* * *
“Bloody hell, that took forever!” Laurie hissed under his breath.
Dornier simply shrugged in begrudged agreement.
“Why haven’t they come out yet?” Twilight asked, as she tucked the small wooden box into her saddlebag. “Do you think they’re still talking in there?”
Luna turned to Twilight. “I would expect nothing less at this point. For I know my sister is keen of perception, and sharp of wit. Certainly she has her own questions to ask, for she knows that some pieces to this puzzle do not fit.”
Twilight giggled slightly. “For a moment there, you sounded like Zecora.”
“And you, young Twilight. Thy innocent mirth bears similar to the mewling of a lamb before the altar.”
Twilight was taken aback by Luna’s annoyed response.
“You know not, the gods of yore. Be forever grateful,” she spoke evenly. “But know this, my concern for you runs deep, in light of this endeavour.”
“Because of this?” she nodded her head towards the bag hanging from her side.
“It is no trinket,” Luna stated. “I dare say I am still not comfortable with you, or any pony, bearing such power, but you have my sister’s trust, and I am not wont to question her judgement. However, I must impart upon you the gravity of this seemingly inconsequential weight that you now bear.”
“I, understand, Princess.”
“Nay, do not allow thy comfortable grasp of thine own domain to lend thee false confidence. A calm sea may conceal unfathomable depths, or the lurking of terrible denizens, yet only impart feelings of peaceful tranquility. Do not simply be careful. Remain careful.”
“Well, can you tell me anything about it? Anything helpful?”
Luna sighed, shaking her head slightly.
“I am afraid that I can not be too forthcoming, dear Twilight. It pains me to leave you ignorant of the past history of the artifact, but to reveal it completely would only tempt that history to repeat itself.”
Dornier muttered several words with a solemn whisper, far too low for any other pony to hear. Luna shared a glance with the old soldier, and nodded in turn.
“I might imagine our guest has felt the same way, in responding to some such questions. No doubt there has been sly concealment of the truth. But whether it plays to his benefit, or ours, is what troubles me.”
Twilight thought back briefly, to the single thought she gleaned from the Interloper’s mind.
“Luna? Does the ring ever lie?”
“Nay, Twilight. It’s clarity is a blessing and a curse, for it will only tell the complete truth. Why?”
Twilight stayed silent for several moments, before softly responding.
Luna sighed, staring at the closed doors.
“I recall my sister telling me of an enchantment placed upon the ring. A limitation of its use.”
Twilight nodded. “Yes, it should only work on him.”
“Ahh...” Twilight thought for a moment. “I think so. I’m not sure if it means just him, or just those like him. But he’s the only one, right?”
“Once again, thine faith does not readily lend reassurance.” Luna furrowed her brow.
“Allow me this once.”
“What... what do you wish to do?”
Twilight nodded, still confused. With a flare of Luna’s magic, the small wooden box deftly rose from her saddlebag, opening in mid air, leaving the dull ring floating before her polished indigo horn.
Dornier stiffened his back, but bowed respectfully before Luna.
“Be careful this time, Princess.”
Luna acknowledge the request with a slight nod, knowing full well the depth of the statement. The ring slipped down her horn with a certain familiarity, resting snugly at the base.
“Hmmm...” she contemplated. She turned from the door, levelling her horn at each pony in turn, wielding the ring with fierce inquisition. Dornier flinched slightly, turning his head from her brief focused gaze.
Their thoughts remained silent.
“It appears that her handiwork has succeeded admirably. Know well that I still have my fears about this matter, but I may rest somewhat easier with this in your capable hooves, Twilight Sparkle.”
“Thank you, Princess,” Twilight replied. She levitated the box before Luna, holding it expectantly.
She looked down at the rough hewn container, reluctantly bringing her hoof up to her horn. She paused for a moment, turning to look back at the double doors.
The ring tingled slightly against her skull.
“A copper bit for thy thoughts...” she whispered softly.
Her head dipped gently, waving her horn towards the door. It was not but a moment later that she recoiled violently, rearing into the air with her wings flapping in alarm. The tips of her hind hooves scratched the floor in swift retreat.
“Princess!” they shouted in hushed voices.
Luna dropped back to the floor unsteadily. Her hoof hooked behind the ring, and flung it towards the wall with as much force as she could muster.
