• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,109 Views, 999 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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Sgraffito

To tell somepony they're thinking with their mark is not a compliment.

The mark is meant to guide. Over the centuries, many ponies have testified that their marks occasionally whisper to them, although 'whisper' is simply the most common term used for a communication which takes place without words. But there's been more than enough evidence to prove it happens: that when a pony's talent might be of direct use, the mark's magic might suggest a course of action, and such will lead the pony towards exactly what they need to do.

However, manifest brings new magic into somepony's life, and every newly-marked pony will spend time experimenting with fresh capabilities. For the first few weeks after the mark appears, this will almost inevitably turn out to be too much time. They relish in the boosted skills the mark brings them, experiment with the little magics, take pleasure from the results -- and with every action which leads to pleasure, there will be somepony who just keeps on doing it. They stop letting their mark guide them. They allow it to dictate. And for those who aren't caught by family and friends, who have the condition worsen...

Just about everypony goes through a touch of it in their early years, while the adults wearily shake their heads and wait for the time of flank-brain to pass. Many eventually find some level of balance between their life and talent. Others... don't. Falling into the mark is the most common psychological condition in Equestria, and too many ponies exist within the weaker stages of it. Smiths that seldom leave their forge, cooks who typically only venture out in search of new ingredients. And for those who truly become the fallen, who have nopony to pull them back -- things can get very bad indeed and a few, no longer willing to consider the consequences of their actions, will wreak havoc on the world.

Consider the case of Fortreeze Laudanum.

Fortreeze had what many would consider a rather simple talent: for research, of the kind which compiled written histories, advanced textbooks, and comprehensive text renditions concerning the actions of others. He desired to learn things, and then share the results of that fresh knowledge with the world. From the surviving accounts of those few who managed to make him briefly talk about himself, (for Fortreeze was not one for casual conversation and, when it came to anything outside his current research subject, was sometimes barely capable of speech at all), that simple talent had a remarkable degree of power behind it. When he focused his attention on a new topic, intuitions arose. Fortreeze would wander the world in order to do his research, and he always seemed to wind up in the proper place to learn whatever he wanted to know. A simple glance at a surviving scrap of paper might somehow suggest his next destination. The one and only pony he would accidentally bump into there would be the lone soul to possess a vital artifact. And so on down the random-seeming trails of his travels, until he knew -- and having written down what he now knew, he would choose another subject and begin all over again. Over the course of Equestria's recorded history, very few ponies have had a mark talent as strong as Fortreeze Laudanum's and thankfully for the survival of the realm, only a scant number have been equally as stupid.

One day, Fortreeze decided he wished to tackle a particularly challenging topic, and so his talent did its usual job. It led him down dark paths and the most shadowed of alleys, left him stumbling into what had been hidden workshops right up until the moment he'd tripped on the secret lever, and eventually had him talking to ponies whom most only spoke to once, with the end of that escalating into a final scream. But Fortreeze survived every encounter, for his talent was remarkably strong and the pony who had fallen to it was just as remarkably stupid. He told those he met what he was doing, at least once the gag had been removed so he could let out what would have otherwise been his final words. And, both appropriately bemused and curious to see the results of his work, the ones he encountered would -- let him go, often with a few words of advice on how to approach the next destination. Some even provided supplies and protective spells. More than a few followed from a distance for a while, for when one encounters idiocy on that level, it's hard to look away.

Because Fortreeze had decided it was time to research devices.

Not everyday household conveniences. Not even the fantastical wonders found in only a few private homes and collections, bringing their benefits to the scant few who can afford them or were lucky enough to inherit. No, Fortreeze wanted to learn about the forbidden. The things which had been banned, dismantled whenever they were found, rendered outright illegal for possession, much less construction. And why did he want to learn about that? Because it was something for which learning could be found, and nopony seemed to have ever compiled a comprehensive listing of such things before. To what was left of Fortreeze's mind, there seemed to be a regretful gap in the market, and so he set out to fill it.

He thought this was a good idea.

So he ventured forth and, thanks to his talent and those who simply couldn't believe their own luck in encountering such a majestic example of perfect idiocy, he compiled what was then the single most detailed volume of forbidden devices ever to exist. He learned their names, sketched their appearances, and even wrote down every single thing he'd been able to learn about the processes for enchanting them. (A few helpful footnotes were added on common mistakes to avoid.) And then he found a publisher -- or rather, a vanity press whose operator couldn't be bothered to truly read the pages which were being run off.

