Background Pony

by shortskirtsandexplosions

XIV - The Curse of the Ninth

Dear journal,

Is this my journey and my journey alone? When I defeat this curse, will I be the only pony to have achieved salvation? Has it only been a practical lie to have viewed this entire debacle as a lonely exercise all along?

I realize now, more than ever, that the sum of my experiences, the total encompassing of my hopes and dreams, are not only defined by suffering and learning, but by the souls before me, by ponies who may not have had it within themselves to become free from her insatiable dominance. Nevertheless, these souls have lent me the keys to freedom that they otherwise could have used for themselves.

Perhaps that is the biggest lesson I have learned so far; I am not half the heroine as I am the damsel to be rescued from this crazy predicament. Up until now, I assumed that all of the ponies I had to thank for guiding me along this journey were completely unreachable. However—as the fickle winds of fate have so taught me—I can reach further than ever before. I can reach so far that not even she has a chance of stopping me.

And now, I'm beginning to wonder if perhaps she's not there only to stop me; she's there to help me...

An eerie silence hovered above the small meeting room, with the four ponies frozen at their respective seats around the table, blinking in contemplation at the question that had been asked. As the candlelight of the ceiling lamp flickered above, they exchanged cold glances, as if challenging each other to speak. Finally, with a defeated sigh, one of them leaned forward.

“Well, 'tis a good question,” Octavia said. She adjusted her bowtie and rested her smokey gray forelimbs atop the oak table. “Does music indeed hold a divine power? I have always assumed so, though I must declare such an assumption to be purely subjective. I would not know about the experience of each and every pony in this room, but for my part, music has been a means by which I have shared the consciousness of all who would give audience to me. I find music to be a bridge for souls, as t’were.”

“I agree with you, Miss Octavia,” said Melodia Braids. The young pegasus sat at the other end of the table, running a nervous hoof through the emerald locks of her mane. She bit her lip and fidgeted before speaking, “Uhm... I shudder to think what kind of a pony I would be if I never even went to music school in the first place. It's—like—I've been able to take apart my spirit and put it back together delicately while sharing it with everypony. I don't think there's a finer form of expression.”

“I'm rather particular to dancin' myself,” said a stallion opposite to her.

Melodia squinted across the table at him. “So music is your second favorite gift, Mr. Bard?”

“Heck, no!” Mr. Bard spat. “I'm just sayin' that I don't subscribe too much to that there 'bridge for souls’ mumbo jumbo. Ya fancy the notion of gettin’ to know other ponies? Find yer place in a square dance and go to town!” The bearded earth pony had his chair leaning against the wall of the room. In it, he slouched and balanced a guitar across two folded lower limbs while strumming a lazy tune with his hooves. “If y'all ask me, music's job is to help us get more friendly with nature. There's a heapin' lot of wilderness out there, and it's a cryin' shame to keep all our singin' locked up in record stores and sound booths when the Cosmic Momma herself gave us all the stages we've ever needed!”

Octavia nodded. “Well, you're onto something, Jumpin' Ray Bard—”

“Land's sakes, pretty filly!” Mr. Bard kicked himself upright and fiddled with the brim of his cowboy hat. “Just call me 'Mr. Bard' like Missy Green-Hair over there! Only former members of my band get permission to call me 'J.R. Bard' proper!”

“My deepest apologies, Mr. Bard, sir,” Octavia said with a slight smile. “I only meant to point out the fact that you mentioned the Cosmic Matriarch, albeit in your own colorful manner.”

“Yup?” He leaned back again. “What about 'er?”

“Well, legend has it that she created the world with a song, yes?” Octavia's eyes darted across the faces of the other three. “And then—presumably—that very same song was broken down and disseminated throughout the world, so that it became the various separate spheres that make up reality today. So, in a manner of speaking, the nature that you're so avidly fond of, Mr. Bard, 'tis but an extension of the omnipresent song of the Cosmic Matriarch. Would you agree, then, that under such an assumption, we are all participants of one melodious chorus?”

“I'm sorry, darlin', but you lost me at 'deepest apologies.'”

While Octavia dragged a hoof across her face in annoyance, Melodia Braids leaned forward with a smile. “Well, I think the power of music—divine or not—can be interpreted in many ways. Ms. Octavia sees it as a way of connecting to others. Jumpin' Ray—er—Mr. Bard sees it as a way of connecting with nature.” She blushed as her wings twitched demurely. “I... uhm... see it as a way of getting in touch with myself. I imagine Ms. Scratch must see it as a way of experimenting with expression! Isn't that right, Vinyl?”

The room fell utterly silent.

“Uhm...” Melodia fidgeted and glanced aside. “Ms. Scratch?”

A white unicorn with a blue mane was collapsed across her end of the table, snoring limply into her own drool.

“Hey!” Mr. Bard grunted. “Sunshine! Up and at 'em!” He swung a lower hoof out and kicked the chair underneath her.

“Snkkt—Gaah!” Vinyl Scratch shot up, a pair of shades hanging crookedly off her magenta eyes. “I took care of it! I flushed the stuff! It's all gone!” She froze in place, blinking. “Huh...?” Vinyl stared dazedly across the room. “Oh. This thing. I remember this thing.”

“I believe Ms. Braids was asking you what purpose music had in your life,” Octavia remarked. “Divine or otherwise.”

“Jee, I dunno.” Vinyl shrugged. “Stuff.” She yawned and leaned forward across the table. “I don't see what the big deal is. I just slap records around until something sexy comes out of the speakers.” She smirked. “Heh. It's a lot like this one weekend I had in a resort after an Orlandoats gig. Only instead of records, there were these two tight-flanked brothers from Stalliongrad and I was slapping around their—”

Melodia cleared her throat, hiding her beet-red face behind a hoof. “I believe we should stay on topic.”

“I second the lady's motion,” Mr. Bard grunted, casting the unicorn a wary glance. “I don't see what buckin' the proverbial apple tree in an overpriced hotel room has to do with what we're gabbin' about.”

“Pffft. Fine, buzzkills.” Vinyl Scratch leaned back, rested her forelimbs behind her head, and yawned towards the ceiling. “Just what the hay are we talking about anyways?”

“Well...” Melodia opened her mouth, paused, and bit her lip. “You know, that is a very good question.”

“Reckon I can't possibly be sittin' in the same room as three mares with goldfish memories,” Mr. Bard drawled. “We're here to talk about magic in music, ain't we?”

“Well, sure. But something's gnawing at me.” Melodia gazed across the table with nervous eyes. “I can't explain why, but the topic of the power of music is very important to me. In a way, I feel as though it's always been something dear to my heart. I guess I just never thought much about it until now.”

“Well, if I may say so, it has always been immeasurably relevant to my career,” Octavia declared. “Both inside the concert hall and outside, music has erected for me more than just a legacy of concert performances.”

“Hahah!” Vinyl's teeth showed through a bleary smile. “She said 'erected.'”

Octavia briefly frowned at her, then continued. “As a matter of fact, if it weren't for the mystical qualities of music, I do not think I would have overcome numerous odds in my life in order to be here, speaking to you presently.”

“I reckon there's a mighty big bush yer beatin' around,” Mr. Bard said. “Perhaps it might suit ya to hop over it, little lady.”

Octavia slowly nodded, then leaned forward to address the entire table. “Perchance you fine ponies have heard of something called 'The Curse of the Ninth?’”

“Ooooh...” Melodia's ears twitched. “Why, yes! I've heard of that!”

“The Curse of the What-now?” Mr. Bard made a face.

“Sounds like a wicked case of Maretezuma's Revenge,” Vinyl slurred. Under the glare of three sets of eyes, she shrugged wildly. “Oh, what?! Like you rich, string-pluckin' yahoos have never sampled absinthe down in Mexicolt!”

“What I'm referring to, Ms. Scratch, is a legend among the musical elite of Canterlot,” Octavia explained. “'Tis a childish case of superstition, granted, but its age and its recognition throughout the centuries have given the notion something akin to noble antiquity. It is nothing other than the belief that a successful musician can only perform nine epic movements during one's career—nay, one's life. To go any further, to attempt a tenth movement is to tempt fate, and perhaps even invite death or a far more alarming fate.”

“Hmmm... It's startin' to sound familiar,” Mr. Bard remarked as he paused in strumming his guitar. “Is this anythang like that so-called 'Twenty-Seven Club?'”

“Oh! Oh! Dude!” Vinyl suddenly pounded the table and pointed at him. “That's, like, the crap that took out Jimmy Haydrix and Colt Kurbain!”

“I wouldn't know about that,” Melodia said pensively. “But I-I am familiar with the Curse of the Ninth. Historically, it consumed the likes of Doctor Hoofstone, Ponyderecki, and Green Sound. They were all young, up-and-coming composers. They wrote many symphonies, but when they each finished their ninth, fate somehow tragically kept them from performing any further, either through death, retirement or both. The most famous case, of course is... erm... Neightoven.”

“Oh! Right! Neightoven! Heh...” Mr. Bard nodded with a smirk. “I reckon that's why his Ninth Symphony is so darn famous. It's on account of it bein' the last one he ever did.”

“Yeah, I once remixed his crud at a club in Seaddle,” Vinyl said with a wicked grin. “It hit this really awesome part with kaizo reverb and—pffftch—the bass speakers just about killed themselves. There was glass everywhere, dude. You should have seen it. The dance floor was full of flanksters slipping on puddles cuz they were wetting themselves so friggin' much.”

Octavia frowned across the table. “Neightoven's Ninth Symphony is more than just a public sample of music that can be put to trivial purposes through rampant... deejaying.” She cleared her throat and spoke with greater eloquence, “It is a testament to the fragile nature of a pony's musical career, and how it can come to a bitter end at any given moment.”

“But I thought ya weren't a writer like Miss Braids here!” Mr. Bard pointed across the table. “I figured you just played the music of other ponies before the audiences in Canterlot and made it sound all angelic-like.”

“Yes, that is true,” Octavia replied with a nod. “For all of my pomp and fame, I am but a humble cellist who bowed her way to the top. Still, I have immeasurable respect for the classics. It goes beyond the simple fact that I made performing them the very cornerstone of my career. In truth, I started out relatively naïve and ignorant of works of musical antiquity. When I was young, I was still attempting to find my spotlight on the grand stage. After graduating from the Canterlot Music Academy, I sought a means to express my talents. This brought me to a relatively unassuming establishment in the less-than-affluent western district of Trottingham, where I discovered for myself the true nature of the Curse of the Ninth.”

“Ughhh...” Vinyl raised her shades and rubbed a hoof over her clenched eyelids. “Is this going where I think it's going?”

“Would it kill ya to be polite for a spell?” Mr. Bard grumbled.

“Please, we're all ears,” Melodia said with a smile as she leaned forward and gazed at Octavia. “What happened to you in Trottingham?”

“You must understand,” Octavia said. “My career had barely just begun. I was a veritable no-name, a mere background pony, as t'were. My fundamental grasp of music was based on the rigid material impressed upon me me through scholastic knowledge and basic teaching programs. I hadn't yet gone out into the world to feel the music scene on my own, to understand what it meant to form a bridge with the souls of one's audience. Being an artist was something mysterious and daunting at the time, but that was not without its sense of adventure...

The place in Trottingham where I was to perform was called the Anvil Rust Theatre. Calling it a “theatre,” though, was more than a grandiose stretch. It was more akin to a halfway house for up-and-coming musicians to find their calling, and those who attended the place paid very little to get a seat. Upon trotting into the establishment, I felt my expectations crumbling into dust. The interior appeared barely capable of seating more than a hundred ponies. Looking back, I somewhat admire the intimacy and the microcosmic atmosphere that the hall produced. At the time, however, I was younger and far more ambitious. I had hopes and aspirations of performing before hundreds upon hundreds—if not thousands—of eager listeners at once. And though such wishes would be fulfilled eventually, I was too blind and full of ennui to see that at the time.

