• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,498 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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"NO!"

Twilight knew no spell which slowed time. One which allowed the user a few seconds spent in a frozen past, unable to truly affect anything and only setting up events to cascade into an abruptly (and temporarily) directed future -- a spell which could be used but once by each caster, her own single attempt foolishly wasted. But to influence the rate at which the flow moved -- not a one. A full day of study could not be compressed into a final desperate hour. Not a single known magic let that happen, although there were rumors of two lost in the streams of time: one to slow, one to accelerate. Unique spells which had never reemerged.

She could not speed the flow or hold it back. Which made the passage of the next few seconds into nothing more than a side effect of the fear and adrenaline flowing through her, turned the resulting memory into an extended exercise in self-delusion.

It did not take an hour. A year. A lifetime. Just -- a few seconds. And yet a lifetime was what it had almost been.

Twilight had turned at the sound of the yell, terrified heart already having recognized the voice.

Pinkie. Moving fast. Twilight always forgot just how fast the baker could gallop until she saw it again, somehow dismissed the knowledge that there was an earth pony who could keep up with Rainbow Dash when the pegasus was moving at her best low-altitude speed -- at least for short bursts. The speed Pinkie only displayed when truly upset. Twilight could see that emotion on her friend's face now, the concern and desperation which had driven her out of the hiding place and into the open, racing towards her and -- the unicorn.

The unicorn, who had thought the two of them were alone, also looked over towards the word. The unicorn who had wanted privacy, was so afraid of being seen. A unicorn who was suddenly very scared.

The purple-black horn ignited. There was a burst of gold, creating a nearly overwhelming sensory overload of feel in Twilight's mind. She was at her peak, completely transformed, as strong as it was possible for her to be -- and all of that strength had just been triggered. It was like having the Princess an inch away on one side and the Sun the same distance from the other, being between them at the exact moment of raising. The fulcrum point in an explosion of raw power.

There was resonance. Pain again and always, but welded to fear, terror, and shame -- with an immediate addition which overwhelmed all but the agony: desperation. A need to take it back.

But it could not be taken back.

The burst of gold flew directly at Pinkie.

Alicorn strength. Raw force, perfectly aimed -- but undirected. Power which could potentially do anything, and in Twilight's mind, every last one of those anythings added up to a single result.

There would be a body on the ground. Or there would be a space where a body had once been, smoke curling up from grass. The smell of burnt coat. Ashes too scattered for return. A vacuum against Twilight's ears where laughter had once been and would never return. There would be silence, and it would last forever.

No time to think. No time to plan. No time --

-- and a second explosion of magic lit up the night, pinkish hue moving faster than the gold, getting ahead, in front, intercepting, surrounding it.

It hurt. It burned. The feel was truly overwhelming now. Twilight was in direct contact with her magic, the magic which had been launched when the transformation was complete -- and it was still wrong. She had thought her magic's 'off' qualities came from -- blending. The aspects of pegasus departing or earth pony approaching which would have been in her cycle at almost any given moment spent with a horn. But this had come in that single instant of completion, and the wrongness was still there. Something within the field, something which was an integral part of it. Something --

-- Other.

The edges of Twilight's vision were going white. She could still see straight ahead, perceive her own field with the gold within, how the containment had stopped three body lengths away from Pinkie -- but continued straining to surge forward, to break through and impact. In the stretching of the seconds, it felt as if Pinkie had just barely begun to divert to the left, trying to dodge. She wouldn't be able to get far enough to the side.

Twilight was just barely aware of the screams. There were at least two. One belonged to the unicorn, and it was wordless agony and self-loathing and horror and a wish to make things not have happened. The other was her own.

The hideous strength pushed at Twilight. Tried to rip through her field as her corona intensified, as more of her vision was blocked by white, as her horn burned and feel threatened to take over all, the wrongness pushing deeper. Pain. Torture.

Twilight wrenched. Pulled the energies within along. Released --

-- and the gold, yanked off-course, momentum redirected, given a single opening to purposefully escape through, shot into the sky, lit up the night, a comet of power moving exactly the wrong way. Exploded into harmless shards of nothing above where the clouds would have been.

Time snapped back into its normal flow. Twilight staggered half a step backwards, not quite contacting the water this time. The unicorn was frozen in horror. And Pinkie finished her now-unnecessary dodge -- then kept moving forward, slowing slightly just before she jumped, front hooves extended.

The baker crashed into the unicorn, momentum and earth pony strength taking the larger pony off her feet, thudding down half on the pebbles, half on the grass, lying on her left side with Pinkie's body draped across her.

"NO!" Pinkie cried out again, tears streaming. "Nopony should ever kill themselves! We're not going to just let you go and die! There has to be a way to fix this, you have to give us a chance..."

The unicorn had been thrown off-balance in more ways than the physical. The appearance of a stranger, the breaking of the understanding (hope) that Twilight would come alone, the inadvertent attack which had nearly hit --

-- but now there was something else.

She squinted against her eternal pain and the fresh lesser hurt of having been knocked over, stared at the pink form lying on top of her. At the sides. The curl-topped head. Back to the rib cage.

"You..." she breathed. "What... what are..." Stopped. Blinked. The tears returned. And suddenly, "Sorry... so sorry... failed... failed you..."

Pinkie pressed her face into the unicorn's neck. "You can't die," she softly said. "Nopony should ever want to die just because they think they failed. Sometimes... sometimes the things you're supposed to succeed at don't even matter. Sometimes you have to find something new to care about. Death doesn't fix failures or make them go away. It just means you can't try any more..."

"But... failed... Can't be. Like this. Can't live. Failed. Broken. Defective."

Curls vibrated as Pinkie tried to shake her head without moving, and the unicorn's blue coat began to darken around Pinkie's eyes. Not from change -- from taking on moisture. "Never say that! Not that! I used to think it all the time, and I'm still here... You can't die. I won't let you..."

One blue leg came up slightly. Almost seemed to reach towards Pinkie. Hesitated, nearly vibrating in place. Tan eyes looked at the baker again, blinked away more tears before glancing up --

-- to find the shadow of a purple hoof held overhead.

The tan eyes widened. Twilight's narrowed.

The librarian's voice was soft. Far too soft for all the anger it contained -- and that was every last bit of fury which had been accumulating since the moment her wings had first unfurled. No frustration, no discomfort, no fraction of regret or desire to return to her former life had been left out.

This was a target she could take it out on.

"When you're a unicorn," Twilight said, voice all too close to one of Opal's luring purrs, the vibration which took over just before the claws swiped, "you have all the strengths of a unicorn. I've seen that now, and I know exactly how strong you are." It came as no consolation that both horns were steaming. "But you also have all the weaknesses. You know what backlash is, don't you? I can see it in your eyes. You're one of the fastest casters I've ever seen -- but I really don't think you can get a spell off before I bring my hoof down on your horn. Not when you're trying to cast one on purpose. And with your strength -- anything over the lightest manipulation and a backlash could knock you out on its own, couldn't it? Especially with how hurt you already are. Don't move. Don't try anything physical. And at the first sign of magic, I stomp."

More sounds of breaking branches. The others were beginning to emerge from their hiding places -- or rather, they were finishing doing so, had probably started to come out at the instant they realized Pinkie was making her rush. Seven against one now. One who was terrified, her pained eyes staring up at Twilight, pleading...

Twilight didn't feel like listening to any pleas.

"Twilight?" Pinkie, her tone careful. "Twilight, listen to me, please..."

