How selfless can a pony be until that selflessness becomes something opposite to itself? Are we always noble creatures when we sacrifice everything in our lives for an idea? Curse or uncursed. We are on this earth for a limited time. Do we it owe it to ourselves to indulge a little? To allow ourselves pleasure so as to appreciate and understand pain more?
All my life, I've had a philosophical way of approaching things. This cannot be denied. Sometimes I even lose myself in spiraling patterns of analytical and presumptuous thought. However, there comes a time when philosophy no longer serves as an aid, but rather as a crutch.
Could it be possible that I've used philosophy as a way to distance myself from the things that truly hurt, that fill me with dread, that remind me of just how terribly lonely I am? After all, there are far better solutions to those ailments that go beyond the artifice of practiced words.
I suppose I've always had music to fall back on. Where words fail me, music picks up the slack. It does something for me that philosophy fails to, and for that I owe music all the more.
It gives me the license to feel.
Corridors of ice. Rows of ponies, marching and mournful. Twitching eyes of cornflower blue. There's a service today. There's always a service. Tears and poetry and letters unreceived. A ringing bell. A city covered in frost. It's not her war, but they are planting flowers in her shadow. I see nothing but thorns. There are screams between the spaces of unsung lyrics. Somewhere, I hear you sobbing. I must find you. I love you. I adore you. She adores her beloved. She adores her beloved. She adores her beloved.
Everywhere I turn, the war stabs at me. I slide underneath it on a current of freezing pebbles. I must make music where nopony can hear me, not even her. The black metal bites my skin. The strings won't break. My hooves are bleeding. My horn stopped resonating hours ago. Every time I pierce the barriers of magic, I see her eyes. She’s catching up to me. I must find you first. I must find you before she does. Maybe I can distract her. Maybe if I found her beloved. Maybe if I held conference with the destroyer of worlds. Maybe he can help me with the elegy of Desolation. Maybe my horn will work for me by that time. I'm scared of it working for her instead.
The ice is everywhere. I'm losing hair. A gray trail falls behind me. There's an old stallion in the pond water looking back. Will I become him? I've always hated the light, and even now it betrays me, confuses me. Maybe if I close my eyes, you'll be there. I can slide up next to you and kiss your ears in the same way you've always loved to play with mine. I want you to hear this symphony when it is over. I will have discovered it when I have discovered you. Together we shall turn the Nocturne into something beautiful. We will find our beauty once again. She will not, but we will. For you are my beloved, and I will not abandon you like she abandoned hers.
More thorns. The strings won't break through them. Guards are screaming at me. Something about a “Solar Screening.” All that is bright and glorious about this world is gone. All is darkness, save for the brief splash of flame. Sibling rivalry. Falling stars. They will destroy the stars with their righteous fury. Will she rise up in the absence and fill the night with chains? I must stop this. I must bring the dawn before the night. A paradox is an answer is a song. The strings still won't break. Blood on my hooves. I love you. Wait for me a little longer. Do not listen to her. She adores her beloved. She banished her beloved. She adores her beloved. She banished her beloved. She adores her beloved. She banished...
I couldn't help it; I stopped reading. I sighed deeply, squatting in the middle of my cot as the soft afternoon light wafted in through the cabin windows. I ran a hoof across my clenched eyes and rubbed them. That much blue text is utterly agonizing.
Over the latest session, I had committed myself to reading for barely an hour. As I went deeper and deeper into Doctor Comethoof’s rambling text, it became progressively harder for me to focus on the magically glowing material. It certainly didn't help that the next four successive pages consisted of messily scribbled “She adores her beloved; she banished her beloved” over and over again. However, there were minor details woven in-between: a letter replaced with another here, a word rearranged or flung upside down there. It was a senseless pattern, but a pattern nonetheless, and it deserved my undivided attention. Over three-fourths of Comethoof's records were filled with nonsensical ramblings such as this, and it only got more disjointed as the blue text went on. I felt as though it was my duty to peruse the absurd lengths of it, for what else did I have to work with?
I was desperate to know whatever truth Comethoof may have seized throughout his maniacal endeavors. But no matter how deeply I read his cyclical text, I couldn't find the one word I was so frantically searching for. Not once did I see any mention of “parasprites.” I had read every word that glowed before me in an unearthly magenta. As the colors faded, I performed the Requiem over and over again to maintain focus. Every time the one forbidden color popped up, it was merely in reference to one of four things: her, the “writing” of the Nocturne, the unsung realm, or the explosion that had supposedly taken place in Princess Celestia's meeting room right after Nightmare Moon's rise to power.
I like to think that it was perfectly natural of me to turn to Comethoof. His writings were, after all, my proverbial bible of the unsung. Because of his records, I knew about the “Nocturne of the Firmaments.” I knew about the final two elegies—well, I knew more than I'd ever find out on my own. I also discovered the fate of the Nightbringer: it was in the possession of Doctor Comethoof unto his dying day. But what became of it after he was lost to the curse of time and neglect?
I wasn't sure that reading and re-reading Comethoof's text—no matter how thorough or diligent a job—would ever lend me truth regarding the Nightbringer's fate. I was just one pony, and hardly an expert at cracking insanely cryptic wordsmithery. I wondered if Comethoof had purposefully meant to disguise his records with obscure ramblings. If I was delusional enough to believe my spouse was still alive after personally witnessing her horrible demise, then perhaps I'd do something as brash as commit myself to guarding the fate and location of the Nightbringer for as long as I lived. With my luck, the timeless instrument was hidden somewhere in the depths of Canterlot, where it had eluded the eyes of dozens upon dozens of generations to follow. After all, just where else would Comethoof have taken the holy instrument except to the grave—and most likely an unmarked one at that?
It was easy to be dismayed. The Nightbringer was the only key I perceived to performing the Nocturne in full, and to unraveling the truth that was obscured even to me. It's hard to write in this journal, knowing that if I turn so little as ten pages back, I'll find glowing magenta text showing where I had essentially lied to myself to protect the unsung realm. I was dying to know what had actually happened to me the first night after I played the “Threnody of Night,” or what had truly become of Princess Celestia's visit to Ponyville the week of the parasprite infestation.
Parasprites. Were they really something made up? Were they truly a fabrication? It was indescribably strange to contemplate this. It would have been like telling myself that squirrels never existed, or that there was no such place as Blue Valley, or that lungs weren't the organs that transferred oxygen into the bloodstream. Anything was now open to debate. With the knowledge that the unsung realm existed, I had to come to grips with the fact that just about anything in this world—in my existence on this plane—could very easily have been the concoction of a forsaken alicorn goddess. I found myself doing strange things—frighteningly silly things—things only Doctor Comethoof would do. I'd wake up in the middle of the night, perform “Twilight's Requiem,” and then scribble random words onto paper, just to see if they glowed with a magenta highlight immediately after. As a matter of fact, this journal entry is taking twice as long to write because I keep stopping after each paragraph, habitually performing the same, paranoid scan.
What are parasprites? They're annoying little insects, and yet they couldn't possibly be insects. Insects are supposed to have a head, a thorax, and an abdomen. Parasprites consist of a head that simultaneously acts as the predominant feature of their bodies. They're essentially bulbous faces with wings attached. Just how does a pony fit something like that into taxonomy?
And yet, I've always remembered them. No. That's not true. I've always been aware of them, but I had never once seen a parasprite—not until that one horrible incident in Ponyville. And yet, looking back on my life—from when I was a little filly to adulthood—I was always aware of parasprites. Or, perhaps, I only thought that I had been aware of parasprites all that time? It's horrifying to think that a falsehood had been wired into my brain, and ever since then it had made me believe a complete fallacy about my past, or reality in general.
Certainly, I wasn't alone. Everypony in town believed in parasprites. There was even a phrase that was passed around, supposedly an old mare's expression: “don't feed the parasprites.” That was a proverb as old as time... or was it? Had it actually been written down anywhere? Did ponies even know what it meant when they said it? Did something that felt older than I did actually exist no longer than a year on this earth? Furthermore, what purpose did parasprites have in obscuring the past?
My head hurts just contemplating it. It's getting difficult to write on the subject. I find myself getting distracted with something else that's happened recently, something that had also distracted me that one day in my cabin as I hovered over Comethoof's repetitious text.
It was a crunching noise. It came from just outside the front door to the cabin. The sound didn't startle me. As a matter of fact, my heartbeat increased and a foalish smile came to my face. In truth, I had heard the sound before. I leapt off the bed and scrambled into action. I grabbed a brown bag full of ground-up fish meat and poured a few bits into a wooden bowl. Then, stealthily, like a coyote stalking its prey, I slid up to the door. Licking my lips, I turned the knob and—with a gentle tug of telekinesis—slowly pulled the door open.
As soon as the afternoon light appeared beyond the frame, a tiny figure froze in place, staring at me with amber, slitted eyes. Its backhairs arched slightly as its tail curled down. After a few seconds, it calmed, and its orange fur seemed to deflate in the cool September breeze.
“Why, hello there, Al,” I said with a gentle smile. Yes, that is what I decided to call him, after the late Doctor Comethoof himself. “You're hear early today. Is nocturnal living getting lonely? Hmm?”
The cat stared back at me, still as a statue, its ears flicking curiously. Most of the dish outside was empty, but that wasn't because he had eaten so much of it. I had only filled a little bit of it that morning; it was all part of the plan.
“I've got more where that came from, y'know,” I said. I scooted forward and gently pushed the bowl towards the door-frame. “Should be just as... uh... meaty as the rest of the stuff,” I remarked.
“Al” looked at my bowl, at me, then at the bowl again. After several pensive seconds, he returned to the dish that was already in front of him and resumed crunching the tiny morsels between his teeth.
I exhaled and slumped with my chin propped against my right hoof. “I've got a village full of ponies who love to chat their heads off when they see a perfect stranger like me, and yet you won't give me a single 'meow.' What's up with that?”
There's a reason why I haven't written much about Al. These last few weeks have been very trying, to say the least. Between learning the eighth elegy, journeying to the unsung realm, and reading Comethoof's journals, I've not had much room to focus on the less dramatic facets of my life. Perhaps spending an entire week with Mister Shuffle is what changed me, what made me sit back and reexamine what should or shouldn't enter these journal entries. There are few things in existence that I can afford, and even fewer that I can afford to write about, apparently.
Al first showed up around my cabin in July. This was shortly after my second Summer Sun Celebration in Ponyville. I don't know where he came from or if he had any previous owners. All I know is that I woke up one morning to an adorable orange tabby stalking around the outer frame of my cabin, foraging for mice and lizards. At first, I paid him no mind. He was an animal—yes—but still a living thing, and I didn't expect him to notice my existence any more than the ponies who live here. But though I paid him no mind, it was hard for my heart to ignore him.
So, it started with leaving little trays full of water. I'd go to town and come back to see the dish dried up well before the sun could have evaporated the liquid. I repeated the gesture and stayed at home one day to “stand guard.” Sure enough, I witnessed the cat climbing out of a row of nearby hedges in the wee morning hours and lapping the water up thirstily. This repeated for the next few days, until I realized that maybe I should be a decent equine being and add some food to the mix. It took the tabby a little while to acclimate to the offering, but soon he crunched away at the morsels left for him.
This happened quite regularly. It occurred to me that nothing proved the cat had any recollection of me or the cabin. All the cat knew was that there was sustenance located at this edge of the forest. It kept coming back to be fed. That's all it was. Regardless, at least one soul was benefiting from these constant visits; that couldn't be denied.
“I don't suppose you ran into Applejack along the way here, huh?” I murmured in the cat's direction. I adjusted my hoodie's sleeves and sat on my haunches before the doorway as he crunched away. “She's been working around the clock to harvest her latest batch of apples. She kind of gets in a sour mood when she's rushing to meet a last second deadline. Still, she has a thing for animals, and I'm sure she'd cheer up if she ran into you.” I smiled. “Heck, she might even want to give you a decent home. You wouldn't have to be a stray anymore; you could live at Sweet Apple Acres. How would you like that?”
Al didn't even look at me. He kept rummaging through the food dish, his tail dancing behind him in the sunlight like an orange comet trail.
“You live somewhere in the forest, right?” I further rambled as I stared at the thick woods behind him. “I don't suppose you've run into any parasprites, have you? They seem small enough, cute enough, and bouncy enough for a cat like you to mercilessly shred to ribbons. Ya think?”
Silence. The hum of bees and buzzing of cicadas wafted through the doorway.
I sighed and ran a hoof through my mane. “I don't know what to do, Al. Even if I found out the truth about parasprites, what would I be able to do? I don't have the Nightbringer. I don't even know the entire Nocturne.” A chill billowed through my body. I hugged my forelimbs to me as my teeth chattered. “Nnngh... I guess... I guess I'm just afraid that if I study too hard, if I put all of my energy into the research, I'll drive myself mad... just like your namesake did.”
I heard a clicking sound all of the sudden. Only, it wasn't a clicking sound. Then something warm brushed up against me.
Blinking, I glanced down. Al was purring. Furthermore, he was perched upon the concrete foundation of the cabin. He had crossed the threshold of the door. The dish outside was empty, and after rubbing briefly against my cutie mark, Al padded his way over to the other wooden bowl and sifted through the fresher bits of food inside.
I smiled, then bit my lip as I reached a nervous hoof out. As I gently made contact with Al’s back, his fur twitched a bit, but he didn't scamper away. Slowly, I stroked his smooth orange coat. His tail curled around my limb and flicked in the air while I continued the gentle caress.
“Hmmm...” I exhaled with a slight rosiness to my cheeks upon making our first contact ever. “I guess losing my mind isn't too bad, so long as my heart's got an anchor, huh?”
The tiniest of trilling sounds came from deep inside his purring muscles. He continued eating, but he wasn't fleeing from this stranger. It was the simplest of gestures, but it made my whole week.
I felt my jaw clench as a renewed energy flew through my limbs. “What am I doing cooped up in here?”
“And I'm not saying there's anything wrong with bowling!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed loudly as Twilight Sparkle opened the door to her library. The two of them strolled into the spacious treehouse. “I'm up for it this weekend, but I don't want a lame repeat of last time! Not all of us are just casual bowlers, y'know!”
“I'm telling you, I have no idea what happened!” Twilight Sparkle exclaimed as she peeled out of her saddlebag and set it on a tabletop. “I'm usually a lot better at keeping score!”
“You lost half the frames, Twilight!” Rainbow Dash's brow furrowed. She hovered close to the ceiling, folding her forelimbs with an indignant glare. “The only thing I like more than winning is being able to shove it in Applejack's face as I do it! How could you have neglected a huge chunk of the scoreboard?!”