Nevertheless, I pressed onward, even when I was ushered to my new living quarters: a tiny flat built into the fourth level of the building within which the Anvil Rust Theatre was housed. I must admit, I was part of a unique program at the time. I was still subsisting off of the stipend that had carried me through the Canterlot Music Academy, and there in Trottingham I was to live and breathe off the very stage itself, performing on a regular basis: every two nights, and sometimes every single evening. I felt blessed, but such enthusiasm only lasted into the first week.

It is quite easy to be fooled by the exquisite and genteel exteriors of the Trottingham populace. Quite truthfully, they are a ruthless and scathingly critical lot beneath an eloquent façade, and this was no more evident than in the alleyways and slums of the smoggy city's western district, which was to be my humble home for the next two years.

On my first night of performing Marezart before the Anvil Rust audience, I was immediately booed off stage. I refused to move a single hoof at first, because I had barely gone beyond the first few bars of the instrumental, and I imagined that the crowd was being cruel simply for the sake of disparaging my novice performance. Soon, however, I could no longer remain on stage, for I was too overcome with tears to remain focused on my instrumentation.

Those nights in Trottingham taught me volumes about the true nature of equine cruelty. As it so happened, regardless of my talent or lack thereof, I simply could not keep the audience's attention. I realized that it was a matter of popularity, for every nightly session was shared by another mare of similar talents who had the benefit of a prestigious history of accomplishments. The plebeian listeners of Trottingham were simply too impatient to sit through the opening act, which was my task to bear. They only wanted to hear those with whom they were closely familiar. They had already formed a bridge with the soul of their favored performer, you see, and I was not a part of that equation.

To say the least, I was terribly discouraged from continuing with my tenure there. And yet, as the months went on, I endured. The ponies did—as a matter of fact—cease treating me like utter rubbish. However, I still could not charm or woo them with my talents in the manner in which I so greatly desired. It was as though there was an invisible wall that kept our spirits from commingling across the waves of melody I produced every night.

I then began to question my talents and ambitions. Was I truly performing as well as I could have been? Or perhaps I was expecting too much when I went on stage every night? Were my youth and foalish dreams making me work too hard for such little reward? Was I ever destined to be as great as I felt in my heart I could be?

And then, one month amidst the bleary cold of the Trottingham winter, I found out that the popular mare whose act constantly outshone mine was retiring. A selfish part of me was happy to see my competition depart from the premises, and yet I was dismayed to spot a look of lethargy and sorrow gracing her expression. On her last day, I stumbled upon her as she was packing her things in her apartment room above the theatre. I momentarily discarded my envious feelings so that I could speak with her in dearest sincerity.

She told me that I had a dismal, cloudy future ahead. She insisted that if I had any hope for my own music career, that I was to depart from the premises of the Anvil Rust Theatre and go as far away as I possibly could. When I asked her why, she broke into tears and lamented openly, telling me that she had performed at that very establishment for a miserable twenty years, and that her desperation to impress the crowd was what kept her so unsuccessful in the music scene for so long.

I asked if there was a reason why she didn't retire or seek an audience elsewhere long before that moment. She told me that something had long compelled her to stay. She implied that there was a mystical spirit, an accursed atmosphere of tragedy that clung to that very site, that made the audience so bitter and her own self so eager to experience their apathy on a regular basis.

It occurred to me that she was not speaking complete nonsense, for I had felt such accursed sensations myself. Every evening, I could barely sleep. I would wake up fitfully in the middle of the night, drenched in cold sweat, as if a terrible heat had threatened to burn me under my covers. On occasion, I felt like I could smell a whiff of acrid smoke bleeding through the walls of the tiny apartment surrounding me.

I do not know where I summoned the courage to do it, but I asked her if she experienced the same throes of mystical insomnia. To such an inquisition, the mare paled, and she spat out something terse and cryptic: a single date. Then, in a trancelike fashion, she stuffed all of her remaining things into her luggage and left in a furious gallop. I never saw or heard from that musician again.

But it was obvious that she was onto something, though the frightened soul trapped behind her twitching eyes refused to put the information into proper words. So, on the first occasion I could, I made a trip to the local library. I scoured the Trottingham records for events that transpired on the date that the mare had stammered unto me. It was then that I made a ghastly discovery.

It so happened that a horrible catastrophe had once transpired at the Anvil Rust Theatre. As a few of you may know, the city of Trottingham is very old. There are streets there that have been around since the dark days of Shadow's Advent. Seven hundred years ago, not long after the very opening of the theatre and its surrounding establishments, the world-renown composer Green Sound was about to give her last performance. She was rather young for such sudden retirement, but the mare had just foaled and she wished to live among her own family for the next decade or two.

So, she decided to perform her latest and final composition at the newly opened Anvil Rust Theatre. As you may already be suspecting, there's a great deal of irony to be had here. This was to be Green Sound's Tenth Symphony. The previous nine had made her famous all across Equestria, and she had single-hoofedly introduced new and far more optimistic motifs into a music scene that had been dominated by melancholic ballads and mournful elegies for the better part of three centuries.

This was to be a very subtle, intimate, and unassumingly small performance. The Anvil Rust Theatre, after all, could only house so few ponies. Despite the sincere gesture on Green Sound's part, this meant that only a small, elite group of Trottingham residents could afford to be seated for her final bow. Needless to say, there were many critics within the music scene who were understandably enraged by this turn of events. Sadly, it would seem that one or two of them took their zealous hatred to a degree of... sociopathic quality.

On the night that Green Sound went on stage to perform her final and Tenth composition, an arsonist had set fire to the foundation of the building. A terrible inferno consumed the Anvil Rust Theatre, and over one hundred and twenty ponies were caught in the terrible conflagration. Among the dead was Green Sound, her horribly charred remains still clutching her violin. She left behind a widower and a lonesome pair of motherless twins. The ponies of Trottingham gave her an epic funeral, and there was even a city holiday in her honor that lasted for several centuries.

In the days that I performed at the theatre, speaking the name of Green Sound had become something of a taboo, a subject that denoted fear and tragedy and superstition. After my studies in the local library, I asked several of my fellow musicians and tenants about her legacy in the Anvil Rust Theatre. Most of my questions were met with silence, dismissal, and even anger. But the one common thread that possessed all ponies I asked about Green Sound was a deep-seated fear. It filled them with a nervousness that gave their trotting hooves a shivering quality, as if the walls of the building would catch fire yet again and collapse on them at any moment.

It was around that time I realized I too was suffering from a deep-seated paranoia. There was a reason for why I constantly woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. I began to suspect that the ethereal scent of smoke meant more than what my base senses could tell me. Perhaps the mare who had left before me knew a great deal more than she was willing to divulge. Whatever the case, I felt that I was learning more and more with each passing evening. There was a reason for why the audience of the Anvil Rust Theatre subjected me and other musicians to such hatred and apathy. The very building upon which we stood had been drenched with a spirit of tragedy and suffering. Suddenly, my young mind contemplated a reason for the disconnect between me and the Trottingham ponies I was attempting to woo with my music.

Alas, can you imagine such brazen arrogance on my part? If I was a sensible young pony, I would have blamed the disinterest of my audience on my feeble performance, or my loose grip on the fine rhythm of the classics. However, I was not willing to settle for a reality in which my lackluster career was defined exclusively by my blemished locale. I knew in my heart and mind that I was destined for great things, and as an artist who saw an imperfection standing in her way, I made it my goal to eliminate it so that my “voice” could be heard clearly.

I spent an entire day exploring the deepest archives in the Trottingham Library. For a while, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for. How does one scrounge a forsaken symphony from the depths of yesteryear? A pony would have far richer luck finding a single ash of purpose from the graves of those who came and went before us. However, desperate to cleanse the horrible spirit from my place of performance, and emboldened by a deep desire to bring justice to the legacy of Green Sound, I pressed on. After much restless research and struggle, I finally discovered what I was looking for. It was a single sheet, hidden in an ancient tome coated in soot and timeless embers, as if the very spirit of my musical haunt had deposited it from a burning cloud for me to find. I was too overwhelmed with the joy of victory to be frightened; I now had in my very hooves the hitherto forgotten magnum opus of Green Sound, her Tenth Symphony. If the future was to be exorcised of ill-spirit, then I had to assault the roots of such darkness in the past.

I waited for a special holiday—a night when there would be no scheduled performances in the Theatre. As much as I disliked doing so, I settled for Hearth's Warming Eve that very year. While ponies were singing carols and playing with snow in the streets of Trottingham, I had stealthily positioned myself within the very shadows of the Anvil Rust Theatre. I waited patiently for the ushers and managers to close the establishment. Once the Theatre had been completely emptied of ponies, I made my way onto the darkened stage to begin my clandestine performance.

I felt incredibly nervous all of the sudden. My limbs were shaking and I could barely hold onto the cello in my grasp. I felt as if there were hundreds of shadowed limbs reaching out to me from the empty seats, attempting to drag me down into a time-forgotten inferno that had consumed so many shrieking, sobbing ponies in that very building centuries prior. I realized that whatever spirits haunted that place, they were without peace, without resolution, without a soft and melodious denouement to carry them out of the tempestuous rhythm of the waking world.

I knew right then that only the finest musician could soothe the anguish of phantoms. And I knew that such a fine musician was me.

So, without any further hesitation, I closed my eyes and performed Green Sound's Tenth Symphony from memory. It was such a heavenly piece, that instrumental, full of rising and falling crests in gentle defiance of the established melody of its time. It was so brazenly cheerful, that a part of me openly wept for the ponies whose lives were snuffed out violently before they could have had their ears blessed with the blissful harmony of an affirmative movement written by a mare who only wanted to be the mother that her two foals innocently deserved.

Perhaps it was my quiet sobs that they listened to more, as if it was an added percussion to the symphony as a whole. Whether my voice was the solution, or the Tenth Symphony itself, I felt as though my performance had accomplished something. By the time I had finished, I felt an incredible weight being lifted from my shoulders. It was the happiest and most liberating sensation I had felt since my days in the Musical Academy. I felt a tickle in my ears, as if several hooves were applauding. When I opened my eyes, my vision was obscured but a part of me could have sworn I saw a phalanx of pale, smiling faces from the first few rows of seats. In a blink, I saw nothing, and I only smiled all the more, for they were gone.

They were gone. And what was more, I knew that they were gone. Whatever cloud of pain and hatred had infested the Anvil Rust Theatre had dissolved, and in its place was an empty sphere of promise, opportunity, and silence: the perfect vessel for a young artist such as me to express herself. I had performed the entire Tenth Symphony of Green Sound in that place for the first time, and there was no need for any spirit of anguish to linger there any longer. So I thanked the emptiness by bowing to it.

“I know it may make me sound like a mad pony,” Octavia continued from where she sat at the table. “To speak of ghouls and haunted spirits and other such fantastical things. But regardless of the nature of my mystical assumptions, things changed for the Theatre—and for myself in turn. When I performed next on the evening of the New Year, I actually received applause. I swear, it was not due to my own input. My performance was as consistent as ever with my prior cello playing. It would appear as though—indeed—the audience was simply that much more receptive to my talent.”

The other three ponies watched as Octavia smiled gently, her hoof trailing circles along the top of the table in a foalish manner.

“I was not alone in this,” she said. “Several other young musicians were getting standing ovations when beforehand nopony in the audience would even bat an eye. Instantly, all of my fears and self-doubt flew out the proverbial window, for I had discovered the potency of my talents once more.

Word of my musical skills spread throughout Trottingham, and soon ponies were coming from all corners of Equestria to visit the Anvil Rust Theatre, which had literally become a source of culture and reinvigorating classicism overnight. Then, one week, Fancy Pants himself attended. He spread word of my performance among the elite population of Canterlot. Fatefully, that same year, when Princess Celestia visited Trottingham for the Summer Sun Celebration, she made a stop by the theatre. I performed for Her Majesty in person, and she commended me. My title officially became a household name, and I've been maintaining such esteemed notoriety to the best of my ability ever since.”

