• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,473 Views, 1,032 Comments

Triptych - Estee


When a new mission for the Element-Bearers (from an unexpected source) arrives three weeks after Twilight's ascension, she finds herself forced to confront a pair of questions: what truly makes an alicorn? And what happens if it goes wrong?

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They watched, and they grew steadily more excited as they continued to stalk their prey.

This has to be said: most Diamond Dogs do not eat ponies -- immediately. They like to think of themselves as a slaver race, and catching something simply to consume it is a waste of valuable resources. It's far better to let the pony work itself to the point of death over several years and then -- once the labor pool loses a drop on its own -- see what the marinade of sweat and despair has done for the flavor. Even then, it's a rare treat. Even in their strongest days, before the hated Diarchy, they did not allow their slaves to breed: the cries of infants were too painful for them, and allowing adults time to raise the children was a loss they could not bear. (Diamond Dogs can typically plan into the next hour and some of the brightest can make it to next week, but seeing forward to Next Generation requires a genius not seen in their species for several decades. It's part of why they keep trying to kidnap ponies: the Diarchy surely won't respond by afternoon and they probably won't be here by tomorrow -- and anything after that is of no concern. In fact, once the response does come, anything left capable of feeling concern tends to be minimal.) They did not stockade future feasts while attempting to see how combining coat colors improved the flavor. They simply waited through their eternal near-now -- and then waited some more. No easy feat for a race historically so bad at waiting that their future exists in two states: immediately is not soon enough and hurry up already! But ponies were so hard to catch and keep that waiting was actually easier. There's a Diamond Dog saying which few outside their packs have ever heard: it will be done when the mane falls off, representing a time period slightly shorter than forever which the suffering canine must still endure. So they wait. Only a few of their breed in any generation claim to know the taste of pony meat (and most may be liars): joining that honored pack is worth facing the endless chasm of time.

But these Diamond Dogs -- there were five of them, outcast from the mines together for an act of theft which had seemed more brilliant than the targeted gems for the hour they had planned through -- were at that point of considering a meal without gaining a slave first. They were hungry: they had been away from their caves for an immense duration (eight days), they couldn't burrow back in without facing the threat of exile becoming death, and they had been thrown out without maps to other warren-runs -- not that they were able to read such witchery. They had not seen a mole or rabbit for that entire pressing weight of virtual forevers. None of the local creatures were within their catching lore, and there were few dead-end fully-enclosed corners to chase things into. They hated this thing called weather, hated even more the parts named rain and wind -- especially the latter, forever stealing scents and misleading them. (It was windy today, and becoming steadily more so as they stalked: they had been lucky to see the pony rather than smelling her out.) They had no place of their own for the pony to dig through: at best, they would be trying to keep it on the surface, the pony's world -- an invitation to disaster, letting one stay under the watchful and loathed eyes of Sun and Moon. The pony was there, it was meat --

-- and it was hurt.

Female, the most intelligent of the dogs knew that much. (He had seen ponies once, from a great distance. It made him the expert.) Winged, and that made them soak trails of drool into their bare vests (stripped of gems as part of the exile: steal from the pack, lose what the pack had granted). Winged and on the ground, whimpering slightly as it picked a path through the forest. They had learned to hate the green place, learned quickly, but the pony seemed as uncomfortable here as they were, and hadn't spotted them behind the hard brown things which they could not dig through.

Female, winged -- but not flying. Perhaps not able to fly. The winged ones were the stuff of legend for Diamond Dogs: nearly impossible to catch, just as hard to keep. Those with horns could do things to them which weren't understood and those with neither wings nor horns -- no, those legends weren't something any of the five wanted to think about, especially since it didn't apply here. But the other two were on the ground, and the winged ones -- couldn't be reached. They stood on clouds and laughed at Diamond Dogs, sent rain and lightning down as the punchlines to their private jests. The canines resented those who did what they could not and few more than the winged ones, who danced with Sun and Moon far above the places where Diamond Dogs lurked and, just every so often, wondered what they were missing.

Her coat was the soft tan of dried-out surface dirt (garnet ground) with a short blue mane and tail (sapphire, low grade, good only for buckles) and deep purple eyes (finest amethyst). They noticed the mark on its flank, but it meant nothing to them: it was just a shape, and since it wasn't the shape of a weapon, it was of no concern. The colors, the twisting -- meaningless.

