Rites of Ascension

by CvBrony

Harvesting What Was Sown

Twilight stood and stretched, her vertebrae popping from having been in a sitting position for too long. “At least I’ve been able to catch up on some reading on this trip. Still have a day to go, though.” She yawned and put her book back in the pile, then stacked the collection neatly by size. To the left of the little tower was the pile of ashes that was once Shining's notes, now safely destroyed.
A speaker in her room crackled to life. “Attention. Airstream drive has been taken offline for cooldown and maintenance. All pegasi not working on the engines, if you want to stretch your wings, you have one hour.”
Hmmm… Twilight tapped her chin. One, two, three…
A storm of hooves galloped down the hallway outside of her room, keratin banging on steel as what was likely every single pegasus on the ship racing outside the nearest door.
Spike turned a page in his own book. “Heh. Figured as much. Pegasi. Can’t sit still.”
“Unless their name is Fluttershy.” Twilight did some more stretches, her muscles twitching a little. “Though it feels like my body understands it a bit now. I mean, if you’re used to having the whole sky, being cramped like this can’t be pleasant.”
“True enough. Guess I can’t be too harsh on them. We have been in here a while.”
Bang bang bang clang! The series of ‘knocks’, if one could call them that, were followed by the door to their room getting tossed open like it was made of cardboard instead of metal.
“What are you waiting for, Twi!?” Rainbow yelled in through the doorway, flaring her wings out. “Come on!”
“Uh, Rainbow?” Twilight raised her eyebrow. “No wings. We’re over the middle of the ocean. Nowhere for me to go. Well, except down.”
Her friend all but leapt into the room and swung around behind Twilight, then started pushing her out the door. “No wings yet. You’re coming with me, and I’m carrying you. Now, get out that door right now!”
“Okay, okay! Sheesh! Hold down the fort, Spike. Er, ship, anyway.”
A little smirk grew on the dragon’s face. “It’d sink if I held it down, Twi.”
Rainbow didn’t let Twilight retort. They were already out the door and down the hall. When they arrived at a door open to the outside, Twilight put a hoof on the port, stopping herself from being shoved out. “Rainbow, you are aware that I don’t have wings, right? As in, there are no wings on my back. As in, I can't fly. At all. Granted, I’d survive, but still…”
“Come on, Twi! You know me! I’m not trying to make you fall. I wanna show you something! Just, it’s out there, and a window won’t do it. Here, lemme…” Rainbow stretched and put her forelegs around Twilight’s torso. “There. Let go of the ship, and I’ll fly you over to that big cumulous, okay?”
Twilight looked out to the distance, examining the cloud in question before taking in a deep breath. “Okay, Rainbow, you win. Let’s go.” She released her death grip on the doorway and fought back against her nerve, letting Rainbow pick her up and carry her into the blue.
Her purple hooves dangled over the open sky, untold thousands of meters over the ocean. From such a height, in a fall, it wouldn’t matter what would be under her. Even water would feel similar to concrete unless she used pegasus currents to slow herself. Even then, she might get gobbled by a sea wyvern moments later.
Jumping out of a chariot is one thing. This is… I don’t think I’ll ever quite get used to heights like this.
“Hang on!” Rainbow angled her body downward, picking up speed towards the cloud.
“As if there's an alternative!” Twilight twisted her body a little as her torc slid against her coat to relieve the pressure on her chest. Her heartbeat drummed on as they fell, bringing to mind dozens of "incidents" back in Ponyville. “Targeting the cloud!”
“What? What are you—“
Twilight charged up her horn and fired off her teleportation spell in a flash of purple light. When the world reappeared, both Rainbow and Twilight were directly over the cloud and heading down at an altogether inappropriate pace.
Twilight felt Rainbow pull back and flap her wings, but the mouthful of cloud Twilight was chewing a moment later was evidence enough of her miscalculation. Rainbow landed a second later off to her side.
She spat the tuft of cloud out of her mouth, which began to slowly float away from her as a micro-cloud. Well, at least clouds are safe to crash on. Thank you, cloud, for being soft and fluffy.
“Ugh. Next time warn me when you’re about to do that, Twi.” Rainbow rubbed her head and stretched out a wing.
“Sorry, Rainbow. I’m still not quite used to being this high up. You’re going to have to be kind of patient with me until I find my se… er, sky legs? Sky wings? But, all wings are sky wings, to—”
“Eh, it’s okay.” Rainbow shrugged. “You’re honestly doing a lot better than Fluttershy when she was a filly. And you don’t even fly!”
“Well, it helps I can teleport. Speaking of, I’ve been going over my brother’s notes. I honestly had no idea he had tweaked my teleportation spell quite that much. I think I understand now why his teleportations always looked so inefficient. It’s not that he’s simply using more power, but that he’s doing a lot more with each one.”
“Oh yeah?” Rainbow leaned back on the cloud, staring at the sky above. “What more is there to do? I mean, besides violate the laws of physics.”
“Actually, he violates the laws of physics even more. He has an additional layer embedded within the spell that allows him to change what direction and speed he’s going as he exits the spell. Based on what he’s given me, some of the changes can be fairly extreme. In effect, he can basically fly. Of course, to change direction at all he has to teleport again. And gravity and wind resistance are still a factor. If he doesn’t teleport again, he will eventually start to fall.
“There are also various additional protections built into the spell to prevent somepony from hurting him immediately upon exit. The complexity is, well, surprising. He never talked to me much about his combat spells, because so many of them are classified. I guess I just didn’t realize how much both he and I have grown.”
“You don’t get to be Captain of the Royal Guard and not be a bit of a bad flank. It’s kind of the same with the Wonderbolts, but at the same time, not really.” Rainbow took in a deep breath and sighed. “Twilight, I want to thank you.”
Twilight pulled together a bit of cloud and rested her back against it. “What for?”
“For getting me the hell out of the Wonderbolts. For letting me join your guard.” Rainbow lifted up a hoof as though she was trying to touch the sky itself. “I needed this. I needed this so damn bad. To be in the action. Get to fly again. Yeah, we’ve been cooped up this time, but still. I mean, look. Look at the sky. Look at how huge it is.
“Now, imagine being the best flyer in the world, and being stuck in an office all day. That’s no way to live. We pegasi don’t just fly. Some of us say we’re the masters of the sky, but I don’t really think that way. At least, not anymore. These days, I think of the sky as being an extension of myself. I am the sky.”
A group of pegasi soared overhead, hundreds of meters above them. They split off of a formation and started doing little loops in the air.
“Yeah, just like that.” Rainbow smiled. “We might use different words to describe it, but we all feel it. That calling, that desire to be airborne. Even Fluttershy does! She may not go zooming and soaring around, but you see how she hovers a lot. She’s a bit too shy to do much more, and I know she’ll never admit it, but I know she feels it.”
Twilight stared up into the void of the sky, putting her hoof up as well. All pegasi feel it… A connection to the sky… This is… “It’s your world, isn’t it? The sky. Even when you’re on the ground, it feels like you’re only at the bottom of the sky.”
Rainbow nodded. “More or less, yeah. And now, you’re part of it too. A Pegasus. Even if you don’t have your wings yet.”
Twilight felt a warmth growing in her chest. “Rainbow. Thank you.”
She held out a hoof, and Rainbow gave it a bump.
“Yeah, just don’t go spreading that around. I got a reputation and keep after all. Although, if you want, when you do finally get your wings, I could teach you how to fly. I never really got to with Scootaloo.”
“I’d be honoured! In fact…” Twilight stood up on the cloud. “Why don’t we do some flying right now?”
Rainbow raised an eyebrow. “Um, Twi? You’re the one who pointed out to me that you don’t have wings. As in, at all.”
“Yeah, but I can fix that. At least for a little while." Twilight held up her horn and let the ribbons of magic surround her, wrapping her in an orb of pure light. In a final burst, she emerged and spread her new wings. Not pegasus wings, but delicate butterfly wings made of gossamer and morning dew.
“Aww, yeah!” Rainbow leapt up into the air and did a quick backflip. “I totally forgot you could do that!”
“Well, I wouldn’t use them in combat or even this high up, normally. But since the Bellerophon has a wind stabilization spell, just like Cloudsdale, it’s pretty quiet up here. As long as we stay close to the ship, there shouldn’t be any problems.”
“We can do that! Just gotta keep things kinda slow so you don’t tear those apart.”
“Can do! Come on, let’s go —”