“Wow...” Melodia Braids smiled, her wings fluttering at the end of Octavia's speech. “That's simply incredible. You mean playing Green Sound's final song really cured the Curse of the Ninth?”

“If you wish to gain such meaning from my tale, then I would not fault you,” Octavia replied.

“Seems like a lot of superstitious hooey to me,” Mr. Bard grumbled.

“Mr. Bard!” Melodia frowned his way. “I'd like to see you disprove her!”

“What use would it make?” He produced a bearded frown. “She done told us about somethang she experienced and experienced alone. Don't make a lick of sense tryin' to disprove it. Still don't mean I have to be believin' it, though.”

“I kind of digged the part about the zombie ghosts,” Vinyl Scratch muttered. She raised her shades and blinked her bleary eyes at the rest of the group. “Did anyone else like the zombie ghosts?”

“Mister Bard, you need not blindly accept the suspension of disbelief that makes my recollection remotely palatable,” Octavia said. “I would only hope that you gain from it an acknowledgment that there is more to music than sheer performance. I quite literally had a blockade with my attempts to connect to the souls of my audience in that Theatre. For it to have dissolved overnight is more than mere coincidence; wouldn’t you agree?”

“‘Cuz I liked the zombie ghosts...”

“I think that when pony folks are dealin' with pony folks, then nothang is predictable,” Mr. Bard said, clutching his guitar. He bounced his body repeatedly off the table with his lower hoof while murmuring, “Music shouldn't just be corralled into the industry of entertainment and stage performances. I mean—shucks—I reckon I sound mighty hypocritical, what with me bein' a bang-up country music singer and all. But there's a reason for why I haven't gone on tour in ages. I don't write music to become popular like you, Missy. I do it because I'm drawn towards it. I feel it every time I go out for a stroll in nature. I swear, it's like the land speaks to me n'stuff. The world's older than recorded time, and so is music. Them's siblings by rote, if ya know what I mean.”

“Zombie ghosts are cool...”

“Shhh!” J.R. Bard frowned at Vinyl before strumming at his guitar once more. “Wait yer own turn, ya pointy-headed snowpony! Dog gone it, where was I? Oh, yes!”

He played a few notes on his instrument, as though he were dishing out a folk tune.

Instead, he orated, “I guess y'all could say that I settled for early retirement. I was fine with makin' records and writin' music with the best of them. But when mad pony fans started clamorin' over me like they was in a stampede, that's when I backed off. No sense in havin' all that mess in my beard, if ya feel me. So I said 'so long' to my agents, packed up my guitar, and set off for Goddess-knows-where. Come to think of it, it woulda helped at the time to know whereabouts I was headed. But it so happens that I saw a fancy shmancy poster at a local train department. It spoke of this place that the local folks were headin' out to colonize. They were gonna call the community 'Appleloosa.' I plum thought it was the dumbest thang I ever heard. But it was out in the desert and there was few ponies makin' the trip. So, on a whim, I said 'sign me up,' and away I went...

Little did I know that when we finally got all our wagons to that place, it was barely nothin' more than a regular hole in the ground. We was sandwiched between the high walls of a mighty steep canyon. What was more, there was a whole load of mean-spirited buffalo roamin' ‘round them parts. I didn't quite take a likin' to the spirit of adventure that invigorated so many of my fellow... nnngh... Appleloosans, but I simply shrugged it off and decided to play along. After all, we had a lot of crazy work ahead of us. And if there's anythang that makes me think and get in touch with myself, it's good, hard work.

The first thang we did was lay down tracks to form the railroad comin' down from the north. Boy, was that some mighty sweatin' and heavin'. Still, t'ain't nothin' to have been frettin' about. We got the job done because we had to. The sun was hot when it wanted to be, and the wind was soothin' when it felt like it. We didn't really have any control over the way things were in the desert. We just made the best of it, like good, hard-workin' earth ponies have been doin' since the beginnin' of time. Needless to say, I was feelin' it. Whatever that “it” was, I'll leave it to y'all to guess.

For me, everythang was perfect. I was right where I was supposed to be. When the sun set, the western horizon caught ablaze with all these pretty hues of red and orange. It was like the Cosmic Momma herself was paintin' a masterpiece all across the roof of the world, cascadin' trails of crimson and pink over the tips of the mesas and mountain cliffs. The air was dry, just in the sort of way that empties yer nostrils and makes a clean path to yer lungs. You could scream a mighty ballad into them hills, and I did just that on a few occasions. I swear, I could have heard those mountains echoin' back to me. We were like lovers callin' to each other across a stone ocean of nothin'. I felt like I was gettin' in touch with a part of myself that I had long left buried in all them months of self-glorifyin' music tours and record signin'. I had become a new stallion in the town of Appleloosa, even in spite of the goddessawful name. Heh.

But the other ponies—the ones colonizin' that valley all around me? Heck, I wish I could say that they was feelin' half as tranquil-like as yers truly. Every day that we spent layin' tracks and plantin' apple seeds into them fields, my neighbors were always trottin' around with a horrible stoop to their shoulders. They seemed awfully skittish, and even when I asked what was eatin' at them, they had very little to say: only that they were hankerin' to get the job done for the day so that they could gallop back home and shut themselves off from the desert.

Could you imagine that? What a cryin' shame! Why do you move your little keister on over to the middle of the desert unless you want to be one with the land?! Bah! I said they was morons! They just looked at me funny and asked, “Do you hear that?”

And I'd say “Hear what? The wind? The gentle hush of the desert?”

Then they'd inch away from me as if I had the pony pox or somethin'. Months later when I finally got a few of 'em to open up, they all said the same dang thing. They kept hearing a sound. A “hum” was what they called it. Yes, a “hum.” A bunc o'them ponies were hearin' this constant tone, as if it was comin' off the dirt walls of the canyons surroundin' us. It must have spooked them somethin' terrible, cuz a bunch of those yellow-bellied rapscallions tore off for distant civilization. They just up and left Appleloosa, even after comin' all the way to settle in a place with such a dumb name to begin with.

Naturally, I thought they was all dreamin' the stuff up—just like I feel about you and that whole nonsense about the Theatre, Miss Octavia. Ponies are creatures of mind over matter, and more often than not we simply imagine the strange hooey that performs magic tricks before our eyes. That's how music mystifies us, ya see. T'ain't no such thing as ghosts or hauntin's, far as I'm concerned. But when music moves us, we're liable to believe anythang. The only musician that matters in the grand history of time is the greatest musician of all, and she done left Equestria ages ago. But when she did, she left us all pieces of her glorious song. And the only artist with the authority to sing that 'ol ditty is nature itself.

So what if there really was a “hum” to them hills? Goddess knows I hung out on the side of town, my ears tilted towards the heavens, listenin' to the earth, the sky, and the dag blame'd cacti from sunup to sundown. I couldn't make out a darn thang. But apparently every other pony could, considerin' how bad the apple orchards were doin'.

Yup. That's right. The apple trees—the very thang we came all the way to that valley to plant—were startin' to croak on us left and right. You see, long before the local buffalo gave us grief over our plantin' in their stampedin' grounds, the desert itself was bein' real stubborn-like. We had ourselves a famine, to put it lightly, and not a single apple tree wanted to sprout. Even the grown trees we replanted were startin' to wither and die.

At first, I wasn't willin' to buy that the earth was bein' so plum mean to us. It had to have been the workers, the planters, the crazy city ponies donnin' boots and work duds, thinkin' that they had what it took to make somethin' grow out of nothin'. I'm not exactly Mr. Green Hoof myself, but I know a thang or two about irrigation, and I knew that these nincompoops I was livin' with were losin' their good sense, all on account of their terrible superstition about that infuratin' “hum.”

So, I tried showin' them how to do it proper, but none of them would pay me no mind. They was all reelin', stumblin', swayin' about as if afflicted with a terrible spell of sickness. The “hum” was all that they could think about, as if they all had become the poor audience to a giant music concert that only they could hear.

Just what was goin' on in that town? Was there a true curse underhoof? Was the valley actually tryin' to get us to pack up and return to mainland Equestria?

I wasn't about to buy it. Nope, not this stallion. I came out to that place to rediscover myself and I would be a dag-blame'd fool if I got all shiverin' in my horseshoes like them nervous pony folk I had become neighbors with. I had the wilderness starin' me down on all sides, and I was ready to have myself a heart-to-heart conversation with it.

What y'all gotta understand is that I hadn't played a lick of music since I got there. I spent the time mostly silent, for I was tryin' to look deep inside myself and figure out the stallion first and the musician second. But on account of this stupid “hum” and all, I figured that my best weapon was my guitar. So I hoisted the thing over my shoulder, filled my saddlebag with oats and canteens of water, and made my way west and didn't stop for nothin' until the sun had set. Then, in the middle of the night, I climbed up a steep mesa all on my lonesome. I don't tell y'all this to convince you that I was some macho thoroughbred or nothin'. I was simply tired of dancin' around the issue of what cursed that valley, and the only way to confront nature was to get my limbs dirtied up to the elbows.

So, I reached the summit. The sun rose, and the heat that came with it was unbearable. The only thing I could do there was sit and squint across the landscape. Oh, and play some of my music, of course. Thing is, I didn't bring a single music sheet with me, and I wasn't prepared to revisit my career after takin' a leave of absence from the industry so soon. So, I simply strummed whatever came to my head, figurin' that if there was anyone or anything that could hear me, I'd have an audience pretty darn soon or else I'd never have one at all.

I gotta tell ya, it felt plum silly to be sittin' there all alone on the roof of the desert, strummin' a guitar tune to the lone winds of a desolate world. Everythang's subjective, right Miss Octavia? Shucks, perhaps all them Appleloosa folks were the only ones with a lick of sense after all. That'd make me the one sap who had lost all his marbles. Heh. I mean, after all, the colony was sufferin' illness and famine, and instead of tendin' to them dyin' apple orchards like a true hero, there I was playin' solo guitar atop a giant table of rock in the middle of nowhere.

And I was there for an awful long time too. Remember that hot sunrise I talked about? Well, the sun fell like it always did, and it rose several hours later like it always did too. What wasn't so natural was the fact that I had stayed awake for the whole dang thing. I don't know if y’all can call it insomnia, or any other sort of affliction. But I was determined to stay there, wide awake and stubborn as a mule, until I could figure out just what that sound was that was spookin' all my fellow ponies somethin' awful.

It was hardly a vacation; that's for sure. My water had run out. My oats were startin' to spoil. I was smellin' terrible from sweatin' like an unwashed pig. I was beginnin' to go mad, in a way, or else I had been mad from the very get-go. What else could possibly have made me climb up to that there stage of stone?

Eventually, my senses came to me, and I started to fear for my miserable life. I was just about to climb my tremblin' way down the summit, when I heard it. I finally, finally heard it...

Was it a hum? No, I reckon that wouldn't have been a proper name for it. Was it some spirit talkin' to me from the foundations of the earth? Heck, I ain't no philosopher. I was just a mad pony with a guitar, challengin' nature to do its worst... and boy, did nature deliver.

I started gettin' these fancy tunes in my head. It was some real purdy inspiration, the type of undammed rapids of infernal thoughts that I hadn't been struck with since the early days when I first strutted my awkward way onstage. I just couldn't believe the crazy amount of stuff fillin' my noggin'. I felt like I was an entire band full of ponies fresh out of secondary school—y'know—when everythang is just fresh and creative and right. I started thinkin' up songs that would never have come to me hadn't I made that trip to that rock to begin with.

And it started makin' a little bit of sense to me, even the senseless parts. I mean, I wasn't actually writin' anythang, even if my mind was fillin' with these brand new melodies. In truth, it was nature teachin' the stuff to me. You heard me right. The land was speakin' to me. Whatever it was, it had frightened the other Appleloosans. But me? I understood the tongue. I felt the rhythm and I could tap my hoof to the beat. I wonder sometimes if the earth is always tryin' to tell us things in the same way in which I was hearin' it then. The Creator of Equestria left when she needed to, but she didn't take all things with her, after all. We have the Princesses, we have the land, and we have our ears. Somewhere between all of that, somethin' special is born, over and over again, or else why would we ever have the need for encores, ya reckon?