Fortreeze's Guide To Dangerous Devices had an initial print run of two hundred copies. As with his other publications, he attempted to distribute a number of those to libraries and universities, for surely that was where any collection of knowledge belonged -- but never got very far with that intent. Because as it turned out, all of those he'd met along the road, who'd been so helpful to him, wished repayment for their advice. Not much. Just -- a personal copy or two. Which they were willing to pay for, as keeping Fortreeze happy and alive for his next extended bout of stupidity was something they could all agree on. After all, a pony who was capable of providing them with a comprehensive list of such devices, not to mention some rather detailed guides on their potential creation, was probably a pony whom you wanted researching on your own behalf. So they paid for their copies, a number tipped handsomely, there was a gigantic earth-shaking fight over who got him next (which Fortreeze barely noticed), and then the survivors pressed their hooves against his and went on their way, happy at the chance to put their newfound knowledge to work. After all, it wasn't as if anypony had ever put everything they needed in a single volume before.

But they left him with a number of extra copies. He kept his first draft as a memento (and then ignored it). As for the rest... well, knowledge still needed to be spread. So he mailed a few of them out. One went to the Canterlot Archives, where it still exists in the most isolated section of the stacks: twelve different forms and three crucial field signatures must be gathered before a pony can even look at the cover. A few dozen were mailed to schools of all sorts, and the one originally gifted to the elementary facility wound up being the hardest to track and destroy, especially once that one prodigy got her field around it. And the last was sent directly to the Princess, who occasionally sorted out her own mail and so got to do some very interesting reading indeed, followed by sending out an equally fascinating number of rather desperate raiding parties.

Ultimately, once all the flames were put out and most of the classroom desks were rendered inanimate again, Fortreeze was recruited by the palace to be its head researcher, a position he held until the day he died at his desk -- because when you learn about somepony that stupid, you need to put them where you can keep an eye on them. While his last pre-government work was never actually banned, nearly all copies of the Guide were destroyed. Those of the palace and Archives were allowed to survive, for the book was truly the most comprehensive work ever seen and it was knowledge that somepony was eventually going to need, if only to find out how to stop the results. It's believed a few copies might still exist in private collections, but if so, the owners are staying quiet. Every so often, a surviving volume turns up pressed between somepony's hooves and as long as their field doesn't start trying to work with Chapter One and beyond, they'll probably be all right -- unless somepony with, shall we say, a more practical need for the information finds out who has it.

Twilight had been in the presence of a Guide twice, with both due to the rather reluctant permission of the Princess. Her total allotted reading time had been thirty-one minutes, and so she had done something she'd hated: skimmed. But a fair portion had been retained.

She knew what a snitcher was. What it looked like. What it did. And while it hadn't been any part of Fortreeze's original work, she also knew the price, for the footnotes regarding the prison sentence had been personally added by the Princess.

But the book had been all there was. The palace was supposed to have a collection of confiscated devices, and Twilight had once inquired about it. Once, for what she'd seen as an innocent question had brought out a reaction -- and the memory of that startled rearing-back had kept her from asking the Princess for anything over the next five moons. She'd never seen most of the things in the Guide, not outside of Fortreeze's sketches.

She'd never seen a real snitcher. She'd wanted to, for it was magical knowledge which could be acquired and at the time she'd first desired to learn, Twilight had been very close to completely falling into her own mark, potentially lost beyond anypony's ability to pull her back. She'd been thinking about making a second request, or maybe if she just happened to be wandering through the palace and felt a particularly interesting gathering of thaums in a given direction...

...and then the Summer Sun Celebration had arrived.

She'd reluctantly followed what she'd seen as orders, gone to Ponyville and in time, five ponies and one dragon had combined to pull her back. Oh, she was still curious: she always would be. But that curiosity had been tempered. She would seek knowledge because it was needed, not just for the sake of having it and -- figuring out how it could be applied. She'd never seen an actual snitcher. And after a while, she'd stopped wanting to. Seeing her friends was more important.

Fortreeze Laudanum fell into his mark and never emerged. Twilight Sparkle came out the other side.


[/hr]

Twilight was still staring at the snitcher, and nearly every last tenth-bit of her wanted to stop.

It was, in its way, beautiful. Fortreeze's sketches had been in simple black ink. He'd written down the necessary materials and what the colors of an ideal result should be, but none of that truly captured the shine of the gold. Even with Sun so blocked by the steadily-increasing clouds, there seemed to be enough left to make the device reflect dark dreams back to the beholder. Looked at by itself, it could almost be jewelry.

It had been made into jewelry. All the better to keep it worn.

"Twi?" Applejack was starting to pace somewhat, and none of it involved true movement. The farmer's hooves were basically going up and down before reimpacting their own prints: a localized, very nervous dance. "I think you've got to start talking here. How does it stop a mark? It tells the pony who put it on when a mark is supposed to come? This thing can tell what the future's gonna be?"

