• 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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Landscape

there is no ground

there is no earth

there is no ground

there is no earth

no rock below me

no foundation holding up the sky

there is only nothing

and it is everywhere

and everything

there is no ground

there is no earth

and ah am lost

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Twilight never heard the snap. Never heard anything in the between. The next sound she was aware of came from a friend, and it was that of a mare being very noisily sick all over the --

-- where are we?

Other priorities came first. "APPLEJACK!", and that was echoed from Rarity (who had been closest) and Fluttershy (although much softer). Twilight took it from there. "Did Discord do something to you?" She ignored the resulting squeak from Fluttershy. "What's wrong?"

"Ah... oh, no..." Another heave: this one brought up nothing but extra stomach cramps. "Ah... don't think Ah do well with teleports, Twi... really don't think that at'tall..."

Twilight immediately looked around, gave up a few seconds for checking the others. Spike was -- yes, as expected: he would be sending up plumes for at least a minute and this time, even his elbows were involved. Pinkie Pie was rocking a bit from side to side as if trying to work out which was which -- but it stopped almost as soon as Twilight saw it. The others were fine. "Based on how long we were between, this one was a greater distance..." Actually, lectures weren't really going to help anypony right now. "Applejack, is there anything we can do?"

"Jus' time, Twi... and promise y'won't do that t' me unless you've absolutely gotta..."

"I won't," Twilight immediately promised. She'd never seen a reaction like that! Was Applejack somehow allergic to between, similar to the way Spike was -- just something internal? "Rest for a few minutes."

"Take all the time you like," Rainbow Dash said. "I don't think four of us are going anywhere without being carried."

And that was her cue to look around again.

The ravine cut deep through grey and brown stone. It was easily ten Celests to the top edge on either side, those sides slanted down harshly: a sixty-degree angle at least -- and the walls displayed little in the way of the wide, closely staggered, and frequent ledges which would make them suitable for climbing -- as in 'nothing'. (Ponies are horrible at climbing. Their legs don't orient naturally for wrap-and-shimmy, won't push if the position is forced. Rope-and-pulley arrangements require the equipment and somepony at the top. Hoofs don't fit in narrow cracks where claws might find purchase. Pegasi seldom have to consider the issue and the other two races generally wind up hoping never to encounter it. A unicorn -- one who can't self-levitate or teleport -- stuck in a hole too wide to brace opposing legs against is in variable-depth trouble.) What ledges there were tended to be too narrow for hooves and sharp-looking besides. There was tight-packed earth at the very top, with a few tree roots -- a very few -- poking out the sides. Amazingly few, really, given that the trees at that level were so thick: there barely seemed room to squeeze a pony body through, although Spike would have had less trouble. Pines: Twilight could see that from here, all tilted away on an odd angle, as if they could not stand to face the crack in the land. There was very little else in the way of tree species.

The place certainly knew water, though. They were on a bank about fourteen feet wide, an abrupt leveling out at the bottom of the slide -- and then came a river, forty feet across at least, rushing forward at a speed Twilight had never seen level water moving in. The water radiated cold, smelled of nothing except itself. Turn around, and the source vanished into the rock about fifty feet behind them. Look across, and there was a second bank, slightly more narrow. (Fortunately, all of them had arrived on the same side -- and not quite in the positions relative to each other they'd started in.) Forward -- more of the ravine. An easy hundred feet, maybe a hundred and ten or more, and then the water vanished into the stone again just before the shadows clustered off to the right. That shading gave her some indication of the Sun's relative position, and she looked up...

"A much greater distance," Twilight softly said. "I'm pretty sure we're still in Equestria, but unless Discord moved us in time --" oh, please tell me he can't do that... "-- we went east. Really far east. We might be a few days' gallop from the coast."

"Ah've -- if you're thinkin' about it, ah've seen the ocean, Twi. It's not all it's cracked up t' be." Applejack took a step, tested her footing, looked around at the ravine's walls. She seemed less ill than she had on arrival -- but not by much. The farmer still appeared to be deeply shaken. "Too much movin' around..." A longer survey. Another step. "Ah want -- Ah want out of here. Somethin' --" and visibly stopped herself. Backed up, both physically and verbally. "Why would Discord put us here?"

"Comedy," Twilight darkly proposed. "Fluttershy, I know you trust him and I know you're trying to help -- what's wrong?" Because with Applejack's crisis seeming to have mostly passed (although there was a residual tension to her which wasn't going away), the yellow pegasus was trembling on the ground, small tears running down her cheeks. What isn't wrong, Twilight? She's just been wrenched across whole gallops of land, you've been speaking against someone -- not and never 'somepony' -- she considers to be a friend, she was just given the ability to erase a pony from the world and guess how well she's probably dealing with that, and by the way, there's also this mission which she got us into and if I start blaming her for it...

