• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,085 Views, 998 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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Scumble

It was supposed to be a good day.

Things have become still worse. She has fully realized she is beyond cure. The success took a different road and her only hope -- one becoming increasingly faint, one she completely gave up on for a few seconds until the pink pony rushed forth -- is that together, they can work out where hers broke and save the others. She nearly killed the pink one. Nearly killed one (an unexpected one) who was only trying to help her. One of those she was trying to save. Somepony who...

...looks like her. Or at least like she used to look all the time.

She had never seen anypony who looked like her before. Not even in a memory.

And she came within a few body lengths of killing her. Tried to take it back and couldn't. The magic might have done anything and if not for the success... all she could imagine before slipping into the nightscape was a body on the ground, if the blast had left any body behind at all.

She is a horror. A monster waiting for tales to be written. She barely understands how the others could have made themselves stay so close to her by the falls. How the pink one would have voluntarily touched her. She should not exist.

That thought went into the nightscape with her, and it has taken her back to a time she had been looking forward to, barely restrained for weeks at the mere idea of meeting somepony other. And this would be an extra-special visitor, because it would be somepony she would be introduced to -- as herself. No false name to assume for the duration of a day. Full open honesty and the pride in his eyes as he told the other pony all about her and that one's upcoming role in The Great Work. There have been so few of those. And while some of them look at her in ways she does not enjoy thinking about after, the experience of getting to be herself on one of these visits makes the visit into something beyond rare and special.

Weeks of waiting. Too many weeks, he grumbled, especially given that this pony lives in town and seems to have been, in his opinion, making excuses to postpone. Busy with work, indeed. She suspects he does not like this pony very much. The word he has used most often about her upcoming visitor is 'necessary' and it strikes her as something less than a fully polite term. But the day came and she donned her dress, spent what felt like an hour working on her mane, paced about the rooms in her place as she waited through the final endless minutes, and then --

-- there was a new pony.

The subject of the day is administration. He has told her that when The Great Work is complete, there is an excellent chance that she will find herself in a position of some authority. Therefore, it is important that she know about how to delegate, instruct, and -- fill out paperwork. He has called it a boring subject with boring books written about it by ponies whose mere presence can induce comas at five body lengths and, while he had forced himself to go through several of those texts before picking out two for her (which have been, predictably, boring), he still felt the final touches on this topic should come directly from a pony. The new pony who is here right now.

She tries not to wriggle with pride as he introduces her as herself and mostly succeeds.

The new pony -- looks at her.

The look is...

...quickly replaced with something more favorable as the original is banished, present barely long enough to register at all.

"I'll have to leave you two alone for a time," he tells them. ('Two': it nearly makes the thought of that first look completely go away.) "Somepony was coming in just as we were arriving... well, you know how it goes. This may be quick, or -- well, it probably won't be quick..." A rueful smile. "I know you have questions about what you've read and the practical application of those details -- and I also know you're in capable hooves. I'll come back when I can."

There is a flash of light, and he is gone.

She smiles at the new pony. "If you're ready, sir?" she asks. "I have a sitting room over this way, for guests as special as yourself. There's also some snacks, should you care to indulge. He brought in Hentucky Blue -- I was told it was one of your favorites..."

"If you must," he yawns. "Let's get this over with... there are far more important things I should be doing with my time. In fact, I can hardly think of anything which would not qualify as being far more important..."

She manages not to frown. Is she doing something wrong? This isn't a standard reaction to her practiced etiquette. "I -- all right," and leads the way. It can't be her, can it? She isn't varying from her lessons, so the difference almost has to be on the other end.

They move into what she views as her sitting room. It also serves as the library: the books she studies from, some copies of her notes which he has had bound. A reading table plus an extra for snacks and waiting stacks of tomes. A pair of comfortable couches (with a third brought in from elsewhere for this occasion). Multiple light sources which respond to voice commands. She likes the room very much, although there is one other which is her special favorite and always has been.

She positions herself to face the writing table, makes the standard adjustment around her neck after the inevitable shift, then opens to a fresh page of her administration notebook and begins to ask the questions she has carefully been memorizing for weeks. He starts to answer, droning on in a very bored tone which manages to provide what feels like the correct answers while in no way being even remotely interested in the words which are coming out. It is by far the single least interesting visit she has ever had and so far, what she is sure will be the second least memorable visitor. Getting this memory to become clear and accurate afterwards is obviously going to be something of a challenge. But he has come here to teach her, given up what he keeps referring to as the time which is so much more important than hers in order to do this, and she will respect that.

She keeps respecting it for some time.

And then the boredom begins to drop away from his face.

"This," he slowly says, "is pointless."

He had halted in the middle of an answer to say that. A query about buffering layers and why it was necessary at all for somepony else to take blame for one's own actions.

"No..." she carefully tries. "It's something I was really having trouble with. Isn't it more important for a Princess to take responsibility for her own mistakes? I know ponies need to have confidence in anypony who winds up in a position of power, but I kept thinking it was better for citizens to realize their rulers were capable of failure. Like it would make those rulers -- easier to relate to." It's just a theory, but it's one she's been working on for days. "Not that I'm going to wind up ruling anything even after The Great Work is complete, not in the sense of the whole country -- but even for any small area or even concept which I might be given charge over --"

"-- have you ever truly listened to yourself?" He smirks. "I just realized -- I'm being quizzed on the finer points of my skills by a parrot. You've been taught all these things to say and the words emerge on the proper cues -- but you don't understand any of them. You aren't capable of it. A mistake is asking me about mistakes and isn't smart enough to realize she is one which should have been fixed long ago. That's the funniest thing I've heard all moon."

She blinks.

She has the distinct feeling that they have moved beyond the realm of every etiquette lesson she's ever had.

"I'm trying to learn," she replies, careful to keep her tone under control. If she's done something wrong, she's not seeing it and he's not telling her what it is. She has to at least try to stay within the teachings. "This is something he felt was a crucial subject, sir, and that you were the single best pony to teach me. I would hope you would be flattered by that."

"Oh, certainly I'm the best," he agrees, making a small gesture with a brown-and-white speckled front right hoof. "But you? You're a mistake. The fact that you're even breathing can't count as anything except an error. An error which he's spending a lifetime trying to fix -- under what I can only think of as The Great Delusion."

At first, she cannot speak. No, there are no lessons for this. There are words she wants to say, things rising on their own and demanding release, but she is supposed to follow the rules. She should never do anything to offend a guest...

...but this pony has just spoken against him.

It seems to be an occasion for new rules.