“I know! It's not like me!” Twilight sighed, her face hung in a worrisome slump. “Maybe I've had a lot on my mind. There's an essay I've been meaning to write to the Princess and—well—you know how easily I can get distracted.” She shook her head and marched across the library. “I swear, it's as if the world likes to drop random stuff into my lap—” She bumped into my stool and stumbled back. “Oh...” Her eyes blinked cutely. “Uhm. Hello there.”
“Back at you,” I said with a smile. I glanced at her through my peripheral vision as my hoof ran down the pages of several scientific almanacs piled on the table before me. “Are you the head librarian?”
“Uhm... Oh. Yes. Ahem. Yes I am. And you are...?”
“Lyra. Lyra Heartstrings.”
“Good afternoon, Miss Heartstrings. Uhm. Might I ask how you got in here—?”
“Your assistant, the whelpling,” I remarked. “He's helping me with a research project. I can't believe he found all of these zoological texts so quickly! He's quite the amazing little assistant.” I smiled towards the far side of the library where a baby dragon was carrying a stack of books from another room. “Isn't that right, handsome?”
“Hey! Dig the swell hoodie!”
I chuckled and smirked at Twilight. “He's so focused on his job too! It's like I'm not even here.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Rainbow Dash muttered.
Twilight glared up at her. “Rainbow...”
“Anyways, I got stuff to do.” Rainbow Dash yawned and flew towards the doorway. “Go on and help Miss Talkative here. Just promise you'll be ready this weekend to keep score like you're usually awesome at doing.”
“Don't worry, Rainbow,” Twilight said with a playful wink. “Rest assured, whenever there's an occasion that you're steamrolling Applejack, you can expect me to be watching closely.” Twilight blinked, then blushed slightly. “Wait... that didn't exactly come out ri—”
“Uh huh. See ya!” Rainbow was gone.
“So, you're the head librarian, right?” I uttered.
“Uhm...” Twilight snapped out of it and smiled politely my way. “Yes. That's right. Can I lend you a hoof? My afternoon's free at the moment.”
“Well, to be Ponyville's chief of resource gathering, I imagine you must be well versed in biological sciences.”
“Well, I'm versed enough. Magic and cosmology are more of my forte, but...”
“Tell me...” I swiveled in the stool to face her. “What do you know about parasprites?”
Twilight Sparkle blinked. It was obvious that she didn't expect to be questioned on that particular topic. “Well, uhm, we have a rather unfortunate history, to tell the truth.”
“You don't say?”
“Yes.” She shifted nervously, her eyes dancing between the wooden walls of the place. “Parasprites single-hoofedly consumed half of Ponyville several months ago during a week when Princess Celestia was scheduled to visit.”
“Truly?” I leaned back against the table. “That must have been a horrible debacle.”
“Oh, it was.” She squinted at me. “You're not from around here, are you?”
I smiled. “I guess you could say that I'm visiting.”
“Well, be happy to know that every shop, every house, every single building in this town owes its structural integrity to diligent, cooperating ponies,” Twilight said. “If it weren't for the hard work of every able-bodied equine in town, the destructive effect of parasprites would be seen to this very day.”
“It was that bad of an infestation, huh?”
She shuddered. “I still have a hard time thinking about it.”
She blinked. “Well, because no matter how hard I tried to get the creatures out of town, they only multiplied more and more. They were this close to wreaking havoc on Princess Celestia herself. Thankfully, though, she canceled her visit at the last second to deal with business elsewhere in Equestria. Now that would have been a horrible disaster in the making.”
“Did Princess Celestia ever find out about the infestation?”
“Well... erm...” Twilight shifted nervously where she stood. “No. I suppose she never learned about the damage they did to Ponyville...”
I raised an eyebrow. “The Goddess of the Sun, the providential alicorn ruler of all Equestria, never caught wind of the near-destruction of Ponyville”
“She had to have dealt with parasprites in some fashion!” Twilight exclaimed. “She specifically went to Fillydelphia to deal with an infestation there. Obviously nothing horrible must have come of that situation, because she returned to Canterlot without any problems.” Twilight cleared her throat. “You... uhm... aren't here on a mission of royal correspondence, are you?”
“Heheheh...” I chuckled. “Relax, Miss Sparkle. I'm not some agent working for Princess Celestia.”
“Then what are you here for?” Twilight raised an eyebrow. “What kind of research is worth putting into parasprites?”
“Take a moment, if you will, and think about the creatures, Miss Sparkle,” I said while gesturing a hoof. “They almost destroyed half the town, yes?”
“What is it that empowered them to cause so much destruction?”
“Well...” Twilight Sparkle trotted over and sat on her haunches besides me and my stool. “They're voracious eaters, for one thing. And their diet allows them to eat just about any edible substance...” She gulped and blushed slightly. “...or inedible, given some minor, magical tweaking.”
Twilight rubbed one hoof against another and avoided my gaze. “I may possibly have... augmented their food intake with an impulsive spell meant to discourage them from eating.”
“So, we're talking about a diet of hay, oats, apples, and flowers?”
She bit her lip. “More like the desire to eat wood, metal frameworks, cloth, paper, written ink—”
“Written ink?!” I gave her a bizarre expression. “Miss Twilight Sparkle, are we talking about a scientifically plausible organism, or a bunch of gremlins?”
“I and several other ponies saw parasprites with our very own eyes!”
“And I'm not denying that. But think for a moment,” I said with an emphatic wave of the hoof, “Does any of it make sense?”
“How can a single tiny creature consume so many objects so much larger than its own size? Wouldn't the matter have to be transferred to something? It can't possibly go nowhere. You and I both know that's not how the universe works.”
“Well, true,” Twilight said with a nod. “It so happens that parasprites multiply at a rate directly proportional to how much matter they consume. After devouring sufficient mass, they regurgitate an organic substance that metamorphosizes into a new, healthy parasprite.”
“So, the consumed matter is converted into a genetic double of itself?”
“I would hypothesize as much.”
I squinted at her. “What remarkable and hitherto unprecedented series of microscopic organs inside such a tiny creature could possibly be capable of performing such a scientifically improbable feat?!”
“I...” Twilight fidgeted. “I'm not sure I understand the question—”
“To be able to transfer inert matter into living forms of matter at such an alarming rate so as to create a swarm capable of demolishing this town would require unfathomable metabolism, wouldn't you think?” I remarked. “And just what kind of a digestive system would make such a function work? Furthermore, how could it fit inside such a small insect-like being and somehow be able to do this?”
“Well, for one thing—”
I pointed at her. “Don't you dare say 'magic.'”
Twilight Sparkle giggled slightly. “Well, Miss Heartstrings, it's not that much of a stretch to imagine, is it? After all, Equestria has seen its fair share of windigoes, ursa majors, and timber wolves. There are many creatures that dwell upon a plane of existence so bizarre that it takes a far more complicated, metaphysical science to even begin grasping them. Equestria is, after all, a land that exists within a cosmic realm of chaos—if the most ancient and honored of texts are to believed. It isn't strange to imagine that creatures from the cosmos—beings determined by states of pure energy—are capable of settling upon this terrestrial landscape.”
“You're saying that parasprites are innately unexplainable, then?” I remarked. “As a scientist, can you rest comfortably with that conclusion?”
“Well, to be honest,” Twilight spoke, “I never had an opportunity to study any of them closely.” She gulped. “Not that I wanted to. All I was concerned with at the time was getting the nasty little things out of the village so that they couldn't cause any more destruction.”
“Did you ever succeed?”
“Well the village is standing today, isn't it?” She briefly giggled. “The last we ever saw them, they were escorted into the thick of the Everfree Forest.”
“The Everfree Forest?”
“And they still had the ability to consume random things at large and multiply at an exponential rate?”
“I... I would suppose...”
I leaned forward. “Then what has kept them from shredding the entire forest to mulch by this point?”
Twilight blinked. Her gaze fell confusedly towards the floor. “Uhm...”
“From what you've described,” I spoke, “They're virtually unstoppable. How come they haven't eaten the entire forest, the entire landscape—heck—the entire planet? From all observation, there's no reason to think that we shouldn't be sitting on a giant, coagulated ball of countless parasprites floating lonesomely through the cosmos.”
“I don't... know what you want from me, Miss Heartstrings,” Twilight said with a nervous shudder. “Since that one nightmarish week when we had to deal with the little bugs, I've not run into them.”
“Not a single one?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Don't you find that a little odd, given their rate of multiplying and the damage they evidently cause—” I swallowed. “—For that matter, how come the infestation Celestia had to deal with elsewhere didn't cause any alarming damage?”
“Are you trying to say that there's something inconsistent about the nature of parasprites?”
“No, Miss Sparkle,” I said, “I'm trying to suggest that it's an absurdity for parasprites to even exist in the first place. They are fundamentally, scientifically, and logically unreal.”
“But...” Twilight smiled nervously. “That's impossible! My friends and I all saw them in person! We chased them out of town! We had to repair half of the village for heaven's sake!”
“I'm not trying to challenge your memories, Miss Sparkle,” I said,“Merely the essence which your memories are centered upon.”
“If you don't believe me, consult the zoological archives!” Twilight said, “Certainly you'll find some data on the creatures in them!”
“Actually, I did do just that,” I said with a smirk. Motioning for her to look, I swiveled once more to the table full of research materials. “I've spent all day pouring over these books you have in your collection of Equestrian Insect Families. Not once are parasprites even mentioned in any of the volumes. So, branching out, I read through books written on cryptozoology, cosmic astrobiology, elemental intelligence, and magical summons.”
I shook my head. “No. None of these books contain information on parasprites either.” I glanced at her. “I don't suppose you're familiar with these books, any?”
“There are very few books in this library that I haven't at least skimmed through...”
“Do you recall ever reading about parasprites?”
“Think hard, Miss Sparkle,” I remarked. “In all your years of reading, have you ever come across a textual mention of them?”
Her brow furrowed in thought, but she said nothing.
I looked at her. “Have you ever seen an illustration of them?”
She bit her lip.
“Heard of them?”
She looked up at me, gulped, and said, “Just because there's been no chronicled knowledge of a species doesn't mean they haven't shown up in Equestria before.”
“Even if it's a creature whose only form of reproduction is to eat anything in sight and create a duplicate of itself at an alarming rate?” I remarked. “Miss Sparkle, what we're talking about here is an essential threat to functioning civilization.”
“Well...” Twilight shrugged. “The only possible answer I can think of is that they came into being just... recently...”
I gently, fixedly smiled at her.
She blinked several times—dazedly—and then glanced at me. “But... but how could that be?”
I chuckled and slapped a book shut. “The question of the century... for the swarm of the century.”
It was nighttime when I returned to my cabin. I had a few library books with me, but somehow I didn't expect to have much luck with them on my lonesome. I had spent the entire afternoon with Twilight Sparkle. Together we rummaged through several volumes of scientific journals, hunting for the most elusive prey. The only reason I finally left was because of a wave of chills that brought with it the forgetful strings of fate.
As I strolled into the door and lit a lantern with my telekinesis, I froze in my tracks. There was a familiar, orange figure seated in the center of my cot. It looked up at me with bright amber eyes that reflected the starry night outside. It did not look even remotely frightened.
I blinked at the cat. I glanced up at the walls of my cabin. I saw one of the windows which I had left cracked open to allow the cool air to breathe through my home while I was gone. With a knowing grin, I turned to look at the feline once more.
“Well, you certainly made yourself at home, didn't you, Al?”
The cat merely stared at me.
I eyed it cautiously, all the while closing the door to the cabin behind me. Once I had sealed us both in, it didn't make any attempt to scamper away.
“Hmm... Well, you're brave, I'll give you that.” I started peeling off my saddlebag and satchel full of library books. “But you're in for a really boring time if you think you can stay here. I'm not sure you'd want to live with a pony stranger who will only become the same stranger to you over and over again every few hours.”
The cat merely yawned and licked its shoulder a few times.
I placed my lyre down next to the cot, lingered briefly, and trotted over towards a bag of feed. I poured some of the fish product into a wooden bowl, shook it slightly, and pivoted around. Suddenly, Al was there, padding up to me and tilting his head towards the dish of food.
“Hmmm...” I smirked. “I see what it all boils down to. Thanks for giving me hope for the day that I settle down with a handsome stallion.”
I placed the bowl down. Al lowered his whiskers into the bowl, burrowed his nose through the food, and began crunching away.
I trotted over to the cot, levitating the library books with me. The center of the bed was still warm from where Al had been curled up. It was a strangely happy sensation. Relaxing with a deep exhale, I sat on my haunches and glanced over at my sudden houseguest. I'm not sure what exactly inspired me to begin as I did. Perhaps it was due to the fact that I was studying an absurd subject all afternoon that I decided to do something just as silly.
“I visited Twilight Sparkle and forced her into a cram session,” I told Al as he ate. “Between the two of us, we only found one mention of parasprites.” I shuffled through the books in my grasp as I continued. “It was in a journal of Equestrian biological studies. Get this, though, it was printed no more than three months ago.” I raised an eyebrow as I glanced back towards Al. “The only written detail about parasprites, and it was penned by a scientist several months after the creatures destroyed half of Ponyville.”
Al continued munching away, his tail wagging towards me.
“Well, naturally, if this was indeed a brand new species of insect being discovered right now, it would make sense that something would be written about the bugs after the fact. Still, I just can't make myself believe that—in the entire library that Twilight Sparkle manages—there is only one instance of the existence of parasprites being acknowledged. For all I know, the pony who wrote the article was affected by her attempts to rewrite history just as much as myself, Celestia, and every other resident of this village. You know who I'm talking about when I say 'her,' right? She's only the otherworldly alicorn spirit who guards over the souls of limbo in the unsung realm between the firmaments. That... doesn't sound crazy, does it?”
Al licked his chops and gazed up at me from afar. His ears flicked.
I sighed. “Yeah... it sounds just as crazy as believing in parasprites that can eat a million times their own weight in food and multiply instantaneously,” I muttered. I gazed across the lantern-lit cabin towards an ancient tome resting on a shelf. “It sounds just about as crazy as Doctor Comethoof's personal ramblings. But... But the unsung realm exists! She exists! I know it, I've seen it with my own eyes...” I grimaced as a chill swept my limbs into a shiver. I adjusted the sleeves of my hoodie. “Now I'm beginning to sound like Twilight...”
Al stretched, shook his head, and stalked across the room. He came to a stop on the floor beside my bed and curled up in a lazy ball.
“Hmmm...” I smiled painfully at him. “Just what I need, a living thing to listen to me talk in circles out loud.” With a sigh, I reached a hoof out and stroked his back. He didn't resist my gentle touch. “You poor fella,” I murmured. “At least you're fed so long as you hang out here. That's what matters, right?”