"She nearly killed you, Pinkie." A plain statement made in that same soft near-purr. "She. Nearly. Killed you. We know she's already killed at least twice." A gasp of horror and shame from beneath her: she ignored it. "Maybe that's why she's hiding? If that had hit you..."

"It didn't! I knew it wouldn't!"

Knew? It almost got through. "Knew, Pinkie?" The laugh surprised Twilight: short, bitter, with no humor in it. "Pinkie Sense again?"

"No! I knew it wouldn't hit me, or that she wouldn't hurt me -- because you wouldn't let her." More hoofsteps from the others, moving closer. "Because I trust you, Twilight. I trust you with my life..." Strongly, with a firmness Twilight had never heard from Pinkie, words meant to carry, "And more."

The sound of the rushing falls. Splashing against the surface of the pond. A warm night but for the chill in the air from the water.

"Twi..." Applejack. "Twi, if y'jus' stay right there, Ah can use the rope..."

The unicorn's eyes were still pleading, and the broken voice joined them. "Please... can't..."

"You nearly killed her," Twilight stated. "You nearly killed my friend."

"Didn't -- mean to -- didn't -- want to -- tried to -- stop it..."

"She did." Rarity now. "I could see her, Twilight. She was trying to pull it back as much as you were trying to hold it. She simply -- did not know how to do so."

"Nothing happened!" Pinkie insisted. "Twilight, let her up -- please just let her up..."

"Pinkie, are y'out of yer mind?" Applejack yelled. "We've got her! We can wrap this whole thing up an' go home!"

"No, we can't!" Pinkie replied, her own volume sharply increasing. "Because -- she will just try to die if we take her like this! She'll kill herself! I'll run off with her before I let that happen! I'll take all of you on to get her free! She's not going to die, not because she hates herself!" Glaring around at the others, scrambling back to her hooves as she did so. "Who wants to fight me? Come on, Applejack -- you've wanted this for days! Let's go, you and me! Maybe I don't kick apple trees all day, but I used to push a lot of rocks! You kick, I charge -- let's see who comes out of that!"

The rest of the group froze. Shock had a way of causing that.

"Pinkie -- Pinkie, Ah can't --"

"You want to! Your lasso's already out!"

"Ah was gonna tie her up..."

From the ground, a soft, agonized, barely comprehensible, "Please..."

Another mirthless laugh emerged from Twilight. Her friends were fighting. Pinkie had switched sides without even having her coat greyed, was ready to battle for somepony who had nearly killed her. Plus of course, she herself was an alicorn. The world had moved beyond surreal, and the only way she currently had of dealing with it was laughter without joy. "Or what?" she asked, keeping her focus on the unicorn, the sudden anchor, the strangeness she at least had a few seconds of experience with. "You can't get a spell off that fast when you aren't just reacting, can you? And --" this thought was funny "-- what are you going to do if I keep you here long enough? All I have to do is hold this position for an hour or two, maybe more and eventually, you're going to be an earth pony. And then what's the plan? What are you going to do, grow plants at us? Oooh, that'll be scary. Suddenly the grass is four feet high, let's all run, everypony, or the giant dandelions will get us..."

Several things happened at once.

The unicorn's eyes went wider than any eyes Twilight had ever seen. Wide with the purest of fear.

Rainbow Dash snorted: no anger in it, just humor, trying to hold back a laugh.

Fluttershy gasped, a sound which made it feel as if she'd tried to inhale all the cold air over the pond in a single breath.

Spike started to shout something, as did Rarity. Sounds which could have been warnings.

Pinkie's contribution was a bare whisper of "...no..." followed by a sharp "...NO!"

There were sounds, ones Twilight only identified later when looking over her memories. A rope hitting the grass. A hat hitting the grass. Pounding hoofsteps, moving closer, getting faster --

-- and then Applejack vaulted the unicorn, head down, charging into Twilight's side. Impacted just in front of the left wing.

Twilight screamed at the jolt of pain, earth pony strength driving the hard head into her ribs, making it feel as if they were inches away from caving in. She was driven backwards, lifted off her hooves, flew into the freezing water, Applejack's momentum carrying the farmer into the liquid right after. There was shock from the cold.

More from betrayal.

"Go buck yourself into Tartarus, you bucking unicorn bigot!" Applejack screamed. "You don't -- !"

The farmer's right front hoof came up --

-- and Pinkie went into her.

Twilight's legs kicked as the battle moved into deeper water, tried to get her standing against as her mind desperately tried to find focus. The positional twisting of her own body as she tried to find purchase on the wet pebbles momentarily had her facing the shore and found Fluttershy frozen in horror, Spike and Rarity racing for the water's edge and Rainbow Dash, always the fastest to physically recover and adjust, having taken Twilight's own abandoned position with cyan hoof raised over dark purple horn, ready to inflict backlash at the first sign of any spell.

But none of that did anything for what was happening in the water.

Pegasus vs. pegasus, without their techniques figured in -- and sometimes with -- will come down to speed and maneuvering. Get your opponent out of the air. The most vicious fights will try to remove that capacity permanently. Go for the wings, try to drive the other into the ground. Use lightning and cloud cover and anything else offered -- but take away the sky.

As previously said, unicorn against unicorn often works out to who can target and reach the other's horn first. Physical damage is a part of the battle, but negating magic is the first priority -- sometimes foolishly, and on other occasions necessary just to live past the first blow.

Two earth ponies battling in front of witnesses is a horror.

It comes down to strength, experience, and willingness to let their blood speak from thousands of years in the past, long before there were Princesses or even Discord to try and rule, when it was all about holding land. When ponies did everything they could to accomplish that -- but with witnesses, with one who could barely feel and another who would not do it, the basics took over. Kick. Ram. Bite. Earth ponies were the physically strongest of the three races and on a daily basis, nearly all of that strength was held back. Oh, there were hints of it -- Pinkie could ram dancers into walls without meaning to with a simple hip bump, and they all knew what Applejack's kicks could do. But to see the two of them fighting, all that raw musclepower directed at each other, realizing that under Pinkie's slightly chubby build was pure steel, to see Applejack rearing back and letting her hind hooves fly without any restraint -- an impact Pinkie barely dodged -- was to momentarily freeze with fear at the raw savagery being unleashed, orange and pink bodies seeming to fly through the shallow water, freezing liquid splashing the banks and beyond, screams and yells and wordless shouts as civilization fell away under a single driving purpose: if I win, I'm right, and that was a goal both were seemingly willing to do anything for as curls soaked into straight falls (and it might have been more than just that), blue eyes spotted an opening, teeth snapped --

-- the loop of rope holding Applejack's ponytailed mane together was cut apart. The wet mass split, whipped on momentum, went into the farmer's eyes. Blinded, she stumbled back as Pinkie charged in with head low and knocked her over, the waterline splitting Applejack's body, half in chill and half in warm.

Pinkie reared up. Got her front hooves over Applejack's head.

"LISTEN TO YOURSELF!"

Came down.

Nopony moved. Nopony could move. Not even Applejack, frozen in place with Pinkie's front hooves having descended. One to each side of the bare head.

