Twilight pranced back and forth in a frenzy, hoofsteps clopping against the cold, stony floor. This entire day had been a whirlwind. “Okay Twilight, there’s no reason for panic,” she said to herself. “You’re just hundreds of miles from home, hundreds of feet underground in an ancient, magical cave, and now there’s a friendship problem that specifically requires the Princess of Friendship to solve. No big deal, no pressure!” Twilight said with a nervous chuckle, a drop of sweat working its way down her brow.
“That is rather tricky… Even if we left right away, it would take a day at minimum to get back to the Empire. And then the train ride back to Ponyville isn’t exactly short, either,” Sunburst said, his voice wavering.
Twilight groaned with frustration, racking her brain for more options. “I would have liked to spend a day or two at home taking notes and going over everything we’ve seen here,” she said with a sigh. She paused, taking a big breath in. After holding for a second, she exhaled and made a gentle pushing motion with her foreleg, as if she could simply push the stress out.
“I just need to think this through logically and carefully,” Twilight said to herself. “It’s unlikely to be a life and death situation, and while my absence might make the situation worse if it’s left unchecked for a day or two, it’s also unlikely that I won’t be able to fix the issue.”
Twilight’s gaze shot upward as a thought suddenly slammed into her. “Then it’s also possible that more of my friends were called by the map. If I’m not back in a timely enough manner, then that might jeopardize their travel plans!”
“Well, the map will show the cutie mark of everypony called on a friendship mission, right?” Sunburst asked, adjusting his glasses. “If anypony else is summoned, they’ll know to wait for you.”
“That’s the other problem. If they do wait, they won’t know how long I’ll be. If they go on without me under the assumption that I’ll catch up, there’s a chance they won’t be able to solve the friendship problem on their own, and sending an incomplete group could potentially make it worse!” Twilight exclaimed, trying—and failing—to stay calm. “The map is very particular about who it chooses, and why.”
“I see,” Sunburst said with a touch of dejection. He idly kicked a small pebble, his gaze turning toward the ground. “It’s too bad the distance is too great to teleport. Even if it weren’t, the magical properties of these crystals would send you wildly off course again.”
Twilight gasped and turned back to Sunburst, overcome with a sudden realization. “That’s it!”
“What is?” Sunburst blinked. “Teleporting? Y-You can’t be serious!”
Twilight closed her eyes and muttered to herself. “If the arcane frequency is oscillating at thirty-two-point-three-repeating dekahertz, I should be able to calculate and reshape six of the eight rune vertices to match the frequencies as they change every three deciseconds.”
“Wait a minute… That would mean shifting your spell’s target before teleporting, during passage, and right as the spell completes!” Sunburst said, his eyes darting back and forth as he “read” invisible calculations. “To maintain such a swift spell-change, one would have to basically think faster than thought itself!”
As Sunburst spoke, Twilight scribbled out a series of advanced calculations on the floor using an elongated piece of rock. Seemingly meandering shapes, numbers, grids, and all sorts of magical pictograms began to fill the ground around them.
“A-huh,” Twilight said absently with a nod. “Well, if we do that…” She said as she scribbled out a line and replaced it with an updated number set. She took a moment to glance at her glowing cutie mark, then back over at her sprawling mathematical diagrams. Looking up at Sunburst, Twilight beamed proudly. “You make it sound as if it’s going to be difficult!”
“Difficult? It’s more than that, Twilight. It’s impossible! I know you’re the Element of Magic—and I don’t doubt your abilities—but the amount of power and concentration needed to safely bypass aetheric disturbance on this magnitude would be… would be…” Sunburst said as his eyes darted up and down, to and fro. He absorbed the data written out before him, poring over Twilight’s notes.
His jaw dropped.
“This… could actually work,” Sunburst said, stunned. He had never seen the classic teleportation spell described with such finesse and complexity. “In theory at least. Are you sure you can do this?” he asked with a waver in his voice.
“If we’re being perfectly honest…” Twilight said, pausing as she looked down and at the notes. With a confident smirk, she snapped her head back at Sunburst. “Yes. Yes I am! My experiences and magic link with the aetherstream, it…” She hesitated, finding it hard to describe using just words. “I don’t know. It just feels natural. It feels right to me. It feels like it’ll be almost as easy as levitation, just a little more time consuming.”
