• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,490 Views, 1,032 Comments

Triptych - Estee


When a new mission for the Element-Bearers (from an unexpected source) arrives three weeks after Twilight's ascension, she finds herself forced to confront a pair of questions: what truly makes an alicorn? And what happens if it goes wrong?

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Vanishing Point

The yellow pegasus was looking at the damage to the tree.

She backed up slightly, tilted her head so that her mane fell away from one eye, surveyed it a second time. Her default public expression -- a perpetual aura of concern that something bad had happened which was almost certainly her fault and even if it wasn't, she was going to take all the blame for it without protest because arguing almost never worked out -- deepened.

After some thought, she moved up the procession to where two of her friends were talking. "...Twilight? I'm so sorry to bother you, but..." No good: they were deep in conversation, something about field border spikes and synchronicity tuning added to a dash of Belmont's Law with a touch of Mint's Julepian flux on the side. Rarity looked somewhat dazed, and seemed as if she had been for some time.

Twilight had just picked up on it. "Some of these things are basic concepts, Rarity..."

"Really? For whom?"

"...Twilight, I don't mean to interrupt, but there's something in the trees back there, and..."

"For -- post-graduate students." Twilight looked abashed. "I'm -- going too fast again, aren't I?"

"A tad..."

"...Twilight?" The pressure of her breath was just barely enough to shift a single hair of the striped mane.

Sometimes that was enough. "Fluttershy? Is something wrong?"

"...I think you need to see this."

Within a minute, they were all gathered around the tree. "Okay, Fluttershy," Twilight said, giving her the lead position. This was her subject: there was a fair chance that the pegasus could manage to get all the way through the news. She was always a little stronger on what she saw as her own ground, where her cutie mark trumped that of all the others and her knowledge was what could get them through. A little. "Go ahead."

"...all right... see these gouges?" They all looked. Divots in the bark, about five inches across, bleeding sap. Some punctures to the left, not so deep, cone-shaped with the tree's outer layer pushed in towards the center. "...I think we have -- Flebian rams in the area. And close by. These are fresh -- a few hours old, no more."

"Okay, Fluttershy," Applejack said, her voice serious. "Not domestic, Ah know that... got no tenants with that tag on 'em..." Which meant she would defer. "Let's hear the straight skinny. Do they have brains?"

Fluttershy shook her head. "...not sentient. Just -- mean." Her voice was naturally less hesitant when she was talking about her field, but no less soft. "Picture a sheep, make it about forty percent bigger, blue-grey, and three times as strong. Very good sense of smell. Cloven hooves, sharp at the front. Straighten the wool, move the ears all the way to the absolute top of the skull, like an insect's antennae. Give it two horns on the sides of its head where ears would normally go, which they usually keep curled into a tight spiral about a foot and a half across -- they project out about five inches ahead of the muzzle that way. Sharp teeth. Omnivores. They -- they can move their horns, change the shape. Straight out like spears to puncture, curled for battering. Sometimes out to the sides to catch something charging them that way. And they're nasty. Hyper-territorial. Anything living they see, unless it's at least six times their size, they'll treat one of two ways. Try to fight it to establish that this is their place -- or kill it for food."

Twilight had the picture and wished she didn't. She hated having to ask the next questions, especially of Fluttershy, but there was no other choice. "Do they eat ponies? Can you use the Stare on them if you have to? And what's the best way to fight them?" A little more softly, "If it does come to a fight, do we have to kill?"

Fluttershy shivered. "We're not -- their first choice of diet. They go for smaller animals first -- lower their heads and spear-scoop. And they -- play with their food. But if they could kill us, they would. And there's a few of them. They travel in packs called charges to bring larger animals down. Judging from the differences in the gouges --" she tilted her head to indicate other trees with similar wounds: her mane shifted back again "-- at least four in this one. The Stare -- would feel like a dominance challenge to them. They'd just charge -- and if I didn't do it, they'd charge anyway. They charge rocks when they're in a bad mood, and you can see what they did to the trees, they can knock down small ones if they hit them right... Fighting them... very hard heads and their bodies are designed to take impact from the front: you can't charge them or hit them head-on and expect to do much. Hit them from behind. Not from the sides. When their horns are spiraled, they can't see to the sides -- but they listen in those directions and if you charge them, they point a horn that way and..." A full shudder. "No defenses against magic. They can rotate their horns straight up, so if you swoop them, you have to watch for how far they can reach -- and uncurled, that's almost all the way to their tails. Move that straight up, and..."