"Did you hear what you said?" Pinkie screamed. "Do you know what you even did? What's more important, Applejack -- ponies who've been dead for years or your friends, the ones who are alive right now? Why not just tell them to keep her here? Until the horn is gone, until the green comes up all the way, and then you could scare her yourself! That would keep the secret, wouldn't it? Seven can keep one if they're all dead! Who's your family, Applejack -- the ponies with centuries in the shadowlands or the ones under Sun and Moon? Or did you want a reunion to take the decision away? It's you or it's me, Applejack, it always was -- and now it is me! I will tell them everything, all of them everything, because they're all my family -- and what are you? Is it you, is it me -- or is it us? Last chance, Applejack -- last chance to decide who you really are! Element-Bearer? Another slave to something laid down by ponies who returned to the earth centuries ago? Or just our friend?"

Pinkie stepped away, trotting backwards, moved two body lengths towards the shore. Applejack stayed where she was. Some of the blonde mane was floating on the surface of the water. Some of it had sunk beneath. The broken loop of rope was drifting away, soaking up extra liquid, starting to dip. Green eyes dripped cold water as the farmer's head moved just enough to track Pinkie. Perhaps more than just cold water.

"I trust Twilight with my life -- and more," Pinkie softly told Applejack. "I trust all of us that way. But after this... maybe there's only one way we can ever trust you again, Applejack. Maybe they won't trust me either, because I held it back too. But I'm ready now. I think -- I've been ready for a long time. It just took this to bring it out. You can call it betrayal. You probably already have, in your head. I've heard that so many times, and -- it came from somepony who was wrong about everything. About the whole world and why I could never have any place in it. My place in this world is with them. And it should be with you, too, like it was for years, before Twilight came and the Elements and everything else. You told me we were family before all that happened... and if we're going to stay family, you know what you have to do. You have to -- beat me to it. Just let it out. Drop the chains, because that's all tradition ever is. Somepony does something, and makes somepony else do it, and generations pass until it's this huge iron weight tying us to stupid and nopony can remember why it had to be forged at all. I'm going to count to three, Applejack. And I'm going to turn around, and I'm going to tell them. Because if I don't, I'm betraying them -- and I care more about the family of my heart than the family of my blood."

Nopony else could say a word. None of them knew what was happening. Only that there was something here, something deep. The Element-Bearers watched, Spike helped Twilight out of the water, the unicorn stared in pain and confusion, not knowing what was going on at all. And it felt as if the world itself was listening.

Pinkie said "One." Turned partway towards the shore. "Two." Nearly facing the bank now. "Three." Looking directly at the group, tail facing Applejack, who was just beginning to try and get up again. Giving the farmer the clearest of shots.

But Applejack didn't take it. And didn't speak.

"All right," Pinkie said as her straight mane dripped pond water, her voice overflowing with regret. "Everypony --"

"-- she made the ravine."

Twilight couldn't move. Her mind wouldn't work. It felt as if the last bit of order in a sane universe was going away. And for once, that state had plenty of company.

There was barely any touch of accent to the farmer’s words, and her voice was nearly as broken as the unicorn's.

"That -- that's what happened. She did -- what it would've taken dozens of us t' do together. It's -- not just the Effect, it never was. That's earth pony magic. T' -- t' ask the land a question -- an' maybe get an answer. Ah -- Ah felt it when we arrived -- that somethin' big had happened -- but we can't tell, we can't ever --"

Applejack turned away, eyes streaming, and her legs splashed through the pond, beating towards the shore, away from the others. Broke out in a final splash and galloped towards the path, raced out of the clearing, unable to look at anypony. Leaving her hat in the grass.

Nopony could move. Nopony could stop her.

It was Spike who found his voice first, if just barely. "...Pinkie?"

"She needs time," Pinkie sadly told them. "Just -- give her time. It's -- easier for me, I think. I had a lot more reasons to question everything my family said. She heard laws and I -- saw chains. I don't care what earth ponies turned to dust think. If I ever do, you'll know it by the way I stop breathing." She was shivering in the water, mane and tail refusing to recurl. "I don't think I'm the first, Spike, not in more than a thousand years. Earth ponies born to unicorn and pegasus families... or just with really good friends... I think ponies talked before, and the ponies they talked to -- just kept the secret. But if I'm wrong -- then I trust all of you... and she already knows."

Twilight forced herself to blink. To turn, to look down at the unicorn again. The unicorn who would be an earth pony in a few hours. A few hours which, if they'd held her, would have brought them to...

"...you..." impossible impossible -- no. Possible. "...you -- did that? The whole ravine?"

"Didn't. Mean to. Was -- had to -- I... to not die..."

Twilight closed her eyes.

The Cornucopia Effect. Land responding whether it should or not. Equestria's means of food supply. Physically stronger than the other two pony races, with more endurance. What everypony knows about earth ponies -- isn't a lie. It's the surface, and the rest lies -- underneath the earth...

The world is insane. My life is insane. Nothing I ever learned was right, or I never learned the right things at all. Earth ponies can open cracks in the land. Pegasi shift heat. Ponies try and fail to become alicorns. Cutie marks move. I have wings. Pinkie and Applejack have magic I never knew about, never suspected, never would have guessed at.

My existence is chaos. Our friendship is being consumed by disorder. The world is --

-- discord.

"Pinkie?" Twilight could barely talk. It felt as if she barely remembered how. "Can you -- show me?" Demonstration. Experiment. Evidence. Proof. Order.

Sad, shivering harder now. "No... I -- can't do it. I'm sorry, Twilight, but... I can't do any of it. I never could. It's -- why I left the rock farm. Part of why. Applejack can do a lot of it, but -- she needs time. Twilight -- Rainbow -- please let her up? For me? And you -- please don't run?"

They did. Part of it was because a friend had asked for a favor, and potentially not one on that Discord level. But also because -- there were times when they had to trust Pinkie. When parasprites invaded. When laughter was desperately needed. When ponies were hurting -- that was when Pinkie took over. When pain that was more than physical needed to be stopped.

And she did not run. She got to her hooves, stood trembling and shivering nearly as much as Pinkie and moaning a little as her ears stayed flat back against her head -- but did not run.

Pinkie sighed -- and looked directly at the mark.

"I really don't know what you meant, Twilight," the baker said, smiling just a little. "It's so pretty..."

Twilight abruptly found her wet rump resting on the pebbles. Several other ponies also sat down suddenly, along with one dragon -- but not Pinkie. And neither did Fluttershy, who took her own opportunity to look. "...you're right," the animal caretaker agreed. "It's beautiful..."

Those words make Rainbow Dash take her own look, and she jerked her head away a split-second later, too shaken to pretend it hadn't happened. Rarity forced her eyes to stay in contact for as long as she could: five whole seconds. Spike frowned, as if he wasn't sure what the others were reacting to, and kept his gaze steady -- but with a sort of disinterested confusion laced in.

"...beautiful?" the unicorn asked, even more confused than the little dragon. "Don't -- understand... Failed..."

Pinkie walked up to her, face to face. Reared up to get the extra height, gave her a very wet nuzzle. The nuzzle for family.

"If you say 'defective' again," Pinkie whispered, "I'll kick you." Smiled.

Fluttershy forced herself closer, stood by Pinkie's side. Managed a smile of her own.

The unicorn began to shake. Weep. Sank to the ground again, trembled in the grass. Fluttershy moved into contact, checking for injuries -- then stayed next to the blue coat.

After a while, the others made themselves sit down around her.


[/hr]

They didn't manage to get anything else done.