“And just to make sure I understand this right…” Sunburst said, his eyes scanning Twilight’s work. “Based on your distance equation, and these aetheric-oscillation-shifted lat-long coordinates…” He stopped and looked at Twilight with a confused look. “We’re going from here to the Crystal Empire? Don’t you need to get to your castle?”
Twilight giggled sweetly. “Well, I can’t exactly dump you off at my home and expect you to take a train back, now can I? I dragged you out on this silly expeditation, the least I can do is let you sleep in your own bed tonight!”
Sunburst blushed, crossing his forelegs as he looked away in embarrassment. “I-I guess you’re right. I almost forgot about myself in this equation!”
“What are friends for?” Twilight said with a smile.
Sunburst stood next to Twilight, preparing to be her passenger. He fidgeted nervously as Twilight closed her eyes to focus. After a moment of quiet breathing, her horn began to glow.
The numbers, arcane swirls, and symbols bent and swayed with the flow of magic, as the internal map of Mount Everhoof, the Crystal Empire, and the surrounding Frozen North wobbled like a melting oil painting. Her start point, deep within the bowels of the crust under the mountain, glowed with a pale lavender and orange light.
Her destination lit up like a beacon at the very peak of the mountain. The spell was completed, and the two ponies vanished with a blinding surge of magic.
Twilight refocused the spell, changing its destination to a location roughly halfway between the Crystal Empire and Mount Everhoof. The aether of Amethyst Hollow continued to influence her spell, for the conduit linking the origin in the cave to this new destination was still open.
As the second destination coalesced around them, Twilight could feel the influence of Amethyst Hollow loosening its grip on her spell. The map in her mind slid into focus as the spell reshaped itself, altering the destination one last time.
A hiss and crackle filled the empty marketplace as Twilight and Sunburst reappeared in a bright orb of light and magic. As it dissipated, it left blackened scorch marks on the ground below them in a several foot radius. Stars swirled in front of the winded ponies, soot comically coating their bodies and faces. Twilight somehow found herself on her back, her legs twitching feebly.
“Hahh… Hahhh…. Whoo…” Twilight panted and gasped, breathing heavily as she wiped the sweat and soot from her forehead. She looked skyward, her magic-blurred vision slowly coming together as the eye-stars bled away into the actual starry sky of a chilly Crystal Empire night.
A small smile cracked her lips as her half-shut eyes adjusted to the dimly lit street. “Haha…” She chuckled weakly. “I did it…”
“Yes, you certainly did,” Sunburst said with a loud grunt. “But could you… Ow! Get off me?”
Twilight blinked and looked around for the first time. She discovered she was resting atop of a rather comfortable fleece cloak wrapped around a rather disgruntled orange unicorn.
The weight pressing down on Sunburst knocked the wind out of him, puffs of soot escaping his mouth and nose like a bellows.
“Oh! Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!” Twilight said, apologizing frantically as she scampered off of him. She looked around, shaking her head as her senses returned to her. The night was still. The markets she had brought them to had closed up hours ago and everypony was likely sound asleep in their homes by now.
“I guess we were in Amethyst Hollow longer than we realized,” Sunburst said, coughing as he cleaned his glasses with his cloak. He sighed with relief, grateful to feel the return of functional magic away from the cave.
“If we ended up where I think we did, I don’t think we’re too far from your house,” Twilight said, looking down one of the roadways. “I could walk you home if you’d like, since it’s so late.”
“Oh!” he hesitated, blushing and fidgeting with his front hoof. “I think I’ll be okay. Don’t you need to get back to Ponyville? For the map, I mean.”
Twilight smirked. “Well,” she said, sliding out the word, “while that’s true, if I was able to teleport from Amethyst Hollow to the Crystal Empire, teleporting back home should be a cinch! It’s a little further, but there’s no magic disturbance to fight between here and there.”
“If you say it’s okay, then I suppose… yes, I’d like the company,” Sunburst said, trotting alongside Twilight down the road. Firefly lamps speckled their way every two dozen feet or so, providing just enough illumination for any night owls. The gentle clopping of their hoofsteps and the nearly-silent firefly buzzing were the only sounds that punctuated this peaceful night.
“It still amazes me how the ancient unicorns were able to practice and train in that place,” Sunburst said as they walked. “I’m not nearly as magically adept as you are, but even I could just feel how… oppressive the atmosphere felt.”