Twilight stopped and tried to back up emotionally before everything went too far, with very limited success. (Almost none.) More softly, "Fluttershy?"

"...they were fighting... the Princesses... I know it was Luna, it was just Luna, but they were fighting..." Genuinely upset, latching onto that for a source of sadness out of so many possible choices. "..I know they don't hate each other, but I just wanted everything to be fixed..."

"It was a long time, dear," Rarity gently said, coming closer and rubbing against Fluttershy's shivering flank. "There's -- rather a lot to fix. A single rainbow can do a lot, but it can't do everything."

Twilight, with far too much Discord to think about at the time, had almost lost it in the flood of events. The Princesses -- fighting. It was a blow against an already-shaken psyche. More Luna than Celestia, certainly, Celestia had pretty much just been on the receiving end, but -- fighting. Not like rulers, not as Sun and Moon. As --

-- sisters.

She took a deep breath. It did nothing. She took two more. They voted the same way as the original.

"Everypony, just take a few minutes," she told the group. "Rainbow Dash is right -- we're not going anywhere just yet. Since there's no visible crisis here at the moment, we can afford the time. The start of the middle..." She hadn't expected to suddenly figure out what it meant just by repeating it and as expected, it didn't happen. Her first right call of the mission.

"I can start evacuating right now, Twilight!" Rainbow Dash called down: she was about a third of the way up the left wall. Judging by the way she kept adjusting her new hat into ever-jauntier poses, she might have been inspecting for traps. "If you, me, and Fluttershy kick in, it's two trips! One if Spike rides one of us on the way up!"

Spike, for his part, had finally stopped smoking. "Fluttershy, are you okay to fly?" And then what Twilight had dreaded: a look at her, with the same question clearly forming on the reptile tongue. Oh Celestia, she had been keeping that secret from everypony -- and one dragon. He thought she could fly...

Fluttershy bought her a few seconds. "...yes... it's just... hard to see them like that."

Twilight purchased the opportunity with every bit she had. "I know," cutting off Spike before her sibling could begin. "We get so used to thinking of them as -- the Princesses -- that..." And the next words tasted like a personal flavor of blasphemy. "...we don't think of them as ponies..."

...just like what's happening to me. The wrong thoughts, given a portal, began to crowd through while bringing three weeks' worth of friends.

Pinkie Pie shook her head. "Sisters fight! That's all. I fought with mine! Well -- they fought with me. A lot. Sometimes a lot a lot. So Luna got a little angry. Everypony's backside is ungobbled! Twilight -- are you okay? You still look kind of -- well -- mad."

"Mad?"

A straw doesn't have to be the last one. It just has to land on the right sore spot of a back that's already far too burdened with weight.

"Yes, I'm mad! Fluttershy, please don't take this personally, I know you think of him as a friend, but Discord just put us out here in the middle of nowhere, we're in a ravine for Luna's sake, we don't know where we are and before anypony asks, I don't know any where-am-I spells because I usually don't get teleported into unknown places by jerkass entities of chaos, we don't know what we're supposed to do except that it's Discord and my first instinct is to find out whatever he thinks is wrong and make it worse! We're on a bucking mission from Discord and dear Celestia, Pinkie, why are you wearing sunglasses?"

"Because there's Sun in my --"

"I don't even care! I still don't know what we're supposed to do and the sunglasses aren't helping! I don't have a place to start! I have a middle! We're stuck here because --" and she couldn't stop it "-- Fluttershy apparently needs two minotaurs in order to say 'Why?' or 'I don't have enough information' or maybe, how about this for an idea, 'No' when the other bucking option just stands a chance of getting everypony killed and I don't want to --"

The water soaked every inch of her, matted down her mane, left her tail drooping, worked into her wings and refused to leave. Her bangs were in her eyes. So was water. Steam was coming off her horn.

Five long horrible seconds of silence (broken only by the soft sound of Fluttershy sobbing) passed before she could force herself to look up.

Rainbow Dash was standing on top of the hastily-grabbed small cloud, glaring at her. The same way she had glared at Discord. "Are we done, Princess?" the cyan pegasus demanded. "Got all of that out of your system? All Canterlot Royal Voiced for now? Anypony else you'd like to make cry today?"

Oh no. Oh no, oh please Celestia, Luna, no, please don't let them, Applejack looks so angry and Pinkie Pie won't move, Fluttershy's crying so hard and Rarity is furious, Spike won't even look at me...

...please don't let them hate me...

...they're all I have left...

Her face was so wet.

Her eyes were so --

-- and then she was on the ground next to Fluttershy, front legs over the pegasus' shoulders, openly weeping into the soft coral mane. "I'm sorry I'm sorry oh Celestia Fluttershy I'm so sorry I don't want you hurt any of you I just don't know what we're doing and I'm scared --"

Warm yellow wings unfurled, reached forward as best they could, wrapped her in the warmth of a friendship unbroken.