"It is The Great Work," she slowly insists. "The process by which it is possible to --"

"-- spend an entire lifetime in a happy part of the nightscape waiting to wake into a dream manifested within reality," he smirks again. "A dream which is delusion. Again, because you're clearly too stupid to have understood it the first time and there's a tiny chance repetition would get it through: you are an error. A taint. Walking sin. Your very existence is a mistake. He thinks there's a way to correct that mistake. How very -- special. How very -- idiotic."

Her heart seems to be beating much more loudly than it should.

The pony leans forward slightly. His face works into an expression she's never seen before and will have to consult many books and memories on later before identifying it as a sneer. His words seem to emerge on a slow vent of steam. "You shouldn't exist," he states. "If you were in any way mine -- well, that would never happen because unlike anything to do with you, I'm pure. But if by some Tartarus-sent nightmare, it happened to me -- well, he's spending a lifetime trying to fix a mistake. I would have done the same. But I would have fixed it in your lifetime. Which would have been about twelve seconds. Maybe one day he'll wake up and realize what a waste of time you've been and stop wasting his own life via the simple act of ending yours. Some would see that as an act of mercy, I suppose, not that you deserve any after what you did..."

Her skin seems to be too tight. It feels as if her muscles are pushing against it from the inside, like her blood is getting hotter and looking for a way to vent its own steam. She's completely sure she shouldn't be shaking.

"And you know you can't tell him any of what I've said, don't you?" he lightly laughs, the joke reserved for him alone. "No witnesses, you dumb clod. Your word against mine, and I'm the very special teacher he's been trying so hard to get for you, the only pony he wanted to teach you about still one more thing you'll never get to use. He'll never believe you -- never take the word of a mistake over that of one of his own. He'll wake up one day, you know. He'll realize the dream is just that and can never come true. And on that day, he will fix the mistake. With his own field. I give you about eight seconds there, personally -- and that's if he decides to show the mercy you don't deserve. If it was somehow me -- well, I'd make it last. Dealing with you would be a rather special experience, after all."

He relaxes on the couch, spreads out a little. His dull grey field surrounds a bit of the imported grass and brings it closer. He takes a bite, chews thoughtfully.

"I wouldn't mind coming back for that," he says. "Maybe he'd even let me watch. I've never gotten to see a pony take that kind of righteous vengeance before upon taint -- I imagine it would be a treat. Especially after what you did..."

No matter how hard she tries in the days and moons and years to come, she will never remember moving. All that will come back to her is his face. The sudden burst of terror. The field around his horn winking out and grass drifting to the floor.

Her front hooves have landed, one to each side of his body. He is trembling between them. His horn sputters dull grey sparks which will not focus.

"How dare you!" she yells. "He's a great pony! The delusion is yours! He will finish The Great Work, and when he does, you'll be the first to -- apologize! I'll stand there and watch while you come up to him with bowed head and say how sorry you are for all the things you said about him and the work he's tried so hard to complete! This is about all those ponies, and you don't care about any of them, do you? You're just --"

She has no words. None of her lessons ever covered the things she should say next. She is well beyond the realm of any teachings and making it up as she goes along --

-- she has broken so many rules, she is going to be in so much trouble when he finds out...

Slowly, she forces herself to pull back and drop down so that all four hooves are on the ground again. She should not make things any worse than she already has.

"I think," she makes herself say, as politely as she can manage, "that I might be best off concluding my administration studies using books after all. I know you have many more important things to do with your time -- you've been saying so, after all. So it's clearly best that you go and do them. After all, that's your job, isn't it?" A spark of recollection intrudes, something he had told her. "The only one you'll ever have?"

The pony stares at her. His lips pull back from his teeth, his ears go even farther back -- but the field won't focus. He knows she can see that, and visibly hates her all the more for it.

His expression is the same as it was when he first saw her, face hidden from his gaze. He wants her to die and regrets only his lack of ability to cause it himself.

"You..." he just barely gets out. "I look forward to the day when he finally deals with you, the way you should have been dealt with all along..."

She leans very slightly forward.

He scrambles off the couch, gallops from the room, the first pony she's ever seen running and therefore the fastest. And then the brown-and-white speckled unicorn is gone.

Her return to her own couch is halfway between a shuffle and a slink as her body seems to cool and her blood returns to normal liquid, leaving behind only the chill feeling of failure. She is in so much trouble. She is listing rules and the tally of those she didn't break seems shorter. Nothing like this has ever happened before. What can she tell him? Surely he'll know something went wrong. Right now, the other pony could be telling him -- anything. Anything at all. And she cannot follow to give her own tale, she's still not entirely convinced she didn't do something wrong to start what happened...

...no.

She didn't. She's sure of that, at least for now. But... will he believe her? Another has his ear, and she is helpless in her place with no way to intervene...

She sinks down. For lack of anything else to do, she attempts to study. The boring nature of the book doesn't help.

And then it is later. He is back. There is no expression on his face. That makes things all the worse.

"Tell me," he says.

"I -- I don't know what he said to you..."

Calmly, "And I do. But before you hear any of that, I want to know what you will say to me."

She tells him the truth. (She has almost never done anything else, and not when the subject is The Great Work.) He listens to all of it, only stopping her to ask for repetition and emphasis on certain events.

And when she is done, he sighs. "Let's just say -- his version was not that one." He raises his left front hoof, cutting her off. "No -- don't. There's no need. I know which of you is telling the truth."

He gives her the nuzzle meant for family.

She feels as if she wants to sob. "I didn't do anything wrong -- I know I didn't..."

He nods to that. "You did not. The fault is in that one. He is the best there is at what he does, the single best teacher for the subject -- but that is the only qualification he has in this life. I knew some of his feelings and had hints of the deeper ones, but I thought..." The trailing off leads into a sigh. "It should have been another. And for that, I take the blame. There will be no punishment -- there never could be, not for this. I hardly expect you to stand still and allow yourself to be beaten without resistance."

Her eyes squeeze shut, and she can feel the moisture against the lids. "What are we going to do?"

"Very little." He nuzzles her again. "He will not speak. Part of his story -- and I will give you the whole thing tomorrow, you'll need rest before going through that much laughter -- concerned how much he believes in The Great Work and how sorry he was that I had chosen... well, tomorrow. For now, let's just say he very much wants to remain some part of it. He does not believe in it, I know that now -- but he is willing to place a wager of a single bit on what he sees as the greatest longshot in any race. To that degree, he was trying very hard to stay on my good side, not to mention that of those who do believe. And because he is virtually always taken at his twisted word -- I will believe him, at least as far as he knows. When I see him tomorrow afternoon, I will agree with nearly everything he said and deeply apologize for his pains. He remains -- necessary."

