That had to be Tempest. Meadow was almost sure of it.
Meadow’s eyes followed the unicorn mare as she walked past on the other side of the street. Her yellow coat seemed to turn a weird orange color beneath the pressurized sodium street lamps, but that didn’t change Meadow’s opinion. Shadows danced as the mare’s hooves clopped against the sidewalk, her gait hesitating every so often as she paused to cast a furtive glance behind her.
Pausing at the intersection for a moment, her breath blowing out puffs of mist in the crisp night air, the mare continued on her course. Meadow’s mind raced as she turned back around to re-latch her door, mumbling to herself a few choice words. She really didn’t like confrontations, but in this—she felt like she was due some answers. At least if she could learn more about what her new friend was up to, she might make a more informed decision about whether anything significant was going on.
Should she be concerned, or was she just jumping at shadows? Did these doubts make sense, or were they more a reaction to what happened at the library? She had half a mind to go to the police, but she felt she owed it to her friend to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Crossing the street at an angle to intercept her friend, Meadow trotted as silently as she could. She racked her brain to think up of some harmless questions that might lead somewhere, but unfortunately, her mind went increasingly blank the closer she got.
Meadow’s ears twitched as she realized she would need to think of something quick. It was only another moment before Tempest would notice the clopping of her hooves. Why couldn’t they have this conversation over breakfast later? That would be less confrontational, right?
...And why was there mud over the backs of Tempest’s ankles and fetlocks?
“Ahem!” Meadow attempted to clear her throat loudly, but it really came out more as a spoken word than a sound effect, so she ended up just feeling silly. Tempest seemed to freeze in place, but she did not turn around. “Um, Tempest? Could I talk to you for a minute?”
Tempest’s ears folded back as she lowered her head a few inches before turning around to face her. “Meadow?” Her voice sounded flat and lifeless. “What are you doing out here?”
“I…” Meadow looked around, trying to gather her wits. The timbre of Tempest’s voice did not fill her with confidence. Tempest’s saddlebags caught her eye. “Well, I was just finishing up some shopping! You know, I had to restock my kitchen after being away for three months. Nothing in the cupboards at all except for some ramen! Heh.” Meadow hated how her voice ended on a squeak.
Tempest raised a suspicious eyebrow. “Your merchants and markets conduct their transactions as late as one in the morning?”
“Well, not exactly! After shopping I went over to Coco’s house and then I uh…” Meadow hesitated, her mouth opening and closing a few times, but no further words made their way out.
“Go home, Meadow.” Tempest sighed as she turned her head to look down the street. “It’s late, and I’m weary. If you want to be social, you can find me later at the Friendship Inn.” She lifted a hoof to point two blocks down the road. “There, on 2nd street.”
Meadow’s throat tightened up for a few seconds, and her eyes started to sting. Tempest’s dismissal smarted a bit, but it was the boost her willpower needed to confront her friend. The irony of Tempest staying at the Friendship Inn while dismissing her in such a way was not lost on her. Meadow squared her shoulders and took a deep breath, lowering her head just a fraction.
“No, Tempest. And I’m sorry if you’re tired—but my day hasn’t exactly been peachy, either.”
Tempest’s eyebrows furrowed. ‘...Peachy?’
“Peachy!” Meadow affirmed. “We are having this conversation, right now. I feel like there is something weird going on, and I want some answers. And if nothing funny is going on, then you are probably going to need a friend that can help keep you out of trouble, since you’re so good at finding it.”
Tempest let out a long breath, turning her head to glare at the darkened storefronts across the street. She opened her mouth to reply, but then mutely shook her head, dropping her gaze to look at her hooves instead.
“C’mon, Tempest.” Meadow coaxed, her voice quieter. “You know I’m just going to find you again with more questions. Wouldn’t you rather it be me asking questions than the police?”
Tempest looked up sharply, her eyes slightly narrowed.
Meadow felt a little more sure that she was on the right path here, and that little suggestion had certainly gotten her friend’s attention. But at the same time, she wondered what it meant. Why was Tempest so anxious about the police?
Pursing her lips, Tempest looked contemplative before answering. “I’ll answer your questions, Meadow. My hope is that I can put you at ease. I am concerned about something at the very heart of this nation, but we can’t speak of this out in the open. Would you be so kind as to join me in my Hotel room?”
* * *
Easing the control yoke forward, the sleek airship gently nosed downward to begin its descent. In a matter of minutes, they would be within the eighty kilometer boundary and within range of the Distant Communications Array for Manehattan. It wasn’t often that Narcisse had access to the flagship of the Pavo Clan, and he was going to squeeze every bit of enjoyment out of the experience as possible.
That is, if the Captain didn’t make too big of a scene. Narcisse doubted that would happen— technically, he outranked him.
Narcisse glanced carelessly back at the white-maned Captain, Silver Strutt. Silver’s mustache twitched in annoyance. He was likely more angry than he let on. That only caused Narcisse to smirk.
“One moment, Captain Strutt.” Narcisse held up a hoof to forestall him before bringing it down to flick a yellow switch on the chair’s left console. A subtle new hum joined the ambient noise within the bridge, indicating the working servos that lowered a polished titanium screen down over the angled pane of the windshield.
The purple-maned navigator sat up from his post, glaring at Narcisse quizzically. Narcisse ignored him, appreciating the hardened defensive shield as it lowered into place. The Excelsior had strong magical defenses of course, but for additional protection, especially for cases in which magic would not be enough, the specialized craft had been outfitted with strong metal barriers that could protect the more delicate parts of the ship. Narcisse found the forward defensive shield especially useful—not that he thought their mission would require any defenses. He just liked to use the panel’s reflective surface to ensure his mane was still coiffed properly.
Even more than the switches to activate the forward guns, this was his favorite.
Smoothing out one or two hairs that were out of place, Narcisse deactivated the shields with another flick of his hoof, satisfied. He really didn’t have any regrets, but it would be nice to pilot the Excelsior a little more often. It was one of life’s true joys to command such an impressive machine. Off slight to the right, the horizon began to blush with the first hints of dawn. It looked like Princess Celestia’s sun would be up within the hour.
From his right, there was a sound of somepony clearing his throat more forcefully. “Ahem! Um. Commodore?” Captain Strutt pulled at his bushy mustache impatiently. “The beacon?”
Narcisse gave a thinly veiled eyeroll as he watched the horizon. He was well aware of flight regulations regarding ground control contact for recognition when breaching the 80 kilometer boundary. He didn’t need to be reminded like a foal. But no harm would come from piloting the Excelsior just a bit longer in silence.
No harm to him anyway.
“Allow me to just enjoy a few more minutes of peace, my dear Captain. Let’s not spoil the moment.”
“—Nahp!” Narcisse shushed, motioning with a downward swipe of his hoof. “The ground ponies can afford to sweat a little bit about our mysterious blip on their MADAR screens. With a more interesting start to their lackluster day they won’t even need coffee.”
“Ground ponies?” Came a muttering growl from the engineer to his left. Narcisse paid her no mind. He didn’t even know her name.
Captain Strutt stomped a forehoof lightly on the metal deck and huffed. “Sir, I really think that—”
Ignoring him, Narcisse reached his left hoof forward and flicked a green switch on the console to his right. “—Galley!”
A speaker built into the back of the captain’s chair came to life with a sharp pop as a feminine voice responded tentatively. “Yes... sir?”
“Ah, Blackberry.” Narcisse grinned.
The speaker crackled for a moment in hesitation. “Umm?”
“Bring up some coffee, my dear. Oh, and bring up my mission files as well, the ones with Princess Luna’s insignia? They’re on my desk.”
“Yes. Um, right away sir.”
“Oh, and Blackberry?”
Narcisse’s grin turned a touch lecherous. “Whether you use your own hot flanks to deliver them to the bridge is optional, but you know what I would prefer. That is all.”
An offended huff sounded from the other end of the line before it went dead, leaving Narcisse chuckling as he flicked the intercom switch back off. Feeling the intensity of the glare from the Captain, he hovered his right hoof over the comm-beacon switch and looked over his right shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Captain. You were saying—?”