And then there was a pile of ponies (and dragon) on the bottom of the ravine, huddled together against the unknown.

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It equaled the most pony voices she had ever heard at one time: three. And on this occasion, none of those voices were her own.

They were pegasi: there was no doubt about that. They were standing on a low-resting grey cloud which was just barely visible above the treeline. She could not see them through it, and they would not have seen her had they poked their heads through the vapor's bottom edge: she was too well-concealed. But there were voices, and they were talking about things. Topics which were not subjects. There were no lessons being taught overhead: just discussions of -- life.

They spoke of sports. (She knew of a few, knew their rules and in a couple of cases, old players and records, only in those areas where talents might have figured in.) Which teams were placing where, who was going to play next week and consideration of the playoffs next moon. There was a brief verbal tussle over the food they had brought with them, who had packed the jam and not brought enough for three. A quick game was played to determine who would go without: the loser fumed and used words she had been told only to bring out on special occasions for direct attention-gathering emphasis -- if at all. This was followed by another argument, this time about how the loser deserved the short end of a wheat stalk once in a while because he always got all the mares and it was only fair that he should not get something for a change. There was laughter at the end of that, and it came from all three.

She listened to every word, and it was almost enough to make the pain feel like something lesser. She would not have moved without a direct threat of discovery. There were ponies in this world, and they were talking. She knew there were, of course, that was beyond basic, had been taught so much about them and some of the things which concerned them in their lives, but -- right overhead. Directly overhead. And she could hear them.

She could have stayed there for hours and fallen asleep to the gentle babble of conversation.

And then --

-- they mentioned him.

This was but a rest stop: they were flying to Cloudsdale. (Was she near that? How far out were they? Hours, days? How many gallops, how long for them by flight?) Keeping their energy up was important (and she knew few pegasi had much in the way of marathon endurance). But now they were recharged, and they had to go and see if he was among the vapors of their home. One of his might have needed help. If only that were so, they hoped, they hoped so strongly. If they could but find him, all would be well. And perhaps they would be the ones to send back the good news...

...they were gone.

They --

-- were searching --

-- for him.

Not her, of course, never her, she had been careful (a lingering lesson, yes, but more strongly practiced in self-loathing and shame). But -- she had --

-- what had she done?

The memories -- if she could just capture them, get them out, but she had nowhere to put them and nothing to capture them with, not in this forest. She could only do it at home, and home was --

-- did she even have one any more? Would he take her back after she had failed so horrifically?

No. No, he won't. Nopony would. Nopony should. I'm --

She thought -- she had protected him. The event was a blur and just trying to look at it too closely without her memories around brought a deeper kind of hurt. But it had felt like protection. She hadn't known what she was doing or how on any real level, theory forced to exist in solid form without any real thought -- but on some level, she had been aware of -- heat? Heat beyond the edge of the event. (She could not call it what he had. It had not worked. She had failed.)

...she thought she had protected him. He and her memories. And still they were looking for him.

She had failed at everything when it happened. Everything they had done, everything that was The Great Work. And now they were saying she had failed to save him.

Had she --

-- did it kill --

-- did I kill --

She spread the wings, bit back the scream as she flapped them. The ground and her hooves parted company, just by a few inches. Dropped back down, let the moan come. Yes, at this stage, she could probably take off now, at least a little. Perhaps go straight up, get to that cloud level if she was lucky. Let the wings go back against her twisting body.

Drop straight down. Headfirst.

But the last time...

...she couldn't be sure it would work. And -- she also couldn't be sure that he was truly gone, or that she had done it. There had been rules. If there had been heat, had been fire --

(her memories, oh her memories, and she hated herself for thinking of that at all when she should have been thinking of him and him alone)

-- it might have meant attention. Attention meant other ponies. And other ponies meant hide.

He could -- he could, if it had happened that way, be hiding. With the other one, the Emergency Only pony. There was a chance she had not failed, at least for that one thing. But she did not know where she was. How to reach that place from this one. And he would not take her back. Should not.

She looked up at the cloud again. Measured the prospective drop...

...no. Not yet. It didn't matter that he would never (and should never) take her back, at least not right now. She had to know there was a he still in this huge world. Had to find out if she'd accidentally done a single thing right while wasting years of his life and invalidating her entire existence. That came first. So --

-- a fresh spasm hit as the wings purpled, the cloud overhead seemed to shiver with her --

-- she needed more information.

And the only way to get information -- was from other ponies.

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A simple and wry, "Well, I must say, this is an improvement."

The warm voice, where even the sound seemed to be tinged with soft pink. "What do you mean, Rarity?"

Dryly, "Well, normally we'd be fighting over a doll by now."