“It really was something else, wasn’t it?” She said as they rounded a corner. “I suppose my magical abilities made it easier for me to adapt. It honestly felt like… like home. It’s the only way I can describe how natural it felt.” Twilight smiles, recalling her first steps into the cavern. “Still, rearranging the magic properties of that wall was definitely a challenge! I’ve never worked on a sub-runic level before… at least, not beyond theoretically.”
“Oh, I bet. If you’d been off by the tiniest fraction, it could have backfired and shot magic all over the place!”
“I wasn’t about to let a wall get in the way of my research!” Twilight said stubbornly.
“Speaking of which, do you think the answers you found were satisfactory? Is it going to be enough to let you sleep properly again?”
Twilight stopped mid-stride, hanging her head slightly. “The answers I got… while they felt right, I’m honestly not sure. I can’t help but feel like there’s more to it than that. All it really means is that another pony at some time in history had a similar dream.”
She craned her neck to look at the gentle glow of her cutie mark as it cast a light on a nearby building. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the map would call me after learning what I have about unicorn magic. And with Star Glider being an earth pony, I have my suspicions that this is only the beginning.” Twilight nickered. “With any luck, the friendship mission will be related to all this. The map is comprehensive, but there are many regions of Equestria that haven’t been explored for centuries. It’s possible it could lead me to another location like Amethyst Hollow.”
“Well, Amethyst Hollow was an ancient unicorn coven. Could there be one for earth ponies and pegasi, as well?” Sunburst mused. “You said your initial research involved the pony tribes and how magic ties them all together, correct?”
“Right! That’s why I don’t believe any of this is a coincidence. Magic can sometimes work in ways we don’t yet understand, particularly when dealing with things like dreams, visions, prophecies, et cetera. My—our—run-in with Nightmare Moon taught us that all too well,” she said, sighing gently as memories from long ago surfaced in her mind. “Despite the mystery, there’s always an answer hidden somewhere—even if we don’t see it right away,” Twilight continued. “It took over a thousand years for one of Starswirl’s spells to be completed, after all!” she said with pride, fluttering her wings. An annoyed frown creased her face as her ears lowered. “Unless it’s Pinkie Sense,” she snorted.
“I don’t think anypony will ever figure that one out,” Sunburst remarked with a grin. “Even in my oldest books I don’t think I’ve found anything quite like it.”
“Nope! She’s one-of-a-kind!” Twilight said with a smile.
As the duo continued their stroll, even the distraction of Twilight’s glowing cutie mark faded into the background. The recounting of tales and old magic studies drew to a close, however, as they finally arrived at the staircase leading to Sunburst’s front door.
“Well, here we are!” Sunburst beamed, trotting up the steps and using a simple unlocking spell to let himself in.
Twilight blinked as she saw the spell: Two parallel orange beams connected Sunburst’s horn to the door knob. Secondary lines drew themselves from the primaries, filling the gap between them in angular bends and turns. The void filled itself with these patterns, tumbling into place as the beams rotated around each other.
A click came from the door as Sunburst swung it open.
“Everything okay, Twi?” Sunburst asked, turning back to glance at his silent companion.
“Huh? Oh!” She shook her head. “I was distracted by the unlock spell. I know in lieu of a regular key, a unicorn can create a custom lock, but…” She yawned, the late hour suddenly washing over her. “I’m still not used to seeing it in front of me.”
“Well, if nothing else, I can do my part here! I have old books from not only the Crystal Empire, but all over Equestria. I can start going through them and see if I can find anything about this new gift of yours,” Sunburst said with a confident smile.
“Oh, that would be wonderful! Once I finish this friendship map business, I hope I can sit down and do some more research of my own.”
“If I find out anything—anything at all—I’ll be sure to let you know. But first…” He echoed her yawn, his eyes becoming watery. “I need some sleep. I’m exhausted…”
Twilight smiled warmly. “Get some rest, Sunburst. It’s been a wild day for both of us. I’m going to head back to Ponyville now.”
He nodded in agreement, nearly stumbling over the threshold. “Good night!”