She sighs. "You say that word like a curse."

"Sometimes it is," he affirms. "But know this -- no matter what I say to him, you are the one I believe -- and believe in." A warm smile. "I think you can cease your studies for the day. Do something which will relax you... it's more than deserved. I'll make something special for your dinner tonight. And while I realize it will be impossible to never give him another thought, give him no more than he deserves. He is gone. The next time you see him, The Great Work will be complete."

Her smile is more than a little rueful. "Will you forgive me for what I'm about to say?"

His own smile turns into more of a grin. "Not without hearing it first, no..."

She manages to get the words out. "That almost feels like an argument for not completing it."

Much to her relief, it only makes him laugh. "Perhaps -- but we move forward regardless, correct?"

She nods, for it was only a dark joke, and watches him as he begins to walk out of the study --

-- but then he turns back, eyes twinkling, expression thoughtful.

"But of course," he muses, "on the day The Great Work is complete -- he may no longer be necessary..."

And he is gone.

She waits for a time, and when she is certain all is clear, she moves. She has a memory to make, and she does not want to lose a single detail. It is not one she wishes to keep -- but this too is necessary, if not perhaps in the sense he just used the word -- one she doesn't understand.

It is created quickly. The details are becoming increasingly exact, even if she has a hard time keeping the anger out of it, much less the pain echoing within her head.

She shouldn't exist.

She shouldn't exist.

She shouldn't exist.

What she did.

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Twilight was starting to wonder if she'd ever have a good night's sleep again.

Sleep had come -- eventually -- but hadn't felt the need to stick around for more than thirty minutes at a time. Apparently she just wasn't very good company. And the things which had intruded into her nightscape, some of which she did remember...

She had been talking to Star Swirl. She often did in her dreams, especially when she was stuck on a tricky piece of spell research: her subconscious would conjure the legendary caster for a consultation. This time, she had asked him a very basic question: why had he kept bells on his hat and robe?

He had told her it was field refinement practice. To keep them so still at all times that their ringing would not betray his presence, to always keep that part of his field hidden so that no pony would know how it was being done -- or that it was being done at all. Star Swirl and his soundless approach, bells which should have rung remaining silent. An extra element of mystery and intimidation. She'd said she'd understood.

And then he'd told her it was also so he could let the bells ring when they needed to. When the ponies whose essence he'd stolen approached from the shadowlands, so that the sound could scare them away. The weakest of them. For the stronger ones...

Twilight didn't remember much of the dream after that, and was thankful.

How much do I trust Trixie? To tell me all those things... some of which might have just been meant to hurt...

Unfortunately, she had an easy answer for that.

She'd been in semi-regular correspondence with Trixie since ten days after the Amulet incident. It had begun for the same reason so many of the bonds in her life had been initiated: the Princess had asked her. Gently told Twilight that in her opinion, Trixie was lonely on the road: a life spent moving from town to town with no connections lasting beyond a week and no friends waiting for her to approach or return. That the Princess felt some of the perceived solitude had contributed to what had happened. And certainly there was a topic they might discuss, two students of magic comparing notes on spells. Trixie wasn't a match for Twilight in strength and never would be even with the most potent of booster drugs, but in the Princess' opinion, she was an excellent researcher and understood spellwork on Twilight's level, even for those things the performer would never personally be able to cast. And so the next time Twilight was truly stuck -- she should write Trixie and ask for a second opinion, for the viewpoint of another might be just what she needed to jar her own away from the dead end.

All of it had been phrased as a suggestion. Typically, Twilight had taken it as an order.

Ten days after the Amulet, she'd gotten stuck again and wound up dictating the single most reluctant letter of her life.

Four days beyond that, a reply had arrived via express airmail, with a special stamp indicating that the postage had been placed on the government's tab. There had been no greeting or signature. Just notes. Five pages of carefully-worked proposals with references to experiments conduced on the other end (both successes and failures) along with how the results might be applied to Twilight's own current issue. The then-unicorn had looked over everything, found nothing which appeared to be sabotage, put up every safety measure she knew how to build or borrow anyway, and tried it out.

It had worked. All of it had worked.

Things had slowly picked up from there, as postmarks literally flew in from all over the continent. Twilight had written Trixie with more notes on spell improvements and blocked avenues of research: the same would come back. Then Trixie wrote her first with a query about phase shifting (something neither of them could do) as applied to escape artistry -- a topic good for three exchanges. Names began to appear in the letters. Closing salutations. Twilight found herself talking about life in Ponyville, Trixie would mention what things were like on the road. Oh, they mostly kept it to spell research, magic, and each other -- Trixie visibly had very little affection for the rest of the Element-Bearers and tended to go casually snide whenever the others were brought up -- but they were talking. Twilight had very nearly written Trixie to ask about Star Swirl's mark-transfer spell -- and, given another day with no solution, not only would have sent the letter, but might have tried to bring her in personally as an extra voice, viewpoint, and presence to work on the problem with. The performer had been among the first ponies she'd contacted after her transformation, included in a packet with her favorite teachers and one author she'd always wanted to thank for her influence on Twilight's own work. In Twilight's eyes, Trixie had very nearly become --

-- a friend.

Not the closest of friends, nowhere near on the level of the other Bearers. But somepony she could talk to (and about more with each exchange of letters). Somepony whose opinion she even valued.

On the night when she came as a pegasus, Twilight had been thinking about ways for unicorns to make themselves more powerful. Even after the encounter, she'd briefly been holding onto a scrap of hope for hidden magic combined with illusion spells. And so she had made the decision to consult with the one pony she could contact on the subject of field strengthening who would have some very personal knowledge of the topic -- a pony whom, when it came to thaumaturgy, she trusted.

Trixie had never told her about the trial and probation. Not until the most recent letter. How much did the performer trust Twilight to let her know about that at long last?

'Your friend mostly in spite of herself'...

'Your friend'...

Trixie had never used that word before.

Twilight rolled over in bed, stared out the window at the barely-risen Sun.

I trust her. I trust her for all of it. It was Star Swirl who made the Amulet. She'd probably show me the notes if I asked her. I know his fieldwriting, I could test their age. Star Swirl...

And then the memory hit her. Luna. Nightmare Night. The Nightmare Night.

"Thou even got the bells right."

Twilight had been thrilled. Finally somepony who got her costume! And then she had turned back to face Luna and seen --

-- pain.

Sorrow.

A wound which had been bleeding for a thousand years and would never heal.