The wings were -- off. The tips had some of that purple hue, visible because the pony kept shaking them out from its body, moaning softly as it did so. Even to the Diamond Dogs' eyes, the feathers seemed to be misaligned, not quite right, although that could have been due to the wind shaking them: the hated gusts were still increasing in speed, and now the green leafy things were whipping into them where they hid. The expert thought she was a bit larger than the females he'd seen before -- but it did not matter. For those large eyes were squinched in pain (or against the wind, which was really bad now), and the sounds said agony came whenever those wings moved, wherever hoof contacted ground. Alone. Hurt. And there were five of them: no amount of air movement or scent confusion could change that fact.

Wasn't flying. Couldn't fly. Easy prey.

Exile didn't pay for the honor they were about to receive, but the honor would take some of the sting away -- at least for an hour.

So they stalked, pushing forward against the wind which would not stop getting stronger, almost seeming to shove them back -- but the brown things were also good for clinging to, and the pony still hadn't noticed them. She was lost in her private torture: plant a hoof, moan, move a wing, whimper, repeat. The wings were moving a little faster now, and the smallest Diamond Dog wondered if she might be about to fly. He was quieted quickly to keep the pony from hearing them over the wind, which would have been difficult: there was a hunting howl coming from the air itself, inspirational. It told the exiles this strange world approved of their plan. Perhaps they were welcome here. Perhaps they could even carve out a warren open to the once-fearful sky.

They stalked, they got into position to surround -- and then they sprung out.

The pony bucked, wings fully unfurled -- but did not fly. Helpless, grounded, screaming something which they all dismissed. Of course it wanted them to stay back. Naturally it didn't desire them to come any closer. Meat wanted to survive: it was only to be expected. Meat was always wrong. They closed in.

The expert was watching the wings, still thinking about the concerns of the smallest. It had seen a pony fly that one time, and it knew how the wings moved. These were moving -- but not enough to get the pony into the air. And it might have been the wind moving them, the wind that now howled like a Diamond Dog in its moment of greatest triumph, a Diamond Dog about to take down a winged one --

-- and then they received an even greater honor.

The expert saw it first as it took shape: the narrow funnel at the bottom, the wide mouth at the top. The planner of the theft, on the pony's other side, spotted the second one forming, no more than five dig-scoops tall. They tried to call to each other, ask the pack for help to figure out what was going on, but they could no longer hear anything but the movement of the air as it screamed at them, shook the brown things and tore away green things and sent all the little bits of meat running away. The pony was saying something, and those words were taken by the wind as well -- but not the tears flowing from her eyes. Her coat, her mane and tail, her pain was untouched.

Just before they were hurled away, a split-second before two of the pack suffered the impacts which would eventually kill them, the exiled Diamond Dogs became the first members of their species ever to see wind.

And the last thought of the expert just before he went into the largest of the brown things was a memory of his former pack's eldest telling him the best thing he could ever know about hunting ponies: it just wasn't worth it.

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In time, these would be the last words she saw before the world went white.

A cutie mark cannot be spontaneously created. She had known that. There was no magic which would force a permanent one to appear from nothing. Even if the caster knew what the recipient's talent was and made a mark to suit, all it would buy them was the same result: a second of visibility, hours of exhaustion, and a night spent with a splitting headache.

A cutie mark can be temporarily concealed, albeit with great effort. Another well-established fact. Spells existed to briefly return the target to their youthful blank flank status, some more powerful than others. The best offensive one blocked the victimized pony's access to their special talent for a few precious seconds -- and made the splitting headache of the forced appearance spell into a fond longing, for the time when you only wanted to crawl into a hole and die was about to look like the best part of your life. Mundane disguises tended to -- wear away. Quickly, as if vaporized by the mark's resentment. Paints, dyes, fur-blending potions -- a day at best. Only clothing worked long-term, and most mares and stallions outside of Canterlot and Manehattan didn't treat their wardrobe as an everyday thing: without the matching accent, constant coverage would seem quirky at best and at worst, extremely deliberate -- especially if the pony in question was fully dressed in the privacy of their own home with no one to show their latest style off to.

(There had been a time in Equestrian history where the surest sign of a criminal -- or spy -- was any outfit which fully covered the flanks. Stop-and-search challenges had been hotly debated in the courts of the time. Fashion had, according to some, suffered accordingly, although the resulting peek-a-boo string-pull windows had apparently settled in for other uses.)

A cutie mark can be transferred, but only the mark itself moves: not the talent it represents. Something only a few ponies in the world were supposed to know. A fact which wasn't supposed to spread.

