CHAPTER 4: Absolution
The next day found Twilight studying furiously, as usual. Ponies came and went, checking out books or just getting out of the cold for a moment. After an entire morning of grunts of effort and bright flashes from upstairs, Spike's curiosity won out. "Alright, Twilight, what are you practicing now?"
Twilight turned to look at her faithful companion. "Oh uh... energy transference. That pony, Eclipse, said she could sense energy releases. I realized that it could be really helpful, and so I've been looking into it. I'm just reviewing the basics of energy flow, which is the school of magic it's based off of."
Spike, after realizing he had nothing better to do, sat down to watch. "I think I've almost perfected it," said Twilight. "Now, normally, unicorns function on whatever leftover energy is produced by their metabolism, which they store in an imaginary pocket, but in cases of extreme need they can get it from other sources, such as I do when I use the Elements of Harmony. But actively controlling energy is a rather difficult process and takes a lot of concentration. If you release it too soon, it will explode and all your efforts will be for nothing. To say nothing of the damage it can cause."
She pushed a potted plant forward. "This is what I've been working with. Everything has dormant energy in it, living things more than minerals. However, some minerals have the ability to store lots of energy, which is what I believe the physical Elements of Harmony are. Storage devices for pure arcane power."
"So what, you're trying to create your own?"
"Well... yeah. You never know when you could use extra magic." Twilight's thoughts turned back to her horrible nightmare last night. Of course, it was only a dream. But if her friends did ever need her to be strong, she was going to be ready. She levitated a small crystal and placed it next to plant. “First I'll try just taking the energy out, and putting it back in. Then we'll try moving it into the crystal."
Twilight's horn flared up, and the plant began to glow with the same magenta aura. Before Spike's eyes, the plant shriveled up and died, the entire plant going yellow and limp. The energy that was drawn out of the plant circled around itself, a writhing mass of white light. Twilight gave a slight smirk. "First time it hasn't given me trouble today." Carefully, she pressed the orb back into the plant, and it sprung up, erect and green.
"Whoa! That was awesome Twilight!"
"Heh. Thanks Spike. We'll see if I can get this next part though." She drew the life force out once again, and this time pressed it into the crystal. The stone began to glow as it hungrily ate up the power. "Haha! Finally! Something has gone righ-" Her words were cut short as the crystal sparked, and exploded with a small bang.
"OH COME ON!"
"Must have been the material. The book says some minerals hold power better than others. But this is the only one I had laying around. Shoot, that was the crystal I found on that hike on my fifth birthday." She scowled at the shards, which lay a short distance from the epicenter. "To say nothing of the fact that I just killed my petunia."
"Let's go looking for more crystals, Twilight, before you work yourself up too much over this. I'm certain the Diamond Dogs would be willing to help us, now that we've made peace with them."
"Alright, I'm coming. Just let me gather my things."
The rest of the day passed without much incident. After they were able to collect a variety of gems and crystals in exchange for a couple books to be added to the Diamond Dogs meager library, Twilight was able to test her new skills to her heart's content. Like all experiments, it had long periods of failure occasionally shaken up by moments of triumph. Through it all however, she couldn't find the perfect mineral. Some could take all energy placed into them, but they began to leak it afterwards. Others would just overload and explode. Others seemed to reject any extra energy entirely. There was no perfect gem. Several hours after nightfall, Twilight realized how tired she still was from yesterday's escapade. Rather than fall asleep while working as she sometimes did, she treated herself to an early bedtime. For the second time that week, however, fate had plans other than a peaceful night's sleep.
Deep in the Everfree Forest, the air became uneasy. The creeping and terrible monsters paused in fright. With a flash of light, an orb of brilliant white light burst into existence, in the very clearing Twilight had visited the night before. Wind picked up, carrying the ashes of the burned books into the orb, which grew bigger and brighter. Finally, the orb expanded along its equators, and the collected energy blew out in a ring of glory.
Far away, two Alicorn sisters looked up in unison, noticing the arcane overload. They turned to each other with a look of concern. “Far too much for a unicorn.” said Celestia.
“And it seems to be emanating from the Everfree Forest. That's never a good sign. Could it be one of our old enemies returned?”
“It can't be, Luna. We've kept track of each of their resting places. This magic is new... or extremely old.”
“I'll take a patrol and investigate.”
“I'll come with you.”
Luna shook her head. “I appreciate the offer, but you need your rest. You just tended to the kingdom's needs for the whole day. Besides, I need to prove myself worthy to rule again, after...”
They both stood awkwardly, thinking back to the fateful night that had finally reunited the Elements of Harmony.
“Even if I've forgiven myself, much of the kingdom hasn't.”
Celestia looked up with understanding. “Alright Luna, I'll let you go, if you promise to report back to me if anything, and I mean anything goes wrong.”
