• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,490 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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Pentimento

He is sleeping.

He is hiding.

He knows every last passage of the castle: the public ones, the original group intended to be fully private, and a few which were installed somewhat more recently, which took more than a little bit of work, especially when it came to moving the furniture in front of what would ultimately become the access points. And after his parents... well, the doctor knows of more than a few entrances and exits. But he believes himself to be the only living pony who still knows them all. And after the trip into town, and what happened at the thaumaturgy shop...

His body is weak. It always has been, and always will be. And the thaumaturgy shop... there was a certain amount of unplanned exertion involved there. There might not have been any overt outward signs of such, physical or magical, but exertion there was, and so with the false search over for now and his primary guest seeming to have slipped out of sight again, with no ready way for him to follow -- he decided to take his cue from her. He exerted himself, and after such efforts, it's generally safest to rest. Yes, it wasn't a particularly major effort on his part, but still... for safety. He has lived with the limitations of his body since birth: finding out where the limits of his magic intersect with them is a discovery he would only force himself to make if there was truly no other choice.

And so he did as he had done for so many years: slipped into the passageways, trotted to a comfortable spot, laid down, and gone into the nightscape for whatever refreshment might come -- after casting the spell which would keep that voyage a private one. But... when it came to the category of workings which affected his own nightscape, the dream shielding spell was the only one he was able to learn. Unlike the doctor, he has no ability to deny the manifestation of a subject and must go through whatever chooses to appear, hoping that his mind will spare him, or that he can somehow wake up in time before the worst of it comes.

There is recovery in sleep. But with the way events have transpired, endless reminders of secrets... it has sent him back, locked the nightscape into a place he knows all too well, one he regularly returns to regardless of all desires to stop. He dreads such journeys -- and at the same time, welcomes them. Because the doctor calls him the most devoted, and there is a need to remember why that devotion must exist.

He must always remember.

But to relive...

...it's not much further. He only has to stay out of sight for a little while longer, and it's generally something he's good at -- but there are a number of extra factors working against him on this night, starting with the fact that he's awake under Moon. He's supposed to be in bed. The doctors have told him that he needs rest, needs more of it than most colts, and that's why he can't really play or gallop with the others or -- much of anything, really. He's mostly gotten used to it. A huge castle (or so it feels to a younger pony) offers endless diversion for those who care to look for it, and looking has become a considerable percentage of the fun, with taking full advantage of what's been found making up most of the rest. But lately, he's been promised a new source of entertainment, and from everything he was able to piece together through simple listening (he feels he's rather good at listening), that source is arriving tonight. It doesn't care that the Princess has raised the Moon, or that he's supposed to be asleep. It doesn't care what the hour is at all, and so at least for tonight, neither does he.

The castle under Moon (with the passages so wide, everything so much bigger than he is and seeming as if it always will be)... offers something he'd never really seen within it because he'd never ventured out at this hour: shadows. Every bit of furniture in a darkened hallway provides an echo in which to conceal himself. His coat helps there: true black generally stands out within the veiled wisps created by the arrival of night, but his own grey... that seems to blend, and he happily slips between nonmagical illusions, moving from the flat false casting of a dresser to the shield provided by a two-dimensional cabinet.

He is listening for sounds. Those created by prowling servants: as far as he's concerned, that is what he must truly be cautious of, for he is supposed to be asleep, and they care about his welfare, look after him when... well, they look after him, because they know there are times when he pushes himself too far, is still learning his limitations, and often receives the harshest lessons when he ignores his body's warnings. What they want him listening to is the doctors, and their own warnings, and -- his heartbeat. His breathing. They tell him he must always be careful of both. And yes, his breathing is a little fast (although he's trying to slow it: panting is too easily picked up on) and his heart is pounding a little against weak ribs, but that's just the excitement. Because he's never done this before. The castle under Moon is a place of renewed mystery, potential discovery (especially since he feels he's getting close to exhausting the possibilities of the day), and on this of all nights...

I'll always be there.

