“Ugh. It’s been some time since I’ve had a day as crazy as this one.”
Starlight Glimmer gave Twilight a sympathetic smile as her mentor continued to pick at the underside of her left hoof. She was glad that Twilight had invited her along to meet with Princess Celestia, even if it was for a rather whimsical reason.
The mechanical vibration of the high-speed train, having almost completely replaced the steam-engine tech common only ten years ago, reminded Starlight that the trip would be finished in half the time she was accustomed to. She could sense the car lean slightly into the turn as the tracks bent their way westward again, ever climbing, but riding soft as silk upon the rails.
If she wasn’t mistaken, the three-hour trip was nearly completed. Out the window, Starlight scanned the valleys and crevices of the rocky terrain once more. As many times as she had made this trip, the view never got old—it only changed with the seasons whether it be the golds and reds of autumn or the nascent greens of the early spring. Today? The colors were mostly barren as the winter months fast approached. Looking back to her mentor, Starlight took note that she was still working on the same hoof.
“Still picking pie out of your hooves?” Starlight teased.
Giving a sigh, Twilight clopped her hoof back down to the floor. “No… No, I’m sure my coat-clean spell took care of the remaining pie debris.” Twilight gave a rueful chuckle. “Pinkie strikes again, this time with her namesake: somehow she managed to pull about 78% of the town into the pie fight melee. Unbelievably, Mayor Mare has declared this a new Officially Sanctioned Event.”
Starlight’s eyes widened incredulously. “It’s times like this that make me wonder—sometimes Ponyville just escapes me.”
Twilight’s eyes narrowed after a moment. “Wait a minute, I think it’s the other way around. This time I think it was you who escaped Ponyville. Where were you, in all of that mess?”
“Oh, just going over some tests!” Starlight replied with a toothy grin. “That, and reviewing the syllabi our professors submitted in preparation for the winter semester.”
“The syllabi? I wanted to help with that!” Twilight whined. “You know I love reviewing all the planning and class assignments! But when Spike and I returned, you weren’t in your office, nor anywhere else in the school.”
“Well, I hadn’t spoken with Maud for a while, so I did all of that while relaxing with her at her place.”
“In the Grotto? Oh.” Twilight mumbled, processing that for a moment. “Well… you should have invited me. Besides, I would have loved to see Maud again, she is too much of a recluse.”
Starlight held up a hoof, tilting it from side to side. “Eh. She is about as reclusive as she wants to be, and is pretty pleased with the status quo. Besides,” Starlight grinned mischievously, before covering it with the same hoof. “I heard about your little mishap this morning. I figured you were probably going straight to Zecora’s.”
Twilight’s eyes popped wide. “How did you even know about that? Only the maid for the 3rd floor was told, and that was only because she started freaking out when she noticed unburned fibers of my tail among the ash on the floor of the room. I had to swear her to secrecy!”
“Oh, I ran into Spike while he was leaving the bathroom this morning, still brushing his teeth. He let me know!”
Twilight’s left eye twitched slightly. “Oh, did he now?”
“Oh, yes!” Starlight nodded. “Some of what he said was a little garbled by toothpaste, but he seemed pretty amused by the whole… thing...” Starlight leaned back in her seat as she noticed Twilight’s countenance starting to curdle.
Starlight held up a hoof to settle down the intensifying Princess. “Eh, not that he really—-“
“—Amused, eh?” Twilight growled. “And did he tell you that before, or after 8:17 this morning?”
“Heh heh… Swore him to secrecy too, huh?” Starlight squeaked.
Twilight’s only reply was a long stare, the temperature in the train cabin climbing a few degrees.
“Before! It was before! And besides, he wasn’t that amused by the whole ordeal. I mean, he did feel rather bad about it.”
“Not yet he hasn’t.”
After another moment of glaring at nothing, Twilight softened her features and leaned back again, taking a cleansing breath in through her nose before exhaling and flicking her hoof away as if pushing away all that negative energy and stress. “At least Zecora’s mane and tail regrowth potion seems to be working.”
Nodding her head, Starlight decided she needed to change the subject back to the pie fight. If this was how Twilight got with her tail, she would hate to see Rarity.
“So, the pie fight! Crazy thing, huh? I saw the fliers earlier about a pie tasting competition. How did it devolve into a pie fight?”
“It devolved exactly as Pinkie had planned it to.”
Twilight relaxed further as she looked at the ceiling with a crooked smile. “Pinkie had the whole thing set up from the start, the little schemer. Like I said, Pinkie somehow amassed 78% of the Ponyville adult population. Then, she piggybacked off of some tension between Granny Smith and Bon Bon over an incident between them during the Running of the Leaves Festival four weeks ago... And then finally, she rigged the ballot box so that the vote would come up as a tie. At that point, Sugarcube Corner was like a tinderbox, ready to go off at the slightest provocation. Lyra provided that provocation, defending Bon Bon from Granny.”