“What the hell? Unicorns can do this now? I swear it gets worse every day. Wings? Really? Freaking horn-heads have figured out how to give themselves wings?" A nearby petty officer shook his head and started to fly off. "What’s next? Are they going to start controlling the weather for us, too?”

Rainbow’s jaw dropped open. “Did he seriously just say that?"

Twilight's vision tunneled in on the pegasus and scanned him as she memorized his tan and brown colours, cutie mark, and wing type. "Rainbow, get him down here."

Rainbow zoomed up to him like a cannonball, albeit without the normally obligatory explosion.


"Damn bucking skippy, 'Yipe!'" Rainbow pushed him back with a light punch to the chest. "You have no bucking clue just how much you screwed the pooch just now, sailor! Get down there and land on that cloud before you spend the rest of the mission in the brig!"

The stallion looked over Rainbow for a moment, then grimaced and got in her face. "No navy uniform? That means you got no authority over me, toots."

Twilight sparked out of and back into existence, coming out of the teleport next to Rainbow and flapping her butterfly wings. She unfolded her forelegs and stuck out her chest to show off her torc, barely even noticing her hind legs were dangling a mile over a sea-serpent infested ocean. "You are not to talk to my Guard Captain like that, Petty Officer 3rd Class..." She glanced at his name tag. "Dustmane."

The stallion blinked and bit his hoof. "You're... You're..."

"The 'horn-head' in command of this mission." Twilight finished the sentence for him. "And you just bought a pair of two-thousand-bit tickets to Princess Cadence's charity gala. Am I clear, Seapony Dustmane?"

The pegasus winced like he'd been kicked, along with his puppy. He looked less like a sailor, and more like a lost foal. "I'm... I'm sorry, ma'am, I didn't mean to --"

"I said, am I clear, Seapony?!"