A pause, and a servant goes by, one of his favorites, and so he tries extra-hard to hold perfectly still, because he wants to spare the stallion the embarrassment of having to tell them about the catch. Going by quickly, actually, at something closer to a gallop than the dignified adult normally moves at, but it's just one of those nights: even the most reserved must be feeling it coming. That's his best assumption, especially since it's the way he's personally treating it and the servant was in too much of a hurry to activate any of the lights. The castle, at least for the portions everypony travels, can easily be negotiated on memory alone -- after a while -- and so many of the staff move through a narrow corridor between shadows, never paying any real attention to what might be concealed nearby. It's a lesson he learned early, and often practices under Sun, but seldom with this much success.

It's a lesson he'll have to teach.

Listening. Ears rotating...

...off to the left: adults. Odd sounds, some of which might be -- pain? No, that can't be it: he's just getting distortions from the stone. But definitely adults, and so he carefully heads in that direction, planting his hooves in ways which won't create echoes, trying to remember that the pounding of his heart is in his ears alone.

Moons of waiting. Moons. He's certain he's never waited for anything so long in all his life (which admittedly doesn't cover all that much time), and knows he's never looked forward to anything as much as this. And if it's happening at night for whatever reason -- then night is when he'll have to be awake for it, no matter what the doctors say. He's going to be there. Because so many of the servants are good and caring ponies, who truly watch out for his welfare and...

...admit he's there.

The servants told him. The other two... there are whole weeks where they don't seem to look at him. And his favorite servant, while telling, he had said that they were... trying again. And then he'd looked ashamed for having said that, so much that an approach and little rub against the adult's legs had been risked. It had triggered a blush, and a quick word on what was appropriate behavior to show when dealing with a young Lord's inferiors. But still... it had been allowed to happen, and it had made his entire moon.

Trying again. And...

...he doesn't play with other colts and fillies, not in the ways the rest of the youths play. And when he can't join in that way, and they're watching... they look embarrassed. Humiliated. And they think he doesn't notice, but he looks and he listens and he knows that they consider the weakness of his body to be -- failure. His failure.

There are weeks where they don't seem to look at him. Moons where they look through him.

But it's all right. It's a big castle, and so much bigger for those who are small. There are servants to speak with, and books to read, and games to invent within the passageways. And after tonight...

Admittedly, he's a little confused on some of the finer details. He asked servants about how the trying again was arranged and was told about cabbage leaves, magic mirrors, and pegasi dropping off bundles through the chimney, following up on basic mail order with a ridiculously extended shipping time. And after he got tired of being lied to, he did what he so often does: tried to work with the castle's more public library, but... certain shelves which he'd never been interested in before suddenly became very interesting, mostly because they'd suddenly been emptied. Truthfully, he still doesn't understand the process, although he's assuming the weight gain she's been showing is some part of it. But he heard the servants talking when she was rushed away after those sudden grunts at dinner, and... it's tonight. That's all he has to know. And he's going to be there, because they don't look at him so much of the time, or talk to him, or -- anything. Which makes his being there the most important thing ever, because... it'll mean somepony will be there from the start. And on the day he truly understood what was going to happen, he swore a silent promise on Princess mane and tail and hooves altogether, offered up to an attentive Sun. That he would always be there.

You don't break that kind of promise. Sun would remember.

Slowly moving forward, and there's more noise than ever now. He still can't make out words, but the tones are starting to come through, and there's... anger? Worry? Desperation? No, he must be hearing it wrong, because none of those emotions could possibly be associated with tonight. But it lets him identify the door...

He stops. Waits for his heart to slow again.

I'll always be there.

Forward. His small body nudges at the wood, carefully pushing against it, listening for the first signs of any creak. But as the opening widens, the words emerge, and the volume drowns out any sound he might be making. Some of them are words he doesn't understand yet, others are things he's never heard before, and --

-- there they are.

It's just them, which briefly seems odd: surely the servants would want to be there? But there aren't any, and now that he thinks about it, his favorite was going in another direction. But right now, it's just him and her and the midwife. (Not the doctor. He likes the doctor, who comes to see him every once in a while, who sees him. But he heard the two of them talking, and knows the doctor will be out of the settled zone for a time -- so it's the substitute midwife from the other settled zone instead. He's still trying to work out what a midwife is.) They're -- angry? How could they be angry? Why are they yelling at each other? Why does the midwife look...