She was still shaken by what had both happened and nearly happened. She also didn't seem to know how to deal with a group. She kept looking around at the five ponies and single dragon as if she'd never seen so many close to her before, eyes moving from one to another in near-constant survey -- but always coming back to Pinkie, whose mane was slowly starting to dry out. And once she calmed down enough to express herself again, she wasn't exactly completely thrilled about the group being present. "Said -- alone." The gold was tilting away now, the silver descending on the loop. Her horn was slightly shorter, and it seemed as if portions of her coat were beginning to darken -- although that could have been the Moon moving a little farther away, heading behind distant clouds.

"You're not the only one who had to be careful," Twilight apologized -- and used it to move into the rest. "I'm sorry. I know you didn't mean to attack her, and I believe Rarity when she says you were trying to take it back." It explained the second source of steam: reaching without knowing how... "It's just that -- you nearly hurt my friend." Six. So close to becoming five. "That scared me. And when I'm scared, I -- do and say stupid things. So -- I'm sorry. It was just... being afraid."

"Understand," the unicorn said, although she still sounded more than a little shaken herself. Accepting Twilight's answer -- but realizing how close things had come to being that much worse. "Not -- good night to -- continue. Should maybe. Try again. Later. After everypony -- rests. And -- orange pony... feels better?" She glanced at all of them again, seemed to be mentally counting. Went to Spike, whom she clearly had no idea how to deal with. Back to Pinkie -- then Twilight. "Afternoon this time? But -- different place. Orchard. Apples."

"You're -- willing to try going out in daylight?" Twilight asked. But if somepony saw her...

A nod. "Know way. Hidden way -- most of it. Rest short. Nopony see. And -- orchard in -- wild zone. Night -- bad idea. Can't come -- here -- too much. Have to -- vary."

Some small amount of irony tried to make itself known to Twilight: she made a point of ignoring it. "But -- there's traffic out to the orchard during the day, ponies getting apples. That's still a risk."

"Oh..." The unicorn frowned, looking as if the idea of ponies traveling for snacks had truly never occurred to her. "Then -- nearby. Signal you. From hiding. Place. Lead from there."

Pinkie looked worried. "Do you have a place you can stay? Food?" The unicorn nodded to both. "But... maybe one of us should come with you..."

Which got an immediate head shake, vibrating the short mane. "No. Don't trust. Not that far --" an abrupt stop -- then, thoughtfully, "Maybe -- little more. Than did. But. Not that much. Yet." She looked around at the others. "Not -- tell? Please?" They nodded.

"But I want to come!" Pinkie insisted. "I want to make sure you --"

"-- not. Kill. Self," the unicorn finished, with the last word half-scream as her horn visibly involuted. "Won't. Maybe not -- same road. But -- smart. Work out -- where my -- road broke. Save..." She squeezed her eyes shut, couldn't look at anypony. "Have to. Think. More. About that -- night. What... went wrong. Maybe together -- figure out. For others. Different paths -- but smart..."

How much do I trust her? How much of a chance am I taking on letting her go after what nearly happened to Pinkie? And on -- not having her take her own life?

Twilight looked at the baker. Pinkie nodded, just slightly.

There were times when Twilight had to defer. It didn't mean she liked all of them. But when it came to reading somepony's emotional state... "All right. If you avoid all other ponies and just run from any who see you. Shall we say -- five in the afternoon?"

"Yes," the unicorn replied to all of it, and stood up. "You come. Pink one -- also come. Maybe one other. And I come." She looked at Pinkie, and it seemed for a moment as if she might almost be trying to smile -- but then the pain hit her, and when the gasping ended, all she could manage was "Promise..."

Her left front leg came up for a moment. The hoof touched an area just below her neck, pushed right. Went back down.

She trotted away, the limp once again shifting from leg to leg as she moved. Twilight watched her go, wondering how much of a mistake she was making. If there was anything she could do which would not have been an error. How little she still knew about this strange pony --

-- how little she apparently knew about everything.

The unicorn vanished into the trees.

They all sat in silence for a while.

"Well," Rarity eventually began, "I suppose there are many ways in which that could have been worse..." She sighed. "And that's just for poor Applejack. Oh dear... Pinkie, is this because of me? Because I began to openly think and ask about your feel?" Clearly willing to blame herself, and not just to keep a little bit of burden away from Twilight.

Pinkie shook her head. The curls were about halfway back to normal. "It started when we were leaving the ravine. I wanted to tell Twilight then, but -- we had a fight. Applejack wanted to look for other earth ponies. We usually just -- take care of these things ourselves. I gave her the time, but..." She sighed. "We didn't know about Trotter's Falls..."

The things we don't tell each other...

Twilight didn't know if she was mad at Applejack. Didn't know whether she should or could be. Just that her side hurt. A lot. And... I'm not sure how I feel about anything right now...

She got up. The others followed suit.

"Pinkie," Twilight said, "there's going to be -- another class, isn't there? On -- earth pony... magic."

Pinkie nodded. "There has to be. But I can't show you anything. We need Applejack for that... there's nopony else we could ever even ask. Not here, and -- not when we can't talk to the Princesses."

Of course. Of course they can do it. But why didn't they --

-- undoubtedly for the same reason they hadn't told her anything at all and just thrown her back into Ponyville. Whatever that was.

It was knowledge. It was a secret kept through the ages. It was something Pinkie trusted all of them with. And Applejack...

...had spoken first...

...before running away as if fifty generations of earth ponies were chasing her.

"Pinkie?" Rainbow Dash looked oddly solemn. "If it's that important -- for whatever stupid reason anypony would want that kind of coolness to be a secret in the first place, then -- I won't tell. I promise. I'll even -- Pinkie Promise."

Rarity managed a small laugh. "So say we all, I think. This is hardly going to be a topic for gossip."

Fluttershy shivered a little. "...it's scary... knowing so much, but... thank you for trusting me..."

Spike smiled. "I can't teach dragon magic until I learn if I have any beyond what the Princess taught me. I'll swear, Pinkie."

Pinkie looked at all of them as her curls lofted higher -- then focused on Twilight. "This is -- really really serious, Twilight. When it happens -- everything we tell you comes down from other ponies. By voice, in stories. And some of those stories are -- why we don't tell..." Another shiver: they had to get her inside and dried off. "...but it's never written down. That's part of what Applejack -- was so scared of. If you promise -- you have to promise not only to never tell anypony else unless it's absolutely necessary to save somepony, but also not to take any notes, or send any letters to the Archives, or ever write any of it down. Not in a diary, or a personal journal, or research notes. Ever, anywhere -- not unless there's a day when just about everypony knows. And that goes for everypony -- you too, Dash, no stories or even hinting at it for a character and don't pout like that either. I trust you to keep the secret -- but for Applejack, and to help keep it a secret at all, please -- keep it the earth pony way?"

They swore. They Pinkie Promised. And they headed back towards the castle.

Pinkie brought the lasso. Twilight gently carried the hat in her mouth. The earth pony way.


[/hr]

They'd found Applejack asleep in her cottage bed, her pillow soaked with tears. She hadn't bothered to retie her mane. Quietly, they placed her things on the nightstand and left her to rest, what was nearly their last view of the night for the farmer cut off by Pinkie climbing into the bed to snuggle next to her. The last thing they saw was Applejack starting to cry in her sleep, trying to pull away from Pinkie -- who refused to let her.

The others wearily trooped into the castle, headed for their rooms.

"This," Spike sighed as he and Twilight went into their own, "has been one of the weirdest weeks of my life. And I turned into a savage brainless adult once... Do you think Applejack's -- going to be okay?"