"Crystal Clear, ma'am!" He saluted through a wave of tears.

Rainbow grabbed him and pointed him at the Bellerophon. "Get back on the ship before I tie you up and toss you in the brig, Seapony. Move!"

Twilight scratched her chin with the edge of her hoof as the stallion flew off. "Something wasn't quite right there."

"Ya think?"

"No, I mean, his words weren't random." Twilight reached for her currently-not-present saddlebags and wished she had brought her notebook with her. "He acted like he was... Obsolete, for lack of a better word."

Rainbow slumped over and sighed. "It sucks, but I think that attitude is going to get worse and worse in the future. See, you know that cloudwalking spell you use? Well, it's gotten popular."

Twilight glanced up above her to the deep azure sky and felt an itch, then shook it off. "Isn't that a good thing, though? It means more ponies can visit the Cloudsdale Duchy floating cities."

"And, while they're at it, buy an amulet with a permanent spell on it so they can move there. Unicorns especially are getting a lot of hate because they're taking a lot of desk jobs like clerks. Why hire a pegasus to write with his mouth when you can hire a unicorn that can write ten times as fast?"

"Oooh... I see. And I just gave myself wings, and he probably doesn't know this spell is way beyond what most unicorns can do." Twilight looked off to the horizon in the vague direction of Equestria, which was now well over the horizon. "Anything else I should know?"

"Yeah. Cloudsdale's economy is in the crapper. I know weather ponies that have been on one percent raises for the last ten years."

"And inflation in most Duchies has been at least three percent. Yeah, I think I see where it's coming from now. I know that this kind of thing is almost always done on a Duchy level, but I'll talk to Tia about it if I can."

Rainbow jerked back in surprise, the hit herself on the cheek. "I honestly don't know why I was surprised when you said that. Of course you'd try to help. You're Twilight Sparkle, not those windbag columnists in the papers."

Twilight smiled and put a hoof on Rainbow's shoulder. “We’re all in this together, even when we’re living in a city in the clouds. It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, no matter what some politicians might say. I wish some ponies would give the other tribes a chance, you know? We’re not out to get them.” An image of Bismare flashed in her head. “Well, okay, there are a few jerks out there, but…”

Rainbow chuckled. “That’s kind of a given. ‘Any sufficiently large population is going to have a few jerks in it.’”

"Bingo." Twilight stretched out like she could embrace the whole sky. "I'll undo that guy's demotion if he stays out of trouble for a while. Right now, though, I want to get in some flying. Ready, Rainbow?"

"Thought you'd never ask!"

Twilight hopped off the chariot, her hooves clanging on the floor of the ship’s launch bay. “What’s going on? We’ve been waiting for a launch signal for a while now.”

Rainbow arched her back and yawned. “Not sure. You’d think they’d keep us in the loop a bit better.”

“Think we should go up and talk to them?” Spike asked, wiping the blade of his halberd. “If they have a reason for delaying us, I think we have a right to know what it is.”

“Agreed. You two stay here. I’m going to talk to Admiral Tempest and find out what's going on. Stay ready in case we have to scramble. Something doesn’t feel quite right.”
“Sure thing,” Spike said, attaching his halberd to his back with a clang.
Twilight walked down to the end of the launch bay, climbing a ramp to the upper deck. Through watertight doors and labyrinthine stairs she progressed, the ship’s layout having been etched in her memory. Eventually, she pushed open a particularly heavy blast door and stepped inside the bridge.
“Attention on de —”
“At ease,” Twilight sighed, stepping up beside the admiral. “Any news?”
“Lady Sparkle, I was about to summon you.” Tempest motioned over towards a wall with a large topographical map. “We’ve just completed updating our maps using pictures that our scouts returned. As expected, there is a large, extinct volcano just to the northwest of our target. Inside, there is a deep caldera with a lake. After you launch, we will take the Bellerophon and hide it there. A few of our pegasi and I will cover the opening with clouds.”
“So what’s the holdup?” Twilight asked.
The XO, the second in command of the ship, took off his hat and rubbed his head. “That’s not all our scouts found. The Zebrican military is flying wyvern patrols along the coast.”
“What? Why? We’re six thousand kilometers away from the border with Saddle Arabia.” Twilight pulled out her notebook and started to copy the map on the wall. “Are they really that concerned about sneak attacks?”
“We don’t know.” Tempest picked up a pointing stick and traced along the coast on the map. “What we do know, however, is their patterns. We’ve been watching them for a  while. In ten minutes, we will have a narrow window of opportunity to sneak through to the caldera and get you on shore.
“Hmmm…” Twilight chewed on the cap of her pen. “What are the wyverns’ combat capabilities? Luna never trained me to fight those.”
The XO put his cap back on and straightened it. “Wyverns can fly as fast as pegasi, but despite their relation to dragons and their shared ability to breathe fire, they aren’t intelligent. They also aren’t anywhere near as nimble as ponies, either. Their zebra riders, however, could also be armed with cored cannons.”
The admiral stepped towards the front windows of the bridge, gazing out at the horizon. “I’m not that worried about the threat to the ship. Even when armoured, wyverns will make easy pickings for our guns, though I am curious as to why there are so many patrols here. Their presence makes the threat to you much greater.”
“Perhaps we can find out while we’re here.” Twi finished off her notes and put the book away. “I’m not about to let a few patrols stop me after we’ve come this far.”
“Agreed. Grand Mage, get your team ready. You launch in seven minutes.”