...scared?

I'll always be there.

There's so little light in the room. Only one device was activated, and it's glowing overhead, but the angle isn't a good one. There's shadows everywhere, especially on their faces. She looks like something just hurt her very much and he might have just been kicked, they're yelling and the midwife is backing away, but he made a promise and...

...there. The little low-set basket. All he has to do is slip closer, nopony's paying any attention, and...

...he made it.

He rears back onto his hind legs, braces his forehooves on the edge, gazes down. Gently, as gently as he can, he stretches his right foreleg out until it makes the only contact he will ever have. And he smiles.

Then he looks closer.

And the wonder of it breaks through all his attempts at stealth. The curiosity.

The next words will be the greatest mistake of his life.

"Where is it?"

They freeze, but only for a moment, and then they turn. They see him.

He can feel them looking at him. It's okay. He's there, just like he promised. And as long as he's already spoken... "Does it come later?" Maybe there are pegasi involved and part of the shipment got delayed. "Or does it grow? Will it be here by tomorrow --"

"GET HIM OUT OF HERE!"

A nearly-colorless field envelopes his body, jerks him into the air, and he is pulled along behind the gallop, seeing only her angry face, pulled away from all sight of the basket, pulled in the wake and he tries to resist, he struggles as best he can, but his body is weak and his magic has yet to come, he has no way to fight and within minutes, he is nearly flung into his bedroom. And as he lies gasping on the mattress, he hears the sounds of furniture being pushed against the door.

He's awake for hours. His heart is pounding too hard to sleep. He doesn't know what happened. He doesn't understand what he did. He moves from shadow to shadow, tapping on walls, searching yet again for any passage out which might have somehow manifested in the time since all the other failures. But in time, his body betrays him, sleep comes, and when he wakes, the blockage is gone. And so he fearfully heads into the Sun-lit castle to find out just what he did wrong, and to -- be there.

The first pony he encounters is his favorite servant. He asks if everything is okay.

And then he is lied to.

Shocked, disbelieving, he seeks out and finds another. The same lie. Over and over, the same lie. Some of them look away from him when they say it, but they say it over and over. And when he finally runs out of servants, goes to them as the last reluctant resort, he merely learns where the lie came from.

In the days to come, he will watch certain pieces of furniture being removed from the castle, never to return. Nopony will talk to him about it, unless it's to reinforce the lie. The lie which they keep insisting is the truth, that he was never there (when he'd promised to be, when he'd kept the first part of that promise), that nothing ever happened, certainly not what he saw, what he knows he saw no matter what anypony tries to tell him. And the more he asks, the angrier they become. They don't want him talking about it. To anypony. Ever again. And they look at him, they seem to see him more than ever now, and the furniture was taken away and --

-- it's the way they look at him.

The way it often feels as if they're looking for him.

It makes his breath come too fast. It makes his heart pound, his ribs hurt, and

he has to hide

he has to hide

he has to hide


[/hr]

Twilight peeked out from behind the tree, checked the path ahead. Nodded back to Pinkie and Fluttershy, then carefully moved a few more body lengths towards the orchard.

There were many problems involved in sneaking around Trotter's Falls. Normally, two of the largest would have been permanently attached to Twilight's sides, but the path to the orchard was well away from the heart of the settled zone, and so there was no pony traffic to spot a Princess whom they could ask for advice, pictures, blessing... (She was trying not to wince every time she thought the word, and her success rate was... less than perfect.) But when moving away from the core of the town...