Twilight giggled. Then did it again, harder, as Fluttershy softly laughed and the pony pile turned into a wriggle of mirth. "Applejack, did you ever find out --"

"Ah don't know where he's keepin' it and Ah don't want t' know! Y'could just ask!"

"But... he seems to love her so much... How could you ask me to break up Ponyville's happiest couple?"

More giggling.

"There's nothing wrong with a stallion getting in touch with his mare side," Rarity opinionated. "As long as he knows exactly where he's touching..."

Pinkie Pie, in a perfect deadpan. "He hasn't asked me for any advice yet."

And in the last possible moment before the group could react to that one, Spike timidly said "...is this stuff I should be hearing about?"

That did it. The pile broke apart into six ponies rolling on the ground with laughter and one very confused dragon watching them. "Oh, come on, guys!" Spike grumbled. "Is anypony going to tell me if I'm too young for this talk or not?" Which didn't help anything, and he finally just sank down into a squat and grumbled it out until the ponies had all staggered to their hooves.

"Oh dear," Rarity giggled. "Oh dear, and me without a wedding dress plan on me..."

Back down they went. And they had almost recovered when Fluttershy said, all quiet innocence, "...but who's going to tell Cheerilee?"

Finally, after Take Three had succeeded, Twilight faced the others. "I'm sorry. And I'm addressing everypony." Her voice was normal now, at least: they had given her that much back and a little more. "Just because I'm scared of what we're potentially facing doesn't give me the right to take it out on everypony here. It's my fear: I shouldn't try to deal with it by turning it into anger and throwing it in everypony's face. And Fluttershy... if you see something worth trusting in him, I can take a chance." One. "It's just -- we all remember the first time, and -- I don't know if I'm completely past it yet. No, scratch that: I know I'm not. You got further than I did, and --" She couldn't make herself lift the weight of the last words.

And somehow, this time, Fluttershy could. "...and he did more to me. I think... that's why I know him a little better. Why the Princess asked me to try. He went in, and -- I think we sort of touched. He didn't mean to, I know, but... nothing left behind, I asked the Princess once, but we touched, and -- I don't understand anything I felt, really, but... sometimes I feel like I understand him, just a little. Not as much as I understand any of my animal friends, not even ones I've just met... but enough that we can sort of meet somewhere between us. I don't think he understands what he touched with me, either, but he's trying, I know he is... and this is important to him. He took a risk. If the Princesses had been any madder..."

Which stopped them all dead in their mental tracks.

"...they would have summoned the Elements," Rarity breathed.

"We would have had him back to stone in seconds!" Rainbow Dash declared -- but there was a little thought inside the bravado. "And -- he had to know it -- didn't he?"

Spike was a little more dubious. "He can work fast, guys -- really fast. Maybe he could have gotten away first or --" the little dragon hesitated before risking "-- done something..." and Twilight wondered if he was thinking of the lava. "...but with Celestia and Luna there..." One buying time, one teleporting. It was still a race, but the ponies would have had a chance, and Twilight was seeing it as a fairly strong one.

Pinkie Pie nodded. "It's a big chance to take for a joke."

"So -- this really could be important to him," Twilight slowly reconciled. Although I'm still not placing any bits on 'for the good of Equestria'. She would remain cautious. For all they knew, they had been sent to look for the world's most powerful magic leash cutters. "All right, everypony -- let's --" and it was still hard to keep the next words from being bitter "-- take him at his word for a little while. This is what he called the start of the middle. Presume this ravine is important. Why?"

"It's pretty new, for starters!" Pinkie pronked in place as the others stared at her (and for a split-second, Applejack's gaze seemed simultaneously frustrated, worried, and -- no, that couldn't be anger...) "...why are you all looking at me like that?"

"Pinkie, dear," Rarity carefully asked, "how can you possibly know that?"

"I used to be a rock farmer, silly!" (Applejack was tensing, just out of Twilight's redirected line of sight.) "Look up, everypony!" They did. "See those ridges? They're sharp! The wind and rain haven't really hit them yet! They haven't been worn down even a little. So this place has to be fairly new! One century or less, maybe two, could be three at the outside I guess but that would really be pushing it..." (The farmer relaxed. No pony or dragon caught it.) "...what?"

"That's -- interesting, Pinkie," Twilight lied, "but I'm not sure it helps us very much." The apprentice baker stuck out her tongue. Pinkie knows geology. Why didn't I find that out before the mirror pool? "Okay -- everypony keep looking. Use everything you've got!"

And for the better part of an hour, they did, starting by moving to the absolute back of the ravine and then inching their way forward. Slowly. Twilight continually checked for traces of magic, but all she won herself was an interesting display of pinkish reflections off wet stone (it had rained recently) and that familiar feeling of tangling as her mane and tail dried out the wrong way. The two pegasi scouted overhead and came back to report "It's just forest for a ways out, really thick. You can barely see anything looking down. We're going to be grounded --" openly disgusted "-- while we're in there: I can' t track all of you on the ground and there's barely any room between trees to fly. I didn't want to go too far just in case there's a monster somewhere in this thing."