The head shake was automatic, and it made the memories of her skimming vibrate within her inner vision. "No. It -- sort of measures how close the magic is to the surface, and it tells whoever put it on the victim whether that magic is rising or falling. When you do things that bring you closer to your mark, the power starts to build a little. Do enough and it'll trigger manifest and the True Surge. But if somepony can feel how close you are, and that you're getting closer -- they can interrupt you. Redirect. Keep you confused. I don't know how the spells work, Applejack: mark magic is deep magic, some of the deepest there is. The Princess didn't let me study even a little of it for a long time, and..." She winced, and the expression kept the tears away. "...we all kind of know how my one try worked out. But I know how the ponies who abused it operated. You just feel how close the mark is -- and when you feel it rising, you can..."

Her stomach was starting to churn.

"That's horrible," Pinkie whispered. "That's one of the worst things I've ever heard in my whole life. How could... how could anypony do that to a child? It would --" and moisture began to coat the blue eyes. "It would... make you deaf, and mute, and then you wouldn't even be able to find your mark..."

Those blue eyes closed, and her head went down as the curly tail scraped against grass.

"...Pinkie?" Fluttershy was already moving towards her. "...are you okay?"

"I thought..." Head still low, not looking at the others. "I didn't have my magic, Fluttershy, any of it, and I thought... I wouldn't get my mark either. Because if one thing was wrong, then maybe everything was, and when the rainbow exploded across the sky..." She looked up, and wet eyes went to Rainbow. "Thank you."

"Um," the weather coordinator said, which was briefly about as articulate as she was capable of being. "Um. I just --" and in the wake of horror, a tiny miracle occurred. " -- set things off. It was my Rainboom, but I didn't pick what you saw in it, Pinkie: the way you reacted to it. It's your mark."

And even with the snitcher in the grass, the silence went on for as long as it dared. The world generally had to take a pause when Rainbow didn't seize credit for something.

"Thank you anyway," Pinkie smiled, and then went back to the main topic. "That empty setting -- it's just the right size for Rarity's stone."

Twilight had once wanted to see a snitcher. And now that she was looking at one, she mostly wanted to vomit all over the grass. But there wasn't time.

"Exactly the right size," Twilight breathed. "And --"

Rarity at dinner, her foreleg went up

"-- everypony, give me a little space. Let me think..."

They backed away. Twilight began to trot in a slow circle around the newest fragment of nightmare, keeping her gaze steady.

"She wore this," Twilight declared at the start of the fourth circuit. "Her foreleg -- when she'd stumble or when she sat down, stood again -- it would come up. She was touching herself where a necklace would have rested. Automatically adjusting its position, even though it wasn't there any more." The horror pressed down on her with each additional circle, drove her hooves deeper into the dirt. "And if she was doing that without thinking about it, on reflex..."

"She wore it for years," Rainbow's surprisingly soft voice said. "Until it was pretty much part of her."

Applejack forced a breath. "If somepony went an' put this on themselves -- it would tell them how close their own mark was?"

Twilight nodded. "But if she wore it for years -- how old was she when she first put it on? Reflex, Applejack. She would have had to make the decision to try so early..."

Fluttershy's voice was quiet. It generally was. But this time, the words were barely audible, and each went into the world on a current of grotesquerie.

"...unless somepony decided for her."

Twilight stopped circling. Everypony else stopped breathing.

"...we were talking about it," Fluttershy whispered. "That there could have been -- somepony else. We've been thinking -- that she wanted this. To change. And she had friends, or partners... ponies who could help her. But what if..."

The words so often seemed to take all of the caretaker's strength. And yet after each emerged, there was more strength to be had.

"...somepony talked her into this in the first place? To put it on, to try everything, to change, and... what if it wasn't her decision, Twilight? What if it was always... somepony else?"

"Then that pony," Pinkie harshly declared, every word intended as a rib-caving kick against an unknown target, "would be the worst pony in the world. You heard her, how she talked about herself! 'Defective.' 'Broken.' If somepony made her believe that --"

"-- easy," Twilight broke in, and Pinkie glanced at her. "It's -- something we have to think about, even if we don't... want to." She had to, and she didn't. "But right now, let's stay with this." Her tail flicked at the snitcher. "It tells her -- or somepony else -- how close she is to her mark. Why are they measuring that?"

Spike frowned with careful thought. "Because she was -- studying? She was learning all the magics. Maybe she was trying to learn how to be an alicorn, and so when her mark came, it would be a mark for -- just being an alicorn, and manifest would make her change?" A glance up at his sister. "Is that possible?"

"I don't know," Twilight slowly admitted, resuming her circling. And with a tiny smile, "Before the mission, I would have just said 'no.' I wouldn't have thought manifest could change somepony's body like that. But right now, Spike, I'm not sure. It could be possible. A mark for becoming a Princess, and the snitcher to tell her how close she was to achieving the goal at any moment -- but she had to have still been wearing it when she came outside, because she lost it in the wild zone. Maybe she just kept wearing it out of habit after her mark came, or -- maybe with how weird her magic is, the snitcher might still suppress it?" A wild theory at best -- and one they would have to check on. "She lost it in the ravine..."