Silver Strutt’s eyes narrowed as he glared at Narcisse’s hoof over the controls. After another moment he went on, sounding exasperated. “I was saying, sir, that the uniform codes and communication regulations for air traffic mandates that—”
With an audible click, Narcisse’s hoof held down the button, pinging ground control and opening the Excelsior’s communications channel. Reflexively Captain Strutt shut his mouth again, knowing the mic was now live. The response was immediate.
“...Tower, MADAR contact to unknown airship. Identify and state intention? Repeat, this is Manehattan Celestial Tower, MADAR contact, unknown airship identify and state your intention.” Narcisse couldn’t help but notice that the air traffic controller’s voice sounded a little strained.
Leaning forward, Narcisse cleared his throat and spoke into the mic. “Affirmative. Lunar Class airship Pavo-1A01. Seventy-eight klicks west by southwest, inbound for landing with full crew complement of myself plus twenty two.”
The ATC’s voice replied, sounding moderately relieved. “Pavo-1A01, ident confirmed. You are cleared to dock, mooring tower seven. Descend to 1500 Meters until outer beacon. Adjust your heading eight degrees north.” Narcisse could hear Silver grinding his teeth behind him.
He struggled to hide a smile. “Copy that, Celestial Tower.”
The controller’s voice responded with a sigh. “And next time, please comply with the eighty kilometer boundary, Pavo-1.”
Narcisse’s voice became syrupy sweet. “Of course, Celestial Tower. I’ll let my trainee know. It shan’t happen again.”
* * *
Meadow paced back and forth in Tempest’s hotel suite while the taller pony sat motionless, watching her. Now that Tempest had agreed to answer a few questions, Meadow was becoming more and more agitated by the minute.
Tempest’s version of events seemed to be so convoluted, so twisted… and yet there seemed to be nothing she could say to convince the mare that perhaps she had it wrong. Especially when Tempest defended with the fact that she actually lived in that time period, so she of all ponies should know.
But that was impossible! The only creatures capable of a lifespan like that were alicorns and dragons, and Tempest was neither! Not unless she was hiding a pair of wings under her cloak or was using some type of crazy illusion spell.
“Tempest, what you are suggesting is equivalent to treason… It’s assassination! You are talking about the premeditated murder of the most benevolent being known to Ponykind!”
“I don’t want to kill anypony, Meadow. I only want to free my mother. But if it takes the death of Celestia to do it, then so be it.”
“...so be it, she says!” Meadow gave a chortle, far more high-pitched than she expected, before she pounded down on the side of the bed with a hoof. “So be it? Tempest, you aren’t just crazy, you have delusions within your delusions!”
Meadow went back to her pacing. “In the thousand-year rule of Princess Celestia, the whole time since she banished her sister, there are several examples where she alone stood against the darker elements of this world, defending her ponies with only what force was necessary. And then, after such times of turmoil and destruction, did she take more power and act as an aggressor? No! She returned local control to the mayors and magistrates, and she allowed foreign nations to rebuild! She has only afforded us peace and freedom! Does that sound like a tyrant to you?”
“I am sure that is what your textbooks have taught.”
Meadow’s glare became a little harder. “It sure makes more sense than what you are spouting!”
Tempest forestalled her with an upraised hoof. “It doesn’t matter. Even if her rule was as peaceful and benevolent as you say, it was all built off of the most loathsome of betrayals. I was there. Celestia is content with her power for now… But I know what she is really capable of.”
Meadow was floored. How could she reason with such a mare that to her core believed such radically different ideas? A mare whose view was so twisted from how things really were? Even further, did Tempest really think she could pull such a thing off? A coup against Celestia?
“Okay, okay…” Meadow Lark shook her head, suddenly sitting down and holding her hooves to the sides of her head. “Let’s… put that aside for a moment, as crazy as it sounds to even say put that aside.” Meadow took a few calming breaths. “You have given me no proof for any of this. None of it! There is no way for you to prove you are that old. No way to prove you are Princess Luna’s daughter. I mean, your color scheme is nowhere near her pallette!”
“That’s an old mare’s tale…”
“I DON’T CARE!”
“Meadow.” Tempest stood up, heaving a sigh. “Please calm down. You’ll wake others in the hotel.”
Biting the side of her cheek, Meadow winced and looked down. “Sorry.”
“You see now why I was hesitating to tell you any of this. You are a product of the modern-day educational system, and as such—”
“—I am not brainwashed into some fantasy world, Tempest!” Meadow almost growled. “I am not the deluded one here!”
“What would it take to convince you that my cause is just?”
“There is nothing that you can do or say that would convince me that Celestia is evil and needs to die! If I had even a shred of confidence that you could actually be a threat, I would be going to the police right now. I should still go to the Police!”
Meadow stood up and began to pace again. Her hind legs were nearly vibrating in agitation, and she needed to move. After a few moments, she sat down again and lifted a hoof to her heart. “And how many innocent ponies are going to be affected? How many will be harmed in the crossfire? Before you give up this foolish notion?”
Tempest’s whole body tensed as she suddenly stood as if stung by a wasp. “Nopony!” After a few angry breaths, she seemed to calm again before blowing out a sharp sigh. “If I do this right, nopony has to get hurt, and my mother will be saved.”
“Well,” Meadow prodded, “As I was saying, there is nothing that—”
“—Amulets!” Tempest blurted.
“You… all of modern day Equestria has no idea about them. To all of you, amulets are a fairy tale!”
“Um. I don’t follow. What do amulets have to do with anything?” Tempest seemed to be growing more excited and manic by the second, and it was making Meadow nervous.
Tempest grinned. “I invented them. Over a thousand years ago. If I show you, will you believe in my veracity?”
Meadow was conflicted. She wasn’t about to fall for some parlor trick. Yet, if Tempest truly was a thousand years old, and had invented a wonder such as that? Meadow shook her head briefly. No! Even if she was over a thousand years old, that did not make her cause just. It would take a lot more than some mystical amulet to convince her there was any truth or reason behind what Tempest was after. “I don’t know, Tempest. Whether amulets are real or not has no bearing on the leadership and benevolence of Celestia!”
Tempest’s look became a little smug. “You might think that. But then consider: why is all knowledge of my greatest work expunged from all records, from all memory? Why is such a beneficial thing to ponykind buried in the darkest depths of lost history?” Tempest activated her horn and brought her saddlebags over from the door where she left them. With a flick of her horn, she brought out what looked like a simple topaz gem. Following that, she opened a cabinet next to the hotel bed and pulled out a file folder, opening it to reveal numerous sheets of vellum with a meticulously crafted rune in each. Tempest gave her a warm smile. “Pick one. What is an ability or action you always wished you could do?”
Meadow looked from the runes to Tempest’s animated face. What was this mare on about? It didn’t seem dangerous. Indeed, this was the most animated she had seen this mare since she had known her. Perhaps she should humor her, and hear her out on this?
“Alright then,” Meadow let out tautly. “You are suggesting that you can whip out an amulet, right here, on the spot, to give me some…”
“Yes!” Tempest breathed earnestly. “Such a potential to bless all of ponykind! And I never got to see it. Tell me: what is it you want?”
Meadow couldn’t help but to give a small smile. “Well…” She murmured in a small voice, almost embarrassed to talk about it. “I’m an earth pony—with a career in ornithology. I’ve always wanted to fly.”
Tempest’s eyes glimmered as she set the sheets of vellum down on the bed and leafed through it. “One amulet of flight coming up.”
* * *
The process really was remarkable. Each sheet of vellum that Tempest had was inscribed with a single rune. Yet the inscription wasn’t in ink, rather it was a negative, or a cut out so that if the sheet were held up to a bright light the image of the rune would shine through onto a surface behind it.
After Meadow had mentioned flight, Tempest quickly found the rune she was looking for and took a few minutes to affix the sheet into a jig designed for holding it in place while the waiting crystal was placed underneath.
After excusing herself to the bathroom with her saddlebags, Tempest emerged with a slender, cylindrical device that she explained was a powerful mana amplifier and emitter. She described the process as thaumic amplification by stimulated emission of mana, and that it was the secret to embedding runes into crystal.