A cutie mark can be delayed, sometimes indefinitely. (And the colors had begun to leach out of her vision's edges.) Sheerest abuse, to see what somepony's talent would be and prevent them from practicing it, block them from accessing their deepest self, convinced it was better for them to remain blank-flanked their entire lives rather than be themselves -- but it happened. Parents angry that their child wouldn't be following in their footsteps, desperate to stop the branch before it spit from the main trunk. Always during the trials, they would say it was for the child's own good, that destiny didn't know as much as a loving mother or father, and she would see the Princess' eyes narrow as her mane flowed faster and the faint sparks threatened to flare into something more. None of those ponies ever saw their children again. Some of them never saw Equestria again.

And then the ones which had made it all falsely go away, masked out the horrors of a life in a wash of purest scream, with the last things understood before that flashpoint the joy and exuberance which went into the bold letters, and that the stains on the parchment had come from tears of joy.

A cutie mark can be manipulated...

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Twilight Sparkle was flying.

Sort of.

What she was mostly doing was feeling like the biggest idiot the alicorn sub-species (currently, to the best of her knowledge, numbering at four) had ever produced -- a state she had spent most of her post-transformation time in. Here's Twilight Sparkle, Princess Of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. That's right: we have a Princess each for the Sun, Moon, Love, and now for unknown reasons, the universe has decided we need somepony to exemplify the need to get up at three in the morning and make sure the one a.m. reshelving is still intact. Behold her as she does not even remotely majestically soar above the clouds, probably making sure each one has been molded to a regulation shape and trimming off the edges of whatever doesn't fit. She was sure somepony in the Canterlot Courts was having that particular conversation, possibly even printing it under the name Gabby Gums Junior. She'd had it a number of times, mostly with herself and twice with a very patient owl who had, to his credit, done his best to present "Hoo?" as a counterargument in all the right places, none of which had convinced her of anything.

Twilight flew --

-- to be fair, she was in the air and she was moving, but it would be hard to call it flight. Certainly not in front of Rainbow Dash, who would have been falling out of clouds, trees, and whatever else was handy with I'll-care-about-your-feelings-later -- maybe -- laughter at the sight. Twilight didn't understand flight.

This mystified her.

She understand aerodynamics better than most pegasi (which inevitably offended them should she happen to bring it up. Again) and had more of a grasp on telekinetic levitation, pun intended should one happen to exist, than ninety-nine percent of the unicorn race. Shortly before her transformation, she had been researching self-levitation, a trick accomplished by very few unicorns. (She blamed the educational system. Unicorns were taught to let their natural magical field flow forward and fully surround the object they wanted to lift. Letting it go backwards then became a twist of thinking most were unable to surmount. Only the youngest, who didn't know any better and had low body weight to move anyway, did it naturally: anypony with even the most basic training wound up having a giant fundamental to unlearn.) Somehow, none of that added up to wing movement resulting in smooth passage through the atmosphere. She had flown once, immediately after her coronation, when the joy had suffused her to the point where it had to be expressed -- and that had resulted in her taking an aerial tour of the land around Canterlot while happily singing to herself about how everything was going to be fine. She had done it without planning, without a checklist, without thought, and told herself (once she had landed) that she was going to be repeating the experience whenever she liked.

She had been wrong. And she was not flying. She was --

-- well, call it 'randomly flailing at the air with wings which seemed ready to part from her body, somehow resulting in semi-coherent short bursts of movement in any given direction, occasionally including 'down'.' It's a lot kinder than what Twilight was calling it.

And now here she was at five in the morning (chosen under the certain knowledge that there was no way under Luna's waxing Moon that Rainbow Dash would be awake to witness anything), over Ponyville -- all over Ponyville -- trying to keep a quasi-straight course. Trying to go around the nighttime clouds (which Rainbow Dash was supposed to have cleared before the previous sunset) from fear of going into them --

-- and when she did make inevitable tumbling contact (collision), finding herself going through.

She was an alicorn. The best of the three main races -- she wasn't sure how crystal ponies worked into it and hadn't found a way to ask the Princess yet -- put together. Clouds were supposed to be solid for her. She was supposed to be able to manipulate the weather at her command. And she had tried. She'd reached out to them with her magic, found herself able to move them -- but that was nothing: Rarity had been able to do as much under the influence of Star Swirl's spell. She couldn't trigger rain and lightning on command any more than Rarity had been able to (although some of the results from her fumbles had gone into the Everfree and earned her a stinging twenty-minute lecture from Zecora, all in iambic pentameter). She couldn't physically touch the clouds without her standard vapor-walking spell. She could try to control her levitation vector, balance off the pressure she put on herself against the ground below her and use her field for last-minute saves before crashing into Berry Punch's re-relocated home. She could consider everything she knew about physics and thaumaturgy and throw it all together --

-- but she couldn't fly. Not more than once. And she didn't know how she'd done it then, hadn't been paying enough attention to analyze and replicate...