So, I sat on the edge of the valley, and I translated whatever the valley had to tell me. I strummed my guitar, for it had become a funnel through which a heap o'music notes were being tossed and born and tossed again. And when everythang was finished, and when the earth had wrung out all the secrets it had stored so lonesomely for so long, I took the music with me. I carried it in my head down the mesa, across the field, until I collapsed on the edge of town a total of three days after I had first set out.

Three days. I had been sittin' on that lone peak for three sunrises and three sunsets, bein' drained of all moisture and roasted to a livin' raisin in the Appleloosan heat. The ponies who dragged me into the local hospital and fixed me up thought I had plum died. But soon, my eyes opened, and the first thing I reached for was my guitar—not a glass of water. I sat up in my bed as tons of mares and stallions stood gawkin' around me. We had ourselves a lil' concert right there in that hospital, the first performance of the sort I had given since—well—since I up and packed for that stupidly-named place to begin with.

And you know what? It accomplished something. The Appleloosans began smilin'. They began dancin'. Somehow, all of their fears and anxieties went the way of the tumbleweed, and the next day they took on the task of tendin' to the orchards with extra care.

Was there really ever a famine? By the beginnin' of the next month, nopony had an inch of proof. Them apple trees blossomed like none had before, and we had enough fruit for a mighty harvest—the first harvest of Appleloosa. It was a purdy spectacle to be sure. All thangs bein' subjective and all, I guess you had to have been there. But trust me when I say that the entire town changed, and all 'cuz one pony decided to listen a little closer where so many other souls were too dang afraid to challenge the very nature of sound.

“Not to toot my own horn or nothin',” Mr. Bard added as he finished strumming and glanced calmly at the other three. “I can't pretend to take all the credit for what happened in that village. The 'famine’ was the least of Appleloosa's problems, after all. We later had worse things to overcome, like them angry, headbuttin' buffalo. But we managed to solve that with the power of friendship... or some crap. Whatever. The point is...”

He leaned forward, resting his guitar against the wall as he gestured his hooves above the table between the four ponies.

“I couldn't connect one bit to them Appleloosan numskulls around me. But the power of song was there nonetheless. It may not have given me any answers to how the earth ticked, but it got me in touch with nature nonetheless. And it's not like I changed the world any. I only learned from it. In the end, I was able to get a bunch of ponies to calm down and relax. That's the whole point of music to begin with, don't ya think? It's not really about mysticism and magic and all that nonsense. It's all about what's in the mind. Not like I'm tryin' to talk down what you've experience or wutnot, Miss Octavia—”

“Let me ask you just one thing, Mr. Bard,” she interjected.


She leaned forward. “I am not entirely unfamiliar with your music career. As a matter of fact, I've sampled some of your music before.”

“Heh, fancy that.”

“I could go on and on about how 'charmingly rustic' your ensembles have sounded, but that's not the point. If you would be so kind, would you inform the other ponies here just how many albums you had published before you began your soul-searching trip to the town whose name you refuse to cherish?”

“Why, I done recorded about... ohhhh...” He leaned back, stroking his beard with a sandy hoof. “Hmmm... Seven? Eight albums?”

“Nine!” Melodia Braids gasped, her eyes wide. “I remember now!” She pointed. “Jumpin' Ray Bard! You signed up for a total of nine albums under Wagon Wheel Records! Heehee!” Her cheeks went rosy as she clapped her hooves together. “Isn't that just spectacular?”

Octavia merely smiled, a very subtle gesture.

Mr. Bard blinked, his features paling somewhat. “Land's sakes...” He pulled his hat off and fanned a balding mane. “That's pretty darn creepy, if ya look at it from that angle. I can't say you have yerself a convert, Miss Octavia, but that's somethin' worth thinkin' about.”

“And that's all that I hope for in this discussion,” Octavia said. “A second thought.”

“Hmm. Reckon so.” Mr. Bard planted his hat back on and looked around. “Anypony else can relate to that?”

“Oh! Oh!” Vinyl Scratch slapped the tabletop with both hooves and stood up, sneering devilishly at the crowd. “This... this one time? Okay? This one time while I was performing for the wedding of Trot Cruise and Nicolt Kidmare, right? And I had been spinnin' the turntables for—like—three friggin' hours straight? Right? So—like—I got up to visit the little filly's room and take a piss and... do other stuff. Y'know, my nose was itching. Whatever. Doesn't matter. Anyways, I came back, and guess what I saw?”

The three other ponies stared in muted wonder.

Vinyl Scratch's teeth glinted with a wicked smile. “There was puke all over my equipment!”

They blinked lethargically at her.

“And... And...” She sweat openly, gazing down at the three. “, that was mad crazy, right? Cuz it was the wedding of Trot Cruise and Nicolt Kidmare. Right? They didn't serve any food for a pony to upchuck, on account of trying to not look fat. I mean, they were Saddletologists, and they had to—I dunno—keep their public image clean and stuff or else nopony in their right mind would hoof them bits for the honeymoon, never mind the fact that I played nothing but friggin' remixes of Saturday Neigh Live all dang evening.”

Octavia stared intently at the tabletop. Mr. Bard was glaring. Melodia Braids fidgeted in her seat and spoke up, “Well, I think—”

So where did all the puke come from?!” Vinyl Scratch hissed.

Melodia winced, gulped, and boldly kept talking. “I-I think I have a similar story of my own to tell. Well... uhm... it's not exactly a similar story, but... but it does kind of relate to all this...”

“Do tell us, dear,” Octavia said.

Vinyl grunted and slumped down in her chair, folding her arms. “Pfft. Bunch of stuck-up Katrot Holmes fans, I swear to Goddess...”

“Simmer down, Sally,” Mr. Bard grumbled, then smirked Melodia's way. “Care to continue, darlin'?”

“Mmmm... Okay.” The pegasus played with her long green mane as she wrestled for the strength to continue. “So, uhm, as you ponies may or may not know, I'm something of a... erm... famous composer. Well, more like a lyricist, I guess. I'm no Oscar Haymerstein or anything.” She giggled. “But I've been known to write songs for very famous ponies throughout all of Equestria. It's... It's how I've made a living for myself, and I like to think I've done nicely, considering... well...”

“Hmm?” Octavia leaned her head to the side.

Melodia Braids bit her lip. “It's not like I've ever put my hoof to a musical instrument. But, when you hear many famous ponies singing, it's my words that they're broadcasting. I mean, that counts for something, doesn't it? Even if I'm employing all my talent in putting pen to paper, it's still expressing myself musically, even if it's a vicarious thing, don't you think?”

“Shucks.” Mr. Bard leaned back and pulled the brim of his hat down over his smiling face. “I've done plenty of covers in my day. I'm always plum grateful to the writer who lent me their words. You ain't got nothin' to feel bad about, Missy.”

“Yes, most assuredly,” Octavia uttered with a nod. “Whether or not you wield the instrument, you are still a most prolific artist, at least in my esteemed opinion.”

“And that means a lot to me,” Melodia said with a nod. “And... uhm... though I can't say much about having to deal with cursed theatres or... or famine-stricken colonies, I really do have an experience to share about the Curse of the Ninth. I... I guess I never really thought about it much until having this conversation with you three. But it was a very important thing that happened to me. Well, maybe the word 'important' isn't the best way to describe. But, I went through something... something that changed me. And, as fate would have it, it was immediately after a song that I had written reached the top of the charts for the ninth time in all my years of composition...

I was born and raised in Cloudsdale, but I knew pretty early on that it wasn't the place to exercise my super special talent. Most pegasi, after all, would rather kick clouds, spawn tornadoes, or become guard ponies. I guess I just... didn't have a flying warrior's blood in my veins. I wanted to play music, and the upper troposphere has terrible acoustics. You really have no idea. I mean, I doubt you ever would, at least.

Anyways, I moved out to Los Pegasus. I didn't live in the clouds, though, but rather I made a home for myself on the land below, in the streets and avenues of Hollywhinny. It's a place that's both charming and... well, eheh... cutthroat. No sooner had I graduated from the local university in music theory when I found myself having to compete with just about every other pony that wanted to transcribe lyrics onto paper.

I don't think I had ever properly prepared myself—you know—for the life of an artist. I mean, it makes absolute sense when you're measured for your ability to pull plows, grind oats, lick stamps, or any other blue bridle job out there. But trying to compete with other ponies on the basis of sheer creativity? That just isn't something that can be fairly determined, at least in my opinion. I mean... I'm not trying to downplay the potential of one's talent in the music industry; more often than not it comes down to a matter of luck. Take yourself for instance, Ms. Octavia. I mean: I know for a fact that you are so incredibly, amazingly talented. But would any of that have mattered hadn't Fancy Pants have written about you to many of his Canterlot companions in the first place? It led to Princess Celestia attending one of your performances in Trottingham, after all. I guess the rest is history, as they say.

Well, I knew from very early on that my chances of making a living off of what I enjoyed doing would have been slim at best. It didn't help that I was—and had always been—something of a weak pegasus. I truly mean it. Ponies laugh at me when I tell them that I was born among the surly, brutish pegasi of Cloudsdale. Part of it is that I was born with several inherited health problems. Another part of it is... well... I'm not so good around crowds. Can you imagine me, then? Try and picture a lone pegasus in Hollywhinny, freshly graduated, struggling to get her name and lyrics known in the most heated crucible in all of the entertainment industry...

I was out of my element, and I had barely taken the initial plunge in. It's a sheer miracle that I didn't drown in depression from the beginning. As fate would have it, I stumbled into a struggling singer named Lavender Lakes who was in need of a songwriter. When she turned to an obvious no-name like me, we both knew that she was desperate. In addition to that, Lavender Lakes was a frazzled mess of a pony who was limping in and out of nightclubs, growing more and more poor with each attempt to fetch herself a main event. And it wasn't like she lacked talent. She had a wonderful voice; she just didn't have any words to sing with it.

So, I signed on with her and I gave her lyrics. I guess I... pitied her at the time. And I'm telling you right here and now, nopony in the business ever makes it big by choosing partners out of sympathy. At least, that's not how it's supposed to work. What happened next was pure fate, I suppose, and my life would never be the same.

A famous photographer was visiting a nightclub when Lavender Lakes happened to be performing in downtown Aneighheim. You should all know her: Photo Finish? Anyways, Photo took a liking to the song—my song—and most especially the way in which Lavender Lakes sung it. After the show, she took Lavender Lakes aside and gave her a really long pep talk. I wasn't privy to it, of course, but Lavender filled me in later, and she was downright ecstatic. Apparently Photo Finish had some major connections, and she was going to hook Lavender up with a famous, successful agent that she knew of. Lavender begged that I join her for the initial interview near Hollywhinny Boulevard. I agreed, though I wasn't expecting much at the time. We were two young mares who could barely live off the modest income we had. It seemed too early and too miraculous for any kind of a break, big or not.

But the agent we met with turned out to be a real genius: Irvine Coltsein. He saw something in Lavender Lakes that nopony else did, and he told me to my face that my music had this wonderful hook to it. It was all a bunch of lavish flattery, of course, but he obviously meant it... because he signed us up with a record deal under Silver Spins Publishing. There were two stipulations: I would attempt to write the lyrics to three new songs, which I was completely happy to do, and Lavender Lakes would change both her stage appearance and name. At first, Lavender was hesitant, but I talked her into it. It was all for the best, because Irvine absolutely knew what he was doing. Soon, Lavender became the mare known as Sapphire Shores, and... heehee... I guess you saw that coming there, didn't you?

