Lyra leaned back in her chair at the cafe. “Now that was some good blueberry pie,” she said with lazy relaxation. She hiccuped, and a hoof went to her mouth to stifle belching.
“It sure looked like you enjoyed it,” Bon-Bon said. “Now, there's one more piece. Don't want it to go to waste, huh?” She pushed the nearly empty tin toward her girlfriend.
Lyra eyed the piece with hesitation. “I don't know, Bonnie, I'm- hic- kinda full.”
“Come on, Lyra,” said Bon-Bon, grinning. “You know you want it.”
Lyra licked her lips. “Oh, fine.” She quickly guzzled down the final piece. For a pony, Lyra was quite plump, though not as fat as, say, Red Ribbon or Double Stuff. Bon-Bon preferred her on the large side, and Lyra did not mind some extra weight.
Bon-Bon called for the check, and they were about to leave when- “Pardon, are you leaving?”
“We are,” said Lyra, but when she turned to face the speaker her eyes widened. It was a deer, her eyes gleaming like rubies, her large ears swelling out from her gracefully sculpted head. “You... you can have this table, we're just paying.”
“Thank you greatly.”
Lyra and Bon-Bon exchanged a look. Bon-Bon barely hid her perturbation. Lyra put a kinder face on, but her unease, the dread which lingered in her all the time these days, at last overcame her propriety. “Hey, what's your name?”
“I am Isabella,” said the deer.
Lyra looked her over. She was a different brown than most deer that she'd seen, and something else was off about her. “You're not one of the Shimmerwood deer, are you?”
“No,” said Isabella. “I am a mule deer, and I live in the Everfree forest. Our lord has permitted us to come into Ponyville to make our white-tail cousins more comfortable.”
“Great,” hissed Bon-Bon.
Lyra shot her a look, but her own tongue then betrayed her. “Do you know the one who's been attacking Equestria?”
Lyra came off her chair and stood. “The evil one, the dark lord. He's a deer, isn't he?”
“He is, but he is not-”
“So you do know him,” Bon-Bon said, her voice dropping an octave.
“The Herd Lord is not of our ranks,” said Isabella. “He turned against the deerfolk long ago- that is what the War was for. He is not even a common deer, he is high.”
“Really?” Lyra asked. “What's the difference?”
“Six species make up the deerfolk,” said Isabella. “The common deer are the two smaller species, the mule deer and the white-tail deer. The high deer are the four larger species, the moose, the elk, the red deer, and the caribou. The Herd Lord is a caribou.” Her eyes flashed wrathfully. “And do not say we are in league with him. The Herd Lord was always the enemy of the common deer! He saw us as lesser beings! Inferior! He was a racist and a tyrant!”
“Okay, okay, sorry,” said Lyra.
“I'm... it's all right,” Isabella said. “You are not the first pony to have asked me this question. I am getting tired of answering it, however.”
“Look, I really am sorry, and so is Bon-Bon,” said Lyra, glancing back at her, “right?”
“Oh, oh yes,” said Bon-Bon, putting on a smile.
“It's just... I'm scared,” Lyra said. “We're all scared.”
“I can imagine,” said Isabella. She sighed, and looked then very old. “Have courage, little pony. We are in night now, but the day will come. It must.”
“I think we need to be going now,” said Bon-Bon, leaving her chair. The waiter had just set their bill down, and Bon-Bon had put out the necessary bits.
“Right,” said Lyra. “Well, it was good talking to you. Sorry for making you upset.”
“I understand,” said Isabella. “I know what it means to fear.”
“Oh, here,” said Lyra, pulling out her chair. “We said you could have the table, so here.”
“Thank you,” Isabella said, settling her thin flanks on the seat.
Bon-Bon jerked her head, so she and Lyra trotted out the exit. “Ugh,” said Bon-Bon, “I really can't wait for them to leave. What's taking the princesses so long to find them a new place?”
“Probably this war,” said Lyra. Her orange eyes wavered. “You know my brother, the one who lives in Manehattan?”
“The flute player? Oh, what was his name?”
“Lute.” Lyra sighed. “He's thinking of joining the army.”
Bon-Bon's mouth dropped. “But... but only the Royal Guard is in the army. You have to have gone to the military academy to be in.”
