• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,474 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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Morellian Analysis

Consider the brown and white speckled unicorn stallion known as Coordinator. (It's Clear Coordinator, actually, but nopony calls him Clear -- including his parents, wherever they currently are, who have likely forgotten they ever applied it in the first place when they aren't trying to forget they ever produced him.) There are several things worth knowing about him at this time.

First: he has passed almost every test which was ever put in front of him. He took virtually none of them.

Second: he attended Twilight's school while she was there, entering when she did and graduating on the same day. He would have gone through the entrance exam three places before she did, if he'd gone through it at all.

We may need to expand on those two for a while before moving on to the rest.

Coordinator never should have wound up in a school for gifted unicorns, at least not when ranking purely on field strength and magical potential. In terms of raw ability when graphed on the Celestia Meter (Adjusted), he falls into that category which would have trouble lifting the application forms. His field was, and always would be, somewhere below average strength. He hated this about himself and went to great lengths to conceal just how magically inept he truly was. Oh, he could get by for day to day purposes: in fact, practically nopony would ever notice a thing -- except, perhaps, that his field tended to wink out when he was feeling a high degree of stress. Therefore, one of Coordinator's self-assigned missions in life was to make certain that only other ponies went through stress, preferably arranged, caused, and justified by him. Certainly enjoyed. In some ways, Coordinator can best be described as the sort of pony who, knowing others have become used to filling out forms in triplicate, will send the set to sextuple and add subtle differences to the extra three copies so the complete group will be impossible to complete the first time through. And he will do it simply so he can watch and wait for the moment when he can tell you to start over. The expressions are priceless.

Actually, that description might be a little too kind.

But there are times when it's not what you know or how much you haven't bothered to study: it's how deeply entrenched your family is into the back alleys of the Day and Night Courts. Understand, Coordinator's parents weren't incredibly well-connected, not living in the relative backwoods of Trotter's Falls. If they pulled every Canterlot-attached string they had via remote at the same moment, they just might be able to manage two tickets to the Grand Galloping Gala, and no amount of claimed friendships towards extra potential guests would ever bring another. (The tickets would not have been sent by the Princess, either. Other ponies would have to give them up -- and not willingly.) But they knew enough ponies in strategic positions to get their son into Twilight's school using a labyrinth of regulations and paperwork which shuffled him through without ever having to do more than have somepony else sign his name to a few forms, a mixture of legacy admission and a carefully arranged chain of slipped memories where nopony had any idea who had handled that last filing, but filed it had been and so student he must be. His parents intended for Coordinator to get out of Trotter's Falls for a single reason: it was not Canterlot. And after they had explained that to him in great detail over most of his childhood, he had not only readily agreed with it, but suggested some improvements to the overall plan. The first stage was to attend the school. Done with style and a special flourish of fieldwriting.

The ultimate goal was that Coordinator would work for the palace. Be at the Princess' right front hoof. She would speak through him -- or rather, he would speak for her. In fact, Celestia would hardly need to speak at all and would have been shocked at some of the things she hadn't been saying. And that was necessary, because the existence of certain policies throughout the land and its laws proved the Princess wasn't capable of speaking for herself because she kept saying the wrong things, words like 'tolerance' and 'acceptance' and -- brace yourself, this one can make you ill if you're forced to hear it too often --'equality'. Clearly she needed somepony who knew how the world really worked -- or at least, how it should -- to make a few moves on what everypony would assume was her behalf. And the first step in getting Coordinator to that honored position was to get through school -- or rather, to have the right other ponies get him through school. Happily, this also happened to be an early lesson on how to get into what Coordinator and his parents saw as his future palace life. All that was required was getting the right other ponies under him and allowing them to hold him up. It was that or take a chance on the full weight of his words descending on them. Numerous colts and fillies chose to go through that risk. Few tried it twice. And only one was partially immune.

(If you ever wondered how a shy, bookish, but ultimately happy and friendly unicorn filly who had been chosen by the Princess to be her personal part-time student could have wound up as a self-determined social outcast with absolutely no interest in making friends within her own peer group or virtually any other, you're about to get part of the answer.)

Coordinator's path through school was a simple one. Listen to other students. Go through their words, including some of the ones they'd written down -- when they weren't looking. Turn those words against them. There were many times when he'd invent words himself and plant them in another pony's writings, or claim he'd heard them saying those foul things and other ponies whom he'd had previous contact with would be only too happy to back him up. Surely no reasonable pony would want such things to get out, would they? Oh, or there were events to create. He'd seen a pony going into the restricted access section of the library -- well, he hadn't, that pony never went there at all, but he had plenty of ponies who'd swear they'd all seen it take place. And who was that pony who started the fight which didn't happen? (He would make other ponies ram their bodies into walls and furniture to create the evidentiary bruises. Sacrifices had to be made.) It got even better when the class had aged to the point where those first tentative fumbling relationships began to blossom: that let him invent infidelity. And all you had to do in order to keep Coordinator on your side (or rather, behind you, listening to everything and waiting to use it against you) was make sure he passed every test. Whole new methods of cheating were invented and smuggled past teachers in order to get a single colt through his classes. Coordinator ultimately graduated with just enough understanding of magical theory to squeak past those practical exams which were personally supervised by those adults his parents couldn't bribe (or, in his later years, the ones he hadn't quite managed to manipulate himself), but with invisible doctorates in rumor, social climbing, and blackmail.

And since it wasn't what he knew so much as who (and what he knew or had invented about them), Coordinator paid particular attention to the fact that there was a filly in his class who took special lessons directly from the Princess and even went to the palace on some weekends, plus there were rumors of royally-escorted field trips and so much more besides. Clearly a unicorn who was going places --and look who was always going with her. Coordinator had made a number of friends quickly -- or rather, he had accumulated a quantity of protective shielding bodies, both those who saw and liked his style and the ones who quickly decided it was better to risk a hit from the outside going in rather than the reverse. So he decided to add one more friend to the list, the one who would be his most special friend of all. Even in his first year, he'd already formed a vague idea that an eventual upgrade to very special somepony might be the best move he could ever make.

She rejected him.

Rejected. Him.

He didn't understand why. (He still doesn't. He was and is perfect in every way.) He made up any number of excuses, starting with the Princess herself, who believed in all those stupid things like tolerance and acceptance and he could just vomit at this one, equality, and so would only have taken on a student who was so much of an ignorant self-blinding moron that she'd believe in all that idiocy too. The reality (which he did not and still will not see) was that Twilight's little bare portion of natural social empathy combined with her brother's careful warnings had been more than enough for her to look at the bottle she was being offered as a gift and see the word POISON written on every last square inch. But no, it must have been the Princess. And the Princess created -- problems. He could only do so much with Twilight. Oh, he could spread some rumors about her and invent tales and use every other tool in his growing kit -- but if he did too much -- well, the other students could, at most, run to teachers (many of whom he would eventually have) and parents (largely helpless and it wasn't as if the stories ever truly led back to him anyway, not that anypony could prove), but Twilight Sparkle could gallop right up to the palace. There was only so much of a risk Coordinator could take, and the chance of getting that result locked a number of tools away. Attacking Twilight with anything more than the most indirect methods appeared to him as an open begging for his own expulsion -- or worse. But he could still see the benefits in being her friend.

So the next step in becoming her friend -- was to make himself into the only option for friendship at all.

A lie here, a lie there...