The cat rested his head between his orange paws and closed his eyes as his side slowly rose and fell.
I sat up straight, taking a deep breath. “Perhaps the only way I can not feel insane is to interview as many ponies as I can find in town about the parasprites and see how much crazier they are for believing in something that they're forced to.” I smiled and reached down to pet Al again. “Who knows? Maybe I can paint a picture from it all. So long as I have the forbidden knowledge of truth that she doesn't want me to know, I'll be able to read between the lines, right?”
“Parasprites? Ugh. Nasty little pests. They ate the front patio to my favorite cafe. I had to go for a week solid without being able to visit my favorite reading spot in town. Hmmm? Well, no, I don't think it's all that strange that we rebuilt all of the damaged places so quickly. This town's come together to accomplish remarkable things before. Were you around for the great storm of 992? Still, nothing compared to what the parasprites did to this place nearly a year ago—was it a year ago? So many strange things have happened in this village. Heck, we were just getting over the attack of a rampaging ursa minor barely a month before the bugs swarmed over everything.”
“Yeah, I was there for when the ursa minor attacked. The giant bear smashed two apartments in the residential district, but that was it. Praise Celestia that it didn't cause even more destruction! Hmmm? Why didn't it do more damage? You mean you weren't here for it yourself? I saw it with my own eyes: Twilight Sparkle strolled up out of nowhere and calmed the beast before sending it on its merry way back to the Everfree Forest. I'm guessing she got something of a chip on her shoulder because of that, heh. Hmmm? Well, because she screwed things up when she came to save the day from the parasprites. She only made the infestation worse!”
“Shucks, it was a shock to all of us! Twilight Sparkle is the smartest, cleverest, most talented unicorn around these here parts. I've seen her turn rocks into hats, summon doors out of plum nowhere, and even plant magical mustaches on baby dragons! Heh... She's a sweet ol' back of tricks, our Twi. But she's more than just a silly trickster; she's the apprentice to Princess Celestia herself! I watched, dumbstruck, as she levitated a big ol' ursa minor out of town all on her lonesome. So, I reckon you can imagine how surprised we were when she messed up her fancy-schmancy spell to make the parasprites stop eatin' everythang. They only became more dangerous, and just about tore my family barn to dust! I could never find it in my heart to blame Twilight for all the damage them critters did to the village. I guess it's 'cuz to this day I still don't understand it, and I reckon she can't either. But them's the odds when yer dealing with things that just don't make sense, right? Hmmm? No, I never bothered lookin' for the varmints after they were driven out of town. Yer better off askin' the Mayor. She's been keepin' track of all the local rangerin' business!”
“I sent Miss Dash on several fly-by's of the Everfree Forest not long after the reconstruction of downtown Ponyville was complete. I figured that a pegasus with her degree of speed and agility would be capable of not only rooting out the horrible monsters but chasing them down. Unfortunately, after three solid days of scouring the dreadful woods, she turned up empty-hoofed. When Rainbow Dash is incapable of hunting something down, you know that it's a hopeless case. After that taxing month, we never tried searching for the creatures again. I hate to say that it's an example of 'out of sight, out of mind,' but there were just so many other pressing issues at the time that it wasn't worth the toil or the effort to pursue any further. What's more, it was out of my hooves, because an expedition to seek out the parasprites was up to the city council, and none of the ruling members of the board found it necessary to apply the time or funds to such a project. Parasprites were simply no longer an issue. To be honest, I... had somewhat forgotten about them until you mentioned them to me just now.”
“It's curious, really. I haven't thought about those horrible winged brutes in so long. You think they'd be the forefront of my nightmares, considering what a horrible mess they had made of this Boutique. It's such a shame, really. I recall them being lovely and adorable creatures upon first glance. Why something so precious would end up such a menace is a bizarre fluke of nature, if you ask me. That's why I don't take to hiking that much. What lives in the Everfree Forest should stay in the Everfree Forest, and we're better off not getting our manes tangled in their business. Hmmm? Well, no, I don't know for sure if they came from the Everfree Forest or not. I only assumed that was the case, considering that the Horseshoe Hotel lies on the furthest edge of town that borders the Forest and it was the one structure that took the most damage.”
“We had to rebuild the Horseshoe Hotel from the ground-up. Well, I say 'we' because I volunteered myself and Spike to be the foremen of the construction site. I... felt personally responsible for how dangerous those creatures turned out to be. Nopony was saying it to my face, but I think most of the villagers believed I owed the village too much to be put into words. Still, it was a stimulating experience. I think I'm innately gifted for being in a position of management, and I made sure that the hotel was reconstructed floor by floor, wall by wall, brick by brick, with absolute care and precision. No single piece of material was wasted. What was more, we made record time, and had the hotel back in order by the end of the month! True, it took far longer than the rest of Ponyville to rebuild, but that was only because it suffered more damage than any other place in town. What? Well, no, I suppose I don't know why the parasprites ate so much of the hotel's structure while leaving the other buildings nearby mostly untouched. Perhaps there was something in the materials in the original foundation that attracted them. They were hungry, after all. Somewhere in all of that chaos you must equate taste along with appetite. Also, the Horseshoe Hotel was the closest building to the edge of the Everfree Forest, and it's quite possible that the creatures tore it up on their way out of Ponyville. I wish I could explain just what made parasprites tick, but in all honesty I don't know. It wasn't as if I was the one pony that was around the creatures the most.”
“Huh? Heck no! It wasn't me! I hated those creatures! I was sleeping on a cloud, minding my own business, when they were all like 'Hey, let's see how many of our brothers and sisters can cling to your coat!' And I was like 'That's not cool, dudes. Bad touch.' And then they were everywhere. I flew through them and it was like swimming through a foalday ballpit. Nnnngh... totally not cool, if you ask me. I don't know what Fluttershy ever saw in the little turds. Huh? Yeah, you heard me right. Fluttershy was just about ready to marry the dang things, she was cuddling them so much. How the heck would I know what she saw in them?! You should go ask her! She was the pony who discovered the parasprites in the first place! If anypony knows a thing or two about them, it'd be her!”
I knocked on the door to a cottage on the edge of the Everfree Forest. After several hours of talking to various ponies, my search had brought me here. A quiet, babbling brook glistened beneath me, and the cool September air hummed with butterflies, bees, and songbirds. I rather envied the quaint and beautiful place that Ponyville's resident animal tamer called “home.” I took mental notes for gardening tricks that I would attempt once I had some free time at the cabin.
Heh... as if I actually had “free time” these days...
I realized that a solid minute had gone by, and Fluttershy hadn't answered my knock. So, I did it again, louder this time. I knew she was there. I saw her watering some flowers on the edge of the cottage when I first trotted up the long path. Had... had she fled at the sight of me?
Sighing, I knocked a third time. Finally, a fearful squeak emanated from inside the building.
“Wh-what do you want?”
I smiled pleasantly and spoke, “Miss Fluttershy, my name is Lyra Heartstrings. I'm interviewing residents of Ponyville for a research project, and I was wondering if you would be so gracious as to give me a few minutes of your time.”
“Uhm... what k-kind of an interview are we talking about?”
“Well, you see, I'm performing a study on parasprites, and I heard that you were a first-hoof witness to the infestation that happened here several months ago—”
“Eeep! N-no! I don’t know anything about parasprites! What would make you think that I know anything about parasprites?”
I blinked awkwardly. “Uhm.. some ponies mentioned that... th-that you were the first to discover them before they multiplied across the village—”
“I... I-I don't know what you're talking about! I wouldn't breed parasprites! Those little creatures are terribly frightening!”
“Miss Fluttershy, I'm not accusing you of anything!” I exclaimed nervously, “I just need to know more about the insects and you were the one pony who allegedly was around them the most—”
“I can't help you! I'm so sorry!”
“I only want to ask a few—”
“I'm so sorry! But I can't!”
The inside of the cottage fell silent. I stood there, my nostrils flaring briefly. I ran a hoof across my chin in thought. As I felt a chill overcome me, I turned completely around, and marched away from the house.
I knocked on the door to the cottage.
A voice squeaked from the other side. “Y-yes?”
“Miss Fluttershy? My name is Lyra. Your friend, Twilight Sparkle, told me that you were the resident expert on animals in Ponyville.”
“I was wondering if I could ask a few questions that only a pony with your knowledge and expertise could assist me with.”
“Do... Do you need help with any animal-related circumstances?”
“Yes. As a matter of fact, I do—” I leaned forward. “—But I'd have a much easier time asking questions if there wasn't a solid door in the way.”
“I'm... I'm sorry, I'm terribly busy. I have many animals to take care of and feed. Is it an emergency?”
“Well, you're the only pony in this part of Equestria who knows a thing or two about the animals I've been sent to study.”
“What kind of animals?”
“Oh...” I kicked at the sidewalk and gazed around the cottage lawn. “You know, the usual. Squirrels. Chipmunks. Blue jays”—I gulped—“Parasprites...”
“B-but mostly the squirrels! Could we just—?”
“No! I'm sorry!” the voice squeaked, “But I can't help you! You'll have to ask somepony else!”
I sighed. I turned around and trotted away.
I knocked on the door to the cottage.
A voice squeaked from the other side. “What do you want?”
“This is Captain Heartstrings of the Canterlot Animal Commission!” I said in a firm, authoritarian voice. “On behalf of Princess Celestia herself, I must have a word with Ponyville's resident animal-tamer at once! This is a matter of Equestrian National Security! Miss Fluttershy, I ask that you come out and speak with me!”
“I... I-I... I...”
“Miss Fluttershy?! Please open this door immediately! The fate of the nation depends on it!”
“C-Captain... Canterlot... Celestia... S-Security...” There was a prolonged moaning sound, then a soft thud just beyond the door.
I blinked. “Fluttershy?” I blinked again. “Fluttershy? Are...” I bit my lip. “Are y-you conscious?”
There was no reply.
I groaned. I gripped the door and smacked my head against it several times. With a sigh, I turned around, and trudged down the path in a slump.
I knocked on the door to the cottage.
“Nnngh... Uhm... H-hello...?” a voice tiredly exclaimed from the other side.
“Miss Fluttershy, are you alright?” I asked, leaning up against the door. “You don't sound well.”
“Unngh... I... I don't know. I seem to have taken a long nap, but I don't remember falling asleep... much less on the fl-floor...” There was an awkward pause, then a squeak. “Uhm, who are you?”
“My name's Lyra Heartstrings. I just came from the library in Ponyville and I was wondering...”
I bit my lip and fidgeted. I gazed behind me—past the edge of the Everfree Forest—and towards the heart of town. I imagined a cabin on the opposite side of the village, where a lone figure waited with a dangle of his tail. Slowly, I smiled. Clearing my throat, I turned to face the cottage door once again.
“Well, I'm new to town. And... and I discovered this cat outside the cabin I moved into.”
“Yeah, such a small little thing. Adorable as heck. But... uhm... I don't think it has a home. And, like, it's been hanging around my place, and I felt sorry for the poor thing. So, I started feeding it some stuff as the days went by. First it was water, then it was pieces of dry fish meal, and now it's gotten comfortable enough around my place that it's actually walked in on its own, as if it's making itself at home. And—well—I like having the little fella around, but I don't know if I'm doing everything right that I should be doing. So, this sweet librarian in the center of town—Twilight Sparkle is her name—she said that she's got a best friend named 'Fluttershy' who lives on the edge of Ponyville and that she—well—you were the greatest expert on animals and pets around these parts, and that if I wanted to know what to do next with the cat, then you'd be the best pony to talk to. So, I was wondering, could you help me out some?”
There was a brief moment of silence. Then I heard the unmistakable sound of a latch unlocking within the cottage door. It opened, and a dainty pegasus peered out at me.
“What's his name?”
“Awwww...” Fluttershy cooed and knelt in the center of my cabin. “Come here, Al! You're a handsome little thing, aren't you?” With remarkable grace, she managed to coax the orange tabby into her hooves. She cuddled it to her chest, gently stroking the top of its head. “Oh! You're a purring machine, aren't you? And such a deliciously amber coat. Like living orange sherbet! Heehee!”
“How...” I squinted as I paced around her and the gawked at how easily she was holding the little thing. “How did you make him hop into your forelimbs so easily?”
“I didn't make him do anything! Al here is just naturally affectionate!” Fluttershy said as she cradled him in her forelegs. “You mean you never tried picking him up?”
“I... uhm...” I scratched the back of my neck. “I guess I just thought cats liked personal space or something. They're the opposite of dogs, right?”
“All animals are different, Miss Heartstrings,” Fluttershy said, “Just like ponies. All it takes is getting to know them, and this little fella likes being friendly.” She leaned in and rubbed noses with the petite feline. “Heehee. Oh yes, he's very affectionate. No doubt he feels comfortable here.”
“Heh. Well, I tried.”
“Mmmm...” Fluttershy motioned towards a rug beside my cot. “Maybe a little too comfortable...”
“Huh?” I glanced over and saw something that most certainly wasn't there when I left it. It certainly explained the sudden smell in the place. “Oh, for the love of Luna...” I grumbled, grabbed a dust-pan, and immediately took care of the mess. “I feel like an idiot.”
“Don't. You've done a lot of good for this cat,” Fluttershy said as she slowly ran a hoof over his fur and gave it a close examination. “His hair is looking healthy. Oftentimes, strays suffer from malnourishment, but it looks like your feeding has gone a long way.”
“So he is a stray?” I remarked as I marched back from my job. “I mean... uhm... can you tell if he was born in the wild?”
“Oh, he's hardly feral,” Fluttershy said, “He's too affectionate. Plus, he's been fixed.”
I blinked. “He has? H-how can you tell?”
She merely gave me a soft, knowing smirk.
I blushed. “Heh. Well, I guess you became an animal expert by paying attention to the... ahem... tiny details of life.”
“Most likely he belonged to the ponies who lived in this cabin before you,” she said as she placed Al back on his paws and pet his back. “Do you know anything about the residents of this home before you?”
“Or he could have wandered in from another home. As a matter of fact, there are several strays all across Ponyville. I thought I had rounded them all up and sent them away for adoption, but obviously I missed one.”
“Not for long, you haven't,” I said with a smile. “So, like, what could I do to make sure he's as healthy as possible?”
“Well, first and foremost...” Fluttershy looked up at me. “Fixed or not, there's no telling when was the last time he had shots, if ever.”
“Oh, shoot!” I face-hoofed.
“It won't hurt him,” Fluttershy said. The two of us sat at the edge of a sterile room while a Ponyville veterinarian administered the first of several shots to Al's jittery figure. “You don't have to be worried. This is only going to keep him—and yourself—safe in the long-term.”