Twilight could do nothing more than echo the sigh. "I think you're picking up a talent for understatement. I don't know, Spike. I hope she will, but..." What had it cost Applejack to get those words out? What had made the farmer charge Twilight in the first place? They'd all seen how much stress Applejack was under, but to have it break that way...

There hadn't been enough room in the cottage bed for a full-fledged ponypile. Twilight had thought about it. But there had also been long thoughts about how much time they'd known each other for. About Applejack calling Twilight family. About -- secrets.

If Discord assigned this mission to break us...

...how close had he come? Or...

...too much to think about... Carrying the extra burdens of knowing she had just let her go on Pinkie's opinion and incidentally, Twilight was personally about to take on the magical secrets of an entire race. No, Twilight would not have been good for much over the rest of the night. And her side still hurt.

They would see Applejack when they all woke up. Twilight hoped.

Spike just looked depressed. "I'm starting to hate this place," he told Twilight. "It's kind of a nice castle, our host is a good pony, and the Doctor is interesting even if his coat stinks -- but... I wanted to leave as soon as I saw Coordinator, Twilight. I wanted to just grab your tail and drag you away before he could do anything. It felt kind of good to see him scared like that, but -- I remember what he's like, and how we could never really -- close in. I don't think he's changed, and with him working here..."

Twilight nodded -- but stood her ground. "He hasn't changed, I'll bet on that. But I have -- and I don't mean the wings. He can't get to me any more, Spike. I won't let him. And my friends aren't ponies he can drive away. Let him do his worst -- I'm ready. I've seen all of it. There's no more worst he can do to me." Not compared to everything which had happened. The expectations others had for her. Blessing.

"I want to believe you..." Spike sighed. "But he was always bad news, and he's had time to learn new tricks too. I would have given anything to set his tail on fire once... but I feel like we've still got be careful -- oh! Wait a second -- I think --"

He burped.

Twilight's field caught the scroll at the same moment she recognized the fieldwriting on the exterior.

"Yes!" Twilight cried out with open happiness and more than a little relief. She had desperately needed for anything to go right, and with this... "I knew she could do it, Spike! She worked it out! Celestia's shoes, she must have stayed up all night trying to figure out how to send it back..."

Spike was smiling himself: the little dragon had been in need of something to help boost his night back up too. "I know you're not going to wait..."

"No way." Twilight was already removing the seal. "It's a longshot, but I'll take any chance I can get of help right now..."

She unfurled the scroll.

And ultimately, the results were something other than she would have wished for.


[/hr]

Dear Twilight,

You have no idea how weird it is to write those words together. 'Dear' and 'Twilight'. Really? Me? And I have to make that feel like I wasn't laughing at the time? Well, I wasn't. By the time I get this sent, I'll probably be too tired to laugh. Or even move. A burst of dragonflame, a scroll, and a vial. I wish you'd sent this a little later in the day, when I was on stage: that trick would have gotten me a few bits tossed from the audience. Remember, most ponies have never been on the receiving end of Spike's personal trick or have any idea it's even possible. They would have thought I did it. And of course, I would have been happy to take all the credit, followed by claiming I couldn't do it again for the rest of my stay in Trottingham. Any time you want to schedule one of these for showtime, just let me know in advance and I'll work it in.

But you're not writing me to ask about life on the road. You wrote to ask something which, honestly, I've been waiting for you to ask. And if we're going to be honest with each other -- we can do that now, right? A little? -- I've been dreading this.

I'm looking at this scroll right now, trying to think of something I can do which would keep me from putting more words on it. I could just lose the vial, I guess. Let it fall and come open by 'accident': no flame, no return. Or maybe it never got to me in the first place. What letter, I get to say the next time we see each other, whenever that is, and smile. You'd buy it. You have a little too much faith in ponies sometimes, especially when that pony is me. Maybe -- even extremely especially with me. One burst of fireworks doesn't make up for everything. Not even close.

You wrote me anyway. And you really thought I was going to answer -- not to mention that you thought I'd be able to figure out how from your notes, none of which give me the actual feel.

I guess I kind of have to respect that, huh?

I said some of what I'm about to tell you to Princess Celestia at my trial. Yeah -- my trial. I'm betting she never told you about that, right? Well, it happened. After I galloped out of Ponyville, I was intercepted. The Lunar Guards arrested me and put a restraint on my horn. I stood still and let them. I figured -- I had it coming. And a lot more. They flew me into Canterlot and I saw the Princess the next morning at the arraignment. She took me aside into her judicial chambers -- you know, the ones she barely uses, there was dust everywhere -- and we talked.

I'm actually on probation right now, and will be for a long time. Various Guards drop in on my shows to check on me. I have to sign some forms and swear I'm not doing anything stupid. It's... kind of the least of what I deserve. But you know me -- I'm not exactly going to throw myself at Her Royal Hooves and beg for exile time. She thinks probation is enough, the same way you think you can trust me to give you honest answers in this letter. It's not that I care about letting the two of you down or think that if I live up to your expectations, it'll show you up. It's...

...I don't know what it is.

I'd be lying if I said it wasn't fun to be the one with the answers you wanted for a change, though. But I can't win this without giving you the real ones, and as your self-obsessed wandering manestyle of a friend would say, it's going to make me look rather bad. For starters.

You asked about ways for a unicorn to make their field stronger. I know you're really asking about one thing. But hey, let's pretend for a few lines and work our way up to it.

There are three ways to do it. Two of them work.

First off, those books like Stronger Magic Fields On Six Simple Exercises A Day? Are horse apple smear. The best ones have some decent field refinement exercises in them and those do help with field dexterity, but they do nothing for raw power. So I can now move twelve things at a time. Big deal. Their weights still add up to my previous maximum lift.

(Incidentally, Secrets Of Mane Transfiguration just made my coat smell bad for a week.)

Booster drugs... I know you've heard of them, and you've probably seen a couple of students use them to try and get past exams. All of them think the visible changes won't be caught. Two ponies in my school tried it. They got caught. When the whites of your eyes turn black, it's hard to say 'I guess I stayed up too late' and have anypony believe you. So might as well admit it: yeah, I took them. Twice. I got about what I think was a fifteen-percent boost out of it, which is standard for the stuff which doesn't stand a good chance of killing you instantly. I've heard talk of mixes which go up to fifty percent -- but if it doesn't kill you when you take it, the strain you put on your body stands a good chance to kill you anyway when it all wears off. They're all good for about fifteen minutes when you will swear to any living soul that you are now Celestia herself and twenty hours of lying in bed with a sheet over your eyes because light just hurts that much. Also, your horn twinges. For three days. The first time I tried it, I figured I'd gotten a bad dose. After the second, I figured I was onto a pattern and stopped there.

I did some stupid stuff trying to catch up with you.

Which, I guess, gets us to what your letter is really about. Stuff your library doesn't and shouldn't have. All you got was the basics. The sanitized-for-your-protection edition. I have more. Too much more...

(I took a twenty-minute walk around my caravan before I started this next part. I don't know what it does for you, but me? Nothing.)

There's a whole bunch of legends about the Alicorn Amulet. Most of them are -- buried, which I guess is what happened to the real thing after the Princess got ahold of it. (She told me she was taking care of it herself. I'm glad she told me that.) I was desperate when I started looking in that direction.