Twilight stopped. Turned, looked at the pool.

"The river from the ravine," she said, "feeds into that."

Pinkie slowly nodded. "It cuts through the rock and comes out here..."

Back to pacing. "Okay," Twilight said, even though she felt anything but. "She loses it or throws it away. Maybe when she opened the ravine to save her life, she got the distance wrong and opened it under her own hooves. She couldn't fly or teleport, so she fell, and she must have hit the river. Or she could have taken the rock stairs down to see what had happened, but..." The convenience of that formation finally hit her. "Applejack, was that...?"

It got her a slow nod. "Yeah. Ah'd have to guess, Twi, and Ah -- I'm admitting I'm guessing here, because the echoes were still really loud. I couldn't work out exactly what anypony had asked for, and with the volume, I thought -- I hoped it was a lot of ponies asking at once, enough that all the signatures kind of blended together into one note. Which just felt off. But I've never been near earthworks that big. I didn't know what they sounded like. So I can't say for sure if she made the climb out possible -- but everything I think says yes. She went down, and maybe she fell. But she got out on hoof."

"She would have had to land in the river if she fell," Spike pointed out. "She might have earth pony strength, but a fall from that height, going into rock, would have left her more hurt than she already is -- or worse. But if she turned the fall into a dive -- maybe she would have splashed in okay."

"Which lets her lose the necklace," Twilight conjectured, trotting faster. "It's possible she just went down to drink --" and if that was why the ravine had been opened, to prevent death from thirst, it was a truly magnificent piece of overkill "-- but I can't really picture a head angle where the necklace just comes off because she tried to drink, even with her height. I think she did fall in. The shock jolts one shiftstone out of the necklace and it gets lodged at the bottom, probably stuck against a little rock projection or something. The rest gets carried underground until it winds up here. Twelve stones out of thirteen..." Thinking fast. "Pinkie, you said they're really rare. How hard are they to make?"

Pinkie blinked. "You can't."

Like the world's best-planned crash landing, the reactions came in exactly on top of each other. Twilight said "What do you mean, you can't?" at the exact moment Rainbow's wings flared out from shock.

"What do you mean, make?" Rainbow instantly demanded. "How is anypony supposed to make --"

"-- um," Pinkie said, and her skin flushed under her fur. "Oh. Right. This is... um... actually, it's -- really awkward. Really-really awkward. It's... a little weirder than I thought it would be, after so much time saying -- everything else." She took a deep breath, then rushed through the rest. "Rock farmers make gems. We can talk about it on the way to the castle. And I'm sorry about everything else I said. And didn't say. And lied about. A lot."

The next chorus was Spike and Rainbow. "Rock farmers make --" Fluttershy simply sat down, hard. Applejack smiled to herself, and that expression was not a small one.

"-- yeah," Pinkie blushed. "Please, everypony, just let me tell Twilight, and I Pinkie Promise I'll let everypony know the rest on the trip back." With a wince, "And then I have to tell Rarity, and she's going to have so many questions... Twilight, you can't make a deathstone. Lots of rock farmers tried. The most skilled ones over more than a thousand years tried to talk rocks into it. But... my grandma told me they were almost impossible to feel, even for rock farmers. And that you... shouldn't try to feel them for too long. That ponies who tried too much got sick. But making them -- nopony ever did, and I'm not sure anypony ever could."

It led to the next question. "Is there anything else they can't make?"

Pinkie visibly thought about it. "There's stuff you're not supposed to make because some families got the exclusive rights to them during the Slate Wedding Truce. Like painite. There's only one family allowed to do it, and it's so rare in the wild that... well, you just don't see it. Obsidian is supposed to be almost impossible, and my grandma said a dragon has to help. But stuff you can't make..." Curls shifted. "Pearls. That's it. Nopony can make a pearl. Only oysters can. Because they sort of grow the pearls inside themselves, so pearls are a little more..." The word search took a few seconds. "...alive? Normally alive. Not like the earth is alive, even though it is."

"Organic," Twilight provided. "Pearls are more -- organic. Sand gets into the oyster, irritates it, and the oyster sort of builds up the pearl around the grain, so the irritation will stop." She'd asked once after seeing a seldom-worn piece of her mother's jewelry for the first time.

Pinkie nodded. "Right! So just pearls and deathstones. Pearls only come from oysters, and deathstones -- it's what I told everypony with the first one. You're only supposed to find them where really bad things have happened."

"...so if you can't -- make them," a still-reeling Fluttershy slowly asked, "then what does?"