“It’s going to take me a while to get used to this thing in my ear.” Cloud Burner shook his head, clearly uncomfortable with the new device.
“We launch in two.” Rainbow called out as she put her own helmet on, adjusting its radio and microphone. “I just hope these stupid things work.”
A loud buzz ground its way through the launch bay, and the red lights over the main door shifted from red to yellow.
“They’re only good over a short distance anyway,” Twilight grumbled. “The Bellerophon will be out of range while we’re in town. However, it will only be a short flight for you, so this time, you are our lifeline instead of Spike.”
Rainbow affixed the strap with a smile. “You can count on me!”
Twilight turned to Zecora and spoke in her friend’s native language. <<Are you doing okay? You’ve been awfully quiet.>>
<<Forgive me, Twilight, it’s just that, I am… confused. I should be happy, coming home to my native home, and yet…>>
Twilight put a hoof on her shoulder. <<Don’t worry, I understand. Just strap in, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.>>
A staticy voice chirped in their ears, “Royal One, this is Bellerophon Control. We are thirty seconds to launch. Ready yourselves.”
Another buzz sounded, and the main door began to open. A cold wind rushed through the bay, threatening to suck out anything not weighed down or bolted to the floor.
Twilight leaned back in the sleek, night guard chariot, Zecora beside her. Rainbow and Spike braced themselves in the front row.
Rainbow leaned forward, seemingly forgetting about the microphone next to her mouth. “Careful, you guys. This isn’t one of Celestia’s chariots. This is one of Luna’s. It’s going to have a much lower centre of gravity.”
Cloud Burner and Sea Lance spread their wings. “We know," Cloud Burner replied. "When Luna returned, we had to train on both. Just hold on tight.”
“Royal One, this is Bellerophon Control. You are go in ten…”
An even stronger wind overtook them as the two pegasi synchronized their magic. Twilight grabbed onto the rail. She was an alicorn ascendant, and could survive anything that could possibly result from this, yet that was of zero comfort.
“Three. Two. One…”
“Launch!” the two pegasi shouted in unison. Wings flapped, chains tightened, and the chariot rocketed out of the bay. Air rushed past them, blowing their manes in a wild frenzy. The cool, humid night air stood in stark contrast to the weather in Canterlot. Small clouds dotted the sky, coming in from the ocean. Soft moonlight glinted off of them as if they were etched in silver.
The chariot swung to the right as the pegasi dragged it off in the other direction towards the shore.
Twilight took in a deep breath. This is it. Here we go. She felt gravity loosen its grip on her, and the chariot all but fell away. Just as her heart stopped, the belt grabbed hold of her, dragging her down with the rest of them. The two pegasi had gone into a steep dive, almost as if they were impersonating an artillery shell. Waves shifted and grew in size as they rapidly descended towards the ocean surface. The smell of salt and surf bombarded Twilight’s nose. The moonlight on the water shimmered in a wide belt ready to envelop them whole.
Gravity reasserted its grasp, pressing down on her like a boulder and pressing her stomach against her hips. In a snap turn she felt the pegasi level off, racing for the shore. Inertia pushed her backwards as they accelerated, and Twilight could now make out the dense foliage on the land. Emerald-coloured leaves dominated the landscape, save for the mountains to the north.
She turned backward and searched for the Bellerophon. It, too, was racing for shore, but towards the volcano instead of the flat land beneath it. Small specks danced around the ship in an escort formation. The military pegasi formed an additional line of defense for their only way home.
“Bellerophon Control, this is Royal One,” one of the guards barked. “We are one minute from landing. Request recon update.”
“Royal One, this is Bellerophon Control. Window is open, proceed with infil.”
“Roger that, Bellerophon Control.” The pegasi feinted right then turned sharply to the left, aiming for a region of the volcano’s foothills.
“When we land, Zecora will show us a place to hide and make camp until daybreak. We won’t be able to see well enough to collect the plants during the night.” Twilight’s ear twitched from the device in her ear. “At the first sign of dawn we’ll wake and start the collection. I want to be done by noon. After that I want to investigate the patrols and find where these gems came from.”