Rainbow Dash nodded. She too was taking this seriously -- although that didn't prevent her from using the information to plan out a little showboating. "But I could come in really low from the back and knock out their feet, right? Or carry them straight up and drop them?"

"...maybe... if you were really careful about the approach angle... the horns twist very fast... They always paw at the ground before they charge, so there's a little warning. Our best chance is to avoid them if we can, but their sense of smell is so good... Depending on the wind, they may catch us first -- and if they don't want to eat, they will want to fight." She took a deep breath. "They can be forced to back off: they'd turn around and pretend they never met us. But we'd at least have to hurt them first -- they're hard to scare. They're too angry to frighten most of the time. If it was a fight..." She let the trail-off and shudder speak for her: yes, there was a chance they would have to kill. "And if we don't meet them, don't make them remember us -- then the next pony they find..." She forced herself to take a breath. It required more than one attempt. "Because they're wild, they can be spooked by fire sometimes..." A look at Spike. "But since you're smallest, they'll -- see you as prey before they'll think of you as a challenge. They'll charge low to spear..."

The little dragon nodded, looking solemn. "I'm faster than you think, Fluttershy."

Which did nothing to ease her concern -- but then, hardly anything ever did. "...I hope so -- but if we start a fire -- the trees aren't as thick as they were, but there's all these old leaves on the ground -- it's a little damp after the rain, but we could still wind up in the middle of a blaze..."

"I'll be careful," Spike promised. "Twilight, I know it's part of our rations, but -- I think I'd better have a gem now." Twilight nodded, opened her left saddlebag with a flicker of field and began removing contents one by one.

"...we'll hear them before we see them," Fluttershy promised. "They can't not batter things, not with all these trees around. Just -- keep rotating your ears. I don't know what they smell like, though..." Embarrassed by that. "This is all from books..."

Books Fluttershy had read very carefully: she took it as her responsibility to know all about what they might run into in the wild zones, ever since their first meeting with Zecora -- animals first and foremost, of course, but with a new secondary focus on the more dangerous plants. Not knowing about the Poison Joke had left a long-term mark. "All right, everypony -- you heard her," Twilight said. "Fluttershy, do you want us close together or spread out?" The former, but with the option to break as soon a ram saw them, presenting multiple targets: the creatures worked in narrow focus and, once an opponent was picked, were unlikely to switch. Two-on-one or worse against them was almost a foreign concept, so as long as ponies outnumbered attackers... A few more possible tactics were discussed, and then, "Got it. No talking for a while, everypony: keep your ears to the compass and look for more of those gouges."

They moved on as a tight knot of sentience against the random malevolence of the wild zone.

Not sentient. Twilight hated that. Intelligence was double-edged here: a sentient species was better able to plan against you, but there was also a chance to talk them out of things. Creatures which were four-footed and around pony size were at least a little self-aware more often than not, and the majority of Equestria's talking races were quadrupeds. Mindlessly charging animals looking to dominate everything around them on instinct... there was almost nothing they could do with that. Avoid or fight: no other choices. Given any option at all, Twilight wanted 'avoid'. But Fluttershy was right: the animals could be a danger to any other ponies who came in here -- and the mere fact that Fluttershy had brought it up (if semi-indirectly) showed how much of a threat she considered these animals to be. Part of the pegasus didn't want the rams hurt -- but the majority didn't want any ponies hurt. And it still tore her up inside every time.

Don't start fights: end them. A lesson from before Twilight's time in Ponyville, one her father had given to her before she'd started school. And like most parental advice, it didn't always work. Her brother had been more accurate: "There are times when the only way to end things is by being the one who kicks first, Twily -- but you'd better be sure.'' And he had talked to her about ponies who would try to pick fights to get her in trouble, about ponies who would lie and say she'd started everything, and all the other dangers of being in a group of social-climbing students who saw the fastest route to the top as being through stepping on everypony else. It had not been a reassuring lesson to head into her entrance examination with, and at least a little of the blame for her stress that day could be laid at his hooves.

He'd been right, of course. She'd seen those kinds of ponies in school. Lots of them. But most of them hadn't wanted to climb over her. They'd seen it as easier to attach a rope and let her haul them along. In retrospect, she had often wished for the fights...