Starlight rubbed her chin. “Well, I can see how that developed, I guess. Why would Pinkie do that?”
“Smiles.” Starlight made no reply, so Twilight continued. “It was all part of some grand scheme to spread smiles all over Ponyville.”
“What she already does isn’t enough?”
“Well, I asked her about that, and she had valid reasoning.”
Starlight blinked skeptically. “Really?”
“Yup.” Twilight affirmed, before drawing in a deep breath. “The Harvest Festival last week is one of those emotional high points for everypony in Ponyville. Well, following that high point, there are about two to three weeks of stress and work for ponies to buckle down and prepare before winter hits.”
Starlight nodded her head, following Twilight so far. She had also noticed that in the weeks leading up to the first blast of winter, Ponies tended to get down in the mouth.
“So, Pinkie being Pinkie…” Twilight continued, “She’s noticed that trend. So she purchased the leavings of the Sweet Acres crop from Macintosh—the ones that are usually shipped off to be turned into applesauce and other products—and then taunted Applejack until she agreed to go against her in a bake-off.”
Starlight’s brows knitted as she processed what she just heard. “She… taunted AJ?”
There weren’t many ponies with the cajones to taunt AJ, and there were even fewer that could come close to her stubborn streak. Starlight wondered what in Tartarus Pinkie had said to entice her into doing such a thing.
“Well,” Twilight hedged. “That and she assured Applejack that it really was for a good cause. Heh. Applejack claims she didn’t really get annoyed with her until after it was all said and done. The way she told me, she said she could’ve had better uses for her morning than slaving away in the kitchen, worried about getting the recipes just right when the only critters that were goin’ to git a sample were the blasted earthworms.”
Starlight giggled. “You do a pretty good AJ impression.”
“You think so?” Twilight joined Starlight’s mirth. “I always thought I could do a better Rainbow Dash.”
The train whistle sounded, heralding the final approach as the gates to the city were now coming into view. At this elevation, the barren deciduous trees were beginning to thin out, replaced with the deeper greens of firs and junipers, their lengthening shadows darting past the windows in the setting sun. After another moment, the train began to decelerate.
“Do you think she’ll be disappointed?”
Starlight Glimmer’s attention was suddenly drawn back to Twilight, who’s voice had taken on a much more subdued tone.
“Celestia?” Twilight nodded her head. “C’mon, Twilight. She wanted you to aid her in getting back at her pranking younger sister, not save the Crystal Empire again! This is just an impromptu meeting…” Starlight rolled her eyes. “Over pranks, of all things.”
“And my tail!” Twilight defended. “I wanted to apologize for that fiasco as well! Even if the only damage that was done was to ruin a few pastries.”
“Donut Joe had never been so insulted in all his life.”
Twilight ignored her. “So do you think she’ll be disappointed?”
“Well, yes!” Starlight replied unapologetically. Twilight’s mouth fell open. “But that is perfectly okay. She can go ahead and be disappointed.”
“What?” Twilight sputtered an octave higher. “But that’s—”
“Twilight.” Starlight assured gently, patting Twilight’s hoof with her own. “Just because she asks you does not mean you have to say yes. You have more than enough on your plate to consider getting into... whatever this is between the ruling sisters. Celestia is a grown mare, and she won’t respect you any less for declining. This is something that has nothing to do with you!”
Starlight watched Twilight’s face carefully as she made to reply, but the alicorn stopped herself short, hesitating while she ruminated over the advice. The train continued steadily braking until it finally jerked to a halt, a recorded message announcing their arrival at Canterlot station #1, East Gate. Disturbing the momentary silence of the cabin, a series of knocks sounded at the door.
“Enter!” Twilight called out.
After a pause, the cabin door sprang open to reveal the head of Twilight’s security detail, a tall and muscular mare wearing an impressive set of matte gray armor. The dull color only set off the color of her brilliant fuschia mane all the more.
“Captain Berrytwist reporting in, Princess Sparkle. Security sweeps confirm threat level minimal, situation alpha. Proceed to destination?”
Inwardly giving a sigh, Twilight turned to face her oft too-intense captain with a grumble. “Ms. Berrytwist. You know you can just inform me that everypony is ready, right? We aren’t at war or anything—no desperate and dastardly diamond dogs… no maniacal and maddened minotaurs.”
Captain Berrytwist gave a little pout before straightening up and saluting. “Sorry Princess. I’ll try to keep my reports focused on only the pertinent info. But you did want to know that we performed a security sweep?”