After an excited mutter of “Here we go!” Tempest activated the cylindrical emitter. In less than a minute, she had traced the contours of the rune onto the largest face of the crystal, and before long she was grinning and holding the innocent looking gem out for Meadow to take.
Meadow held the crystal between her outstretched hooves. She had been reluctant to take it, but Tempest had looked so excited, she felt she needed to accept the offering. “Okay, Temp?” Meadow inquired doubtfully. “Now what?”
Tempest gazed from the amulet to Meadow with a smirk. “Now you don’t take it off at the wrong time,” she mused. “That would be most unfortunate if you weren’t around a helpful pegasus… or a body of water. Since I don’t have a chain for it, simply press it to your chest, and lean forward, thinking about… well, think about leaving the ground, really.”
Meadow quirked an eyebrow. “Leaving the ground, huh?” She tried to keep a straight face, but it felt like her heart was vibrating in excitement. Surely Tempest was jesting. To fly as an earth pony? Without having to reimburse a unicorn for a high level spell?
“Okay then.” Meadow pressed the amulet close as she took a shaky breath. “Okay. Everypony watch the birdy...”
Meadow closed her eyes and concentrated, her mind going towards her avian studies she just completed in Gryphus and her most recent subject, the Red-breasted Fantail. It was an intelligent and remarkable bird, with its fluttering flight and striking tail feathers. It had a penchant for problem solving and had evaded much more powerful predators for eons of time.. Suddenly, Meadow felt something pressing her bangs down against her forehead.
“Meadow, I think you should open your eyes.”
Tempest sounded rather bemused, and interestingly, her voice was coming from below. Meadow opened her eyes and noticed the ceiling immediately in front of her. “Sweet Celestia, I’m flying! Oh, my sweet stars!”
After some excited squealing and laughter, Tempest eventually got Meadow to settle down again, warning about disturbing the peace at two in the morning. Finally, Meadow was sitting again, the newly crafted amulet resting at the foot of the bed.
Being able to float up in the air wasn’t quite the same thing as Fantail or pegasus flight, but it was certainly exhilarating. However, there remained the greater issue of Celestia’s benevolence. Meadow drew her forehoof in circles on the worn and stained carpet while she pondered what to say next.
“You don’t seem fully convinced.”
Meadow looked up, giving Tempest a wan smile. “Well, yeah. I mean, it’s one thing to see a new application of magic… and it’s certainly exciting—revolutionary, even!”
“Two things,” Meadow mused. “Producing an amulet doesn’t mean you invented it one thousand years ago. And as for Celestia…” Meadow waved her hoof in the air vaguely, hunting for the right way to put it. “To make out our ruler, the Princess… to make her out to be a demon? Even if she did cover up amulets in the past, she surely had a good reason!”
Tempest looked frustrated, before finally looking down at her chest, her horn activating. The slider of her jacket’s zipper traveled down, revealing her furry yellow coat before a medallion of some sort came into view. The medallion was decidedly un-crystal like, shaped more like a disc of chiseled granite than anything else, marred by a slit down its middle. It looked like the iris of a dragon’s eye. Tempest nudged it with a hoof, looking hesitant, or possibly even afraid.
“If I show you something… a captured memory from my own mind—a memory that will explain the reason for why I am still alive, would that convince you? And if you are convinced, would you be willing to look at another memory, so that you can see the night—” Tempest’s voice cracked as her vibrant green eyes began to glisten. “The night that Luna was banished…”
Tempest squeezed her eyes shut, turning away in pain. Her voice had become raspy and low. “Would that mean something to you?”
Meadow was taken aback. Tempest was afraid! She was handling the circular disk with trepidation. Was Tempest afraid of what she would think of her, or was she afraid of the medallion? Meadow wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer to that. “I don’t know, Tempest. The amulet you made was really remarkable, but as for the rest… I’m not sure I should even be listening to any of this anymore.”
“Please.” Tempest whispered. “Please. This is more important than anything.” Tempest’s gaze was haunted. “It is such a burden to bear, for so long. This is my first chance to share it with anypony! Just look at the first memory. Then, I’ll let you decide if you want to see the second.”
Meadow studied her face for a moment. Tempest’s demeanor wasn’t the behavior of a pony that wanted to harm her. She seemed desperate and afraid. Curse it all, Meadow always had a soft spot in her heart for somepony like that. She blew out a sigh. “Fine. I’ll observe the first memory. It won’t hurt me, will it? It won’t harm me in any way?”
“Meadow, I would never harm you. Even if you took all of this to the police, I would simply go the other way. But this burden would be wonderful to share… between friends.”
Waiting a second more, Meadow nodded her head. “Okay, Temp. What do I have to do?”
“Just make yourself comfortable. In a moment I will make a bridge between our minds, and you will see.”
* * *
Meadow waited as she prepared her mind for some sort of invasive sensation. She considered Tempest a friend—misguided, but still a pony trying to do the right thing. That being the case, outside of skilled psychiatric care the idea of intentionally exposing one’s mind to powerful magic seemed like a rather foolish thing to do.
But now that she considered it, this wasn’t the craziest thing she had ever done. As her cousin liked to remind her, she seemed to have a penchant for always jumping into trouble with all four hooves. Tempest’s horn glowed her usual light green, but then a flicking arc of glimmering violet snaked up from the medallion, intertwining with the aura of Tempest’s horn. To her it looked like miniature lightning bolts. Squeezing her eyes shut, Meadow, expected something akin to a stab, or a flutter, or to feel something—alien to infringe on what she considered her innermost sanctum.
What she felt instead was dirt in her mouth.
“Ptooey!” Meadow felt her mouth moving, but it was Tempest’s deeper alto voice that was coughing and gagging before a yellow-furred forelimb came up to wipe sand and grit out of her watering eyes.
Attempting to say something, Meadow found she was at a loss to do anything of her own free will other than simply be present and experience this memory. She was no more than a silent observer, unable to enact any will of her own except to simply watch… and hopefully enjoy the show.
The effect was terrifying. She couldn’t back out of this even if she wanted to.
Other sensations made themselves known. She felt a pervasive fatigue throughout her body, and numerous smaller sources of pain and stinging coming from both her torso and her extremities. Emotionally, she felt completely wrung out.
After spitting a few more times, Tempest coughed as she climbed back up to her hooves. Smaller rocks and debris continued to roll and noisily skid down from above, a few bouncing off of her flank making her yelp and lurch forward a bit.
Two things were immediately apparent: the air was heavy with dust as the taste of earth coated her tongue and throat, and further, where she had been standing in broad daylight only a few heartbeats ago, she was now surrounded by complete darkness.
Quickly lighting her horn to gain some orientation, Tempest noted that the air was almost opaque with dust as she began to cough again. Splitting her focus between keeping her horn lit and conjuring a breeze, all while trying not to hack out a lung, Tempest pulled what she hoped was cleaner air from deeper within the confines of wherever she was.
It took a few moments, but the air finally began to clear. Tempest gratefully gulped a few fresh breaths, occasionally hacking and spitting onto the ground. Now that she could relax some, she intensified her horn’s glimmer and began to look around. Back up the way she came, there was no sign of where she had fallen through. Apparently, the ground had given way where she had been standing, dropping her through an opening into a well-concealed hole or cave. The event must have shifted some of the rock and earth, blocking her exit. She hoped it was only a small amount, and not tons of weight exceeding her capacity for magic telekinesis.
Looking away from the buried exit, Tempest continued to scan the rest of the cavern. The walls around her appeared to be rough, seemingly formed from the hollow of massive boulders having fallen together and forming a chamber of sorts. There were no limestone formations or stalactites to speak of. However, at the far end of the chamber Tempest noticed a dark area that strangely resisted her light.
Narrowing her eyes, Tempest took another tentative step forward, waiting while she allowed her eyes to better adjust. On closer inspection, the dark void seemed to occupy a yawning opening in the far wall, where the cave extended inside for some unknowable distance. She brightened her horn in order to see further in, but to no avail.
Perhaps if she stepped closer?
After a few more steps, it became apparent that the nothing could pierce through to the interior at all. The effect was chilling, and after a second, Tempest began to retrace the way she came. Putting a hoof up to her chest, she grimaced as she recalled how she lost her Alicorn Amulet back when her campsite had been ransacked months ago. She wished she still had it now.