“For now,” Lyra said. “But he says he's heard a rumor that they'll be opening up enlistment soon. If they do, he says he may be the first in line.” She stopped in the street, sitting back on her haunches. “I'm really, really scared.”
“Lyra,” sighed Bon-Bon, sitting down beside her. “I... I don't know what to say.”
“Don't say anything,” said Lyra, leaning into her. “Just... be with me, okay?”
Bon-Bon obeyed her girlfriend's wish. Her mouth did not open; instead, she wrapped a leg around Lyra's shoulders, settling against her softened body.
“The future is a river.”
Rarity's eyes grew wider, and the stars in them were twinkling.
“It flows from a single course, which is the past. The past has already happened, and cannot be changed.”
Rarity tried hard to make her breathing even.
“However, as the river flows, it branches off in tributaries, forks, and gullies. In this same way, as time advances, the certainty of the past breaks off in infinite directions, as the choices creatures make alter the future. One choice leads to one future, another to another, and on without ending.”
Rarity sunk deeper in her pillow.
“So, in a sense, to ask 'what is the future' is an impossible question. There is no one future. There are other futures in other ways, other aspects of existence.”
“W-What?” Rarity said, breaking the spell. Her eyes lost their starriness and blinked with great rapidity. “My lady, are you saying there are other... other times?”
Falalauria nodded. “Each choice exists. The future of one choice proceeds; however, the other choice has its own future, and as one who can see ahead in time, both futures can be looked on in your Sight.”
They were sitting in the middle of the Carousel Boutique. Rarity had pulled a resting pillow out for herself, while Falalauria lay on a mattress Rarity happened to have in spare. The lights were low; candles burned around them. Incense wafted sweetly through the air.
“So then there was...” Rarity wracked her mind, “there was a future where I got a different cutie mark?”
“Is a future,” Falalauria corrected. “As we speak, there is a you in another future- another reality- that proceeded from your different cutie mark. And think of all the cutie marks you could have gotten. All those marks would lead to different futures, different outcomes, different universes. And that is only a single thing that would have changed. There are an infinity of futures.”
Rarity's mouth dropped open. “Then how on Earth am I to know what the right one is?”
“Sense,” said Falalauria. “Consider ripples in a pond. When first created, those closest to the point of impact are the biggest, and the strongest, while those that move further away are smaller and weaker. There is the True Future, the way things will be in the long line of time the Wills direct. Then there are the branched futures, those paths of deviation. The closer a future you See is to the True Future, the... stronger, sharper, it will seem. The further away, the fainter and weaker. Like the ripples in the pond.”
“I have noticed that some of the futures I See feel... further away, I suppose? I find that, even when I look at them carefully, they have the sense of coming from a great distance.”
“You are beginning to understand,” said Falalauria. “Your Sight has grown much stronger even in the past few weeks. Soon you will begin to see futures definitively. Not the whole future, not yet- but the futures of items, landscapes, and ponies.” She glanced evenly at Rarity. “But of course, once you can see the future, you must decide how to act. That is the truly difficult part.”
Rarity sighed and nestled deeper in her pillow. “It is something that has impressed itself upon me, I must admit.”
Just then the front door opened, bathing the dim space in noontide's light. “Are you sure Rarity said we could work with her, Sweetie Belle?” came Scootaloo's voice.
“Yup!” said Sweetie Belle. She and Apple Bloom and Scootaloo came trotting eagerly into the shop. “She said we could practice designing a dress and everything! She'd even help us make it! We'll get our cutie marks in designing... for... sure...” Her glee died in her throat. The Cutie Mark Crusaders stopped dead in their tracks upon seeing Falalauria.
She smiled at them. “Mae govannen, little Crusaders.”
“M'lady!” said Apple Bloom, bowing low as Applejack had taught her. “We didn't know you were gonna be here!”
“Totally, my lady!” said Scootaloo, tiny wings aflutter as she bowed. “I hope we're not interrupting anything.”
“Oh, of course not,” said Rarity. “Lady Falalauria and I were just practicing... magic, yes, magic.”
“Really?” Sweetie Belle asked.
“Of course, of course,” said Rarity. “You know we need to have our skills sharp with a dark lord on the loose.”
“Oh,” said Sweetie Belle, looking swiftly grim. “Yeah. Right.”
“We wish to keep you safe, little ponies,” said Falalauria. “That is why we train. That is why Rarity is exercising with her special Gift.”