Oh, Twilight always had ponies trying to use her as the key in the door which would unlock the palace: he was hardly the only one there. Students came to the school from the most ancient and supposedly-noble of the Houses, and many of those had their parents instructing them to tie their leash around the purple one from the moment they saw the Princess coming to pick her up. But being from one of the Houses did not automatically make a pony into a social-climbing sociopath with no real emotions beyond the negative ones. There were and are Houses who host kind, friendly, charming unicorns who are truly worth getting to know, who understand friendship and would be happy to try forming one with you. Some of those current young adults went to school with Twilight as well, saw how much she would benefit from having a friend and tried being one to her. And none of them ever had a chance. Each well was tainted, every ray of light blocked by shadow.

Some of the rumors meant for the student's ears made Twilight into a danger. Nopony knew how much power she really had and everypony could see that her control was lacking, especially in the early years: a little stress in class and her corona went double, sometimes with her eyes turning white. Best not to be too close in case she lost it, yes? (Coordinator never learned about exactly what had happened during Twilight's entrance exams. He would have been thrilled. And then would have created an extra layer of protective pony bodies.) Others had been designed to eventually drift into Twilight's twitching and increasingly paranoid ears. What were the motives of all these ponies who claimed they wanted to be her friend? Well, the easiest way to go there was by taking his own motivation and assigning it to others, although that was hardly the only take he spun. And should a pony keep on trying regardless, or if Twilight seemed to almost be on the absolute verge of reaching out to a particularly persistent student? Attack the student. Try to be Twilight's friend and your school life would be a misery -- until you stopped. He had to isolate Twilight -- but he had to do it carefully, because there was a very large shadow of wings lurking overhead, waiting to swoop down on the first mistake.

It was a testament to his skills that he succeeded as well as he did. Oh, he couldn't manage a complete victory. He couldn't do anything about the dragon. The infant learned to talk within moons, spent slightly more time at the palace than Twilight did and was rumored to be receiving private lessons of his own. What Coordinator would have used as a personal assistant and virtual slave labor was (disgusting, sickening, unnatural) being treated by Twilight as her brother. And the dragon would not listen to anything he made other ponies say. Wouldn't take any side which wasn't Twilight's. The bond was unbreakable and oh, he tried to prove that wrong, tried over and over -- but before that first year was over, the dragon was on his feet and toddling along at Twilight's side or on her back (she let him ride, there were no words for how low she had sunk, but he had to swallow it and get close to her anyway), always trying to help and sometimes even succeeding. They could not and never would be brother and sister, should never be anything other than master and servant (or worse). And yet they treated each other as siblings and it was a horror, it made his parents pale when he told them, it should have been a crime -- but it was and it would not break.

But other than the dragon -- complete.

He approached again. Was rejected again. (She could still read, still had a mentor and brother to be with when the loneliness threatened to erupt into tears, hadn't even begun to learn about tracking the flow of rumor, much less approaching other ponies with her problems. She's still working on that last.)

Twilight Sparkle would not allow him to be her friend. So until she did, Twilight Sparkle, excepting that damnable dragon, would have no friends.

She never accepted him. He never allowed anypony to accept her or let her think well of those few who wouldn't learn their lesson and still occasionally tried. And so the years passed.

Oh, she was smart -- in some limited ways. There were times when Coordinator thought she was threatening to pick up a new kind of feel, had managed to detect his own resonance in the echoed words. But it was never anything she could prove or even dig too deeply into, and he was never sure she'd truly figured anything out. Dark looks in the hallways, sitting as far away from him in the classrooms as possible. Nothing more. Perhaps not all that smart, at least for things other than magic. She had very few social skills and had never picked up more, her development there arrested at the level of a shy young filly who had once truly wanted friends and now simply didn't care any more. In fact, she even seemed to be regressing: as graduation approached, the horror of the false sibling relationship began to diminish. By the end of their seventh year, she was starting to treat the dragon like the servant he should have been all along. He took all silent credit. He was very proud.

But then she received her diploma and moved on to postgraduate studies, without a single relationship to her credit outside of Princess, parents, brother, and dragon (with that last now just barely), still not his friend -- and he shrugged. He'd tried. If he'd done damage, she had deserved it and quite possibly more. It didn't matter any longer, as least not as far as it affected him. Coordinator had graduated. He had no intention of advancing his studies further: his triple invisible doctorate would serve. It was time to begin life as a young adult, a life in the palace which would in time place him at the Princess' right front hoof. Or, more to the point, turn him into the voice for one whose true words would eventually no longer be heard at all. Every string was in place, every contact his parents had made tied to the ones he had arranged, and they were all yanked at the moment he handed over his application.

He was rejected.

Rejected.

(The Princess had never been told about him at all, never had a chance to delve into the school's social circle and see what was truly happening, hadn't known how to reverse Twilight's diminishing desire for outside contact and couldn't make her student talk about it. But she could also read.)

And he didn't understand why. He had done everything right. There had been no fault at all. The plan had been perfect and executed without flaw. But she had turned him away. Had never even met with him. (Normally, Celestia gave such a day or two of suffocating in their own self-importance before dismissing them. In this case, the writing had been too large.) The place refused to reconsider him. The heart of Canterlot was closed, and there would be no path in through the Courts no matter how many lives he threatened to ruin. In the end, his power to destroy was considerable -- but compared to the shadow of those wings, it was petty. They could risk him or they could risk her.

With no other choices, he'd returned to Trotter's Falls. As a failure.

His parents had treated him accordingly.

That particular piece of resulting blackmail hadn't been as satisfying as he'd hoped.

It hadn't taken long for Coordinator to work into the town's government. (Not the mayor, but close to him. Always have at least one shielding layer whenever possible.) But there was no satisfaction to it. No power beyond the ultimately petty. And always the knowledge that petty was the only kind of power he would ever have -- unless a certain impossibility was true, unless what could not happen somehow came to be, something he had been told about about early on and never quite believed, keeping it in his mind as nothing more than a fantasy to carry into the nightscape for a dream of real power. It would never occur, of course -- but if it did, it should happen to him. He deserved it. Not --

-- her.

Sickening. Disgusting. Unnatural. Never should have been allowed to breathe.

He refused to acknowledge that memory unless there was no other choice. Had no idea she'd made one of her own -- but would almost never visit it.

Time passed. He became a fan of Murdocks' publications, would often write guest articles sent from the wrong postmarks under assumed names for no money whatsoever, for he saw it as his duty to do anything which stood a chance to eventually depose such a clearly unfit ruler -- and, in time, an extra nightmare (with the capital dropped): the plural. He did not speak against the Princess (and then Princesses) in the open, of course -- not unless he was among very special company. But speak there he did, and write, and added darker dreams to his nightscape, dreams he used that thankfully-basic spell to keep away from prying eyes. (He would have given much for that ability, and it was unfair that a Princess had it and he did not. So much blackmail material in the nightscape...) And Twilight Sparkle mostly faded from his life -- at least for a time. The name came up on rare occasion, of course, and he would automatically repeat some of the things he'd said and spread over the years (attributing them to other sources), making certain her reputation among those surrounding him was no better than it had been in school: that was what she deserved. But it was a rare occasion indeed --

-- which then started to become more common...

...his article writing had picked up considerably, he had a skill for taking a debate and twisting it so that only one side ever got a word in and for the other to be permitted speech was a capital crime, with the later never a problem since he got to write the (in)complete argument...

...and then the true nightmare, as the petty power of mere magic suddenly became something actual.

Slightly over three weeks later, actual and right in front of him.

That power was unhappy.

Had she grown social awareness to go with the wings? Finally realized how much he had truly been involved in her isolation? What was she planning to do? Because she could retaliate now. She always could have beaten him in a fight, the prospect had been terrifying and his best bet would have been to hope others gave up their bodies long enough for him to find some way to escape. But now she could isolate him. A few words from a Princess and everything he still had... gone. Forever. With no way to rebuild it.