...a squeal. Pained, agonized, a high-pitched scream of animal agony -- and then, a few seconds later, a collision, something hard against wood...

Fluttershy repressed the audible part of the gasp: it was only visible as a single shuddering breath. Her ears rotated a little, twitched to the same direction everypony else was orienting on: left. "...I can't smell anything," she whispered. "the air is too still... but that sounded close..." More collisions, two this time. Another squeal. The first one hadn't died away. It sounded as if it would go on for the rest of the animal's life, and it sounded as if that wasn't going to be very long. Fluttershy shivered. "...they're too close... maybe they were eating and just started hunting again for extras -- or fun..."

Twilight automatically looked around. Nothing visible. Their current area was still heavily forested, but there was enough room to twist and dodge. Some old trees which were large enough to hide behind if facing them directly -- nothing was wide enough to conceal a perpendicular pony form -- a few saplings straining upwards towards the remaining canopy gaps to make their own claim of Sun. Said canopy still too thick overhead for aerial evacuation (and for that, she would have at least tried as the last resort), branches not particularly trustworthy if it came down to the pegasus-assisted desperation hijinks known as Ponies Up A Tree. No clouds within easy reach for drenchings or lightning scares. Not ideal fighting ground. Which didn't matter to Rainbow Dash, who was visibly already thinking about it and had been since Fluttershy had first begun her description. After all, what would Daring Do have done?

Count on the author to get her out of it. Not an option here. "Okay, everypony..." she whispered to the group. "Easy..."

And the breeze hit them, moved towards the sounds...

There were bleats of surprise. Anger. Challenge.

"Aw, horse apples," Applejack muttered.

And that was the last thing anypony said before the charge of rams erupted from the woods.

Five of them: they did outnumber their opponents. But the rams (teeth bared in challenge, teeth bloody, more blood dripping from the horns of two, a pair had those spirals and the others were in spear formation) were choosing who they would take on, looking for the weakest among them to dominate and the strongest to knock out all at the same time --

-- the pegasi did as they'd planned. "Over here, ugly!" Rainbow Dash yelled. "All the more meat to chew on: six servings instead of four! Come on, over here! The more colors, the more flavors!"

Fluttershy, fears pushed back for a little while so that they could overwhelm when there was more time, was doing the same -- if at lesser volume. "Me! Don't you want me?" And they were peeling off from the group while staying on the ground, moving in front of the biggest trees they could find...

Rarity was getting her saddlebag open, speed-sifting through the contents. Twilight let her field flow forward, reaching towards the largest, the one Fluttershy said would be the leader. Applejack had the lasso out. Pinkie Pie -- she couldn't see what Pinkie Pie was doing and wasn't sure she wanted to...

...the rams charged. Two picked a pegasus each, their horns uncurling into spears as they charged. One headed for Twilight, one for Applejack and the last, one with no blood anywhere in the filthy matted and tangled coat, the smallest and hungriest, went directly for Spike.

She was aware of a sudden downdraft, heard the impacts as the rams went into the trees, the pegasi suddenly overhead --

-- and then she had her own to worry about.

Her field had surrounded it: she lifted, heard the bleat of surprise, threw it backwards towards the first thing in the way: one of the taller, thinnest saplings. The ram twisted around within the field before she could tighten her grip, went into the wood headfirst, there was a crack, the wood splitting up and down and across, the tree tilting forward, coming down towards her --

-- no time to think, no time to fully release her field and choose the tree as a new target. No time to get a better orientation on what was going on around her. No time. In the fresh chaos of combat already starting to break away from the plan, Twilight violated the first rule of teleportation and went between without a full understanding of her arrival point, her ears only distantly aware of the sound of flame, the bleat of anger and yet another impact, what could have been a branch breaking off from the channeled force --

-- came out eighteen feet away.

In the space that plummeting broken branch had just begun to pass through.

And then she had exactly enough time to realize she was screwed.

Oh Celestia, please don't let this hurt too much --

-- the recoil hit.