It had been a little over three years since Twilight had originally been sent to Ponyville (and nearly a moon since the change): enough time to learn. Admittedly, it had taken moons before she'd felt comfortable with regularly venturing forth from the library, and longer than that until she stopped making library rules exceptions for her own borrowing and put the last emergency atlas back on its shelf. But she knew her settled zone now, even better than she'd known her birth home. She was familiar with the smaller streets and a few of the back alleys, could lead a pursuer on a merry chase or follow Pinkie during one, at least until the baker found another one of those hiding places which nopony ever should have fit in and once again just about won the game by default. When away from the center of town, she could pick out any number of back paths to the Acres and cottage, along with knowing the safest routes for reaching Zecora's. And she could avoid any and all Crusade staging areas, mostly for the sake of sanity. For Ponyville, Twilight could just about sneak around like a native, at least when there weren't press constantly watching for anything moving within the purple part of the spectrum.

But with Trotter's Falls... she didn't want to be too close to the path. She didn't want to venture too far away from the path, because there were times, even in the fringe of a wild zone, that out of sight could turn into out of hope. Fluttershy could always go up and get them reoriented from the air, but all that potentially did was give somepony a chance to spot a decidedly non-native pegasus...

Twilight didn't know Trotter's Falls, and it made sneaking around hard. The current total lack of late afternoon local pony traffic moving along the orchard path arguably made it pointless, but all they needed was one native to come along at the wrong moment, especially when they were about to meet a pony who was so very easy to scare...

But their luck held, all the way into the orchard: nopony to spot them, question them, wonder what they were doing there at all, right up until they reached the broken, fallen, and recently-adjusted trunk --

-- and stood there.

Waiting.

"Twilight?

"What is it, Pinkie?"

"She said she'd meet us near the orchard. I remember that."

Of course you do. "Yes."

Thoughtfully, "A lot of things are near the orchard."

"I know, Pinkie."

With deep consideration, "When you think about it, the castle is sort of near the orchard..."

Twilight sighed. "I know. I should have gotten her to say something more specific before she left, but with everything that happened..." She began to trot a little. "She also said she'd signal us. And I don't know how that's supposed to work either! She could do anything, anything at all, any kind of magic, and if that gets out of control, she could wind up signalling the entire town." The trotting accelerated slightly, moved into a familiar (if subconscious) pattern. "All we can do is wait."

"...it's after five now," Fluttershy decided, glancing up at Sun. "...she's probably looking for us."

"So should we go searching for her?" Twilight asked as her companions went by on her left. Then they went by on her left again.

"...no... we should stay still, or we could just wind up moving around each other until Moon is raised. Twilight?"

"What?"

"...you're kind of... going in a circle."

"I know."

"...does it help?"

"I thought the dirt would wear into a groove faster than this --"

-- her right forehoof stubbed a rock.

There hadn't been much of an impact, and so instead of true pain, there was only a moment of being startled, accompanied by a little jump backwards and momentary flare of wings (which didn't actually do anything other than throw off her landing a little). "HEY!"

"Twilight? Are you okay?" The sudden speed of Fluttershy's words was matched by that of her approach, quickly swooping in to check on any fresh medical emergency. "Did you hurt something?"

"No -- I just hit a rock." Twilight automatically glanced down. A hoof-diameter (and double hoof-height), near-black specimen, although that last detail was just barely possible to make out through the coating of --

"-- that rock," Twilight softly said, "wasn't there a second ago."

They all stared at it.

"...are you sure?" Fluttershy asked.

"I would have hit it about sixteen times."

Pinkie took a slow breath. "That's fresh soil on it, Twilight. Deep soil. You only get that kind of color when you've gone down a ways... or when it comes up..."

And then Twilight couldn't stop staring.

The last of the three. Nowhere near close to the least.

Earth pony magic. I'm looking at it. She's somewhere around here and she brought the rock up to signal us. She's an earth pony right now, deep enough into that aspect to use their magic, and she moved this rock. Up from beneath the earth.

It wasn't a very big rock. Just about any unicorn in the world could have moved it. And with a starting point hidden under the ground, even with a basic rock-detection spell to tell them where it was, every last one of them would have hit differentiation at the moment they tried to bring it up to the surface, some pushing themselves to the point of passing out in their futile attempts. None would have succeeded. But she had just ignored the universal (or nearly so, discounting the Exception) inability, in what Twilight was presuming had been a completely casual effort...