At the time, she'd thought it was just the sadness of isolation, having been rejected by the townsponies, the younger of the Diarchy unable to find a way back into pony society and hurting from the sheer loneliness of her restored life. And that had been part of it -- but not all.

She was thinking about him. My costume reminded her. She knew him. They were friends.

Her mind would not stop working. Her own thoughts scared her and refused to acknowledge it, marching forward without care for how much of her faith was being stomped beneath unrelenting hooves.

He knew her before, didn't he? There was a before. Luna -- was another kind of pony once. So was the Princess. He knew them before and after. They were friends... and then he tried to become an alicorn. He didn't make it. Then the Amulet -- and they fought him...

Luna was looking at me dressed in the clothing of a friend she had to kill.

Twilight had accompanied the junior Princess throughout that entire Nightmare Night while wearing the skin of a companion's corpse. And Luna, with nopony else to turn to, had stayed with her, made herself remain close to a memory of what she and the Princess had done...

They killed him -- because it was the only way to stop the Amulet. Or they exiled him to where he would be harmless, or found a way to imprison him and just waited for him to die. Star Swirl... fell. And Luna had to watch it, knowing it started because she and her sister changed and he'd wanted that, wasn't able to do it, went for any road he could find or make...

Harvesting essence. She wanted to learn just enough about it so that she'd be able to spot when another pony was doing it and stop them.

Two ponies became alicorns and something horrible happened because somepony else tried to follow. I change and -- she comes, even if it happened before I ever heard of the Elements... she still tried, failed, and became something horrible. How many others will react because of me? How many did things because of the Princesses? How many horrors are buried in history -- or wiped from it, out of fear that more would try to follow?

Why did they let me change? Why didn't they stop it? They knew what could come after. It already had.

Why couldn't they just let me stay me?

Twilight shifted position again, looked down the left side of her body. There was a large bruise in front of the wing. It had been aching for most of the night. Impacted by earth pony strength with no chance to move or block.

A bruise in front of the wing.

If Twilight had never changed -- would there have been a mission? Could a single lack of event somehow have echoed out like that? Or would they still be here, facing her down as a party of seven containing a dragon and two from each major pony race?

Would Applejack have charged her?

Would they all still be friends?

No. I can't think that way. I'll see Applejack later...

...would she?

She looked at the wing again. It did nothing. It just rested against her body, tucked into a rest position, and probably would have no matter what she asked it to do.

She's stuck. She can't be cured. She will be what she is for the rest of her life.

Will I?

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It was too early to get up. But Twilight had no other recourse, couldn't stay in bed any longer with those thoughts, and so quietly forced herself off the mattress, letting Spike sleep off his too-long night. She took a few minutes to pack saddlebags: Trixie's letter, the Royal Vouchers she only carried with her when the Fund was active. Trixie's spell had sent the letter back -- but not the vial: there hadn't been enough flame to carry both a second time, not with whatever modified technique the performer had completed on the other end. If Twilight was going to keep this system going, she'd need new supplies, and a unicorn-majority town had to have something Ponyville lacked: a thaumaturgy supply shop. (If only she'd been able to figure out and replicate the means by which the Princess sent letters with no dragon flame involved at all -- but that was a puzzle which hadn't broken over nearly three years of desperate attempts to place pieces. Only having seen the arrival stage hadn't exactly helped.) An early breakfast, and then she could go out by herself for a while, wander the streets of an empty town and be alone with her pain-inflicting thoughts. She left the guest room.

Much to her unhappy surprise, there was already a pony in the hallway.

Much to her delight, that pony also qualified as a target.

"Princess," Coordinator tightly said. It would have been a greeting of sorts if he had been able to look anywhere near her.

"Coordinator," she replied, and her memory pulled up a checklist of Things I Wish I Could Say To Him. It was several years old and had only added its first partial completion marks at the burn site. "What brings you sliming in at this hour?"

His shoulders visibly tensed, and the pile of papers within the dull grey field dipped two inches. "As the Doctor will be staying here for some time, I thought it would be effective to bring him a grouping of the paperwork he requires for each new birth, rather than having him galloping between here and the town hall in his current condition."

"Oh, yes," Twilight smirked. "Because we all know how much you care about the comfort of other ponies... well, please don't let me keep you. I'm sure you have so many things you need to be doing later, all of which are so extremely important that I don't have a hope of listening to you completely explain them before falling asleep."

She was delighted to see the field briefly flicker: the papers nearly dropped out.

"I," Coordinator half-spat, "am doing my job."

"I," Twilight smiled, "don't care."

There was a yawn behind her. It was a very familiar yawn. Most of Ponyville's residents heard it several times a year, especially if they lived somewhere close to a well-hidden pillow.

Twilight turned. Rainbow Dash was -- awake. At sunrise. Blinking away sleep, looking as if the last thing the pegasus wanted in life was to be on all four hooves and even remotely ambulatory, but -- awake. It was enough to make Twilight question if she'd ever gotten out of the nightscape at all.

"Oh, good," Rainbow yawned again. "You're up... okay, let's get going."

That was deserving of more than just a hard blink, but the eyelid motion was all a shocked Twilight had to give. "...going?"

"Yeah. We've got to go do the thing. At the place. With the stuff." The pegasus looked past Twilight, stared at Coordinator as if trying to figure out whether they had a witness or if one of Quiet's sculpture rooms had simply overflowed during the night and released Still Lack Of Life With Bureaucrat. "Let's just go already. We can stop at the kitchens and see if there's any wake-up juice we can grab... maybe all of it... I swear, I know the Princess has to see this hour every day, but I have no idea why she wants to..."

Twilight, with no concept of what was going on and no way to get it out of Rainbow in front of an extremely loathed spectator, managed a bare shrug and followed the pegasus out -- after a final smirk thrown back in Coordinator's direction.

The bureaucrat watched them go. Glanced in Twilight's guest room, noted the presence of the sleeping little dragon. Moved further down the hallway.

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It wasn't so much that Rainbow Dash didn't want to answer Twilight's questions as that she wasn't capable of it. The pegasus wasn't used to being up early -- no, that was an understatement. The weather coordinator (a term which currently wasn't sitting well with Twilight, mostly due to the second half) ranked full awareness at this hour of anything other than presence in a bed as an unnatural event on the level of parasprites lacking appetites, Zecora speaking without rhymes for more than one sentence at a gallop, the Cutie Mark Crusaders doing something intelligent, and Angel Bunny being polite. It meant Twilight had to wait patiently as they worked their way through the now-empty hallways of the castle to raid the kitchen in front of one early-rising and politely-startled servant, eventually making their way out to the grounds just as the first bits of wake-up juice were beginning to kick in.