She could teleport into a gaseous medium without trouble. Arriving in liquid would displace her own volume: Archineighdes Principle. (It wasn't pleasant, but it could be done.) Small objects -- blades of grass, specks of dust -- would be pushed aside harmlessly. A particularly thin and fragile solid -- anything of less than a twentieth of her own density and a few ounces in weight at best -- stood some chance of breaking around her as she arrived: it was how she'd popped the Crusaders' ball just before the heart of the Smarty Pants Incident had begun. But anything larger and more dense than that would not permit her entry. She could not disrupt its structure and it thankfully would not merge with hers: two solids refused to occupy the same space. The arriving teleporter would be displaced, sent moving in a completely random direction until they found enough open space for their body to arrive in. And the farther they had to go, the faster they would wind up moving. It was one of the reasons those unicorns who could teleport tended to be obsessive about keeping their arrival points clear: move a table three feet to the right and send a pony two and a half Celests into the ceiling. You didn't teleport to a site you couldn't see or didn't know by heart, not unless there was, just for example, a pack of angry teenage dragons after you, your younger brother and two friends, and you were too freaked out to think and needed to get some distance immediately between the group and enemies who could fly faster than two could gallop, and she'd been lucky that time, all arrived safely with a correct guess at the height of the ground ahead.

This time, the recoil took her, instantly accelerated her body to a half-gallop as it tossed her diagonally to the right and up, she tried to get her field ahead of her to push off anything ahead, even opened her wings in the desperate hopes that it would do something, but --

-- the right side of her head went into the wood, and she fell two Celests to the forest floor, vision spinning. Her eyes wouldn't focus. Her field wouldn't focus. But she could still hear, and there was an angry bleat, pounding cloven hooves moving closer, she couldn't get a spell going, couldn't get up, couldn't fly, couldn't --

-- at least I don't have to see --

-- and there was a roar of "NO!", moving just ahead of the flame.

The ram's bleat turned into a scream of mindless agony: it veered off, barely missed her to the right, charged off into the trees...

Spike's head swiveled back towards his own ram, the one he had initially dodged rather than take on directly and allow his sister to be hurt. Twilight's blurred vision could just make it out, starting to turn for a second charge, pawing at the ground. She was distantly aware of a new sound, rope cutting through air, another bleat as Applejack snared some part of her foe, but Spike needed a few seconds to get a second burst and he might not have it --

-- six double-vision twinkles of blue glow shot past her, and there was a new animal scream in the woods.

Twilight barely managed to get her head up, turned to see Rarity with her portable pincushion (the non-reptilian one) within her field, twelve -- six? -- more long pins held as separate miniature missiles ready for the launch. "Dreadfully sorry!' she called out to the ram. "I would use much finer ones, but I don't know where the nearest shop is for a resupply! And normally I'd let you keep them, but I'm going to need those back for that same reason, thanks ever so...!" And the original shots went past going in the opposite direction.

A pink blur moved into Twilight's vision, stopped just off to her right. "We are not playing Pin The Horns On The Pony!" Pinkie declared. "Come and get me, smelly! Phew -- do you charge your mother with that coat? Rarity, what's the spa rate for Never Had A Bath In Your Life? Nyah-nyah!" To Twilight's dazed eyes, it looked as if Pinkie had a sparkler at each corner of her mouth. The earth pony probably did. Some party supplies always made it into the saddlebags. "Over here, Sir Odoriferous of Stinkville!" And she moved, luring one off, the one which was getting sick of charging into Fluttershy's chosen trees -- which just let a rainbow trail swoop past and come in from behind before a bleat of purest outrage exploded through the air...

...and within seconds, it was over.

Fluttershy landed next to her. "Talk to me." No hesitation here, not when the situation was medical in nature. "Full name, location, last thing you remember."

Twilight groaned. "Twilight Sparkle of House Twinkle. I did something stupid. I can't tell you where I am because none of us know. Oh, my head..."

A gentle hoof softly touched the impact area, triggering a fresh round of fireworks in her vision. "Nothing broken," Fluttershy told her. "But you're going to have a nasty bruise for a while. You're lucky you hit so close to the horn: that's where your skull is thickest. Any concussion symptoms?"

"Some double vision, but it's starting to clear..." Twilight shook her head in an attempt to get rid of the last bits, immediately regretted it. "OW! Fluttershy, did you pack any --"

"...sorry, Twilight." With the worst of it over, the forcefulness had vanished. "...I thought -- it was just a ride into Canterlot..."

