CHAPTER 1: Divided Loyalties
A single pegasus sat alone in an endless, misty void, her blond mane flowing in a sourceless breeze. The bubbles on her flank contrasted her darker gray body, and if it weren't for her gentle breathing, her form may have been lost in the fog. Her eyes were closed in concentration, and her ears flicked every now and then, as if she were listening to some unheard voices.
Without warning, her eyes flew open. They were a bright gold, full of intelligence and understanding. "It has begun," she said quietly to herself. The words fell off as if it were nothing more than a simple statement of fact. As calm as if she had remarked that the sky were blue. She turned in place, motioning a pattern in the air with her fore-hoof. Her eyes began to burn with a celestial light, and a small rift appeared in the air.
"The two worlds will be merged once more. But at what cost? At what cost." The mare peered through the tear. On the other side of it was a vast, brightly colored landscape. Equestria. "I do not envy your situation, Celestia." The view changed, but ever so slightly. It was still the same landscape, but much more muted, covered in shadows and tainted with an air of danger. "Nor do I condemn your retribution, dark one." After a moment's pause, she turned away, her eyes fading as the rift closed behind her, space healing itself once more.
"So much pain and hardship. Are you sure it will be worth it?" She looked up to the sky of this world, where a faint light was shining. She sighed. "Twilight and her friends will be here soon..." she mused to herself. "I suppose I'd better start baking those muffins."
Twilight Sparkle scowled in annoyance at the breeze which was unhelpfully turning the pages of her book for her. Spike had forgotten to close the window. Again. The dragon was helpful and almost always cheerful, but he did tend to forget little details every now and then. Whereas Twilight sometimes couldn't see anything but the little details.
It had all started when she had begun some reading on the history of Equestria. Twilight had remembered she had decided to make a class on the subject before Luna came to visit on Nightmare Night. When she had begun gathering materials, however, she found an interesting piece of information in the same book that had lead her to meet her friends, The Condensed History of Equestria. In the back cover of the book, somepony had scribbled a note that Twilight hadn't noticed before. It was a reference to another book, simply reading A Study of Alicorns: Their Psychology and Physiology. But after a quick look around her library, Twilight discovered that there was no such book to be found. So she had written letters to each of the major libraries around Equestria, asking them to check for the book in their archives.
That was over a week ago. Each letter had returned with an apology; the book was nowhere to be found, and nor did they have any records of ever having a copy. She should have let it rest, but Twilight was not the pony to leave loose ends. She had emptied her shelves, twice, in the vain hope that maybe she had simply missed it.
Out of ideas and feeling frustrated, she was now going through all the rest of her history books, trying to get some sense of what the mysteriously non-existent book could have contained. "The Princesses ruled in Harmony together... Nightmare Moon..." she muttered to herself. Twilight's horn flared up with a warm purple glow, telekinetically grabbing a book behind her while her attention was turned to yet another. "Mercy, peace, prosperity..." She turned to the third, which hovered gently beside her, feeling her annoyance come to a boil. She was going in circles and nowhere quickly.
A young dragon walked in, carrying a basket filled with warm bread. "Twilight? You want to come for a walk? You've worked yourself hard enough on this. Why don't you just write a letter to the Princess and be done with it?"
Twilight dropped the book with an exasperated sigh. "I can't bother her with something so trivial. She's busy running a kingdom. And besides, what do I say? 'Oh, hello Princess Celestia. I was just wondering if there's any way you can spend an afternoon looking through the castle's library to satisfy my curiosity about your race?'"
Spike shrugged. "I don't know, sounds pretty good to me. Besides, you're not the only beautiful mare with a number one assistant. She probably has a servant whose entire job is to go through the royal library. Where's the harm in just asking?"
Twilight pursed her lips. She really was close to her wits' end. She knew she had to get out of the house before she went insane. "Alright, Spike," she said, pushing herself up. "A quick letter to the princess and then I'll help you deliver that bread to Applejack." Spike grinned, pleased with his victory over the stubborn pony.
The dragon gently dropped the basket and retrieved a scroll and some ink. Twilight cleared her throat as she began to dictate. "Ahem. Dear Princess Celestia, my recent studies have lead me to a dead end. I am searching for a book called A Study of Alicorns: Their Psychology and Physiology. If you could help me in my search, I would be most grateful. Your faithful student, Twilight Sparkle."
Spike smiled as he dotted the last word. "See? Not too hard. Short and sweet." He rolled up the scroll, took a deep breath, and burned it. "Even if she can't help us, it's better to have tried." Spike had a point, Twilight knew. Ever since that incident with the Want It Need It spell, Twilight had been much more cautious about overworking herself. She still needed some help every now and then from her friends, however.
The two house-mates stepped out of the library, Spike locking the door behind them. It wasn't so much a safety precaution as a way to let people know the library was closed. As they set off, their steps made soft impressions in the early winter snow. Twilight took a clearing breath, watching the vapor trail off, visible in the winter morning. Spike was right, she assured herself once more. A walk and some fresh, cool air was just what she needed.