Trying to steady her breathing, Tempest finally broke eye contact with the shadow and ran for the exit. Chancing a glance over her shoulder, in case anything threatening was looming, Tempest’s hooves dug in as she scrambled up the slope. Her efforts churned up a new batch of dust, but at this point, she didn’t care. Dust was a small price to pay compared to some monstrosity dragging her down to gnaw and crush her bones
With a sharp crack, Tempest’s horn struck something solid, a lancing pain shooting through her forehead. Gasping in pain, Tempest brought both forehooves up while she fell to the side, cradling the area of impact while glaring up to see what she had crashed into. Strangely, she had only made it halfway up the slope. The rest of the way seemed to be clear.
Narrowing her eyes in confusion and some lingering pain, Tempest sat up, scanning for what she had hit. She brightened her horn, but all she managed to see was more evidence that the way out had become choked with debris.
Climbing to her hooves, Tempest stepped forward again but was immediately stopped by something as she felt a wall come into contact with her aching horn. She winced, remembering the fresh impact she had just taken.
Finally, she reached a hoof out, sliding it across some kind of invisible barrier that neatly bisected the chute, keeping her a good thirty hooves from where the opening used to be. A new fear began to grip her heart as she soundlessly dragged a hoof across its surface. The only type of barrier that could prevent physical passage and yet not make any sound when you dragged a hoof across it was magical in nature. Someone or something didn’t want her leaving just yet.
“Maybe it has a remote mechanism and I set off a magical trap?” Tempest whispered. Coughing again, and struggling to beat down her growing sense of panic, Tempest tried to move air through the area again. It felt like she couldn’t breathe properly, and that it had more to do with fear this time than a little bit of dust. Was this what claustrophobia truly felt like?
“C’mon! Rational—Let’s be rational…” Deciding that talking to herself was far preferable to the pervasive silence of this grotto—or maybe tomb—Tempest slid down to the base of the chute and looked around again. “There should be enough air in here for a while, maybe even a few days… What should I do?”
Suddenly remembering she had been wearing her saddlebags when she fell, Tempest spun around, noticing they were half buried in some of the debris on the chamber floor, along with the javelin that she had made. Relieved, she smacked her forehead with a hoof, only to roll her eyes when she discovered said hoof was caked dirt from the cave. “Rational. Like smacking dirt into my forehead with my own hoof—nice one. Now I must beat down the temptation to facehoof again… Anyway, let’s check the gear in my saddlebags.”
* * *
Her saddlebags had become disconnected from plummeting into the earth below, and one of the bags’ latches had busted. But now that she had arranged her belongings into two neat little rows, she felt marginally better. Because imposing some kind of order on her possessions would help… somehow.
Thankfully, her water canteen was undamaged, whether it be from the fall or from trauma upon striking her javelin. Also of note: she was also undamaged, and had not pierced herself upon her javelin, which was a very good thing. Two small bags of food rations remained, as well as a kit of tools and her lengths of twine and rope. Oh yes, and her trusty toothbrush. She had traded for it out of desperation when she came across a trading caravan that had a mixture of griffins and ponies.
Taking a few measured sips of water, Tempest replaced the cap and set to working on her escape. If there was no way out the way she came in, then she would have no choice but to start exploring. She didn’t relish that idea, given how unnerved she felt looking at the cave of shadow.
After repacking and securing her bags, Tempest decided upon a different approach. Gazing up at the invisible barrier above her in the chute, she lit her horn and fired a cutting beam of energy. Her eyes widened in surprise as the beam passed harmlessly through. Freedom! Gasping, Tempest scrambled back up the slope, only to ram her horn into the invisible barrier again. She soon slid back down, rubbing her head ruefully with an unamused chuckle.
“That’s two I owe you, stupid barrier.”
* * *
Trying to stay calm, Tempest brought her javelin back to her side of the barrier.
Everything had passed through. Telekinetically throwing rocks at it was rather anticlimactic. Then she progressed to a coil of rope with no incident. Finally, Tempest lifted a saddle bag, magicking it all the way to the far end of the chute. It was like there was nothing there.
Further experimentation revealed that all inanimate objects were permitted entry. She was not. It seemed to be a magical barrier against the living. The implications were not comforting.
“Heh.” Tempest chuckled weakly. “Well, at least if I stay down here long enough that will no longer be a problem.”
* * *
It was no use.
After straining her magic and exhausting most of her reserves, she realized that she was incapable of undoing the magical barrier. With no other exit, and no other option available, Tempest turned to face the waiting shadow.
“Uh, hi!” Tempest gave a weak smile, waving a hoof at the shadow. Her moment of levity didn’t do much to lighten the mood however, and after a moment her smile slid off of her face. She blew her bangs clear of her eyes and gave a huff. “Not much for conversation, eh?”
Securing her bags as well as she could, Tempest held her javelin out in front of her and began to creep toward the maw of the cave. She hoped that her concerns about the eerie darkness were much ado about nothing, but if the magical barrier was any indication, they were valid. She just hoped that it didn’t have sharp claws and teeth.
Of course, the magical barrier might be in effect here as well, in which case she would have to accept death via either thirst or asphyxiation. Unless something else came for her instead.
Drawing to within several lengths of the opening, the temperature started to drop. Perhaps it was due to the fact that it obscured what was a natural cave, possessing running water? Gritting her teeth, Tempest brought her javelin up and prodded at the region she expected the barrier to be.
Tempest sighed with relief that at least there was no barrier. Then she kicked herself, suddenly remembering that her earlier testing showed that the other barrier only worked against the living. With each step more difficult than the previous, Tempest finally reached, for lack of a better term, the event horizon. Raising a shaking hoof, she reached forward, only to jump back as her hoof passed right through.
Sitting on her haunches, Tempest took a deep breath and gathered herself. “Well… Here goes nothing, as I set off to walk… hopefully into nothing.”
Nothing permitted her entrance. And it smiled.
* * *
Cracking open an eye, Tempest withdrew from the memory and took a peek at Meadow.
Meadow, unaware of anything but the memory, remained immersed as her eyes mimicked REM sleep. Tempest grimaced, knowing what was ahead. Poor Meadow’s hooves were trembling, and her face was tense with fear. Unsure if the spell could retain the same fidelity if she let her attention wander too far, Tempest reviewed the parameters of her spell.
Thus far, everything seemed to be working fine. There were no signs of anything amiss like what happened with Moonlight. Frowning, Tempest looked back at the smaller mare. She hated that she had to do this, but she needed her… or somepony on her side!
With a sigh, Tempest closed her eyes again rejoined Meadow in the memory.
* * *
Passing into the darkness, Tempest’s eyes widened as she noticed a pale silvery light illuminating to far end of the tunnel about forty lengths distant. Beyond opened into what seemed to be another chamber. Hesitating as she held her breath, her ears almost tingling from the effort of trying to make out any sound, Tempest waited.
Finally exhaling, she took stock of the situation. Firstly, the silvery light was oddly flat, lacking any depth or change of value. While dim, it should have been enough to vary in intensity or at least throw a shadow, but from what she could tell, no shadows were visible. Squinting at the phenomenon, she realized that the chamber could’ve been closer or further away, as it was nearly impossible to tell without the proper lighting cues to aid in her depth perception. The second thing she noticed was that it was utterly silent. All she could hear was her breathing, and the beating of her heart, sounding unnaturally loud.
Keeping her javelin forward, Tempest began to creep down the narrow passage. The cavern opened up into a room ahead as the light continued to increase. Extinguishing her horn’s light, Tempest studied the room. Strangely, she couldn’t assign a color to what she was seeing. There seemed to be no light source, only a faint glimmer that came from everywhere and nowhere, showing everything in grayscale, with crystal detail and definition somehow beyond what she would perceive.
Somehow, while she looked she discovered more and more detail about every edge and surface, The longer she kept her eyes focused at one location, the more she could perceive. It went beyond disconcerting to downright disorienting. Focusing instead on the back wall of the cavern she noted a striking image, a carving of a coiling dragon, standing out in bas relief. The dragon was mostly depicted in profile, except for the head that was slightly turned inward towards the room. It appeared as though it were peeling itself off the wall. As Tempest gazed at the image, she grew increasingly dizzy. She squeezed her eyes shut and stumbled forward.