Something else she hadn't been able to ask the Princess about, one more question on an ever-increasing list. Pardon me, but exactly how do you keep from plummeting through every cloud you land on? Any hints, maybe a, oh, I don't know, manual, or is this something that takes a thousand years to master?

Her mind noted the last sentence --

-- and her body went into City Hall.

To wit, the bell at the very top.

Her head rang. The bell chorused nicely. Lights began to come on all over Ponyville as its citizens decided to take a quick look at the latest disaster before running away from it.

Those who peeked outside found a softly vibrating bell humming to itself in a fast-fading night as the first of Celestia's twice-daily command performances sent a hint of glow across the horizon. None of them saw the shaken purple alicorn making her unsteady way back towards the library. On hoof.

She needed to figure out how to fly. That was the least of it. A symptom -- or rather, the first thing on the checklist. Once she got that right, everything else would fall into place. It had to.

Everything was not fine. And she had no idea how to fix it.

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Quiet Presence had been reading for most of the night. A new couch -- full-length to allow his body to spread out -- none of this 'sitting' fad some of the fillies were crowing about -- beautifully padded, imported by pegasi couriers at great expense and nearly dropped into his koi pond, came with a dozen sample quills for Luna-knew what reason -- had proved immediately addictive, and he had luxuriously stretched across its length, levitated his chosen tract into the built-in holder, and allowed his field to flick across the pages at need.

The tract was a mere three hundred years old. Quiet Presence liked to think of himself as somepony who was open to newfangled ideas.

If you were to describe Quiet Presence... well, there's the challenge, really. There are ponies whose coats and marks display bright colors and shapes, energetic ponies whose presence seems barely ground-bound (and a third who simply aren't). You have everyday citizens who stand out in their way, to the point where you almost seem to be spotting them everywhere you go. And then you had Quiet Presence, who is -- and that's about all you could say for him. Ponies generally looked at him as if something very interesting was on the other side and after a few seconds, most of them started to see it. About all most ponies managed to retain was 'I think there was a unicorn...' And that was accurate, of course: his family was proud of their unicorn heritage, generation after generation without openly mixing their blood, he was honored by his horn and all it represented, the purity of it...

...the visible purity, anyway...

...but to say what he looked like, physically? He was the second-newest thing in the room after the couch (and there had been a tremendous fight with his spouse over buying something made in this century), he had a horn of standard issue, certainly he was a stallion even if his build didn't fully reflect his gender, his coat seemed to blend against the grey stone walls of the family castle and rendered him into a blinking part of the landscape if he stood still long enough (which he frequently did) and his cutie mark -- was barely there. The subconscious would register that he had one, but making out the exact shape of it required a long inspection and several go-overs to make sure nothing had moved while you weren't looking. Which was ridiculous, of course, cutie marks didn't move -- but it gave off the same impression he did, on the rare occasion he made any at all: that the whole thing could just fade away at any moment and nopony would care.

Even his field was colorless, the only indication of its presence being tiny twinkles at the corner of each page.

He flipped the parchment over, read another paragraph, took a moment to ponder the words he had been over dozens of times before. They still confused him. Warnings about the powerless... well, the author was widely believed to be mad, but that was all the more reason to examine her words. Insanity had a way of finding insights where the sane did not dare to glimpse. Clearly not this particular passage, but -- here and there. Just not here and now. Another page.

There was a knocking sound, perilously close to his right ear.

He did not jump: he was not in a position for it and jumping showed a certain lack of reserve. Instead, he turned his head slowly to the right until he was looking directly at the table lantern, brought in to banish the shadows which would otherwise accumulate near a book's spine. It was now hovering a precise three inches over the marble surface, surrounded by a steady silver glow.

It went back to table level: the base knocked against the stone. Up, down. Three times. Returned to hovering.

Quiet Presence took a long, slow look around his study. There were bookshelves, lamps, extra couches for when he had guests, serving tables for snacks and books which had yet to be reshelved. What there was not: a single window, in part because they were rather pointless when your favorite reading space happened to be underground. When your rulers had control of the sky and some of your personal library could be considered a bit -- controversial -- you got into the habit of building enclosed spaces. His ancestors had spent centuries perfecting the craft. Decorating had been most of it, and thus the "this century" tiff.