"All right," Dash yawned. "Maybe you can't move all seven of us, but I know you can teleport with one other pony along because I was there as part of two plus Spike. If it's just me going along, do you think you can reach the ravine?"

As an expression of shock and surprise, the blink remained inadequate. "Sure, that's in my range and I've got it memorized --" and then some "-- but Rainbow, why do you want to --"

"-- tell you there. Okay, ready when you are."

Twilight's giving up took the form of dual flashes of light as they both entered the between --

-- and then they were at the point where the mission had originally began. The start of the middle. A gap in the earth which she had forced open for reasons unknown -- except that she had said it had been done to save her life...

Twilight frowned. "Okay -- now that we know how this got here, maybe we do need to look at it again. But I can always ask her this afternoon, Dash -- and if we're checking it out a second time, knowing even a little about what happened -- we really need Applejack." If the farmer would talk to them. About anything at all.

"Huh?" The pegasus woke up the rest of the way. "Celestia's sunny butt, no! I am not crawling all over this place an inch at a time again! You want to come back with the others and do that, go ahead and I'll just keep lookout from someplace I don't have to do anything else!"

Twilight tried (and failed) to ignore one of the more unique blasphemies she'd ever heard. (She was also momentarily held up with images of ponies applying similar terms to her own rump. None of them seemed plausible. Or polite.) "Then -- why are we here?"

"Because she's messing up our times! Midnight meetings, afternoon meetings, every hour, any hour and maybe even all of them... But nopony's doing anything right now, at least not if they're sane, and that means this is when I can train you." She swished her tail in a vaguely directional way, failing to notice the way Twilight was starting to pale. "It's not ideal -- but it's open space without too much in the way of interference. I've just got to filly-proof it a little -- hang on..."

The pegasus went up. Clouds from the overcast morning rapidly began to come down --

-- and within ten minutes, the river, most of the ravine floor (excepting a radius of a body length around where Twilight was standing), and the walls up to a height of four Celests had been covered in vapor. "There! Good thing it's so dreary this morning or I would have been weaving forever. Okay, Twilight -- that gives you some crash cushions. I worked on the consistency: you'll bounce, but that's about it. As long as you don't go any higher than the padding, you can't hurt yourself trying anything, and I'll make sure you don't veer off for any greater altitude unless I follow you up and stay close. Trust your teacher."

"Um..." How to explain this? "...Rainbow?"

"Yeah?"

"I -- can't touch clouds, either."

The pegasus rolled magenta eyes. "Do you remember that cloudwalking spell you used on almost everypony before the Best Young Flyers competition?"

"Of course I do!"

"No, you don't!' The last word was almost a bark, Rainbow's traditional style of instruction manifesting with enough strength to echo from the cloud-shrouded walls. "Or you would have cast it already! Come on, Twilight -- I'm not asking you to do everything at once! You can take care of cloudwalking yourself the unicorn way for now -- the pegasus part will come. Today, we're working on flying and flying alone. Just get the spell going and then we can talk about how to start."

Even the field looked disgruntled, the normally-smooth edges showing small spikes. "Fine..." It took a few seconds before Twilight could fully recover the proper feel, but it came in the end: Rainbow Dash boosted her to stand on top of the covered river and then spent a few seconds closing the last ground cover hole.

"Okay, Twilight," Rainbow said. "The first part's easy. You've tried to fly a few times between the coronation and now, right? Besides what happened in the clearing?" Without intentional malice, "Or you wouldn't know just how much you royally buck at it."

Maybe I should just start testing myself for Twilight Sense. "Some."

"Right. So -- talk to me. About flying."

"What?" It was about as eloquent as she felt herself capable of being just then.

"Talk to me! About flying!" More slowly, "When you try to fly -- what are you thinking about?" With a reluctance that Twilight completely missed in her rising eagerness at the suddenly open invitation to lecture, "In detail."

And Twilight, her entire morning very nearly redeemed, talked.

Aerodynamics came in first. This led directly to physics, which had a brief illicit affair with gravity that resulted in several foals, all of which left home to start careers in the sciences. Biology shortly came into play on the family tree and brought some friends known as anatomy, musculature, and calorie burn rates, all of whom seemed to be having sex with each other. At one point, time dilation occurred, but it turned out to be no part of the flying process: just an incidental side effect of the lecture. Quantum tried to get involved and wound up wandering off while nursing a migraine.

Rainbow Dash slumped to her belly and softly beat her head against the cloud.

About thirty seconds into the steady drumming motion, Twilight finally noticed the position shift in her audience. "...but then I always have to refigure for any incidental lensing from -- Rainbow?"

"Uggh..." came from below, which was as articulate as the pegasus felt like being. "Oh, Sun and Moon... Twilight, that's the whole bucking problem."

"...what is? You asked what I was thinking about..."

"And I got it." Rainbow Dash groaned. "Luna's star-tangled tail, I got it... Twilight, you're being -- Twilight."

Which told the librarian nothing she had any hope of working with. "Could you -- narrow that down a little?"

Rainbow forced her head up. "You're thinking."

Frustrated, "Of course I'm thinking! I have to think about how to fly because I don't know how to do it! I'm trying to work it out!"

Another, slightly deeper groan. "Look -- I'm not saying it isn't possible to think and fly at the same time, okay? No matter what some jerks laugh about. But mostly you think beforehand, and that's just when things are about to get super complicated. Maybe. When I'm working out a stunt, I plan it. I even tried some diagrams a few times until I realized just how bad I was at drawing." And amazingly, she didn't say anything about drawing being lame. "But once I'm in it, I react. There are times when you have to think when you fly -- but it mostly takes too much time. You have to do things. You let your instincts take over. Thinking -- gets in the way, Twilight, more than it helps. And it's like I said in the clearing -- all you ever do is think. You're thinking about flying -- which means that when you should be doing it, you're still planning it out and by the time you should have put those plans into motion, literal motion, it's too late. You've already blundered through the thermal, or gotten thrown by the shift layer, and you didn't feel either of them because you were thinking. You're being Twilight. And that's what's blocking you. As long as you keep trying to fly like a unicorn who's spent practically her entire life thinking about stuff, you won't fly at all."

Twilight opened her mouth, words rushing towards the gap, syllables that would correct Rainbow Dash once and for all, tell her just how stupid that sounded and how thinking was so absolutely necessary that --

-- she silently counted the number of crashes, collisions, and moments which would have come close to bankrupting Murdocks outright if taken across several publications with full photo spreads and actual bits involved --

-- sank down to Rainbow's level and shut up.

