with increasing speed as the Princess grits her teeth. Her aura blazes impossibly bright, forcing the courtiers to squint against the sunfire bearing down upon the molten shadowstuff, shaping and molding it into a smaller, denser ball.
The Morning Star does not wince when her magic begins to cling to the orb, tearing itself from her arcane lifeline as it is drawn to the center of the mass. She does not shy away from the flares of superheated energy that erupt from her aura as it rebels, unwilling to hold the darkness. She does not even avert her gaze, but stares, unflinching, into the heart of the star-forge.
The petitioners display no such fortitude. They cling to each other in the face of the billowing currents that tear through the throne room, lest they be drawn into the core of the inferno themselves. Eyes clenched shut, ears deafened by the cacophony of creation, they do not immediately notice when the commotion abruptly ceases.
For a brief moment, silence reigns in the Court of the Two Sisters. The townsponies open their eyes.
The first thing they take note of is the Morning Star collapsing back onto her haunches, breathing heavily as her horn sputters with the effort of holding a triple-pointed, asymmetrically-peaked tiara above the scorched floor. It is a tiny thing, much too small to contain the amount of shadow-steel pressed into it.
The tiara is wrong. The petitioners glance at it with morbid curiosity, shudder slightly, and avert their gazes before repeating the process. It is Silence, distilled from the emptiness of space and the momentary death between heartbeats. Describing it as black would be a disservice to the color; the tiara is a lusterless void—the dark hue of wet ink possesses more vividness than the diadem hovering in the middle of the room.
With a tiny gasp, the Sun Sister's slender horn fizzles out, unable to hold the thing aloft. It falls through the air with a grave inevitability, dropping like a stone through water. The Dreamwalker catches it a mere hair's distance from the burnt steps of the dais.
Every eye in the room is upon the younger sister as she lifts the tiara, the dusk-blue of her magic burning bright sliver against its unnatural surface. She levitates it to eye-level almost casually, turning it about to inspect every angle of the terrible thing.
It is so dark, it seems as though it should stain anything it brushes up against, permanently marking it with the taint of the tiara's wrongness. It is an atrocity. It should not exist.
The Dreamwalker places it atop her head.
Nopony moves. As the Diadem of Shadows is nestled into place, the Crown of Stars peters out, fading into a fine, shimmering dust that lingers in the air. The Princess of the Night lifts her head, and not a soul in the hall is able to meet her gaze for more than a second. Faced with a situation unaddressed by the rules of etiquette that so define their every move, the Court does as it always does when intimidated: it bows.
Ponies fall to their knees, some laying themselves prostrate in their haste to prove their fealty. The Morning Star offers her sister a weak smile.
"Thou dost approve?" she asks softly.
The Princess of the Night remains emotionless. "Aye," she says simply.
"Then I am pleased, as well," her sister replies. She gestures to the empty throne at her side. "Wilt thou be joining us for Court? 'Tis but a few hours to sundown."
"Nay," the Dreamwalker says. Her eyes briefly dart across the room of downturned heads. "We have acquired that which We came in search of."
She leaves the hall with the dread tiara upon her head and an uneasy silence in her wake.
My horn is throbbing. My horn is throbbing and so is my head and my tongue is thick and dry and tastes awful when I close my mouth. Despite the fact that my left foreleg is completely numb from where I've been lying on it, my mind swirls with but a single thought and all its accompanying ramifications:
Princess Celestia had a sister.
The fact hangs in my head as I stagger back through the silent halls of Canterlot Castle. It lurks in the shadows of the emptying streets, and clings to the forms of the few strangers that move past me.
I must look like a drunkard—the world before me blurs and stretches in a wobbly myriad of distorted colors, and the accompanying headache pulls and stretches my thoughts right along with it. It’s all I can do to put one hoof in front of the other; every time I get some momentum going, I blink, and suddenly I’m standing in the throne room with the Princess’ sister scowling at me.
I don’t know how long it takes me to return to the School. I don’t know how far gone the evening is, or whether I even make it back to my room at all. A sickening heat itches beneath my coat, lighting my nerve endings aflame and turning the cool night into an unbearable desert.
I think I throw up. I’m not sure. Something rushes up all at once and then my mouth tastes vile.
A fleeting moment of clarity reveals a familiar marble courtyard, washed in the light of the mare in the moon. But then the ground rushes up to meet me, and my thoughts retreat once more.