Twilight focused, visualizing her home in Ponyville. Ordinarily, the sheer distance involved would have taken nearly a full minute of uninterrupted concentration, but her improved clarity made the return spell come to her with ease. She finalized the spell in seconds. Instead of a massive map of Equestria, this time her bond with her home allowed the image of her castle to appear before her mind’s eye.
With a flash of light, Twilight Sparkle departed from the Crystal Empire.
“That dang Twilight, I knew she was gonna be gone in Canterlot for a spell, but I was hopin’ she’d be back by now!” Applejack said, gesturing with frustration toward the two spinning cutie marks floating over the Friendship Map.
Starlight let out a monstrous yawn, putting a hoof to her mouth. “I’m sure she’ll be back any minute now…” She levitated a hoof-sized azure stuffed unicorn onto the table and nuzzled against it tiredly. Its silken cloak and hat shimmered in the light emanating from the map.
Applejack grunted. “I know. I shouldn’t get all antsy, I just didn’t expect her to be this late.”
“I really need to get to sleep,” Starlight said. “It took hours to clean up the twenty pounds of instant sour cream Spike destroyed the kitchen with for his nachos,” Starlight said with a sniff. “I’ll be washing the smell out of my mane for months…”
Applejack grimaced, her eye twitching at the disgusting mental image. “Worst-case scenario I can just sleep in my chair. Twilight’s gonna zap in here as soon as she finishes her business in Canterlot, and I don’t need her huntin’ me down at Sweet Apple Acres when I’m right here in the cas—”
The two ponies recoiled and shielded their eyes as a flash of magic filled the room, beams of light dancing off the walls. Starlight blushed fiercely, seizing her unicorn doll and zapping it into her bedroom before Twilight could see it.
“Twilight!” Applejack and Starlight shouted in unison.
Twilight stood triumphantly before them, unfazed by the long-distance teleport. “Starlight!” She said gleefully, racing across the room to give her number one graduate a hug. “Oh, your cutie mark isn’t…” she said, turning to. “Applejack? Oh, this is so exciting!”
Applejack rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I’m here too. Friendship business. So what kept ya? I’ve been glowin’ here for an hour.”
“It’s… complicated. My cutie mark started glowing while we were in Amethyst Hollow, and I had to walk Sunburst home afterwards. I teleported here as quickly as I could. It was quite the adventure,” Twilight said.
“Right…” Applejack said, drawing out the word flatly.
“Wait, ‘Amethyst Hollow’? Teleporting here?” Starlight blinked. “Sunburst? Walking home with—I thought you went to Canterlot! Just where in Equestria were you?”
Twilight giggled. “Well, it’s kind of a long story. You won’t believe what happened!” She trotted over to take her seat, motioning for her friends to join her at the map. Applejack sat down on hers, while Starlight took Spike’s throne next to Twilight.
“Honestly, I should be thanking you, Starlight. You gave me the idea to go see Luna, which turned out to be the best place to go for my research,” Twilight said, smiling with pide.
“Research?” Applejack asked. “Starlight mentioned something about magic something-or-other between all the different pony tribes, right?”
“Mm-hm!" Twilight replied with a nod. "I’m sure Starlight told you, but I started having strange dreams right after beginning my research. Luna used her dream magic to see if she could help, but she couldn’t find the dreams.”
Starlight and Applejack looked at each other. “I take it that’s bad,” Applejack remarked. Starlight yawned loudly, nodding with a soft murmur.
“If nothing else, it’s concerning. But that’s not the best part. I was able to see the internal magic workings as she conjured up a link to the Dreamscape in her subconscious, visualizing a physical manifestation of arcane nodes that normally would be impossible to perceive!”
A moment passed, and Applejack slowly raised her hoof. “Uh—”
“In other words, I could see the spell as it was being cast!” Twilight finished, using a simpler explanation.
“Now, ain’t that normally what happens when you use magic? I always see your horns glowin’, and I’ve also seen some right proper lights when you’re goin’ positively nuts with it,” Applejack said.
“Sort of. While the immediate effects of a spell are normally visible,“ Twilight said, her horn glowing as it plucked Applejack’s hat from her head, spun it in the air, then dropped it back down on her head, “the construction and composition aren’t visible to an outside observer, with very rare exceptions.”
Applejack’s eyebrow quirked upward as she turned to Starlight. “And in Ponish?”
