• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,096 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?

  • ...
38
 999
 11,096

Primer

He can only deny himself the manifestation of a single subject.

In many ways, the working is a basic one, and so it does a single basic thing. The caster chooses something they do not wish to dream of, and the spell prevents that concept from reaching the nightscape. But -- he can choose one event. A single idea. One... memory.

He will have to speak of that, very soon, for it is part of the presentation. To, at least through speech, do something very close to reliving that night, when doing so becomes absolutely necessary. But he will not dream of it. He will not allow himself to truly return there and watch it all take place a second time. And if he were to become aware that it was but a dream, and nothing he could do would ever truly change anything...

The other nightly spell shields his dreams from intrusion. Admittedly, it has never been truly tested, and the one individual most likely to try and break through it would probably overwhelm that defense in a heartbeat. But the Princess of the Night knows nothing of his dreams, just as Luna remains unaware of hers. And yet he has wondered that if the first working should somehow fail, should he come to that moment again... if that would be enough to make the walls break from the inside.

He denies the subject from his nightscape, as he does every evening upon retiring to bed. But he has much on his mind, and he can block only one thing.

The dinner: he'd missed most of it. His most devoted had provided the excuse, and so nopony had asked too much of him when he'd finally come in during dessert. Even then, he hadn't had much time to offer, for she still needed him. The experiments were hasty, yes, and that concerned him. But there were only so many hours they could use before the meeting, too few, and yet -- they were seeing results. Her memory remained hazy, distorted, insisting on something which could not have happened, and as for the question -- well, there would be a time when he will ask that again. Perhaps when the dosage was just right, when she was as focused as she could be in her current state. She would look deep inside herself, and she would know.

She would find...

He knows what the true answer will be. What it has to be, for it is what has made everything possible. She will say yes: she must. And once that answer comes, the rest will follow.

So little time before it all comes together. Before they know whether control can be seized, or whether they must run. But in those dwindling hours, there remained time to collect information. So he had asked the Princess if he could spend a few more minutes with her. Continue their conversation, although hardly for the same duration. He knows that she did not speak of him to the Princess, and so that newest of alicorns suspects nothing of his part in the Great Work. But the Princess is some level of authority on magic and Magic alike, is always eager to speak of it, and perhaps the right question might bring him to her own ascension. To hear what had happened during a transformation triggered by the Elements, rather than reading what remained of Star Swirl's notes. It might give him insight into her condition. It could help, and do so before -- the other measure. The last hoofstep they could possibly take should Coordinator fail, and he has nowhere near as much confidence in the bureaucrat as that one has in himself.

But the Princess had turned him down.

Tired, she said. She was sorry, but -- she needed to rest up for the party. And she'd left.

Possible? Certainly. And he had no reason to believe the denial had come from any level of suspicion. But on her way out of the dining room (and she had been the first out), she had briefly glanced back at him, and her features had been... what had that expression been? Relief, that she would not be speaking with him again? Concern that he might have been about to follow? He is not sure. There was just something there, for the briefest of moments before she'd turned back.

He had not reacted, of course. At least no more so than he had when the unicorn had come out wearing one of her chaos pearls. And still... his eldest had briefly gazed at him, and the gaze from that one visible eye had been weighted with concern.

(Not the worst of options there. He knew what that gaze could do under other circumstances, and was the only pony in the world who understood the why.)

He'd spent a few seconds with his eldest, made that concerned look go away. Others were given to his most determined. But then it had been just him and Quiet -- and that had brought them to the bad news.

The earth pony had mailed a package.

Eastern Red Giant seeds: that was the claim, and Quiet had seen the bulge of apples within saddlebags during the children's game. It would be easy to check with the post office in the morning and confirm that the box had been airmailed to a Ponyville address. But even that could be a front, the written destination which told others to reroute things towards Canterlot. The apples were the excuse, the true intent was deeper within the parcel, and the Solar Princess might be informed within -- days? Hours? Even without a special express rate openly paid for, any agents placed into the postal system by the palace might speed things along...

Or perhaps it was merely seeds.

They had to be ready to run. Some of his scant time had been used in making preparations for that. He can only teleport himself, and... he cannot leave her. Not for long. That had been a problem from the start, especially during the very first days. Always going back until she had reached the point where she could take care of herself for a time, dropping in whenever he could after that, and now -- he cannot leave her. He will not.