“Um. Not so much.”
“Then you would appreciate we’ve confirmed there are no threats to your safety?”
Twilight tried not to grimace. “Not really. Um— “
“That we are ready to proceed?” Captain Berrytwist’s eyes had become rather intense as she was leaning further and further into the room.
“Yes!” Twilight blurted. “Just… that we are ready to go. It’s all I really need for now— “
“ —but— ”
“ —Thank you, Captain. Your work, as always, is most exemplary.”
Captain Berrytwist slowly ducked her head back out of the cabin again, the door closing quietly behind her. Twilight dropped her chin to her chest and let out a groan, shaking her head.
“She’s… kind of zealous, huh?” Starlight asked tentatively.
“You have no idea,” Twilight muttered, turning around to slip into her saddlebags. “I mean, it’s been six weeks since she started, and it can be a little much.” Twilight stretched her wings out to get the blood flowing again, the tips nearly grazing the sides of the train cabin. As the years had gone by her stature was starting to become more noticeable as slightly larger than her friends. “When Tempest—I mean, Fizzlepop Berrytwist—travelled all over Equestria to share her story and tell of the Storm King’s demise… her reception was lukewarm at best. She never did find a niche or a place for her rather singular skillset, and because of her legal history, she couldn’t apply for the guard.”
Starlight rolled her eyes. “Tell me about it. Between some of our more archaic legal codes and a good number of the nobility, why do you think my prospects for employment are so limited?”
Looking back to Twilight, Starlight discovered that the young princess looked hurt. She dropped her bags in an instant and came up to place a gentle hoof on the alicorn’s shoulder. “Not that I want a job change or anything! I love being the principal for the School of Friendship—I wouldn’t trade the position for anything in a million years!”
Twilight still looked anxious. “You’re sure? I don’t want you to feel— “
“ —It’s not that, Twilight! Leading my school is wonderful, I swear! It’s just that… what?”
Twilight was smirking. “You called it ‘your’ school. I like it.”
Starlight’s cheeks colored slightly. “Well, it has taken some time to get used to. But it can still feel a little bit confining, knowing that if things were to change for the worst, my choices of what else I could do would be limited. You know why it is we rarely get a noble’s brat to attend school there.”
Frowning, Twilight nodded her head, looking out the window to take in the golden spectacle that was Canterlot. Between the soaring spires and the gilded storefronts, she wondered about the levels of inequality that was displayed.
“Anyway,” Starlight went on. “Finding a home for Tempest Shadow was how Celestia finally talked you into having your own personal guard. You wouldn’t have budged, otherwise.”
“She does make an excellent Captain of my security team,” Twilight muttered ruefully. “Although I refuse to call it a Guard. Sounds too much like everything surrounding the ruling sisters, and I don’t want that. And for all of the headache, Captain Berrytwist just adores her new position.” Twilight covered a giggle with her hoof. “We just need a little more training so she doesn’t scare away all of the ponies who are seeking my help.” Twilight pursed her lips as she rubbed her mane, wondering if that was why her schedule lately had seemed to be slightly more open.
Starlight stretched her neck to the side with a pop before she smiled warmly. “Well. Let’s not keep your brave captain waiting, yeah?”
* * *
“And as you can see, represented in the remaining sliver of the pie chart...” Twilight ignored Starlight’s snicker as she muttered “pie chart” under her breath. “Spending time to aid with your efforts to retaliate against Princess Luna simply can’t be squeezed into my schedule. It just isn’t feasible!”
Twilight finished her presentation for Princess Celestia with a toothy grin, watching her former mentor’s face for any signs that she had let her down, or perhaps hurt her feelings. To her confusion, the princess only looked amused, sipping at her evening tea before placing it down on her desk.
“Well Twilight, I thank you for that most thorough explanation.” Princess Celestia stood up from her cushion and came along side of the smaller alicorn before leaning down to nuzzle her for a moment. “As always my dear former student, I appreciate your preparation—but a simple no thank you would have sufficed.”
Twilight’s ears folded back, just in time to pick up a muttered “told ya” from her former student.
“That being said,” Celestia went on in a louder voice, “I still welcome your company. It has been a rather trying day, what with Luna finding a renewed interest in doing pranks. Perhaps, while you are here, you could help me brainstorm a few ideas to get her back.” Celestia giggled mischievously as her horn gave a bright flash, simultaneously locking both doors of the rooms before encapsulating the entire space with one of her privacy spells. “Luna… doesn’t have to know a thing.”
Starlight and Twilight exchanged glances before Twilight lifted a hoof. “Um, if you want to brainstorm on the subject of pranking, I think you have the wrong element of harmony here.”