“Gift?” said Sweetie Belle.
“As a Bearer of an Element of Harmony, your sister possesses a talent no other pony wields,” said Falalauria. “I shall tell you more about it some other time. I am helping her to make it stronger.”
“I wasn't certain if it was all right to let them know,” said Rarity.
“They can know,” said Falalauria. “I See no harm in it- and I See everything.”
“Oh! Oh!” Scootaloo cried. “I remember the story about you that Rarity and Applejack and Rainbow Dash told! The one where they had to go on that adventure to save Twilight Sparkle! You can see the future, can't you?”
“The future, and the past,” said Falalauria, “and all the wide expanses of the world. Nothing is hidden from me.”
“So you know what our cutie marks will be... right?” Scootaloo's smile stretched.
The stars wheeled across Falalauria's deep eyes. “Yes.”
“Really?” squealed Sweetie Belle.
“What are they?” Apple Bloom asked, barely containing her delight.
“I shall not say,” said Falalauria.
The Crusaders groaned. “But why not?” Sweetie Belle asked. “If it's really the future-”
“Because the future can change,” said Falalauria. “It is constructed by the choices you and every other creature makes. If I tell you what your cutie marks will be, you may seek after them in ways that alter your destinies. This may lead you to different cutie marks, and different special skills. As of this moment, your cutie marks are good ones, and I hate to disrupt your acquiring them.”
“I... guess that makes sense,” said Sweetie Belle.
“But we do get 'em, right?” said Apple Bloom.
“You do,” said Falalauria. “You will not be bare-flanked all your lives. You will find your talents, and your destinies. They are all quite wonderful.”
“Awesome!” said Scootaloo. “So we should keep on going!”
“We should keep on moving!” said Apple Bloom.
“We shouldn't get sad!” said Sweetie Belle.
“CUTIE MARK CRUSADERS, NEVER GIVE UP!” the three of them exclaimed, knocking hooves together.
“Wonderful,” said Rarity. She stood. “Now, I think we could all use some lemonade. Do you girls want it? And some cookies?”
“Yay!” cried Sweetie Belle.
“Yes, ma'am!” said Apple Bloom.
“Definitely!” Scootaloo shouted.
“May I tempt you, my lady?”
“I should be delighted,” said Falalauria. She stood to her full height, moaning a little at the stretching of her limbs. “It is time we took a break, at any rate.”
“Splendid,” said Rarity. “I shall be right back! Don't be dour!” With a spring in her step Rarity trotted from the room, heading for the kitchen.
“I think it's super cool that you're helping Rainbow Dash out!” said Scootaloo to Falalauria.
“She is very strong, and very brave. I have tried to help her as best I can. I hope it will be enough.”
“I gotta admit,” said Apple Bloom, “I'm scared. Everything I'm hearin' about this black deer fella makes him sound real awful!”
“He is terrible,” said Falalauria, “but have no fear. He will be beaten.” She tilted next her head to her left side. “Sweetie Belle.”
“You love your sister, do you not?”
“Oh, yeah! I love Rarity a bunch!”
“Would you love her if she did something horrible?”
Sweetie Belle fidgeted. “Well... I don't know...”
“Why would Rarity do somethin' horrible?” Apple Bloom asked.
“Because it might lead to something better later,” Falalauria said. “What if it were something bad, but with aims of doing something good?”
“If I knew she was doing something good, I guess I'd still love her,” said Sweetie Belle. “Or... no, I'd try to love her no matter what she did.”
Falalauria smiled. “You are a good pony, Sweetie Belle. Remember that- and remember your pledge.”
“Tra la la, who wants cookies!” Rarity's voice sparkled through the air and broke the dour silence. The Cutie Mark Crusaders hurried to the older pony, leaving behind Falalauria and all her cryptic warnings. She stood back, watching them with her unbroken stare.
White radiance enveloped Twilight Sparkle. The trees of Everfree were bathed in light, swelling in and out much like the pumping of the blood. Her eyes were gleaming, and her cutie marks were shining like the midday sun. She could feel the universe flow in and out.
“Now, will,” said Fëanor.