“Yeah...” I murmured back. My vision was affixed on Al's bright amber eyeslits from afar. “Wh-who's worried? I'm not worried...” I gulped. “Everything's gonna be just fine...”
Fluttershy giggled slightly. “I wish all villagers who saw a stray showed the same amount of care as you do. It's a shame that so many lost pets end up without a home.”
“I just want to make sure he's taken care of. Is that so crazy?”
“Not at all, Miss Heartstrings”—Fluttershy gently patted my hoodie sleeve—“You don't have to be so nervous.”
“It's not that...” I shook my head and looked at her. I was amazed at how swiftly our roles had reversed. I wondered if the same conversational skill would work on Applejack if I mentioned orchards or Twilight if I mentioned books or Rainbow if I mentioned... explosions? “There's... uhm...” I took a deep, courageous breath as I set out to mention the one thing that had begun this afternoon excursion to begin with. After all, there was no telling how soon our conversation would be cut short by a frosty wave of forgetfulness. “There's something I've been meaning to ask you. Something about... animals in general.”
“Oh, why, that's only my most favorite topic of conversation,” Fluttershy said.
“Heh...” I chuckled slightly. “I had no clue.” I cleared my throat and tried to speak—
Only Fluttershy was talking ahead of me. “After all, the bond between ponies and animals is the most fundamental thing in Equestrian prosperity,” she said, gazing over as the last shot was administered to Al. “At least, that's what I believe. We are the stewards of this world, after all. This goes beyond pegasi, of course. If we all don't take care of animals with utmost respect and gentleness, then we risk turning this into a torn world. Ponies are meant to commune with the land, not alter it. Otherwise, that would make us more like diamond dogs or minotaurs, and you know what their home-lands are like. There're hardly any forests or wildlife anywhere.”
“I think the nature of Creation has a secret energy that keeps ponies wanting to be protectors of all that's precious,” Fluttershy said with a tranquil, warm smile. “We are drawn to be kind and to do kind things to life all around us. It's a force that transcends normal communication.”
“That's all very interesting, but I really need to ask you about—”
“Don't you think that relying on the written word only limits us?”
I gazed at her, my mouth agape. Slowly I rediscovered my breaths in time to say, “My entire existence is defined by feelings, Fluttershy. The more I read, the more I let myself get engulfed in words, the more I feel like I'm getting lost. Sometimes... sometimes I fear that I'll go mad with all of the information that surrounds me, both logical and not.” I gulped and ran a hoof through my mane. “But... I've always been one to philosophize at random. Perhaps that's always been a fault of mine, to believe that words are so pointless and yet to use them so much to ramble...”
At that moment, the veterinarian walked over and deposited Al in my hooves. “There you go,” she said with a sweet smile to Fluttershy and myself. “Good as new, and such an angel too. He didn't fidget in the very least.”
“Will... uhm...” I petted him gently and gazed up at the mare. “Will he be okay for the rest of the day?”
“Heh... He may be a little bit dizzy, but just be sure to provide him the dietary supplement we wrote down, and he'll have a bounce back in his paws in two days tops.”
“Okay. Much appreciated, doctor.” I gazed down and tilted Al's whiskered face to look at me. “Well, you seem pretty cool with being poked so much with needles and all. You sure you're not a porcupine?”
Just then, Al meowed and nuzzled my hoof.
I blinked, my lips parting. “That... that's the first time he's made a sound to me ever!”
Fluttershy leaned in. “Tell me, Miss Heartstrings, did you understand him?”
“I-I...” I stammered. I felt a weight lifting from my shoulders the longer I stared at the little feline. I suddenly didn't know why I was feeling so worrisome or anxious about anything anymore. He purred, and nestled himself comfortably in my forelimbs as I cradled him. I had never felt something so warm, soft, and lovable in my life. “I think I'm starting to, Fluttershy,” I eventually replied, my voice cracking through a fragile smile.
“So just any sand will do?” I asked.
Fluttershy walked with me to the front of my cabin in the amber glow of the sunset. “Since he's been outside for so long, you can fill the tray with sand from around the cabin. For good measure, I suggest you plant a few leaves and pine needles around the edges of the box, so that you make him more familiar with his surroundings. Who knows just how long he's been living on the edge of the woods, after all.”
“Yeah...” I turned my head and smiled at where Al hung in the edge of my saddlebag, blinking dizzily from the effect of the veterinarian's administrations. “Then, like, after a few weeks I can try buying the stuff from the store?”
“So long as you do things gradually, you'll make sure he's most comfortable,” Fluttershy said with a sweet smile. “I'm happy for you, Miss Heartstrings. That's the cutest little tabby I've seen in a long time.”
“Heh.. yeah,” I said. “Lucky me. Just how old do you think he is, anyway?”
“I'd have to agree with the vet. He seems about two years, or sixteen months at the youngest.”
“Is it normal for him to be that small?”
“Assuming he hasn't had that much of a diet until he met you, it wouldn't surprise me.”
“I'll be sure to feed him twice a day, just like you suggested.”
“I would love to come and see him again in a month's time, Miss Heartstrings,” Fluttershy said. “I can't wait to be surprised by how much healthier he'll be!”
“Heh...” I sweated nervously as I gazed off towards the woods. “You'd be surprised, alright.”
“I... uhm...” Fluttershy suddenly fidgeted, avoiding my gaze. “I'm sorry if I came across as stand-offish when you first knocked on my door. If you ask my friends, they'll tell you that... uhm... I don't easily open up to strangers.”
“Why not?” I asked, gazing sideways at her. “You have so many interesting things to talk about, Fluttershy. I think you and I have some common beliefs about communication.”
“Obviously not,” she said with a blush. “Or else I wouldn’t have kept the door to my cottage closed for so long when you met me.”
“Hey...” I walked over and planted a hoof on her shoulder, gently. “I respect what you said about the power of expressing feelings over words. But sometimes the structure of social etiquette—however daunting or awkward—is the very bridge to discovering more about each other. I mean... I like to think I met a new and dear friend today, a pony who helped me make my life—and Al's—a lot better.” I giggled slightly. “Think about it. What would it hurt you to allow more new and exciting friends into your life?”
“I'm just... I'm just not like so many other p-ponies,” Fluttershy said with a drooping of her figure. “I'm not brave or adventurous or bold...”
“You're different, Fluttershy,” I said, “A very gentle, kind, thoughtful flavor of different. You add to the spice of life. If you were just like every other pony, what would it benefit us to get to know you?” I smiled. “I think what you did today in helping me was a lot braver than you give yourself credit for, and—if anything—you should see it as a stepping stone to stretching your hooves more, socially speaking.”
“I... guess you're right, Miss Heartstrings,” Fluttershy said. She smiled bashfully, and her wings flexed in a brief gesture of relief. “And you're a very smart, thought-provoking unicorn. I feel as if...”
“Well, I don't know... but I feel as if you've been trying to ask me something all day, and I've not given you a chance to speak your mind...”
I stared directly at her with a blank expression. “I have no idea what you mean.”
She shrugged. “I suppose it's just my imagination.” She leaned in briefly and nuzzled Al with a warm smile. “I guess I'm not the only one easily distracted by adorable things.”
Al meowed tiredly and tried to purr. It came across like a labored motorboat. The two of us giggled. I felt a coming chill, and knew that this was the best time to part ways.
“Well, I have to retire now. I have things to read up on.”
“Are you in Ponyville to do research?” Fluttershy asked.
“Yeah...” I said, though I fumbled briefly on my own words. “Something... like that. I guess.”
“Hmmm...” She winked at me. “I think somepony needs to get some shut-eye.”
“You're right... as always, Fluttershy.” I waved as she trotted off. “So long. And... thanks again...”
“Don't mention it,” she said—but was suddenly overcome with a freezing spell. She shivered in place, her breath forming vapors in the air. Blinking curiously, she gazed around at her surroundings, shrugged, and made her way slowly towards the far end of the village.
I didn't dwell too much on the sight of her vanishing. I strolled back into my cabin, placed my saddlebag down, and planted Al's drowsy body on the center of the bed.
“Well, that wasn't so bad, was it?” I remarked as I walked back and forth across my home, lighting lanterns and putting my things away. “We got you taken care of. We made up a nice plan to keep you fed and clean. We learned that you can't... uhm... make little Al's. But it's all good! I think this is the start of a beautiful relationship. Too bad I have to dig my nose through Comethoof again and learn of things less worth smiling about.”
I stopped in my tracks, gazing curiously at the far corner of the bed. There was a stack of books beside my pillow, and for the life of me I couldn't figure out how they had gotten there.
“Huh. That's weird.” I shuffled over and picked up what turned out to be several collected journals on Equestrian zoology. “Where'd you come from? The library? I don't remember—”
Al was meowing.
I looked down at him.
The cat was looking up at me, purring. He was a lot more awake than I had given him credit. I wondered if it was animal cruelty to tie him to the bedpost at night so he wouldn't go trampling all over the stuff on my shelves. Whatever the case, there was something about what he was rubbing up against that caught my attention. Innocently, the purring beast was nuzzling my saddlebag, his whiskers brushing against the golden lyre pocketed within.
I squinted at the sight. I then looked at the books in my hooves. By the time Al began rubbing up against my legs, I was placing the journals down on the cot. I shuffled over and picked up the lyre. I gazed at it blankly. My bored face reflected against the golden surface.
“I...” I murmured. “I... was supposed to do something today...”
All was silent save for Al's purring and random meows. I turned and glanced at Doctor Comethoof's journal. I walked over and levitated the book open. I flipped through the pages. Every single word was in glowing blue text.
“That... doesn't look right,” I murmured as if with a disembodied voice. The chills in the room doubled. I wasn't sure if Al could feel them, but I wasn't about to ask a feline out loud what I should have had the power to know on my own. “Where... where are...?”
Another chill struck me. I imagined the rattling of chains. My body went tight. There was only one thing to do—to relax, if nothing else. I raised the lyre higher in my telekinetic grasp. I didn't care if my new, amnesiac pet was there to listen. I had to play “Twilight's Requiem.” I had to play it before the sudden, desperate urge to perform the piece was gone altogether from my consciousness.
The instrumental ended as swiftly as it began, or so it felt. But then I felt nothing but a bloodrush of head-splitting thoughts.
I stumbled, nearly dropping the lyre. Comethoof's journal blew in a magical wind. I gazed with twitching eyes as several of the words flickered from blue to a hot, levitating magenta. It was then that I remembered something that I hadn't realized I was on the verge of forgetting completely.
I fell to my knees, clutching my aching head as my horn glowed with each resonating wave of contemplation. I saw flittering wings, bulbous bodies, and a town being eaten apart by a horrible swarm of ravenous color.
“Parasprites,” I hissed, practically gnashing my teeth. “Parasprites. Parasprites. Parasprites. I was supposed to ask Fluttershy about parasprites. But why didn't I? What stopped me? What...?”
I froze in place. With shaking hooves, I picked up Comethoof's journal and glanced at the refreshed words of magenta swimming just an inch off the page. Slowly, a diabolical snicker bled from my mouth as I shook my head and smiled.
“Ohhhhh-hooo no. Oh no you don't. You almost lost me, you emaciated waste of alicorn bones,” I grunted. “You almost threw me completely off track. Well played, I must say. But I'm not going to be lost that easily. Not as long as I keep playing the Requiem. You're not throwing this unsung unicorn off your trail. It may have worked for Comethoof, but it's not going to work with me!”
I turned and smirked at Al.
“You think I'm half the idiot she suspects me to be?”
Al merely tilted his head and meowed.
“I didn't think so.” I slapped the book shut, stood up straight, and marched across the cabin. “I know what I'm doing first thing in the morning, so help me Celestia.”
I knocked heavily on the cottage door.
A voice squeaked from the other side. “What do you w—?”
“Hey, I was just walking up here...” I said, “And I was wondering if you knew that there’s a dead furry creature on the sidewalk?”
“Oh my goodness!” A dainty pair of hooves fumbled over the door's locking mechanism. “Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!” The cottage door flew open and a panting Fluttershy dashed out in a blur. “Angel?! Mister Fuzz?! Elizabadger?! What happened—?”
“Oh, snap, my bad.” I snickered and rolled my eyes. “Where are my prescription glasses today? I swear I'm losing my vision!” I kicked at a piece of lightly colored fluff on the ground. “It's just peat moss. Heh heh heh... Ohhhh... Ahem. I apologize.”
“Oh... uhm...” Fluttershy gulped and shivered nervously. “It's... uh... quite alright, I guess—”
I stared directly into her eyes. “Parasprites.”
She leaned back from me like a tilting mannequin. “I beg your pardon?”
“I'm here in town to do research on the colorful little bugs, and I was told you've had experience in dealing with them.”
“I... erm...” She backtrotted away from me, her entire body drooping. “Uhm...”
“You're Ponyville's leading experts on animals, yes?”
“You m-might have better luck t-talking to the local veterinarian,” Fluttershy stammered.
“The veterinarian has never dealt with parasprites first-hoof. I know because I've asked her.” I stepped towards her, firmly. “However, you have interacted with them. I'd very much like to know about the creatures...”
“I really don't think that's a good idea,” Fluttershy said. With a squeaking noise, she spun about and galloped back into her cottage. “I'm sorry, but you should try asking somepony else—”
“But I doubt anypony else can help me, Fluttershy!” I called after her. “Nopony else knows what it means to talk to animals, to take care of them, to commune with them simply through feeling, when words fail us...”
Fluttershy paused in her doorway. She bit her lip, blushed, and glanced back at me.
I trotted slowly towards her with a gentle smile. “A wise pony once told me that we were stewards of this earth, that Creation gave us the energy to seek out life and protect it. Do you believe you're a pony blessed with this task? Or is your urge to run away too great?”
Fluttershy fidgeted. She exhaled deeply and nodded towards me. “Would you like to step inside?”
“Twilight Sparkle has always felt guilty for what happened with the parasprites,” Fluttershy said in a muttering voice. The two of us sat at a table in the foyer of the cottage, a steaming teaset situated between us. “But she's giving herself too much credit. After all, she wasn't the pony who introduced parasprites to Ponyville in the first place. She wasn't the one who kept several parasprites behind after the first attempt to corral them into Everfree Forest failed.”
I nodded slowly. I had my lyre out and was strumming a quiet tune as we sat together. The music appeared to soothe Fluttershy and ease her into a gentle conversation. Little did she know that I was playing a subdued version of “Twilight's Requiem” over and over again, magically reinforcing my ability to retain memory of the discussion topic.
“I was just so overcome with how adorable and cute the insects were,” Fluttershy said with a weathered smile. “I'd truly never seen anything like them before. It was hard to believe that something so adorable could be capable of so much destruction. They were enchanting, as if they came from a fairy tale...”