"...monster?"

"Yeah! Maybe in the river!"

"Oh, please!" Rarity grumbled distractedly: she seemed to be concentrating hard on something. "If we were only so lucky as to run into such a polite gentleman as our last so-called river monster! There is no living thing in that river except some horridly pale fish which completely forget to pack their eyes." It had taken two minutes for the unicorn to stop shuddering. "Take them out, if you would please, and all there is would be some exceptionally fast, clear, cold, and pure water." They'd all had a drink before starting the slow comb-through. "I wish I could bring some home with me." Muttering to herself now at a much softer level, one which not everypony caught. "Rock fetish, hoof fetish... I should have given him a taste of a future horn-spearing fetish to see if he liked it, and he probably would have too..."

Rainbow Dash had only heard up through the water part. "Want me to use some for making mud and try it on your face?" the pegasus asked with just a little too much innocence.

The white unicorn missed it. "Not -- just --- yet..." Rarity frowned. "Wait... I think I'm getting..." She angled her horn forward, turned her head from side to side.

Twilight blinked: her eyelashes seemed to tangle. ...ahead of me?

And the white horn lit from base to tip with that soft blue glow. "Yes! I'm sure -- oh, what is that? I've never felt anything like this!" She was moving along the absolute edge of the riverbank now, galloping forward as the glow intensified. "It's -- oh my, I can't even begin to guess! I'm sure -- yes!"

There was no time for staring at each other (although several managed to work it in on the way): they galloped behind her, Spike grabbing a position on Pinkie Pie's back. "Rarity -- are you okay?" the little dragon worriedly inquired, looking as if he was resisting the urge to wring his tail.

"Okay? I think I might be about to achieve absolutely fabulous!" She had stopped about two-thirds of the way up the ravine, her horn glowing brighter than Twilight had ever seen it shine. "Yes, right -- oh, dear, this will be a bother... Twilight? Could you possibly do me the smallest of favors?"

Mindful of a Discord-level 'small favor', "...yes?"

"If this goes rather towards the wrong side, please haul my body out of here if you can? Thanks ever so."

Rarity's horn ignited. It lit up in a way Twilight typically saw in mirrors (and then only briefly before her vision was blurred by white), the blue glow becoming more intense around the horn itself before a second layer of incandescence (something Rarity had never achieved in her sight) appeared around that, the inner core moving to more of a blue-white as sweat broke out all over the unicorn's body, as shine reflected off every wet surface in the entire ravine and glinted in the water, as Spike shouted in alarm...

"RARITY!" Twilight chorused -- but the unicorn kept right on going. What is she doing? Twilight had never seen Rarity put everything she had into a spell like this! (The layering wasn't a sign of power, it was effort, reaching deep into reserves. Nearly any unicorn can manage a double corona, especially if they're desperate enough.) The others were leaning back, not sure what to do or if anything they could try would only hurt whatever was going on, Applejack was trying to restrain Spike and not doing all that well... "What are you doing? It's taking too much! You can't --"

Gasping, words comprehensible but not for much longer, "It's just a tiny differentiation problem, darling... nothing to worry about..."

"Differentiation?" Applejack yelled. "What the hay does that mean? -- Twilight?" For Twilight's eyes had gone wide with horror.

"She's trying to move something inside something else!"

Differentiation: the third-year lesson that made students who were getting a little too full of themselves turn into spark-generating preschoolers. It was supposed to be so simple. There was a box. The lock was on the inner surface and the outer edge of the keyhole was blocked. The key itself was inside the box. And all you had to do was unlock it. Twilight's teacher had watched the lesson patiently, mostly for signs of students who were about to overcommit into the hospital.

A unicorn's field would surround an object, coat the exterior surface. You could adjust the strength around different portions, if you had the practice: flex a joint, twist a rope. But you couldn't reach inside. For all intents and purposes, anything within the box was considered to be part of the box: you could hear keys rattle as fields tossed containers about, and sometimes an especially lucky student would have the right end temporarily land in the keyhole just on momentum -- but the magic never actually touched the key, much less turned it. It couldn't --

Trotter's Falls, why am I thinking of Trotter's Falls

-- be done. And that was the lesson: that there were things which were impossible and you shouldn't hurt yourself trying to prove otherwise. Star Swirl had failed, and it was something Twilight had never been able to correct the long-ago caster on. And still, years after they all graduated, generations of professional magical researchers had collapsed in their workshops trying to do it. Rumors and legends claimed some had hurt themselves more badly than that. And the darkest whispers murmured about a few...

