This, was a momentous day!
A historical undertaking the likes of which Princess Twilight Sparkle never thought she'd be able to see with her own eyes, let alone partake in!
Any minute now, the mirror leading to Sunset's world would activate, and through it would appear one of the last three members of a long-lost civilization, her brain brimming with information thought permanently lost! Twilight had everything she needed for documentation; paper, quills, a camera, soft clay for hoof imprints, and even a phonograph to record the sound of her voice!
To an ordinary pony, that might have seemed excessive, but an ordinary pony would be WRONG, because Coltlantis fell so long ago that the ravages of time, made much worse underwater, had wiped away nearly every trace of it, and some believe it never existed at all! So much knowledge, so much history lost by ponies shrugging their shoulders and saying 'Well, I can't see it, so it must not have happened'!
But no more! With the data collected today, Twilight would have not just proof, but a permanent reminder that the legends were true, that just like Nightmare Moon, the sirens and Coltlantis before them were no old mares' tales, and then they'd see, they'd all see that-
Shaken out of her thoughts, Twilight turned her head to see Sunset Shimmer, thoroughly unamused as the massive (at least three times the height of the average pony, just from her upper body to the top of her head), yellow hippocampus behind her looked on with a curiously-raised eyebrow.
"Am I going to be safe with this one? She was looking kind of... manic."
"You'll be okay," Sunset assured without looking away from Twilight, "I've heard she just gets this way about her studies."
"I do not get any 'way' about my studies," Twilight replied with furrowed brows before glancing back and forth between them, "and when did you two get here?"
"Around the time you were taking stock of those implements over there," Adagio answered coolly, "smiling ear to ear with wide, unblinking eyes."
"And softly giggling to yourself."
She looked to Sunset for confirmation, receiving a nod.
"Had to shout just to get your attention."
Twilight blushed. "...Sorry."
Glancing over her shoulder, Sunset smiled. "The portal isn't going to close and you don't need a unicorn or anyone else to open it, so you can come back whenever you're done here, okay?"
Adagio nodded, Sunset headed back through the portal, and Twilight was alone with her subject of study.
The princess looked up at her with a smile. "So, before we begi-"
"Before we begin," Adagio cut her off in a cold whisper, her eyes narrowed, "I haven't forgotten that above all, you're the one who, despite valuing magic oh-so-highly yourself, destroyed ours, cost us our way of life," she leaned in closer, "our voices," and closer, "our reason to live," and closer, "and left us for dead without a second thought." Her large, pointy teeth were inches from Twilight, who nearly shook with the terror that bubbled under her skin at the creature's menacing voice and hint of death in her eyes. She jumped with a start as Adagio quickly struck her massive hooves at the floor by Twilight's sides, as if to pin her without touching her.
"So when I say this," she continued gently, all malice drained from her tone, "you'll know it isn't out of some hollow sense of forced gratitude." She quickly, but carefully scooped Twilight up in her arms (forelegs? Only legs?), her voice quiet and almost tearful as she hugged the pony princess against her chest. "Thank you, not for your efforts on the broken gems, but for having been Fluttershy's friend, and helping her to become My Sweetie."
Twilight, overcome, hugged the scaly, somewhat slippery exterior (no sign of a mark from where her gem should have been, she noted) as best she could, resting her head against the surprisingly warm, soft (or at least, soft while covered in a hard, thin surface) body.
...She could have done without the emotional whiplash, though.
A moment later, the two calmed down and regained enough distance that Twilight wouldn't hurt her neck by making eye-contact. "Okay, so... ready to begin?" Adagio nodded, so she raised her quill and paper, but didn't start marking anything down yet. "First question:" She frowned. "...Was it really necessary to start with scaring me like that?"
Adagio, not smiling in the slightest, maintained unblinking eye-contact. "Yes." The return of fear and sadness to Twilight's face made her feel a little guilty, so she shrugged and looked away. "If I didn't get that out of my system now, I might never get another chance. Besides, Aria made me promise to at least spook you a little."