They walked through Ponyville, greeting friends and neighbors as they passed. Twilight remembered the first day she had arrived at Ponyville. Each of these familiar faces had seemed so foreign then. But now she couldn't imagine life without them. The Cutie Mark Crusaders ran by, throwing up a spray of powder as they giggled happily, no doubt rushing off to test some new idea to earn their Cutie Marks. Lyra and Bon-Bon had built a snow mare and were now engaged in a friendly snowball fight, laughing as the other got pelted by the frozen projectiles. Acquaintances chatted underneath the verandas of the local cafe, sipping hot cider and gossiping about the upcoming Winter Solstice Celebration, which might be reinstated with Princess Luna's blessing. All in all, an average, yet happy day in Ponyville.
As they neared Sweet Apple Acres, Twilight saw Applejack approaching them. "Well howdy Twilight! I was actually just off to see you. I was bringing you some more apples from the storage cellar."
Twilight giggled. "And we were just bringing you some whole-wheat bread to thank you for the last time. Applejack, you're far too kind."
"Well, ah just like to help my friends in any way I can. How 'bout you walk with me back to the house, we'll drop off the bread, and then I'll come with you to the library?"
"Sounds great. How's Big Mac doing? I heard he sprained his ankle again?"
"Shoot, you know how he is. Takes a blow and gets right back up. He'd already be up and about were it not for me tellin' him to stay put."
They entered the Apple Family's house, where Granny Smith gave them a warm welcome from the kitchen. "Oh, thank you so much for this wonderful bread, both of you,” she said, giving Spike a light-hearted prod. “I think we still have some zap-apple jam somewhere if you want to stay."
Twilight smiled brightly. It made her feel great to see her friend's family so happy. "Thank you so much for the offer, Granny Smith, but I just ate. I hope you'll enjoy the bread though."
"Oh certainly. And I'll be sure to give some to Big Mac. You take care now!"
They walked along in silence for a while, taking in the scenery. That was one of the things Twilight loved most about Applejack. You could be with her and say nothing at all, yet still feel like you had the most wonderful day.
Twilight was pulled out of her thoughts as she saw Rainbow Dash speeding towards them. Now there was a pony who couldn't stop talking, though she seemed as quiet as Fluttershy when compared to Pinkie Pie. Not that the chattiness was a bad trait. Her friends were a good mixture of personalities.
As Rainbow neared, Twilight saw it wasn't for a casual visit. The speedy pony was carrying a note of some sort.
"Well hey there Rainbow!" said Applejack as Rainbow landed gracefully. Despite the pegasus' brash personality, she still had hints of ladylike style. "Whatcha got there?"
Rainbow stuck the letter under her wing so her mouth was cleared to speak. “Well, I was just flying over Ponyville when I saw a unicorn I didn't recognize poking around the library. I wouldn't have really noticed her if she hadn't been trying to peek through the side window. So I tried approaching her, to see if there was anything I could help her with. She seemed spooked and ran without saying anything. I tried chasing after her, but she simply teleported away. There was a note attached to the door. Probably left by her before I saw her.”
Twilight frowned thoughtfully. She wasn't expecting anypony, nor could she think of any reason why anypony would be so anxious to see her. "Well, what does the letter say?"
Rainbow scowled. "Really Twilight, I'm the Element of Loyalty. I don't read other ponies' notes. Give me some credit." A quick smirk showed Twilight her friend was just messing with her. Rainbow retrieved the letter and passed it to Twilight, who opened it immediately. Spike jumped on her back to read over her shoulder.
"Dear Ms. Sparkle,
I heard you are looking for information on the Alicorn race. I don't expect you to know me, but I have the information you desire. I will be at the edge of the Everfree, tonight, and tonight only.
Yours truly, a friend in knowledge."
"What's this information, Twilight? And why'd she come from out of town to tell it to you?" Rainbow leaned in, trying to glean any further knowledge from the concise letter.
"I've been doing some research on the history of the Alicorns and I've hit a frustrating dead end. It's great that somepony can finally help, though I don't know why she couldn't have just sent a book or something."
"Well, there's only one way to find out.” If there was one thing you could count on, it was Applejack always being to the point. “Just meet them tonight and ask. We'll even come with you."
Suddenly, Spike heaved, letting loose a mighty belch. A scroll materialized in front of the friends, bearing the royal crest. "It must be Princess Celestia's response." said Twilight.
"Well, I decided to just ask her if she had the book I was looking for, the same one our mysterious mare has information about. Let's see what she says." Twilight opened the second letter, and began reading aloud.
"Dear Twilight Sparkle, my faithful student,
I am sorry to inform you that while I always encourage you to learn about the world around you, this is one path of research I must ask you turn away from. I also apologize that I cannot give you my explanation for this. Just know that the history of my race is a messy one, and I ask you leave it at that.
Twilight said her beloved teacher's name with all the weight of the world. Applejack and Rainbow Dash stood in awkward silence, and Spike suddenly found the vast snow-covered landscape much more interesting than the letter.
Twilight silently lifted the two letters together, her eyes flitting from one to the next. One in a hasty, almost sloppy font, the other in beautiful and refined calligraphy. One enticing, the other forbidding. Certainly, one right, and one wrong.