Anyways, I suddenly had a platform upon which to share my writing with the world, and nopony was more endowed with a fantastic voice to broadcast it than Lav—er... I mean Sapphire. I did write those three songs, after all, and imagine my joy when two of them became instant hits. Sapphire Shores had become an overnight sensation. The two of us were flabbergasted. It was so, so very easy to let fame get to our heads, but we promised ourselves that we wouldn't let that happen. And, to this day, I like to think we've stayed committed to the ideals we had from the get-go. We visit on a regular basis even today, just like any regular marefriends do, even when she's got that busy touring schedule of hers. And, honestly, it's not like I envy her place in the spotlight or whatnot. I've never been happy with having my face known to everypony, so I was perfectly, utterly fine with the way things turned out.

And when they asked me to write more songs, I did so, continuously amazed at just how... at h-how well the music was being received. I mean, I'm not trying to downplay my own wordsmithery or anything, but—as you all well know—the popularity of Sapphire Shores has been an utter phenomenon. I still can't believe how lucky I am to have started out at the beginning of my career with two hits, and then to add another under my saddle... and then another... and then yet another...

And it's not like I wrote entirely for Sapphire Shores. I made several songs for other artists in Silver Spins Publishing. But my biggest hits—the ones that have mattered and always will—were made exclusively for her. The years rolled by. I grew more and more confident in my abilities. I started working on longer, more complex, more artistic compositions that I still hope to someday throw upon a gracious orchestra. When Sapphire Shores won her awards at events all across Equestria, I made sure to attend each and every one of them... all except for one.

And it was because that year, I had fallen terribly, terribly ill. It fell right on the tail of the latest hit Sapphire had sung—her ninth, ironically—a quaint little ballad I had written called “Remember You Softly.” It was an appropriate title, in some grim fashion, because I could feel my sickness coming on, and I knew that it wasn't just any other ailment of mine that was going to blow over. You recall how I said that I suffered from a lot of hereditary problems? Well, it felt as though they had finally caught up with me. My lungs got infected, and I was in the hospital for the better part of a year.

Not many ponies in the entertainment industry know just how sick I had gotten. All they know is that Sapphire Shores' tour to The Griffon Lands was canceled that year. That's because she decided to come visit her dying friend.

And make no mistake, I was dying. I could barely move; most of my body had become paralyzed. Every time I breathed, it felt as though pins and needles were being shoved down into my chest. I... I really hope that none of you ponies will ever have to relate to such a sensation, to be in a cold place so low and tiresome that you almost wish for your eyes to shut and never reopen again.

And the fact of the matter is: I only got worse. What could possibly be lower than perpetual agony and paralysis, you ask? Well, I've been there. It is—at the risk of sounding cliche—an out of body experience. When one becomes so sick that the very act of thinking becomes akin to bumping into occasional wooden poles in the dead thick of night, one starts to question the fabric of reality. Why are we all here? What is the purpose to anything? Did I really spend all the waking hours of my so-called existence writing lyrics for a pop-singer to shout toward droves of rabid teenage fans? I should have been tending to the weather like my pegasi brothers and sisters. I should have been reflecting on nature. I should have been doing something—anything—to make my hoofprint on this speck in the cosmos all the more permanent and...

Oh. Oh dear, I... I sort of went off in a whole strange direction, didn't I? Heehee... Uhm. Sorry about that. I... I don't really get a chance to share this experience with other ponies, including Sapphire. I don't really think she can understand. At least, I don't want her to understand, as much as she loves and respects me. She's very happy and famous; she doesn't need to be weighed down with... well... with the true essence of darkness.

There is no sound down there, down to where I sank, down to the depths of whatever I once thought was myself, that which was merely a shivering sliver of warmth hanging in infinite nothingness. Numbers made no sense in the crest of that oblivion, and yet I was still counting for some reason. I was counting backwards, from the number nine to the number one, retracing the rosy scars I had made upon this world, wondering if they held any true weight or if the mere thought of them was the only thing anchoring me to life anymore.

Maybe it was a faint trace of self-recognition that brought me back. Maybe it was the fear that I would have become like so many young and tragic musicians before me, cursed to never make a tenth work of art that would surpass all the nine previous. But something pulled me once again to the surface, to the light, to the brightness that dissolved around the shape of Sapphire's tearful smile as she nuzzled me back to sanity.

I was numb for a while, but it was a very real, very warm, very lively kind of “numb.” I had trotted the glossy dark plains of death. I had graced the naked blackness with my own eyes, and I had returned from that grisly preview of what's to come. To say that it changed me would be an understatement... I guess. But... But I-I wasn't depressed. Not really, no. I was just a lot calmer, if that can be believed. It's even still affecting me right now, right here, as I tell you all about this.

The initial month of recovery went by. I had plenty of flowers and gifts to gush over, on behalf of Sapphire and the publishing company. Then the second month went by, and there were less flowers. Then the third month blurred on, then the fourth. By month number five, I was receiving a great deal of articulately written letters from my agent, trying in his own, masterfully tactful way to ask if I was ready to write again. As it so happened, the tour was growing stagnant. Sapphire Shores was running out of material, and no other lyricist in the company had a tune that could compare to my preexisting repertoire. So, they were all turning to me, desperate and pleading, but all the while afraid of triggering me into a relapse... or something. I don't know, really.

But poor Sapphire: she never mentioned a single word about the tour in all her visits. She respected me so much. However, I could see it in her face. She was worried, frightened even. And I felt horrible, because since my ordeal in the hospital I hadn't tried to write a single word. Every time I searched my mind for lyrics, I saw the same darkness that nearly consumed me in its frigid black jaws. I couldn't simply sit there and hoof something to paper. I had to get out. I had to feel warm.

So, I went out for walks. I trotted around Hollywhinny Boulevard. I... I shopped a lot. Heehee. Yes, I know that's not exactly inspiring, but it helps a mare think, y'know? And... something started happening to me. I knew it was happening because I wasn't asking it to. That... probably doesn't make any sense, but there's no better way to describe it.

I... I saw words. Words were coming at me, bleeding from the sidewalks, falling from the theatre marquis signs, screaming at me from passing stagecoaches. I'd splash my hoof in a puddle, and it would produce a melody. I'd brush my elbow into the sand of a beach, and I suddenly had the bridge to a song. It... It's beyond sane description to try and relate just how deliciously rich and crazily random all of these epiphanies were.

So, I wrote down everything in the order in which they jumped out at me. To do this, I had to carry notepads wherever I went. At first, nothing ever made sense. The words were so random that you had to be a total flankster wannabe to possibly make a song out of it. But, as I collected a mess of bizarre ideas, and I scanned the words on my lonesome with studious eyes, patterns emerged, and the words appeared to... just connect to each other on their own. Can you believe that?

I guess... I g-guess what I'm trying to say is that when I came back from the depths of nothingness, something had followed me back to the land of the living. It was a talent of sorts. It was an insane talent, and like any normal pony I should probably have ignored it. But, Sapphire Shores needed me, so instead of disregarding what I had jotted down, I embraced it. I wove them into songs and lyrics. Then, like a truly mad pony, I bundled it all up in a neat little package and delivered it to my publishing company the next day.

I was contacted at the doorstep to my very apartment the following morning. I thought that they had sent agents to my home to fire me in person. Instead, it was Irvine Colstein himself. And he was in tears. He called the songs “beautiful,” “magnificent,” and “heartfelt.” I thought he was pulling my tail. But, sure enough, we gave a hooffull of the songs to the studio. Sapphire Shores had her way with them, and not only did we have a tenth hit on our hands... but an eleventh. Then a twelfth. Then a thirteenth.

In the end, we crafted an entire album out of the compilation, mostly consisting of the epiphanous pile of lyrics I had so accumulated. It swiftly became the best selling record in Equestrian Entertainment history: “The Numbers That Bring You Back.” Just yesterday, as a matter of fact, I heard two songs playing at the doctor's office as I had my latest examination. For the first time in two years, I was given a clean bill of health. To tell the truth, I had hardly paid attention to my well-being since I was last sick, on account of the wellspring of creativity that had been occupying the forefront of my mind ever since.

Sapphire's been so happy for me. I'm just glad that she's in a better mood. I... I really hated pulling her down, because I most certainly was for a while there. Most popular ponies practice an aloofness or have an ingrained haughtiness that makes them care little for other ponies, but not my dear Lavender. Whatever the name, whatever the manestyle, whatever suit that she wears on stage—she will still always be to me the frazzled, desperate mare who needed a songwriter and—most importantly—a friend...

“Maybe that's what brought me back, after all, and not my focus on the nine hits that I had made with her,” Melodia Braids said with a bashful smile. “I knew that Sapphire Shores, in spite of her popularity, would be utterly lonesome without me. I don't think there are that many partnerships in Hollywhinny that enjoy such a level of... sincerity, I guess you could say. But, whatever the case, I had to overcome death itself to get back to this world, to get back to her, to get back to doing what I loved best. And the one thing that tugged at me was the need to produce a tenth hit. And once I did just that, nothing—yes—absolutely nothing could stop me.” She giggled and hugged herself at her edge of the table. “I never thought I could possess such great, boundless confidence, and yet here I am.”

“So, then, I guess you could say that the concept of the Ninth Movement transformed you,” Octavia said with a smile. “Still, my dear, that was completely an accomplishment on behalf of your sheer strength and mental will alone.”

“Takes an awful lot of guts to saunter on back to... the land of guts,” Mr. Bard said with a chuckle. “Y'see? This is why yer an award winnin' lyricist and I'm just a guitar plucker.”

“Hmmm...” Melodia blushed deeply. “I'm just happy to be here still, to do what I enjoy doing, until I have... well... until we all have to end up going where we need to go.” She gulped and glanced at the other three. “Why else are we here other than to enjoy the time that we have?”

“Ugh, gag me...” Vinyl Scratch banged her head against the table and threw a bored gaze across the room. “Cursed theatres, humming valleys, and Miss Sunshine's recitation of Coltrad’s Hay of Darkness... Is all that you dudes ever think about is grim wonkiness and pretentious morality?!”

Octavia produced a rigid frown. “Well, Ms. Scratch, they do measure up considerably against your trite anecdote of rich celebrities and copious amounts of vomit.”

“Hey!” Vinyl pointed. “As much as I love these Canter Boring Tales like the next pony, ya morons ain't heard nothing yet! Curse of the Ninth, my sweet, delicious, buttery flank! Hah! You wanna hear about a real doozie of a friggin' episode in music-go-fart land?!”

“No, I reckon not,” Mr. Bard muttered.

“Hey! You shut your beard!” Vinyl sneered before illuminating her shades with her horn. She twirled the article around her hoof like a glowstick while slathering the group with her slick magenta gaze. “This little story's gonna knock the socks off you self-inflated, overcultured rhythmtards! And then you're gonna ask yourselves 'Why the heck was I wearing socks in the first place—cuz that's totally last year's overused joke, and besides, ew!'”

“Uhm...” Melodia raised a hoof, chewing on her lip. “I kind of like wearing socks—”

“So!” Vinyl Scratch stood up, wildly waving her shades in a hoof while barking, “There I was, setting up all my equipment for a long night of record-scratching in the hallowed halls of the downtown Mareami Discotheque, when suddenly my big fat roadie waddles up to me and is all like...

“Yo, DJ-P0N3, I blew it, man. I totally don't have that soundstone for you.”

And I was like, “What? Lame sauce, maaaan. Why don't you totally have that soundstone for me? I'm, like, gonna be on in twelve friggin' minutes and I'm this close to using your eyesocket for a pencil sharpener.”

And he was all, “Well, we got this backup soundstone from the last DJ who was here. It looks kinda beat up, and the enchantment's kind of worn out, but I bet you could breathe life back into it with your filthy sick bass drops.”

And so I said, “Well if you really think there's still some crap to be oozed out of this stupid thing then hoof it over to me and let’s see.”

And so he did hoof it over, and the thing looked really cruddy. I mean, it looked like it got spat out by Diamond Dogs, and I don't mean their front end. So I banged the thing a few times against a nearby table, and it kind of made a sound, but then again that could have been just the table. I mean, it was there, and yet it wasn’t. You know what I mean, Octavia? Shut up.