"It's real," she whispered. "It really is..."

And Pinkie was smiling.

"Twilight? You look kind of... surprised."

"Pinkie, do you know how hard that would be for a unicorn to do? Star Swirl -- keep your eyes open! -- couldn't do that! Nopony I've ever heard of could! Not fetching from underground! And she just did it!"

The smile widened. "And you also look kind of impressed."

"One rock," Twilight breathed. "One impossible rock..."

"Oh," Pinkie lightly declared, "if you think that's impossible, then look to your left."

Twilight looked.

There was a perfectly straight line of recently-surfaced little rocks leading off in that direction. Into the denser part of the orchard, the thicker shadows, where a pony might be able to hide...

...but right then, Twilight was still staring at the rocks. At the complete dismissal of the most fundamental magical movement rule she knew. "Pinkie -- can every earth pony do that? Every earth pony in the whole world can just ignore differentiation whenever they like, without even trying, without thinking about it at all --"

"-- no," and Pinkie's voice was soft. "Not every earth pony."

Twilight glanced back, and found the blue eyes weighed down with something more than lecture avoidance.

"I'm -- I'm sorry, Pinkie. I didn't think about --"

"-- you just found out, Twilight. Last night. And even Applejack forgets sometimes, and she's known for years and years..." The words were still soft. "Sometimes I like it when Applejack forgets. It makes me feel a little better, because forgetting means thinking of me like -- everypony else. Come on -- she's telling us which way to go." Pinkie oriented her body, began to trot forward, following the line. "I want to make sure she's okay. I know she didn't hurt herself, because then she wouldn't be here at all, but last night was hard for her, Twilight. It was hard for everypony -- but everypony includes her." A brief glance back, gaze unexpectedly serious. "And you have to remember that, okay?"

Still more than a little stunned, and with so many reasons for that jostling for the first position on the checklist, "Remember what?"

"That she's a pony," Pinkie calmly answered. "That we're all ponies. And nopony has the right to leave her out of that. Let's go."

Slowly, Twilight and Fluttershy followed Pinkie, with the former taking frequent glances backwards. The rocks kept right on being there -- until the moment she looked back and they were not. Just a few tiny remaining disruptions to the local soil, and the ones towards the rear of the former line, near what hadn't quite become a workable groove, weren't even showing that much...

It's real.

What can Applejack really do?

What can she do?

And mostly in a deliberate attempt to get herself focused before a thousand questions about freshly-uncovered magic could completely take over, What does she even look like right now?


[/hr]

The answer to the last one came quickly.

She carefully stepped from behind the Eastern Red Giant's trunk, the limp shifting from leg to leg. And once again, the colors had shifted about: tan mane and tail, both short-cut. Blue eyes. And a deep purple coat, nearly shaded into black in the shadows of the canopy.

Twilight had seen all three aspects -- was that the best word? -- now, and so was finally able to compare them. Facial features remained very nearly the same across the transformations: the pegasus aspect was slightly more streamlined, while the unicorn appearance might have had a little more forehead projection: the little bit of layering on the skull which made up the base of the horn. Height was fully consistent, but mass changed: the pegasus aspect had been thinner, the earth pony was visibly the most muscular. On the whole, anypony with no knowledge of what was going on, if looking at pictures of the stages at their absolute peaks, would have likely concluded sisters first, closely followed by illusion or near-impossible makeup, especially as the latter concerned the wings. But knowing what Twilight did (and still wished she didn't)... part of her still desperately wished it was merely siblings.

But the voice hadn't changed. The pain was identical. The same pony.

"Thank -- thank you," she got out, and forced another step. "For -- coming. All three. Alone. Know you're... alone. This time. I..." She stumbled a little as her right foreleg spasmed, began to pitch forward --

-- and Fluttershy was there. Braced against her forelegs, holding her up.

"...easy," the animal caretaker said. "Don't move if you don't have to."

The earth pony closed her eyes. "Holding still... worse. Sometimes. Can we. Trot? Slowly. Not too. Far. Staying in..." A gasp. "Shadows..."

