“He who fights monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster... when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Friedrich Nietzsche
Nestled atop the cliffs that rise from the Sword Coast, the fortress library of Candlekeep holds the most comprehensive collection of knowledge in all of Equestria. Great scholars travel from far and wide to dwell within its secluded confines. The walls of Candlekeep stand as a bastion against the politics of the region, providing a sanctuary of learning in war and in peace.
For all that Candlekeep was to others, to Twilight Sparkle, Candlekeep was simply home.
At the end of a dusty corridor between two towering bookcases, Twilight Sparkle levitated a worn tome into its place on the shelf above her head. After letting it go, she reread the familiar title: ’The Compendium’. The name of the author had been lost to time, but she knew every detail of its pages, from the collection of simple spells in the first chapter that she could complete with a thought, to the higher-level arcana in the later pages that she dared not attempt.
Even though the theory behind the more complex and powerful magic fascinated her, she would never cast it. She doubted she would ever reach the same level of mastery as her mentor, the Archmage Star Swirl the Bearded. Sighing, she reminded herself that she knew more about magic as Star Swirl’s apprentice than most unicorns would know in their lifetimes. She was lucky to have him; for as long as she could remember, he’d cared for her.
She reached out to pull the book down, wanting to reread her favorite passage before leaving, but as she lifted it off the shelf, a horrible creature interrupted her studying.
“Surprise!” a voice shouted, filled with bubbling excitement, and loud as thunder in Twilight’s ear. Startled, she dropped the book, her levitation field collapsing. It hit her squarely in the snout before dropping to the floor with a thump.
“Oww. Pinkie!” Twilight said. Rubbing her injured nose with a hoof, she glared at the pink, curly maned pony responsible for her pain.
Pinkie Pie peered at her with concern. “Sorry, Twilight. I guess I can be a bit too surprising.”
“What’re you doing?” Twilight hissed. “You’re not supposed to be in here!”
Pinkie looked at her quizzically, then gasped. “Right! The explosion incident. I was framed!”
Twilight's eyes narrowed. “Even if you were framed, and you weren't, rules are rules. You’re not allowed in the library.”
Pinkie grinned. “I got permission.”
Twilight frowned. “Oh really, from who?”
“Star Swirl!” Pinkie said.
Twilight groaned. "Of course."
Why does he like her so much? Twilight wondered. Chaos and destruction followed in Pinkie’s wake, washing away her quiet study time. Still, she and Pinkie were the same age, and they were both adopted before they were old enough to remember their original families. Few children lived in Candlekeep, and as she was growing up, Star Swirl insisted that she at least try to make friends. She hated trying to interact with other ponies, but with Pinkie, she didn’t have to try.
“That reminds me, he said, if I saw you, to tell you that he said you should meet him on the first floor at the entrance to the keep—” While Pinkie babbled, chipper as ever, Twilight lifted the book up off the floor. “—and I told him that I was sure you were in the library, and I’d find you if he told the chroniclers to let me in, and then they let me come up here, and can you guess what happened next?”
“You found me, obviously,” Twilight said as she put the tome back in its place.
“Yep!” Pinkie said, beaming. “You are going to go see him right?” she added. The grin fell off her face as she spoke. “He seemed worried.”
Twilight nodded. “I’m going to go see him.”
It must be important, Twilight thought. Worried was nothing new for Star Swirl, but he’d gone as far as overriding the chroniclers judgement to send Pinkie. She trotted quickly down the dusty, candlelit hallways of the massive library keep, heading for the stairway that would take her down to the first floor. Pinkie followed her every step of the way.
As they walked, Pinkie hummed in the sacred silence of the library archives. Twilight did her best to ignore the infuriating noise, but by the time they reached the bottom of the third flight of stairs, she reached the limit of her patience. “You told me Star Swirl wanted to see me, now what in wide world of Equestria are you still doing here!?” she shouted.