Do they have enough time left for the meeting to even take place? Does he need the second measure before the first, as that might be their best chance to remove all chance of any Princess interference? Or would the forces of Solar and Lunar combined descend upon the castle while everypony was gathered there? Would everything be destroyed before he had the chance to explain himself, make them understand why the needful had been done?

And then back to her again. He always goes back, for she is all that is left.

He has much on his mind, and can deny only a single subject from appearing within his nightscape. The same subject, again and again. And so he slips into sleep, drops into the past and finds himself at a different day, reliving it once again with no knowledge that it is but a dream. He is there and then has become now.

The day (too-long night) of the Return: ask just about anypony and they will tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing at the moment they realized Sun was not being raised. Such things have a way of sticking in a pony's memory. For his part, he had just about missed the whole thing: there had been a birth in progress, one of those labors which stretch across multiple hours no matter what he or the mother could do (a colt, very healthy, exceptionally bright eyes) and so he'd spent the majority of the time used for the rediscovery of the Elements and salvation of a Princess in his delivery room. His first thought upon finally reaching a window again was that he'd completely lost track of time and the entire thing had taken them all the way past Sun-lowering. He'd ultimately caught up on current events just in time for them to become history, and remained more than a little embarrassed about it.

But there had been another day, a little over a year later. One during which the entire world did not know what was happening, for the signs hadn't had the time to fully spread and only a few would have recognized what they truly meant.

And on that day, he'd been in Canterlot.


[/hr]

"And thank you," the mare says. (He remembers the name of her filly: Frost Gate. Mothers tend to blend together, even the nobles who insisted on his services and paid for personal attendance at the birth.) "For my daughter." The smile follows that, and it is a weary one: the labor had not been easy, and the drugs which had kept most of the pain away were wearing off. "And for coming, and -- waiting."

She'd been two days late, and he hadn't been able to take even a short trip back because to leave would have been to cue the exact moment when the first contraction would begin. (Even for those trips when he could check in on her, it was something he had to be careful about: multiple short-range jumps, even to safe spaces with no recoil at the end, still required energy to enact, and it was possible to exhaust himself through too-frequent journeys.) "It's hardly under your control," he smiles, briefly glancing at her. "Under mine either, for that matter. And you did most of the work." His field gently moves the cleaning cloth around the newborn's horn, giving it that first polish so that the gleam of Sun coming through the window would reflect from Equestria's newest citizen. "I know it was a long labor, but ultimately, you brought her to Sun." He hadn't needed to use the chaos pearl, and the charged mass was doing nothing more than shifting unseen within his birthing garment.

"Even so," the mare replies in her vague, hazy voice, "I'm glad you were here. After what my own mother went through --"

He almost doesn't notice the pause at first: Frost has priority. But the silence stretches out, the cloth moves, the last bits of cap residue are removed from the newborn's horn, and the pink glint of sunlight shifts over a pale blue cone of something not quite bone --

-- he blinks.

Pink?

He looks up, turns his gaze towards the window. The same direction the mother is facing, and so they both find blue banished from the world.

Sun might have been behind one of the pink clouds: it's currently impossible to find it in the darkening sky, which is slowly deepening into something approaching purple. Or it too could have been banished from reality, with the light being produced by something else entirely. Controlled.

And he knows.

"That's odd," the mother says, tones fogged by the last of the drugs. "Do you think the pegasi are doing something?"

Which was when he hears (barely hears, with his own thoughts roaring in his ears) the sounds of confusion beginning to arise from the ponies on the street outside.

He starts to turn towards her again. Stops. Goes back to the window. His field wavers, and the cloth dips, sways, nearly drops out.

He cannot focus. There are thoughts which should be coming. Directions to be followed, steps which can be taken, and he can think of none of them, not for more than the briefest fraction of a moment before the thoughts themselves break apart, shredded by the whirlwind rising inside him. Only two words remain, and that is because they form the bulk of the storm. They batter him from within, send jolts into spine and muscles, direct him to run.