Coordinator hated her. Hated every alicorn at this point because they had actual power. All he would ever have was ultimately petty --

-- or so he'd believed.

There were new stories circulating. A sight to watch out for. Something which threatened -- success.

He didn't believe it, of course. It had been madness all along and he had only entertained it as a fantasy (although a delightful one), even if that delusion was being enforced on a walking sickness instead of, should any chance of such a thing be true, being given to the deserving.

But... 'but' was an interesting word. There was a chance something had happened. Madness had a way of producing results simply through attempting things the sane would never try. Coordinator was -- curious. At his previous best, he had treated the concept with detached amusement (along with that permanent disgust), but now....

Coordinator wanted power, always had. Actual power. And with the return of Twilight Sparkle to his life -- a Twilight Sparkle who openly didn't like him -- he wanted that power more than ever. Needed it. Coordinator was always on the side of anypony who could help him, and if the impossible was coming true -- why, then Coordinator was about to become the single most devoted member of the cause (or The Great Work) anypony had ever imagined. Besides, even if it somehow couldn't be his immediately -- well, the best counter to a Princess had to be another Princess, correct?

However, until then, Twilight Sparkle was here. Angry. Possibly suspicious -- or worse, with suspicions confirmed and just waiting to make her move. Petty power would do well to hunker down and pack its bags just in case it needed to move unexpectedly.

Coordinator should have recognized that. A truly intelligent pony would have purchased an open-date train ticket on the way back from the burn site. Those with foresight would have already been on the train. A pony with survival instinct ascendant would have skipped that stage and just run. And Coordinator was intelligent (in certain ways), would anticipate certain possible results (in a few categories)...

...but he loved power. Was, in fact, addicted to it. (He did not recognize that. Nothing controlled him. He controlled everything -- or so he told himself, wanted to believe, longed to do.) Exercised it at nearly every opportunity, although most of those took place out of sight and hearing of the ponies targeted.

Twilight Sparkle was here. In his territory. And once the terror began to subside, he decided that if she could have proven anything, she would have acted already. And a coward like Twilight Sparkle would never risk a move without proof, not to mention that she was far too tied to the open rules to do anything outside them. The junior Princess had actual power -- but only in theory. Power she had no idea how to use. She could not be allowed to operate in comfort and acceptance on his territory. Ever. She needed a reminder of what petty could do when exercised properly.

Coordinator, on the morning after Twilight arrived in Trotter's Falls and brought more of the unnatural, the warped along, with his terrors lesser beneath the new Sun, began to write. Speak. Neither of which would ever be traced back to him: he was certain of that, because it never had been.

He should have run.

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Rainbow Dash wasn't backing down. She almost never backed down and when the confrontation had a physical component, somepony generally had to make her back off -- typically by clenching teeth or field around prismatic tail and dragging her away. Letting a confrontation diminish on its own or outright canceling it -- hardly ever. It was a challenge, after all, and to back down would be to come in second.

Her muscles were visibly tense, tendons standing out along her legs (wide stance, braced) and the partially-unfurled wings. Teeth clenched after biting off the end of the final single-syllable sentence. The nostrils were flared. Head not lowered, but it would have been the last step to being in a full pre-charge pose. And she would not back down. The last word still hung in the air around her, in front of Twilight, surrounded the others and kept them from moving. The word to which there were only two responses.

I should have looked at the scroll's feel. I should have wondered about it. I should have...

Twilight wished for a monster to burst out of the wild zone. The foundation to disintegrate beneath their hooves and send them tumbling into a lost basement, dungeon, Diamond Dog lair. The appearance of the pony she was now convinced was the mission target (even if she still didn't understand why Discord would pretend to care, much less any chance of his actually doing so). Gilda could crash into her back and Twilight would have thanked her. She would happily settle for the totally unexpected and suddenly very welcome return of Sombra, and in fact was briefly willing to entertain any and all disasters -- well, not losing Luna to Nightmare Moon a second time or having Celestia be submerged within something even worse, but anything short of that might get at least five seconds of her delight just as thanks for the distraction. Twilight wanted something to explode and gave brief thought towards trying to create one out of sight in the trees -- but while she had hidden her field a few times, such as with a certain ill-fated Come To Life spell during her first Winter Wrap-Up, she wasn't all that good at it and it tended to make the spells cast during that state go out of control. Not a good idea when used with offense. So she took a breath and relied on the potential malevolence of the wild zone to save her.

And with the smugness of a universe which had decided it was on Dash's side, nothing happened.

Fly. Or admit she couldn't.

No other options.

So she went with the wrong one.

All right. I am an alicorn. Whether I want to fully believe it or not, whether I want to be one or not, I am a unic -- alicorn. Alicorns have wings. Alicorns fly. I've seen all three do it. I have wings. They flap. Alicorns flap their wings and fly. So. No real wind here right now. Maybe a little jump to get some height before the first flap. Gravity is of course a constant and not to be worried about. Airflow should be normal around wings because it always is. Vectors, force applied, calories burned with muscles exerted. Basic calculations. Consider the efforts involved in a very simple path. All she asked for was take off and land, but that's probably not what she meant: if I just went up two Celests and then came down again, she'd say I wasn't really flying and challenge all over again. I need something a little more complicated. Haven't even begun to figure out hovering yet, so let's just say -- take off and circle the clearing once. Nothing fancy. Just tour the border without going too close to the trees, return to start and land. I can even drop down for the last part if I'm close to the ground. I don't have to go that high at all. It is a basic circle, low to the ground, which I have already roughly calculated for force, exertion, vectors, and everything else physics say should go into this, and it should fulfill her requirements. I am going to do this. Because somehow, I am an alicorn. And alicorns fly. A includes B, B is a subset of A, and A has been achieved, therefore B is now automatic and not even remotely worth so much as a single moment of light concern.

Right?

Right.

So here I go.

And to the accompaniment of total silence, Twilight went.

A number of things happened. None of them would have had a captured image fetch less than four thousand mostly-counterfeit bits.

The silence settled in again and hung around for a while, getting comfortable and checking out the available snack supply.

Finally, "Twilight?"

The whisper of humiliation beyond hope of recovery. "...what?"

It could have been the offer of a save, one last way out. "Was that -- supposed to be a joke?"

Trying not to cry, one more rubbing straw creating an exposed sore on a back which was being asked to carry a greater burden with every step, so close to total collapse, "...no..."

More softly than she'd ever heard Rainbow Dash speak, "You missed the thermal by the path. How could you miss that? And that shift layer coming off the west -- you went right through it without even trying to adjust. You weren't accounting for -- for anything, Twilight. You were just -- pushing. There was no flow. You didn't work with the air, you just..." Volume dropping still more, "Twilight, stop crying -- please don't..." The pegasus dropped down next to her, began inspecting the splayed left wing: Fluttershy moved in to check the other side. "Nothing hurt..." Dash decided (with Fluttershy confirming). "You took a tumble after that final rebound, but that last roll didn't do any damage... Twilight, I saw you fly. Right after the coronation. And -- you did a good job. Nothing too fancy, you had a sort of nice basic swoop at one point, but -- you flew. I thought you might be hurt or sick and trying to hide it, or she did something, or part of that stupid backlash stuff..." It felt as if Dash was trying to make excuses for her. It had gone that far.

And Twilight barely noticed. Head down, eyes focused on the ground she never should have left, unable to look at any of her friends. "...there -- was a thermal?"

Rainbow Dash blinked. "How can you fly at all and not feel --" stopped dead for ten eternal heartbeats. "Because -- you can't -- can you? You can't feel -- and if you can't feel at all, then you can't fly. You just push and beg the Princesses that nothing goes wrong..."