Twilight willed. The trees around her changed: their leaves grew orange and red and yellow, all the striking hues of autumn. Swiftly they turned brown, whence they all fell from the branches in a shower of dull progress. The bare limbs shifted in a sudden, northern wind. But in no time their gnarled lengths strengthened with new life. Small leaf buds blossomed on the branches. They sprouted into verdant fullness, so at last the deep green leaves of summer once more shaded the forest.
“Well done, Twilight,” said Fenaor as the light dimmed.
“That was amazing!” Twilight cried. Her cutie marks still shone. “I feel... I could feel the seasons! Could feel them moving all around me, and in me! It usually takes all of Ponyville or Canterlot or some other city to change the seasons, but I did it!”
“You are growing quite powerful indeed, Twilight,” Fëanor said. His golden eyes were glinting. “Soon your Element of Magic will be strong enough that you will rival me in might.”
“Oh, you can't mean that,” said Twilight. “You're so wise and powerful. It would take years for me to reach your level.”
“You undersell your own abilities,” Fëanor said. “Moreover, do not count out the effects of my tutelage. I have been precisely calibrating your exercises to ensure the maximum effect on your Gift of Magic. Meanwhile, your own efforts are extraordinary. You have progressed so far, so fast because you have wished it.”
“Because I've willed it!”
“Exactly. Now, I believe you have earned a break.”
Twilight took another glance around the grotto where they'd trained. The wild trees grew tall above her head. A large boulder, topped with moss, stood far off to their right. Her eyes went wide. She'd seen that boulder before. It was on the way from the northwest to- “Oh!” she said. “You know what we should do, before we start again?”
“Ah, no,” said Fëanor.
“I should take you to meet my friend Zecora! She's an amazing student, and teacher, of magic. I'm sure she'd love to get to know you.”
“Zecora?” he repeated. “That sounds like a zebra name.”
“She is a zebra!” Twilight said brightly. “She's helped my friends and I so often in our adventures. She's really wise and kind.”
Fëanor arched an eyebrow. “Zebra magic is... odd. They seem to channel it through their bones in the manner of earth ponies, but it manifests much more powerfully, and much more strangely, than anything earth ponies can do. Though the deerfolk studied zebras extensively, we were never able to determine the true source of their abilities.”
“Well, you can just ask her!” Twilight said. “Come on!”
Wings fluttering to send her off, she hurried through the forest. Fëanor came after her, though somewhat hesitantly. Deep they went into the gloom, mist now hanging off the ground around their legs. Vines festooned with thorns crawled onto their path, forcing them both to step carefully. The growling of some distant creature echoed through the murky air, but it did not seem to pose a threat.
At last they reached the clearing where the hollow tree stretched up its winding limbs. Ancient masks of distant shape were placed around the tree, while through its door, and from its windows, warm red firelight came forth. “I'll go in first, and talk to her,” said Twilight. While Fëanor stood still she trotted to the door and rapped her hoof upon it.
The door creaked open, and a zebra roughly pony height stuck out her head. Her mane was cut into a high mohawk, while round her neck were golden rings, and from her ears hung golden hoops. Her blue eyes gleamed like sapphires in the dim light. She smiled, though, on seeing who had knocked. “Dear Twilight Sparkle, such a caller! Say now, have you gotten taller?”
“Hmm?” Twilight glanced down at herself. “I... don't know.”
“Tis no matter, come inside! For you my door is open wide.”
“Thanks, Zecora.” She trotted through the door, into the hut quite cozily appointed. More masks hung on the walls. Potions and powders were stacked upon shelves and tables. At the center bubbled some sweet-smelling stew in a black cauldron. “What's on the fire?”
“Just some lunch, if that's your hunch.” Zecora allowed Twilight to walk near her, then stretched out her neck and took a sniff. “Your magic is quite strong today. More than prior, dare I say.”
“Oh, yes,” said Twilight, “I've been training it. And it's not just my normal unicorn magic, either! It's the Gift of Magic, that I got from the Element of Magic!”
“You speak of Gifts of Harmony, of Elements from off the Tree.”
“Yes!” said Twilight with excitement. “My friends and I have learned that, by being Bearers of the Elements of Harmony, we've all been granted special gifts. My Gift is greatly enhanced magical ability. More than that, if I make my Gift strong enough, I'll be able to channel the power of the Element of Magic without needing my crown, and my friends will be able to do it without using their necklaces! Then we'll be able to summon the Rainbow of Light, and defeat the dark lord who's been threatening Equestria!”