A voice suddenly broke the silence, shocking in its suddenness and filling the area immediately in front of her. Tempest stumbled backwards in surprise, landing on her back.
“Stay back from my essence, and set not your hoof upon the surface of my abode.
Not quite processing what was going on, Tempest rolled over awkwardly before getting back to her hooves again. Looking around frantically, she found that she had almost stepped in a small lake of some kind of silvery substance, a liquid that was smooth as glass and also vaguely luminescent, perhaps the source of the weird light. In her study of the dragon carving on the wall she had somehow managed to not notice the semitransparent liquid just in front of her resting on the shallow depression along the chamber floor.
Looking around the barren chamber again, Tempest couldn’t determine where the voice had come from. A pool couldn’t talk, and the carving had not moved. Tempest took two tentative steps ahead, now enthralled by the mysterious substance on the floor.
“By all means, if you doubt my warning, you are welcome to test the veracity of my claim. Unfortunately, that would cut our conversation rather short, and is not something that you would desire at this time.”
Tempest froze, watching the pool in amazement. The surface had not changed, but the voice called it his essence. She assigned a gender to the bodiless voice due to its deep rumbling bass. She had always considered the voice of Storm Sabre, her father, to have a deep and robust register. This voice was far darker and deeper. She decided to address the pool.
“Who—or what are you?”
“Nothing that you would understand or think of as anything significant. I could be considered entirely unimportant at the moment. But at the end of all things, I will be one of the great ones.”
Tempest raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure I understand. Are you some kind of magical being?” Suddenly, Tempest shuddered with a new thought. “Are you a ghost?” After her question, she wasn’t sure, but she thought she could sense some amusement coming from the substance.
“For what concerns you directly, in your own lifespan and realm of influence, it suffices to say that I am an ancient entity.”
Cocking her head to the side, Tempest studied the pool and reviewed her options. She had come in here hoping for a way out of the grotto she had fallen into. She would have tried digging out the way she came if not for the magic barrier. Perhaps she could persuade this entity into letting her go?
“Now. Speak from your deepest desires, young one. What is it that you want?”
“What do I want?” Tempest was perplexed, but she also felt a small wave of relief. This entity had just brought up the question, perhaps it was interested in helping her? What she wanted was to get out of this cave before the air went stale. However, in the back of her mind there was a niggling thought. It appeared she was at the mercy of a creature far older and more powerful than she. And after falling into its trap would it be willing to simply let her go if she asked?
“I… I’m sorry, I don’t understand your question.”
“What is there to understand? You are interesting to me, young one. I was studying your mind as you passed through the dense undergrowth above us. As you drew near, I became intrigued, and rendered my barrier passable.”
Tempest’s eyes widened in a dawning realization that the barrier was indeed magical and controlled by this creature.
“I ask you again: What do you want?”
Surely it couldn’t be this simple? She hoped she could make a request without offending it, as she was unclear about its motivations or intentions. She felt a glimmer of hope.
“Noble entity, there is one thing that I want. To live. I fear that without refreshment or air, I will be dead shortly. Your barrier, as amazing as it is, prevents me from having access to fresh air and nourishment. Would you open it for me?”
Tempest wasn’t sure, but she thought she could sense a breeze of more fragrant air coming from behind, and felt the beginnings of a smile form on her face.
“But surely there is something more than that. Something else you desire, that you keep so close to your heart. You are far from those who you call your own. So far from those who love you.
Tempest’s eyes shot wide open as faint images began to play across the surface of the pool. With each passing second, another image replaced the last, depictions of Luna and her father. Pictures of her surrogate mother, Sweet Potato, and Mavis. An image of Alistor. Finally, the pool displayed Luna again, before the image faded.
“You have lost one that was close to you, banished over an immense divide. Now you are here, suffering through your own exile, gaining skills of survival as you travel, and carving out an existence on the other side of this planet. All because you were striving for the liberty of your mother, wrongfully accused and disposed.”
“You…” Tempest’s breathing came in short gasps, her heart frantically leaping as she fell heavily onto her haunches. “H-how do you know this?” It was exquisitely painful, seeing images of friends and family she thought she would never see again. Luna looked so loving and dear! Alistor looked so cunning and lucid!
It hurt. Seeing these ponies opened old wounds, and it felt like a very visceral pain. Her mind had become so preoccupied with survival and foraging that their memories had dimmed somewhat… Was Alistor always so handsome? She had simply kept her head down, surviving and honing her magical craft. And there was a reason she avoided looking up at the moon.
“I know this, and so much more. While I do not depart from this cove, young one, I do listen.”
Tempest’s eyes widened as the pool formed additional images.
Images of her scrambling out of bed as she realized she had missed Luna’s call for help.
“I watch and learn.”
Images of her racing through the castle to the other side of the throne room. Images of her impotently standing in the courtyard while her mother fell in battle, screaming her name as Celestia did her foul deed.
“And you will find that I can help you.”
Could it be true? Could this entity help her? Why would it even care? One concept that Mavis had drilled into her head is that you can’t get something for nothing, and if something sounds too good to be true, it is. And this smelled like some sort of trap. Yet if this entity were as powerful as it was suggesting, Tempest was already in over her head. She figured it could bring up the barrier again before she got even two paces down the passageway, if it had even lowered the barrier to begin with.
She sensed amusement coming from it again.
“You say that you can help me. If it’s not too much to ask: what’s in it for you?
This time the surface of the pool rippled slightly.
“Why does there need to be anything in it for me? Perhaps I am bored. Perhaps you amuse me. Perhaps I would find it… stimulating.”
Tempest shuddered. The way this entity said ‘stimulating’ left her feeling anxious and cold, and her mind worked feverishly on a solution to the logic.
“I don’t think so. Forgive me if I presume, but an ancient and powerful entity such as yourself? With an ability to look through the thoughts and senses of others? Your consciousness is probably incapable of boredom.” As she finished her thought, the pool rippled again.
“You have a keen mind, young one. You perceive much, but yet you understand so little. Further, you have only the faintest sense of what I am. Little do you realize that I am fully capable of helping you achieve your abandoned dream. Free the rightful Princess. Defeat her backstabbing sister.”
Instead of images appearing on the surface of the pool, Tempest saw images flitting across her mind. Images of strapping on enchanted armor. Images of wielding ancient artifacts of great power. Images of wrath and fire, bringing the alicorn of the day low into the dust.
She hadn’t even entertained the possibility, but now? In a moment everything changed. Her muscles tensed with energy. Her horn throbbed with power. She commanded the very elements! The strength filled her soul with passion, and poured fuel on her guttering fire creating an inferno.
Yes. All of this was possible, and more. To feel the raw power, to unleash such energies, unparalleled by any other! She would sweep her enemies from before her. Any that would oppose her would be utterly abolished. She would reach out and pluck the very moon from her orbit so that she could pry Luna from her curse! Celestia’s geas would crumble before her might, and through her a new order would be achieved!
Tempest stopped her mental rant, breathing heavily as if she had just been galloping for a few minutes. What kind of thoughts were these? She had wanted to free her mother, not build an empire and a new world order. She wanted to bring her family together again, not build upon the carcasses of Celestia and all else those who opposed her!
Tempest looked down at the puddle, faintly glimmering again smooth as glass. She felt a sense of vertigo as something pushed, brushing up against her awareness. She clopped her hooves to the sides of her head, and then she repeated the action, harder, gritting her teeth so hard she feared they would crack.
“Get. Out. Of. My head!” Tempest gritted out, each hoof impact more painful than the last. She fought and clawed for her very identity, fighting a desperate war and refusing to give anything of her most private self to such a cold and foreign invader.
She was Tempest. Daughter to Princess Luna. Friend to all those who would seek what is good and right. Cold and calculating murderer? A commander on the field of slaughter? No. Her head felt like a hot knife was being inserted between her eyes. She fell onto her side in agony. Gathering the last of her will, she screamed.
“Get out of my head! You will not control me, I’d rather die right here!” For all of the noise and commotion she was making, the cavern swallowed it like it was nothing. There was no echo, her pitiful sounds only disappearing into endless silence.