"You've got to stop!" Twilight screamed as the sweat became a froth coating nearly every inch of the delicate white coat, Spike sounded like he was thinking about flaming his way free, he knew what could happen, had been the one to catch Twilight in her dorm room as she'd collapsed...

Labored breathing. Ribs heaving. Eyes unfocused. Knees starting to buckle. "...just.... just water, dear... just trying to move through water... it's just a little on the deep side..."

"That much liquid is virtually the same thing as a solid! You're trying to move the river!" You've got to stop! Rarity!"

...and now that terrifying third layer appeared as the base moved to hot white, Rarity committing every reserve she had...

The other ponies were frozen with fear: they didn't understand magic that well, only knew something horrible was happening. And Twilight, who knew exactly what was happening, was even more helpless than they were. Too late in the spell to try and weld her strength to Rarity's, a ridiculously advanced technique which both unicorns had to know if there was any chance of reconciling their disparate fields, and Rarity had never advanced that far in her studies anyway. To physically hit her horn at this stage would guarantee backlash, and the nightmares of having that happen now would have Luna cradling a screaming dreamer for moons and beyond.

Spike's struggles had stopped. He knew how far it had gone, knew it was too late. Touches of the blue glow (all so close to white now, too close) were on the surface of the water as it rippled and heaved, the ravine had turned into a private lightshow, the likes of which Twilight had never seen from the outside and never wanted to see again. Rarity had two choices. She had already picked one. All they could do was watch as the first of Twilight's own nightmares, the one she had shielded from the younger Princess, threatened to erupt into horrid waking day --

-- and then a gleaming green stone, slightly smaller in diameter than the bottom of one of Rarity's hooves, erupted from the water instead. Landed at the unicorn's front hooves.

The glow vanished, all at once, and Rarity collapsed against the fine layer of dirt on riverbank stone. Horn steaming. Skin steaming.

She doesn't know how to cooldown, she needed to let go in stages, she never got that far in school, oh Luna, help me... "Everypony!", and the others were all too eager to jump. Spike, bless him, was already heading for what Rarity needed most. "Water, now! Splash her, wet her down, we've got to get her cooled off!" She was already moving herself. "Don't stop! No matter what happens, don't stop until all that froth is off her and she's breathing normally! Then get her up and walk her around!"

Just the smallest of whispers from Rarity. "...fine... just fine... see? Nothing to worry about..."

They ignored her. They worked, Fluttershy finding an immediate expertise in making sure the water was splashed where it most needed to go, Rainbow Dash bringing down every cloud she could find. They worked until the unicorn's breathing slowed, until she could pick her head up by a few vital inches and smile at them. "You all -- make too much -- of a fuss sometimes, you know. And I speak -- as one -- who knows fussing..."

Twilight wrestled with the urge to ponypile Rarity. Sent it to fight the urge to kill Rarity. The two desires battled to a draw. "Rarity -- look at me." She did. "I'm the stronger one, right?" A nod. "Then why didn't you leave it to me?!"

"You -- wouldn't have found it, darling..."

"It's a stupid gem," Rainbow Dash growled. "It's not worth your life, you facet-obsessed..."

"I know -- you're all upset," Rarity breathed, a little more strongly. "And I forgive all of you for anything you have said or might say, and I am so sorry for making you all worry like that, I could have said something a bit less -- dramatic, I suppose... but this is a discovery, and that? Is worth so very much..."

"I know your gem-finding spell." Twilight was trying very hard not to yell again. After feeling as if she'd nearly lost her friends once today, she wound up watching the single (or second) most stubborn unicorn in the world nearly cast herself into a faint or worse... "You taught it to me. I. Could have. Gotten. It."

Spike was simply brushing through Rarity's mane, silently restoring it to pristine beauty, something he hadn't done for Twilight yet. Fluttershy had gotten a compress out of her saddlebags, soaked it and was now wrapping it around the horn with delicate mouth movements.

"No... no, you couldn't. I'm sorry again, Twilight, but -- you copied my spell. There's something to be said -- for being the original. Try -- try detecting it now, please?"

This surprised Twilight enough for her to make the attempt on reflex: she turned her energies towards the stupid topaz disc which Rarity had risked so much for, reached back into her memory for the slightly dusty feel of Rarity's personal magic, managed to wrestle her own field into shape and let it visibly flow towards what was definitely the world's single most worthless gem, not worth a pony's life, not even a second of it...

...and there was nothing there.

She could see the topaz stone. She could surround and lift it. But she couldn't detect it -- and the look in Rarity's eyes said the unicorn knew it.

"A cutie mark -- has meaning, darling. You're a wonderful caster, the best of your generation -- but there is only one Rarity. I barely found it, almost didn't recognize it as a gem. You did say to search with everything we had, and you can copy my spell, spread it farther and find more at once -- but the fine touch -- remains mine." Another smile. "Forgive a mare her pride."