Feel? There wasn't any magic. What didn't I --

-- no. They'd just discussed it. Pegasi had their own feel. One Twilight had never knowingly experienced -- one that was apparently necessary for flight to take place at all.

"...I..." Twilight whispered, "...don't feel anything... not like that..." She would have thought it impossible for the humiliation to become deeper. She would have been wrong.

Confusion from both pegasi, with Dash as the one to express. "Then -- how did you fly the first time?"

"...don't know... I don't remember... I just -- wanted to fly... I wasn't thinking about it and I don't remember..."

The silence moved in again. Nopony or dragon tried to stop it.

"Get up, Twilight." The voice was brash: it almost always was. But there was no teasing or anger in it. Just a simple instruction. "Go ahead -- just get up."

Slowly, Twilight got back to her hooves, putting her head as far above a surface as she was convinced it ever would be again. She couldn't look at Rainbow Dash. Still couldn't look at anypony. They knew now. She was a joke of an alicorn, another failure and in her way, equally broken. Couldn't fly. Never should have changed at all. A pitiful excuse for a Princess, a Princess of nothing with no way back to just being a unicorn with five good friends and a little brother, all of whom had just found out her so-called ascension had been a drop. Good for nothing but luring in press to disrupt everypony's lives and losing books and giving out unhelpful advice other ponies had written long ago. Student to Princess Celestia in a course which she had taken over more than half her life -- and finally flunked.

Rainbow Dash moved around her (as Fluttershy backed away a little, as the others let it continue to be just the two of them), got in front of Twilight again and propped her head up on the pegasus' front right hoof, gently forced warm magenta and tear-streaming purple eyes into gaze contact. "No flight camps or schools," the pegasus softly (gently) mused, thoughtful on a level Twilight had never seen from her. "No parents to watch you on those first attempts and no infant surges working on instinct to barely remember when you start to really try. No feel. And -- you're thinking. All you do is think..." A bare wisp of a sigh. "I should have figured that out when you didn't know how to preen or even before that, buck it, buck it all, too much Tartarus-chained thinking... because in your head, you're still a unicorn and you're one who doesn't know how to do anything but think..."

Twilight blinked. Tears fell. Rainbow Dash was still there when the blinks stopped. "I -- don't understand..."

"Of course you don't." She'd never heard this level of softness from Dash, this amount of open caring. Hadn't know Dash was capable of it. "I never should have expected you to. Never assumed. That first flight tricked me, tricked all of us, but when you didn't repeat it, I thought it was because --" and another stop, five heartbeats this time. "Thinking... well, this isn't what I think, Twilight: it's what I know. School is back in session. I'm your teacher. Somepony has to get you to feel instead of think and it's going to be me. You are going to fly or I'm going to die trying. Nothing is keeping my flying buddy grounded. Ever."

"But -- but I don't -- I can't..."

The pegasus dropped her hoof, moved closer. Gave her the nuzzle meant for family, and a little bit more.

"Ever."

They stayed that way for a time. Rainbow Dash refusing to move. Twilight sobbing. One of the straws finally dropping away.

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The group was moving towards the wild zone orchard again. Dash had resumed her normal level of volume. She had not resumed her normal height, not in the sense of Celests above the ground. She had walked next to Twilight for a while, drawing up the tentative lesson schedule. "...and there's no way I'm going to let anypony else laugh at you, no matter how funny that one accidental rebound double spin was. So we're gonna have to figure out a way to do it in private. Maybe -- oh, Celestia blast it -- in the middle of the -- Luna shock me, we're really gonna have to -- night. When -- nopony's up to watch. Can't do it out here -- too much to run into too early. I can't get you to the normal training level because you can't stay up there on your own... Tartartus, ground level interference is an advanced course, we're going to need a ton of open space... maybe Quiet's fields: he's got lots of room. We can try that for a while as long as we're here. When we get back to Ponyville... I'll scout something out. I might have to -- be up at -- all hours of the -- night to find something, but we'll get a place. Sure not gonna be the Gorge..." And then she'd stayed on ground level even after letting Twilight have the sole lead again, which might have been a weird form of student-teacher solidarity.

There were going to be classes. For once, Twilight hadn't been able to make herself look forward to them: she knew they were going to involve still more failures, and Twilight was used to passing her courses -- sometimes very quickly, occasionally pulling ahead of her unicorn teachers. But classes there would still be, and -- now they knew. And they were her friends. Still her friends, and they loved her no less for her failures. Twilight didn't know why she had so much trouble making herself remember that or believe it beyond the time it could take to write a letter, why part of her was always convinced that the next wedge she drove would be the one that split them once and for all. Why some lessons had to be studied over and over.

They loved her. She hadn't let herself believe it. Again.

How much do we have to go through together before I let myself accept that this is real? That I'm not one stupid word away from losing everything and everypony, or just waking up and finding myself back in the dorms in my first year with no friends and losing all hope of making any? That I'm not watching ponies murmur about me or try to use me or start to move in and then back away without ever completely knowing why some of them left?

Well -- she knew why some of them had left, or at least had suspicions. Some of the stories in school had seemed to have a suspicious brown-and-white speckled hole in the center -- one which had kept trying to attach itself to her flank to be towed along. She'd never been able to prove anything and without solid evidence, approaching the teachers who'd seemed so much in his thrall -- or worse, bothering the Princess with her stupid filly problems, ones which had no evidence...

There are ponies you can't make friend with, ever. There are ones you shouldn't make friends with. And there are ones who deserve to be scared...

He'd been scared of her. She'd seen it. On a level not too far from the surface, enjoyed it...

...so why did she feel just a little bit ashamed of herself? Because it was something Princess Celestia wouldn't have done? Luna would have.

They weren't in school any more. But she'd still reacted like a filly...

He deserved it.

Next problem.

Too old for a first spell... All right -- reasons for that, ideas she would share with the others later, some of which might have been conceived independently. Discussion for the way back. First, it might have taken years of -- the cycle -- for the actual power to build. Maybe it had just been the physical changes to start with and the ones to her magic had come later. Or -- well, if she'd started as a unicorn, she could have had her natural magic disrupted by the changes: getting her cutie mark just as she would have started on the path which led to the basics. Pegasi magic coming and going -- how could anypony hope to learn two forms of magic at once? Years stalled because as Rarity had said, it had been a moment-by-moment struggle just to exist and anything past that for a long time might have seemed beyond hope. Possibilities.

Another one: her magic had been bound. Twilight was familiar with the devices used to restrain unicorn magic: not only had she studied the theory and practice, she'd seen them on some of the prisoners in the trials she'd visited and, when the Lunar Guards had arrested them, found one clamped onto her horn for the first time. The last wasn't one of her better memories. She's strong. Anypony around her knows she's strong and at her level of power, strength without control is terrifying.

(There was something she almost thought of then, but stopping that memory was one of her oldest habits and the success was virtually automatic.)

So somepony could have put a restraint on her if her first tries were doing damage and just -- left it there. But that's postulating a lot of things, starting with at least one other pony. A parent or guardian. Or -- would she have restrained herself? Seen she was a danger and stopped herself from casting for years? But then -- why would she stop and come out now, unbound? To look for me and try for her answers? That's possible -- hope for a cure, an impossible cure after years like -- that -- and she might have decided it was worth the chance. But why not go to the Princess before that? I know she doesn't want other ponies to know about her or what happened: 'tell nopony'. Is she hiding from somepony? Everypony? All questions to ask her, and --

-- I still feel like I'm missing something.