“But you have been suffering… Come. I can give you what you seek. I can give you Luna.”
Tempest curled up tighter into a fetal ball. She couldn’t do anything else as her entire faculties fought against this unseen invader. Clenching her teeth she gritted out her response. “Not like that you are. No thank you, Mr. Creepy Cave Puddle! I think I know how this story ends!”
“…I can show her to you.”
“What? No, y-you’re lying!”
“I do not lie.”
“I can, and I shall. I know you want to see her.”
Before Tempest could reply, a vision exploded in her head. The image spread out from beneath her hooves in all directions, filling the blackness around her suddenly with an image of the barren and gray plains of the moon, while the verdant greens and blues of her own planet, Equus, hovered above in the distant sky. Tempest’s eyes widened in disbelief and awe, until a sound drew her attention to the side. Whirling around to look, she saw Luna, hovering as an incorporeal mist, gazing back at the planet above, her wondrous mane swaying gently in the ebbs and currents of the mana that flowed through it. She was crying.
Tempest’s heart shattered as she took in the tragic sight. It was horrific. Her mom, doomed to float there, gazing back at the planet, in the cold and utter solitude? Tempest’s fear and sorrow suddenly flew into white-hot rage.
“NO!” Her hooves pawed at the earth as she thrashed about. “It’s a lie! She can’t be like that for ages to come! She can’t! Stop it!” Tempest slammed a hoof to the ground, spraining her wrist in the process, but she didn’t care. She curled into a ball again, gasping for breath and sobbing.
“You have spirit and dedication, young one. Your devotion to Luna is endearing—and your desires to defend her are commendable. Perhaps you can achieve your ends without my direct influence, but you are assured to succeed if you accept my power.”
“Never. I’ll never succumb, I’d die first.” Tempest gasped out.
In desperation, she got back onto her hooves and stumbled back out of the chamber, only to meet head first with another barrier only a few steps beyond her position. With a clatter, her teeth clicked together from the impact as she rebounded from the surface, a flash of light flickering behind her eyelids. Coming to her senses again, she found herself sprawled on the floor, a new ache in her head to join the last. Grunting, she sat up and rubbed her forehead.
“There is no need for such melodrama. You needn’t worry about ceasing to exist.”
Tempest could sense its amusement again.
“I will not push your sovereign ability to choose. If you won’t accept my power in full, perhaps I can give you a memento. A piece of me that you can use. Through it you can wield some of my power, but also. I will not be able to reach through it and wield you. I won’t even be able to speak directly to your mind, freeing you to make your own choices. Would that be of interest?”
Tempest huffed as she stood up again. Her head was still aching from the impact, but the pain helped her coalesce her thoughts a little better. Somehow, she was beginning to feel a little more bold in this surreal situation, maybe because she really didn’t have anything else to lose.
“Huh. Not really, Mr. Creepy Cave Puddle Thing!” She muttered, giving a weak chuckle. “Not unless you can simply bring Luna back right now!”
“Luna is beyond my reach at this time. But there is a much more accessible solution.”
Tempest crept forward a few paces. “Accessible?” Tempest ruminated on that. She felt like her heart had been wrung out, but she really had nothing to lose, and nowhere else to go. She figured she might as well hear this thing out. “What do you mean?”
“Simple. This world has turned its back on you. For all thoughts and purposes, you are essentially dead. And if you were to truly die, here and now, nopony would be the wiser.”
Tempest shuddered as she contemplated that. Again, she felt completely isolated and alone.
“I can help you step forward.”
Tempest sighed with resignation. “You know, if I’m going to be cooped up in here with you for the rest of my existence, you could at least be a little less vague. What are you trying to say?”
“My abode here is safely out of your timestream.”
Tempest’s brow furrowed. “My timestream?”
“My view of the passage of time is far different than your own. I can alter your exit point. On my choosing, you can either depart from my realm back to when you first came in, or you can depart a thousand years later. By then, Luna will have defeated the ward Celestia placed on her and she will be able to return. Therefore, you can exit my cavern and simply go to her. You can be reunited, and finally stand with her against Celestia, this time armed with my help.”
This time the puddle was wavering, looking blurry for a moment until Tempest realized it was her own eyes that were glistening with moisture, not movement within the puddle itself.
Could she just go to Luna? Could she just walk out the door, travel back to Equestria, and be reunited with her? The thought made her feel giddy—almost dangerously so as she began to forget what she was dealing with. With an effort she managed to calm her emotions somewhat.
“How will I be armed with your help? And how will I know that you won’t just attack me or influence me?”
The dragon carving on the wall began to glow, a shimmering light rippling across its form before focusing around the dragon’s head. Encircling the one visible eye, there was a sharp crack as a piece of stone broke free, floating across the chamber before coming to rest in front of Tempest’s forehooves. It was a disc with a slit-like pupil across it.
“You’re giving me your eye?” Tempest’s eyebrow disappeared beneath her bangs. “Okay. Well, that isn’t creepy at all.”
“The carving is just stone, nothing more. That eye is not me.”
A sizzling, violet arc of intense light crept out of the surface of the pool, causing Tempest to wince in pain from its brightness. It made contact with the stone disc on the floor, arcing across the surface with a crackle until narrowing and penetrating eye’s pupil, disappearing from view and leaving the cavern eerily silent after the display.
Tempest stared at the stone, fearful to touch it, before glancing up at the carving on the far wall again. A cold feeling gripped her heart as she noticed that the head and upper neck of the bas relief had somehow turned away from the surface of the wall, so that it looked like the carving was beginning to peel itself away in an effort to drop down to the floor of the cavern. Her eyes fell upon the stone dragon’s visage that now seemed to be facing her directly, balefully looking down at her with its remaining eye. She shuddered as she considered what this could mean.
“Be at ease. It is only stone.”
Tempest tore her gaze away from the image, which now only seemed like an inanimate carving again. Despite the entity’s assurance, she felt a gnawing terror. She longed to be far away from this place.
“The Eye before you is your key to defeating Celestia. It will have sufficient power to overcome her. However, I must teach you the magic necessary to draw upon its power.”
Tempest swallowed, again looking from the carving back down to the eye on the cavern floor. It looked entirely harmless. In fact, she would judge the craftsmareship to be shoddy at best. Deep down inside, however, she knew she was gazing at something immensely powerful and dangerous. Something she likely had no business touching, let alone toting it with her to employ in some nefarious scheme.
“I… don’t know if I want to use it. What would be the cost?” Tempest’s voice sounded jittery and small. And perhaps just a little bit whiny. “Can’t you just let me out instead?”
Of course. You are free to go. But you may find that when you exit from here, over a thousand years will have passed. You’ll want to continue foraging for whatever sustenance you require, but you’ll be the same. Powerless to stop the machinations of Celestia. Unequal to the task of rescuing Luna who will then be under Celestia’s direct control as a weakened vessel---a puppet ruler. You will then return to seek me out, and be willing to accept my tutelage
Tempest fell back onto her haunches with a squeak. “What would you teach me?” She whispered.
I will teach you some of my magic: and even though your acumen will not be able to touch Celestia’s level of power, you will have an ace in the hole—me. If you draw upon my Eye, you can meet her blow for blow. And if you prepare, you can finally defeat her with my aid.
“But… but why? What possible motivation do you have? And what assurance do you have that I would keep your Eye with me? I could just drop it before reaching Equestria.”
You are free to make that choice. You are always free to choose. I can let you leave my cavern a few seconds after you entered, for all of the good that would do you. Or, you can exit in the timeframe I suggest, equipped to deal with Celestia. Once you possess the skills, the right tools, and the opportunity… you will be anxious to proceed. It will be the obvious choice, so that you can return, and be reunited with Princess Luna.
Tempest’s mind raced. Could it really be that simple? Could she truly see her mother again? The thought filled her with an ember of hope, a spark of giddy elation—it would be the greatest comeback of all time!
“Before we begin, I do have two questions. What do I call you? And… you never answered my first question: what are you, some sort of prehistoric titan or entity?”
“I am something you do not have the thoughts to conceive, let alone the words to describe.”