Immediately, four pairs of eyes turned on her. Ponies with greying hair and yellow robes glared at her. Their bones creaked as they ambled towards her. Surely, they intended to scathingly reprimand her with their polite whispers. Twilight froze. Nothing frightened her more than the cold disapproval of the chroniclers. Last time she’d been involved in excitement with Pinkie, they’d banished her from the library for an entire day.
“Uh oh,” Pinkie murmured, looping one hoof over Twilight’s neck, “looks like you've really done it. But don’t you worry, I’ve got just the thing; all you need to do is cast a grease spell.”
A second look of shock passed over Twilight’s face. She knew exactly what Pinkie planned. “Oh no! No no no, that’s what got me in trouble last time! You can’t be serious.”
“Come on, Twilight, lets have some fun! Please?” Pinkie said, her eyes wide and pleading.
Twilight rolled her eyes, but a thrill ran through her anyway. Last time had been pretty fun. “Fine.” She planted her hooves. “One Grease spell coming up!” Power surged through her horn as she went through the magical routines required to facilitate her spell. Preparing that spell in the morning had taken as much as a minute, but now, she completed it in seconds.
“Cannonball!” Pinkie shouted and, coated in magical grease, jumped down the stairs. She careened down the jagged steps like a hot slab of butter, jubilantly laughing all the way. Twilight jumped after her and slid off on the coat of grease left in Pinkie's wake. Her own laughter joined Pinkie’s as they shot down the final flight of stairs. Twilight felt like a filly again. She hadn't enjoyed herself like this in a long while. Unfortunately, Twilight spotted a disaster waiting for them at the bottom of the steps.
“Pinkie, look out!” Twilight cried. Too late, she realized an instant later.
Pinkie barreled into a book cart, and the impact launched priceless tomes into the air. Twilight instinctively shielded her face with her hooves, protecting herself from the hard bindings that bounced off her while she slid through the chaos. Eventually, they both came to stop in a pile at the hooves of somepony. Before Twilight fully processed what happened, she found herself on her feet, levitated back to a standing posture. The grease vanished into nothingness as she released her spell, leaving no residue. She watched as the books floated through the air and obediently reordered themselves on the cart.
When Twilight turned to look at the pony whose hooves had stopped them, she immediately shrank. He wore a tall pointed hat, his bushy eyebrows poking out beneath the brim. A long, white beard trailed from his chin. His horn glowed as the unicorn finished repairing the mess Twilight and Pinkie had caused. His stern, golden eyes focused on the recently righted book cart, not even staring at her with the disappointment she deserved.
Twilight’s ears drooped. “Star Swirl! I’m so so sorry! I know there is no excuse for roughhousing and—” A firm embrace interrupted her.
“Twilight Sparkle, you came. Good. You need to listen to me very carefully,” Star Swirl said as he released Twilight. His voice was stern, but it didn’t carry the disapproval that Twilight expected. It was heavy with something else: worry.
“But what about the mess and the Chroniclers and the book cart!?” Twilight blurted.
“Don’t worry about that, Twilight. You need to pack your things. And here,”–Star Swirl levitated a small pouch of coin over to Twilight–“buy some things for the road; we’re going on a trip. I need to get something out of my study before we leave, so meet me back here when you're ready.”
“But... Star Swirl. I don’t understand! What's going on?” Twilight said, distraught.
“We need to leave Candlekeep. We’ll return when we can,” Star Swirl said. “If we can...” he added with a murmur. Twilight was certain she’d misheard.
Twilight stared at Star Swirl in shock. “But why? Why would we leave?”
Star Swirl smiled softly, concern in his eyes. “You must trust me, Twilight. We have to go. Know that I would not ask this of you if there were a better way.”
Twilight paused, opening her mouth to protest, but found no words. Instead, she nodded. “I understand,” she murmured, taking the bag of coin. She walked out the entrance of the keep that housed the library in a daze, hardly noticing the glare of the sun as she stepped across the threshold into the relatively peaceful town inside the castle walls.