Or --

-- like she wasn't telling herself something. So many changes to her life, struggling to adjust and reconcile and eventually just to hang on, and then this nightmare of a mission from Discord with everything inherent in that name, horror after horror adding to the burdens she was already carrying. One lifted, but so many others still present and more piling on all the time. It was as if there was a thought she'd almost had and couldn't quite finish yet, just because the nightmares had been there all throughout what had existed of her sleep and Luna, bound not to interfere, had chased none of them away. Nightmares Twilight couldn't quite remember and didn't want to. But dreaming was still a form of thinking (if not the kind Twilight usually engaged in, the one Dash seemed so set against) and possibly there were things she didn't want to face which had emerged under the Moon, possibly related to a thought which would not come into the open beneath the Sun...

Maybe it was just something she was still trying to work out, deep down.

There were a lot of reasons to show first spell signs at that age. At her age. Eventually, Twilight might come up with more. And there would be at least one chance to ask her...

'Her'. We haven't tried to name her beyond Pinkie's one discard. I keep thinking 'she' or 'her' and nothing else.

'Who are you?' One of the biggest questions of all.

'Not unicorn. Not pegasus. Not anything.'

Not an alicorn.

Failed. Broken. Malformed.

Malicorn.

No. The name was too cruel to apply on anypony going through so much suffering. She wouldn't use it.

Rainbow Dash had asked for a group session later, told the others they need to learn more of pegasus magic than they'd ever understood before and had to do it before tonight. The rest of the outbound journey was being used for simply calming down, at least as far as they all could -- but before they met this stranger again, they needed to have a stronger comprehension of what she might be capable of in that form. Twilight already had a good idea of what she could manage as a unicorn: raw strength (and possibly strength which surpassed her own), but potentially with no comprehension of how to channel it into any spell more sophisticated than movement -- or not. She didn't know and the idea of seeing so much energy channeled into a more advanced working was its own horror. She had already told the others what to expect there if such happened: anything -- which helped nopony in the slightest. She couldn't help it: telling them about every spell unicorns had ever invented over the centuries couldn't be done in a single day or even a year. And there was knowledge lost, new discoveries being added...

If she comes as a pegasus... if she comes as a unicorn...

She would be coming. Seven of them and one of her.

The odds seemed a little too long on the wrong side.

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What the orchard mainly told them was that the tree had been big. When intact, it could have sat at the bottom of the ravine and had the uppermost branches peek over the top. Applejack had softly whistled upon seeing it and its brethren. "Eastern Red Giant," she'd told them, and the stress which had been visibly tensing her entire body since their discussion at the foundation briefly eased. "By Celestia's mane, Ah never thought Ah'd see one -- everypony, grab an apple an' eat it, you're not gonna see another one for a while. Tart an' sweet at the same time, natural candy... Ah've seen some of the apples, 'course, but the seeds -- almost impossible t' get an' the apple sellers core 'em out t' keep 'em rare, charge way too much an' limit the sales. Takes the trees decades t' get this big on their own... even if Ah brought some seeds home an' the whole family all worked on it t'gether, least a year t' get the first bloom an' five before they'd start t' peak... an' why am Ah sayin' 'if'? Sorry, everypony, but y'know Ah've gotta... the cider off these is legendary..." And they'd let her have a few minutes to herself as she happily collected some of the apples in the delighted knowledge that she'd eventually have a new crop to offer -- but as soon as she'd finished, all the tension had dropped back in, leaving her once again with a tail which tended to lash whenever she wasn’t paying attention to it, ears almost constantly flat back against her head, and the general aura of a pony with one wire tied around her forelegs, another looping the back, and a train attached to each -- which were pulling away in opposite directions. That talk had shaken Applejack more than it had Twilight, and the former unicorn wondered what was going through the farmer's mind. Possibly wondering what she would (or even could) do if it came to a fight: this wasn't an opponent Twilight could picture being beaten by lasso.

It had been a big tree -- very big: Twilight had to boost Applejack and Pinkie Pie over the trunk (with Dash initially carrying Rarity), as the fallen wood cut across pretty much the entire clearing and going around would have taken too long. They found where Grape Indulgence had been standing: the discarded bottle (which Fluttershy took for her own saddlebags and eventual disposal) was the clue, along with a few thin tracks that proved he'd been pulling a very light cart nearby and stopped to detach himself from it. (There was also a slight lingering odor, which they took care to avoid.)

The tree had not fallen directly towards him: given Twilight's best first guess of where she might have been standing -- she had picked up on a degree of residual feel (still off somehow, but she was unable to analyze a fading signature which would have been gone in another day and had only lasted so long because of the sheer power originally involved) near the base of the break -- he'd been observing from about a hundred and fifty degrees to the left. But the crown would have come close, and -- who would have stayed? Certainly not a drunken pony who hadn't given a single thought to help.

What he hadn't mentioned became evident within seconds of closer inspection: the intruder had pulled the whole tree down towards her -- and had instinctively thrown it over her body. There was an eight-foot gap between dying stump and fallen trunk. An incredibly small fraction of the pressure she'd put on the tree had been brought against her body, enough to leave an impression of hooves in the dirt.

"No shoes," Rarity frowned. "I know that's common in everyday wear... but not only no shoes, no signs of shoes, none of the little indicators you find where shoes have pressed. These are practically virgin hooves..." A glance back at the others, who (other than Applejack) were looking amused. "All right, very well, but it's all I have to contribute at this time. My apologies for not having put more time into studying detective work and Pinkie, there is nothing that hat goes with unless you have the appropriate half-cape, thank you..."

Pinkie shrugged and put it away -- somewhere -- then looked over the fallen trunk again. "Poor tree," she sighed. "At least it was quick... do you think we can just leave this here? Other ponies are going to come out for more apples, and they might -- wonder what had happened. Maybe they already came out. But we can't put it back where it was -- unless there's a spell to -- make it whole again?" She looked hopefully at Twilight.

No such luck: the head shake came immediately. "I'm sorry, Pinkie, but -- it's dead. A complete break and a couple of days... a wood mending spell would have had to be immediate to have any chance, and it's not my specialty."

Rarity sighed. "I grafted some sculptured dead branches back once. They were still dead. Ask Applejack how that worked out... dear? Are you sure you're all right? You look rather as if you have two Ursa Majors playing tug-of-war with you as the rope."

"Ah'm -- jus' -- thinkin', Rarity. Ah think sometimes. Yeah, Ah remember the branches. Wouldn't want t' see this poor old beast crash down in the middle of a slumber party neither. Y'can't get rid of this one the same way, right?"

"Far too much mass for me, although Twilight can surely do it... Personally, I rather forced the issue the first time and I'm still surprised I affected as much as I did. And getting rid of the trunk still leaves us with a stump, moving the stump leaves us with a hole... if we've found as much as we're going to, perhaps we should just -- move them closer? Cover where she was standing?"

Spike had been confused by the latest turn in the discussion. "Why are we trying to hide so much? We're allowed to ask for help, guys! Doesn't that mean we're allowed to tell ponies what we're doing? What's been going on? Maybe if we started spreading the news around, we'd find somepony who knew everything."

Rainbow Dash shook her head hard enough to blur the colors of her mane: for a moment, there was an impression of muddy brown. "No way! You never know when things are going to get back to the wrong ponies! She said there were others who needed to know, remember? What if they find out we're looking and decide we're trying to keep them from changing? Think that would go over well? I'm not making any public announcements and nopony else should either. We could start a panic, we could start a riot -- against us. Like, maybe, what if the whole town was in on it, like in Volume Twelve of the expanded universe series, and we're the only ponies in the dark, and -- okay, stop snickering, it's possible, right?"

"Your potboilers over," Rarity quipped with a dignified giggle. "I understand your point, but I suspect that put against reality, you're rather overstating the case. Still -- caution, I think."