“Actually,” Celestia replied smugly, “I was pretty sure that you wouldn’t join me, so I took the liberty of contacting Rainbow Dash earlier, and her train should get to the East Gate station in about fifteen minutes. If I can recall her exact words, I think it was “That’s just so totally awesome.”
Twilight lifted single eyebrow, watching her mentor as she pulled her hooves back away from her pristine white cheeks. “Um, Princess? Don’t ever do that again. Ever.”
Celestia pouted. “Still not a budding actress, hm? Ah well.” Celestia paused, before rubbing her hooves together in glee. “Never mind. Lulu doesn’t know it yet, but she has just awoken the sleeping giant. And she’s about to get eclipsed.”
Twilight’s other brow joined the first. In all of the years she had known her mentor, Princess Celestia still managed to surprise her from time to time.
“But first, I wanted to share a tidbit of news with you Twilight, and I am glad that you are here as well, Ms. Glimmer.” In an instant, Princess Celestia’s demeanor had changed, and her smirk had quickly morphed into something more intense. “Some kind of magical mishap or attack has occured in Manehattan. For obvious reasons, I wanted you two in on the loop of what is going on in case this turns out to be more than an isolated incident.”
Reeling from the rapid change in conversational topic, Twilight’s ears stood straight, and she gave Starlight a worried glance. “Did anypony get hurt? What happened?”
Celestia gave a sigh. “Over in Manehattan, a quiet, middle-aged librarian has… well, for lack of a better word, she has turned violent and feral. Without provocation or warning, she attacked the library’s patrons. Some of her attacks might have been hoof to hoof, but for the most part, according to eyewitness reports, she bombarded the patrons telekinetically with books.”
Twilight gaped for a moment while Starlight raised her hoof as if class were in session. “I’m sorry, she… threw books at the patrons? Whatever for?”
“Well, that’s the mystery.” Celestia explained, her horn lighting up again to project an image of the Manehattan Library. “The attack happened at 1:30 this afternoon, and fortunately there were only minor injuries reported. The police sedated and apprehended the suspect at around 1:45, but since then, nopony has been able to reason with her.”
The image changed to then portray Manehattan General Hospital, zooming in on the psychiatric wing. “She is being kept under sedation at this time, here. Every time our specialists attempt to revive her in order to do further assessment, she flies into a rage and becomes a danger to others as well as herself.”
Starlight spoke up. “Does she say anything while she is awake?”
“As far as we can tell she is non-verbal, acting more like a wild animal than an intelligent pony. Our best magical experts have applied every magical scan that they know of, but the most their examinations have shown is a faint aura of dark magic. Unfortunately, this dark magic is so basic and primal that they can learn nothing more specific about it.”
Starlight stroked her chin in thought while Twilight spoke up. “What’s next?”
Celestia pressed her lips together. “I will meet with Luna when she awakens later this evening, and we will prepare to accept the librarian into our care. We hope to discover what happened and to remove whatever it is that affected her. We will also send some of our best agents to investigate.
“You can count on us, Princess.” Twilight replied without hesitation.
“Actually… this won’t require the assistance of your group, Twilight, at least not at this stage. This is only an investigation, and until we better understand what is at hoof, I would rather leave it assigned to some of my more covert agents.
“Ah. Right!” Twilight blushed a little.
“However, I do appreciate your willingness to see to it.”
“Heh heh. No problem, Celestia.” Twilight wasn’t sure if she felt relieved or disappointed. Maybe just embarrassed? Yep. Definitely a little embarrassed. It was fine. Probably fine. The whole thing was probably much ado about nothing.
“Anyway.” Celestia waved her hoof dismissively as if she were shooing away an annoying insect, a grin returning to her face. “We can’t do anything at the moment. Why don’t you two tell me about this intriguing event that went down in Ponyville today while we wait for Ms. Dash. I received a rather interesting report form Agent Sweetiedrops.”
* * *
Tempest looked from her keycard to the slot by the doorknob again. It was startling that there was nothing magical about the device, and yet somehow, her door would open by a simple swipe of the plastic card she held in her hoof. Grinning, she swiped the card again, hearing the satisfying click of the latch unlocking automatically.
I know what the manager said. I don’t care. There has to be some magic at play. There must be!
Her inquisitive nature made it difficult to not take the darn thing apart to discover how it worked, but she had other business this evening. Sliding the keycard into her saddlebags, Tempest looked up and down the hallway before heading for the exit sign near the lobby. It wasn’t midnight, but it was late enough that most ponies had already checked in and retired for the evening.