Twilight just managed a nod, one which meant forcing herself past her own imagination, which insisted on asking her how it would feel if such a simple movement required having to get past the agony of rearrangements within her own neck. "You set the pace."

The earth pony got in front of them, slowly shuffled forward, Fluttershy staying close. Twilight took a deep breath, then forced a glance at the mark. Approaching peak again, getting close to her maximum strength in this aspect. But the longer the talk went on... eventually, that peak would come, and then the pegasus aspect would begin to approach. It struck her as the most painful of the transformations: the one with the most changes involved, and dealing with that pain while trying to answer questions at the same time...

But they probably wouldn't be out in the orchard with her that long. Eventually, Sun would be lowered, and the danger of the fringe would increase. Quiet was expecting them back for their late dinner a little after that, and Twilight suspected she wouldn't want to be an extra guest.

They all trotted in silence for a time, Pinkie included. Nopony seemed to know quite where to start. She simply led the way, blue eyes often squeezed half-shut from pain, or wide in agony -- but whenever possible, in any moment for which focus could be found at all, she looked around. At the dappling of Sun through leaves, at the apples flourishing overhead. Shadows and light and colors: everything had her attention. A quiet fringe, one where the only current threat was the pony trotting within it -- but one which seemed to completely fascinate her.

There was a chattering sound from above them. She spun, hunting for the source.

"What? What was --"

"...it's a squirrel," Fluttershy quietly said. "In the tree. He's just saying hello."

"Oh..." She took a slow breath. "Squirrel... And that?" Her snout tilted towards a nearby tree trunk.

"...it's a leaf beetle."

She watched it crawl.

"It's -- pretty."

And back to trotting. Pinkie close on her left, Fluttershy keeping an equal lack of distance on the right, Twilight a little further out in that direction.

She was proud of her friends. Keeping company couldn't be easy, and they looked as if it was just so natural.

"How did you know we came alone?" Twilight asked. It was as good a place to start as any. "We couldn't see you until you stepped out, which meant you couldn't see us..." Unless there was some way to look out from the soil -- oh, stop it, how does that make any sense? Under one of the other hooves, however, given the way things had been going on Discord's mission, it might have made just about as much sense as anything else...

She glanced over to Twilight, and the pained expression was laced with confusion. "You... walked."

"I know we walked. But you're an earth pony -- right now." And was immediately embarrassed by the qualifier. "You couldn't have seen us from overhead, or cast a spell to detect --"

She stopped. A large left forehoof briefly came up -- then went into the soil, just hard enough to produce the faintest touch of vibration.

"You walked," she repeated. And that agonized snicker came back.

Twilight stared at her.

"I..." She swallowed. "...think we have to pick up from last night." It got her a nod. "You said this was about the others. That you were trying to help them."

After a bitten-back scream, "Yes..."

"Do you know how many ponies were trying to change?" A new thought pushed its way in. "If any did change?"

"Yes," the earth pony immediately said.

Twilight blinked. "Somepony transformed?"

"Yes." A pause. "You."

Twilight just held back the wince. Pinkie giggled. The earth pony glanced down, managed a small smile. "Have to. See the joke. Sometimes. But. Others... so many others..."

The fear began to grip Twilight's heart. "How many are trying right now?"

And the earth pony shook her head. "Others. Need. To change. Haven't. Some... some always try. Over centuries. Four... succeed. But. So many -- failures. Over and over. I was..."

The deepest breaths the earth pony could manage, four of them, and every one sounded as if it was breaking her ribs from the inside.

"...supposed to -- guide them. Create a path. Means. To change. They need..."

So if she's telling the truth, then she was trying to blaze a trail. But there could be other ponies waiting on her results, and there's so many reasons to try and change in the first place... So many questions, and every one led to the same word.

Softly, "Why?"

And it came out as one word. "Broken."

Pinkie immediately looked up at her. "If you say 'defective' again --"

"-- truth," she insisted. "Ponies... broken. Change... would cure. So. Tried to find. Way. But -- many paths. And... knew one worked. But impossible. Couldn't..."