Fluttershy had been inspecting the trunk for lost animal homes and had thankfully come up empty. "...it would scare ponies... some of them would just think about how different she is and not her pain... they'd be scared and when some ponies are scared, they do -- stupid things. We don't know her well yet... we shouldn't scare them unless we know she's trying to do -- something which isn't -- nice. All fear usually leads to is... more fear..."

Twilight nodded to that. "I'm not going to risk a panic or a mass faint. If we need to alert the town, I promise we will: no information concealed if we're sure hiding it would hurt somepony." (Applejack felt Pinkie Pie staring at her, wouldn't look back.) "But she hasn't attacked the town, she didn't take all our food, she saved me when she could have let me fall..."

"I already found more than one reason for that," Rainbow Dash said with just a touch of snit, offended by both Twilight's slip of memory and 'potboilers'. "She had to save you, no matter what her motivation was."

"...Discord... we're giving him a chance here," Fluttershy half-whispered. "...is he the only one?"

Pinkie answered that. "Sometimes the fastest way to turn somepony into a bad pony is by telling them they're a bad pony." Looking around at the others, gentle blue gaze steady. "I don't want to say that about anypony before we know."

"I agree," Twilight said. "So far, she's been dangerous by accident -- or when she's scared. There's a risk there, but -- again, tonight. With the way her changes are visible if you're watching her long enough, and how hard it is to hide that pain or manage with it -- I don't think she goes near other ponies much. Maybe -- hardly ever." A life of agony, in self-imposed isolation. Can't get that close to anypony or risk letting them get close to you. No stability. Feel coming and going. No friends and no hopes of ever having any, because nopony would ever stay near you and you're afraid to be near them...

Too many horrors under waking Sun, too many for the Moon, and Twilight found herself hoping not to remember her dreams again.

"Maybe -- we were the first since -- her mark appeared," she forced herself to finish. "Tonight... we'll make plans, I promise: we have to. But if we don't threaten her or upset her, I don't think she'll attack. Attacking means no answers."

Spike looked up at Twilight. "And what if not having answers is what upsets her?"

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The body gave them a possible answer.

They had taken a different route back. Several of them were carrying maps of the area (provided by Quiet, who had passed them out without comment) and Rainbow Dash occasionally took a brief jaunt up so she could stay oriented on the town. Twilight had felt she'd picked up a last bit of feel heading towards one edge of the clearing, and broken small plants showed something had rushed through the area. Moving away before completely releasing the bulk of the field. She had likely gone that way, and following a bit of her trail might find more clues -- where she'd come from, where she hid...

...who she'd killed.

Rarity drew back, almost reared up in her desire to get a little further away. "Oh, no... the poor --" Stopped. Looked again. Looked harder. "No, I take part of that back. I regret his death, but this is not necessarily a poor thing. This is an exile, and the crime was theft from the pack."

Nearly all of them looked at her, and none with more tension than Spike.

She had the grace to blush. "I never -- entirely broke off contact." Stopped the protest before it did more than scare several hiding birds. "No, everypony -- it's quite all right, and I always told Twilight where I was going and when I would return. She even accompanied me a few times at random intervals, to keep them on their toes." (There was a second immediate blush visible within the purple coat -- especially as her brother hit her with a glare which was just a little cooler than his fire, a promise that there would be a Talk coming later...) "I am not a fool -- and neither are they. We came to an understanding. I would return every so often and show them where to find a few gems within their mines, of my own free will. I would keep a portion -- very well, a large portion -- and freely depart. In exchange, they would not attempt to kidnap any ponies, I would not ask the Princess to evict them, and we would all keep our voices level and controlled. Spot, Fido, and Rover -- yes, those are their names, it took moons for me to learn them and please do not laugh any more about it -- aren't always happy with our arrangement, but they lost status when we all got away. Pretending it's a trade agreement of sorts is the only thing keeping them as anything close to alphas. It gives me gems, it keeps them out of trouble, and other ponies are safe. My main cost is an extra-long spa day when I emerge."

Twilight sighed: another secret out. "I was always supposed to call everypony and alert the Princesses if the Diamond Dogs ever tried anything. Their tunnels -- wouldn't have lasted long. As it is, it's a truce with attached trade agreements in everything but the signing -- and they don't really write. She's always come back safely: they're still scared of her. And at least this way, they get some gems -- since she doesn't take them all." Not quite. Sixty percent, tops, and that only with the highest grades.

Rarity managed a small smile. "'Tyrant of the Underdark', Rover once called me. I think he meant it with respect. But -- I have been among them often enough to pick up some aspects of what culture they possess. To know what their crimes are. Do you see the scar on his forehead? Recent wound, isn't it? Odd shape? And no part of the ones which killed him. That mark indicates a Diamond Dog who stole. For all their greed over gems, they share freely with the pack: to each their own portion according to the work they had done to gain them, and always at least enough to adorn. Theft... they do not look kindly on theft. The wound is made so it will scar in that shape, a special kind of dirt rubbed in to discolor. He would have had to scalp himself to be rid of it. Any Diamond Dog who so much as glimpsed him would know this one had stolen from a pack and been exiled. No tunnels would have taken such a one in: the punishment is for life. And the smaller scars next to the main one -- he was exiled with a group. Four others. Three males, two females. They do write in their fashion, Twilight -- they simply don't read anypony else's words."

"And he was killed by a pegasus."

The others turned and looked at Rainbow Dash.

There was no fury in her magenta eyes, no anger or protest. Just acceptance of the facts. "You felt a trace of what had happened at the tree, Twilight. I can feel -- something on him. It's hard to -- we'll go over it later, I promise. But for now -- he was hit by wind. Wind which a pegasus changed. The feel is all over his body -- almost gone, but... there's still enough. Another day... too late..." A small head shake, and then there was a touch of light confusion in her voice. "It is weird -- talking about this. It's not a secret or anything, but -- we're taught everything -- with other pegasi. By pegasi. Flight camp, flight school, colleges." (Fluttershy sighed: ponies noticed and wondered why.) "There's never any earth ponies or unicorns in those classes. And after, it's like boasting -- about flight. Just flight, when other ponies -- can't. You don't want to keep making ponies think they're -- missing something. Only other pegasi understand how it feels, but we pretty much all feel --" (another sigh, this time softer, mostly missed) "-- and so -- when everypony can do it, why talk about it? And when everypony can't do it... we knew Twilight for nearly three years and Rarity for longer before I ever heard 'feel' come up and... maybe it's the same. It's so natural that you don't talk about it. It's like talking about breathing." She visibly rejected the comparison, went back to what she saw as the better one. "Or flying -- when other ponies can't."

"I understand," Twilight said, and she did. "No pegasi or earth ponies in my schools... Luna's shoes, what don't we tell each other just because we don't think about it...?"

Applejack shuffled slightly, moved her tension-riddled body towards the back of the group.

A rare sigh from Rainbow. "Anyway -- it's the same feel -- I can't believe I'm using that word -- you had this morning, Twilight -- just weaker because it's been longer. He was surrounded by wind at some point. Maybe another one of those dust devils. And then he got thrown out of it and -- you can see the tree. Broke his back, and..." She looked down at the body again. "You said her magic feels -- off. This is so weak now, but -- I can't be sure, and... I -- oh, horse apples, I don't know with him, there's just barely enough to feel. But your residue wasn't -- right... buck it, I don't have the words..." She looked as if she wanted to ram her traitorous head into the nearest tree for having failed her. Or another tree, one not quite so bloodstained. "Why don't I have words...?"

"You need a better editor?" Twilight risked joking, and it got a small grin in response. "So -- we don't know if she killed him, but -- the odds are pretty good. Rarity -- would they have attacked her? Exiles without a mine to make her work in?"