No -- that's not a good word. I was stupid. I was addicted to the idea of beating you. I told you something of what happened after I left Ponyville the first time. Tomatoes in the coat really don't do much for self-esteem. And you know magic -- once you start to lose focus, it can be hard to get it back. Once my performances started sucking, they were probably going to keep sucking. Taking a job on a rock farm under an old bigot whose idea of a good time was scheduling my heaviest work hours for the biggest downpours was actually the highlight of my life for a while. When colts and fillies in magic kindergarten are publicly correcting you, there's almost nowhere left to sink.

Somewhere at literal rock bottom was the bucking Amulet.

I did a lot of research. I went to places you haven't gone and should never go. I read things... well, I'm starting to sleep again, more or less. And I put together things a lot of ponies said. Or screamed. Mostly screamed. In the end, I still may not know exactly what happened, and there's probably two ponies alive -- maybe three -- who do. I can never ask either of them about it. I know that. Maybe I don't really want to.

But you wouldn't ask unless you needed this, would you?

So let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time in the magical land of Equestria, there was a unicorn who was a great caster. The strongest of his generation. And for a time, that was enough. He invented spells, he created magics no pony had ever seen before and a few nopony ever saw again. The spells he didn't finish were legends themselves. An amazing talent. On par with you, actually. Obviously well above me.

The thing was -- it wasn't enough.

This caster lived right around the time history says the Princesses came into view for the first time. He was a contemporary of them, and I don't just mean living in the same period. He knew them, they knew him. From what some elements of the stories say -- and there are variations: I'm putting things together here and making some leaps which I think are landing on solid ground -- they were friends. There's even a hint that -- well -- with your own transformation, maybe you've thought about the idea of a before. I never did until I started researching this -- or at least I hadn't for a very long time. But dig deep enough and unearth that: the concept that for some ponies, there was not only a time when they might have thought about before, but there are stories which suggest before existed.

He might have known them before. Think about that. I did. A lot.

And he also knew them after.

He started to wonder -- why not him?

So he labored. He did -- something. I don't know what and nothing I read ever found any hint of it. It's like that was wiped from history. Pieces of the rest were missed -- but not that. Whatever he tried, it didn't work. He was still a unicorn. Still the most talented caster of his generation and stronger than any other unicorn alive -- but he wasn't them. And just being all of the previous wasn't enough any more.

He decided to try -- something else.

The darkest books -- the ones I hope you never have to see -- called it 'harvesting essence'. You don't want to know how it works. I have a vague idea -- enough that if I spent time working on it, I might be in a position to try. But I didn't do it. Even at my lowest, that would have been burrowing into the earth to places even the Diamond Dogs won't go. Let's just say the pony has to be dead. And if the pony isn't dead, they're close to it when you start and after you're done... It can't be used on somepony who's healthy, anypony who can resist. Just the concept of being able to fight back might stop it. You'd have to be horribly weak -- and once it stopped, 'weak' would have been a dream.

If you weren't dead already, having your essence harvested would kill you. I don't know how anypony could have survived it.

He took from the dead.

To start.

And I wonder why I can't sleep sometimes.

He harvested unicorn essence and -- bound it within what wound up as the Amulet. The idea was that by getting enough essence, he would get some of the magic. That essence, built up enough, would generate its own field, and the act of wearing the Amulet would sort of provide a perpetual casting of Gromway's Combiner. You'd be working through a pair of fields, and by combining enough essence in the vessel, the second field would be stronger than his own.

You might be wondering why he went exterior. Why he didn't just try to take the essence into himself. I did. All I could find was something about the concept of displacement. Like there was an absolute limit to how much essence a pony could hold. His notes -- yes, I found a couple of pieces from what I'm sure are his notes, you don't want to know the condition or where -- suggest there were ways around that limit, but that he couldn't personally use any of them. That if, in his current condition, he took new essence in, it would push some of his own essence out -- and it was impossible for him to even do that much. Something about timing. The fragments are -- just that. Some of them were destroyed, others are past reading, a few might be missing. It's all I have of that aspect. I should probably be glad for that.

So he had to keep the essence in something outside himself. Thus the spell lock where the wearer has to voluntarily take it off. About as close to a guarantee of keeping as it gets -- or so I thought.

All right. So he's got essence from -- a lot of unicorns. Don't ask how many. And it is generating a field. A really powerful one. He puts it on and the automatic Gromway links up with the most powerful caster of his generation. He now has the raw strength of an alicorn. Maybe beyond. He demonstrates his new toy to the Princesses -- still both -- and tells them how it was made.

They -- weren't happy.

Neither was the Amulet.

At this point, I have to tell you what essence is not. It is not a pony's soul. He wasn't wearing that around his neck. From what I could make out, it almost felt like the shadow cast by a soul, or -- something which could join with a soul under the right circumstances. And it's very susceptible to resonance. The reason you harvest and use it warps the essence. In his case, he had been gathering out of anger and a desire for power. So all the harvested essence took on an aspect of its own -- that of somepony who just wanted power and was angry about not having enough of it. And -- the fields were melded. When the Princesses rejected him and his creation, that resonance went through the meld and -- took over.

I thought... I thought I could stay on top of it, Twilight. I thought that even if the legends weren't exaggerated, knowing what was coming... I would be able to control it.

You tell yourself a lot of things when you're stupid. All of them were as dumb as I was.

The Princesses attacked him -- they didn't know about the spell lock yet. He put on a Tartarus of a show against the two of them, held his own long enough to get away. And then he -- or really, the Amulet by then -- decided it clearly wasn't powerful enough yet, so it started working on getting some more essence, and that's when it -- went after the living. Maybe it could drain from those who weren't on the edge of death, or would have been able to given enough time. Maybe it never got the chance. It went on a rampage for a while, it tried to carve out its own little empire in the southwest of the continent while the Princesses desperately tried to figure out what they could do to save the wearer, and --

-- well, that's where the legends go vague. I can tell you this, though: he didn't take any notes about the final battle. Because you can trick the wearer into taking it off -- or...

...the Amulet needs a host. It can only exert its own field through melding with that of a living pony. If that pony dies, the Amulet goes inert and stays on the corpse until it turns to dust.

So really, there's two ways to remove it. Funny, huh?

Did they kill him? I think it's possible. Given that it's the Princesses, maybe they just put him into exile somewhere he couldn't hurt anypony until he died of old age. Like I said -- vague. But they never got it off his living self.

After that... the Amulet kind of fades in and out of history. I think they must have tried to destroy it at first, or -- maybe by the time it was off, Princess Luna was gone and the Princess couldn't manage it by herself, as hard as that is to see. She must have at least tried to lock it away. But one legend says she did and somepony who was desperate for power stole it -- so here we go again.

You'll see the hoofprints here and there if you look carefully. Little empires. There was a fairly successful one off the west coast which took over an island chain for a while.

It wants to be worn. If you can't personally use it, it'll nudge you to get it around the neck of somepony who can. Admittedly, it seems to do so according to your nature. If you're generous, you give it away. If you're a shopkeeper, you charge through the nose. The longer you have it around, the stronger those nudges seem to become. I knew I could get it away from any pegasus or earth pony just by finding their terms, and if a unicorn had somehow been able to resist putting it on, they might not be able to resist getting rid of it.

I thought I was too strong for it to control me.

I thought so many things.

And then it was changing all the thinking.

You never asked me -- what I remembered. All of it. Every last moment. But not always from my own eyes. There were a few times when it was as if I was standing a little away from my own body. At first, I was enjoying it. Then I started -- protesting. Snips and Snails, I didn't want to do that, the little goobers might have been the only fans I had left.