Broken how? But there was a more pressing question in front of them. "You know a path which works? And you couldn't use it?" A slow nod. "What -- what is it?"

"Yours," the earth pony softly said. "Path of Elements."

She stumbled again: Pinkie caught her this time. After she stabilized, she took a slow breath. Her left front leg came up for a moment. The hoof touched an area just below her neck, pushed right. Went back down.

"Proof. Trotting. Not flying. Not yet. But -- proof. You. Your wings. Your life. Elements... work. But -- couldn't reach. Couldn't find. You -- found. And then -- attuned. Once bonded... life. Only way to separate... death. Of Bearers. And... wouldn't. Won't kill. Not to change..."

But you have killed, Twilight's reeling mind got out. At least twice. But those could have been self-defense, they had to ask at some point...

One checklist, with new questions arriving at every second, fighting to hold the lead entry. And any time Twilight thought there was a bruised and battered order to start working with, she said something else --

-- and while Twilight was still trying to sort through the latest pile of query bodies, Fluttershy took the lead. "...you searched for the Elements? Before we found them?"

It got a long pause. "-- there was search. Failed."

"So Twilight's path is the Elements," Pinkie carefully said. "Do you know any others?"

"Know failures. Many. Failure of Amulet. Failure of -- theft. Of switch. But successes -- not sure. Of one. Three -- the same. Know that. But one -- before you -- don't know. Nopony... Couldn't learn. Nopony knows. Just that. It -- happened. Eldest... sold lie. Lies ponies -- told themselves. That was -- born. Or discovered. Ponies believed. Nopony had. Seen her. Until -- alicorn. So ponies thought -- alicorn. Nothing else. And nothing written. Nopony talked. Don't know. What. She did. Might never..."

She stopped, breathing heavily after the longest speech Twilight had ever heard her make, closed her eyes for a few heartbeats.

"And nopony asks," she painfully concluded. "Ever."

"And --"

-- Twilight tried to say the rest. Tried to get the words out into the open, make them heard, make them real, because she had only thought them until now, and knew some of her friends had been thinking about them too. But to say them... the words stopped in her throat.

Because to say them was to give up the last of her faith. Forever.

The earth pony was staring at her. "And?"

The same faith some ponies are going to have in me.

She felt the first of the tears beginning to coat her eyes, and found only one reason for them. For with all her soul, Twilight wanted nothing more than a single wish. One which had never worked. To make things not have been.

Her throat hurt.

Her heart hurt.

"...and the -- sisters?"

And the words confirmed, verified, destroyed the last of Twilight's belief. "Your path."

Pinkie and Fluttershy stopped moving. Twilight stopped breathing. And the first tears fell from six eyes.

The earth pony stumbled forward for two extra hoofsteps, noticed the lack of company, glanced back. Blinked.

"-- you -- really -- not know?"

"The Elements?" Pinkie just barely managed. "The Princesses -- they -- they were... they were really normal ponies? Bearers?"

"Six," the earth pony softly replied. "Like you. There were six. Six Bearers. And -- a companion. Only -- two changed. The two. Who were. Broken. Other four..."

She began to trot again, and to Twilight, it seemed as if she was moving more than her legs ever would have allowed, as if the ground was breaking apart, islands of earth shattered from the power of the words, everything drifting away...

"Star Swirl," the earth pony said, both pain and words completely matter-of-fact. "Unicorn. Magic."

Pinkie's eyes automatically began to close -- then shot open. She stared at Twilight. "He -- Star Swirl? Twilight, you didn't know? Everything you've told us about him, all the legends, and you didn't know he wore the weird crown thingie?"

No, no, please, please stop talking

She was beginning to pass a new Eastern Red Giant, one with oddly low branches: it was just about possible for a pony to get fruit through an exceptional vertical leap and well-timed nip.

"Zephyra Hurricane. Pegasus. Honesty."

Fluttershy gasped. "Commander Hurricane -- was a real pony? She was a Bearer?"

you're breaking my world...