Rarity was taking on that faint undershade of green again. "There are -- reasons, Twilight. Not -- kind ones. I -- oh dear, this is only going to make you worry more and I assure you that our local Diamond Dogs would never so much as entertain this thought, not even as a passing fancy... please don't yell or scream or faint, but... Spot told me there are legends of those who ate ponies -- and at least you all held most of that back. There were supposedly days when they were able to keep slaves, and that was how they -- disposed of the old ones. No, I did not ask how we tasted, Pinkie. But -- they do badly under Sun and Moon. Our local pack will at least venture outside for brief periods: most others will not risk even their minor sojourns. They don't understand how to survive on the surface. Five exiles, and the scar was still healing... too soon to have learned? And then they find a pony -- a single pegasus, alone, and -- in pain. Appearing weak. Fido spoke to me in confidence once about -- kidnapping. What they are taught of how -- and who. I think he was worried that I would travel and some distant pack would be stupid enough to try a second time, so he wanted me to know in order to protect them..." She trailed off, took a few deep breaths.

"Go ahead, Rarity," Twilight gently encouraged. "I know this isn't easy."

"Rather not. Well -- on the whole, they want pegasi because flying is, to them, useless in the tunnels except for freeing gems near and in the ceiling, and weather changing does little underground. But they can't catch them. Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash can evade them simply by taking off and hovering out of reach. Unicorns... we make them nervous. They don't understand magic beyond the faint bits they have for their own -- oh, they have their tricks, girls: that tunneling is not entirely without power behind it. The range of our abilities worries them, as they can never know what a single unicorn is truly capable of. And earth ponies --" a look at Pinkie, with Applejack out of sight "-- they are terrified of. He couldn't say why. Just that he was taught to leave them alone unless there was no other choice. I suspect a truly bad experience some generations back, exaggerated and partially lost in oral history. But a lone pegasus -- one who was hurt, who might have looked as if she couldn't get away -- that would be their ideal catch. For slavery, or -- worse, as they would have had nowhere to keep a slave and -- no idea how to catch the local food. Yes, they might have attacked her: five on one, seeing easy prey. I imagine what happened next would have -- been a surprise... Spike?"

He looked up at her, waited. He always did.

"You are -- the best digger among us. I will help, and I'm sure the others will too, but -- if we are concealing, then I would like to bury him. He committed at least one crime in his life and was likely trying for another, but -- he never would have been content to rest under Sun and Moon. Let us return him under the ground and perhaps in that way, he will find some small measure of peace. A final gift." Even for one who might have tried to kill a pony, who didn't deserve such a favor, Rarity had something to give.

The little dragon nodded and began looking for a good place to start.

"Rainbow Dash?" The pegasus looked away from the body, back to Twilight. "Can you track her from here?"

This negation was slower: the colors remained distinct. "It usually doesn't last long in air, Twilight. Seconds if somepony's just flying normally. We can't track each other just by feeling which way somepony's gone, not unless they're moving super fast and there's no other air traffic around... and in here, with the forest this dense... she probably would have been grounded anyway. Maybe -- depending on where she was in her -- cycle -- she couldn't fly. But she could still move the wind..." How shaken was Rainbow Dash? So shaken that she'd momentarily forgotten to try and hide it from the others -- and there she went. "It's all right! Like you keep saying, we've got her tonight! All seven of us. We'll talk more when we get back in, and then you can do what you do second-best after boring everypony to sleep with lectures or that dumb Star Swirl: come up with a plan... wait. I'm -- gonna be -- lecturing, right? That's what it's going to feel like... do not fall asleep on me, this is crucial stuff..."

She's killed. Twilight could see what Rarity had proposed, could easily imagine the scene. Should that have been the way events worked out -- then self-defense, nothing more. But -- she had killed.

One dead.

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It became two before they reached Trotter's Falls again. This fallen Diamond Dog had retained her vest, but Rarity was unable to identify her home tunnel. "The gem pattern is the identifier -- and if you steal from the pack, you lose what the pack granted. She did not take their gems: the pack did..."

And then there had been a second burial, with Pinkie Pie saying the words over the body again, ones she assured them the Dogs wouldn't mind. "We return to the earth what came from the earth," she'd said, voice soft and as calm as they'd ever heard her. "The lost life which was first granted by soil will bring forth more life in time. The loan is repaid. Give those who come after the protection of the contract completed -- to come forth, to work, to honor, and to return..."

She'd said it was something her grandmother had recited when her grandfather had passed into the shadowlands. Words for rock farmers. And that no true Diamond Dog would ever object to those.

(There had been a moment, after she'd finished speaking, right after she'd walked around the grave three times, when it had seemed as if her curls were gone, just a single second in which the pink mane and tail had collapsed into straight falls of slightly darker hue. But then it had passed, and they'd moved on.)

That was all they found during their ultimately meandering, seemingly random trek through the wild zone. A broken tree, a set of hoofprints, a pair of dead bodies, and fast-fading feel -- two kinds. That and Twilight knowing that there were lessons coming, teachings in pegasus magic and flight. Lessons from Rainbow Dash, ones she wasn't sure she could pass -- but at least now there would be lessons. Plus a stranger returning a little ways into the future. One they had to plan for before sunset came, and there was still Pinkie and Fluttershy's appointment with Doctor Gentle and a potentially looming party and a letter which she hoped would be coming back and the Princess only knew what else -- but even if the Princess knew, there would be no word.

They knew little more than they had: Twilight's telling them her late first spell theories on the way in had just added extra questions. But at least a single thing had been settled. No flight -- but still love. There was that, and it kept the worst of the horrors away from Twilight's thoughts as they made their way back, rejoining the original trail near the lost foundation (with Dash's help), and it was easy from there. A peaceful time granted by the wild zone, which had found other ways to instill trauma.

Quiet was at the edge of the hoofball field as they emerged, his nearly-imperceptible field raising and lowering a whistle from his mouth. "No, you may not use your horn for anything other than a deflection! And it's a physical deflection at that, Splendor! Do you really want to have your horn lit when one of the balls comes right at you? If you want a backlash so badly, just come over here and I'll inflict it: maybe it'll knock some sense into you! And Darkwing, if I see your hooves more than three inches above the ground one more time, I am bringing out the penalty rope! Dear Celestia, is this a scrimmage or a scrum? Do I need to start going through the armory and fitting all of you? Because part of it was cataloged this morning, I now know I have at least one colt size in there, Luna only knows how that happened, and if I have to wrap bodies in steel and horns in worse to enforce the rules -- oh, Twilight, didn't hear all of you come in -- Sun and Moon, very nice Royal Greeting Stance, everypony, but get up -- Princesses, present company excluded, why do I bother -- hmm... And is that why you went out? You're hardly doing a good job of concealing it, Miss Applejack."

The farmer jumped. "Ah -- what? Ah didn't -- Ah don't know what y'mean --"

He grinned. "Please. I can see the outline of the apples in your saddlebags. No Eastern Red Giants in your orchard, I take it? I'm vaguely familiar with the attempts at seed restrictions and artificial price hikes. Well, I'm certain Ponyville won't object to a new flavor and since the orchard is nopony's property, it seems to me the seeds belong to whoever brings them out. Just plan your plantings well -- as I'm sure you saw, they take a lot of space."

Applejack blinked twice, adjusted her freshly-slipped hat. "Um... yeah." With increasing certainty, "Believe me, Ah'm lookin' forward t' getting 'em in. Ah haven't had these since Ah was in Manehattan an' Ah never thought Ah'd get some in the Acres. Ah'm thinking 'bout mailing a few ahead so the family can get started before Ah get back. Y'still got those directions t' the post office handy, Mister Presence? 'cause it's still early enough t' catch airmail out, by Ponyville standards."