“You say that you only found one at first?” I asked, “There was only one parasprite, and then it multiplied into all the others that infested Ponyville, right?”
Fluttershy nodded. “I made the mistake of feeding it without thinking of the repercussions. On the way to the center of town to show it to my friends, it made two brand new parasprites. From then on, every new insect multiplied just as quickly, if not faster.”
“You've seen them,” I commented, leaning over the table as I strummed on the lyre. “You've felt them and you've held them in your hooves...”
“Did they ever strike you as incredibly bizarre?” I remarked. “Did the manner in which they ate and multiplied ever come across as unrealistic?”
“I...” She squinted at me. “I'm afraid I don't quite understand what you mean, Miss Heartstrings. They were as real as any other creature I've dealt with.”
“You have an innate gift of taking care of animals,” I said.
“Yes, but I wasn't able to with these creatures. They ignored me as if I wasn't there.”
“Don't you think that's a little strange?” I remarked. “You're Ponyville's chief expert on animals. Your friend Twilight Sparkle once told me that you tamed a raging Manticore in the Everfree Forest, and that you've stared down a crimson dragon and a malevolent cockatrice in the span of a single year.”
“Mmmm...” She blushed and avoided my gaze, rubbing her other hoof with a slight smile. “Yes. I did do those things...”
“And yet you weren't able to make tiny winged insects behave?”
She shuddered. “We all have our faults, Miss Heartstrings. They tend to show up at the most inopportune time.”
“Fluttershy, I'm not attempting to expose some fault in your or anything,” I said. “Don't you see what I'm getting at? I find it inherently absurd that the parasprites wouldn't do a single thing that you told them to. You have a way of dealing with animals that goes beyond words, that goes beyond simple logic. You have a heart of gold, and your ability to feel appeals to almost every creature. So why didn't it work with parasprites?”
“I”—She shivered slightly—“I don’t know...”
“Maybe”—I squinted at her—“the parasprites existed to contradict reality, to clash with what should normally work. Maybe they simply don't function by the rules of this world.”
“Think about it,” I asked, “Does their diet, their rate of multiplication, and their rampant destruction make any sense whatsoever? Do they match anything else in your purview of animal knowledge?”
Fluttershy bit her lip. Her trembling stopped, as if she was swimming to the surface of a warm pool of awakening. “I've always wondered about it. It... just never made sense to me. Twilight Sparkle and I have dealt with our guilt over the parasprites for months, but I think even she believes that we should have gotten a hoof-hold of the situation. Her magic spell should have kept them from eating everything in town. My coaxing should have kept them from swarming the village in the first place.”
“And what was it in the end that got them out of town?” I asked. “Did the parasprites just leave of their own volition once they had caused a great deal of destruction?”
“Just before Princess Celestia arrived for her scheduled visit, the parasprites were finally corralled out of Ponyville,” Fluttershy said.
“Oh really?” I remarked, “With what, torches?”
“Nuh uh, silly!” Pinkie Pie chirped, bouncing beside us. “With music!”
I nearly fell off my stool. I brought my lyre to my chest and stared at her, panting for breath. “What in the hay?!”
“If they had toes, parasprites would be tapping them to a wicked beat whenever it filled the air!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed with a bright giggle. She paused and scrunched her face. “Come to think of it, if we had toes, would we do the same?”
“How in the heck did you get in Fluttershy's cottage?!” I asked.
Pinkie Pie blinked. “This is Fluttershy's cottage?” She turned around. “Huh. Well, that explains why it smells like birdseed and ferret tails!”
“Gummy's in the kitchen, sleeping next to the stove, Pinkie,” Fluttershy said with a gentle smile. “I have a batch of muffins heating up, and I knew he'd like being close to something so warm.”
“Okie dokie lokie!” Pinkie Pie frolicked towards the kitchen beyond the foyer. “Thanks for looking after him while I was away at the paintball tournament!”
“Did your team win?”
“Nah. The Canterlot Eagle Eyes beat us again. Darn unicorns and their itchy trigger horns...”
“Hey, wait!” I called after Pinkie Pie. “About what you said earlier...”
“What, how Fluttershy's place smells like ferret tails? Heehee. That's a polite way to say it reeks of weasel a—”
“No, about parasprites and music,” I remarked, “What did that have to do with getting them out of the village?”
“Uhm... duh!” Pinkie Pie gave me a rolling of her blue eyes before giggling. “Parasprites love music! A little too much, if you ask me! A one-pony-band is all it takes to turn them into a pastel parade of pests... pestiness... pestericity?” Her eyes briefly crossed. She shook her head and stared straight. “It's crazy! It's almost as if they're living music notes, only with the jagged, squiggly part on the top taken off. You know what I'm talking about, right?”
“Anywho, thanks again, Fluttershy! Mind if I grab a muffin or two?”
“Help yourself, Pinkie.”
“Thankies!” She bounded into the kitchen. “Hey! Gummy! Out of the dish washer! Bad gator! Chew on your own spatula!”
“Uhm...” I ran a hoof through my mane, glanced at my lyre, then back at Fluttershy. “I don't suppose you would be up for an afternoon stroll by chance?”
“I... I don't like this, Miss Heartstrings,” Fluttershy said, trembling, as she trotted nervously beside me. “Just what are you hoping to achieve?”
“It's not 'what,'” I said, fighting a wave of cold. “It's more like 'who.'” The two of us were about ten minutes into piercing the Everfree Forest just beyond Fluttershy's cabin. It was still daylight out, so the shadows of the dense woods were only slightly obscured by the emerald foliage hanging above. “This is approximately where the parasprites were finally driven away, yes?”
“Mmmm...” She merely nodded with a frightful squeak. “To be perfectly honest, I always had the fear that they'd return, and then my cottage would be the first thing they'd consume.”
I smiled, despite my chattering teeth. “And yet they never did. Doesn't that strike you as strange?”
“I mean, they devoured almost all of Ponyville in the span of two days. Just what kept them from eating up the forest, your cottage, and everything beyond?”
“I... I really don't know,” Fluttershy stammered. “The more you make me think about it, Miss Heartstrings, the more bizarre the whole notion of parasprites sounds. I never felt it was worth thinking so much about before, but all of your questions are making perfect sense. What exactly are you trying to prove?”
“I don't know exactly, Fluttershy,” I said. “But I think the answer may lie before us.”
“I want to see a parasprite with my very own eyes.”
“Wh-what?!” Fluttershy winced, trembling. “But... But why? That's only inviting danger!”
“It's also inviting truth,” I murmured, gazing into every shadow and dark shape of the place. “I'm on a quest for understanding, Fluttershy. I fear that I won't have any answers until I have the real thing in my hooves.”
“But... but that means going even deeper into the Everfree Forest...”
“I'm well aware of that,” I said. “I'm not afraid, and neither should you be.”
“Then why is it that you're shaking so badly?” Fluttershy remarked. “Uhm... if you don't mind me asking...”
“It's not fear, Fluttershy,” I said, quivering. “It's the cold.”
“The cold? Why, it's positively sweltering!”
“Trust me,” I said, trying to ease my frigid spasms. I hadn't exactly planned for this. I had left my cloak and extra bundles back home. However, I wasn't about to leave Fluttershy and waste all of the progress we had made in conversation thus far. “This is the last place I wanna be right now. But if I want to learn anything, I can't do it by backing away after I've come so far.”
“Your courage is inspiring, Miss Heartstrings.”
“So is yours,” I said with a soft smile. “I thank you for talking with a perfect stranger such as myself. I... I'm sorry that it took a nasty stunt to make you come out of the cottage in the first place.”
“I'm just sorry that ponies have to resort to silly things to make me show my face at times,” she said, digging her hooves in the soft earth. “I've never been the most social pegasus, but I know that a lot of that is my own fault. I have so many friends, and it's about time I learned to trust their sincere feelings rather than let myself be intimidated by my fears...”
“You're a sweet soul, Fluttershy,” I said as I pierced the veritable jungle ahead of us. “Don't be so hard on yourself. Your gentleness and patience has helped you succeed in taming wildlife. I'm sure it’s only helped you win the love and respect of your peers all the more.” I stopped in my tracks, smiling in spite of my shivers at the clearing ahead of us. “Ah. That'll do.”
“Uhm...” Fluttershy looked over my shoulders. “What will do?”
I turned towards her while pointing to a lone tree stump in the center of an open space of grass and shrubbery. “Trust me. I know a good stage when I see one.” She accompanied me as I trotted over and seated myself on the stump as though it were a large stool. “Okay. So, quickly, could you describe to me the nature of the music that was played to draw the parasprites out of Ponyville?”
“Uhm...” Fluttershy fidgeted, gazing at the line of trees surrounding us. “Pinkie Pie performed a very upbeat number. It had a fast tempo and a repeating melody. However... uhm... she had several instruments with her. I doubt that your single lyre could mimic the tune.”
“That's quite alright,” I said as I levitated the lyre in front of me. “I think I have just the lively kind of tune to perform in its place.”
“Relax, Fluttershy,” I remarked as I began plucking strings with my telekinesis. “Have a seat. You might as well enjoy the show while you're here too, huh?”
I concentrated, closing my eyes and thinking beyond the waves of cold assaulting my figure. Soon, I was playing a very brisk rendition of “Sunset Bolero.” The magical chords echoed across the wooden tree trunks. That niche in the forest turned out to have amazing acoustic qualities, and soon Everfree was resonating with a fast-paced symphony.
“Heeheehee...” Fluttershy uttered warmly. “This is a very fun tune. I don't know why, but it makes me feel all bubbly inside...”
“Shhh,” I breathed, my eyes closed as I focused on the swift tempo. “I'm glad for that, Fluttershy,” I whispered. “But I have to concentrate...”
“Oh, I'm sorry.”
“It's okay,” I murmured, then bit my lip as I performed the “Sunset Bolero” a second time, a third, and then a fourth. I made slight variations with each play-through, not for the sake of being artistic but rather to test if one version or another would be more capable of drawing out my “prey.” As the instrumental continued, I felt my shivers subsiding, being replaced with a new cloud of worry. It didn't feel as if anything was working. I didn't hear any parasprites showing up, and soon all that mattered to me was the music itself. I feared that if I concentrated too hard on the symphony, she would make me forget the very reason why I came there. I was extremely tempted to switch from the Bolero to the Requiem in order to reinforce my memory of the absurd insects, when suddenly Fluttershy's voice peeped up—
“Psst! Miss Heartstrings!”
“Just let me just play the instrumental one more time—”
I opened my eyes. Through a blurry, freezing world, I saw a tiny purple dot floating like a dull ball of lightning. I blinked, and the pastel circle came more into focus. On twitching dragonfly wings, it hovered left and right, giving us a perpetual smile as its beady-bright eyes reflected the sunlight wafting down through the trees.
“Why, hello there,” I murmured. I glanced at Fluttershy. She glanced at me. “That's the real deal, right?”
“You mean that after all this time, you've never seen one for yourself?” she whispered back.
I opened my mouth to speak, but lingered. I thought of the unsung realm, of Doctor Comethoof's writing, of so many crazy and unimaginable things that were so horrifically real. My mind tried going back to several months ago when the town got ravaged around me, and I was suddenly helpless to summon a single detail. Was the Requiem to blame for this clarity... or lack of clarity? “I... I guess I'm not sure...”
The parasprite let loose a tiny little chirp. It was ridiculously adorable. Still, it brought a shudder to my system that nearly made me drop my lyre. Somehow I felt like listening to the moans of shackled ponies in a submerged dimension rather than indulge this insect's vocalizing.
“They're very friendly,” Fluttershy said hushedly. “If you walk up to it, it'll only want to get close to you, even if it means nesting in your mane.” She turned to look at me. “What... uhm... what did you wish to do now that one's here?”
“Let's just see what we can do,” I murmured as I kept my eyes glued on the living purple sphere across the way. “Here, hold this.” I hoofed her the lyre.
Fluttershy gently took it.
I stripped of my saddlebag, all the while staring at the parasprite.
The parasprite stared back, endlessly grinning, endlessly happy.
“Okay...” I exhaled, trying to ease my shivers for what came next. “I'm going to need your help. Follow me...”
Fluttershy nervously nodded. She planted the lyre down on the tree stump and followed me as I shuffled slowly towards the creature, levitating the saddlebag in front of me. For what felt like a decade, we crept across the clearing, until we were finally within a breath's distance from the insect. I whispered over to Fluttershy, “See if you can befriend it.” I opened the pouch of the saddlebag. “We're gonna coax it into this.”
“Okay,” she said with a nod. Trotting over, she reached a hoof out with a placating smile.
The parasprite hovered forward and nuzzled her forelimb. It let out another chirp, then bounced its way up her limb before rubbing against her face.
“Heeheehee...” Fluttershy remarked, her cheeks warm. “I almost forgot just how adorable these were up close...”
I cleared my throat. “Don't get entranced too quickly, Fluttershy.” I gestured towards the open saddlebag before me.
“Ahem. Right...” She nuzzled the parasprite again and spoke, “We're not going to hurt you, little fella. We just want to get to know you better. Don't be scared of Miss Heartstrings. She's only curious, and she can't learn more about you if you're hiding deep in the forest, now can she?”
The parasprite merely squeaked and rolled its tongue. Wait, the insect had a tongue? This just kept getting weirder and weirder.
“Aaaaaand there we go,” Fluttershy cooed as she deposited the little, bulbous thing into my saddlebag. “See? That wasn't so bad, little guy.”
I closed the saddlebag and snapped it tightly shut. I clung to it, exhaling a deep breath. A goofy smile came to my face. “Wherever you are, Comethoof, I hope you're proud of me...”
I cleared my throat and stood up with the saddlebag. “Don't mind me. I'm just happy that this actually worked.”
“How do you wish to examine the creature now that you have it in the saddlebag?” Fluttershy asked. “Are you going to perform a magical scan with your horn?”
“No,” I said. “I'm going to take it home and study it in the safety of my cellar.”
“You're going to what?!” Fluttershy gasped wide. “But... But that means taking it back to the village!”
“Uh... Yeah. I guess...”
“That... That's incredibly dangerous!” Fluttershy exclaimed. “There's no telling what sort of damage it can do if it's brought back to where so much food and edible things are!”
“Trust me, Fluttershy,” I said. “I have... many magical talents that will prevent history from repeating itself.”
“And I'm not going to hurt the little guy either. I just need more time and resources to understand these things and I can't do it out here in the middle of the forest.” I turned around—
—only to have Fluttershy settling down with flapping wings to block me. “I... I'm sorry, Miss Heartstrings.” She bit her lip in a feeble attempt at frowning. “But.. but I m-must put my hoof down.”