“Ugh, where’s Applejack when you need her?” Rainbow bent over and pulled out some medicinal grass from the ground, then stuffed it into the bale behind her. “Seriously, pegasi just are not cut out for this.”
Twilight plucked a flower from a strange, purple vine and stuffed it into her own bale. She rotated her shoulder blades one at a time and arched her back in a stretch. “I admit we’re not exactly on schedule, but Luna’s training was worse. We’ll be fine.”
“It’s true, this work isn’t fun. But our bales are full, so we are almost done!” Zecora tied off her bale with her mouth, and flung it over her back.
“About time.” Spike slung his own herb-filled sack over his shoulder. “Still one more box on the checklist, though.”
“I know.” Twilight lit her horn and lifted each bale from her friends, arranging them in a neat cluster in a small clearing. “I was actually saving that one for last. I saw it a bit to the south. We need the airtight drum for that one, and Spike, you’re going to have to be the one to harvest it.”
“Why me?”
“Because it’s resistant to telekinesis, and if any of us screw it up, the plant will poison us.”
“And dragons are immune.” Spike rolled his eyes. “Isn’t that always the way?”
Rainbow chuckled. “Oh, woe is me! I could live for thousands of years and I’m immune to practically everything! What a terrible, cruel life!” Rainbow held a fetlock to her forehead and pretended to faint.
Spike blew a raspberry at her, sending the little sparks of green fire out into the air.
Twilight chuckled a bit, too. “Come on, you guys. It isn’t that far.”
The group made their way through the foliage, stepping over, around, and even under all manner of plants and trees. True to her word, they arrived in just a few moments.
Wrapped around a tree, there was a long green vine with large, vibrant, red flowers. Each had thick petals arranged in a large, wide bell shape. Strange leaves jutted out from underneath each flower that arced in the shape of a scythe.
“There it is,” Twilight said, pointing at the flowers. “The Reaping Rose. Celestia said that it is one of the most deadly plants in all of Equus.”
Rainbow raised an eyebrow. “So, why are we harvesting it again?”
“Because it’s a key ingredient in making the Thanatos Tear. It’s harmless as long as we don’t inhale its pollen.”
“Beware the bell, and do not smell, or you shall permanently doze to the Reaping Rose,” Zecora said, her voice weakening. Even her legs twitched slightly as she gazed at the plant.
“If it’s enough to put Zecora in awe, we better be doubly careful.” Twilight all but glared at the plant, staring at it as sunlight shined down through a small opening in the rain forest canopy. The ponies in the group backed away from the plant. “Spike, do your best to hold your breath. I don’t care if the air in your lungs is thousands of degrees and should burn it up instantly, we should be careful here.”
Spike folded his arms and scratched his head with his tail. “It looks pretty attached to that tree. How do we it get off?”
“Hmmm. Hey Twi, think it’s time to try your telekinetic blade again?”
“On this? Are you nuts? Besides…” Twilight reached into her saddlebag and pulled out a survival knife with her magic. “I can just cut it with this.”
The little blade flew around the tree cutting off the plant’s death grip on its unfortunate arboreal host. A few of the flowers shot tufts of pollen out as she did so, sounding like little plant sneezes. Unfortunately for the plant, the three ponies were well away from its reach. Once all the connections were cut, Twilight chopped off the plant at the base.
“I put the canister down behind that other tree, Spike. Can you see it?”
Spike backtracked a bit into the forest and behind a palm tree, digging around the leaves. “Yeah, found it!” he said, pulling it out from its hiding place. "Hiding stuff in trees? So, what, are you taking lessons from Pinkie Pie now?”
Twilight sighed and rolled her eyes. “I had my pick of almost anypony to be in my honour guard, and of my friends, I just had to pick the snarkiest.”
Spike snickered. “Pot, meet kettle.” He unscrewed the top of the steel cylindrical container and approached the plant slowly. Using the bottom, he began to scoop up the plant one bell at a time. As he fed the vine in, each flower sneezed as it entered, the pollen being contained harmlessly. In a couple of minutes, the top was on, and the plant was secured.
Twilight let out a little exhale. “Good work, Spike! Okay, everypony, let’s get back to the shore so our escorts can haul the stuff back to the ship. Also, Spike, you should take a quick dip in the ocean to wash the pollen off both yourself and that container. It’s only harmful if inhaled or eaten, but I don’t want to take any chances here.”
“Fair enough.” Spike shrugged, rubbing his fingers. “The stuff feels kinda grainy anyway.”