Thinking about it, Twilight nodded.
Long-harbored feelings of resentment even after regaining their singing voices, suggesting that the loss of their gems and all that went with them caused a considerable amount of grief for the sirens. Hopefully this chance to vent will be enough at least for Adagio, if not the others by proxy.
"And with that out of the way," Adagio continued with a relaxed, faintly apologetic smile, "I'm all yours."
Twilight felt a blush creep up her neck at the insinuating tone, but did her best as a scholar to ignore it. "R-right, uh... Let's start with this: How did you first acquire the gems?"
"Those stones were always ready in a vault somewhere, but no one had been allowed to use them until I, the first to do so in millennia, earned the right to do so through Coltlantian law."
"I see," said Twilight while hastily jotting down notes, "and, 'earned the right'?"
Adagio chuckled. "Well, the right as defined by previous generations. There were once simple trials to wield that particular power; proof that the prospective user be able to direct a massive crowd, ability to compose songs with very little preparation, a good swimming speed to be able to keep up with events of those involved by the spell, et cetera. I suspect that the standards were raised by influential elites who didn't want to even think about having their positions threatened or such a power used against them, because the extra steps I had to go through were more tests of bureaucracy and patience than skill or anything relevant to using the damn things."
Adagio answered in a tired deadpan. "Did you know I was a licensed spire operator, qualified to run four kinds of undersea farms at once, intimately familiar with runic calligraphy, had five scriptures written about my mastery of Coltlantian history, economics, and architecture, never had anything resembling a criminal record, and legally owned two houses, a little-known cavern system (never got around to making it a formal mine, but didn't need to), and a-... well, I suppose the best translation for the object is 'street light'?"
Twilight's mouth hung open.
"Coltlantis's greatest flaw was its elitism, Twilight Sparkle, their sheer hubris, to the point that those with the clout to do so would see any law, any restriction, any rule passed so long as it meant that no others could easily ascend in social rank and their own standing could never be threatened. Would you believe," she asked with a hint of a smirk, "that I began my 'qualifications' just to mock them?"
"It started with the street light," she nodded, a nostalgic smile again exposing rows of fangs, "a series of shenanigans led to the light on the corner of a particular building being installed in my name, a coworker spoke in jest about my qualifying for a particular rank as a result, and I started going through the motions of being registered for these things as a joke, just to make fun of the senselessness of the rules as they were."
Noting the funny look she was getting, Adagio shrugged. "I was much more... playful, back then, and the joke was that even a rambunctious girl like me could find a place among the creme de la creme of society if the right hoops were jumped and the right-... well, let's say, 'papers' signed."
Twilight continued to stare at her as though her head were upside down.
"It was much funnier to most of my fellow Coltlantians, I assure you. When I found out that I really could get somewhere with this, attain an honor that no one in all the upper echelons of Coltlantian society had, from high-profile celebrities to government officials, I put in some more effort, suffered through the slow, tedious parts, maneuvered around the efforts made to stop me, and when the important trials finally came around, I was more than ready."
Twilight's eye twitched and her quill had stopped moving. "You went through all that trouble... got certified for all those different things... and obtained legendary, magical artifacts... for a joke?!"
Adagio grinned triumphantly. "Mmmhm!"
Trying to picture ponies gaining control of the Elements of Harmony for such a reason, she shook her head. "Do you always make life-changing decisions out of whimsy and spite?"
She shrugged. "Well, the attention I got for breaking convention was nice too, but I started talking to what would be the love of my life out of little more than idle curiosity. Things happen, Twilight Sparkle."
Groaning, Twilight jotted down another note.
The sirens had humble beginnings.
"...When you say 'massive crowd,' does that refer to an army?"
"If the gems are applied for military purposes, yes. I think the most popular use was to go out to an enemy army, get their attention, and lead them straight into the jaws of the nearest leviathan."
"'Nearest'?! There's more than one?!"