"I don't know," Pinkie admitted. "And nopony wanted to try doing things that bad just to see if one appeared -- well, they don't try any more. My grandma told me one story..." She shuddered. "It doesn't work." And left it at that, although not before images of the attempt besieged Twilight's imagination.

"Pinkie..." Twilight carefully said, "what kind of bad things?"

"Big ones," the baker helplessly said. "Lots of them. I'm sorry, Twilight, but... that's almost all my grandma said. I was a little bitty Pinkie, and it was just a story my grandma was telling me. I didn't think about asking. She told me that, and -- I should never go looking for them, because so many were in places where bad things were still happening."

Which left her turning to the only other possible source of information. "Applejack?"

It got her a head shake, and there was still no hat remaining perfectly motionless throughout the movement. "I can't feel it. Not my tool, Twi. And it's pretty much the same stories, at least for that. What are you thinking? That the stones do something?"

She slowly nodded. "Yeah. But I don't know what. Just that... she wouldn't have this many if they weren't supposed to be part of it. Whatever the process was, the shiftstones have to be involved. And cradling them in platinum -- or maybe that's just for the snitcher..." Devices weren't her specialty: that required a more specific mark than hers. But she remained a dedicated amateur. "I'm not sure that's possible, to rig it on the outside and expect it to do the job. But it could be for the stones. I just don't know what platinum would do there. I just know that whoever rigged it made it stable, even in that configuration. That takes some real skill."

"...what does it normally do?" Fluttershy carefully asked.

"It absorbs magic," Twilight replied, and the lecturing tones almost made their way in. "In tiny amounts, constantly. From everything. Unless you tell it not to, or make it so that it only absorbs from a few things, which leaves out the ponies wearing it. You usually use it to make self-charging devices, Fluttershy: it takes in thaums and then those thaums go towards running the device's spells. But most ponies can't work with it. It's incredibly hard to enchant because it'll keep trying to absorb the thaums from any spells you cast on it, and if it takes those workings apart... it gets ugly. Plus if it absorbs too much and doesn't have anywhere to channel it... nopony's ever found a really big platinum deposit. Just some craters with fragments around the edges. Unless you're really good at making devices, you stick with silver for channeling and get somepony to provide thaums when the power gets low. It's just safer. But if this hasn't blown up after being tossed around a river and falling into the pool, I don't think it's going to. Whatever it does, it's okay to be around it, as long as we're careful and -- nopony sees us with it. I just don't know what it was supposed to do. It could be keeping the snitcher charged, I guess. But to have it around the shiftstones..."

She completely stopped moving. There was no gradually slowing down, no careful transition. She was trotting, then she was not, and her body trembled from the shock.

"...cycles," Twilight slowly said. "They change. Completely. It's not just color, it's texture and density and everything else. It's becoming those gems, one after the other. Maybe if we watched long enough, the cycle would start to repeat. But they change, truly change, all the way through, while still being a shiftstone -- and she changes, over and over..."

Something had gone wrong in the attempt, and the fault might not have been with her.

"We need to research," Twilight told them. "Right now. I know Quiet has one of the books I need --"

-- there's a snitcher here.

Quiet has a copy of the Guide. The very first copy. There is a copy of the Guide in Trotter's Falls, and now we have a snitcher. That copy is in Quiet's possession. And the snitcher is here.

Her body was no longer moving in a circle. Only her thoughts.

"Twilight?" Pinkie was usually the first to spot emotional turmoil. "What's wrong?"

"I --"

-- not Quiet.

Please, Sun and Moon, please not Quiet --

-- no. It wasn't him. He didn't make this. Maybe I was stuck with skimming, but I think I know roughly how strong somepony has to be before they can make this. He's not that strong.

I think.

...okay, all he's really done is move a few papers and books, plus normal dinner table stuff. But he probably isn't that --

-- actually, how old is this snitcher? They're supposed to hold up really well, and she might have kept it clean. It could be centuries old. Maybe she just found it, or...

...but he has a Guide...

"Twilight? You're just -- standing there..."

She had to say something. And as Rarity had so recently reminded her, they all needed to talk to each other. She had to say what was in her head.

"Quiet's a book collector," she told them. "He specializes in unicorn history, and -- the history of devices sort of qualifies. He has a book which -- hardly anypony has. There's things about snitchers in it, and... if somepony was really good at magic and research, read that book and followed everything it suggested carefully... maybe they could make one. Except that --" and the smile was just as strong as it was sudden "-- Quiet didn't make it. He couldn't have. You'd need a mark for devices just to have a good chance at pulling it off. And his mark is --"

Is -- what?

Well, whatever it was, it wasn't for that. Twilight knew what every device mark looked like, even when they showed up on the most unusual of ponies, which included Ponyville's lone mechanic. "-- for something else. And that book could have been on his shelves for a really long time, plus it's not the only copy. So somepony could have gotten into the Archives, or had one of their own --"

"-- or somepony," Applejack broke in, "could have read his and worked with that. Somepony local. But even if she read the book, she couldn't have made it herself, because that's not her mark."