“Is this everything?” Cloud Burner grunted, pushing the last of the plant bundles into the chariot. “If we don’t leave soon, we’ll have to wait another hour to get an opening in the patrols.”
“It’s everything,” Twilight said, nodding. “Everything on the checklist is accounted for. Oh, but do not open the sealed canister. In fact, tell the entire ship that I have a standing order in place to not even think about opening that. It’s top secret, and poses an extremely lethal biohazard threat to anyone who does.”
The stallion’s eyes went wide for a moment before regaining his composure and saluting. “Aye aye, ma’am!”
Twilight saluted back as he put himself in the harness with the other Pegasus and took off. Is it weird that I’m already getting used to saluting back like this? She beat back the thought with a mental hammer, then turned to face Spike as he trudged out of the ocean.
“Bleh. Wet. I wonder if my armor would survive me torching it to dry it off?”
“Doubtful. I wouldn’t worry about it too much, though. You’re going to be up in the air with Rainbow.”
“I am?” he asked.
“He is?” Rainbow asked too, mirroring Spike’s expression.
“He is. I want you two to hop in a cloud and follow us into town. I’m not sure how the zebras will react to me, so I want you to be ready to drop in at a moment’s notice.” Twilight pulled the saddlebags off her back. “We didn’t exactly react with grace when Zecora first arrived in Ponyville.”
Zecora sighed. “I ask you, my friend, to worry not. All is forgiven and the past is forgot. As for the town, I do not know. I left in tears, long, long ago.”
Rainbow jumped into the air and started splashing in the sea to gather water vapour for a cloud. “So you said, but we still don’t know why. What happened here?”
“I… Would rather not say. It was a truly painful day.”
“Well, we are going to have to interact at least a little. Somepony knows where this gem came from.” Twilight pulled out the burnt core, along with a tropical Explorers’ jacket and pith helmet. “And for that, I need to look the part.” She pulled off her torc and stuffed it inside her saddlebag before donning the shirt.
Spike hopped on the slowly forming cloud, letting his armor's cloudwalking spell support him as Rainbow continued to build it up. The magic from her pinions sprayed the water into the air as a mist, collecting into a ball. “Hey, worst case scenario? We can hop down to pull you guys out. You already left once, right? If it really is that bad, we have your back.”
Twilight put her forearm across Zecora’s back. “She could’ve put it a little more delicately, but she’s still right. We are here for you. You have nothing to be afraid of.”
Zecora took in a quivering breath and exhaled with a nod.
Twilight gave her a smile and picked up her pith helmet and tried to put it on. “Huh… No horn hole. Not a unicorn-compliant model.” She flipped it over and pulled out her telekinetic blade in a flash of purple light. Slowly, she carved out a small opening and put the hat back on, this time with it sitting properly.
“Um, Twi?”
“Hmmm?” Twilight turned to face Rainbow, head tilted to the side. “What is it?”
Rainbow pointed at the shimmering, purple blade.
Twilight looked over and found it crackling and popping in place, sparks shooting out of one end. “Aww, crap!” She whipped her head around to toss it at the ocean, sending the blade of light into a large wave.
The huge thud roared from the ocean, splashing up a swimming pool’s worth of water a meter into the air.
For a moment, the entire group stood still, watching the event settle.
“Actually, that wasn’t near as bad as I was expecting.” Spike scratched his chin. “You think your magic is getting more stable, Twilight?”
Twilight shook her head. “No, I think the water absorbed a lot more of the energy. I was kind of hoping it would. I guess I still shouldn’t try using that just yet.”
“Yeah, I don’t think the zebras will be too appreciative of you blowing up a small part of their town. I mean, to us, that’s just a part of being in Ponyville, but I kinda doubt that other towns celebrate new arrivals with explosions.” Rainbow finished the top of the cloud, arcing it over her and Spike so that they would be concealed. “Looks like we’re ready!”
Twilight nodded. “Okay, good luck you two. Watch out for the patrols.”
“Can do!” Spike waved at them as Rainbow began to fly the cloud up into the sky.
Twilight looked over at Zecora who sighed and started the journey towards the town. “Well, at the very least, this should be interesting…”