“Huh?” I blinked at her.
“I can't let you leave the forest with that parasprite. It was because of my foolishness that the swarm ever demolished Ponyville to begin with. I've felt responsible since, and I'd feel responsible now. So... uhm...” She clenched her teeth, summoned the next breath like a cannonball, and ultimately squeaked forth, “PutthatsaddlebagbackdownbeforeImakeyou.” She instantly wilted away from me, her eyes thin. “Uhm... don't hate me for being assertive, please.”
I stared at her. A gentle sigh escaped my lips, and I smiled. “Nopony in the world could possibly hate you, Fluttershy. You're... only doing the right thing.”
“Then...” She gulped. “Then you'll do what I told you to?”
“I'll simply study it here,” I said. “I may not be able to learn as much as I want to, but maybe if I keep playing the music, I can keep the lil' fella in one place long enough for me to study it properly.” I turned and pointed at the stump. “Would you mind grabbing my lyre for me? I can't properly make music without it...”
“Oh...” Fluttershy's wings flexed. She looked at the tree stump, then at me again. “Alright,” she said with a smile. Swiftly, she trotted over to where my musical instrument was lying.
I stood in place, squinting at her as she walked ten feet away, twenty, thirty...
Fluttershy picked the lyre up. Before she could turn around, she froze in place. A breath of vapors blocked my vision of her, and then I witnessed her trembling in the center of the forest, glancing all around with a nervous stammer.
“What...? How...? What am I doing here...?”
I took a deep breath, stood up straight, and marched towards her. “Why, hello there!”
“Eeep!” she spun and jolted from me, nearly dropping the lyre. “Who is it?!”
“Oh, I'm terribly sorry,” I said with a gasp. “I didn't mean to startle you, ma'am. I was just on my way to visit Zecora when I realized I dropped my lyre—” I glanced at her hooves and grinned wide. “Oh! Hey! You found it!”
“Uhm...” Fluttershy trembled slightly less, gazing at the golden instrument in her grasp. “I... I guess I did...”
“I can't thank you enough! You're so kind!” I rushed over and levitated the object into my telekinetic grasp. “I swear, I'd lose my horn if it wasn't attached to my head.” I slid the lyre into the pouch of my saddlebag opposite to where a pocketed parasprite was bouncing around under the canvas surface. “So, what's a sweet young pony such as yourself doing on a fine day like today? Going out for a stroll?”
“I...” Fluttershy blushed deeply, gazing at the alien lengths of the Everfree Forest all around her. “I'm not entirely sure. I... I normally don't like walking into the forest...”
“Awww, that's too bad. You seem like a pony who'd get along with wildlife.”
“Hey, Zecora can wait a little while longer,” I said with a smile, doing my best to hide my shivers. “How'd you like it if I walked you to the edge of the forest? I'm actually visiting from out of town, and I'd like to learn more about this place, unless you wanted to be alone—”
“No!” Fluttershy gasped, winced, and said more calmly. “What I mean is, I-I would love to talk and walk with somepony, if th-that's okay with you.”
I giggled and ushered her in the direction of her house. “It's more than okay...”
With glowing telekinesis, I lowered the glass jar down onto a high shelf in the corner of my cabin. Inside, the twitchy parasprite smiled at the world beyond his translucent dome and flittered about in claustrophobic circles.
I stepped back with a sigh. I gazed down at Al, who was sitting in the center of the cabin, staring up at the jarred insect with an anxious twitch of his tail.
“Don't even think about knocking the jar over to get to the little bug,” I said. Taking my saddlebag off, I placed my things in the corner of the room while murmuring, “I know it looks tasty to a feline like you, but I'd hate myself if the little thing ate you from the inside out.”
Al made a little trilling sound and reached up towards the lower shelves of the bookcase, his amber eyes affixed to the jar.
I gently shoved him back into the middle of the cabin once again. “Of course, I kind of hate myself enough as it is.” I squatted beside him and petted his fur affectionately, trying to make myself feel like I was a good, thoughtful pony once more. “Fluttershy's done nothing but selflessly help me lately, and the best I can do to thank her is lie to her?” I sighed again. “I know it's all for a grand purpose, but when do epic plans ever legitimize anything, no matter how unethical?”
Al had no words to give me. He was simply there, and he felt warm to the touch as he rubbed up against my flank and padded over towards the cot.
I remained squatting there, staring up at the jarred parasprite. “I like to tell myself, Al, that once I'm cured of this curse, then I'll finally have a chance to apologize to the likes of Twilight, Applejack, Morning Dew...” I gulped. “And now Fluttershy.” I adjusted the sleeves of my hoodie while shivering. “All I want from this whole fiasco is to make friends... permanently. But will they want to be my friends, knowing all of the things I did behind their amnesiac backs?”
There was a slight meowing sound from the bed. Al curled up into a ball, yawned, and nestled himself into the sheets.
I smiled his way. “Would you be my friend, once I make it so that I'm no longer an anmesiac shadow that feeds you on occasion? After all, it must be lonesome for a cat to be living in a cabin with a ghost.”
Al said nothing. His orange body rose and fell as he quietly slid his way into slumber.
I muttered, “I've been a ghost for so long, I'm almost scared of what I might do to change things. Just thinking about it drives me mad.” I looked at the jar once more. “Ohhhh... what would Comethoof do?”
“She loves her beloved. I'm a symphony away from you. Fires and sirens. The moon is gone and they're fighting for the cosmos. All is unsung and unspoken. Truth is in the womb of the Cosmic Matriarch. The cord is too severed to unravel. The world began with a song and it will end with a lament. The symphony is fractured. Desolation divides the music as it divides the firmaments. We live to begin nothing. Fight the alicorn. Restore beauty and love. I will find you, if it takes all of my breaths and breaking. I will suspend myself in the depths of darkness. The Nightbringer will be my anchor, and then I will sing us back into being. I will translate her song unto the ears of mortals. You always loved to scratch my ears. You wait for me and I will find you. She adored her beloved but she sang him away. I will not be like her. I will live under the shadow of her, but I will not be like her. I live, therefore I sing. Singing is existing is rejoicing is sobbing. The rapturous ballad becomes the mournful dirge becomes the rapturous ballad again. The universe fluctuates in a circle, orbiting chaos and blooming flowers. She adores her beloved but her beloved had to go. He will come back as I will come back only I am trying while he is dying. Know my song and become something. I will find you, beloved. I will find you. I will find you. I will find you...”
My eyes blinked hard. I rubbed a hoof over my eyes and groaned from where I squatted on the bed.
“So much for that.” There was a toasty furball of warmth curled up against my side. I glanced over at Al in the flickering haze of the lit fireplace. I gestured towards the ancient journal resting before me. “Do you get any of this?”
Al said nothing. He twisted around, stretched, and then curled up against me once more.
I looked up at the parasprite still flitting about in the jar atop the high shelf. “I’m thinking that Comethoof took the idea of becoming a ghost a bit too literally. I wonder if perhaps that's what happened to her as well. Two pony spirits—one ethereal and the other mortal—both get caught up in the realm of the unsung, and they can't climb their way out of it because being unsung becomes all they know.” I gulped. “That, and they mourn for lost loves that will never come back to them. Maybe I've benefited from being a single mare when I came here to Ponyville...”
There was a breath of silence, save for the crackle of burning embers beyond the hearth.
“Eh, who am I kidding?” I blurted. I turned and smiled warmly at the ball of fur sharing the bed with me. “Are you my beloved?” I leaned in and nuzzled him. He sniffed at me and tickled my muzzle with his whiskers before producing a meow of protest. I giggled and nuzzled him some more, before gazing again at the parasprite above. “'Desolation divides the music as it divides the firmaments...'” I said, quoting Comethoof.
Just then, my face scrunched up in thought.
“The music...” I murmured. I looked at the parasprite. I imagined its bright purple body bouncing to the uplifting beat of the Bolero. “The parasprites are drawn to song. Music is what drew them out of Ponyville to begin with. Even Pinkie Pie herself said it was like parasprites were living music notes...”
My eyes scanned the lengths of the firelit cabin as I talked to Al... or was I just talking to myself?
“When Comethoof went to Celestia, her violent, magical response to the Nocturne was unsung. History was altered to say that it was a sarosian bomb that destroyed a wing of the palace. But did she change the fabric of reality, or did Celestia—in order to protect the truth of the unsung realm?” I gulped and stared fixedly at the parasprite. “The alicorns are all parts of the same song that imbued the Cosmic Matriarch. The Matriarch was one alicorn. She sang creation into being, and then she broke the song into four parts: herself, Celestia, Luna, and her. After that, everything the alicorns have done for this world... has been through disassembling the Matriarch's song that empowers them.”
I sat up straight in bed, careful not to disturb Al.
“Am I looking at a parasprite?” I asked the shadows. “Or am I looking at a song? And if that's the case... then whose song?”
“Well, Princess Celestia has lived for thousands upon thousands of years,” Twilight Sparkle said, levitating a book over to a wooden table before us the next day. “Most of those millennia have been spent in Canterlot. It's only natural that she's produced several symphonies in that time.”
“I need to look for a specific music piece,” I exclaimed as I squatted on a stool beside her in the center of the library. “Just how many instrumentals do you suppose she wrote?”
“Ohhh... Not many.” Twilight Sparkle shrugged, her eyes scanning the ceiling. “A few, here or there. I'm guessing maybe... five thousand?”
I exhaled with a shudder. “Well, it's a good thing my afternoon's free.”
“Heeheehee. I'm intrigued by your avid interest in Her Majesty's symphonic background, Miss Heartstrings. Might I ask what's the occasion? An experiment? An extensive research project?”
“Let's just chalk it up to 'morbid curiosity' and leave it at that...”
Twilight scooted towards the table beside me with a bright smile. “Maybe I can even help you!” She winked. “I'm a marathon-runner when it comes to research.”
“Heh. Don't I know it...”
“Ahem.” I looked at her. “Please, I couldn't possibly ask you to spend all of your time helping me with this gargantuan search.”
“Well, give me some parameters of the search, and maybe I can lower it to moderately epic instead!”
I exhaled through my nostrils and muttered, “Bugs...”
Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Bugs?”
“Cute, bouncing, hungry, stupidly adorable bugs,” I said. “With bright eyes, dragonfly wings and...”
“Wow,” Twilight remarked with a cock-eyed wink. “Are we describing a symphony or a lullaby?”
“Heh.” I smirked. “As if Her Majesty ever wrote lullabies.”
“Actually, she did.”
I gazed awkwardly at her. “Huh?”
“There's an entire section containing them in this book!” She flipped through several pages of the tome lying before us. “Ages ago, almost all household lyrics sung to foals owed their origin to the Princess herself. Even today, a lot of them are merely derivative. Don't tell me you've never heard 'Hush Now, Quiet Now.'”
“It's... been a while...”
“Shhh...” Twilight glanced around the library, then leaned in with a smirk. “Don't tell my assistant, but I've sung it to Spike quite a few times...”
“Hey! Stop it!” A voice said from the distant edge of the library. “You're embarrassing me!”
“Heehee... Oh come on, Spike! It's not like Miss Heartstrings here is going to tell anypony we know!”
“Hey! Dig the swell hoodie—”
“Uh huh, thanks.” I turned back to Twilight. “So, do any of the lullabies feature cute, bouncy insects?”
“Well, let's find out, shall we?”
Two hours later, the two of us were still rummaging through the lullabies section of the book containing Celestia's musical compositions. Twilight Sparkle was indeed proving to me just what a “marathon runner” she was in scanning pages upon pages of music sheets. As for myself, it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep my eyes opened. I yawned a few times—unashamedly—and the only thing that kept me awake was the morbid fear that falling asleep might sever the connection I had between myself and a potential amnesiac.
Just as the shadows of the room became pathetically inviting to the insides of my eyelids, I felt a forelimb nudging my shoulder.
“Hey. Miss Heartstrings. I think I found something.”
“Found... something...?” I remarked, blinking heavily.
“Right here,” she said, pointing her lavender hoof towards an immensely short tune scrawled upon a dusty page towards the front end of the book. “It's one of the oldest songs ever attributed to Princess Celestia's composition.”
“Let's see...” I scooted up and scanned the top of the sheet. “'Parade of the Pretty Sprites.' Well, if that isn't cute.”
“Would you like to read it?”
“Don't mind if I do...”
Parade of the Pretty Sprites
in dedication to Star Bliss
Sleep now, my little bliss
From sundown to morning mist
And dream of all the games you'll play
While parades of pretty sprites
Twinkling with forest lights
Shall gobble all your troubles away
Rest now, my little bliss
There's nothing more serene than this
Winged helpers dance into the day
They eat all fears, shadows and ghosts
And all the things you hate the most
To make mornings free of dismay
I love you, my little bliss
And hope that you'll never miss
The pretty sprites' cheerful display
And someday you'll tell your foals
About these enchanted forest souls
That clean our world while in bed we lay
“What do you think?” Twilight Sparkle remarked. “Is that what you were looking for?”
“Well...” I took a deep breath. “It's certainly very... repetitive.”
She giggled again. “It's not exactly Marezart, Miss Heartstrings. Though I'd say the style is no fault of Celestia's. It's all about the intended audience.”
“I suppose so,” I said. My eyes squinted once more at the dedication. “Who's 'Star Bliss?'”
“Oh...” Twilight's smile became a calm, solemn thing. “He was one of Princess Celestia's oldest apprentices. Eons ago, well before the Rise of Discord—much less Shadow's Advent—Princess Celestia not only mentored her magical apprentices, she adopted them. Even Starswirl the Bearded was like a child to her. And, well, like most mothers, Princess Celestia looked after her foals with love and devotion. She wrote a lullaby for each separate adoptee.”
“Hence why there are so many of them.”
“I wonder how many threnodies there are...”
To that, Twilight Sparkle said nothing.
I cleared my throat. “So, let me ask you, Miss Sparkle.” I pointed at the lullaby. “Does this song in particular remind you of anything?”
“Well...” She gazed at the piece. “Come to think of it...” Her eyes blinked. “Huh. No, it couldn't be...”
“I'm all ears.”
She shook her head. “It's too much of a stretch. Besides...” She stifled a giggle. “The first time they ever appeared was about a year ago, and they certainly didn't 'eat troubles away,' they gobbled up half the town. Heh. Were you there for that, Miss Heartstrings?”
I shuddered. “In body, though evidently not in mind.”
“Tell me...” I turned and smiled politely at her. “Would it be too much trouble for me to check this out for... I dunno... a week?”