“I've heard the rumors of that fiend,” said Zecora with a scowl. “A frightful foe, from what I've gleaned. What truly makes me shiver, now, is rumors of his antlered brow.”
“Well, yes, he's a deer,” said Twilight. “Or...” she thought of the amorphous nightmare she had seen at Cloudsdale, and she shuddered. “Or, he was a deer at one point. But he went to war against the other deer, and caused the War that destroyed them.”
“All this I know, I tell you sure. Zebra history is pure. We were the first of horselike kind to learn to write down all we'd find. We would compile all we could; no others' records were so good.”
“Amazing!” said Twilight. “If you have a copy of your people's history, I'd love to see it some time. But- oh! The reason I came here.”
“There's somepony- or, someone I want you to meet. He's been the one training me to use my Gift of Magic. I think you and he are really going to get along well.” Twilight headed for the door, opening it to walk out before the hut. “Come on, Fëanor!”
The mighty elk stepped forward just as Zecora exited her home. “I do not see- ACK!” she gagged as she beheld him. “Twilight Sparkle, bring him here? To my home you bring a deer?” Her voice changed sharply; she sounded more upset that Twilight had ever heard.
“Well, yes, he's been-”
“Do you accept his poisoned word? Has he forced you to join his herd?” She began angrily speaking in her native tongue.
“Why don't you use words we can all understand, zebra?” Fëanor snarled. “Bad enough I have to listen to your inane rhyming.”
“There is no power to your word! The deer are gone, for good I'm sure! The old world's gone, the chains are snapped! I'm glad there is no going back!”
“Z-Zecora, what are you talking about?” Twilight asked.
“She is speaking of some misconceptions in her people's history,” said Fëanor. “They like to pretend the deerfolk offended them far in the past.”
“It is no lie! The truth I tell! We'll not again be in your spell! Zvaha and zebrakind are free, and you've no power over me!” She glanced at Twilight. “Twilight Sparkle, leave him be! He'll grind you underhoof, you'll see.”
“Zecora, Fëanor has been training me!”
“Training? More like reining in, thus his plans always begin! Do not let deerfolk reel you in!”
“Zecora, what's wrong? You act like he's horrible, but you've never even met him.”
“All deer are much the same, you see. They seem so pretty, and so free. But all their grace hides vicious claws, and whole species caught in their jaws! I know their history quite true! The deer are tyrants! Slavers, too!” She turned abruptly on her heels and trotted for her hut.
“Wait!” Twilight glanced back at Fëanor. “Hold on.” She ran to meet Zecora ere she walked inside her home. “Zecora, please. I know you... you must have some sort of prejudice against the deerfolk, but trust me! Everything Fëanor is doing, he's doing for good reasons.”
Zecora looked intensely into Twilight's eyes, then sighed. “Twilight Sparkle, you I trust. I know that you are fair and just. But you be wary, this I say, or this deer will sweep you away. Keep your awe of him in check, else you'll find chains around your neck.” She unexpectedly nuzzled Twilight then. “Farewell.” With that, she shuffled through her door and slammed it shut.
“I am sorry that didn't go as you'd planned,” said Fëanor, walking up behind her.
“I just don't understand,” said Twilight. “I thought she'd be happy to meet a fellow magic user.”
“The zebras as a race are full of eccentrics. You cannot always trust their prejudices.”
Twilight turned around to look at Fëanor. Her violet eyes stared deeply at him, glancing up and down over his mighty form.
She tilted her head to the side. “You said she was mistaken... that her species was pretending. So those... those things she accused you of, accused the deerfolk of, they're not true?”
“Of course not,” said Fëanor. His golden eyes went narrow. “Now, you must remember, Twilight, that the six species of the deerfolk were the first civilized races in all the world. We spread out across all the continents, advancing culture and society wherever we went. Of course to some of the primitive species we encountered, our natural superiority would seem oppressive. But we never did anything with malice, that I can assure you.”
Twilight kept on staring at him. She wanted to object. Something in her heart made her believe Zecora, even with her deep faith in Lord Fëanor. But his explanation seemed correct. She sighed. “All right. I trust you.”
“Excellent,” said Fëanor, sidling up next to her. “Now, come, let's go back through the woods and you can flex your magic some more. You must get so much stronger...”