Adagio raised an eyebrow. "Been another culling in the last thousand years? Well, I suppose I should specify that for us, 'leviathan' referred to any gargantuan, hostile sea creature."
"I-I see... You keep using 'I' when referring to earning the gems, did Aria and Sonata not play a part?"
"In getting the gems? Not really, no. I got them, but couldn't very well use all three by myself and going solo wouldn't have been as effective, so I had to pick partners before I could take up the job in full. Believe it or not, protecting our home was something all three of us genuinely were happy to do. Well, that, and slacking off and misusing what I'd been trusted with would have only proven the higher-ups 'right,' of course."
"Of course," giggled Twilight as she marked down the original reason for the gems' use, "and, this job was, in short, to steer possible threats and unwelcome visitors away from Coltlantis?"
"And, according to Sunset's summary of what Fluttershy told her, rather than just going home once your spell wore off (because there was a time when you actually wanted it to), a majority of those vessels ended up meeting disastrous fates, for which Coltlantis as a whole was blamed regardless?"
"And rather than directly face the issues involved with keeping so many other civilizations at arm's length, they picked out three convenient scapegoats, yes."
Tilting her head, Twilight frowned. "Do you think that might have been because you'd deliberately made a nuisance of yourself for higher-ranking kelpies before this point?"
"Possibly. Do you think it would have mattered to those same kelpies if they were willing to sell out those they deemed beneath them, completely refusing access to the city for 'lesser beings' of other races in the first place?"
"You're saying that they'd have thrown you under the carriage anyway?"
Adagio idly examined a hoof, her expression disinterested. "Why do you think I was so keen on mocking them to begin with? Their foreign policy, 'Stay out unless we specifically invite you,' was based on how anyone but the highest of 'the elite' was treated in the city itself; undesirables, average citizens, and even those that just weren't high enough on the totem pole were strictly barred from buildings and functions to which they weren't provably invited or had specific business, to where they hadn't 'earned' their place." She looked at Twilight with cold, unfeeling eyes. "Can you imagine the indignity those poor upper crust must have suffered when not just a middle-tier noble was given access when she 'lucked into some old relics,' but brought two 'worthless nobodies' with along with her? As opposed to any of their friends or family? Who cares if they protect the city without conflict, right?"
Puzzling for a moment, Twilight connected the dots. "Aria and Sonata were from the lower tiers of Coltlantian society." A nod. "If you don't mind my asking, why did you have them follow you as opposed to two from your own... er, is 'caste' the right word?"
"Close enough. I picked those two because I met them during my shenanigans to 'qualify' for the gems, we had sung together a few times over those many months, and I found that their voices complimented mine better than anyone else I'd ever met." Twilight stared at her as though waiting for more. She shrugged. "That's it."
"They squabbled with one another often, but they were my surest bet for effective use of the gems' power, and despite my grievances with it, I really did love my home enough to want to do a good job of protecting it. Incidentally, that was the first thing I ever got them to agree on."
Something in Twilight's heart broke, a mutinous little part of her daring to ponder what she'd do if Equestria ever turned its back on her. "If it's any consolation-"
Adagio raised a hoof as if to push something backward. "Thank you, but there's no need."
One thing Twilight hadn't needed Sunset to tell her about the sirens was not to press them emotionally, so she nodded, let the matter drop, and proceeded with the interview. "What was my next...? Ah, given your earlier comments on kelpies 'earning their place' in Coltlantian society, did mocking that system further have anything to do with choosing Aria and Sonata?"
"Believe it or not, no, that hadn't occurred to me until someone pointed it out the day after." She smiled. "So much the better, though!"
Rolling her eyes, Twilight smiled before consulting her notes again. "Our history books indicate that while there had been disagreements and friction with land-dwelling species for many years beforehoof, it came to a boil when a half dozen different civilizations got together to force their way into Coltlantis, most likely to steal their technology for themselves. Does that sound accurate to you?"