“Are you okay!” Twilight urged. “Did you... ask him anything?”
Luna stayed speechless for a short while, shaking her head and shuddering with disgust.
“Nay child. I asked nothing. I only saw.”
“Saw what?” Laurie asked, breathlessly.
“Only that which I will bear to my grave,” she growled.
Twilight gulped. Luna’s tone was suddenly more frightening than her botched wake-up call from a few hours prior.
The ring and the box shot into the air, one forcefully thrust within the other. The lock’s mechanism clicked loudly, as it descended before Twilight.
“This is now yours to possess. Guard it, and thine self, well.”
“Yes, Princess,” Twilight nodded firmly, as the box tucked itself back within her bag.
“Yes, your Majesty,” Laurie and Dornier said at once, coming to attention before her.
“Lancaster. You are no doubt familiar with you mission. You will watch over our guest.”
Laurie nodded, before saluting, and stepping back.
“Dornier. I task thee once again. You will watch over Miss Sparkle, and her artifact. I grant thee whatever means necessary to ensure their safe keeping.”
“Yes, your Majesty,” he repeated, with a slow and deliberate salute. “Shall I make ready to depart for Ponyville?”
“No. Thou shalt remain here. We do not wish to place undue attention where it may draw more prying eyes. Our guest is no secret. The ring is."
The three ponies shared a quick glance, breathing a small sigh of relief at the prospect of limited mandatory socialization.
Dornier looked to Twilight, and back to Luna.
“Princess, if I might ask, how exactly am I to keep watch?”
“Allow me but a moment, Captain.”
Luna trotted over to the hastily relocated stationary desk, pulling out a single sheaf of paper, and two envelopes. The paper hovered just inches over the desk, as Luna bore the quill against it. In place of ink, a blinding spark shot from the quill’s tip, etching a several glowing runes of a long-past language into the clean white parchment.
As she finished, the paper rose into the air, and burst into swirling green fog at the touch of her horn. The glowing aether split into two smaller clouds, each funneled into the two open envelopes. The paper flaps closed, and sealed with a small electrifying flash.
“Take this,” she spoke to Twilight, as one letter drifted lazily towards her. The second envelope floated back to Dornier. “If you find yourself in dire need, then do not hesitate to open this, and help will arrive shortly.”
“What does the letter say?” Twilight asked curiously.
“Exactly what needs to be said.”
Twilight nodded again, tucking the envelope into her satchel, next to the small wooden box.
The four ponies found themselves facing the door again, expectantly awaiting the return of Trent and Celestia.
"Princess, what do you think about him?" Twilight asked.
“That remains to be seen.”
“He does seem to be a pretty decent fellow,” Laurie offered.
“Formidable,” Dornier contemplated in his own manner of respect.
“He does seem very intelligent,” Twilight continued. “I imagine the greatest scholars of Equestria would give anything to hear what he might be saying in there!”
Just then, the door opened swiftly, conveying the urgency of the hands that pushed it.
“Ah, hello!” Trent blurted to the assembled ponies. “Say, Laurie... right? It’s the second door on the left down this hall?”
“Does the phrase ‘like a racehorse’ mean anything to you?”
“Oh... Ooooohh... Yes, follow me!” They broke into a quick run.
“Sorry about the language,” Trent apologized to Twilight as he hurried past.
Twilight stood speechless, again. Her hanging jaw and wide eyes working together in perfect harmony to express shocked incredulity.
“Um... Wait for me!” she cried, as she galloped after them.
“Whaaat?” Laurie and Trent shouted in unison.
“I don’t knoooow!” she cried, pondering the meaning of her previous statement with mortified embarrassment, as she raced around the corner.
The three were nearly gone from sight.
Dornier shouted after them. “Lancaster! I hereby order you not to bring that damned field manual within fifty paces of a bathroom!”
A slightly mumbled response was heard, followed by a shout of “Sir!” Had his words been any louder, the paint would have cracked and peeled from the palace walls. Fortunately, the only collateral damage from Laurie’s weapons-grade retort were the ears of a young purple pony.
The double doors finally creaked shut, leaving Luna and Dornier alone together. She sidled next to him, as they both stared off into empty space. Not as Princess and Captain, but as two soldiers facing the interminable unknowns hinted by the rays of dawn breaking over a battlefield.