The entity paused, as if it were pondering something. There seemed to be more coming, so Tempest was content to wait.
“Think of me as the avatar to every eventuality. A representation of the ultimate destiny. I am the Omega. I represent the finale of all creation.”
“A-and… what finale is that?” Tempest whispered.
“And whether you use me or deny me, whether you support me or forget me, ultimately it is of no consequence. There is nothing that you can do that will alter what I am, and what is the ultimate destination of this reality.”
“And what do I call you?”
“If you insist on me giving me a name—you may call me Maelstrom.”
“...Alright. Show me how to work this thing.”
* * *
Meadow opened her eyes. Her whole body was shivering, and she was gulping in shaky breaths. She spun around, looking every which way, until she finally leapt into the bed and rolled up in the blanket. “That was horrible, Tempest! An absolute nightmare! What kind of foul demon was that, and what was it doing out of Tartarus?”
“Are you okay?” Tempest examined her friend carefully, still trembling under the sheets. She ran a magical scan, trying to see if Meadow had experienced any ill effects from the memory. “How are you feeling?”
Meadow stopped moving for a second and glared at Tempest, her eyes wide. “How am I feeling? Geeze, Tempest! I’m going to be having nightmares for months!” Meadow shook her head, her short-cropped mane flouncing from side to side. “I mean, you were so alone, for months! And then to fall into that hole, and come across that monstrosity? I… I can’t even…”
Tempest could only return a sad smile.
Meadow lifted her head up from the sheets. “So then what happened? Do you still have that Eye with you?”
The smile slid off Tempest’s face before her magic activated to pull down her zipper, revealing the Eye, dangling from a flaxen cord. Meadow’s eyes widened considerably as her breathing quickened again.
“Oh Celestia save us,” she whispered in an awe-struck tone. Tempest found her mouth pressing into a flat line at hearing Meadow’s exclamation.
“Okay.” Meadow sat up, taking a deep breath before holding a hoof out in front of her. “Okay… So, you can make amulets, and you are alive because some creepy sort of creature moved you forwards in time to pursue this insanity. You still haven’t proven to me that Celestia is bad, and that Luna needs to be saved. I still don’t see how any of that could be true. Your experiences might be just a teensy bit biased, Tempest. I mean, it’s understandable if Princess Luna is indeed your mother, right?”
“Well, I’ll just take your word for it, then. But this could all still be a grave misunderstanding!”
Tempest frowned, zipping her jacket back up. “I didn’t misunderstand,” she contended with extra emphasis on the consonants. “I saw things pretty clearly. For many years I watched and waited.” She stood up stiffly and began to pace back and forth. “And now I have waited long enough. I need to carry this through!”
Meadow tucked her chin down into her chest and sadly shook her head. “No, I get it. When we were connected, I couldn’t really see your earlier memories, but I could feel your pain. And I could sense your absolute belief that your cause was right… but I just—”
“—One more memory. There is one more thing I can show you. Out of all of my time and discussions with Luna, this night was the most important: the night Princess Luna was banished. And my life changed forever. If after that you still disagree… well, then we will go our separate ways. You can go to the police, and I will simply disappear. Deal?’
Meadow gazed back, her muzzle scrunched in concentration as she apparently weighed the offer. “Okay, Temp. One more memory. I’ll head back to my apartment to sleep after that, but that’s about as much time as I can give you. Tomorrow I’ll probably go to the police.”
“Only if you don’t change your mind.” Tempest gave a nod. “Okay, get ready. This one starts out nice enough, but it gets kind of rough at end.”
“You mean like the last one?” Meadow jabbed, before chuckled nervously. “I mean… sorry, that was insensitive.” She watched as Tempest lowered the slide of her zipper again, bringing the Eye into view. Meadow gave a long sigh. “Okay, Tempest. One more and then we’re done.”
Nodding again, Tempest checked the privacy wards and the auditory buffer spell she had cast, before turning back to Meadow. “Okay. You ready?”
Her magic started again.
* * *
Meadow Lark had come out of the memory playback, and was gazing back at Tempest with an unreadable expression. Instead of lurching, or crying out as Tempest had sometimes done in the past when viewing this memory, Meadow simply sat up slowly and opened her eyes. Strangely, her face was impassive.
Still wary, Tempest sat down across from her. “What do you mean, okay?”
“Let’s go save your Mom.”
Meadow sounded so matter-of-fact, it was startling. Tempest couldn’t believe her ears.
“Really?” Tempest’s reply was abrupt. “I was sure you wouldn’t go for it. I thought you would be horrified by what you saw me do in during my dream—”
“What?” Meadow gave a sideways smile. “Join your mother in attacking Celestia, only with thousands of shards of glass?”
“Think for a moment.” Meadow folded her forehooves. “Did it really happen?”
“Well, no, but still! I thought you would’ve at least been be disturbed!”
“Disturbed about you defending your family?” Meadow stood up, never breaking eye contact with the taller mare, and climbed down from the bed. She laid a hoof on Tempest’s shoulder. “What disturbs me, is that I have been misled for so long. And now that I have seen this memory, to see that actual event, and what led up to it…” She shook her head, her ears folding back. “It’s awful. And if Princess Luna is in trouble, then we have to help her.”
Tempest couldn’t believe her ears, but her expression morphed into an elated grin, her eyes filling with unshed tears. “Really?”
Meadow heaved a deep breath, and gave a shallow nod of her head.
“Most wondrous! Thou art most welcome!” Tempest embraced Meadow in a crushing hug, her years of solitude and desperate hope suddenly warming in the company of somepony who could finally understand. This was far better than she could have hoped.
Tempest felt Meadow’s arms wrap around her barrel, stroking her back affectionately before she started tapping on her withers. “Um, not so tight!” came a crushed reply. Startled, Tempest let her go.
Meadow grinned. “Heh, I may be an earth pony but you hug like an Ursa!”
Tempest blushed before chuckling nervously. “Sorry.”
“So?” Meadow lilted. “What is the next step of your plan?”
“Amulets.” Tempest smiled. “Loads and loads of them. We need to get into manufacturing. Any ideas?”
Meadow’s eyes narrowed in thought, before she blinked with an idea. “I think I know just the pair of ponies. After we get some sleep, we need to purchase a pair of train tickets to Fillydelphia.”
* * *
Twilight winced, but it needed to be said. Security was fine, but this was just getting silly.
“It’s not that I don’t enjoy your company, Captain Berrytwist. Because I do.”
Fizzlepop’s stoic visage gave a twitch as she regarded Twilight out of the corner of her eye. After a second, the moment passed and the mare was back at it, continuously scanning the busy market and shopping district of Ponyville. It could’ve been her imagination, but Twilight thought she could see her Chief Security Officer’s mouth twitch at the corner a little.
Twilight continued. “It’s just that I don’t think your fully armored… um, imposing presence is necessary for my once-a-week morning teatime with Rarity.”
On further reflection, that came out a little less assertive than she wanted, but it was too late to add anything else. It was certainly true that Captain Berrytwist’s presence was rather awe-inspiring. And intimidating. She was an extremely powerful mare. After another half block in silence, Fizzlepop turned her head to gaze at Twilight evenly.
“If you weren’t already aware, my Princess, I am always nearby during your tea date with Rarity. Exactly 8:30 AM every Monday. You just don’t notice me because we are doing hidden surveillance. If you’d... open up your eyes, you might see that I and at least two other officers are within a stone’s throw at all times when you are in public.”
Twilight huffed, rolling her eyes at the self-assured smirk adorning her Captain’s features. She wondered for the three-hundred and third time whether finally acquiescing to having a personal guard was really worth the trouble. Further, Captain Berrytwist’s mannerisms made her feel ill-at-ease. She wasn’t exactly obsequious, but… what was the word? Fizzlepop seemed a little too subservient, and that bothered her.
Admittedly, she was excellent at what she did. It was no surprise that she out thought and out-planned both the Lunar and Celestial contingents of the Royal Guard during the last war games event only three weeks ago. Celestia and Luna were both rather displeased, and quite a few egos were bruised among the rank and file.
Twilight broke out of her train of thought to reply. “I’ve spotted you before!” She watched as Fizzlepop’s left eyebrow raised in amusement. “I did! Back when we did that event over by the… thing!”