With another look towards her saddlebags, Tempest made sure that her fixation charm was secure, keeping her saddlebags firmly pressed against her flanks to hide her cutie mark. It was her best idea in a strategy to hide in plain sight, and she thought of it after she paid for a mane dye and purchased a snappy new jacket. After the debacle at the library and the scene she made in the streets of Manehattan evading the police, she didn’t want to draw any more attention to herself, and she hoped these steps would be sufficient to protect her identity.
“Heading out for the evening, Miss?”
In front of the lobby doors, Tempest looked back at the reception desk to gaze at the young earth pony stallion managing the hotel for the night shift. The bright blue pony was warmly smiling at her, eager to assist and perhaps with a flirtatious air.
“I shouldn’t be gone more than a couple of hours. You’ll leave the lights on for me, won’t you Mr…?”
The stallion stood up a little straighter. “Dusty Inglenook, at your service. It would be my pleasure, m’lady.” He gave an overly formal bow. Tempest imagined if she had held out a hoof he would’ve likely kissed it. “Anything you require, tonight. I am at your service.”
“Yes… quite.” Tempest ducked her head, her face burning a little bit as she turned away. It had been a long time since a stallion had looked at her that way. “Your thoughts are welcome… er.” Tempest shook her head, her face heating up further. That came out wrong. “I mean, you are most kind. Thank you sir. Um, good night.”
“Good night, m’lady.” Inglenook grinned. “And… stay out of the darker alleys and side streets. A lady such as yourself can’t be too careful, what with some unsavory characters skulking around out there.”
The stallion’s smile was almost slimy, but it could have been her imagination.
Right. Wouldn’t want to come across any unsavory hotel managers either. I’ll keep that in mind.
“I should be fine, Mr. Inglenook. Fare thee well.” Tempest internally winced at her verbal slip as she brushed her newly tinted green bangs back from her face. Without another word, she closed up the fastener on her jacket and stepped out into the chilly night air.
The maps and guides in her motel room were helpful in getting more oriented, and now that she knew the layout of the city better, she headed to the south with a purpose. Still, she kept a watchful eye out for any ponies that might still be up and about. Unsavory characters didn’t concern her so much as the police, ironically enough. Especially if the police had a good description of what she looked like. For the fifth or sixth time that day, she wondered whether she should have gone even further in altering her appearance.
Fortunately, amulet fabrication didn’t require a lot of floor space or fancy machinery. What it did require, however, was two things. A custom jig for tracing runes in an exact manner, and a device that could channel and amplify mana. The jig she already had, having completed its construction only an hour earlier. The mana amplifier? That’s why she needed to head due south about four kilometers distant. It was her friend at Sisters’ School, Bright Light, that was key in her finally discovering the secret to amulet creation.
* * *
“I’m serious, Tempest. You need to go to medical. Your headaches are getting to where they are a daily occurrence! I’m worried about you.”
“And I’m telling you, Bright. They’re nothing to be concerned about. It’s just the stress of my project that’s getting to me. That’s it. But by the time I’m done you’re gonna see something truly special.”
“Not if your headaches worsen further. And now your nose is bleeding. C’mon. I’ll go with you.”
Hoofing a kerchief, Tempest pressed it to the end of her muzzle. Her voice sounded partially muffled through the material. “Bright, just because your speciality is healing magics doesn’t mean that everypony is suffering from some pathology. I'm perfectly—ack!” Tempest winced as another wave of pain turned sharp, centered right at the base of her horn. Embarrassed, she turned away, rubbing her forehead with one hoof while keeping the kerchief pressed up with the other.
“Ack? Perfectly ack? Define ack.” Bright Light leaned further over Tempest’s bunk, trying to meet her eyes. His gaze wandered up to look more closely at her horn. “Is that… a mana scorch-mark?”
Tempest’s eyes widened before she quickly moved a hoof up, hiding the bit of char that was near the tip. Bright’s much larger hooves rolled her back towards him and his horn lit up, doing a magical scan.
“Lay off! I didn’t sign any consent to treatment!” Tempest batted at Bright’s horn, trying to tap it so she could fizzle out his spell. “What’s the matter with you?”
“You lay off, Tempest! Friends don’t let friends channel mana drunk!” Bright easily defended against Tempest’s single-hoofed pawing.
“I’m not drunk, you big lug!”
“It’s not a hangover!”
“IT’S NOT A TUMOR!”
“Whatever it is, I’m not going to stop bothering you until we get to the bottom of it. I’m your friend, Tempest. Besides. Who else am I going to appeal to when Princess Luna’s practical exams get too hard in “defense against the dark arts?”
Tempest glared at her friend for a moment, but Bright Light didn’t relent a bit. His steely brown eyes continued to stare hers down with a level look.