Back to the lantern. The silver glow held it without even a hair's worth of shift. There wasn't a sparkle in it.

Carefully, so as not to pull any fragile muscles, Quiet Presence got off the couch and slowly trotted up the passageway back towards the main castle, making sure to nudge all the proper things with his field along the way. The lantern remained behind, still glowing. Every so often, it knocked again.

Eventually, he reached the door, opened it, and let a sincerely impressed politeness serve as his immediate ambassador. "With no line of sight," he told his honored guest, "over more than eighty paces on the most direct angle, based purely off your memory of where I would place a lantern if I was in the room at this hour. If I could just learn that trick --"

-- and his visitor's muzzle hit Quiet Presence's shoulder. Soot was dislodged on impact.

The rest of his greeting was put aside indefinitely.

It took time and care to bring the older stallion through the castle's open passages without being seen. They were able to move somewhat faster once they reached the concealed travelways, but they were still restricted by that hobbled movement, that horrible dragging right hind leg, and by Quiet Presence's weakness of body. He could barely take the weight of his companion, could barely withstand his own most days.

"Not broken," his visitor rasped out, coughing more black dust with each word. "Just -- pulled. Pulled through the fire and forged..."

"Easy, first friend," the younger stallion told his guest, trying to keep his burdened voice steady. "We're almost there. I can have help here within the hour." Private help, those who would speak of this to no pony except each other. If the injured stallion had come here instead of a hospital...

A head shake: more black cloud staining the stone. "I need -- rest more than anything else." A sigh. "She is not here, I know that now. I told her to come to you should anything happen, but..."

Quiet Presence blinked: for a moment, there seemed to be but a single stallion in the dim passage, leaning against nothing. "I haven't seen her." He had seen her all of once. He hadn't enjoyed it. He had understood, certainly, shared the pain and regret, but...

"No. You would have called to me. But I had to be sure..." A few more paces. "I think -- she teleported. I couldn't stay behind, not for more than a few minutes, and even that was a risk, but the tang in the air -- no time to analyze, but it had to be a teleport..."

Quiet Presence moved -- but considerately, bracing the older stallion so that his injured elder would not fall at the loss of his support before switching position to face him directly. He had to be eye-to-eye for this, had to be. "A teleport? You're sure --" cut himself off. "Of course you're sure, you wouldn't be here if you weren't..." Each word more excited than the last: still soft, but only the need for secrecy keeping them from becoming full shouts, the sheer rapture threatening to erupt in a storm of decibels. "It worked?"

And the older stallion said "No -- and yes." It was a statement. Most of the things he ever said were statements. Few questions which weren't rhetorical, the self-doubt over the teleport was as much as he'd ever expressed. Simple plain words: I have said this, therefore it is true, even if you don't understand it. Maybe it's even true because you don't understand it. It was stated and for him, it was done.

The younger blinked again: gone, back. "I -- don't understand."

"I will," came the reply. Another statement. "With rest. We are closer -- so much closer... we may even be there... but I need rest."

And Quiet Presence understood that nothing more would come without that rest, took some of his elder's weight again, helped him move towards the hidden bed nestled among the emergency supplies.

But he was wrong. Three more words came, all tinged with amazement, awe -- and perhaps, just a hint of weary satisfaction.

"It was beautiful..."

Stated. Therefore true.

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It wasn't as if Twilight was the only one awake at this hour, of course. Some denizens of Ponyville rose earlier than others, but most of those in town stayed within their homes or workplaces until the sun had fully risen. Of her friends -- Applejack rose when the need to work overcame the last lingering desire for sleep. Or rather, she slept when her body's need for rest finally overwhelmed the drive to work: even after acknowledging her inability to do everything by herself, the mare often greeted Luna and Celestia in turn for several days before somepony finally stopped her, typically by placing something too solid to push in front of the hard head and waiting for the exhausted effort to slip into snoring on the spot.

Fluttershy had to deal with her current flock and at any given moment, a good part of it would be nocturnal. Twilight had suspected the real reason the pegasus allowed her mane to obscure her eyes was so that nopony could tell when she was catching an emergency nap: she was up at all hours on any given day, and night, and often beyond. It had to catch up with her eventually -- but Twilight had never heard so much as a yawn, and getting a word of complaint was a complete loss. Fluttershy being so very sorry, I'm so weak for needing sleep, please don't hate me for it? Considerably more likely.