Then I started screaming.

The Amulet -- I hope I can make this clear -- beyond the resonance aspects and desire to be worn, it has no personality or intellect of its own. It borrows that of the host for everything else and to that degree, reacts the way the host would react. That's why you can trick the wearer if you're lucky. In my case, the Amulet, if it could think at all in any real way, might have been considering how to take your fake version and drain the magic from it, combine that with its own. Or maybe the version of me it had partially created was doing that. But it had to have a taste first, and -- it didn't think, not about what that momentary removal would have done. And it wouldn't -- couldn't -- hear me. Trick the host, trick the Amulet -- and free me.

I don't know what Princess Celestia did with it. I hope she destroyed it, her and Princess Luna together. It shouldn't exist. If I did nothing else, at least my stupidity eventually brought it back to confinement.

Ultimately, nothing I did with the Amulet was irreversible. But it could have been. Maybe ponies only lived because -- I like showing off. I still do, I always will. And you can't show off without an audience. The Amulet took on that aspect of me and left ponies alive to applaud -- or else.

The only reason Ponyville and everypony in it are still standing may be my ego. I laugh at that sometimes, when I can't sleep.

Twilight, if you're in a situation where you of all ponies, Miss Newest Princess In History, need to think about how field strength can be increased, please -- don't be me. Don't be that stupid. Do not seek out the Amulet, if it even still exists. Don't try the drugs and ignore the books beyond the field refinement exercises which you probably already do. If you're in that much trouble, tell me and let me know where you are: I'll get there as quickly as I can. If it was just intellectual curiosity, tell me that too -- and fast. I can't tell what your emotional state is when Spike writes the letter: his clawwriting isn't your fieldwriting. But the fact that you're just asking the question has me -- scared. I admit that. It's a lot easier to admit that stuff now, because I know what happens when I don't.

And there's a punchline to this -- one I've been holding back until now, because I know it's going to hurt you. And that's not the reason I concealed it this far, I swear it isn't, Twilight... but you have to know. You have to know so you'll never think about trying to refine the essence harvesting process or ways of getting around the resonance or send the EMS any notice about it at all. You need to stay away from this for the rest of your life -- no matter how long that might be.

I researched deep into the Amulet's legend, Twilight. I told you that. I told you I found some of his notes. Aren't you wondering who made this nightmare?

The so-called greatest caster in Equestria's history did it. One of your heroes. You're always trying to keep your friends from pretending to fall asleep when you talk about him and in his honor, you dress up as him on Nightmare Night.

Star Swirl made the Alicorn Amulet.

Think about that, Twilight.

And if you ever see me or anypony else reach the point where they would think about hunting for it or making one of their own -- stop them. And that includes stopping yourself.

Because if you don't, those who care about you will have to stop you -- no matter what it takes.

We owe you no less.

Your friend mostly in spite of herself,

Trixie Lulamoon


[/hr]

Failure -- and success.

It is, perhaps, a theme of his existence.

He does not recognize that, not now, not in the nightscape. But he went to sleep on that idea, and it has brought him back to a time when he recognized both qualities happening simultaneously, sent him into a wild zone again, calling out a name the bearer doesn't want to hear.

It has been nearly a moon since she vanished: he got that much when he spoke to her father, if what he does with that party can ever truly be called 'speaking'. What came back at him certainly wasn't and before it ended, words were replaced by what he had been waiting for since he first met the stallion: attempts at kicking hooves and snapping teeth. He hadn't put up with it for long. Attacked by a grieving parent -- yes, that happens to him, especially when one or more have been lost, and he takes the blows unless doing so would mean his own end. This parent had not been grieving and after a time spent dodging, he had done what he'd wanted to do for years, only much more quickly. In the end, all it got him was a best guess at a direction.

He has been searching on and off for three days. He has appointments to keep and teleports off to them when he must, but memorizes safe points in what he is guessing as the right portion of wild zone (no way to truly tell, he may be deluding himself, he has hope and virtually nothing else) and comes back to them at every opportunity. Over and over, he calls out. He desperately wishes he had learned her essence, but -- where was the need? She was where she was, and would have remained there for the rest of her life. What little other magic he can bring to bear on the search, he does -- but it has been nearly a moon.

In his heart, he expects to find a body. Or a place where a body had fallen.

So on the third day of his search, the twenty-sixth after the date he was told she had run away, it comes as something very close to both the relief and shock of his life when he comes back to one of his safe points, a natural vegetation cubbyhole near a slow-moving stream where a thirsty pony might try to drink -- and the first thing he sees is a lank fall of darkish pink tail hair.

It is a miracle. He does not waste those.

"Pinkamena?"

She jumps, spins partially around as she does so. It lets him see what her father had described as the unnatural, the supposedly-hideous mark --

-- which is three balloons.

He truly doesn't see the horror there.

"Doctor?" she gasps. "Doctor Gentle? I --" and then she turns back towards the stream. Looks as if she's making ready to try and jump, get away from him. All she has to do is move deep into foliage. He cannot teleport-chase to where the plants are thick, and a small pony with a desperate head start could easily escape by squeezing through areas where he cannot gallop.

"Pinkamena -- don't... I'm -- not here to take you back. I swear that. I'd rather stick a hoof in my own eye than haul you to the rock farm against your will."

She will not turn to face him. "Then why were you looking for me?" It comes out in her usual tone: a sad voice, perpetually defeated, the sound of a pony who has never scored even the tiniest victory in her life.

"I was worried about you. Pinkamena, you ran away -- into a wild zone -- when you'd never left your farm before... I thought --" He has to tell her. "-- I thought you were dead, and that was the last thing I ever wanted. I had to try and find you..."

She does turn. The fall of mane obscures much of her face. The cutie mark came and still nopony thought to cut it.

"I care about you," he tells her. "I always will. I care about all of mine, but you -- you're my most determined. You've been surviving in a wild zone for nearly a moon -- there is no pony among mine more determined to live than you..."

'Surviving' is the way to put it. She has lost weight, and she was always thin to begin with. (He had suspected her father gave her less to eat as punishment for whatever her failures were. He didn't learn the natures of those failures, but he got the deliberately small meals out of the stallion during the fight and put in an extra kick for it.) There are thin trails of blood dried into her coat. Numerous small scars. Bruises here and there. The wild zone has been putting her to the test and so far, she has passed all of them. Many older ponies would be unable to say the same -- or, after so much time spent in here, anything at all.

"All I want," he continues, "is to know you're okay. And you will never be okay on that farm. Not if you ran away. I know you well enough to understand you never would have fled without a reason." Also that the nonsense her father screamed at him could not possibly have been it. Stretching for any lies and not even bothering to invent plausible ones. "If you don't want to go back -- I won't take you back. I promise. But you're a little pony still, Pinkamena, and -- you have to live somewhere."

"I live here now," she whispers. "It's -- better."

She is being sincere.

She truly feels the Tartarus of the wild zone is better than her home.

He wants to find her father and kick him again. Ensure that one will produce no more children who believe in their deepest heart that this is better than that.

"It's not," he gently insists. "There are places -- no, not an orphanage, I couldn't do that to you, even with the company you'd gain. Maybe -- a town."

"A -- town?" She barely seems to know the word.