Thinking for a moment, Adagio nodded. "The weather-altering spires were the main attraction, probably because they could be seen sticking out of the water for miles around. There were other things, but that was the one our diplomats- and bear in mind that I use that word very loosely, -bragged about the loudest. I suppose it should be no surprise, then, that when the almighty Coltlantian military was overwhelmed, it was the weather spires' destructive potential they turned to." She smiled thinly. "Careful what you wish for, hm?"
Twilight frowned. "With the loss of most of their armed forces, those nations weren't prepared to deal with regular threats of the time, and most of them fell into chaos." Even without Discord. But then again-
"I should think so," said an unsmiling Adagio, "the three of us spent a least a couple months flying around in search of the ones responsible for that conflict in the first place." Her tone grew colder. "I don't regret what we did to those people, because there were a lot of innocent kelpies in Coltlantis, too, those who didn't flee the city before it was surrounded, both above the waves and below, but I do regret that we developed a taste for it." She looked Twilight in the eye, sadness and fatigue clear in her own. "I don't think any of us really cared what would happen to us by the time we got our revenge, but the bitterness, the lingering resentment we felt for the loss of our home and being betrayed by that same home, crept into our hearts while we did.
The gems were powered by negative energy in the first place, something Coltlantis had in abundance, but it happened that in the process of making them fight each other the way they fought kelpies, we could harvest the resulting flow and keep it up even longer. Even when we ran out of targets, when we were satisfied with the countries involved with the fall of Coltlantis, we settled on doing the same to all land-dwelling species. 'If war and conflict are all land-walkers want,' we reasoned, 'we'll give it to them.'" She sighed as Twilight possibly jotted that down for a quote. "Apart from the occasional coffee break of making our thralls worship us, we were essentially just monsters by that point; rampaging around with no intention of stopping or forming any concrete plans for where we'd go next."
The sirens' attacks began as a form of revenge, but became senseless and indiscriminate as the three fell to evil and possibly despair; their home and everything they knew and loved gone forever.
Looking up from her notepad, Twilight frowned. "Do you, um, a-and I guess I don't blame you if you do, but, do you still feel that way about land-dwelling species?"
Adagio shook her head. "At this point, I don't feel anything at all toward them, even the ones directly responsible for the end of Coltlantis. Even Aria doesn't seem to hate people in general, now that they don't treat us like they used to."
Glancing over her notes again, Twilight smiled. "I think that concludes my primary inquiries, but I do have some miscellaneous questions, if you'd indulge me." Adagio nodded. "Great! You mentioned an abundance of negative energy controlled by Coltlantis to power the gems, but where did that power supply come from?"
"The citizens, mostly." Twilight tilted her head curiously. Ignoring the urge to do something that might make her squirm, Adagio chuckled. "I take it that pony civilization doesn't have a working energy network, let alone punishment chambers to power them. It can't be too far off in your future; even the human world has something of the sort without magic."
"In brief: We didn't have prisons, we had small rooms in which the guilty were subjected to some kind of extreme discomfort if their crime warranted it and no other punishment was working out, the resulting negative energy was directly harnessed by the chamber, and channeled into the network for use all over the city. We had other sources of power, but some made their living just being willingly harvested a few days a week."
"I-I see... Given that there were higher and lower tiers of nobles, was Coltlantis governed by some kind of royalty?"
"Council of twelve or so 'elites,' when they could be bothered to come out and actually do their jobs."
"Was it their decision to blame you three?"
"Possibly, but they were far from the only ones I heard echoing that sentiment, nor the first, before it was firmly decided on."
"Do you know how the gems' destruction could have affected your vocal cords?"
"In the same way damage to your horn might affect your brain, especially if you were channeling a powerful spell at the time." She would have laughed as Twilight winced, but unlike Twilight, she had actually lived that experience. Maybe she and Sunset did understand exactly what that did to them? "I heard it was explained to you as having binoculars explode while you're looking through them? Accurate comparison, I can tell you."
Twilight again shuddered at that horrific mental image. Thanks for the nightmares, Discord! "...And, I've heard that there was another musical showcase over there since, and after that...?" She smiled brightly when Adagio nodded.