“Fiiiiine.” Tempest rolled her eyes, before moving the kerchief to see if the bleeding had stopped. “Listen. I’ve been trying to embed runes into crystal, to imbue magical properties into it, such as lightning, or fire.” She grinned back at him, waggling her eyebrows despite her scintillating headache. “Or flight.”
“Impossible. The best enchanters of our day have never figured it out.” Bright continued gazing at her, before his eyes widened slightly. Tempest had a particular smirk on her face he knew only too well. “Wait. You’ve discovered something?”
“Preliminary results, Bright. But even so, the math is working out. I am getting more power retained in a crystal matrix than should be possible. But I need a more powerful beam to embed the rune.”
Bright scowled at her for a minute. “More power like what might be causing mana-scorching?”
Tempest sighed, rubbing her horn gingerly with a hoof. “It takes an intensely focused beam. And it takes everything I got to channel it. And you know my horn can pack quite a punch.”
Bright rolled his eyes. “Oh don’t go bragging again how you lifted all of the exam weights, and then the examiners as well during your school orientation.” He studied Tempest for a moment as the two watched each other in silence. “You aren’t going to stop this, are you?”
Tempest gave a wan smile. Bright knew her too well. “Would you? I can’t stop. Not when I am this close!”
Looking pensive for a moment, Bright knelt down and lowered his voice to a whisper. “What if it’s somepony else’s horn?”
“What?” Tempest scooted back to look at Bright again. Not just because of what he said, but because his breath in her ear tickled. “And scorch somepony else’s? I can’t do that to somepony! Besides, it would let them see the secret I’m working on.”
Bright grinned. “Oh, he won’t mind. He’s dead.” Tempest just looked back in confusion, her mouth hanging open.
“Wait right there. I’m going to sneak into the anatomy lab for something. You know absolutely nothing about this.”
* * *
Several monuments jutted from the cold earth, sentinels that stood watch over the deserted grounds of the Grand Lake Memorial Cemetery. The temperature continued to plummet as Tempest hunkered down further within the collar of her new jacket, seeking warmth. The pungent smell of the jacket’s new material mixed oddly with the wet and earthy smells of the hedgerow obscuring the stonework wall behind it. The wall encircled the entirety of the cemetery, enclosing an area roughly the size of four city blocks, dimly lit in the pale moonlight.
A large wrought iron gate hung from bulky gate pillars two meters to either side, the doors meeting in the middle to bar her entry. Since only a heavy steel latch held the doors in place, it was a simple matter to use her magic to lift the latch and slide the metal bar to the side with a clack.
Pushing the gate open, Tempest winced as the rusty hinges squealed in protest, piercing the silent air with their metallic cry. The surrounding area by comparison seemed to hold its breath seeming to grow more silent if such a thing were possible.
Tempest cleared her throat, glancing over her shoulder nervously. “Heh. The hinges were rusty.” She rolled her eyes. “Of course they were.”
Wincing again, this time at the sound of her overly loud voice, Tempest nuzzled into her jacket again and gave a sigh. She spoke in a quieter tone, if for no other reason than to fill the silence. “Whelp. Let’s go get a unicorn horn.”
Passing the gate, Tempest thought for a moment as she looked at it, cold and black as if the moonlight couldn’t find purchase on its surface.
Best to just leave the thing ajar. With everything else I gotta do tonight, I don’t want to hear that sound again.
Walking further in, she began to scan left and right for signs of a recent burial. Some of the statuary caught her eye, and she walked up closer to a larger monument, the burial site of a pegasus mare named Dawning Dove. Tempest looked over the weathered surface of the granite noting a few cracks and some lichens growing beneath the lettering.
Tempest shook her head in some mild disbelief. She read the date again, tracing the rough surface with her hoof. 476 CE. This mare passed on over four hundred years after Tempest had been exiled. And more time than that had passed on since this mare had been laid to rest. Tempest shuddered, as feelings of isolation and abandonment crept into her heart. Everypony she had known was gone, save for two alicorns. One she meant to save, the other to destroy. She looked down at The Eye dangling from a simple cord around her neck.
Tears began to come to her eyes. She had agreed to accept this foul entity’s help. She had refused his first offer, but then he had accepted her counteroffer without hesitation. It was that lack of hesitation that bothered her the most. Had she made a mistake?
That is a distinct possibility, if what happened to the Librarian is any indication. Can I trust this power that seemed to be freely given? Was it worth it? Should I have simply accepted a different fate and made my peace? Would I be happy, dwelling in whatever place this pegasus now resided?