"Take..." It is the first utterance to emerge. He doesn't know how long it took. In many ways, the time doesn't matter. Within moments, nothing may matter at all. "...take her." His field exerts, surrounds the newborn --

-- no. He can see the wavering of the borders, something very close to sparks threatening to spray from the edges. He will not trust Frost's safety to his fear, and so he gently carries her by the nape of her neck, teeth gripping in such a way as to only lift and never hurt. He wasn't even aware he knew how to do that, but... there are many things which can be aspects of a mark.

The filly is deposited next to her mother.

"Doctor?" the confused mare says. She doesn't understand. She doesn't know, and he wishes he possessed the blessing of that ignorance.

"You should be with her," he tells the mother. "For as long as you can."

And then he leaves the hospital room, hooves skidding across a hallway which is designed to let ponies move through it in a hurry -- no, it's not the floor, his legs are slipping, but he has to get away from mother and child, he has to get away from everypony because when it happens, when He comes...

There are ponies staring at him as he rushes by. They don't know. There are perhaps three ponies in the world who fully understand what is taking place, and he has no way of knowing what's happened to the other two. They might be fighting this, even now. But

it takes six, they need six and they're not two of those six any more, Pinkie, Fluttershy, He's going to go after them, He has to, it'll be one of the first things He does and then He'll

Does he go to them? Can he warn them? Has the palace already summoned them, the only hope brought to bear? Or would he doom them by going there first, because He may practice guilt by association. It might be funnier that way.

He can't be sure where they are. In Ponyville? Canterlot? In transit? Already dead?

He is running. But it is not because there is somewhere he can gallop to. There is nowhere he can hide from Him. He is running because he should not be near any other ponies when it finally happens.

Not even her.

It hurts him. To think of her, waiting for him to return, spending lonely days within her place before finally venturing down the passage. If she has days: if not guilt by association, then guilt by his own intent and Great Work, especially should He wring forth a location amidst the screams. He wants to spend the last moments with her, to begin the process of teleporting home, but if He comes and finds them together...

He wants to go home. He cannot. He can only run, try to think of a place he can go where no others will be there to suffer his pains. Try to think at all. But it is as if his brain is wrestling with itself, thoughts spinning away in every direction, and the only words which stay with him come from the truth he cannot deny.

It couldn't happen. It was never supposed to happen. It has happened.

The same two words pound within his soul, over and over.

He's free.

And soon, He will happen.

So he runs, and fragments of memory briefly fuse into something coherent. He thinks of her, why it all happened, and wonders what the world will be when she emerges. He thinks of everything he did, and the price about to be paid. A thousand tortures weave through his mind and are broken by a million silent screams. He runs --

-- and in the reality of memory, the sky had turned blue.

Hours. (It will be a long time before he can force himself to discover just how many had passed.) Hours, and then the sky is blue again -- but he does not take it as a sign of true safety, for he has read Star Swirl's notes and knows that there were times when that power was focused elsewhere and the world briefly exerted itself again. Instead, he waits for a full day (because it was rare for things to hold that long in a land known only as Eris) before he ventures out and discovers that the world is intact enough for newspapers to print, and it takes more than a few of them before he can start to piece together any portion of truth for what might have happened. In the end, his own provide the factual account. And after another year...

Freed. Recaptured. And then released, only to be bound by a new kind of chain. He does not learn about the last part until some time after it happens. And when he does, he realizes the truth: He does not remember. The Elements had not created lifeless stone: there was a core remaining, something he had worked so hard to first sense and then use. But whatever was left must not have been capable of true thought or memory, and the times he almost felt that there was some kind of emotional resonance coming from the statue during those times of pulling were simply his own imagination trying to force a false regret upon him.

He didn't remember. He didn't know anything had ever happened at all.

There were still problems connected to His freedom, of course: the chaos pearls would not charge themselves, and the source could not be approached. It had meant an ever-dwindling resource, even with Coordinator's increased efforts providing more money to be directed into a desperate search. But he might have had nearly all of them by then, certainly those which could be found in Equestria, and to push the hunt further beyond the borders... fresh risks, new costs, and an interesting set of account books.

But He didn't remember.

It was safe.

The waking self knows that. But in the nightscape, the blue does not return. The sky darkens, twists as the world distorts around him and the air begins to solidify into something like a cage while his blood surges and muscles threaten to turn inside-out. In dream, he simply runs.