Anywho, the dance hall was filling up with college colts and fillies at this point. That many sleepy-eyed gazes and that little music is a recipe for total snooze-ville, if you catch my drift. So, like, there was no time to friggin' wait.

“There's no time to friggin' wait!” I said, or at least I think I did. I dunno. My head was in the clouds at that time, maaaan. I jammed that little bugger into the mana-housing of the turntable and flung the lever, but nothing happened. So I flicked the nozzle over and over again like I was shaking the hoof of a catatonic filly-of-the-night. My roadie was all up in stitches, the blubbery wuss.

“What are you doing?!” he shrieked so hard, I swear he was gonna bleed out through all his joy holes. “That crud could still be hot! Don't overload the thingabob with the whatchamacallit!”

And how do you respond to that? I told the jerk, “You're a jerk, and I—like—totally know what I'm doing. I was spinning tables while you were still making love to Rammstallion/Nightwhinny mash-ups.”

He must have been screaming at me. I couldn't tell, cuz he was suddenly flying into the ceiling. Perhaps he was a pegasus, or maybe my eyes were just rolling back in my shades. It's hard to recall. Dang Mareami humidity, am I right? No? Go suck on a mailbox flag. Where was I? Oh right.

“Just hold on, fillies and gentlecolts!” I knew it wasn't my pre-recorded voice because the fat roadie forgot to turn on the speakers, and besides, the voice was giggling like it was a weekend at Huntrot S. Thompony's. “We're about to raise the roof in this mother-hoofin' shack-o-glass and Celestia's shanks I could totally scarf down a bucket full of sunflowers right about now, never mind the goddess-forsaken seeds! What in the name of Caribou Algebra is wrong with this pathetic little crystal?! Did Princess Cadenzenzenzenza get tired of you after wasting away spring break in Blue Valley?! Talk to me, you flaming piece of overpriced dragon phlegm!”

So I looked at the thing, and my reflection looked back, only there was a pathetic number “9” in the way. And I remember saying oh hey look at tha—whoops, I guess I was supposed to be speaking there. Ahem.

“Oh, hey, look at that!” I shouted. “It says '9!' But when I turn it upside down, it becomes the number of inches my horn stretches on a cold afternoon. But then if I spin it once more—holy crap! It's a '9' again! Hey, everypony! Come check this crap out! Also, is there a mid-tier sorceress in a house? I need to be lit up. Er... I'm talking about this soundstone here!”

Suddenly, everypony in the dance hall was laughing. I couldn't figure out why until I retraced the last couple of seconds and realized that I had just done what any self-respecting, experimental artist would do with a half-energized, seemingly redundant chunk of celestial material in her hooves. I had shoved it up my nose.

And that's when things got kind of funky. I dunno what you non-magical ponies know about leylines, but they kind of like to make love with one another when they come into close proximity, weak or not. So, like, whatever invisible wormy lines of mystical fluff may have been sleeping inside of that nugget, they came to life, and they suddenly had an electrifying new home inside my left nostril. A few milliseconds later, the synapses in my brain went “Hey, somepony's getting frisky!” And they totally copped a feel on that flank, and my consciousness was taken along for the ride.

And, whew, maaaan. You ever jumped off the edge of the Canterlot bluffs into the lakes of the crystal forest below? Well, after going through what I did, I doubt you'll ever need to. What a goddess-dang rush. I saw things that weren't supposed to be seen, mysterious things that wore—like—giant overcoats full of stars as they trotted up to self-respecting galaxies pushing their babies in strollers around the park before totally flashing them. And then comets came wearing police helmets and blowing whistles that spat out gamma ray bursts and stripped the mysterious things to their bare, cosmic bones of audiopheliac effluence.

Ha! Nah. Naaaah, I'm just kidding. I, like, landed on this hallucinogenic plain full of cool, glowy blue lines and surrounded by thunder and lightning and crap. And then this pony strolled forward all decked up in black latex or whatcrap and he totally looked like Bruce Boxleitneigh.

“Whoah!” I gasped. “You totally look like Bruce Boxleitneigh!”

“Ninety-nine nights of nay a hoof to hold.” His eyes became hard as diamonds as he floated down towards me and whispered. “Vinyl, it's okay if you want to kiss fillies.”


Just then, nine ponies in glowing red armor appeared around us.

“Behold!” Bruce snarled and hoisted me up to my hooves. “Nine ponies in glowing red armor!”

“Yeah, man! We should totally record them for vocal samples!”

“Not enough time!” He shouted and yanked a giant glowing horseshoe off his back and began smacking them into glassy, rattling kibbles. “Quick! Open the door!”

“On it!” And, of course, the only proper thing to do was pull my mouth wide open and rip my tongue out. I slammed it on the ground and yanked at the doorknob. On the other side was my mother, and she had a hammer in her grasp. “Hey, I need to borrow that!” I said, grabbing it from her. I'm not sure how I could still make words, maaaaan. Maybe it was my tail vibrating them out. “Oh, by the way, I totally forgive you for crashing my first date naked with a pair of pliers!” And so I slammed the door on her and spun around. “What now?!”

“Nine times around the circumference of your fears!” Bruce shouted. It was hard to hear him above all the blips, bloops, and other sick Royksaddle noises echoing above his glowing two-wheeled stagecoach thingy. If I could accurately put it into words, I'd barf up rainbow bunny rabbits. “Do not hesitate!”

“Goddess, you're hotter than a grown dragon's adam's apple!” I screamed and began slamming my horn repeatedly with the hammer. After the ninth throw, I got bored, and just split my skull open with two hooves. A bunch of butterflies soared out, or at least I thought they were butterflies at first. I was a little bit of a mad pony at the time. Then the butterflies' rotations turned out to be a bunch of nines and sixes dancing around with one another. By that time, all I could do was laugh. Or maybe scream. Screaming's cool too. “Raaaaaaugh! It's like my veins are full of strawberries and they're all voting republicanter!”

“Good!” Bruce screamed above his wheels and lights and flinging data horseshoes and crap. “Now toss yourself into the heart of the Mare Concert Program!”

“I am electric!” And I galloped over the edge of the plateau and jumped straight through the tall column of glowing vertical rotoscope effects. My own laughter was catching up to me, and I wanted to lick her sweet lips so that she too could remember how delicious pony tarts taste at morning breakfast before you grow past foalhood and your mouth gets really snarky and flanksterific, having to search endlessly for newer, sicker sounds in order to eke a modicum of artistic enjoyment from the starving depths of the bleak musicscape. And suddenly I realized why there was a beat going on in my head, cuz Bruce had kicked me down the crest of the ninth soundstone's glowing awesomeness, and suddenly I was standing—naked—above my roaring turntable in the Mareami discotheque, realizing for the first time in my life that I've always been naked...

“And that...” Vinyl Scratch punctuated her story with a vicious slap to the tabletop. “ how I almost got 'em!” She leaned back with a proud smile, then scrunched her face up at her own words. “Oh. Wait.” She blinked dazedly. “What were we talking about, dudes?”

“Poetically hyperbolic nuances aside...” Octavia glanced at the other two, rubbing her hooves together. “It does seem as though we all have something in common.”

“Do we?” Melodia Braids remarked, grimacing towards Vinyl.

“What Missy Octavia is trying to say, darlin', is that we appear to have all dealt with the curse of the nines,” Mr. Bard said.

“And yet, we have all surpassed them, have we not?” Octavia added.

“Heh... heheh...” Vinyl smiled into her shades before slapping them upside-down on her head. “Ever taken the first four letters out of 'surpassed?’ Snkt—hahahaha! Maaaaan...”

Octavia sighed. “Most... of us, at least.”

“Then why do I get the feeling that we're right back where we started this conversation?” Melodia remarked, pouting. “I mean... just what does it have to do with everything?”

“You askin' me, darlin'?” Mr. Bard shrugged and pointed Octavia's way. “Direct your inquiry over yonder.”

“Hmmm?” Octavia made a face. “Me?”

“Yer the one who started this half-flanked conversation! Reckon you had a point in drawin' all of us to share what we knew about the Curse of the Ninth.”

“I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage,” Octavia said, pointing at herself. “I assure you, I was simply reflecting on the topic at hoof. I must admit, it was of extreme interest to me from the beginning, but I surely wasn't the one who proposed the subject matter.”

“But...” Melodia blinked confusedly, gnawing on her lip. “If you didn't start this conversation...”

“Oh come off it, Miss Bow Tie!” Vinyl Scratch exclaimed, rolling her eyes beneath her lopsided shades. “Trust a pony who's had her mind blown. It's dirty cruel to mess with a mare's head. Just why did you start this conversation to begin with? Running low on autographs, Madame Canterlot?”

“She didn't begin this discussion,” I said. “I did.”

All four ponies spun at the table to face me.

I sat in the corner of the room on a stool, smiling. My saddle bag sat by my side as I adjusted the sleeves of my hoodie and spoke to the group, “And I must say, I'm rather proud of how easily you all carried on the conversation without my direction. You four really are the finest group of like-minded musical talent this age has to offer.”

“Uhhhh...” Melodia shivered nervously.

Octavia was speechless while Mr. Bard scratched his balding head under his hat.

“Yeah, uhm, okay.” Vinyl Scratch squinted my way, positioning her shades upright. “Who invited the talking lime in a jacket?”

I giggled. “You have it the other way around. You see...” I gestured towards the table with my forelimbs outstretched. “I invited all of you. And you most certainly did not disappoint.”

“I don't understand. This is the first time we've ever seen you, Miss...” Octavia squinted at me.

Heartstrings,” I replied, trying to retain my bubbly emotions in the presence of her. “Lyra Heartstrings. And I've been listening happily to your conversation this whole time.”

“Yeah! Heh!” Vinyl cackled with a wicked sneer. “And I'm a goddess-dang vampire!”

“Hold on, darlin',” Mr. Bard said as he leaned forward, staring at me suspiciously. “How could a fine filly like you expect us to believe that you've been here the whole time and yet we've not heard a peep or seen an inch of you until this very dag-blame'd second?”

“I can't rightly expect you to believe anything, Mr. Bard.” I said softly, smiling. “And, no, I don't consider it ignorance on your part. You're a very down-to-earth pony, and you need firsthoof proof to understand the nature of things, whether or not they’re potentially magical. To explain myself, my condition, who and what I am—well—it would require several devices and feats that I just don't possess in their entirety at the moment. But that's not really the point of the matter. What does matter is that you've all proven something to me.” I turned to smile at the group as a whole. “You've proven to me that you're all more than capable of going beyond the boundaries of your own doubt in order to assist me with the most prodigious musical project of our time.”

“Wh-What kind of project?” Melodia said, cowering slightly from my strange gaze.

“Something that would benefit greatly from your mastery of the lyrics held within the equine heart,” I said to her. I turned to look at Octavia. “Something that would be made exquisite by your ambition and perfect execution.” My smile then moved back to Mr. Bard. “Something that depends on your respect for the land between the Firmaments and beyond.” I lastly gazed at DJ P0N3. “Something that... heehee... could be exemplified by a grasp of reality that's tenuous at best.”

“Uhhh...” Vinyl stared blankly at me. “Cool?”

“Whether or not you're aware of it, you four represent the best talent that Equestria's musical scene has to offer. Now, I humbly ask that you assist me in transcribing a song—not just any song, but an untamed elegy lost between the foundations of time, thrown beyond the boundaries of consciousness by magic that's darker than night, but was always meant to be rediscovered and broadcasted back into the insufferable nether from which it arose. It should come as no surprise to you that your joint commonality has a part to play in this ambitious endeavor, for this is the ninth elegy in a forsaken symphony, a nebulous, penultimate movement that serves as the final, irrevocable barrier between where I stand and the Nocturne to end all Nocturnes.”

“You... You speak of something so grand, so vague, and so frightening...” Melodia began.