Rainbow looked across at her. "Part of the reason newborns fly so well, besides having their Surges, is because they haven't really learned to think yet. They do everything on instinct, and it makes them some of the best flyers in the air for their speed. Keeping up with foals... my dad told me some stories about stuff I would try, even when I was a few moons old... well, I know I'm not the reason for kid leashes, but he keeps insisting I had the first one... Twilight, you have to try and stop thinking. Or at least, you have to stop thinking like you. You have to react. Let your senses take over. Do the first thing that pops into your head, and then the second, and keep going from there and if you change your mind, go with that too. Anything that's coming in is what you're working with. Take your brain out of the way and -- fly."

It made no sense. It couldn't work. It was just Dash's weird view on the world coming through...

...the viewpoint of the best flyer Twilight had ever known.

But...

Twilight sighed. "Rainbow -- I'm me. I think about everything. I -- even know I think too much sometimes. This morning... I got a letter from Trixie which I'm going to read for everypony later, and... I really wanted my brain to shut up and let me sleep. It didn't happen. I can't stop thinking just because I want to. I always think about things, even when I wish I didn't have to." Neurotically. Obsessively. Compulsively. "How am I supposed to stop?"

"You don't think about everything," Rainbow quietly said. "Not always." She adjusted her position on the cloud a little, spread her wings and stretched out the muscles, ruffled feathers. "Last night, with Pinkie. Saving her life. Did you think about catching that magic?"

Twilight looked back. "I -- I'm not sure. I don't think so. I didn't have any time to plan -- I just reached..."

Softly, "Because if you'd taken the time to think about what to do -- there would have been no time left to do anything."

Twilight closed her eyes, saw the curl of smoke coming up from empty grass. "Yes."

"That's what I meant about you in fights," Rainbow told her. "Sometimes you're so busy thinking about ways to block a kick that by the time you pick one, you've already got a hoof in your ribs. Or when you go on offense, you run through every spell you know trying to get just the right one for the occasion and too late! You've been tagged six times and the fight's over. Everypony has to learn how to fight, at least to start -- but once you learn, you let the instinct of what you've learned take over. You automatically react in the best way for the situation. Flying's just -- a little bit beyond that. But you don't have the foal memories to build on, you hardly ever work on instinct -- and you're thinking too much. You're so busy working out your next move that you don't notice the air working six on you. Fight's over -- crash landing."

Twilight sighed. She couldn't make herself open her eyes yet. The curl of smoke wouldn't go away either. "But I'll never have those foal memories, Rainbow. I can't fix that part."

"I know," the pegasus quietly admitted. "It's a problem. But -- the thing is -- you're an alicorn."

She felt her lips quirk into the faintest vestige of a smile as she opened her eyes again. "Don't remind me." And was surprised at her own words. Not the thought -- that they'd come out at all.

But Rainbow reacted with a sigh, a rare sound from her. It seemed to be sincere. "Yeah. I know we all pretty much saw -- just the awesome stuff at first. Like actually becoming a full-fledged Wonderbolt -- and then trying to go out in public casually and getting autograph seekers surrounding you for six ponies out. It's fun at first, but -- your mouth gets sore with gripping the quill.... Twilight, alicorns are -- part everything, right? Except maybe crystal ponies, I don't know how the buck that works. You started as a unicorn -- but now part of you is pegasus. And not just the wings, it can't be just that, because the Princesses have that and -- they can make it work. Something in you is pegasus. I think what you have to do is -- listen to it."

Two blinks weren't much more effective than one when it came to self-expression. "...what?"

Rainbow smiled. "Stop being Twilight. Try being me."

Relative helpfulness of a triple blink: none. "I don't --"

"No, I mean it. Just -- pretend you're me. If you have to think, then think like me. Work your brain into that. Take as long as you have to. Stop being Twilight and just try being -- awesome."

Twilight tried not to take it personally. It was another failure in what was looking to be a very long series. "Rainbow..."

"Try."

Twilight sighed. This did nothing.

She closed her eyes again. The action formed a chorus with the original result.

Think like Rainbow Dash...

...I am an insufferable braggart whose only reason for existence is seeing how many ponies I can get to admit I'm the greatest thing ever. My mouth is forever writing vouchers my wings can't cash and there, I've got it already. I never saw something I couldn't boast about being able to do better than anypony else, even if I think it's lame and if I can't do it better than anypony else, 'lame' is the least of what it is. I am totally obsessed with becoming part of a stunt flying troupe because I have deluded myself into thinking it's a form of immortality and a thousand years from now, somepony as crazy as me will look at my statistics and realize just how awesome I was all over again. Furthermore, I have the single worst poker face in the history of card play and will never realize or admit it, which makes it so easy for everypony else to take me under the table in every game that if I ever got into a professional match, I would be bankrupt within an hour and my friends have been trying to save me for nearly three years without my knowing, right down to throwing me a few groupings so I don't go broke at the casual games, not that I'd ever admit to it if I found out because I can never admit when I've come up short on anything whatsoever and just displace every problem and issue I ever have onto somepony else...

Apparently she was still more than a little tired.

Try again.

...I can have overarching goals, but any plans I make beyond them are lucky to reach so far ahead as to make it into next week and 'next moon' is unheard of. I would make a ridiculously good Diamond Dog. I'm very lucky that I pull down a great salary for a job I can barely be roused to do and that hardly ever on time because my spending just about matches my income to the tenth-bit and 'savings' is a concept I am never going to master...

All things considered, starting a few hours later probably would have been a really good idea.

Restart.

I am loyal.

Sure, that was helpful. When in doubt, go back to the Element. It made just as much sense for somepony else to describe Twilight by saying she was Magic: to wit, barely any. It was the one of the dominant facets in Rainbow's personality, but it wasn't the totality of her any more than casting made up the whole of Twilight. She was looking for that part of Rainbow in herself and not coming up with --

-- wait...

'What would a brave pony like Rainbow Dash do?'

Charge.

She -- did have that, didn't she? At least a little? Rainbow had been teaching her from the moment they'd first met. She'd even openly invoked it at least once.

If I have to think -- then think like that...

...something is threatening me and there is no time to react. I act, rushing forward to stop it. Maybe it won't work, but it doesn't have to. At the very least, I'll always buy time for the others to do something else and maybe I'll even come up with something on the way. Or it could work. I won't know unless I try and I always try. Even if it's impossible. Trying the impossible is what I do because that's how you get to possible: by making it happen anyway. I refuse to say something can't be done. I just keep trying to do it until either it or me gives way, and I'm not the one who's going to break.