'Kill her' was being pressed back into the corner of the arena. "But for a stupid topaz disc --"

"-- topaz?" A tiny laugh. "Look closer."

They looked.

It was ruby.

And then as they stared, it became diamond. Then opal: white, followed by black. Garnet. Amethyst...

Pinkie moved closer, watched as the disc slowly shifted to emerald again before phasing to a deep sapphire which matched Rarity's eyes, gave the find an identity in a single awed breath.

"It's a deathstone..."

Five of them pulled back by inches. Rarity just sighed. "Well, that rather takes something out of it. Are you naming it, Pinkie, or recognizing? Because if it's the latter, I would like a moment to feel like a silly filly now. I truly thought I had discovered something new..."

"Recognizing," Pinkie apologized. "But just from words. I've never seen one. My grandma told me about them once. They're really rare. Hardly anypony's ever seen one. My grandma hadn't, or her parents, or their parents, or mine. The Princesses might have one -- maybe between them..."

Rarity managed a smile. "Half a loaf, then. All right -- I can certainly settle for such a rarity among gems." The others got her up, forced her to start walking. "But -- why 'deathstone'? Why such a horrid name for such a wonderful thing?"

"Because you're only supposed to find them where really bad things have happened."

They all stopped.

Seven thought about the mission. Spike hugged Rarity's right front leg.

"And that?" Rarity sighed. "Is most of the rest. Very well, but I refuse to judge it on superstition. And Spike?" She looked down at him, smiling. "Thank you for caring -- and please don't eat it!"

"No way!" He disengaged, stepped back and waved his arms wide, shaking his head so hard as to turn his spines into a blur. "I'm never putting that in my mouth! Not with that smell!"

"...smell?" Rarity asked, inadvertently coming close to imitating a Diamond Dog. "I can't smell anything coming off it, Spike!"

"Well, I can," the dragon insisted. "Every gem smells different, and the better it smells, the better it tastes. This one -- just don't keep it too close, please? I can stand it, but I'd rather not put up with it for long."

"I'll wrap it?" Twilight offered. Rarity nodded, and the field began to go to work.

Rarity looked around at the group as they continued to walk her in a small, tight circle. "Now: are you all quite convinced that I'm all right after my sterling effort and will not die on the spot if you stop tending to me?"

Rainbow Dash managed a smile. "Pretty much, yeah."

Applejack chuckled. "Takes a unicorn t' overwork all in one minute..."

"Good," Rarity declared. "So in that case -- I'm going to faint."

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Once Rarity had (eventually) been revived and given more of the pure water (with Rainbow Dash making sure to ask if she was picking up any hints of fish) along with more than a little food, they finished searching the canyon, this time concentrating more on signs of disaster: bloodshed, heavy magic use for dark purposes, anything which Pinkie's grandmother claimed might cause a deathstone to appear. Nothing came of it except Rarity finally protesting the name, telling them giving a beautiful thing such an awful name was inherently prejudicial for anypony who came across it and she was going to call it a shiftstone, insisting the others do the same immediately.

They did not dive in the river: ponies aren't bad swimmers in shallow water, but going very far under is a bad idea, they aren't meant to do much more than paddle and make slow progress, and the current was simply too fast. Twilight simply field-probed it as best she could while Rarity -- once the post-faint headache finally started to wear off -- completely failed to detect any other gems. Inch by inch, plodding along, hooves and tails and claws sifting the thin layer of uneven dirt. The only results were a tidying of her mane and tail by a slightly-embarassed Spike and a near-successful infliction of insanity on Rainbow Dash, who first declared that she was bored, then awesomely bored, followed by heroically bored, and finally saw her assigned to a part-time lookout (and possibly napping) cloud so she could stop driving everypony nuts with her efforts to find an effective description beyond 'heroically'.

With Rarity's faint break included, it took them more than three hours to fully search a hundred and sixty feet of ravine -- and they didn't start thinking about throwing things at Dash's cloud until the last twenty.

"Stairs? You somehow neglected to mention stairs?"

A prankster's grin. "It's your own fault for going so slow! If you'd done the complete flyover like I did, Twilight, you would have seen them from above!" And Fluttershy had scouted the other end before they'd both gone off together... "I just thought it would be a nice -- surprise for you guys, getting to climb out on your own after all that work! We'll just have to save you helping me carry ponies out for another time. I still want a few paybacks on all the times I got you."

...no. I will not get mad. I already nearly lost friends today. Twice. And it may get so much worse before it's over... Twilight simply sighed and let this one fall upon herself. She had been the one who'd insisted on the finest-toothed comb approach, because every step had to be checked off before moving to another step. With pegasi ferries across the river every fifteen feet, so they could compare and contrast both sides of a section without losing impressions by going too far upstream. Her very own exact, cautious, completely neurotic design which, after Rarity's actions, had slowed down still more because she was simply that afraid one of them would rush ahead and do something else which was the term immediately after 'heroically stupid'. And the others might not have challenged her method because of --

-- everything.