Octavia finished for her. “But we don't know a single thing about you. Even if we wanted to, what would give us the reason to partner with a nameless, faceless unicorn that we've never met before?”

“Reckon you could give us more to chew on, darlin'?” Mr. Bard added.

“There is very little worth being learned about me,” I said. “At least, not until I can afford to express myself fully, dearly, permanently—which is the eventual purpose of this entire symphony.”

“Just how do you transcribe a symphony that you apparently already know about?”

“Because it's been bequeathed to me in pieces, sporadic and chaotic, as if purposefully designed to shatter upon the comprehension of a mortal mind. I was not the first to stumble upon it. There was a pony who discovered it before me, and in his lonely attempts to decipher it, he encountered a roadblock that ripped his sanity asunder, so that he fell into obscurity, reduced to a mad pony who was the only soul blessed—or cursed—to forever know a history that was pertinent to his tortured memories and his alone. Now the ninth movement is mine to bear, but I cannot transcribe it alone. I am but one mortal soul, a learned one—yes—but scarcely capable of grasping the elegy on her lonesome. That's why I brought you all here: from Los Pegasus to Canterlot, and from Orlandoats to Appleloosa. You have the talent to help me, to bless me where I have faltered. Together, we just may be able to finish the Elegy #9, 'Desolation's Elegy.' Then, maybe—just maybe—I can take the lonely, arduous, yet fateful journey in reaching the tenth movement, and transforming myself forever.”

“Yeah, okay!” Vinyl Scratch chuckled madly, waving a hoof. “Now I know that this is some crazy episode of Canter Camera. Seriously, what kind of a lame joke is this?!”

“It... brings up a point.” Octavia looked towards the stallion in the room. “Mr. Bard, if I'm not mistaken, you are still retired. Shouldn’t you be in Appleloosa at this very moment in time?”

“No! Don't answer her!” Vinyl growled. “Don't feed this puke-green parasprite! I want a real explanation to all this unsexy brouhaha!”

“Well, then you can provide an explanation to yourself!” I said pleasantly. “Does anypony remember exactly how they got here?”

“Pffft, of course! Why, I...” Vinyl Scratch's words trailed off. Her shaded gaze drifted across the ceiling.

Octavia suddenly gawked at the wooden table in front of her.

Mr. Bard stood up, knocking his chair over in the process. He gulped and stared up at the flickering lamp overhead.

Melodia Braids was hugging herself, shivering, staring frightfully at all of the walls of the place.

“I'll make things a bit simpler for you,” I said gently. “You're in Ponyville. You're in my hometown, so to speak.”

“Pony... ville?” Octavia danced the name off the tip of her tongue.

“I've toured there once...” Mr. Bard grunted, still lingering above his overturned chair. “This... does smell a bit like that place...”

“Wait, Ponyville?” Melodia blinked, and all the fear was drained from her eyes as her wings fluttered. “Why, I-I have a cousin who lives there!”

“You do not,” Vinyl grunted before turning to look at me, dragging the shades towards the bridge of her nose and exposing a pair of glazed magenta eyes. She shrugged and shrugged again. “How.” Her forelimbs dropped limply at her sides. “How the heck?!”

“Simple,” I said. “I utilized a piece of magic—a piece of a song, the song, the song that has defined the world and all that lives within it since the beginning of time. And then I discovered more songs, many of which have freed me, and many more that have shackled me. But in the confusing thick of it, I found a tune that could bring you all here, that could help me solve the biggest riddle in my journey of transformation yet.”

“What, pray tell, would that tune be?” Octavia asked with a sincerely curious gaze.

I cleared my throat. “Why, the 'Song of Gathering,' of course.”

“Snkkkt!” Vinyl spat. “And I thought I was wasted!”

“The 'S-Song of Gathering?'”

“My dear, that is a stretch even to bourgeoisie contemplation,” Octavia remarked with a cool expression. “No mortal could possess the magical wherewithal to perform such a sacred instrumental.”

“Not even the alicorn sisters have had the ability to play that number!” Mr. Bard exclaimed, propping his chair up and leaning against it. “For nearly a thousand years, they haven't had a lick of power to muster it! Especially since they plum lost the holy relic that made performin' that thang possible in the first place—”

In a single breath, I opened my saddlebag and lifted something out of it. I hoisted a glittering object, stepped forward, and plopped it onto the edge of the table with a pronounced, metallic ring. The entire room lit up with golden effluence, and every breath that was in the place was sucked out.

“Blessed Celestia...” Octavia stammered.

Melodia hovered instinctively in midair. “It... It can't be...”

“My stars...” Mr. Bard knocked over his chair again. He gulped. “The Nightbringer...”

“The lost piece of the Cosmic Matriarch's holy song,” Octavia practically whimpered.

Vinyl Scratch's eyes twitched. She looked at everypony, at me, then at the table. She placed her hoof over the edge and banged it hard—twice—with the other. Instantly wincing, she waved her forelimb and hissed. “Oh yeah, that's pain. This is real, alright. Real as spit.”

I stared at the lot of them, my eyes firm. There was a tiny hum in the room—a hum that had always been there—but only now could the ponies recognize it, for they saw the longest string of the Nightbringer vibrating endlessly beneath my grasp. My body lit up with each inch that my hooves gently stroked down the curved contours of the immaculate instrument.

“Yes, this is a piece of the Cosmic Matriarch's song, her very own breath. And, yes, the Nightbringer was lost. But it is no more. It has been found. I've used it to bring you here. And now, with your assistance, I shall use it to piece together the Ninth Elegy, and bring substance to desolation.”

They remained slumped in their awestruck postures. I could feel Octavia's heartbeat through the table as she leaned against the wooden surface for support. To my left, Melodia hovered down to her hooves, cleared her throat, and gave me a foalish look of deep curiosity.

“How...” She whimpered. “H-How did you find this? Nopony has known of its whereabouts for centuries... eons...”

I looked at her. I smiled. “It was given to me.”

“By who?!” Mr. Bard stammered. “No one just trots on by and hoofs you history's most forsaken, most holy, most-dang-near-all-powerful relic!”

“He does when he's held onto it for so long that he knows that it's time to pass the torch to another soul, a soul who's defined by the same curse, but a great deal better equipped to pull herself out of the mess.” I clutched the Nightbringer firmly as I spoke over its massive frame. “And just like the four of you, he made his connection—through time and space and firmaments—with a song. A song that he wrote, but—much like those tunes of an unsung realm—it was something I came to discover with much dedication and commitment. You see, I too have a story...

It started over a year ago, but what's relevant to this meeting began only recently. I had been struggling for months to decipher a secret Symphony, a Nocturne hidden from the annals of history for the sole purpose of remaining concealed as well as keeping a spirit of unknown horror locked within. Of the total ten movements, it wasn't until mastering the seventh that I was given a chance to see the truth with my own eyes. The eighth elegy was something that finally gave me the power to grasp and understand that truth. I found that by retracing my steps and playing the eighth elegy over and over again, I could learn truths of my past that had been rewritten, down to the very fabric of reality itself.

Needless to say, this unveiling terrified me. Still, as alone and forsaken as I was, I needed to learn more, so that I might approach the ninth elegy and confront that which I feared the most, and still do in many ways.

What I discovered from the practice of the eighth elegy was that I wasn't the only mortal pony who had attempted to uncover the Nocturne. I had in my possession a book, and within that book the lonely words of a victim to time became clear to me as the magical melody played its way through my mind. In attempting to bring my experiences into clarity as he had been forced to face his, I was inadvertently hoisted from this realm into that of the unsung. It is a most terrible place, the grandest secrets of all secrets, something each of you will forget before leaving this room—and rightfully so. For I am now convinced that it hides something that was never meant for mortal eyes, or even immortal. The fact that I know of it and can still speak of it is an accursed anomaly, and something that I am endeavoring to fix.

Still, I somehow ended back in that realm of nightmares, a place of lost souls and tortured choruses. I saw the ruler of the realm as she spotted me from her throne on high. As she began to throw me in binds, who would come to my rescue but my pen pal from the distant past. When he rescued me, he flung me out of the land beyond firmaments. And when he did, he did so with a song.

As soon as I returned to the safety of the mortal realm—suspended once again in my cursed existence as a pariah—I was too grateful for my life to think properly. Only with careful thought and lengthy contemplation did I realize that he had used a song to return me to my home. It wasn't just any song either, but something familiar, a haunting work of art, a carefully laid out mosaic of all the tunes that had plagued and cursed us both on opposite ends of a damnable millennium.

I don't know how he did it, but my friend from the past had taken pieces of the Nocturne, he had ripped out slices of the accursed symphony, and he had pieced the key parts of them together in such a way in order to form a bridge between his world and mine. Whatever movements of the song that were missing, he formed the bridges with pieces of his very own being, fused together by the memories of a soul for whom he had long given his mind, his body, and his spirit, all faithfully. This song, he named “Penumbra's Echo.”

I did not discover the Echo immediately. This took many grueling nights of intense reading and study, following my friend's hoofprints, tracing artistically woven words that meandered at random throughout the insane drivel that composed the magically highlighted journal that he had unwittingly bequeathed me.

Or, perhaps, it wasn't quite so unwitting? With his song, with the Echo, I now realized that my friend had formed a bridge between us, a pathway that forever defied time and space, a bridge that could only be formed by a genius mind that was fortunately equipped with the holiest instrument this mortal plane has ever known. It's the same instrument that—by sheer possession—had kept that shell of a unicorn alive long enough to save me that one fated day in the unsung realm.

I had a duty, not just to myself, but to my friend. He had laid the bridge for me. It was now my time to cross it, to meet him in the middle, to perform the quietest and most precious of secret conversations in the yawning abyss between firmaments. To do that, I had to transcribe his song as he had once transcribed the tunes that had mutually cursed us. With careful use of the eighth elegy, and with a mindful eye for the patterns he had left for me and me alone, I discovered it. I unearthed the key to “Penumbra's Echo.”

What followed next was a moment of great tension. I knew going into the instrumental that I was performing a concert that could never be repeated. I knew that I was venturing into realms not meant for my eyes. My friend had been there, stuck in limbo, for Celestia-knows how long. How would I fare—even on the edge of it—for so much as a few ghastly minutes?

From the clues he had left me, I knew that there was only one way to go through this, and then I would never hear from him ever again. I descended into a cellar behind my home—a concealed studio of sorts where I venture to perform symphonies not meant for mortal hooves. Once there, I propped up my lyre, and then I went about stripping the pages from his journal. For the next two hours, I plastered the pages in key spots and at key angles around the earthen walls of my basement niche. Eventually, the entire room was plastered with the sheets that belonged to my time-forgotten companion. I dimmed the lights, sat down to my instrument, and knew that it was time.

I played the eighth elegy, this time in earnest. I repeated it ad nauseum, all the while staring at the pages of his hoofwork that were surrounding me. A rusted scent filled the air, like that of sunken metal platforms, and I knew that I was making progress. The hoof-written words of my friend lit up across the pages in vibrant blue, like they always did. But there was a pattern now, something that gave method to the mad pony who had seemingly rambled for journal entries upon journal entries of cyclical text in the journal that was given to me.

Now I could see words connecting from page to page, from sheet to sheet, in ways which they never would have branched together before. The blue text blurred together, forming bands, swirling with coils of effluent structure, and soon I was surrounded by a sphere of twirling letters that morphed into solid rings and encompassed what I had once thought to be a cellar in complete darkness. There, in that celestial sound booth of insanity, I repositioned my grip of the lyre and started playing the song that all of the blackened edges of the sphere were whispering to me: “Penumbra's Echo.”

I was entering the vessel of a mad pony who had escaped the clutches of time and space. To venture there was akin to a madness in and of itself, and yet I didn't look back. It took the Curse of the Ninth to consume my friend's mind. Luckily, for me, overcoming that same Curse is just what I needed to do in order to surpass that which had reduced him to a jaded, weathered husk.