I had the book of Celestia's song sitting on the cot beside Comethoof's journal. I stood a few feet away from my bed. The setting sun was melting through the windows, bathing my cabin with a crimson haze. Al was padding about in circles, electrified by the tension and anxiety in the room. He meowed my way a few times, but I didn't answer him.
I sat on my haunches, holding a hoof over my mouth as I gazed at the books, saturated with contemplation. Every now and then, I'd dart my eyes from the bookmark that placed Celestia's lullaby to the jarred parasprite seated on a shelf high above me. This exchange continued for a prolonged period, a silent space that was occasionally punctuated by Al's lonesome meows.
Eventually, I uttered, “The Requiem is a buffer... a means of reminding ponies of what's real versus what's unsung,” I said. “It helped Comethoof remember the performance of the Nocturne. It helped me remember parasprites.” I swallowed hard and looked fixedly at the imprisoned insect. “I don't have the Nightbringer, but I have a piece of the Matriarch's song nonetheless. It just doesn't know what it is yet. But maybe if I reminded it as well...”
Al rubbed up against me. He had been fed. His box had been cleaned. There was nothing else that he could possibly have wanted, and yet he rubbed up against me, purring and vocalizing.
I gazed down at him. I ran a hoof along his head, then scratched his ears. A bitter chuckle left my lips. “Heh. She always loved to play with his ears...” I sighed. “I think his madness began when he refused to give up something he loved, something that could no longer love him back...”
A pit formed in the back of my throat. I suddenly could not look at Al anymore without tearing up. I turned my head to the ceiling, shuddered, and spoke in a low voice.
“I can't stay here like this. I have to keep going forward. I have to...”
I left the cabin. I had my saddlebag full of things. I felt the weight of my lyre, and I felt the rattling of the jar in a side pocket as the parasprite playfully bounced around inside.
Before leaving, I paused right there on the porch. My hooves squirmed in the advent of twilight. With a somber breath, I turned around and left the door to my home cracked open. There was now a risk of Al getting loose, perhaps even running away. I understood that.
Quietly, somberly, I trotted around the cabin and approached the cellar. Instead of marching straight down, I paused briefly. I gazed into the woods, into the dark bodies obscuring the starlight even further. I remembered waking up there in the middle of the night after first playing the Threnody. I was cold, wet, shivering, and drowned in horror. Yet, looking back in the journals, I knew that what I remembered of that frightful night wasn't all that there was to remember. Her unsung voice had clouded my grasp of reality, and when I went to the realm between the firmaments, I finally discovered what horrible truth she had meant to hide from a mortal such as me.
I couldn't help but wonder, would the truth that Celestia's song covered be just as horrifying? Would it drive me mad like Comethoof had been driven? Would it ever get me home, whereas Comethoof never achieved such freedom?
I glanced back at the cabin. I thought one last time about Al's gorgeous orange fur, about his warmth and companionship that accompanied me into sleep, like a gracious lullaby.
There was no point in waiting. I proceeded down the cellar steps, lighting my way with a lantern until I was once again in the small dugout, sliding a stool before the metal stand. I placed my lyre upon it, and then placed a new music sheet beneath that. By that time, I had memorized every elegy I knew of the Nocturne. But that wasn't exactly what I was there to perform. Princess Celestia's “Parade of the Pretty Sprites” rested before me in the dance of the lanternlight. It was time to put my theory to the test, and apply it to living vessels of absurdity.
First, I grasped the jar. I gazed at the parasprite inside and he gazed back, smiling and twitching his wings with infinite joy. It was like a child—in a way—perpetually locked in a frozen moment of wonder and contentment. I would expect no less from a living lullaby.
I next did the unthinkable. I unscrewed the lid to the jar and let the parasprite free. The little insect flitted about the room, chirping and making happy noises as it did loopty-loops around my lantern before settling for a playful hover in front of me.
I kept my eyes affixed to the unnatural thing. Reaching into my saddlebag, I pulled out the first of several apples I had acquired from Ponyville's town market. With a swing of my hoof, I rolled the glistening fruit so that it rested in the center of the cellar. I watched for what would happen next.
It didn't take much waiting. The parasprite spun circles in the room, cyclonically lowering its hungry self to the red body of the apple. As soon as it touched down, its jaws opened ridiculously wide, and it devoured the fruit with an obnoxious buzzing noise. Not even the core or stem were left afterwards. A bit more plump than before, the parasprite hovered up into the room with a happy lift of its dragonfly wings.
I merely squinted at the creature, quiet, waiting.
It suddenly lurched in mid-air. Its eyes squinted, as if with concentration. The bulbous body of the purple thing fluctuated, and suddenly it was coughing and hacking. A globule of vomit flew from its mouth. But unlike most vomitous discharges, the coagulated mush remained levitating in mid-air. Not a second later, the brown shell shattered as a pair of wings broke through. Suddenly there was a second parasprite—a bright green thing—and it hovered happily beside its sibling.
Slowly, I reached once more into my saddlebag. I rolled two new apples out. I watched silently as the two insects descended on the fruit. They swallowed the morsels whole, lifted upwards, and began lurching once again. The cellar echoed with their sputtering noises as they vomited two fresh globules. Suddenly the duo had turned into a quartet, with each new parasprite sporting an exoskeleton painted with a fresher color of the spectrum.
There were more apples left to go; I rolled them forward at a brisk pace. They barely lasted seconds before the growing swarm devoured them, then doubled, then tripled. Soon, it didn't take feeding them whatsoever. The parasprites multiplied on their own, fueled by the sheer volume of the sustenance that their forebears had consumed. As the cellar turned into a gigantic pin for this flittering flock, I scooted over to my lyre and began telekinetically strumming the opening bars to “Twilight's Requiem.”
The song formed an eerie soundtrack to the growing cloud of insects. Their flitting wings became unwitting percussion, morphing into a hushed noise as an unnatural breeze kicked up all around me. They circled my body, chirping occasionally, smiling at the grim lengths of the cellar as if it was just as beautiful as a summer's day. As the Requiem went through its motions, their cyclonic fight formed a pattern, swaying and dancing with the chords that I introduced to the underground sound booth. Their eyes brightened, as if electrified by the lengths of the forsaken elegy.
I knew that I had my audience. It was time to teach them something that they had forgotten, something that held the key to their unnatural essence. As the strings of my lyre still vibrated with the magical sounds of the Requiem, I scanned the music sheet in front of me and dove into Celestia's “Parade of the Pretty Sprites.” The tempo was slow, the rhythm intoxicatingly simple, and I could feel the song's ancient call to slumber tugging at the edges of my soul.
The moment that the parasprites stopped circling me was when I realized that the music was achieving its purpose. The insects hovered in place, their eyes the widest I had ever seen. Their wings appeared to beat in a sluggish movement, coordinated and hypnotized. I realized that all of my research was leading me somewhere, and it was almost frightening.
I didn't even have to sing the lyrics. The melody itself was enough to captivate them. Its cords lifted through the air, merging with the magical effects of “Twilight's Requiem.” It was affecting the parasprites, merging them into a singular cloud of recognition. While I played the lullaby, I watched nervously as their hovering formation stretched into a veritable net around me, each parasprite hovering equidistant from its other siblings.
The song was being rejoined.
“You are not real,” I murmured beneath the ceiling of sound. “You only think that you are.”
The eyes of the many insects became thin. Whatever vestiges of a soul they each shared was dwindling. Their wings were slowing down, and yet a magical wind was picking up, blowing at my mane and making it hard to read what I was trying to play.
“Your very existence is madness,” I said. “Look into your memories and see how ridiculous it all is. You were created to be an absurdity, to cover a very real truth.”
My breath left me, for I noticed a bright glow emanating from each of the parasprites. The room began to hum with a haunting tone, like the roar of waves crashing in the distance and coming closer. Soon, a bright magenta color was shining from each parasprite's eyes. Even this phenomenon formed a pattern, swirling around me like a strobe. With each successive wipe of the magenta horizon, I saw the net of hovering parasprites dissolving before my very eyes. Their exoskeletons were growing translucent, and through the pastel shells I was seeing a sea of criss-crossing musical notes, of words, of forgotten voices—all laced with a hot glowing purple.
I was sweating. My eyes grew moist as I struggled to speak above the rising tumult.
“Sing her song!” I shouted. “Sing her song and become nothing!”
They answered. They exploded. I shrieked and fell off the stool, clutching myself as a splashing wave of music notes wafted over me, followed by a noise—the loudest of all noise—a noise as grand and holy as Creation itself. Before my ears could bleed, the screaming sound dwindled to a low hiss. I opened my eyes to see that the parasprites were gone, and their essence had coated the walls of the cellar beyond me. Only, they weren't walls, but translucent sheets of unearthly glass beyond which I saw a spinning canopy of stars, complete with glowing nebulae and galaxies and swirling clouds of cosmic gas.
I stood up, and yet I was floating. I was adrift in the cosmos, surrounded by a vacuum, shivering from the effects of absolute zero. I shouldn't have been alive. Had I ever been alive?
I tried to speak, but there was no sound. There was no sound because sound hadn't been invented yet. Peering over my shoulder, I saw the reason why. A grand equine shape—as majestic and beautiful as the constellations themselves—was galloping across the starry plains of the universe. She came upon a miasma of chaos, spread her wings, and opened her mouth. The Cosmic Matriarch gave birth to the song, and the song became everything.
A flash of light exploded across the glass windows of the cellar. I covered my eyes and spun backwards from the blow. I was sailing through the firmaments, gliding over seas and oceans and lightning. Equestria sprouted upwards from the fertile womb of Creation, and I was growing and dying with it.
I was everywhere and everything. I was Princess Celestia and Luna. I was the Sun and Moon. I was a third alicorn, disappearing upon the edge of night. I was immortality and mortality all at once. I was Celestia singing to a foal and I was Star Bliss listening to her. I was the song, and the song carried me down the tributaries of Creation, skirting down each winding branch as the Matriarch's chorus broke into brittle, beautiful pieces. Discord came to ravage the world and disappeared. Canterlot was built in a second, only to burn twice as fast as Nightmare Moon screamed upon the landscape. An age of shadows clouded my vision, and suddenly there was a bright flash of light as the Elements of Harmony were rediscovered. Somewhere, in the grand valley of Equestria, a tiny village sat in perfect tranquility. The cellar sailed towards it like a meteorite, and I was its hapless occupant, clinging to the walls in desperation.
Then I heard a voice: my voice. Only, my mouth wasn't open. I gasped as my eyes flew open. I was in a hotel lobby. Banners were hanging everywhere in honor of Princess Celestia's visit. There were nervous ponies craning their necks to see something. I heard a commotion. I gazed past several armored pegasi, and I saw a raving lunatic wearing a stone-gray hoodie, struggling in the forelimbs of several guards.
“No, please!” Lyra shrieked. “You have to listen! I beg of you! If you send me away, I may never get another chance!”
“That's as far as you go, ma'am!” a guard grunted.
“Right this way! Nopony intrudes upon the Princess!” another added.
“Don't! Please!” Lyra sobbed and bucked and struggled. “She has to hear this! Only she can help lift this curse from me!”
They were halfway to the door, dragging her in their armored grasp, when a majestic voice danced across the room.
“Wait.” A hoof was raised, adorned in a golden slipper. Princess Celestia trotted forward from the banquet table and stood past her gawking guests. “Don't take her away. Let her speak...”
“But your majesty—”
“I care for all of my royal subjects,” the Alicorn of the Sun said. “If it is within my power to rid her of her distress, then such is my divine duty.”
The guards exchanged glances. They swiftly obeyed. Lyra slumped forward as soon as she was free of their grip. She crawled like an infant towards Celestia, sobbing with joy. “Oh bless you. Bless you, your Majesty. You have no idea what I've been through...”
“Shhh...” Celestia reached forward. I watched as her wings enfolded around the petite unicorn in a motherly gesture. The Princess' voice came out of her like a lullaby. “Be calm. It's okay. Catch your breath, my little pony, and tell me what troubles you.”
Lyra sniffled and gazed up at her. Tears streamed down her face as she stammered, “It's not enough that I tell you. I must show you. I must let you hear the music, or else it may be too late. Even you could forget me before this conversation is over...”
“But... But I don't understand,” Celestia said. “How could I possibly forget—?”
“Please, your Majesty, I beg of you.” Lyra stood up and levitated a musical instrument in her grasp. “Just listen. It's three short elegies, but hopefully they'll be enough to help you remember, and maybe then you can help me.”
Several of the hotel guests gazed at each other, murmuring worriedly about the crazed unicorn in their midst. The guards stood in a cautious circle, ready to pounce on the stranger at a moment's notice.
Eventually, Celestia merely bowed her head and said, “Very well. If you insist. Play your music, young one, if you think it will help.”
“Oh thank you. I promise, everything will make sense to you in the end!” Lyra stood up straight and started plucking the strings.
I leaned forward, breathless, gazing at the scene beyond the glass walls of the cellar. But, instead of music, I heard the rustling of chains.
Just then, a rusted lash of metal came up from behind and wrapped around me.
I was being yanked backwards, and yet I was standing perfectly in place. I gazed in horror as the scene before me lurched, froze, and then spun backwards. Celestia hugged Lyra again, then Lyra crawled in reverse, and then the guards were grasping her like they did before.
Lyra was bursting backwards out of the lobby, and then the entire sight of the hotel zoomed away.
“No!” I gnashed my teeth and fought against the chains like a shadow of my past self had struggled with the guards. “No—Blast it! I was so close! I was about to perform the song! I was about to—” I growled and yanked and tugged at the chains. “What in heaven's name is happening to me?!”
The images around the cellar blurred, flickering bright and black with the shutter-frame dance of countless days. Finally, everything streaked to a hazy stop as I was dangled by the chains above Lyra in the middle of Ponyville. It was night. The Mare in the Moon vanished, and she reappeared before Lyra—leering—in midnight armor.
“Nightmare Moon...” I whimpered in place of the collapsed, shivering unicorn. “...the curse begins—”
Nightmare Moon's eyes flickered from underneath her helm. Just as she breathed, the chains yanked again. I was flung to the opposite side of the cellar as time sped in the opposite direction, flinging me forward. I shrieked as the hotel blurred by, along with Celestia and a terribly bright explosion.
“No! Take me back! Take me back! Where are you—?!”
The sights of Ponyville over the past year streaked by like comets, slowing down one sunset after another until I saw a lonesome Lyra trotting down into a familiar cellar and placing a music sheet onto the stand beneath her musical instrument. I instantly recognized the name of the elegy.
“'The Threnody of Night',” I murmured, shivering under the chains. I then realized where—or more appropriately when I was. “Oh dear goddess...”