Rainbow coughed. "So... what are you going to do, Twilight?" The purple mare turned to her friend, her eyes both sad and thoughtful. She looked up to the sky, where the Princess' brilliant sun shone, giving life to all the world, even in this winter frost. Twilight's day had gone from bad to great, to worse than before.
"I'm not sure. My loyalty is to the Princess, not only as ruler, but as teacher and mentor. But it's not like her to hide anything from me. Is this a test? Does she know I have a lead?"
Applejack stepped forward, placing a comforting hoof on Twilight's shoulder. "Listen here, Twilight. You're a smart mare, and you have a good heart. You'll make the right decision. But there's no sense frettin' 'bout it in the cold. Why don't we gather the rest of the gang and ask their advice?"
Twilight sighed. "Sorry for bringing you into this. I should probably just let this rest."
Rainbow shook her head. "No worries. I'll fly ahead and get the others, we'll meet you at the library in a bit." With a flap of her wings, the blue pegasus was off. Seeing her friend leave, Twilight had the distinct impression that her troubles had just begun.
"I'm certain the Princess has a good reason to ask you to restrain yourself Twilight," said Rarity matter-of-factually, as if the entire thing had been settled right there.
"Yeah, but shouldn't she at least let Twilight know why?" asked Rainbow. "Twilight's the smartest pony around. She'd be able to handle it."
"Well, yes, I think we can all agree to that," said Fluttershy, taking more of a stand than usual, "But the Princess is wiser, if just from experience alone. She's never led us astray before."
"Though," Rainbow said, a snort of derision punctuating her pause, "she does seem to like letting us do her dirty work."
"Rainbow!" yelled Applejack.
"Oh come on! I'm not complaining, but think about it. Ancient goddess of the Night, her sister, none less, and who saves the day? Us six. It allowed us to become best friends, and I'm eternally grateful to the Princess because of it, but where was she? Then there's Discord, and boy, I don't think I need to go into that."
"Remember what she said there, Rainbow," began Twilight. "She and Luna had somehow been separated from the Elements. The Elements had passed onto us, we were the only ones who could wield them."
"Why was that? Why did– oh." said Rainbow, her countenance suddenly shifting.
Twilight frowned. "What?"
"What if that's it, Twilight? What Princess Celestia doesn't want us digging into? The reason she and Luna were separated from the Elements? I mean, what could cause a pony, an Alicorn none less, to no longer be worthy to use the magic made to protect the kingdom?"
A heavy silence filled the room. Everypony was sure Rainbow had just hit the nail on the head.
"So, what?" asked Applejack quietly. "Is she restraining you to protect herself, or to protect you?"
"It could be both,” commented Fluttershy.
Twilight turned to Pinkie Pie, who had been uncharacteristically quiet the entire discussion. "What do you think, Pinkie?" Pinkie looked up from something she had been drawing in the dust.
"Well, I think this is all silly. We should all just go up to Canterlot and ask the Princess directly. If she says no, oh well. Everypony's entitled to their secrets. Honestly though? If you don't go talk to this pony tonight, I'm going to. If Dashie hasn't seen her, that means I haven't either, because Dashie's pretty good at remembering faces. And if I haven't seen this pony, that means she's new to Ponyville. And of course I'd have to give her a proper welcome after she's come so far, especially if you're going to turn her down. I mean, how rude would it be for me to turn her away without a signature Pinkie Pie party? Of course, if I'm going to throw a party for her, I better start get cooking soon. If I don't, the cake wouldn't be ready when the party is, and what a disaster that would be? Could you imag--"
Twilight tuned her out after that, as did the rest of her friends. Rarity spoke first. "Pinkie has a point, Twilight my dear. You could just ask for some clarification. Nor did the Princess say we couldn't meet with this mysterious informant of yours. However, it's getting late, and we'll have to make a decision soon. If you are going to meet with with her, you don't want to be late.”
Twilight looked at each of her friends. All of them loved her, supported her. And she trusted them with her life. She thought about how much similar faith the Princess had in her. Could she really just throw that away?
"I can't let it rest here. I'll see what this mysterious 'Friend in Knowledge' has to say. But I don't want to betray the Princess just for the sake of my curiosity. I'll leave at the first sign of treachery or danger."
"Should we come with you?" asked Applejack. "We could provide backup in case anything goes wrong."
Twilight shook her head. "I don't want you guys to get blamed for this. I'll be sure to tell you everything afterwards.”.
Twilight turned to leave. “Thank you all for your advice. I'll be back before morning.”
“If you're not, I'm coming after you,” decided Spike.
“Me too!” Piped Pinkie Pie.
“And me,” added Apple Jack. The others voiced their agreement.
She looked around to her circle of supportive friends. In spite of herself, Twilight couldn't help but smile. Not two years ago she would have laughed at the idea of having friends, especially with such varied personalities. Yet now she couldn't imagine life without them.
“Thanks guys. I'll be safe.”
With a swish of her mane, the purple mare was gone, her friends left alone to worry for her.