"Maybe she just found one?" Rainbow proposed. "She went on a quest for it because she knew she needed it, and managed to come up with one? And she got the deathstones along the way. Or... well, even Daring Do goes out with ponies sometimes, especially when she needs experts, for those adventures when she somehow isn't it..."

The pegasus frowned, and it was an odd specimen to see on the cyan features, for it was the frown of deep thought.

"Rainbow?" Twilight had to know. "What are you thinking about?"

"My hat," Rainbow slowly replied. "They took my manuscript. Not my hat."

There seemed to be only one thing she could say to that. "Huh?"

"I paid a lot for that hat," Rainbow said. "And it should have been right next to the manuscript, because I know where I left that --" a brief glare at the others "-- no matter what anypony says. If somepony was going to steal something they could sell for money, they would have taken the hat. Anypony could have found a collector in minutes. If they wanted to sell my manuscript, they would have had to sort of... clean it up first, and I kinda know that doesn't go so fast. Maybe it could be a bestseller eventually, but -- why not take my hat?"

The urge to facehoof was oddly welcome and mostly resisted. "Rainbow."

"What?"

"It's an interesting thought." That wasn't quite a lie: the hat did have value and now that Twilight thought about it, the most valuable thing to have stolen would have been the Royal Vouchers, snatched from saddlebags while the castle's guests slept: any merchant would have gladly accepted one for the most expensive item they carried (which, for Trotter's Falls, was really saying something) and by the time the palace refused to authorize for the expenditure, the thief would have been long gone. "But I think we have to focus on this right now." A nod to the snitcher. "Let's head back. I need all the research time I can get, and I don't even know where to start with shiftstones -- I guess they'd still be deathstones in any books. But for the snitcher, I have to use Quiet's library. I've seen the town's library, and -- I don't even have most of his books..."

"An' he does," Applejack carefully said. "Twilight -- I hate to say this, I really do, because he's been nothing but a gentlepony to all of us, but... he's got a book you need. A book where it sounds like anypony making one of those things might need it. And maybe he can't do it himself, maybe somepony just got into his study or something, but..."

"...it's not him."

Green eyes locked onto hers. Steadily, "And you know that's true."

It's not him.

It can't be him.

"He doesn't have the mark. There are some things you need a mark for, Applejack: it's why I still can't cast luck spells. They're so closely tied to the associated mark that if you don't have it, they're practically impossible, and that mark is barely once a generation to start with --"

"-- he don't need the mark," Applejack interjected. "He just needs to show the book to somepony who's got it and takes the bits to make it for him."

"It's not the only copy!" Twilight shot back. "The Archives have one! Spike, when we get back, write the Archives: ask them for a list of everypony who's been -- no, wait, I don't know if anypony there can figure out how to send it back, we'd need emergency express return mail and even that's going to take --"

"-- Twilight."

She stopped.

Carefully, so very carefully. "I ain't sayin' it's him. I'm just saying -- we've been talking about somepony else being involved. And he's got that book. That doesn't mean he's it, any more than us being around this snitcher means we should be in jail for it. Sometimes, stuff's just in the wrong place, and there's a pony there at the wrong time. Somepony could have found an old one. Made a new one without him. I know what coincidence is. But -- we've gotta think about it. So please, Twi -- be careful. And... think about it."

Spike was wringing his claws. Twilight almost envied him. It would have been nice to have something she could wring.

"I will, Applejack," she eventually said. "But I'm not going to accuse him. Not without more proof than this." The farmer nodded. "Let's go back."

They secured the snitcher between several of Rainbow's wet towels, placed the bundle into one of Fluttershy's saddlebags, began the trip. It took only two hoofsteps for Pinkie to decide the group both needed a welcome distraction and it was time to keep her Pinkie Promise, and so an impromptu lecture about rock farming filled the air. Rainbow, who had spent the years accumulating the majority of the wrong guesses, fumed through most of it.

Twilight didn't really listen. Most of it seemed to be what Applejack had already told her. Spike was fascinated by the dragon-relevant parts, but -- it wasn't enough. Not to get his mind completely away from the other thoughts, and Twilight suspected some of those were the same ones she was struggling with.

If you had a snitcher, you could try to stall your own mark. But why would anypony do that? She'd feel it was coming, decide she wasn't ready to change yet no matter what her mark said, and back away? How many times could somepony actually manage it? Or she was just trying to see if she was on the right track, and as the magic started to rise...

A mark -- for being an alicorn. Could that be done? What kind of mind thinks of that?

...no. Whose mind thinks of that.