Did… did her Captain just snicker? Twilight shook her head – that couldn’t be right. She snorted in annoyance. “You’re not that sneaky.”
“You think so?” Fizzlepop nodded to two random ponies standing near Jasmine’s Tea Shop. Both gave very subtle salutes and separated to walk the perimeter of the café. Just how many ponies were in her security team now?
Captain Berrytwist put a hoof on the door, looking down at the smaller alicorn. “Or perhaps you only see me when I allow it? Perhaps I become visible to remind potential threats that your defenders are only a breath away.” With that, Captain Berrytwist winked before pushing the café door open.
Twilight pursed her lips as she followed behind Berrytwist’s muscular flanks. “Maybe you guys are just taking lessons from Pinkie Pie? That mare can hide in anything.”
Fizzlepop paused for a moment, letting Twilight past as she stroked her chin with a hoof. “That’s actually not a bad idea.”
Twilight rolled her eyes with a grunt before stopping at the hostess’ station.
“The reason your security is more visible is due to that magical attack on a librarian yesterday morning. It might be nothing, but until more information develops, your personal defense team has moved to a readiness condition of level four.”
“Level... ugh. It was just a random librarian!”
Captain Berrytwist simply gave her a blank look.
“…Fine. You are also invited to our little tea party.”
“Yes, my Princess.”
Twilight made eye contact with Jasmine, the proprietor, who motioned her in, pointing out Rarity’s usual location in the weather-enchanted back patio. Jasmine gave an enthusiastic wave back, no doubt doubly pleased that they had made this a tradition of sorts every Monday, and made her way around the counter to greet them.
“Hi Princess! Welcome back to our shop!” Jasmine smiled before her grin melted somewhat, noticing Twilight’s mysterious Captain. “And, uh… welcome to you too, Captain!”
Fizzlepop merely nodded.
“Okay!” Jasmine’s smile strained before she gave an uncomfortable chuckle. “Well, c’mon Princess, Rarity awaits.”
* * *
Rarity glanced back over at Captain Berrytwist as her little anecdote drew to a close. The security chief had positioned herself on the other side of the patio affording her a better view of the area around the shop.
The pony was an unexpected plus-one for morning tea, but to be fair, Twilight likely wasn’t expecting her to have an additional guest as well. Given that said guest was Fluttershy, currently on leave from her animal sanctuary before heading out of town, the little assemblage had been enjoyable indeed.
Fluttershy gasped in response to Rarity’s narrative, bringing her teacup up to hide her smile. “Oh, that must have been dreadful, Rarity! There must have had an awful lot of pie in your mane.” Fluttershy’s cheeks flushed with excitement. “Was it too hard to get it out?”
Rarity gave an exasperated huff before shaking her head with a knowing smile. “It was nothing the twins at the spa couldn’t take care of, dear—and while that was not how I had planned to spend my afternoon, there was something rather… carthartic about getting into an all-out pie brawl with none other than Rainbow Dash as my wingmare.” Whimsically, Rarity struck a pose, not too far removed from something Rainbow would pull.
“Oh.” Fluttershy leaned forward before pulling her curtain of mane back behind an ear. “I guess that does sound rather exciting…”
“Exciting?” Twilight scoffed, raising an eyebrow. Twilight’s dry tone pulled Rarity out of her reverie, causing the fashionista to slip out of her pose and take her seat again. “It was a chaotic melee! Now with Spike, I could understand if the guy wanted to run amok and play in a food fight, and probably Rainbow too. But Rarity?” Twilight shook her head, remembering her shock when the Rarity jumped in, shouting threats and epithets at the top of her lungs, Rainbow hot on her heels. “No offense, Fluttershy, but as far as chaotic events, Discord couldn’t have done any better!”
Fluttershy dabbed at the corner of her mouth daintily. “None taken, Twilight. He was actually visiting me during the whole thing”
“Oh?” Rarity pressed, her ears perking up with interest.
“Well, yes. He was sort of making a nuisance of himself with my charge nurse at the time. He’s probably rather put out that he missed it.” Fluttershy giggled.
Twilight rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I’ll bet.”
Rarity leaned further over the table, turning to look at Fluttershy more directly. “Is he still trying to win you back, Shy?” Instead of answering, Fluttershy kept her eyes on her cup before lifting it back up to take a measured sip.
Rarity and Twilight exchanged glances before the alicorn lifted a hoof.
“Wait.” Twilight prodded. “You aren’t thinking of getting back together with him, are you? Two months ago, you told us that—”
“—I know what I said, Twilight.” Everything became quiet. “We are still separated. Nothing will change that unless he addresses a very important issue. And if he manages to do that... well, then we’ll see.” With that, the mood around the table became more somber.
“I know, dear.” Rarity consoled, patting Fluttershy’s hoof. “And I’ll be keeping a careful watch on that one as well. If you need anything from me, anything at all, you just let me know.”
“I’m fine, really.” Fluttershy gave a demure smile, but her eyes fairly sparkled. “More than fine—I’m actually looking forward to my next rally in Baltimare. My tour manager will drop off the train tickets tonight. If it weren’t for him, I’m not sure I’d be able to keep my nerve. But I have a good message, and ponies need to hear it.”
Rarity nodded, pleased that her friend had found enough confidence to go on a speaking tour of all things. If it were ten years ago, the chances of that happening would be the same as Rarity marrying a diamond dog. Fluttershy’s choice of tour manager was also interesting, and they made quite the strange pairing, but there was no denying her almost overnight success. Who knew so many ponies would respond to a quietly reserved self-help speaker delivering her message on The Gentle No™?
“What about you, Twilight?” Fluttershy looked up, deftly changing the subject away from her. “When do you leave for your speaking tour?”
Twilight looked down at her tail before responding. “That would be tomorrow. The Friendship Tour must go on…” Twilight chirped sardonically. “At least my tail will be done growing back by the time I get to Fillydelphia.”
Fluttershy and Rarity’s eyes both widened in surprise before responding in unison. “What happened to your tail?”
Twilight winced. “It’s… a long story.”
Rarity turned and flagged down Jasmine with a hoof. “Jasmine, dear? Bring us another tray, could you please? We are going to keep the princess here just a little longer.”
* * *
It was late morning. The train car gave a jolt as it came to a full stop, momentarily disrupting the many ponies, zebra, and others that had stood to gather their belongings.
“Central Station, Fillydelphia.” The PA system crackled to life. “The time is 11:03. Please enjoy your morning, and have a Celestial Day!”
Tempest looked up at Meadow, her powder blue coat illuminated brilliantly in the intense beams of sunlight coming from the large windows. Meadow had waited until the train had come to rest before standing up, and now had her forehooves in the overhead rack retrieving her bags.
“So.” Tempest stretched her back with a few pops before slipping off the bench seat. “How far is it to the nearest manufacturing facility?”
Meadow gave her a blank look, before pulling her bags down with a plop, narrowly missing Tempest’s head. “Slow down there, marefriend! You don’t just walk into a factory and start making stuff, Temp. We need to make a sales presentation first.” Her smile scooted to the side into a smirk before continuing. “Besides. In your mad rush to purchase tickets and get on the first train, we skipped breakfast. We’re not going anywhere until we eat. I’m starved.”
“But I don’t see why can’t—”
“—Nope! Breakfast first. I know of a darling cafe around the corner,” Meadow proclaimed, eyes dancing. “Anyway. If we are going to make a sales presentation, we need to prepare a game plan first.”
Meadow leaned forward, dropping her voice to a lower level. “Besides. Discussing all the potential applications of amulet technology really has me excited—I can’t wait to sell them myself! I think you’ll see the usefulness of the two ponies I have in mind. I’m sure they’ll go for it!”
Magicking her saddle bags back on, Tempest watched the back of Meadow’s bouncy head as they stepped off of the train. She smiled, breathing in the cold morning air. Hopefully Fillydelphia would work for a base of operations. She had been hesitant to inform Meadow Lark about everything, but now that she had, the mare was surprising her with her exuberance.
“Indeed. Let’s discuss it over breakfast.”
Meadow returned her smile and pointed with a hoof. “This way!”