“Judgement. Inquisition. War. That is what I heard, was it not?”
Dornier nodded quietly.
She sighed. “I do apologize if I frightened you.”
He shook his head. “No, no. It’s different this time. I trust you are doing the right thing.”
Dornier turned to look at Luna briefly.
“It’s good to have you back.”
She nodded gently, placing a hoof next to his.
“Hmm... A set of crossed quills,” Luna remarked. “I should suppose that our new Captain’s mark bears the truth. He does seem to have a way with words.”
Dornier rolled his eyes, with noticeable purpose.
“Captain,” she said with a small grin. “Doth my ears sense the tinge of envy?”
His answer came as a drawn out sigh.
“I do feel that my sister’s field promotion was not without warrant. Just as I remain satisfied with my decision to grant thine own rank in the same manner, so long ago. Do you still remember?”
“I do remember it clearly. Gah... Thank you as well, my Princess, for dredging up memories of myself at his young and stupid age.”
“I find it surprising that thou hast not proceeded further since we last worked alongside. Many of thine contemporaries have long since adorned their sashes with the emblems of leadership, or returned to the green pastures of their formative years. Yet you have stayed as a humble captain, despite having a record that commands its own filing cabinet. Why, if I may ask?”
Dornier gestured to the crossed blades adorning his flank.
“My place is not one of comfort, your Majesty. I will not forget what appears to be my calling in life.”
“Mm. You need not bear such formality, for I already know the depth of your respect, Little Darling.”
“Now that is not a name I have been called in quite some time. Please, do feel honored that you remain the only one to remember it.”
Luna giggled slightly, elbowing Dornier with a wink.
“Since my return, I have not once seen you wearing the armor afforded by your rank. Thou were inseparable from it, so many ages ago.”
Dornier snorted derisively. “I shall wear it, when it is needed, and only then. The rest of these,” He stumbled for a moment, paring back the venom from his words. “toy soldiers. They hide behind their polished plates as a foal behind its mother’s legs.”
“Hmmm,” she smiled. “Polished plates never seemed to be your style. I imagine that if I were to inspect the breastplate tucked away in your quarters, it would still bear every dent, scratch, and bloodstain from so many years hence.”
“I never was good with such formalities,” he smirked.
They sighed together, continuing to gaze at the far wall.
“Do you think Laurie is cut out for his task?” Her voice fell slightly flat.
“Hmm? Well... I believe he will make a fine officer some day. But the time to prove himself has yet to come.”
“And this troubles you?”
“It does. I feel his time will be coming, soon.”
“Princess. Could I ask of you, what you saw earlier?”
“For you, but a hint. Are you familiar with a certain pony, tan in color, and rustic of nature?”
“Does she wear a cowgirl hat?”
“Ahh. I think I may have ran into her this morning. Why?”
Luna started to speak, but held her tongue.
“No reason... But I do feel relieved that you have witnessed her to be in good health.”
“Well... there might have been some bruises,” Dornier admitted.
Luna cocked an eye at the Captain.
“I feel the depiction of your encounter may have been more literal than I expected.”
“Eeeeyup!” Dornier softly bellowed, with a trace of mockery.
She sighed, giggling slightly.
“I bid the well once again, Little Darling. For now we must pursue our separate ways.”
“Rule Equestria. Rule these lands. Forge thy will as such our Princess commands,” Dornier smiled as he uttered the first lines of the long forgotten battle hymn. “Fare thee well, Princess.”
“Thine self as well, Captain.”
* * *
The sticky sweet confectionery carnage was nearly cleaned, and Sugarcube Corner had returned to some semblance of normalcy.
“Need a hoof with anything else there, Pinkie?” Applejack asked of her friend.
“Nope, I think we got it all. Thanks for the help!”
“Ohh, you’re welcome,” Fluttershy managed with a small broom clenched between her teeth. “We’re always here to help.”
“I know it. Unlike Some. Other. Ponies!” Pinkie said with a huff, turning her nose up towards the door. “I just can’t believe the nerve of that guy!”
“Are you okay? He ran into you pretty hard!”
Pinkie nodded, rubbing her bruised side.
“He got me twice, sugarcube. Darn fella couldn’t make up his mind if he was a coming or a going.”