After the public failed flight attempt, when they'd been on their way to the orchard... she'd felt like she wasn't telling herself something. As if there was a concept she wasn't ready to deal with, a thought she'd hid from herself. And now she was starting to wonder if there were several of those thoughts, because she still had that feeling -- even when she now knew what one of them had been.

Somepony else. We've all been thinking about that for a while. Somepony else involved. Somepony she recruited. Family. Friends. Companions. Those who -- wanted to see if she could do it, so that others could follow her road. But we kept thinking it was her idea. She wanted to change, she found what she thought was a way to do it, and... everything came from that.

She said... that what it happened the first time, to the sisters -- the ones who changed were the ones who were broken. Did she think of herself as broken when it all began? Did she have to in order to begin at all?

Or did somepony tell her...

A pony who deliberately made somepony believe they were broken -- would be a monster.

Her hoofsteps stumbled. The others, listening to Pinkie's rock farming tales, didn't notice.

Somepony who used her.

Somepony who didn't care about her.

Somepony else.

...please...

...not Quiet...


[/hr]

It was the first question which had to be asked. It wasn't the kindest of queries. It wasn't something which would comfort his first friend. But he knew it was expected of him, and so he asked it. Doing whatever he could to fix the hurt would have to wait, and that was understood by the one he needed to ask. "Do we need to run?"

"Not... immediately," Doctor Gentle said. "The Bearers know about her. But I spoke to her, Quiet. It took... some time. She has trouble with... we will come to that." His voice was controlled, and Quiet wondered what it was costing him. "They know about her, and only what she told them -- which was not much at all. They do not know about us. She protected us, from the first to the last." His lips twitched, and it almost seemed as if he might have been about to smile -- but no such expression appeared. "She is loyal. Even in talking to others -- well, one could make the argument that her approaching the Princess was my fault. Imprecision of language, Quiet. She was to speak with nopony who did not know of the Great Work, and fortune provided her with somepony who had completed it. To that extent, we are fortunate she did not appear within viewing range of Canterlot. She told them... we will go over that in short order. But for now -- I see your own pain, Quiet. I see that you wish to bring me some degree of assuagement, with no thought as to your own loss of hope. Please -- do not give up. We failed. But in that failure, there is something we can learn. We accomplished -- something." Speaking a little faster now, with more determination going into the words. "Something never before seen. There may be a way of correcting the error. There was a way to do this, and it had never happened before, so why not a way of fixing it? We will investigate. We will do the needful, until it truly works. She did not transform into an alicorn, Quiet, or simply a unicorn. She simply transforms, and simply achieving that... we have wrought a wonder. We simply need to figure out how to -- adjust it."

Quiet forced a breath, felt his ribs fighting him. "Do you know what went wrong?"

"I have... suspicions," Doctor Gentle eventually said. "The attempt was -- not fully as I would have desired it. The mark was coming, Quiet, it was coming with a force I had never seen since the moment I placed the necklace upon her. She had so much enthusiasm, she could not be dissuaded, and with the mark coming -- I used the moment. It was the only moment I had. And with what she was trying to show me when it happened -- it could be argued that there were... errors. But she changed. We did something right. Once we track the mistake..." The trailoff was a thoughtful one. "We will track it. No matter what must be done. We do the needful."

"You said -- she transforms." The older stallion nodded. "Present tense." Again. "She can change her race? Is it temporary? Only so much time per change? Just shapeshifting on that level -- and to change her magic --"

The left forehoof came up.

"I will tell you," Doctor Gentle said. "Now. You need to understand her condition, and an additional perspective will be of use. I found her, Quiet, in her place, and she was --"

The older stallion told the younger. It took some time, along with more than a few pauses to wipe away tears. And when it was over, Quiet silently took a place on a neighboring couch and stared at the books which covered the walls.

It had never happened before. They had, in their failure, wrought the new. But the nature of that creation...

"I gave her what painkillers I had," Doctor Gentle quietly stated. "Unfortunately, most of those were of a casual pharmaceutical nature. When I leave the castle, I will be making several stops in the name of arranging something stronger. The drugs I use for birthing mares are on the way, and some will be here by tomorrow. But we need yet stronger than that, Quiet. She needs to be -- presentable."

It made him look away from the books.

"You're going to present her." The words felt oddly neutral. Flavorless. Very much like a... statement. "At the meeting."

Doctor Gentle nodded. "It will have to be carefully timed, but I spoke to her and gained what knowledge she had collected. I was also present long enough to witness some portion of her cycle. The timing will be exact, and my words shall be precise. I was planning part of the speech while I waited for you. They will see and hear what they need to -- and it will be enough. Because she also told me of theory, Quiet, and when they see..." A long pause. "They will see. You will see. Yes, she will be presented, in all her glory..."

Which was when he finally smiled.