“It sounds like it’s kind of like walking,” Starlight clarified. “You don’t really think about it, but your brain is telling your legs to move forward, and you can see effect even if you don’t see everything going on inside. Right?”
“Exactly!” Twilight beamed as her wings spread out in excitement. "That’s my student!”
“I mean, your explanation makes sense, but I’ve never heard of something like this happening before. It’s kind of a lot to take in…” Starlight replied, barely suppressing a yawn. “So, you can see magic. That's neat, but what's Amethyst Hollow? And what were you doing with Sunburst?” Her tone took on a sharp edge.
Twilight pointed across the map toward the miniature Canterlot Castle. “After arriving in Canterlot, I did some research that led me to the Crystal Empire. From there, I enlisted the aid of Sunburst, who had the book I needed from the Crystal Library, and from there we set out to locate a hidden cave complex under Mount Everhoof known as Amethyst Hollow.”
“So, you went on this big, grand adventure…” Starlight remarked, leaning closer to Twilight. “With Sunburst.” Twilight nodded enthusiastically, her mane bobbing erratically. Starlight leaned in further, eyes narrowed. “Alone.”
Twilight blushed, backing away in her chair. “Hey, it's not like that! He and I share an academic curiosity!”
Starlight sat back, letting out a sarcastic “Mm-hmm…”. “I'm just giving you a hard time, you know that,” she said, grinning wryly.
Twilight laughed nervously and smiled back. “Of course I do, Starlight. You know I don't—In any case, we found Amethyst Hollow, which we discovered was an ancient training ground for unicorns studying magic. Even stranger, it turns out that the area is made out of crystals formed from solidified unicorn magic.”
“Solid unicorn magic? I don't know anything ‘bout how unicorn magic works, but that don't make a lick of sense to me,” Applejack said.
“I know, I couldn't believe it either. What's wilder is that it’s perfectly natural. It was just… leaking out of the ground, like a spring. Over time the magic became so concentrated it crystallized!” Twilight explained rapidly, her face broadening into a whimsical smile.
“It gets even crazier than that, if you can believe it,” Twilight said, but as she inhaled in preparation to launch into another ramble, she noticed Starlight beginning to nod off. “But I can explain all that tomorrow. I’m so sorry I kept you up. I just wanted to make sure you all knew I was all right.”
“Heh. Of course we knew you were okay, Twilight. Ain’t nopony better at studyin’ magic than you!” Applejack said with a smile as she leaned back in her chair.
Twilight nodded happily, then leaned in to look at the map. Their cutie marks were encircling a massive tree lying in the heart of a rolling wooded area far to the south-east.
“How strange…” Twilight muttered to herself, rubbing her chin in confusion.
“What’s up, Twilight?” Applejack asked.
“I’ve never really paid attention to this part of the map before. I don’t know of any places on modern maps with a tree like that,” Twilight said. She contemplated for a moment, trying to recall if she’d ever heard anything about such a location, but nothing came to mind. Her concentration broke as she let out a yawn rivalling Starlight’s.
“I think…” Twilight said, a second, smaller yawn forcing its way out, “I think we should get some sleep. I got so excited and forgot just how late it was.”
“I definitely can agree to that.” Applejack said. “Ain’t never been called by the map so late in the day before, ‘specially after spending the better part past lunch out in the east orchard. Heh, hopefully my glowin’ behind won’t keep me awake.”
Twilight rolled her eyes. “Please, I’ll take this over the stuff I’ve had to sleep through lately.”
“Y’mean the nightmares?” Applejack said with a frown, her husky voice lowering.
Twilight nodded as she stood. “Yeah… I mean, there’s a chance that they’re all over now, but we’ll just have to see. I promise I’ll explain everything in detail tomorrow morning,” Twilight said, her eyes shutting tight as she stretched. “Even the parts with Sunburst, Starlight.”
She looked over at Starlight slumped in Spike’s chair, snoring peacefully. Twilight giggled. “Maybe another time, then. You’re welcome to stay in the castle overnight, AJ. I imagine you don’t want to go all the way back to Sweet Apple Acres this late at night,” she said.
“That’s mighty neighborly of you, Twilight. I think I’ll take you up on that offer,” Applejack said, chuckling at Starlight. “She’s all plumb tuckered out. I guess cleanin’ up twenty pounds of nachos and sour cream does that to ya.”
Twilight blinked. “Wait, what?”