“That other pony seemed a lot nicer at least.” Pinkie mused.
“Oh yeah, now that you mention it,” Applejack puffed up with pride. “Ah might just be a lil bit famous. That feller Raines says I’m going to be in a story he’s writing for that newspaper of his.”
“Don’t forget about me, Sis!” Applebloom shouted as the Cutie Mark Crusaders made a beeline for the door. “I’m bettin them northern Lanshire folks are gonna be slack jawed six ways from Sunday when they read about my brave an heroic adventure! Why, I bet they’ll think I’m bravest pony this side of the Dragon Mountains!”
“Oh you are so full of... Wait up a minute now, where's y’all headed?”
The trio stopped in their tracks, bristling with excitement.
“Rainbow Dash is gonna show us how she caught Scootaloo! Cutie Mark Crusader Stunt Doubles! Yay!”
“Uhh...” she rubbed her temples - partially from the noise, partially from the stupid.
“Hah, eh, yeah,” Dash admitted sheepishly. “They kinda twisted my wing into this. Don’t worry though, I’ll keep an eye and a pair of hooves on em the whole time. Heh. Who knows, I might turn this into a routine at the next Cloudesdale Young Flyers competition.”
They shared a glance, their matched expressions briefly conveying a sincere severity befitting those several times their age.
“Stayin outta the forest?”
“Nowhere near it.”
“Well, y’all have fun then.”
Applejack sighed deeply as they departed. Pinkie and Fluttershy had started their own conversation near the racks of pies and apple crisps. Their fervent exchange suggested that something big was afoot. Pinkie talked about parties in the same manner that other ponies would discuss world domination.
“Oh, hey there Sweetie Belle. What can I do fer ya?”
“Better spit it out quick, or you’re gonna be late with your friends there, sugarcube.”
“I just had a question. Do you remember last night, when you met... him?”
Applejack looked embarrassed for a moment, remembering quite clearly. A nervous smile broke out as she tried to maintain her composure.
“Well, I remember it pretty well. Shoot, lotsa things happened that night, come to think of it. Wasn’t nopony that saw us, er, I mean... Getting lifted up like that... Um... Oh, hey! How’s that flank feeling there?”
Sweetie Belle continued to stare. Something more serious was on her mind.
“It’s fine, thank you.”
“Umm... Well yes. I did meet him. And nothing else happened!” she added quickly.
“How did he know?”
“Huh? The big fella?”
“Raines. How did he know?”
“Ohh,” she pondered for a moment. “Well, I guess word travels fast around here. I’m sure it’s nothing Sweetie. Time for you to skedaddle now. Go on and get some sun and fresh air.”
Sweetie Belle left, still worried.
Applejack was left worried as well.
“Horsefeathers.” she muttered, before returning to Fluttershy and Pinkie.
* * *
The carriage streaked across the sky at a leisurely pace, overlooking the pastel yellows and earthy tones of the Whitetail Woods. Trent smiled as he leaned over the side, enjoying the wind in his hair, and the serene vista of the lands below. The pegasi team had long since grown numb to the breathtaking sights, in their many routine trips over the kingdom.
Twilight sat perplexed in the back of the carriage. Her mind bore a question that she did not dare answer herself.
“Excuse me, Officer Laurie?”
“Oh hello. We should be there in another fifteen minutes, I believe.”
Twilight shook her head. “Thank you, but I had a different question.”
“Well... It’s something you said earlier. It’s not really possible, is it?”
“Well, you know. What you said to that other guard earlier.”
Laurie’s eyes suddenly grew wider.
“That’s not really possible, is it? To have... Um... it, go in one end, and out the other?”
“Umm, no no... Just a figure of speech really!”
“I mean, can that even work? Or even losing ‘that’,” She looked aside while mentioning the unmentionable. “if it’s going through from the other direction?”
It was Laurie’s turn to be mortified to the point of physical ailment. Even Trent turned around to gawk at the utterly clueless discussion of depravity.
Suddenly her brain caught up to her mouth, throttling her vocal cords until a high pitched “Nevermind!” squeaked out.
Curiosity. It’s a hell of a drug.
The three remained silent for the next fifteen minutes.
It was a very long fifteen minutes.
* * *