And there is nowhere he can run to.


[/hr]

A pony's nose is not as sensitive as it could be -- but there's something about a dragon's breath which burns its way into just about every sapient's olfactory senses, and Twilight winced as the accompanying green flash pressed against closed eyelids.

She slowly forced herself into a sitting position, got her eyes open just in time to see Spike unfurling the scroll.

"Who?" It wasn't exactly polite, but she wasn't quite fully awake yet -- and shouldn't have been: a quick glance towards the balcony found Sun just barely beginning to lighten the sky.

Her little brother was already reading. "Trixie," he sighed.

"And?" Until the words got to stretch themselves out on a river of wake-up juice, some of her speeches were going to be a little short.

"She's a little outside Trottingham," Spike told her. "It could be a lot worse, Twilight: she's on the right coast, southeast of us. But it would take her at least two days to get here, probably longer. She's willing to come, and I think she's a little worried about why you'd want her to, but... at least two days, Twilight. And that's if she abandons the caravan."

Memories slowly shifted forward, emerging from the fog of half-sleep, and she softly groaned. That was in the first letter, wasn't it? Yes, it had been: 'the rest of my stay in Trottingham.' But Twilight had been doing a lot, thinking about so much, and that minor detail had slipped...

I have to be more careful. I can't make mistakes like that. This one may have been harmless, but if I miss something more important...

"What do you want to tell her?" Spike asked, and waited.

That thought came a little more quickly. "To come, as fast as she can." She took a deep breath, forced some more words into something resembling a proper sentence. "We can use a Royal Voucher to cover the money she'll be losing: I'll tell the Princess I hired her as a consultant after it's finally over. But..." She winced. "...I don't even know where we can meet her. We may not be in the castle by then, she'd need an excuse for showing up -- actually, just being a traveling performer is probably enough of an excuse -- but if we're back in the wild zone, then we'll have to coordinate with letter after letter just so we don't miss each other..."

"We've got vials left," he assured her, then put the recently-arrived missive down before reaching for a fresh scroll.

Twilight managed a nod, and wondered if they had enough. "Did anything else come in?" He shook his head. So we're still waiting on Cadance. I hope that arrives soon. I hope she answers... "Okay. Let me think about what to say, and we'll get the next one to Trixie. After that, I need breakfast. Wake-up juice. Lots of it. And then..."

He watched her for a few seconds, green eyes patient.

She sighed. "I've got to get out there. I have to search. And you'd better come with me, Spike, because if Cadance sends anything back --" and could the youngest

second youngest

alicorn manage the trick at all? "-- I'll need to see it immediately." The nod was an understanding one. "So we'll both have breakfast, and after that... I think we need to stop at the guest cottage."


[/hr]

The castle was... busy.

Sun was barely up, and the servants had beaten Sun to it. Ponies seemed to be swarming through the hallways. The floors were being cleaned. Every last piece of furniture was in the process of being dusted, and that was going to take a while. Buntings were being hung, and Twilight did her best not to pay too much attention to the colors. The party was hours away and yet had already found a way to arrive, as trays of food were kept (barely) level within field bubbles, Softtread was spotted reciting the pronunciation of a particularly tricky name, and everypony seemed to just about lose Twilight in the midst of a rather organized sort of chaos. It actually made it easy to raid the kitchen, at least once the panicked cook finished turning and recognized the exact pony who wasn't going to snatch an appetizer before its time, by order. (Calming the cook down after she'd cut herself off in mid-scream took a while.) And after that, they managed to make their way out, although that meant fighting against the tide to the point where Twilight briefly considered trying to use the upper portion of the hallways, right before realizing that entering a Rainbow state of mind would probably leave a series of empty food domes in her wake.

It wasn't so much sneaking out as discovering that she just wasn't that important right now, mostly because she was going to be Much More Important later. Nopony was very concerned about what a Princess was currently doing because they all had to prepare for said Princess -- along with guests, and food, and buntings and manners and titles and everything. It was a reminder for one of the smallest lessons taught by the mirror pool: that there could be a certain amount of stress associated with a party planner's mark, and she received another refresher when the cottage's front door flew open three hoofsteps before the siblings got there.