"I would not be surprised," Doctor Gentle said, "if she was looking forward to it. And that is just for seeing you again. Do you know, other than myself and the Bearers, you will be the first pony she ever sees twice?" With a twinkle, "Let us hope she remembers you."

Glory.

Quiet thought about everything the older stallion had told him. About the pain. The constant, unrelenting twisting. Then he thought about the reason the doctor called him the most devoted, and his gaze returned to his first friend's eyes.

"Did the drugs help?"

"Somewhat. But her mind is still confused, and some of that is the pain. She confessed that she has had some problems interpreting new feel: something I had expected, but not in this manner. But with the pain -- she told me what occurred after the teleport, Quiet, and the pain has twisted her memories. She spoke of doing something... well, clearly she was a unicorn when it happened. One who did something which took far more strength than merely breaking an Eastern Red Giant. Once we find a way to relieve her mind of the burden, the truth will emerge. Also, I -- asked her the question."

A long pause, all of which Doctor Gentle spent with his eyes closed, looking at inner visions.

"She -- said no," he reluctantly finished. "But in the confusion of the transformation, and with the pain she currently experiences -- it may not be possible to sense through those barriers. Once she has adjusted, I am certain the answer will change."

Quiet nodded. It seemed to be all he could do.

"Prepare whatever you require for departure," Doctor Gentle said. "I will do the same. But for now -- they know of her, and they may wonder why she has not returned. The Princess -- given her position, she was targeted by my working, but she was unable to read my signature from it: she would have confronted me by now. We would have seen signs, Quiet. We are safe for now -- but they are investigating. We must be ready to leave at any time. I hope that we can reach the meeting, and that we have come so far suggests that we likely will -- but I cannot guarantee it."

Quiet nodded again, forced his body off the reading couch. "Is there anything else you need me to do?"

"Not that I can think of at the moment," the older stallion replied. "Your primary duty remains the same: manage the Bearers. See if they have suspicions, divert whenever possible and alert me if you can. But for now -- I need to leave. Once I had her settled as best I could, my next duty was to tell you. And the one after that -- is to arrange for our future. To see if it is possible to keep from running."

Quiet looked at him, waiting. He knew the doctor well, and so knew when the subtle changes in tone represented an idea about to emerge.

"The Bearers," Doctor Gentle said, "require time to communicate with Canterlot. Given our distance from the capital, a considerable amount of it. They may have made no effort as yet to inform the palace of what they have seen, and any letter sent would still be in transit. To that degree, when it comes to the prospect of Solar and Lunar paying us a personal visit, we have time. Your job is to continue your current management of the Bearers, especially Princess Twilight. Mine is to try and arrange for them to be managed in the future."

He stood up. The injured leg gave him some trouble.

"I can see two paths which leave you within your estate and myself awaiting construction of a new one," Doctor Gentle told Quiet. "We will discuss them both in detail when I return, although I believe I can provide the basics as we make our way back to the public portion of your castle. But for now, there is a time issue, at least when it comes to the hours of availability -- and so I will go to Coordinator now."

They began to trot together.

"Coordinator," Quiet repeated.

"He is necessary," Doctor Gentle stated. "With what has happened, with what he has already done -- he remains necessary. Let us see if he has found a means by which he might begin to work his art."

There were probably words which could have been said in response to that. Quiet couldn't seem to find any of them.

"As for the second path... it is a desperate road to travel," the older stallion admitted. "But -- we will see..."

More trotting, heading out of the true library.

"When I saw her, Quiet," Doctor Gentle suddenly said, "as a unicorn... there was a moment when I rejoiced. But even after, when I saw the true results transpiring before my eyes... I thought about the Bearers. The first Bearers and what it must have been like for them, when they first beheld what had happened to their companions. When they bore witness to a miracle."

Quiet's field pushed on the wall, here and there. The passage opened.

"She is not the miracle we sought," Doctor Gentle told him. "But in her own way, a miracle is exactly what we have found. And I looked upon that miracle, and marveled at what we have wrought..."

They stepped through, began to make their way up the incline.

"Very well," Doctor Gentle finally continued. "I have the course. To Coordinator, and then for the drugs, and finally to Chief Copper before returning. Should something happen while I am making those rounds, send a servant to alert me if you can."

"Chief Copper?" It was something to say.

Doctor Gentle nodded.

"There are many ways," he said, "in which we might have to begin anew, ways we have known about since the first step upon the road. One of them is before us now."

He was having some trouble with the slope. Quiet nudged his flank, helped him along.

"Which?"

"We may need to begin anew," he repeated. "And even if that does not come to pass, we always knew that in time, another would be required..."

Quiet listened. Waited. It didn't take long.

Doctor Gentle smiled.

"The time has come," he stated, "to arrange for her successor."