I sat there, in the pit of blackness, strumming my lyre. I could see nothing, not even an inch in front of my face. I felt the cold vapors of my breath wafting out of me, but I could not detect their substance. All I heard was the gentle lull of the notes that he had produced for me, as I drew myself towards the end of the song. And when the melody was over, I didn't hear applause. Instead, I heard chains.

The rattling came closer and closer. Across the darkness, the chains slithered their way towards me. My eyes were wide open, but only the very edge of oblivion awaited. Beyond the impermeable wall, the noise drew closer, sliding up within unseen inches of my muzzle. I felt the vapor of frigid breaths yet again, but this time they were not mine. I was no longer alone.

Gulping, I played the Echo again, softly this time, and my trembling voice struggled to speak above it. “I know what she has taken from you,” I whimpered, trying to maintain my courage. “I know what time in the unsung realm has drained from your body. So when I ask you a question, I only want one of two answers. If you wish to answer 'yes,' give me a high note. If you wish to answer 'no,' give me a low note.” I took a deep breath, and whispered unto the darkness. “Alabaster Comethoof, is that you?”

All was silent, dead and dry as bone, until the vapors parted before me and a single sound hummed through the desolation.

A high note.

I shuddered. I struggled to sit upright. My hooves were shaking as I continued the song, his song, their song. “Alabaster,” I stammered. “Did you save me the last time I was in her realm?”

A high note, with no hesitance.

I bit my lip. Bravely, I asked, “Can you save yourself? Can you join me here in the mortal realm?”

There was a pause, then a low tone followed, shaking the ribs that framed my lungs.

I winced, feeling my eyes grow moist. I couldn't let myself lose control. Not there. Not in front of him. “Did you play ‘Shadow's Advent?’ Did you ever finish the 'Nocturne of the Firmaments?'”

Again, a pause, then another low note, woeful and prolonged like a dying animal.

I clenched my eyes shut. I asked the next question, though I knew ahead of time that there was no point.

“Can... Can you teach me the Ninth Elegy? 'Desolation's Elegy?'”

The low tone came violently this time, terse and almost angry. I shivered heavily upon hearing it.

“I'm... I'm sorry, I just...” I bit my lip. I didn't know when this would end, or how swiftly the sphere would collapse and cut me off from the spirit of my friend forever. I had no choice but to be direct, to be selfish. “Do... Do you have anything to give me, Alabaster?”

I expected utter silence. But the epiphany struck me just as his response hit my ears, piercingly high, like the cackle of a flighty ghost.

And just then, something large and metallic was thrust into my grasp. I shrieked from the sudden, cold sensation, until I was overcome by the weight of the object in my trembling limbs. I knew upon feeling it—upon experiencing every cell in my body leaping in shock—exactly what it was.

Alabaster! This is...” I bit my tongue. I was so shocked, so confused, so mad with all of the otherworldly mayhem surrounding me, surrounding us, a first and final embrace upon the shattered fringes of reality. “Can I do anything for you? Can I pull you out of the unsung realm, so that you can be free as well?”

The low note that replied was emotionless, without sorrow and without regret. It resonated off the strings of the holy instrument in my grasp, and then I felt his magical grip release, as he finally relinquished the relic to my hold.

And yet, my voice choked as I spoke across the shadows. “Alabaster, she loved you. Up until the very end. I wish... I wish that you could believe that, somehow...”

The sphere surged, as if a huge breath was being sucked towards the opposite end of the universe, melting away all the cold vapors of space, and what swung back was a single sound, as high as any pitch that had ever graced the apex of equine hearing.


And the note shattered the sphere, tore the journal pages to shreds, and knocked me on my back in the middle of the candlelit floor of my cellar, where I found myself clutching a beautiful, golden instrument with all fours while the ashes of my friend's legacy settled like snow around me.

“You see, I am not simply here for myself,” I said as I leaned against the shimmering Nightbringer in the center of the wooden meeting room. Octavia, Melodia, Mr. Bard, and Vinyl stared steadily at me as I spoke before them. “It is his legacy that is at stake here, his story that remains unfinished. And, I suspect, the story of countless other ponies who are lost forever to the accursed abyss of the unsung realm beyond the firmaments. If I take advantage of the gifts given to me, of the musical road map at hoof, of the holy instrument I now have in my possession—as he did—then I have the personal responsibility—the undeniable duty of surpassing the Ninth Elegy, and even the Tenth. With your help, I can get halfway to that final, elusive movement. I can come out of this, enlightened and enriched. And maybe, just maybe, that will be the day when I get to speak with all of you again, as dear friends, and I can tell you how the story ends.”

The room was dead silent: the signature of a stunned audience. But, for this concert, there was no curtain, and hardly any more time to spare.

So I smiled at them, and I gently implored, “Would you help me, my dear colleagues and geniuses? Would you help me piece together the broken slivers of the Ninth Elegy?”

All they had to do was exchange glances once. And suddenly, they were all up, marching, galloping, fluttering towards me, awaiting their directions, their stations, their chairs—as it were.

“I'm going to need something to write with,” Melodia Braids said.

“Reckon I could take a gander at them too,” Mr. Bard added.

“Uhhm... eheh...” Vinyl Scratch nervously scratched her neck. “If I'm going to be any sort of frickin' help, I gotta hear how the stuff we have to work with sounds.”

“Which means, one of us will have the daunting task of actually holding the Nightbringer,” Octavia said, and already her eyes were nervously meeting mine.

I chuckled. Sliding the holy relic across the table, I said to the world renown cellist something I had only fantasized about for years. “Here ya go, 'Tavi. Knock yourself out.”

We weren't five ponies. We were suddenly one equine being gifted with five hemispheres of a single brain. We thought alike and we spoke alike, for we carried within us the same dream, the same ambition. The “Song of Gathering” had not failed me. I had been joined with four spirits who understood everything I did, who valued everything I did, who masterfully hid the same degree of genius and love for music behind separate and vibrant personalities. Our one common denominator, the same skin that defined us all, was the insatiable love for music, for making beauty out of noise, for creating a symphony when beforehand there was nothing.

Melodia Braids was the backbone upon which the operation played itself out. She selected key pieces of the Ninth Elegy that had fragmentally crossed my mind. She even divided the written melodies apart further, creating new and far more exciting structures that I would never have even come close to figuring out on my own.

Once each sample was scribbled down, it was up to Octavia to play them. She did so with such elegance and poise that I nearly wept to see it, much less hear it. Even with the instrument of the goddesses in her embrace, she looked like an absolute natural. She strummed the unbreakable strings with utmost authority, covering the walls with a kaleidoscope of golden bands.

Upon hearing each sample coming from Octavia's performance, Vinyl provided a curt yet poignant piece of commentary. She had a masterful ear, and she told Melodia which of Octavia's performances blended in well with the rest of the samples and which didn't. Thanks to the unorthodox deejay's input, the indecipherable song of the Nocturne became something real, something concrete.

And then it was up to Jumpin' Ray Bard to piece it all together. He spoke in a low voice the entire time. His beard hung off his murmuring lips as he tapped into a sphere of meaning lying deep beneath the outer layers of the holy harmony we were making. Like a continent molding together over time, he grabbed the samples that Vinyl Scratch had highlighted and morphed them into one another with simple patience and sincere attention.

And then it was up to me to write the final product that we had dredged from the depths of oblivion. I gave Octavia the honors, and she started playing the Ninth Elegy. Halfway through, though, she stopped and looked at the others. Melodia was the first to acknowledge the glint in her eyes. She turned to me and asked if there was another instrument in my possession.

Thankfully, I also had my lyre with me. Not realizing the dream I was about to live out until it happened, I stood beside Octavia and waited for her signal. The other three watched as the two of us performed the Elegy together. Somewhere in the ocean of gorgeous sound we were both making, with sweeping melodies weaving over and under one another, we finished the movement—the actual movement—in its undeniable entirety, and that was when everything made sense, with a clarity so crisp that I almost wished I could perform “Penumbra's Echo” one last time to kiss Alabaster myself.

“So it's not 'Desolation's Elegy,'” I remarked with a weathered smile as I stared into the golden surface of the Nightbringer. “It's 'Desolation's Duet.'”

“It was never meant for just one pony to play,” Melodia remarked. “For the melody to stay intact, it has to have two souls and two instruments.”

Mr. Bard nodded. “You reckon that's why it took you so plum long to figure out even half of it?” he asked my way.

“You have no idea how much this helps me,” I said softly to the group, stopping to pat their shoulders as I trotted past them. “I swear, as dark as everything gets, it's almost like I can see my way home more and more clearly.”

“Heh, a musician with her head clear,” Vinyl said with a dizzy grin. “I ought to try that crud someday.”

“But, are you certain you must be so optimistic?” Octavia gave me a sad look as she placed the Nightbringer atop the table, letting go of it finally with a twinge of regret. “Your chances of communicating with your friend have been obliterated. When all is said and done, you're now more alone than ever before.”

“Only now, you have a duet you have to perform somehow,” Melodia said with a long face. “Just who are you going to get to play this along with you?”

“It never made sense to me before today,” I murmured. I knelt down and slid my lyre into my saddlebag. In its place, I pulled out a canteen of water and began unscrewing it. “But now...” A shudder escaped my dry throat as I stared off into the corner of the room. “I'm beginning to have a good idea just whom I need to ask.”

“It's a cryin' shame that we can't be around to witness it,” Mr. Bard said with a calm grin. “That must be a concert worthy of splittin' the heavens apart.”

“Heh, you couldn't be any closer to the truth.”

“You will tell us about it, someday, though?” Melodia said with a gentle, hopeful smile. “When this whole 'curse' of yours is done with, won't you come and see us, Miss Heartstrings?”

“Hmmm, believe me...” I gazed at the four of them as they looked back at me. I lifted the canteen to my lips and closed my eyes. If my voice had a low tone to it, there was nothing I could do to stop it at the time. “I wouldn't even think of disappointing you.”

I sipped a gulp of water. From the far end of the room, the last string of the Nightbringer finally stopped vibrating. My ears twitched. I finished my drink, exhaled, and opened my eyes. Everypony was gone.

Calmly, I screwed the canteen shut, hoisted the saddlebag over my shoulder, and trotted to the far end of the empty table. I lifted the Nightbringer, slid it into a velvet-lined pouch, and tightened the bag so as to hide the relic's golden shimmer. Then, extinguishing the lamp overhead with a touch of magic, I exited the door and abandoned the room to its shadows.

I marched down a series of winding wooden steps, humming a tune to myself: a new and frightfully beautiful tune that I was bound never to forget. When I reached the first floor of the library, Spike turned, saw me, and did a double-take, nearly dropping the huge stack of books he was carrying across the bands of sunlight from the Ponyville afternoon.

“Whoah! Uh... Hello there—uh—Miss! Uhm...” He squinted at me, then up at the stairs, then at me again. “Did... Were you in the upstairs study chamber?”

“Yes. Oh, I'm terribly sorry,” I stood before him with a guilty expression. “Is that room reserve only?”

“Well, yes. I mean... I-I guess it's not a hugely big deal, seeing how we're not so busy and all...”

“Well, I apologize. I'll... try to remember the next time I stop on by here.”

“Yeah, that's okay. By the way...” He smiled and pointed at me. “Dig the swell hoodie.”

“Mmmhmmm. But enough of that.” I smiled at him. “Got any books on feline diet? I've got a kitty cat at home with a touch of a stomach ache and I wanna be sure I give him the right stuff to eat.”

“Awwww... Yeah, I got just the thing! Hang on!” He waddled off to the opposite end of the room. I shuffled along to make sure he didn't get too far out of reach. “Don't worry, it won't take long! I know you're eager to get home!”

“Hmmm...” I nodded with a gentle grin. “Now, more than ever.”

Life's too bleak to be just a solo. Even when I'm entirely alone, I can still hear the band playing on.

Background Pony

XIV - “The Curse of the Ninth”

Special Thanks to Warden, theworstwriter, RazgrizS57, theBrianJ, Props, and Melodia

Cover pic by Spotlight