Rarity's inspirations frequently would not allow her the comfort of a bed (sleep mask: silk, mattress: down, sheets: thread count reaching for five digits) until every last one was at least sketched into less tenuous existence -- or patterned, or sewn, occasionally a dozen times before she was satisfied. Or collapsed with horn against sewing machine, whichever came first. Twilight had walked in on her one morning to find her in that state -- with the machine surrounded by her signature soft blue glow, still running. Dream-casting: a sign that a unicorn had pushed herself past her limits to the point where the subconscious took over and started implementing designs of its own. From all evidence, Rarity had been dreaming of spirals. None of those designs had ever seen the light of the Boutique's windows.

Rainbow Dash could be counted on for sleep. Any hour, any day, any occasion -- and the more important said occasion was, the better it was for napping through. How does one develop the skill to clear the sky in ten seconds flat? By never doing it in the originally-allotted two hours. It was an open secret around Ponyville that there were pillows hidden in strategic locations just about everywhere, although never too close to the rubber balls and eyepatches.

As for the last...

...there was a light on within the back room of Sugarcube Corner. (Which Twilight was slinking behind, still trying to stay out of sight. Because it wasn't as if there were any other purple alicorns about at this hour.) This was hardly an unusual event: ponies expect to get their baked goods within minutes of venturing outside and any establishment not willing to serve during every hour of the day was begging for a short lifespan and a former owner seeking a job in weather manipulation. Manehattan, notorious for never sleeping (Applejack had snorted "At least they do somethin' right!"), had pioneered the twenty-four hour waft of fresh bread, and other cities had followed suit. Ponyville didn't have enough night traffic to justify that kind of business yet, so the Cakes went with the small town pattern: the bread rises with Celestia. Or else.

There was a view of pink through the glass. It caught Twilight's eye, mostly because it had been a view. Not a glimpse or a sudden flash: this had lasted long enough to not only register, but get filed under Unusual Events, Better Check This Out Before Something Horrible, Possibly Involving Mirror Pools, Happens. She reluctantly turned -- she never knew what she was going to get here, only that it would leave her either smiling, with a pounding migraine or, in extreme cases, both -- and peeked through the smallest pane.

Pinkie Pie, of course. Alone, which was a bit of surprise: she would have expected the Cakes to be awake and fully immersed in their craft, an art and science which still hadn't reached the PhD stage of getting the frosting even. And -- moving. Carefully. No pronking (the word for that four-hoofed hop Pinkie was often caught in -- Twilight had been surprised to find there was one), no near-rainboom speed sprint from station to station. Instead, the hyperactive earth pony was trotting at a measured pace between her self-given assignments. Ingredients were pressed tightly between front hooves, measuring cups gently lifted by teeth and tipped at calculated angles for exact measures of time. Twilight could easily imagine Pinkie's train of thought -- a prospect that normally left her shaking -- and it went as a simple One, two, three -- and next. Scoop, pour, mix. Stir for one, two, three, four -- and next. Measure, check. Level off contents of tray, excess back to bowl. Move to oven. Pull protective heat covers over mouth (and said covers just came out of bucking nowhere because a weirdly calm Pinkie remains Pinkie) and place new tray in, then remove old tray with teeth. Carry to display plate and shake muffins loose so that they land in a perfect pyramid. One, two, three, and stop and look directly at me --

"Oh, hi, Twilight!" It was a whisper. Not a stage the-town-square-can-hear-me-and-I-mean-in-Fillydelphia whisper: a real one. "You can come in if you promise to be careful. The door's not locked."

We did block the mirror pool properly, right? Well, inside was better for not being spotted than out, and Pinkie had no idea what she'd been up to -- she thought. It was Pinkie: being sure about anything generally wasn't Twilight's best bet. She went in.

Pinkie smiled at her, nodded, and then continued her careful, measured, precise ballet among the ingredients. More smells wafted. Every last one of their sources remained unconsumed. Twilight was beginning to feel somewhat unnerved. "Pinkie?"

"Yes?" Turn, lift, crack eggs between teeth so that none of the shell went into the bowl, mix. Twilight had heard a lot of talk about 'the inherent limitations of mandible dexterity' from her instructors in magic kindergarten. None of it seemed to exist here.

"Where are the Cakes?" Is that something only the real Pinkie would know -- oh, stop it: I blocked that thing with Tom.

"Still asleep," Pinkie softly replied. "It was a bad night with Pumpkin and Pound. She's got a little hoof infection and of course if she's up crying, he's going to cry just to make her feel better. I told them I'd take care of the morning shift." Spin, remix, fold in nuts...

Twilight took the chance. "But aren't you going a little -- slow?"