Luna looked at Celestia with gratitude. “You have my word Tia. Get some rest in the meantime.” The two sisters nuzzled each other in a loving farewell, and Luna retreated from the room, guards already gathering for the escort.
"Nighthawk and Skystreak, get the others, meet me at the gate. We fly out in five minutes."
"Of course, my Princess."
Luna set her face in cold determination. Here was her chance to redeem herself once and for all. To repent of her past injustices. Whatever danger had appeared would have to deal with her first. She allowed herself a quick grin. It was good to back in action.
Back in Ponyville, Twilight had been awoken by the disturbance in the Everfree as well. The unicorn shook her head as she slid out of bed, flicking on the light. “There was a massive energy release in the Everfree. More than I've ever felt before, except when using the Elements. Even Celestia's control of the sun is less powerful.” She stared out the window of her beloved library across the sleeping town of Ponyville and into the dark forest beyond.
Spike joined her, rubbing his eyes. “Should we be concerned?”
Twilight shook her head slowly, but it wasn't a negative response. “I don't know Spike. If it were the Princesses they would probably have sent some forward notice. But if it's not them, I don't know what it could be, and that isn't a very settling thought."
"Well, we could always send a letter, ask them what's happening." Spike suggested, already heading to the table to pick up the enchanted scrolls and ink.
"There's no time. Considering how close the Everfree is to Ponyville, I'll have to check it out myself. If it's a threat, we need to take care of it as quickly as possible.
Spike frowned. "Is that really the best idea? You'll be putting yourself in danger. The Everfree's dangerous enough without energy explosions."
"I can handle myself. I'll stick to the main path as long as possible, alright?"
"Visiting the Everfree twice in two days is pushing it, Twilight. If anything happens to you, I'll never forgive myself."
Twilight gave a warm smile. "And that's why I love you Spike." She hugged him tightly, holding a bit longer than she normally did. "I will come back." She turned to leave, only pausing to grab her saddlebags which had a few provisions and a survival kit, in case she got stuck out there. Despite her promises, she wasn't so brash as to go unprepared.
Ten minutes later she was in the Everfree, contemplating the intelligence of her plan. She was to march, unarmed and alone, into what could be dangerous enough to kill her. Why was she doing this? Was it her natural curiosity? Her desire to document everything new? She thought back to her dream. Was she trying to prove she was strong?
Twilight checked her position again, grateful she had spent the day studying energy transference. She was able to sense the remnants of the release, feeling them spread from the epicenter. She was close now, she knew it. She looked up to the stars. If she was correct, and she prided herself on accuracy, she was headed to the same clearing she had visited the night before. It couldn't be a coincidence.
Twilight slowed her pace as she neared the clearing, ears erect and straining for the slightest noise. Only a faint hum. The forest had been abnormally quiet on the walk over. She hadn't heard the slightest peep from any of the creatures, she realized with some fear. Anything that could keep the monsters of the Everfree quiet was a force to be reckoned with. Twilight blew out a soft breath, realizing she had been holding it in. A droplet of sweat rolled down her neck, the sensation spooking her. Calm yourself, Twilight.
She jumped around the last row of trees, ready for trouble.
For once in her life, Twilight couldn't think.
Stairs. Stone stairs. Ancient stairs.
In the Everfree?
In the clearing I visited the night before. What?!
Twilight's gaze was naturally drawn up the staircase before her. The stairs led above the canopy, disappearing out of sight. Twilight stopped for a moment, questioning her sanity. Maybe it was the lack sleep playing with her. But no, the stone felt very real underneath her hoof. All of her senses said these stairs were real despite the logic against it.
Why were they here? The only way to figure out what was up there was to climb them. Throwing away reason, Twilight determinedly ascended the staircase. Whatever had dragged her out of bed better be good. About three fourths of the way up, however, she heard voices. She could see the top of the stairs now, which flattened away into a plateau of sorts. Due to the angle, she couldn't see who was talking. Pausing once more, Twilight strained her ears. One of the voices was deep, and almost like a whisper on the wind. The other was strangely familiar, but she couldn't quite place it. Nor could she make out any of the actual conversation.
Twilight stepped closer, step by step, until if she had stood on her tippy-hooves she would have cleared the horizon. At last, she could hear the two voices clearly.
"You understand the conditions, correct?" asked the oddly familiar voice.
"We do," came the whisper voice.
We? Twilight wondered.
"Then your bonds are lifted, and you're free to go. Remember, we cannot change predestination. It'd be just as dire for you as it would be for me. I look forward to meeting again."
Twilight strained her ears as the two went silent. Then suddenly, the whisper came, striking her with fear. “Speaking of predestination, our lady, somepony is listening in right now."
Knowing she was compromised, Twilight cleared the stairs and stood to face these voices. She gasped in shock. Now she knew why that voice sounded so familiar.