Twilight trotted down sun-dappled garden paths, her eyes fixed on the neatly laid stones beneath her feet. The thought of leaving Candlekeep stalled her mind. The library was all she had ever known. The books contained in this place gave her the knowledge of a thousand minds, all in safety, comfort, and regularity. A variable never factored into the equation, but now a variable had thrown her life into uncertainty. Something must have changed to cause Star Swirl to uproot their whole world.
A familiar voice shattered her musings.
“An adventure, Twilight! Are you excited?” It was Pinkie Pie. Twilight hadn’t even noticed the other pony tagging along behind her.
Twilight whirled on Pinkie. “I’m not going on an adventure, Pinkie!” she practically shouted. “Nothing interesting is going to happen. I’m not going to slay diamond dogs, I’m not going to face death, I’m not going to fight a dragon, and I am certainly not going to save the world!” she screamed in Pinkie’s face. She took a breath to push down her rising panic. “Everything is going to be completely normal,” she finished sweetly. Pinkie didn’t say a word, apparently stunned by the outburst. “Now, I’d better go buy what I’m going to need.”
Pinkie followed her as she walked onto the dirt path that encircled the low wall surrounding the library gardens. The entire non-scholar population of Candlekeep lived within the outer walls of the fortress, with the scholars living in the keep. Most of the businesses and residences were located along the dirt path.
Quickly, Twilight made a list in her head. First, she would visit the general store for traveling gear, and second, the tavern for provisions. Whatever bits she had left, she could spend at the alchemist's shop on potions in case of an emergency. She finished her task at the general store quickly and easily, simply telling the gentlecolt behind the counter what she needed.
Her errand at the tavern turned out to be much more difficult.
“Sure, I can get that out for you, but what in Equestria do you need so much preserved foodstuffs for?” Mrs. Cake asked Twilight from behind the Tavern’s counter, concerned.
“She’s going on an adventure!” Pinkie Pie announced.
Twilight thumped her forehead against the counter and groaned. “I’m not going on an adventure. Just a quick trip.”
Mrs. Cake lifted a large bag of oats up from behind the counter with her mouth. “Oh? Where are you going?”
“I don’t know,” Twilight murmured, still face down on the counter. “Star Swirl didn’t tell me.” It hit her, then, something she’d known from the moment she’d spoken to Star Swirl in the library: something was terribly wrong. It was the only explanation she could think of for Star Swirl’s secrecy.
“Well, I’m sure he has a good reason. Did he tell you why you were leaving?” Mrs. Cake said around the scoop in her mouth as she parceled out oats into smaller packages for Twilight.
“No.” Twilight took a breath, a tightness building in her chest. “He... he didn’t tell me why. I don’t know what's happening. I don’t know what's going to happen to me.” She turned her head to look up at Mrs. Cake. “Why wouldn’t Star Swirl tell me what was wrong?”
Mrs. Cake set down the scoop. “Pinkie, could you fetch a mug of warm cider?” She walked around the counter to put a foreleg around Twilight’s shoulders. “Let’s talk about it.”
Twilight let Mrs. Cake lead her over to a seat at a table. Mrs. Cake promptly eased her into a chair and sat next to her. With a warm smile, Pinkie set a steaming mug of cider on the table in front of her. Twilight lifted the mug with her levitation and sipped its contents gratefully almost as soon as it had left Pinkie’s hooves. She let out a breath as the warm alcohol tingling its way down her throat calmed her nerves.
“I’m sure Star Swirl wouldn’t leave without considering it carefully, dear. He loves his home here, and he knows you do too.” Mrs. Cake said.
Twilight took in a shuddering breath and sipped down some more cider. “I know.” She inspected the froth in her cup. “I’m going to miss you and Mr. Cake.” She turned her gaze to Mrs. Cake, meeting the older mare’s eyes. “You’ve always been there for me. You’re like family.” The Cake’s were the ones who raised Pinkie Pie, and their tavern was filled with the nurturing care Star Swirl sometimes lacked. It had always been a second home to her, after the library.