Tempest shook her head again and frowned, backing away from the intimidating grave marker as she wiped away the moisture rapidly cooling as it trailed down her cheeks. Perhaps it was the environment that was getting her. She couldn’t afford to have doubts, not now—she was locked into her course, and her destiny had been set. She had been allowed to wield some of this creature’s power, an entity calling itself Maelstrom. But even so, he held no power over her, his promises of greater power be damned! She had rebuffed him! What she had now was enough. It had to be. How could she appreciate being reunited with her mother, if the power she wielded killed her or warped her into something unrecognizable?
No. I am wiser than that. I won’t fall to Maelstrom’s siren song.
Setting her jaw firm, Tempest looked around again. The moonlight was bright enough that she could make out moderate details of the area around her. She would continue until she found a recent burial plot. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but it was absolutely necessary.
Walking further ahead, Tempest continued to scan the grounds as she breathed mist into the icy night air. Rounding another copse of oak trees, she saw it: a site with freshly disturbed earth, a new layer of turf spread over the surface. Walking closer, she noted further that fresh flowers had been placed that couldn’t have been more more than a couple of days old.
Now. If only this plot is the resting place for a fellow of my tribe.
Tempest breathed out a relieved sigh, reading the name inscribed above the epitaph. With a one in three chance, fortune was on her side tonight. Placing her hoof on the surface of the rather generic grave stone, she closed her eyes in quiet contemplation, offering a silent thanks to the deceased.
Sir, I know you have probably lived a full life. Unfortunately, in your horn there remains a greater purpose yet to fulfill. Please forgive the intrusion, but I need to remove a part for a little while. I promise to return it. Eventually.
Tempest brought a small saw out of her saddle bags, the metal teeth gleaming in the soft light.
Her eyes traced the blade from toe to heel as she contemplated the moment. How had it come to this? To skulk into a graveyard, to exhume a body, and to sever its horn? What was this, a macabre ghost story told by foals?
But like her saw, sharpened so that it might easily remove the desired appendage, she was ready. Prepared and refined to do what was necessary, to plunge into whatever filth or decay that was necessary in order to attain her victory. Such were the sacrifices that needed to be made to free Luna for good.
Lighting her horn, Tempest began her grisly work.
* * *
His mane was immaculate. The servants of House Pavo had done first-class work, as was their norm. Urbane, that’s what it was. His servants had assured that his suit would be spotless of any speck of lint or hair, and that his mane was coiffed with just the right flare. All thanks to Uncle Royston, the patriarch of the noble house of Pavo. He only hired the most attentive and the best. Not that Narcisse would tell any of his servants that. One must keep their servants lean and hungry, and eager to please.
Narcisse Pavo rounded the corner of the corridor, ignoring the beautiful tapestries that softened the harsh appearance of the no-nonsense stonework that marked Luna’s wing of the castle. He kept his eyes trained firmly ahead, focused on the task that was set before him. Narcisse was employed as a lead operative for Princess Luna’s Agents of Moonlight, and he was usually called upon when the Princess needed information gathering and undercover work. His methods, which ranged from unorthodox to downright ruthless, usually brought rapid success. He was not a pony to be trifled with.
Looking ahead, he took in the appearance of the two night guards standing watch on either side of the Nightfall room, Luna’s favorite briefing quarters. The guards didn’t seem to acknowledge him, but he knew that they must’ve been well-aware of his approach.
Predictably, the two bat ponies leaned their pole-arms across his his path as he arrived, causing him to grunt and roll his eyes as he came up short. “Seriously? Haven’t you two been briefed that I was coming? Princess Luna has need of my services, so don’t waste my time.” The guards, a mare and a stallion, narrowed their eyes at him in turn, the stallion baring his fangs. As if such a thing would intimidate him in any way. Narcisse tapped his hoof on the floor. “If you don’t stand aside in five seconds you two will be finding your plots guarding Magical Kindergarten. I am being generous!”
“You can wait like any other dignitary or officer until you have been announced.” The stallion growled out. “You are not above expected levels of decorum, or castle policy for that matter. You will wait like anypony else.”
As the guard, whatever his fool name was, turned to the door, Narcisse clicked his tongue. “And if I don’t?” He bristled. “The two of you couldn’t stop me from entering if you tried.”
At that point the door sprang open from the inside, sheathed in a familiar bluish glow. Princess Luna’s face then followed, narrowing her eyes as she glared past her guards towards the unicorn antagonizing them. “Must you bait my night guards, Narcisse? Thou certainly aren’t winning any friends or influencing ponies with your arrogant behavior.” The Lunar Diarch turned on her hoof and walked back to her desk, a dark mahogany number with silver metallic accents. “Enter and be seated… and civil.”
Narcisse passed between the two guards, feeling their glares upon him as he used his magic to close the door, not even dignifying the two with a look. “My most sincere apologies, Princess Luna.” He sat in the chair provided, straightening his suit and tie before looking up again, morphing his face to one of contrition. “I am sorry, my Lady Liege. I humbly ask your indulgence for my eccentricities.”