Twilight and Zecora made their way through the jungle, emerging at one of the town’s outer edges. Soft, sweet smelling grass gave way to dirt under their hooves as they arrived at what appeared to be a major trail to the village.
Huh. I expected the buildings to be more like Zecora’s hut in the Everfree forest. These are… Well, not exactly modern, but not simplistic either.
Twilight’s eyes moved across the scene, first over the white stone wall that surrounded the entire town, and then on to the buildings themselves. Each of the buildings looked much the same, with whitewashed walls and terracotta tile roofs. Most had small windows covered with a type of cloth. A few were two stories tall but most were only one. Cracks, chipped paint, holes, and other issues were telltale signs of lack of upkeep.
The trail intersected the wall at a large, gated opening. The gate itself was painted black with large spots of rust showing through, and one side of it was only barely affixed to the wall with a single corroded bolt.
“Sort of looks like they let the place go since you left…” Twilight furled her brow into a look of concern.
<<No,>> Zecora said in her native language. <<It’s been like this as long as I can remember. Nothing’s changed.>>
“Heads up, Twi!” Rainbow’s voice crackled over the radio. “There’s a pony, er, zebra approaching fast from your left.”
<<Sister! Sister! Is that you? Zecora, over here!>> The zebra mare yelled, rushing at them while waving a hoof.
<<Nerise?>> Zecora asked, jaw agape.
<<Oh, it is you! Father will be thrilled you made it! And you brought a friend!>>
Zecora raised an eyebrow. <<Father is still alive?>>
Nerise jerked back in shock. <<You mean… You haven’t heard? I thought he would’ve sent a message…>>
<<Message? For what, exactly?>>
<<The journey, sister! The journey! It’s finally time! Oh, you should go see him! He’s in the worship hall, as always.>>
Twilight’s eyes went wide. Journey? Did I hear that right? I think I’m missing something here… But if I’m not then that’s even worse.
Zecora’s jaw dropped. <<The restriction on visitors… Was it…?>>
<<Lifted, yes! In fact, it was lifted a long time ago! I tried to write you letters, but they always came back returned.>>
Twilight rubbed her head with a hoof. <<Yeah, the mail between Zebrica and Equestria isn’t the most reliable.>>
<<Speaking of, who’s your friend?>> Nerise asked with a jovial laugh. <<Is she here to join us?>>
Crap, I forgot to think of a name! Crap crap crap crap crap! Think, Twilight! Think think think! <<My name is Professor Starlight from Canterlot University. It’s good to meet you!>> I really hope my old professor doesn’t mind me ‘borrowing’ her name like this… Not that I particularly care what Professor Never-Gives-An-A thinks.
<<Oh, a teacher! We don’t see many unicorns here…>>
<<Well, Zecora offered to show me her old home and teach me about the area and customs.>> She pointed a hoof at her pith helmet. <<It’s my field of study. Well, one of them.>> Please buy it please buy it please buy it please buy it…
<<That’s wonderful! Welcome to our village!>> she said, arms open wide. <<Please, join us for tonight’s feast. After all, it’s a day for celebration!>>
<<I’d like that! Zecora?>>
Zecora sighed. <<I suppose we could…>>
<<Great! See you then!>> Nerise gave them a final way before trotting back into town.
<<Let me guess, it was a bit of a mistake to accept that invitation,>> Twilight muttered under her breath to her friend.
<<Yes, I’m afraid it was. Maybe we can sneak out before anyzebra notices we’re missing.>>
<<Maybe, but…>> Twilight turned to face Zecora directly. <<Your father? Is he the leader of the village? And if so, would he know something about this gem? And what’s this about a journey?>>
<<Don’t take this the wrong way, Twilight Sparkle, but I was honestly hoping that he’d already died. My father is… Not stable. He was the one who threw me out when I refused to believe his insane ideas.>>
Twilight sighed. <<Woah boy. Okay, I know this is hard, but we’ve reached a point where you have to tell me what is going on. I have to know what I’m walking into.>>
Zecora winced as if struck. <<Very… Very well. This village? It is where I grew up, but it is also a dark place. My father, Mipaka, is a cult leader, and the ponies here are his followers.>>
<<I’m liking this less and less. Cult leader? Are you sure? I know that zebras have a very wide range of beliefs depending on where they’re from, just like Earth ponies. Are you sure you want to use the label ‘cult’ like that?>>
Zecora nodded. <<Very. I don’t use the word lightly, Twilight Sparkle. I’ve had such labels thrown at me in Ponyville, after all. But nevertheless, it is the truth. My father believes that the end of the world is coming, but that he can lead his chosen followers to safety before it does.>>
<<He said that the end has been coming for so long now… Each time, he gives a date for when they will leave, and they never do. But the zebra here still believe him. He just, sets a new date and asks for more money. Don't listen to a word of his predictions, as they’ve never come to pass.>>
<<And what will he do when he meets me?>>
<<Honestly? I have no idea. Before, I would have said he would have expelled you as well, for being with me if not for being a unicorn. What Nerise said, though, makes me wonder…>>
<<Hmm, well it looks like we're going to find out soon enough.>> Twilight looked around, examining the buildings again, this time finding a large building towards the centre of the village. <<I’m assuming that is the worship hall.>>
<<And my childhood home, for what that’s worth.>>
Twilight nodded and pulled down the microphone from her hat. “Rainbow, Spike, we’re moving into that large building down the road. Stay alert. I’ll shoot a flare if I need you.”
“Copy that, Twi! We’ll watch your back!”
“Thanks, Spike.” Twilight tucked the microphone back into her hat. <<Zecora? Let’s go.>>

Twilight fidgeted in place on the cushion, checking each and every doorway, window, and corner as if Luna was about to jump out and pounce on her. <<So he ‘agreed to grant us an audience’… It should be a positive sign, but for some reason I can’t help but feel like this is a trap.>>
She looked over to Zecora, who stood frozen in meditation. Even the gentle breeze from the window couldn’t so much as move a hair on her body.
She’s meeting her father for the first time in dozens of years, and I’m the one who looks like a foal that needs to go to the bathroom. I’m honestly starting to wish that I could meditate like that.
A teenage zebra stallion with short hair entered into the room and dropped into a small bow. <<His Holiness will see you now.>>
Zecora got up in a single, smooth motion, her eyes hinting at a zeal Twilight had only seen in the Royal Guard before.
<<I’m glad one of us is confident…>> Twilight took a deep breath as they followed the stallion into the next room. The interior was every bit as simple as the interior of the previous room: a dirt floor, shoddy, old, semi-rotted furniture, a few thin cushions, and a simple oil lamp.
<<His Holiness, Elder Mipaka!>> loudly proclaimed their young zebra escort.