Twilight sighed. No surprise, no blame. Fluttershy normally kept a few animal remedies in her saddlebags as a perpetual just-in-case, but she had made the same assumption on pony medical supplies as everypony else had on everything else: that they would have gotten it before leaving the palace. If I'd just looked at that underlayer a little closer, if I'd just wondered about it... "I understand."

"...I should just start carrying stuff anyway, shouldn't I? I'm so sorry..."

The others gathered around her, helped her up. Twilight blearily checked for other injuries -- nothing: she was the only one who'd gotten hurt. None of the forest was ablaze. There were no ram bodies on the ground: they'd been frustrated, injured, and in one case, mega-goosed into departure. They wouldn't be taking on ponies any more --

-- no, wait: one ram on the ground. Alive and uninjured, tied up with Applejack's lasso. And -- two other animals. Woodchucks. Gored, bleeding, soft squeals coming out of broken bodies --

-- Twilight turned away.

Fluttershy didn't. "...I..." Her voice broke. She took several slow breaths. "...I need -- some time."

The other six looked away from her, headed for the lassoed ram.

Applejack looked down at the snorting, twisting animal, matted coat scraping leaves and rot from the forest floor as it writhed on the ground, unable to work itself free. They weren't standing too close: the horns were curling and uncurling, rotating in all directions as it tried to hurt the ones who had captured it -- but it couldn't think, not on their level, and the idea of using a horn on the rope binding its legs would never come. "So -- what are we gonna do with it?"

"I still," Rarity harshly declared, "have all my pins. I left the other with one eye after it went for Spike." The anger was high in her voice, her tail lashing enough to briefly straighten the elaborate curling. "Do you think this one has learned enough of a lesson to keep both? Will it remember, or is it going to head for the first little dragon it sees should we let it go?"

Spike was staring at Rarity. So were the others -- but for Fluttershy, too far away to see the rage. "I'm okay, Rarity --"

"-- you almost weren't! I will not let these things hurt you, any more than you would have allowed them to hurt me. Twilight, if you sent it to the ravine..."

Twilight shook her head. Things spun. "I'd have to go with it -- and I shouldn't try too much of anything until the headache clears." Side of her head: she'd actually been lucky. If it had been horn-first -- no risk of fracture, the horn itself was pretty much impossible to break with impact, but she'd been trying to use her field at the time... recoil with a chance of backlash, one after the other. Decidedly not one of her better days, and that was before she factored everything else in.

"I understand," Rarity consoled her -- but then the unicorn's gaze returned to the ram, and it was no less furious for the brief interruption. "I am still very open to ideas."

The fury was no surprise to any of them. Rarity's natural inclinations did not go towards violence -- but Spike's temporary growth spurt had nearly turned into horrible consequences. Several self-important authorities claiming to work for Canterlot, who had accompanied the ones distributing the latest round of building supplies and relief funds two days after, had taken it upon themselves to try and 'confiscate' the dragon, declaring him a threat, a menace, and an animal who had to be caged -- and 'caged' was only the word they were using in public. They had claimed authority directly from the Princesses, and that any pony who tried to stop them would wind up in exile, no matter who they were or what their relationship to Princess Celestia was. They had been lying. They were kidnappers working under an air of false legitimacy, and Rarity had been the one who stalled them long enough for a teary-eyed Twilight to write the letter which uncovered the lies. But she had initially stalled the three with words, and then with a physical block -- and finally by turning into the first to physically and magically take them on. It hadn't taken long for the others to join her.

Twilight had been expecting consequences. Expecting the Princess -- to take Spike away. Blame her for not learning about the thankfully-temporary growth spurt which could overcome a dragon of Spike's age. She had initially believed the kidnappers had that authority, hadn't challenged them, seen their arrival as confirmation of her terrors. Rarity hadn't. She had bought them time, turned the others (who'd had similar fears) around, and led the charge. The Princess had arrived minutes later -- but not the Princess they had been expecting. Spike, who had himself been waiting for the fourth horseshoe to drop, unable to sleep, crying into Twilight's coat for hours in shame and regret, had, in his fear and lingering self-hatred, fumbled a letter for the first time in his life. Luna had received the scroll.

Luna had not been happy.

She had not been happy all over the town square, which was where she kept the false officials in casual high-speed orbit for an hour before bothering to notify her sister.