Mrs. Cake smiled. “We’ll miss you too, Twilight. I’m sure you won’t be gone long though, right? You’ll be alright, won’t you?”
This is happening, she realized.
Twilight nodded. “Yeah, I’ll be okay.” She didn’t tell Mrs. Cake that she didn’t think she’d be back anytime soon. “I’m going on an adventure,” she said.
Pinkie gave her a quick hug from beside her. “There you go! You’d better go meet up with Star Swirl. Don’t worry, I’ll be there to see you off, Twi.”
Twilight returned her friend’s hug with a smile. “I wouldn’t have it any other way, Pinkie. I’m going to miss you.”
Twilight swung by the alchemist’s dingy little shop on the way back to the library, swapping some golden bits for a few valuable healing potions and an antidote potion: in case of poison and injury. When she arrived at the library, Star Swirl was waiting for her in the gardens. He wore saddlebags now, no doubt full of useful items, and a rugged traveling cloak draped across his back. He held an old oaken staff with a knot of curled wood at the top end. Twilight could sense enchantment in the simple object. A wizarding tool like that could ease the load that preparing spells placed on a unicorn’s mind.
Star Swirl eyed her up and down, regarding her with wisdom that came from age and experience. “You seem ready. But I think you could use one more thing.”
He smiled at her and drew a blade out from underneath his cloak, presenting it to her. The elegantly crafted sword was a little over two hoofspans long – a slight bit shorter than her forelegs. It had a thin, beautifully curved, single edged blade clearly built for slashing. The handle looked like it would be comfortable to hold in her mouth, with soft natural padding wrapping it for her teeth to grip, but the overall shape of the blade told her the maker intended it to be wielded with magic.
She’d never contemplated needing a sword in her life, but in that moment it felt natural to reach out for it with her magic. She pulled it from Star Swirl’s levitation field easily. The blade felt light, lacking a great deal of inertia. If she swung it, she knew that it would leap through the air swiftly and change direction easily. She could feel an empty magical void in the weapon, waiting to be filled.
“This is a unicorn spellblade, crafted in an age past. It’s called Solstice, and the magic in it will help you parry blows and strike your mark. It can even store a few spells for you,” Star Swirl explained.
Twilight regarded the blade and shook her head. “No, I can’t. I mean, its beautiful and functional, and thank you for offering. I wouldn’t know how to use it right, though. I never learned much about using levitation to swing weapons.” She held up Solstice to return it to Star Swirl. “I never thought I’d need to,” she murmured.
Star Swirl smiled at her knowingly. “But you may need it. Should the worst come to pass, and you do need it, you’ll find that you know more about using it than you think, but I pray to Celestia that it does not come to that. Keep it, Twilight, if only to ease an old man’s worries. The road can be a dangerous place, and I may not be there to protect you.”
Twilight levitated the blade back over, sheathed it, and slid it into a strap of her saddlebag for storage. It wasn’t often that Star Swirl invoked the name of the solar goddess. “I’ll keep it, Star Swirl.” She threw her forelegs around Star Swirl’s neck, hugging him tightly. “Thank you.” She took the blade, even though she knew that Star Swirl would always be there.
Star Swirl chuckled lightly. “We’d best be off, then.”
True to her word, Pinkie was waiting for her at the gate leading out of Candlekeep. They shared a close embrace, a heartfelt goodbye, and a promise that they would see each other again soon. Twilight could tell that Pinkie wanted to join them, but she also knew that Star Swirl wouldn't allow it. The old mage would never put anyone in danger that he didn't have to. Twilight took the last step out of her home and onto the long road ahead with only her mentor at her side. She looked back as the gates to Candlekeep slammed shut, then looked out at the world beyond.
She was going on an adventure.