Lyra finished the song. She fell back into the waters. Lightning and thunder splashed around her, and soon I too was soaked. A world that was colder than cold chilled me to the bone as Lyra and myself—the both of us, past and present—were flung upon the rusted iron platforms twirling in the unsung nether. I rolled over, wincing as the chains wrapped around me. I no longer felt the glass floor of the cellar. The metal felt real and frigid to my touch. When I opened my eyes, past Lyra was gone, for I had taken her place. I was surrounded by moaning, shackled ponies. They all bowed in unison as a great shadow loomed above us.
I gazed up through the sundered world between firmaments, and I saw her. Or, rather, I saw where she lived, where she sat and served as steward over the unliving. A gigantic sphere of metal bathed in ancient runes hovered high above the platforms. Its many layers of porous iron spun around each other as it spat lightning and fueled the ancient machines that fed off the wailing souls bound to it. Suddenly, the unsung world was no longer cold, for a rising heat was billowing within me, an anger that could incinerate the strongest barriers of time.
“You!” I hissed. I rose up and fought against the lengths of chains surrounding me, surrounding my past self, surrounding my future self. “Curse you! I was this close! I almost knew the truth, but you just couldn't have that, could you?!” I snarled, wincing as the chains snaked up my body and quadrupled around my neck. “Hnkkkt...” I spat as I glared up at her sphere and roared against the thunder. “What is worth protecting so much that you must suck beauty from life?! What did the Cosmic Matriarch ever do to you?! Was it worth choking so many ponies of freedom, including your beloved?! Did you ever truly love him?! Speak to me!”
The globes within globes hovered at a distance above. A hum resonated through the chaos, and the shackled ponies all around me moaned a woeful chorus in response.
“No more singing!” I shouted. “Speak to me! Speak to me now—”
A bolt of lightning shot from the sphere. I heard my past self shrieking, and the voice caught up to my own throat. I gazed with twitching eyes as the lightning shot again and again, forking towards me in a deadly sweep. The frigid air smelled of smoke and death. The wail of the unsung ponies grew louder, lamenting the newest member to their herd. I could barely breathe from the chains holding me in the path of the the oncoming horror. She was about to add me to her fold, and I would forever remain the ghost that had claimed me for over a year. I thought of Twilight. I thought of my parents. I thought of Al...
Just then, one of the shackled ponies shot straight up. To my shock, it galloped straight towards me and produced a bright burst of light. I didn't even get a chance to see its face, for I was too overwhelmed by the chains breaking all around. Past Lyra slumped to the floor beneath me, and the pony instantly grabbed her hoof. I trailed after her like a comet’s tail as the three of us flew out from the path of lightning. Together, we swam past shrieking ponies, outrunning the spinning globes and her furious anger. I stammered incoherently. When my words formed, they joined with my past self:
“Who... Who are you?!” Lyra squeaked and I gasped. “What is this place?! Please, I'm so scared—”
The pony said nothing. There were no chains anchoring it to the platforms, instead it wore a large cloak soaked with the tears of the firmaments. The pony was unsung, and yet it wasn't. As it reached the edge of the platform and gripped Lyra with two hooves, I glanced under its billowing cloak and saw a series of onyx strings attached to an unmistakable instrument of black metal.
“The Nightbringer?” I said, for my past self couldn't. “Blessed Celestia, are you—?”
He tossed Lyra into the madness. As he did so, he opened his mouth and produced a song. Lyra fell through, as did I. The frost and lightning and madness of the unsung realm melted away. She fell into a forest under the stars of night. As she landed, I was being flung forward, free of chains, free of my past self, free of everything but screams. The walls around me flickered as I crawled through the madness of time, desperate to get away from it all, my brain bleeding through my horn as I whimpered one name over and over again.
“Alabaster... Alabaster, why didn't you tell me...?”
The glass shattered. Walls of dirt and earth were surging past me. I was clawing myself upwards somewhere on all hooves. I heard nothing but sobs and crickets as the constellations became clear up above.
“Alabaster... Alabaster, please...”
I felt a warm tongue licking my face.
My eyes flew open with a gasp.
Al's amber eyes stared at me. The cat leaned forward and nuzzled my face before licking me again. I was outside the entrance to my cellar. It was night on the edge of the woods. My cabin was sitting quietly a few feet away, and I had left the door cracked open.
I was sweating, panting, soaked in the floodwaters of the firmaments. Had she actually dragged me back? Or had Comethoof? I turned and looked down the steps leading into the cellar. I could only see the gentle sway of lanternlight. All of the parasprites were gone. After all, they were never here to begin with.
“Alabaster, did you save me?” I gulped and shuddered. “Twice?” I heard a meow. I looked over at the cat, sniffled and scooped him up in my arms. “Third's the charm...” I said in a wavering voice.
Al meowed again and purred lightly in my embrace.
I choked on a sob and nuzzled him close. His bright orange fur caught my tears. “I don't care that you'll only f-forget me. I don't c-care that all I am to you is magically appearing food. I want you to know that I love you.” I sniffed and scratched his ears lovingly. “I love you so much, and I want you to know that. Right here. Right now...”
If Al wanted to protest, he didn't show it. He was perfectly warm, happy, and content in this sobbing unicorn's limbs. It was exactly what I needed at that moment in time. And that's hardly a curse.
I couldn't sleep. I can never sleep after these highly dangerous instrumentals.
I sat in the middle of the bed with Al by my side. Petting him, I gazed quietly out the window as dawn rose with its gentle, warm hues. A quiet breath swam through me. My eyes rose along with the hovering mists beyond the window.
“He must have known that he couldn't find a solution on his own,” I murmured. “Even amidst his mounting madness, Alabaster must have finally grasped his situation. With Celestia and Luna both unreachable, even his knowledge of the Nocturne wasn't enough to break the curse. He was forever two elegies shy of the key to freedom, and his only alternatives were to die...” I gulped. “Or become unsung.”
Al stirred beside me, turning over and inviting a belly rub.
I smiled and humored him. “And so,” I continued, “He chose what only a mad pony would do. Comethoof neither died nor became unsung. He went to her realm in secret. Somehow, he went there and stayed there, and he's remained hidden among her forgotten subjects for a thousand years. But to what end?”
I gazed over at his journal lying on a table. It sat next to my lyre and countless sheets written with the elegies of the Nocturne.
“But of course...” I murmured. “...Princess Luna would return. On the longest day of the thousandth year moon, the stars would aid in her escape from the Moon. She would return to earth, and she would carry with her the essence of the unsung that gave birth to Nightmare Moon in the first place.” After another cold breath, I uttered, “And then that would give birth to a cursed pony like me. If Comethoof couldn't unravel all the elegies, it's possible that other cursed ponies might.”
The light outside grew brighter. Still, the world didn't feel any warmer as I watched the glow intensify beyond the window.
“If only he had all of his faculties during Shadow's Advent,” I said in a low voice. “If only Alabaster wasn't so fixated on Penumbra, in spite of her death, then maybe he would have had the wherewithal to figure out the last two elegies and save himself. Then he wouldn't have to rely on a pony like me so many centuries later to finish the same puzzle. But, still, if it wasn't for him...”
I stopped petting Al. I gazed down at the furry little thing. I felt my heart beating heavily.
“If I don't do what is required of me with the utmost attention and dedication...” I muttered. “..If I don't put all of my energy into freeing this curse, what will happen to me? Will I end up as lost as him? She had her beloved. Alabaster had Penumbra. What do I have?” I gulped. “What could I have?”
Al purred, producing the slightest of trilling noises as he realized he wasn't being petted.
I felt a pit forming in the back of my throat. “This journey of mine is only going to become more and more perilous.” My voice cracked slightly. “What kind of a living is that for anything, much less a gh-ghost?”
I knocked on the wooden door to the cottage.
Fluttershy's voice squeaked from the other side. “Y-yes? Who is it?”
“Are you Fluttershy? The local animal caretaker?”
“Erm... Yes. I do believe that's what the locals have decided...”
“I was wondering if you could take care of something that I've found...”
There was a slight pause. Eventually, the pegasus fumbled over the lock. The door opened and she peered through.
I stood before her. Something was shifting about inside my saddlebag. Before Fluttershy's vision, an adorable cat poked its head out and meowed into the noonday haze.
“He's absolutely adorable,” Fluttershy said, kneeling beside the wandering cat in the center of her foyer. “And you've been taking care of him for how long?”
“For most of last week,” I said, standing at a cold distance along the edge of the room. “But, before then, I'd been feeding him on and off for two or three months. I saw him wandering around the woods on the edge of town and... and my heart j-just went out to him, y'know?”
“I can see why.” Fluttershy smiled and leaned down to nuzzle the feline. Al returned the attention in a way he had done so often with a mint-coated ghost, whether or not he realized it. “He's remarkably affectionate! I can tell he's been a house cat before. Most strays aren't this comfortable with ponies. But, of course...” She giggled slightly. “Perhaps we have you to thank for that.”
I shrugged. “I tried the best I could. A very helpful pony gave me some much-needed advice. I figured out how to re-train him to use the litter box. I found out the best stuff to feed him. I even got him some fresh shots.”
“And after all this...” Fluttershy gazed up at me. “...you sure you don't want to take care of him?”
“It's not a matter of what I want...” I heard myself saying, like a shade of my past self beyond the cellar walls. “I... I'm really entangled with a lot of... erm... complicated b-business at the moment and...” I coughed briefly, shuddering from a wave of cold. “It's... It's just not the right time to have a pet... or anything else f-for that matter. I... uh...” I gazed off into the corner of the cottage and bit my lip before saying, “I think he deserves a safe, loving h-home, is all.”
“Well, I will most certainly find him one,” Fluttershy said. “You can count on me.”
“Yes...” I said with a smile, forcing a dry chuckle. “Your friends have told me that you have a way with animals and—”
“I believe that a bond between a pony and an animal is the fundamental nature of how all things relate with one another,” Fluttershy said. “It's something that can't be put in words...”
“...but it comes with feeling,” I murmured. “It's imbued with us all since the dawn of Creation.”
She stood up and gazed at me with a surprised expression. “Why, yes. That's a very poetic way to put it.”
I nodded slowly.
“Does he have a name?”
She giggled and pointed at the orange thing. “The cat you found. Did you bother to call him anything?”
I shrugged. “What's in a name? He was... just an animal in need that I found. Someone who was lost, and needed to g-get home somewhere.” I swallowed. “He... he sleeps around a lot, and protests a bit when you nuzzle him too closely. And... and he loves having h-his ears scratched...” My voice gave out and I couldn't stop a tear from running down my cheek.
“Miss Heartstrings?” Fluttershy looked at me. “Is everything alright?”
“Yeah. Uhm...” I sniffed and wiped my cheek clean, trying to catch an even breath. “It's just that... that...” I looked at her, composed myself, and breathed, “Do you ever wonder if we forget things because... there are things in the past that are so sad, that it'd be better if they didn't exist at all? That life would be nobler, stronger, and more promising if we simply... marched past it and pretended that history was different?”
Fluttershy merely blinked at me. Her wings twitched, and soon all she could say was, “I don't know. But I must say, you're quite the philosopher, aren't you?”
“Hah... heheh, yeah well...” I chuckled, gazing past Al as my eyes dried up. “It's easier than feeling,” I blurted.
Fluttershy trotted over and placed a gentle hoof on my shoulder. “Don't you worry, Miss Heartstrings. I will look after him as if he was one of my foals. He'll have a good home. I promise you. So don't you worry.”
I wanted to reply to that. I wanted to say it to Al, but I realized I was once again in the realm of keeping my thoughts to myself. If I was to speak aloud, maybe the truth would have been a lot easier to release, something that would make me feel mad, but slightly more at ease.
And the truth was that I was starting to forget what it meant to feel worried.
That very afternoon, I sat in my cabin, filing together the written elegies I had accumulated of the Nocturne. To write that it felt empty in my home would have been an understatement. However, the absence of a companion suddenly resembled the absence of parasprites. It may have been a lonelier world, but it was a truer one, and I was once again a cursed pony on a mission older than recorded time.
I worked in absolute silence. It's strange to think that I had always been so quiet in my studies. I felt that I could at least afford a breath of fresh air. I needed to scour through Comethoof's journal and see if there was any reference to his entry into the realm of the unsung. If I had some sunshine, at least, then perhaps I could concentrate better on his glowing blue text.
So, depositing his journal into my saddlebag along with my lyre, I stood up, swiveled about, and approached the front of my cabin. As soon as I opened the door, I jumped. Something orange was darting in past me.
I turned around, blinking.
The cat made a bee-line for the bed, hopped onto the covers, and made himself at home. He sat there, licking himself, purring as if there was no tomorrow—or yesterday for that matter.
I blinked. I turned and looked out the door. After a breath, I slowly trotted over to the bed. I put my saddlebag down and sat next to him, gazing silently.
The daylight wafted through the doorway, illuminating the shiny amber of his eyes. He switched from licking one leg to polishing the other. He bit at his claws slightly, then settled even deeper into the covers.
My cabin was on the opposite side of Ponyville from Fluttershy's cabin. It was a distance of over a mile, easily, with several countless buildings, streams, and wooden thickets in the way. And in less than four hours...
I reached a hoof over experimentally.
Al lifted his whiskers, sniffed my forelimb only once, and immediately nuzzled me as he always had. A tiny meow came from his mouth, and he rolled over in bed.
I smiled, a very painful thing. I felt the tears in my eyes and no longer tried to hide them. Leaning over, I scratched his ears and nuzzled him dearly. He didn't move from that spot even once.
“Maybe animals aren't affected by the curse,” I murmured out loud. “Maybe felines have an extra sense that her song cannot cover. Maybe your kind just isn't considered dangerous enough to breach the secret of the unsung realm.”
That evening, the two of us sat with Comethoof's journal in the center of the bed. A warm fire was burning in the fireplace. Everything was toasty. I didn't even need to wear my hoodie, a very rare things. Al's soft fur was ticklish and comforting to the touch as he sat next to my flank.
“Whatever the case,” I said with a smile directed his way. “This mad, rambling philosopher is glad to have you around to help me study.” I nuzzled him again and stifled a flighty giggle. “Maybe you'd like me to sing lullabies like Twilight does to Spike?”
Al meowed sharply.
“Heh. Didn't think so,” I said. I reveled in his company. With a warm breath, I poured once more through the blue text. “I may not know exactly what the parasprites hid that one day with Princess Celestia in the hotel, but at least I now know Comethoof's out there, and he has the Nightbringer. That's good, right? I mean... what is that old mare's expression about a gift horse?”
In a cursed life, I'd be a fool to turn away any blessings, no matter how small.
XIII - “Easier Than Feeling”