Pinkie stopped.

Blue eyes focused on purple. Narrowed. Just for a second, it seemed as if the curls of her mane were losing loft -- and then she rolled her eyes and went back to her dance. "Baking is chemistry, Twilight. Do you know what happens when you rush chemistry?" Set down the latest bowl for a second, reared back on her hind legs, spread the front legs out. Softly, "Boom!" And back to four-planted work. "Eat fast, run fast, play fast -- bake slow." Just the smallest head shake. "The Cakes wouldn't let me be here at all if I didn't..." She let the unspoken words finish for her, allowed Twilight to hear the ones Pinkie would never say: Are you going to zap me into a pool any time I do something that doesn't fit what you expect of me?

Twilight went with the ones she had to say. "I'm sorry."

"Okey-dokey-loki!" The dance continued. "And get your magic away from those cupcakes!"

The field-surrounded one (carrot, blood orange filling, cream cheese icing) guiltily slipped back under the display dome. "But -- there were thirteen..."

Pinkie Pie gave her a Look and a smile -- one that Twilight had spent moons on the receiving end of, the combination which said Do I have to write the Princess just because you've been confronted with a prime number?

Twilight lightly blushed and sank onto her haunches, resisting the urge to look outside for a photographer. Yes, the Alicorn Of Obsession. Conqueror of horrors. Part of the team which reverted Luna, battled Discord, freed the crystal ponies. Taken out of herself by the prospect of a number which couldn't be divided by two, three, and six all at the same time. Equestria's newest some-kind-of-royalty. All hail.

She stayed in that humiliated position for a while as Pinkie continued her rhythmic dance. Lift, spin, tuck, fold, mix... there was a certain beauty to it. Yes, it was chemistry: the scientist in her could appreciate that. Add all the essences together in proper proportion, make sure the ratios were just so, and a kind of magic would seem to happen on its own. She'd never seen this kind of delicacy and care from Pinkie Pie, this level of rational straight-line progression while sticking to an assigned checklist of actions. Never expected to have this of all things in common with her friend.

She smiled. No headache came with it.

The gentle silence stretched out as the Sun's rays climbed the door, reached the panes and let the first streams of light through...

"Twilight?" A rare serious tone. This was a day which was going to stick in her memory for a long time. A very long --

-- and stop. "Yes?"

In total sincerity with innocence resplendent on a field of I Felt Like Asking, "Where do alicorns come from?"

Twilight blinked. Several times. None of them did anything to make the question or Pinkie's softly inquiring gaze go away.

Awkwardly, "Well -- when two alicorns love each other very much..."

Pinkie snorted as she placed another fresh tray in the oven, took a finished one out, held her words until the cupcakes had been frosted and sprinkled with a dash of hazelnut. "That's just sex, Twilight. I know all about sex, for Celestia's sake!"

"...you do?" And that had just slipped out.

Pinkie stopped again, looked at her, smiled, said "Sometimes there's only one thing left to make somepony happy," got some more eggs, totally ignored Twilight's front legs collapsing under her in shock as her wings, unbidden, unordered, and completely un-everything, stood straight out. (They didn't do what she wanted, they didn't do what she understood...) And before Twilight could even begin to suppress the internal flood of Who, what, where, when, how many, at the same time? Anypony I know? Everypony I know?, Pinkie chanted, in singsong, "An earth pony and an earth pony make an earth pony, a unicorn with a unicorn is a baby unicorn, pegasus plus pegasus equals pegasus -- but add any other, even once, and even if it takes generations, that other will come again..."

Twilight marshaled every resource she had left, which required dusting into all the corners and gluing together a lot of scraps. "That's foal stuff, Pinkie Pie."

Pinkie nodded. "Sure is! But Twilight -- you weren't born an alicorn. You were made one."

I sort of made myself -- I think... At least, that first burst of magic had seemed to come from inside, and not from her horn... But she'd told the others that, responded to every question in the deluge as best she could. For now, she just nodded. Her wings refused to go down. The right one was perilously close to an open bag of flour.

"And I've never heard of Celestia being with somepony -- ever. Just rumors, but we never see her with a very special somepony, not even once! And Luna hasn't had much of a chance, not with how little time she's been back -- and we'd see if they were with foal, wouldn't we? Unless there's magic which hides that. They probably know that spell. Maybe they invented it. They've had a lot of time to work on it, right?" Completely and utterly innocent of the havoc she was wreaking a few paces away.