Princess Luna gazed emotionlessly at Narcisse for a moment, her eyes tracking upwards to his ridiculously coiffed red mane, before she smirked. “...No you aren’t. You’re not sorry in the least. And you don’t fool me for a second, you puffed up, pontificating peacock.”
Narcisse tensed for a moment, not liking the Princess’s tone, or her wordplay.
“I keep you in my employ, because quite simply, you are the most effective agent I have that operates during my sister’s day. You seem able to infiltrate any unsavory element, and can gather information more effectively than my night agents… At least you can while the sun is still up.”
Studying the polished surface of his alabaster hoof, Narcisse shrugged unconcernedly. In a mood to be indulgent, he let her aspersion slide. “I thank you, my liege, for your faith in me. I remain your humble servant.”
The Princess snorted, but her expression was one of bemusement.
“What is your assignment for me?”
“You will take your private airship and head with all speed to the city Manehattan. There were a few strange events yesterday, culminating in a quiet librarian being corrupted into some kind of feral, violent creature, resembling a pony, and yet twisted somehow. Thus far our magic healers have been unable to recover her right mind.”
Narcisse knitted his brows for a moment, trying to think of any device or spell that would have such an effect, and yet be undiscoverable or to render a pony unrecoverable. “Any other victims to this mysterious attack?”
“Nay.” Luna stood up from behind her desk, a file folder with some documents held in her magic beside her. “You assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to investigate each of these strange events. See if you can establish whether the attack and other strange events are related to one another. If another event happens, like the one with the librarian, I want you to exert your skills of investigation and scrutiny to find the link, and if possible, the pony or creature responsible. Track them down, detain them, and apprehend them if at all possible. Do not kill them. Your pay will be as before.”
Narcisse accepted the folder into his own magic, bringing it to him so that he could quickly peruse the contents. “Any other special instructions for me, your highness?”
“Only to be careful, Narcisse.” Princess Luna gave a tired sigh. “I care for you, as I do all my ponies. If you require more resources, do not hesitate to contact me through my agency in Manehattan. The rest of the information is in there.” Luna indicated the folder with a hoof.
“I will leave as soon as The Exelsior is fueled and equipped. If I may take my leave?”
“You are dismissed.”
* * *
This day sure didn’t turn out the way she was hoping. Meadow turned the corner, walking back towards her condo located near the hospitality sector of Manehattan. After visiting a few stores and restocking her cupboards, Meadow had returned to visit with her cousin Coco again. Coco had invited a couple of friends over, and they had enjoyed a lively evening of their favorite card game of Chardoneigh. It was a welcome distraction, but now that she was heading home, her feelings of foreboding and suspicion were returning.
She didn’t want to feel that way about Tempest. Tartarus, the only reason she approached Tempest in the first place was to try to keep the new tradition for Equestria’s newest holiday celebrating Princess Twilight: to make a new friend. But it rapidly became more than that.
The unicorn had looked pensive and lonely, and it seemed as if the entire ship was ignoring her presence. After introducing herself, and then later when Tempest began to open up, Meadow found herself becoming more and more enthralled by the mare. By the time the voyage was done, Meadow’s desire for friendshipping the mare was completely genuine. It had become more than a simple gesture to fulfill a new tradition for Friendship Day.
Now, however—as she reviewed all of the day’s events in her mind—she couldn’t quite shake the feeling that there was something off about the mare, and not just because of her old and weathered cloak or her funny mode of speech as if she were Princess Luna barely back from the moon.
As Meadow was about to turn the latch to her front door, she looked across the street and noticed a tall unicorn mare walking the other way. Because of her position behind some landscaping, Meadow was able to study the mare as she passed without fear of being seen. What caught her eye was a distinctive yellow to the mare’s coat, combined with the mare’s taller stature and bangs. The mare would look a lot like Tempest, if not for the greenish tint of her bangs, and the shorter cropped style she had in the back.
Meadow turned back around and opened her door, but after a second she froze, her pupils constricting to pinpricks.
Meadow’s cousin was one of the better known mane stylists in Manehattan. Depeche Vogue wasn’t as close to her as Coco was, but she knew his work when she saw it. Tinting a pony’s bangs and cropping the mane short at the crest was a style he was well-known for, and if Tempest were to meet with him in order to alter her look… well, if she met Depeche, she might walk out of his salon looking like that.
Pushing the door shut behind her, Meadow turned around to follow. If this was Tempest, she would need to explain a few things, including her new look. Blowing her bangs out of her eyes, Meadow made her way across the street.