"A place where lots of ponies live. All kinds of ponies, not just rock farmers. Somewhere pegasi and unicorns live. But one with lots of earth ponies too, so you'd have something to start with that you knew..." Which is a lie and he knows it. Anywhere he could bring her would be a massive culture shock after a life in that place, but having her stay with earth ponies couldn't hurt. "I can talk to some ponies, find somepony who would be willing to look after you." Mixed town -- well, certainly not Trotter's Falls -- earth pony majority...

Yes, he has a candidate, and part of that is based in geography. "I can't teleport with you," he tells her, and it is the truth: he has yet to learn the art of escorting another through the between. "So I'll have to stay with you until we get out of here. But we're not as far away from a settled zone as you might think. There's a town named Ponyville three days away -- two if we're lucky." Is his schedule that free? Yes -- and if not, it'll have to be. She needs him. "You went far, Pinkamena... farther than I thought you would have been able to. But once I get you there, I can find ponies to take you in, and a school for you, a real one, colts and fillies to play with..."

Her blue eyes go wide. "You -- you would do that? For -- me?" Her voice does not suggest she doesn't feel she's worthy. Her entire being says it directly, and it makes him want to weep.

"Always."

There is a long moment of silence. She looks at him. At the stream. At the vegetation beyond. He can almost feel her weighing truth. Wondering if he is about to bring her back to the rock farm and all that might mean.

He smiles at her. "I kicked him, you know."

Disbelief. "You -- did?"

He nods.

"I -- I did too..."

He laughs.

She slowly turns away from the stream again, trots closer to him. He leans in, bends down.

Experimentally -- as if she'd never been able to try it before -- she tries to nuzzle him. The nuzzle meant for family. He returns it.

And then she is crying into his coat.

He remembers that clearly, finds it easy to bring back in the nightscape. The majority for the day's remainder would require much more effort, and so the dream skips over most of the time they spent moving forward, oriented on Ponyville now, fighting off the hazards of the wild zone together. (It is easier with his magic brought to bear in her cause, and he is even more amazed that one so young has survived without it. His most determined, indeed.)

Forward -- and they have camped for the night. They had found a clearing, one easily defensible, with only a single entrance and rock against their backs. He started a fire for her: she was amazed by the process, only knowing earth pony ways to do so. She has been steadily cheering up throughout their travels. It has amazed him almost as much as her survival, for this was one he never believed he would see happy, and her increasing joy has been infectious.

"We should have a party!" she tells him. "A Going To Ponyville party!" Her pink curls flounce as she giggles at the mere idea. "Wherever that is, wherever we are... we should celebrate just because we're going, and we're alive, and --" more slowly, as if she still can't quite make herself believe it completely "-- things might be -- different."

"We probably should," he replies. Yes, he will help to keep her spirits up, especially when they're higher than he's ever seen them. "So how do you throw parties in a wild zone, Pinkamena?" Certainly not in the way her father had accused her of, the lying horse apple smear.

For the first time since he has known her, she laughs. "Wildly!" He laughs in return and watches her as she races around the edge of the clearing, a bright pink blur in action. She is grabbing low-hanging vines and yanking them down, stringing them using her mouth, working green between drooping branches. Flowers are delicately woven into what's mostly a pattern by sheer random accident -- but he can see the skills developing, the talents embodied by the mark coming to bear and with more time and practice, perfection will emerge. She's decorating, one tiny subset of her overall grouping. He is thrilled to watch it. There are more spectacular marks and talents, certainly -- but for this mark to have appeared on her... it is wondrous indeed. He truly has no idea how it could have come to pass, not from a life spent on that rock farm with her father and the rest of the family shouldn't be taking home any prizes either.

She is living. He never thought he'd see it.

More flowers are woven into the developing quasi-structure. She pulls down some large leaves which have natural shallow depressions in their centers and pours a little water from his canteen into them. Streamers are thrown about. A party hat is jammed onto his head with the elastic gently tugged under his chin: it makes him laugh again. Step by step, she is turning the little defensible clearing into something much more --

-- wait.

He is -- not thinking of something.

He knows it.

Something just -- happened. And his mind is ignoring it -- or rather, most of it is. But he has been through too much over the years, traveled to so many places and asked questions which most ponies never come close to considering in his quest to do the needful. Something happened and most of him is trying to ignore it -- but the part trained by travels and experiments and sheer drive cannot overlook it.

So what was it?

He slowly moves a hoof up.

There is a party hat on his head.

There are streamers woven into the vines.

She had no saddlebags when he found her. No supplies of any kind. She took nothing that was not hers when she left -- on purpose, given why she left at all. And there was virtually nothing which was hers to begin with.

He had packed no such things. Why would he?

Something has -- happened.

Something which should have been impossible.

He looks at her. He forces himself to see her. The bright pink coat, the bouncing curls of mane and tail. Those did not exist when he found her by the stream. There was a small pony of darker hue sporting a pair of straight long falls, the same as there had always been.

The hat and streamers...

"Pinkamena?"

She stops. She looks at him. She is still happy.

He touches the hat. Carefully, trying to stay focused, letting the questioning portion of his mind remain in control when every other part wants only a return to watching. "Where did this come from?"

She collapses.

It happens all at once. The curls drop back into the lank falls he knows so well, darken along with her entire body -- a body which falls to the ground, hind legs curling in to project her abdomen, front legs over her face. And the voice drops as well, turns into a sob and almost blends into a single word. "NopleaseI'msorryIdidn'tmeantoI'msorry..."

He stares at her in shock.

And then he knows.

He knows he should have kept kicking her father. Just for starters.

He knows why she was accused, and that all the accusations were false.

He knows he is looking at a miracle.

The amazement has to wait. The fulfillment will have its time, it must, as will the hope. He will find a place to shout to the Moon and those echoes will travel the land until they bounce off a rising Sun. But she needs him now.

"Pinkamena?"

She is trembling, eyes squeezed shut in fearful anticipation. She is waiting to be kicked. "Oh Celestia, that hidebound..." What can he do? What will she respond to? What can he say...?

"Pinkie?"

Her eyes open, just a little. There are still tears leaking out. "...Pinkie?"

He nods. "Pinkie is somepony else's name. It's the name of a little filly who's going to live in Ponyville. A filly who -- doesn't get kicked for doing the right thing. For having fun and making ponies happy. Pinkie is the name of somepony who's loved."

Her hind legs come away from her body a little. Her eyes open still more. "I can be -- Pinkie?"

"If you want to be."

"I..." She is trembling still, but there is something new in the shaking. Excitement. A desperate hope. "...you don't hate me? You're not going to..."

"I never hated Pinkamena. I'm just meeting Pinkie now," he tells her. "I always loved them both."

She untucks her body all the way, rolls partially over until she is lying down with her belly flat against the ground, staring at him.

Slowly, her coat lightens. Her mane and tail rise and spread.

"Pinkie..." she breathes. "Pinkie Pie..."

In time, she comes to him. They have the party, and it is one of the best he's ever attended with the greatest host he ever could have asked for. And when the little filly is sleeping against him with the tired smile still on her face, he stares up at what he can see of the night sky and wishes he could shout without disturbing her. But she needs her rest, and will need so much more than that in the moons and years to come in order to fully restore her heart from a life of ordeal. She will need friends, and he will have to be certain she ends up in a place where she will find them.

She is not just hope, a sign that the path is progressing, that the effort put into the Great Work is bearing fruit and the destination might eventually be within reach after all. She is a miracle come into his life. Perhaps -- the first of many miracles to come.

No miracle should be wasted.