<<Zecora! My daughter! Is that… Yes, it must be you! Such a radiant beauty is always the obvious hallmark of one of my children.>> An old stallion stood up, his long, unkempt white mane hanging to his right side. Even his clothes were simple, being merely an off-white robe.
What Twilight’s gaze snapped to first, however, were the stallion’s blank, grey eyes.
<<That is not appropriate, Father.> Zecora stomped her hoof in the dirt. <<And were I to arrive covered in mud, you would never tell. Your eyes gave up on you a long time ago, and so did I.>>
The old stallion shook his head. <<No, daughter, it is I who gave up on you. A mistake that has weighed heavily on these old bones for many, many years. I am sorry, my child.>> Tears welled up and flowed down his cheeks. <<For all the progress I’ve made, that failure has always outweighed it. To hear your voice again…>> He sniffed.
Zecora sighed, and stepped in to embrace him. <<I missed you, too, but I cannot stay. Nerise tells me you still have not given up on your madness.>>
Mipaka pulled back out of the embrace, face sunken and sullen. <<Not madness, child. The truth! The day is finally at hoof! Even now, the final waymarker is on its way here. Won’t you join us? This trip… I would love for you to take it with us.>>
<<No. I cannot stand to see your followers disappointed anymore. You might not be able to see their faces, but I can, and it breaks my heart to see them embrace such foolishness. We stay long enough to do what we came to do, and then we leave.>>
Mipaka slowly sat down, his joints creaking as he moved. <<I am… Sorry to hear that, my child. But then, if you did not come to join us, what did you come for?>>
Zecora turned to Twilight and waved her on.
Twilight ducked into the conversation for her friend. <<I’m the one that requested she come, Elder Mipaka. I wanted to study the region’s cultures, but I also have a question for you from one of my colleagues.>> It’s not a total lie, but it is still somewhat of a lie.
Mipaka stroked his beard. <<Ask, and I will answer. It is the least I can do for a friend of Zecora’s.>>
Twilight wiped the sweat from her brow, grateful that he couldn’t see her nervousness. Lighting her horn, she opened up her saddlebags and pulled out the gem core Celestia had given her. <<My friend came across this, and was told that it came from nearby. We were wondering if you knew anything about it.>>
An awkward moment of silence passed before the stallion smirked. <<Child, I am blind. Describe it to me.>>
<<Oh! Oh, right.>> Twilight chuckled nervously. <<Eh, sorry about that. It’s, um…>> She looked at it more intently, thinking about what to say. <<Well, it’s a purplish gem core, which should be suitable for any number of magical applications. But it’s damaged. It’s got scorch marks all over it, a large gash on one side, some kind of hole drilled on one end, and —>>
<<And a brittle, flaky inconsistency near the gash? Am I right?>>
Twilight blinked, her jaw hanging open as she examined the gash more closely. <<That’s… That’s right! You’ve seen — er, have examined this before?>>
He nodded. <<Yes, it’s one of my failed waymarkers. Success often comes with a price, you know. Sometimes it’s far greater than we imagine. This, is just one of my many failures.>>
<<Failed waymarkers?>> Both Zecora and Twilight asked in unison.
<<Yes indeed. I had to fail quite frequently before I began to unlock the secrets of the path. Here, let me show you.>> Mipaka got up, and slowly limped his way towards a large treasure chest in the corner of the room. With a grunt, he moved it away from the wall and towards the two mares. <<Behold, my children, all of my failures.>>
He tapped the top of the chest with his hooves and the lock snapped open, revealing the box’s secrets.
Inside was a collection of bond-class cores, and seemingly all of them had some kind of burn, gash, crack, or other major fault. Every conceivable colour of the rainbow was represented. Long, thin, round, fat, and sharp ones, the myriad of options represented more than Twilight had ever considered in gems before.
<<My followers have scattered to the winds far and wide to seek these out for me. It took the entire wealth of this village and its unique medicines to fund it all.>>
<<So that’s what —>> Zecora roared in frustration and pounded her forehooves to the ground. <<I cannot believe you! We’ve all lived in poverty for so long and — argh! I am done here, Professor. I’ll meet you outside.>>
<<Zecora, wait!>> Mipaka held out a hoof to stop her, but she had already stormed out of the room.
Twilight kept her gaze on the gems. No wonder we couldn’t find any more bonded cores! This guy’s been stealing them all! Or, buying, maybe. Hard to know for certain, but still. <<I don’t suppose you know where all these came from?>>
<<Each one? No, I do not. My followers gather them for me, searching far and wide, and then craft them, mold them into what I need. What I tell them to enscribe. I never kept any kind of inventory. Either they worked, or they broke, just like these.>>
Dang. Twilight moved her hoof around in the chest, parting the precious gems like so many pebbles. There’s actually a few in here that are somewhat intact. Maybe even usable, in the right conditions. Certainly enough that we can find where they are from.
She sat back and tapped her chin with a hoof. <<Elder Mipaka, I know this is a somewhat awkward and forward question, but would you by chance be willing to part with some of these? I’m willing to pay handsomely for one.>>
The stallion pushed the chest closed with a hoof and locked it. <<I can do better than that. Here, take them.>>
Twilight practically choked on her own spit, sending her into a coughing fit. <<Wait, you mean take all of them? Really? I mean, you do know that these are worth like, a lot? I mean a lot a lot.>>
Mipaka shrugged. <<Your money will be of no use to us in the near future. Come noon tomorrow, we depart on a perilous journey for the promised land.>>
<<Um, okay… Wow… Are you sure? I kind of feel like I’m stealing here.>>
<<No, not stealing,>> he said. <<If my daughter is not to join us, then I want one of her last memories of me to be one of generosity. I have taken much from this village to get where we are, and though it is all paying off, I know she still feels that pain. Take care of her. Be her friend.>>
Twilight smiled at him, though she knew he couldn’t see it. <<Thank you. And I will.>>