Twilight's brain rebelled. She would not picture the Princesses having sex. She would not, she would not -- oh Sun and Moon, she had an image of Luna coming up to a handsome stallion and Canterlot Royal Voicing him into bed and it would not go away...

Pinkie watched her, seemed to become aware that the last question was not going to be answered. "And Cadance is adopted. You said so."

Her mind grasped onto that, heaved her out of the turbulent waters as the last echoes of And Now Thou Shalt Satisfy Thy Princess -- Or Face Her Wrath! were pushed away with fervent hopes that they would drown on the spot. Weakly, "She mentioned it once..." The left wing began to droop.

Pinkie nodded, very enthusiastically. Curls bounced. The bowl pressed between her front hooves never shifted. "But maybe they did have a somepony, once. Or lots of someponies, because of how old they are. But I've never heard of a male alicorn. Not even in stories! -- well, not stories anypony tells twice, or even once if you're just a filly, I had to sneak around until I heard somepony else telling one. But if there was a male alicorn, and a Princess had a foal with him, the baby would be an alicorn, right? Unless maybe Celestia or Luna or Cadence wasn't always an alicorn, like you weren't always. So would the baby be an earth pony, or a pegasus, or a unicorn, because they're kind of all three? Could the foal become an alicorn one day? Do you have to have a Princess as a parent or ancestor before you can become an alicorn? And if Celestia and Luna weren't always alicorns, who made them that way, or did they change themselves? And what were they originally? So what do you think?"

And stop.

She had never raised her voice.

The first intact thought to get through Twilight's incoming migraine was Would zapping her into the mirror pool really be so bad? In a voice that made the prior one sound like it had just taken fifth place in the Equestria Games on sheer raw health, "Pinkie..."

"I've been thinking about this," Pinkie told her in a matter-of-fact tone, as if everypony had been thinking about it and she just happened to be the one elected to let it out. "Ever since you changed."

Twilight's memory lanced back, speared the first target to come into view. "Pinkie, these are foal questions!"

This nod sent pink curls going everywhere. The bowl's level still hadn't shifted. "I know they are, Twilight. I asked them when I was a little bitty Pinkie. You asked them too, I bet! Everypony I know asked a teacher or their parents, and we all got told the same things. Foal questions. Questions so silly you only asked them because you were tiny, and no one older cared what the answer was or even that the question existed. You asked it once and they told you not to think about it. Not to care, because asking it meant you were stupid and if you stopped asking, you were smart! Because they didn't think about it and they never wanted to. I'm thinking about it now. You make me think about it. I don't understand why you're not thinking about it."

I'm not thinking about it because --

-- because I asked my teachers and parents.

Because they're just foal questions. They're silly. You only ask if you don't know anything and it shows you don't know anything and haven't learned, but when you do learn you don't get the answers, you just learn not to ask the questions.

Who made the world?

Why do the Sun and Moon have to be moved by magic?

Were the Princesses always as they are now?

And Pinkie's question. Which had once been hers, which had probably once been everypony's. Which had been dismissed, and forgotten because it had been dismissed as being too silly to ask. But Pinkie didn't care about what other ponies saw as silly. She just wanted an answer.

"Where do alicorns come from?" Pinkie Pie repeated, and waited for her answer.

Twilight was an alicorn, if just barely, if not on any level her mind and body and deaf-to-her-desires wings fully understood. And...

"I don't know."

...maybe that meant it was time to ask again.

Her right wing drooped. The flour tipped over.

She barely registered the sound of Pumpkin and Pound Cake laughing as their tired parents escorted them into the bakery, smiling with weary pride at Pinkie's progress. Letters to write, questions to ask. If she could make herself ask them: just speaking the words to Spike seemed like an impossible task. Perhaps something better said in person -- but to the smiling, reassuring, and suddenly oh-so-intimidating presence of the Princesses?

Where do alicorns come from?

And how did the newest one ask?

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Three days' gallop outside Baltimare, a tan pegasus with a blue mane and purple eyes, her flanks bearing the strangest cutie mark Equestria had ever known, stood next to the unconscious body of a canine form which was no longer adorned by a vest. One of the miniature tornadoes had carried the garment away, collected it along with branches and leaves and one of the bodies and so much, so very much of the blood.

Her front hooves pounded on its rib cage. She cried out to it, in surprising sorrow, in distress, pleading for it to wake up, to breathe. It complied with none of this.

She screamed. And then she fled, eyes streaming tears as her pain-wracked hooves repeatedly impacted the ground, as her wings stretched and tried to flap as they grew ever more purple, as her cutie mark burned...