She couldn't complain about the stairs, anyway: only about Dash's style of reveal. Anything which kept her from having to fly herself (and, Celestia forbid, passengers) out was a small miracle in itself.

They weren't real stairs, of course. The shadows at the far end (which had only deepened as the day passed, while Rarity's display found them focused on her) had hidden a natural rockfall formation, smaller pieces staged off between a slide of boulders, all collapsed onto each other in such a way as to look just stable enough to risk -- and given the varying heights of mineral deposits scattered up the gradual slope, provided a fairly steep-but-possible hoof climb back to ground level. With Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy watching carefully and Twilight and Rarity keeping their fields ready, Spike took the lead, testing footing and poking at anything suspicious-seeming with his claws, occasionally giving things light taps to see if they would dislodge. There were moments when Twilight envied the little dragon, with his ability to carefully prod with feet and claws alike. Her field substituted, and just about every unicorn could say the same -- but there were still times when she imagined what it was like to hold things that way, and wondered how the earth ponies and pegasi felt while watching. How much envy they had for his simple ability to grasp. For her magic. For wings which wouldn't work.

But that was just her mind trying to distract itself, and she knew it.

Still, she managed to at least keep the pretense up through the careful exit, always with at least three watching one and her emerging last under what felt like too intense a scrutiny from Rainbow Dash. She had been making her excuses ready all the way up. She hadn't come up with a good one. The best she had was that she wanted to inspect the happily-convenient natural formation for signs of prior passage. After all, the deat -- shiftstone had to have gotten down there somehow, even if the most likely explanation was that somepony had once dropped it into a river far away and had it rush down the current until finally lodging against some small projection at the bottom of this section. She knew why Rarity appreciated the special beauty of the stone, even if the designer had already begun to complain about how difficult it would be to coordinate an outfit with so many colors. ("And I am not selling it. The Princesses may borrow it for a time...") It would take some hours before she could personally make that attempt, and perhaps much more.

Finally, they were all at the top. Pines everywhere. Narrow gaps between them. A long, probably slow, and hard squeeze ahead, almost guaranteed to scuff and possibly tear saddlebags. And no real sign of a path or trail to follow.

"Y'know what I think?" Rainbow Dash asked without particularly worrying about whether anypony's answer counted, "I think that if Discord is playing this by what he thinks is the pony way, we should start moving up here by playing it his way."

"...randomly?" Fluttershy asked.

Rainbow Dash grinned. "Randomly."

Twilight had what she felt was the natural reaction: "Are you kidding? Just pick a direction and go? No searching? No careful checking for clues and Pinkie, I don't need the hat right now, thank you -- close our eyes, spin, and point a hoof?"

"Exactly! We just spent hours down there and what did we get? One sort of cool stone which would look awesome on me --" and just like that, jewelry was no longer lame "-- an exhausted fashionista, a whole lot of wasted time, a lesson for me to never tell you to take as much as you like, and? Not one trap for me to try disarming after all the books I've read where it happens! Come on, Twilight -- I saw some of this from above, and I know how thick it is. It's going to take forever for us to make any progress even if we stick to one direction! If this is about a pony or just about anything else on land, then this is where anypony who wasn't a pegasus would have gone in or out -- and we can't track a flyer anyway! I don't mind trying to scout the perimeter for a few minutes, but we've got to try and find other ponies! Or monsters! Or anything! We're supposed to be looking for something and this is just the start of that middle thing. I say we go find some more!"

Twilight opened her mouth. Closed it. And after everything that had happened, found no words which could emerge from it except "Okay." Which got her surprised expressions and startled blinks, with Spike's reaction the strongest of all. "We'll try it for now." Once. There was a lot of 'once' being thrown around today.

They moved out, Twilight taking the lead as they squeezed past the tilted pines into the shadowed forest, her head full of long thoughts. Nearly lost all. Could have lost one. And we're just beginning... or middling -- and I still don't know why or what or where... and I was right there with both Princesses and never asked a thing, not with everypony and him there, we can't even write to Canterlot... The others followed single-file: Fluttershy close by to check for animals and worse, then Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Spike walking as close to being alongside Rarity as he could manage in order to keep an eye (if not nose) on her, and finally Applejack.

The farmer had put herself at the back on purpose. She'd told them it was to keep an eye out for threats from the rear, and that had been the truth. But it also gave her the chance to take a long look back at the ravine, up and down the full length, and finally stopping on the path out.

She adjusted her hat to shade her eyes again before following her friends, and her thoughts were longer than Twilight's.