He nodded. "If you'll stay with me a few minutes, yes -- oh, Luna's tail, that was a foul! Don't think that just because I'm speaking to her, I'm not watching you! Darkwing, if you don't get yourself over right here now on hoof, I am going to tie the penalty rope so tight, your parents will wonder where I found a turkey to squawk! Of all the blatant..." A groan. "Or perhaps more than a few minutes. I don't suppose you've ever refereed hoofball?"

"Played," Applejack replied. "Refs -- mostly ignored."

Quiet sighed. "Yes, a perfect example to hang around me while they're practicing. I'm sure you have a lot to teach them. And they'll try to get away with all of it. Miss Pie? Miss Fluttershy? The Doctor is in at the moment, but he's napping. I'm trying to make sure he gets plenty of rest, mostly in spite of himself -- the more he's off that leg, the faster it should heal. But he should be up in a short time to join the two of you for your update and tales. And here we have Darkwing, looking vaguely ashamed of himself in a way which he sincerely hopes I will take as contrition and not gave him the penalty he so richly deserves. Should you remain in town long enough, you'll become very familiar with that look. I personally see it at least twice per practice session. Hold very still, young colt, and you won't need to be preening bits of hemp out of your feathers tonight. Twilight, I generally wouldn't discourage education, but if you ever teach this one about counting coup, I have another rope and I am only incredibly afraid to use it..."

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It is called chaos terrain.

There are places in Equestria where ponies do not go. The wild zones -- that's one thing. There is no overt control there, and some of the other sentient races take their residences along with the monsters and plants which do far more than just taste good on a plate -- some of them can and do try to eat ponies right back -- plus magic with no grounding or purpose and everything else unnatural -- but there are ponies who will venture inside, because the wild zones also hold items worth bringing out. There are things which can be done with the bounty from the uncontrolled regions, and some of those bring bits by the saddlebagful. He is becoming increasingly familiar with the riches of the wild zones. He has been forced to learn a large number of things since --

-- it happened.

He is about to try something new.

Research, so much research -- and nothing. Oh, he found something, all right -- he found the place where they should have been. He still swears he was in the right place, exactly the proper location -- and there was nothing except wild zone. He has wondered if they -- hid from him, somehow. Decided he was not meant to find them and concealed themselves accordingly. It's possible. Almost anything is when it comes to that subject. He intends to return to the chase later after still more research has been done. He might have been in the wrong place after all, or could find a way to break any concealment. It is not a road he feels he is anywhere near finished with -- not yet.

But he cannot commit to a single plan. It is possible that they will remain hidden, that neither he nor anypony else will ever find them within his lifetime. He can study, research, unearth the dustiest of texts (and a certain private library has proved more helpful than he would have dared to dream), but it ultimately may come down to his magic versus theirs -- and that is a battle he feels he would lose. He is stronger than he ever suspected, never knew what he could truly do until the day this path began -- but not that strong. Learning every day, yes, every day until this plan which he is starting to call The Great Work is complete. But even if there's a way to beat such things and he learns it, using it -- another matter. And so he has, after much study of lost works and words believed to be insane, created a backup plan, one which may have to become the primary.

It is eleven moons before his eldest will arrive. Fourteen after -- it happened. Nearly all of that time spent in study and travel, acquisition and interpretation, desperately seeing answers and forming the first steps on the path. And on this day, late dusk in the nightscape with the Sun fast-descending, years before there was a returned Princess to take control of her own Moon and the mere possibility was a dream in only one alicorn's mind, he has become very probably the first pony to venture into chaos terrain for the first time since it formed. Or was formed.

He wishes the first way had succeeded. That he had been able to find them. But he was not. And so after looking through the lens of recorded madness, he has found a second means. It begins today. If he is lucky. And if not -- one thing he has learned: there are always more beginnings.

The chaos terrain is -- just that.

He is fighting the urge to run. To gallop, or even teleport. Anything which would take him away from here. Something deep in his blood recognizes the nature of the place, that ponies should not be here and things happened to any who once were. His tail is lashing, ears back, his breath comes in great shuddering snorts. But his mind is overriding his body. A heartbeat-by-heartbeat accomplishment -- but he is managing. He will do the needful. Nothing will stop that, not ever, not if -- The Great Work -- is to be complete.

With great effort, he makes himself look at the ground. There is consistency within single hoofsteps, but not much further than that.

There: broken land, jumbled rock, with great spikes of thin metal jabbing up between crevices. There: a patch of greenery, or a color which only registers as green to his eyes because he has no sight or feel for what is truly present. Something which could be plants is in that area. They move. They reach towards him and stop at the border. He still will not venture too close to the line. They could be bluffing.

Lava in that next section, three body lengths across. A ice field twice that size on its right. Curious, he does force himself closer to the later and notes with faint amazement that he can feel the cold only when he puts a hoof over the line and holds it above the ice. He has to stand on a portion of gameboard to do so, although no gameboard ever bore such colors.

Desert. Then tundra. Oasis, followed by rain forest, accompanied by a two-Celests high section of mountain slope which he must cross -- and when he steps onto it, mere feet above sea level, the air grows thin and cold as snow whips across his body, blinds him for several hoofsteps until he tumbles off into plains.

Ridges and cracks now, running through dead ground, intermeshed, as if dozens of miniature rivers had run through this portion before going dry. He feels oddly -- tall -- in this section. After a time, he stops looking down.

A smooth black surface which feels like nothing he has ever walked across and nothing he ever wants to walk across again.

And onward.

Most of his will is being bent to moving forward. Not running away, and he wants to run more than nearly anything else ever desired in his life. But even more than that, he wants The Great Work to be achieved. There is nothing he will not do for that. For her. And so he forces a step and another step, as his will drives him and his magic is forced to reach outwards. To feel for something he is not certain can be felt.

The practice was simple. He stood still and tried. Over and over. He could not stay for very long and had to go at odd hours or somepony surely would have inquired why: the lies he had made up in advance thankfully remain untested. And when he believed he had felt something on repeated tries -- he came here. It had taken so much to find that last bit, what virtually everypony must believe doesn't even exist. He had nearly wept when he first believed himself to have felt it -- nearly. Emotions have barely come over these last fourteen moons, a dam waiting to break with much building behind it. Tearless sorrow and determination freely flow through. And love -- always love. But not laughter. Not yet.

He needed that feel. It was a first step. It was a necessary one. But he has been studying so much, chasing down so many possibilities in seeking paths, and he is all too aware of the mind's power to delude itself. He might have believed himself to feel simply because he needed to so badly and he was in a place where that illusion could have been brought onto himself. This is a truer test. He will succeed or fail.

This is where it should be. In chaos terrain. But he does not think he can feel very far yet: he had to be within a few hoofsteps when what still could have been delusion finally came. So he pushes himself through the areas where he can step -- walk without dying. And if it's in another, if he should somehow find it and getting it would mean instant death... what then? Retreat? A new plan? Would it move?

Hail sticks to his coat. Insects half the size of his hooves try to land on his flanks and bite: his tail lashes them away. Sand blows into his eyes --

-- and he feels it.

He stops. Blinks, uses some of the water in his canteen to wash the grit away. The feel remains. Not the normal one, not that of magic, but that which he has desperately been training himself to try and find, what he believed (hoped) he had succeeded in attuning to. The weakest sense, just barely there, insisting on registry simply because he has been trying so very hard, that barest remaining trace of -- Other.

He is within a mere two body lengths.

Then one.

And then he begins to dig.

Author's Note:

In the 'credit where credit is due' department, Groaning Grey Agony came up with the term 'malicorn'. Twilight creates and rejects it here -- at least for her own use.