"Do you need me right now?" Pinkie quickly asked. "Is it anything important? Because I sort of have this twitching in my right shoulder and it says somepony else needs me. Lots of somepony elses. Really badly. Even really really badly. So if it's anything important, I'm here and I'll go with you, anything you need, Twilight, but if it isn't, then..."

The tentative plan had been to try and search for her using earth pony feel. Twilight still wasn't entirely sure how that was going to work, or if it even could. And should they somehow find her, Pinkie was one of the ponies she seemed to be a little more comfortable around, and vice-versa...

...but she can't feel. Applejack is going to be doing -- it... whatever 'it' turns out to be -- and Pinkie can't. I don't want to remind her of that the whole time.

Twilight briefly considered all the things she'd seen happening in the castle, the low-level miasma of stress filling the air. Then she remembered all the things she'd warned Quiet about.

"It's their party, Pinkie."

The baker quickly nodded.

"And their way of throwing it. Their style."

Again, even faster.

"So no streamers."

The slightly chubby face immediately took on an expression of mild insult.

"Twilight."

"...what?"

"It's my mark. I know when things are appropriate! I understand what they're trying to put together! They just need a little help for the last minute! And I know it's really the last hours, but when you're in them, every one is the last minute all by themselves. And together. It's actually kind of funny how that works. So if you don't need me --?"

Twilight, blushing with the embarrassment of somepony who'd just questioned a mark, thought about it.

"Go." But they still needed somepony she was a little more comfortable around, just in case. "But send out Fluttershy?"

"Okey-dokey-loki!" A pink blur went past Twilight on the right. "I'll get her!"

"Thank --"

And at the moment before that blur was out of earshot, "-- and I promise, it'll only be the tasteful streamers!"


[/hr]

And then it was the four of them, trotting towards the orchard. (Well, three trotting and one riding: Spike had been granted a place on Applejack's back, as she had the easiest time taking his weight over a long stretch.)

They moved under deep grey sky, and it was grey only because black was still being arranged. It was possible to watch the clouds thickening and, at least until they got some distance away from the castle, it was also possible to occasionally catch a glimpse of the pegasi who were arranging the color shift. It made travel difficult, as they now had to worry about being spotted from overhead: the local weather team was busy setting up the final elements of the coming storm, and it put most of their airborne focus on the sky -- but it didn't mean they might not glance down now and again.

Twilight wished she was better with illusions, anything which would help to conceal, but... she could mostly reproduce the image of something she'd seen and had an exceptionally clear memory of, and it tended to end up as something translucent. It took art to render illusions into something which could pass for reality. Rarity could manage animations, at least after she'd had a lot of quiet time to plan and been granted a confined space to work in, added to total concentration: it added something to some of the fashion shows. One pony could make a plush spider appear to have turned into the genuine horrifying article, and Twilight had never managed to ask Luna how she'd done it. (It had taken a few shaken nights before Twilight had even realized that illusion had been the category of magic in play.) To place the group under camouflage could not be managed, and rendering them truly invisible was effectively impossible. They simply stayed under the canopy of color-shifting dying leaves and checked the sky as often as they could.

The humidity had increased to the point where it felt as if they were breathing liquid more than air. The temperature had dipped, and there was a chill wind blasting that moisture into their fur. Spike, who didn't deal with the cold all that well, was starting to blow little gusts of flame over his hands, staying warm. The others just went through their own form of Weather Bureau arranged misery.

"When do you think it'll hit?" Twilight asked Fluttershy.

The pegasus blinked. "...the schedule said about an hour before the party starts, and then it goes all night, Twilight. It'll be stopped about an hour before Sun is raised."

Which brought up a question. "Can you feel that, though? Can you just look at the clouds and know when the storm will start?"

The visible eye slowly closed as the caretaker's trotting pace dropped . "...no. I can't."