I'm loyal, but it's never a conscious choice. I don't make decisions on who or what I'm going to be loyal to. I just am. There are no questions involved. Loyalty isn't something you think about, it's something you know and are. Why would I ever question something I am at my core? Something I do on instinct? I will do anything for those I care about without thought or concern for myself. What else could anypony ever do?

I am the sky. For others to look at me is to see things as a single concept. Some see ego, some hear volume, just as most perceive the sky as just that: 'sky'. But what they see as a one-element totality is made up of thousands of layers in constant motion. The atmosphere is not the same at every height, the wind changes, things move within the flow and never stop. I evolve because it is the only thing I can do. I change because it is the only way things happen. I started as one thing, but I am not that any longer and few would notice any long-term shifts at all, but change has taken place and always will. I would sooner die than not change, because to remain the same, locked in stillness and lack of motion, is to die.

(there seemed to be movement within her closed eyes, as if something behind her irises was shifting forward and sliding into place)

I am hardly ever still. To move is to prove you're alive. I seldom alight on the ground for long, not because it brings me down to a level with others and I feel that diminishes me, but because it means seconds spent in not celebrating freedom. I am more free than any pony I know, and my flight is the way my body expresses the throwing off of bonds. Gravity can only pretend to hold me as long as I pretend to let it. I stay in the air not only because it is my first and best home, but because it makes me free and I wish so much that other ponies could know that freedom. They don't even know how trapped they are and I can't bear them to tell them. One of the best moments of my life was having a friend toss off those shackles to become my flying buddy and I will give anything to get her in the air and make her understand how free she now truly is.

I do what must be done because I can't do anything else.

I move without thinking because it's the only way to get things done in time.

I am loyalty, trust and bond without thought.

I am the sky, endless change and variety mistakenly seen as a whole and defying that perception with every moment of my existence.

I am Rainbow Dash...

She opened her eyes.

And for the first time in her (memory) life, she saw the sky.

"Oh, Celestia... Rainbow... it's so beautiful..."

There was another voice. It seemed to be coming from a very great distance. Listening wasn't always important, as long as the general sense of the words came through. "Hold it, Twilight... just try to hold it..."

"How -- how can you stand to see the world like this all the time? It's so beautiful, it almost hurts..."

She could hear the smile. "I don't know any other way... don't think about it, Twilight, just look..."

Twilight looked. Up, at the sky.

There were soft glows moving through the air. Subtle shifts of color, thicknesses and breadth of air masses, and she knew the intensity of each shade represented a combination of the layer's power, density, and speed. The closer to red as a base hue (or was it red at all?), the hotter. The more blue, the cooler. Tiny twinkles within --

water, I'm seeing water dissolved into the air, that's humidity

-- and the clouds above, moving in to close where Rainbow had made her holes, were millions of fireflies dancing around a central cluster of surging power, the lightning waiting to be unleashed. Some had more of that internal voltage than others, but all had at least a little waiting for just the right touch of hooves to come along.

Swirls and spikes of shading battled along the boundaries. Red twisted here, negated a bit of blue there -- but itself came all that much closer to blue (or something she could only describe as blue, a color her mind had no word for) in the process. It made the twinkles gather closer here and spread further apart there. It made the power inside the clouds dance. She wanted to dance like that. She could dance like that if she only tried and if it turned out to be impossible, then she'd just try again.

Twilight forced her gaze down. Saw the true nature of the surface she was resting on. The cold of the flowing water beneath it. The little bits of heat rising from her friend, from her own hooves...

"The river," she breathed. "What is it doing to the air?"

"The water's cold -- it negates some of the heat around it, evens things out. You can see the shift, right?"

She thought she'd nodded. She wasn't paying that much attention. "And the trees?"

"Wind flow -- little eddies off the leaves and branches... Everything touches the air, Twilight. You can't swim in an ocean without shifting the water... you can't live without influencing the sky... Everything that moves, breathes, and exists adds its own touches. That's just the world..."

Twilight was on her hooves. She didn't remember getting up. She didn't care. She wanted to fly.

Somepony was scrambling up in front of her. Probably not important. "Twilight?"

"I've got to get closer," Twilight insisted. "I have to..."

"Twilight, you're moving too fast --"

Now that was funny! Twilight laughed: there was no other choice, not a single alternative option to consider and if there had been, doing so would have been a waste of time. "Listen to the source! Come on, Rainbow, I'll race you up! First one to that northern flow mass wins!"

"Twilight, calm down -- you're sky-drunk -- this happens to a lot of ponies in flight camp on their first runs, you have to --"

Listening to any more would have been an even more unforgivable waste of time.

Twilight spread her wings. There was no tentative flapping: just a single huge push using the natural slightly higher densities of the lowest air layer and cloud cushion to give her a launching boost.

And she flew.

She cleared the ravine within seconds, was above the bordering trees even faster. She moved around one layer which she didn't like the looks of so that she just skirted the edge while giving it a little wing sideswipe to show it she knew she could boss it around if she wanted to and might be back later to do just that. A rising thermal was used for a little bit of extra speed and to give her turn some extra sharpness on the angling. The northern flow mass (so beautiful, the not-blues and the twinkles and the tremendous power within those clouds, the clouds which she was starting to understand for the infinitely complex latticeworks they truly were) was getting closer and she was seeing electricity or the potential for same, she was getting the first look a unicorn ever had at --

-- what are those, negatively-charged ions? Or are they waiting for a positive charge to come into contact? Is that what would happen if I touched down on them? Do I send the triggering energy into the cloud? Actually, was that positive or extra negative ions? Am I using balancing energy or overloading what's already there? How is that supposed to work again? This should be basic physics and energy flow, but I haven't reviewed this in a long time and who uses electricity in a casting anyway? That's a pegasus domain if I ever heard one and --

-- the colors vanished.

She couldn't feel the air.

She was at least six hundred feet above the ground. More for the ravine.

She couldn't fly.

Twilight's wings refused to take direction. To keep her up. They locked.

She fell --

-- half a Celest, into Rainbow's outstretched forelegs.

"Like I said, followed you up, rookie," Rainbow grinned: she'd caught Twilight in such a way that the two were facing each other. "You know, for somepony who's been a student pretty much her whole life, you take teacher direction about as well as your average horse apple smear."

Twilight blinked several times, which seemed to work out perfectly for expressing confusion. "I -- I think --"

"Well, there's your first mistake."

"-- I think there were colors... it's -- it's hard to remember -- Rainbow, why can't I remember? I saw colors and I can't remember what they were..."