Twilight's legs pushed, hooves impacting the soil in a way the earth pony could probably feel, she had to get closer and she wasn't sure why, part of her wanted to hear the rest from close up, close enough to see the earth pony's face and look for any lies, but there was also a portion which never wanted to hear anything again, she closed in and --

-- it hit her.

It hit them, and she wouldn't realize that part until it was too late. But it was waiting, right under the lowest-hanging branch, the easiest to reach, waiting for a pony, and because she'd caught up, they triggered it together, she was too distracted to try and counter, too torn, it felt as if her soul was hanging in pieces and she couldn't focus enough to stop it and

home

I want to go home

I want my parents. I want to look up and see how much taller they are than me, how much stronger and greater. I want to stand in their shadows and be safe. Their coats absorb my tears, their fields stroke my fur, they whisper that everything's going to be all right and I know they're telling the truth because they're my parents and that makes them strong, strong enough to fix everything, because I'm little and they're big and they know everything and the first thing they know is how to fix things, how to make it all better.

I don't want to be here.

I don't want to be alone.

(but I'm not alone)

I don't want to be out here in the cold world where nopony loves me

(my friends are right there!)

I just want

(it's a spell, it's resonance, it was waiting for somepony to trigger it, it's projecting one emotion and it's so strong, I have to fight it, I have to counter, I)

I want to go home.

(Ponyville is home!)

( WHEREVER MY FRIENDS ARE IS HOME! )

and broke it.

Twilight just barely felt the shredded thaums fading out around her. She was focused on the ground, the air, trying to anchor herself to anything real, unable to fully shake the last feelings of homesickness from her heart --

-- and then she heard it. Hooves. Pounding the soil. Pinkie and Fluttershy calling out, desperate, trying to get Twilight's attention, simultaneously trying to reach her --

-- Twilight looked up, just in time to see the tan tail whip out of sight behind another giant tree trunk.

NO! And just like that, she was in full gallop, trying to give chase, trying to catch up, but an earth pony body came with earth pony strength, she couldn't get a clear line of sight for a field grab or a teleport which would have taken time anyway, and the mare she was after was moving so fast --

"-- it was a spell!" Twilight gasped, and lost a step through giving her breath to the words. "Please, you have to listen! It's thinking for you! Fight it, please, fight it or you'll --"

Fluttershy and Pinkie passed her, one in the air, one on the ground, but the earth pony was getting farther and farther away, Twilight wasn't fast enough, only one pony was fast enough and --

-- I am loyal, I --

-- she couldn't do it. Not on the gallop, not under this kind of pressure, with all hope vanishing into the wild zone. All she could do was run. And in the end, she couldn't run fast enough.

The earth pony was gone.

She slumped against one of the huge trees, panting, feeling the sweat run off her coat and into the bark. Stayed that way for a good two minutes before Pinkie and Fluttershy came back to find her.

"We couldn't catch her!" Pinkie unnecessarily gasped. "Her hoof speed... Twilight, what happened? You were yelling about a spell --"

"-- a bomb," Twilight panted out. "A resonance bomb."

"...a what?" Fluttershy landed, confusion radiating from her one visible eye. "You've never told us about --"

"-- I've never felt one! It's a war working! You have to hide the field so that casual feel won't pick it up, and that's hard to do! Then anypony passing through has to actively hunt for it, and I wasn't searching for anything! They -- project an emotion, Fluttershy, put it in your head so it's the only thing you can think about, and if you can't shake it, you act on it! The battle ones... they were supposed to project fear, panic, cowardice... but this one... it made me homesick. For my birth home. I got out of it by remembering all of you, but she..."

The signature: was there enough left to try and identify the caster? She hadn't gotten any sense of who had worked the spell when it had hit, but she'd been so overwhelmed, there had been a hidden field at work and that didn't always help things, plus they'd have to double back and hope they could find the right tree...

Somepony placed that spell. How long would it last without renewal? Were there any wars in this area, and casters strong enough to create something which wouldn't fade for centuries, waiting until somepony finally triggered it? Or did somepony plant it there recently, not as a prank, but to try and send somepony home. A parent looking for a runaway, or...

...somepony else.

She's going home.