"Oh. So that's not part of pegasus feel --"

"-- no," Fluttershy softly said. "That's... not it. I meant I can't. Other pegasi could. I just don't... my..." Her head dipped, and then the right eye opened again as her gaze sadly, slightly raised. "...we don't all have the same level of feel, Twilight. I'm just... not very good at it. At -- any of it. You remember the water transfer, and how hard I worked to get my speed up. How... little all that work did. And I'd tried before, but I still thought that this time, if it was with everypony else, that it might help and nopony would laugh..." A deep breath. "There are unicorns who can't lift much. And... there's me. There's always been me. My parents were saving for me to attend weather college before I was born, because they thought I'd be like them, and I... my mark brought me to the cottage. They didn't understand that. Sometimes I think they still don't..."

All four yellow legs stopped. The wings, pressed against her sides as they so often were, trembled. And the others stopped.

"Fluttershy?" I hurt her, I keep hurting her without meaning to, why do my words always --

"We can wait, sugarcube," Applejack quietly offered. "If you need a minute."

"...no," Fluttershy told them. "Because my parents... love me. They loved me enough to let me have that college fund to buy the cottage with, even if they didn't understand why I wanted to live on the ground. They don't understand me, but... they love me. They always have, enough to let me -- be me. There are pegasi who don't understand, who think I'm weird, who call me a freak, sing about how I can 'hardly fly'... but my parents love me. And I have friends who accept me. Pony friends. And Doctor Gentle, who never thought I was weird, who always tried to... bring me back when things got bad, if he was there. I'll never be what everypony else thinks is normal. But I'll always be me. I think... that's good enough."

Her head came up a little more.

"...and when I forget... you're here."

The sounds of animals around them: birds moving through the trees, squirrels preparing their own shelters for the storm. Perhaps they sensed the presence of mark and talent. And if so, they allowed the ponies their privacy.

"...I'm not the pony I used to be, before Twilight got off the air carriage" Fluttershy finished. "Not completely. I don't think any of us are. I like me a little more now." She looked at Spike. "I'm -- glad you were with her. To start everything."

"Um..." Spike really wasn't equipped for blushing: he technically could, but it was hard to get a glimpse of the skin under the scales. At most, there might be a rising wave of heat -- which, given the humidity in the air, was actually somewhat visible. "...I didn't exactly plan that..."

"...I'm glad anyway," Fluttershy smiled. "Let's go."

Applejack took a slow breath, nodded. "Still not sure what y'want me to do here, Twi. We've got some privacy --" an automatic glance up "-- if you want to explain in a little more detail."

"She was using magic at the orchard," Twilight eventually said: part of her really wanted to go back to what Fluttershy had been talking about, and even more wanted to take a moment for the accompanying nuzzle. "Earth pony magic. And it hasn't been that long. So her --" what was the proper vocabulary here? "-- feel? Signature?"

"Echo," Applejack told them. "Her echo should be there. And you want me to listen in, get a better idea of her song, and then listen around to see if it's anywhere else? Like if she used her magic while she was running away?" Twilight nodded. "I can try, Twilight. I already heard her the once at the ravine, even if I didn't know it was her. And it was..." She frowned, and the blonde tail twitched. "Weird. It was weird."

The trot resumed, and it took a few hoofsteps before anypony tried to ask: Spike finally took the lead. "Weird how?"

"It's hard to describe," Applejack replied. "I'm not used to describing it, and -- I was reeling, outside and in. The..." and it still took a moment to bring the next word out "...teleport did that. So I couldn't be sure of what I was hearing, once my hearing came back. It was loud. Louder than anything I've ever heard -- but now we know that's just her. And --" She abruptly stopped, words and pace: Spike almost grabbed for her mane to steady himself. "This is where she signaled you."

Twilight, some distance back and lacking a good view, paused at the sounds of absolute certainty. "You heard her echo?"

"Wasn't listening for that just yet," was the reply. "I saw your signature."

The former unicorn blinked. "You saw my --"

"-- y'leave a pretty distinctive groove."

"...oh."

"Always meant to ask how you got all the circles that close to a true one," Applejack shrugged. "Ain't like you were measuring things out. Okay. Give me a second here..."

The others trotted up just in time to see the green eyes close. The muscular torso shifted as several deep breaths were taken, but nothing else moved. There was a pony, the greying world, and a distinct ongoing lack of hat. To Twilight, it looked like nothing so much as a caster centering herself just before a major working.

"...yeah," Applejack said, mostly to herself, and frowned. "This is... maybe it wasn't just the teleport."

"I don't understand," Twilight immediately said. "What are you hearing?"