The pegasus frowned. "I guess because -- the part of your brain that processes this stuff is still pretty new. You're not used to using it and you've never had to pull memories out of it. You're learning stuff maybe three ponies had to learn before this -- not just how to use a brand-new kind of feel, but retain what you get from it." (So she too had been thinking about a before.) Rainbow's own wings were flapping, carefully bringing them back down into the ravine. "That's probably why you couldn't keep what you got from that flight after the coronation: you didn't know how to sort this stuff out. And after -- you were just thinking. Is that what happened just now?"

Twilight winced. "I started thinking about the ion charges in the clouds, and I -- lost it -- oh, no -- Rainbow, is that a choice I have to make every time? Thinking versus flying? Am I going to lose it every time I start -- thinking like myself again?"

This got her a strong head shake. "I said you can think and fly at the same time. Part of the problem is that we're trying to get you back to some kind of basic instinct level, something you can build on -- so what might be happening is that you're running on almost pure instinct right now, kind of like a newborn foal. And that means everything else just -- gets in the way, and when you put too much in your own path, that's when you lose it. Eventually, you'll be at the point where the instinct is running on a background level, and then you can mostly be all Twilight and stuff without crashing into things -- too much." A grin. "But for starters -- yeah, it'll probably be a tradeoff for a while. Sorry, Twilight -- it's the only way I could think of to teach this, and I --" She stopped. It was a familiar break for Twilight, the one which said the pegasus had been perilously close to admitting a doubt or deficiency and had caught herself before that near-ultimate level of personal blasphemy had slipped out.

Which didn't keep Twilight from trying to finish the sentence. "You weren't sure it would work."

A slow nod. "Yeah." They touched down on the cushioning clouds just before the overcompensating verbal backlash hit. "But -- hey, it obviously worked, right? You got up there! You flew, Twilight! Not too bad for a first time -- well, okay, there were some mistakes and we've got to work on your skimming, like today and tomorrow and maybe for about three moons in a row, but -- you flew. You got up there and I'm the one who boosted you. Not bad for a flight school dropout, huh?"

Twilight didn't have to work very hard before managing the grin. "Not bad, no..."

"So you were really pretending to be me?"

"Yeah."

"How did it feel?"

"AWESOME!"

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

He got up shortly after sunrise and went to the orchard.

It wasn't a place he'd been to all that often overall, especially during his career. Oh, like just about every pony in Trotter's Falls -- at least, any who would admit it -- he'd gone out there to get a few free apples as a youth (and still more luck in this, that either nopony had gone there for a few days or all who had decided a single broken tree wasn't worth mentioning). Others used it as a place for dating, letting the danger of the wild zone fringes add a touch of extra spice to their meetings. He'd done that too, and frequently, especially towards the end.

Afterwards, it had become a reason not to go.

He hadn't come to the orchard in -- years. The last time was --

'just a few days now'

-- not something he cared to remember.

He'd had to walk: it had been far too long for any teleport-worthy memory to still be accurate and even if he trusted his recollection that far, there just might be a recoil-inducing trunk parked on his arrival point. Given that and knowing he had at least one scheduled appointment fairly early in the day, he'd needed to start shortly after the Sun came up.

There had been a check of the castle guest rooms. It had made sense, as long as he was passing. Three sleeping including the young dragon, two missing. He'd run into a paper-hauling Coordinator, which had been no great pleasure and in fact was barely a tolerable experience at all -- but that had let him learn the missing castle pair had gone out to do the thing at the place with the stuff, which seemed to be an exact quote and made him wonder about the pegasus' authorial skills. Or it could have been an amateurish attempt at a coverup, he'd planned his own rather simple story as the standard one of just wanting some apples -- but in the light of the events he had learned about under Moon, it could be anything. And they had left too early for anypony to track them. Something to consider.

He had wondered whether he should have headed to the orchard immediately after hearing Quiet's pass-along tale -- but night travel into the wild zone turned the slight (to the young, thrilling) risk of a fringe voyage within daylight into something much more. There was a chance his hesitation had cost him the last bit of feel, but -- he knew something about how fast it faded, even with workings done by the most powerful. The odds had been overwhelming that even a night trip would have already been too late. And dead ponies had trouble searching, at least in ways where the findings could be relayed to the living. Even alicorn strength more than likely would have been gone by then -- so he'd waited. He was hoping it hadn't been a mistake.

And in fact, there was feel left at the site.

He walked around the area several times, checking every detail.

Here: cart tracks. It was easy to find where the earth pony had watched from. He nearly stepped in the final evidence.

The fallen trunk itself. It took a long time before he could look away from it, and still more before he stopped running internal calculations along the Celestia Meter (Adjusted), trying to work out just how strong she was. There had been no mention of a double corona, let alone any greater effort. To him, that said there was a good chance she had done it on a single -- and if so, it would put her at alicorn strength. A glorious failure indeed, and he longed to tell her so directly.

But...

...where was she standing?

She would have -- pulled the apple directly towards her, yes? A first grip wasn't going to involve standing off to the side and then making the fruit perform aerial acrobatics to reach her. No, it would have been the most direct possible route. In front of the apple and yank it towards herself on a straight line. Which would have meant the trunk in turn fracturing in such a way as to be pulled down on top of her. And she'd left the orchard intact, the drunk had been sure of that.

Could the earth pony have missed a teleport? Was it possible that she'd brought the tree down towards her and gone between to get out of the way? The witness had missed a mark -- but the bursts of light from entrance and short-range exit? It seemed unlikely.

Which left him considering the feel again.

Somepony had moved the trunk, all right. A powerful somepony. It was magic he'd recently had a very direct experience with. He'd been suspended within it -- and the sensitivity of his feel had only improved since The Great Work had begun. It had been enough for him to get a rough sense of her, and that impression was all over the wood.

The Princess had been here, all right. And had seen the need to act, if only by shifting the fallen trunk some distance.

Why would she have done that?

What were the Element-Bearers looking into?

How much did they know?

It was still not the time for paranoia. But worry... that was beginning to become due.

However, two of the Bearers were his. One was a good storyteller, but the other wasn't exactly a natural liar. He would talk to them. Their lack of words might say more than anything else.

"We have come so far..." he whispered to the wild zone. It deigned not to respond.

Quiet was willing to run if necessary, as was he. But he wanted to run with her.

He spoke again, this time with more volume. "Where are you?" Still no answer.

She needs food. The wild zone barely has edible grass, for a horribly low value of 'edible'. If she came here once to eat, she might do so again...

Something to consider.

And perhaps something to act on.