"Yes, thanks to My Sweetie and her friends, your friends, we ended up regaining the connection to our magic." She could practically hear the 'Tell me how!!' that she read in Twilight's wide, pleading eyes, making her chuckle. Something one doesn't really notice about ponies when hovering high above their heads? Ponies were cute. "The idea was that finding a way we could perform not unlike we used to, it might shake things loose again, as per Discord's suggestion."
"We did it by singing very differently than before, but when we tested our normal singing voices backstage, we found that nothing had changed. Fluttershy, who was there at the time, almost immediately fell into despair, and in our collective wish to comfort her, we sang a lullaby." Twilight looked at her as though waiting for the rest. Sadistic thoughts creeping through her mind, she shrugged. "That was it."
Adagio resisted any visible reaction as Twilight nearly fell over, spastically flapping her wings a few times as she righted herself, sputtering.
"Th-that's it?! What do you mean that's it?! Singing lullabies somehow undid substantial damage to your vocal cords and internal leyline networks?!"
"There had to be more to it than that."
Increasingly tempted though she was to permanently withhold this information, just to be able to picture the pony princess's permanent, petulant pout, that same face made her want to pick Twilight up and squeeze her until she heard bones snapping. It was in that moment that she found herself truly able to let go of her grievances toward this pony, smiling warmly.
"There was. Specifically, you know already that we once sang to protect our home." Twilight nodded, the suspense on her little face almost distractingly adorable in its eager thirst for knowledge. "And that if we could wake it up again, we'd be healed." Again, Twilight nodded. "The way we thought we'd do that was with a metal song, but when that didn't work, Fluttershy cried, thinking it was hopeless. In our effort to make her feel better, we inadvertently sang to protect something we cared about, which was what woke up our magic again."
Connecting the dots, Twilight started to smile, wider and wider until it became a warm, heart-felt grin of pure joy that tickled Adagio's own insides a little.
"Would... would you say it was the Magic of Fri-"
"Yes. There were no rainbows or anything, but I think the spirit of the thing is about the same."
Quickly writing that down, Twilight paused, looking up at her curiously. "Not even a little rainbow?"
"Not that we saw."
"Huh." Finishing whatever she was marking down, Twilight looked up again. "I think that's just about everything, give or take a few details I'd like mainly for posterity, but thank you again for your time."
As she'd hoped to do, Twilight took Adagio's picture (though she had to stand in the doorway to be able to capture her entire, scaly body in the shot), got a hoof-print, a short composition involving clam-harvesting as an example of Coltlantian folk music (Twilight sharply declined Adagio's offer to hear the racier version, let alone have it submitted to a national museum), and the Coltlantian caste system in the form of a flowchart.
"Okay," Twilight said as she reached the bottom of her checklist, "the last thing I would like is a recording of your voice." She indicated the phonograph. "Is there anything you'd like to say to the people of the modern world?"
Several things came to mind, but she knew Twilight probably just wouldn't release it to the public if she moaned ecstatically into the microphone or said something like "Princess Twilight likes deep, thorough investigations" in suggestive tones, so she opted for something Fluttershy might be proud of. Clearing her throat, she leaned in, smiled, and said "Friendship is Magic."
Twilight blinked, then beamed, hopping up and down with glee as she talked a mile a minute about not having expected that nearly so soon and something to do with several lessons learned and maybe a near-death experience before something or other. Adagio giggled.
"Sunset said you might appreciate that, but I didn't think you'd enjoy it that much." She clapped her hooves together. "Every bit as adorable as promised!"
This added a blush to the manic scholar, but did nothing to help her reign herself in. Not that Adagio minded, watching for another moment as Twilight rolled around on the floor, surrounded by her new collection of Coltlantian memorabilia. Her end of Fluttershy's deal was fulfilled, so ignoring the urge to mess with something on the way out, she headed for the portal to return to Her Sweetie.