The farmer's eyes remained closed. "Remember what I said back at the lake, when we found the snitcher? It's still like that."

"...loud?" Fluttershy tried.

"A little. Not too bad. Like somepony speaking up when they don't have to, but not shouting. She's trying to hold back, control her volume, and -- maybe she could even get there," Applejack slowly said. "But that ain't it. When we were in the ravine, I thought it had been a lot of ponies asking at once, and all for the same thing. And like I said, I've never been near earthworks that big. So all the echoes blended into one big note. But now she's trying to be quieter. And... there's something off about her magic." A small nod, mostly to herself. "That's the only word I've got for it. Off. Like... there's something there which shouldn't be. Something that's part of the magic, something you can't get out..."

Twilight blinked. "It was like that when she cast as a unicorn," she quietly added. "It felt like something was wrong..."

"Maybe that's from the pain?" Spike proposed.

"That comes through in the resonance," Twilight answered, slowly shaking her head. "It's... not a good thing to feel, Spike. This was separate." Something -- other.

"...and Rainbow said the residue wasn't right," Fluttershy half-whispered. "So whatever's wrong, it's wrong for all three aspects."

"But that ain't the whole of it," Applejack told them. "Because at the ravine, I thought there had been a whole orchestra of ponies, with the notes blending together, and part of that was because she was shouting. I still can't figure out exactly what she said. But here, where she's being quieter, where she's trying..." Another deep, slow breath. "Give me a second here. I -- don't talk about this. Never had a reason to talk about it, and I never thought I'd be talking about it with --" more awkwardly "-- it's like Rainbow said. I have to find the words..."

Spike bent low, head dipping towards her mane. Twilight and Fluttershy approached a little more: one hoofstep each. But they all gave their friend the time she needed, and after a minute had passed, she nodded.

"Okay," Applejack said, her eyes still closed. "Have you ever been to a concert? A big one, with a chorus, with lots of ponies playing and singing at the same time?" (Only Spike nodded, and Twilight stared at him in shock.) "And they're all trying to hit the same note, to make the song work. If they do it right, it'll sound like they made it -- but if you listen close, or you've got a talent like Lyra's and can pick it up naturally, you'll hear that every instrument hits that note a little differently. Woodwinds ain't strings. Brass stuff aren't voices. They all get there in their own way. Same note, but with a lot of little sounds inside it trying to make it that way."

"An illusion created in sound," Twilight quietly offered.

"Yeah," Applejack replied. "I can go with that. So right here, where she brought the rocks up and then dropped them again... I can hear her echoes. And since I don't have the teleport recovery to deal with, I'd know her voice now if I heard it again. But she's being quieter here, keeping it down, and... it's just her voice. That's what it should be: one voice asking a couple of questions. But when I listen... there's sounds inside it. She's talking, singing in truespeech, but at the same time... there's something lower than whispers, more quiet than a murmur. Almost impossible to hear -- but I'm listening deep. It's one note -- but there's a central singer, and it almost feels like there's a chorus. Like there's more than one voice..."

And Twilight, who had labored so hard to retain every last moment of her nightmare, thought about dream-shadows coating the bottom of her hooves. It took nearly everything she had to repress most of the shudder.

The farmer sighed. "It's a nice main voice, for whatever that's worth," she concluded. "She's a pretty good singer."

"Essence." And the word had come from Spike.

Applejack's eyes opened, and so she got to join the three-way stare, even as Twilight's end of the effort steadily descended into horror.

Softly, carefully, the little dragon forced himself to go on. "You were all talking about it, on the way to the thaumaturgy shop. About the Amulet. And how she might have gotten a lot of unicorn essence, and pegasus essence with earth pony essence added to that, and tried to -- put it inside herself. Trixie wrote about how the Amulet took on an aspect of its own, from all the resonance... would essence have a voice?"

They stood under grey sky, the weight of humidity and horror pressing down upon them.

"Spike," Twilight breathed, "if that's any part of --"

"-- shut up!"

It had been a hiss, low-pitched and all the more urgent for the near-silence of the utterance. It froze ears, stopped words.

"Applejack?"

The farmer's ears rotated.

"Somepony just got here," she whispered. "We're being followed."