After a long talk with all non-criminal parties involved, Celestia had told an assembled Ponyville that a dragon's life cycle was little understood: Spike was one of the first to spend so much time among ponies, the first raised from the hatching of his egg. That Zecora had lore they did not. And now that they knew what had happened, the warning signs, and the cure, Spike would remain in Ponyville, and it would take a town to help raise, love, and forgive a young dragon who hadn't known what was happening to him, who would have given anything to make it stop. Who had made it stop. And then the Princesses had left, taking the kidnappers with them.

In time, Ponyville had forgiven Spike, the same way they had eventually forgiven Twilight for a certain doll: they now understood what had happened with the little dragon and simply took extra precautions around his birthday, which was now an event where Spike received far more than a single book, getting gifts from many of the townsponies -- and for each gift he received, giving out two.

(Ultimately, the largest post-incident problem had come from the press. It had been Twilight's first real introduction to Murdocks' muckraking and mud-stirring corps: they had followed Spike for weeks, throwing questions at him in attempts to induce rage or tearful breakdowns and when that hadn't worked, switched to giving him things, trying to bring on the initial stage of a second outbreak which they could photograph for their stories -- a little something to accompany all the articles about Princess Celestia's ignorance and how it made her unfit to rule, she should turn the government over to the Day and Night Courts immediately and of course Luna had to be deposed as well because any real ruler would have caught up on those basic unknown facts by now. A furious Spike had donated every item to charity, and the reporters had wound up in court on charges of Attempting To Induce A Dragon To Riot. The resulting fine had been massive (and had also gone to charity), with the sheer breathtaking number of bits involved keeping Ponyville free of virtually any reporter who wasn't school-based until Gabby Gums began publishing, at which point they decided the gossip flow was worth the risk and began to slowly return in a sludgelike flow of unstoppable sewage.)

But Rarity had not forgotten any of it, especially the reason Spike had found himself within the beast -- and none of her testimony at the kidnappers' trial had shown a single hint of forgiveness towards them. No pony tried to hurt Spike on her watch, and the normally peaceful unicorn could turn into a white blaze of field-slinging fury at the mere suggestion of a scratch to any scale. Her anger at the absent ram she had needle-speared was being transferred to the captured one. No pony was surprised --

-- but no pony was going to let her take it out on the helpless animal, either. "I can just grab the rope and go drop it off somewhere, " Rainbow Dash proposed. "From low altitude, Rarity. The fight's over -- it's beaten." The pegasus tended to be a gracious victor after the initial boasting celebration wore off.

"And how do you know it won't attack another dragon or pony? Is a rope enough to stick in its mind?"

"It's angry," Applejack considered. "Ah think it will charge if we let it go here..." She gave the lasso a long look. "Had t' use a lot of rope to get it hogtied, an' Ah had to back off when it got too short..." Checked the end of the lasso, which was far too close to the rotating horns. "Rarity, I hate t' ask --" and her face showed it: she would take help from friends now, but virtually any loss of self-sufficiency still rankled the farmer "-- but when we decide, would you unwrap that for me? Ah don't think Ah can get that close right now, an' Ah don't want t' lose it."

"Of course, Applejack... but we have to decide first."

And they were all looking at Twilight.

They would have been looking at me before the wings, too. She tried to clear her head again. Nothing helped. "I think -- we move back a good distance, and Rarity unwraps it from there, but keeps one loop around a leg. If it charges for us or Fluttershy, she yanks it back..." With average field strength. So actually, "Rarity -- can you?"

The white unicorn eyed the writhing ram. "Not quite -- but how about tying one end to a tree and then still keeping the loop on? All I need is a trick knot or two. Once we see how it wants to move --" reluctant, distaste still present and wanting to get a vote in "-- we can let it go -- if it's learned enough to run away."

"That could work," Twilight decided.

"Good. Now all I need is the right trick knot -- Applejack, would you teach me one, please? Mine are rather meant to stay together."

A few fast lessons practiced on a twisted fabric sample later, they had their setup. "And if it moves towards us," Rarity cautioned, "are you ready, Spike?"

"Ready."

Her field surrounded the rope, moved it. The ram realized something was happening almost immediately, regained its feet as they were freed, tried to bite at the remaining tie while ponies and dragon backed away -- then looked at them. Seemed to be thinking about how tight that last loop was. Pawed at the ground. Charged.

Spike, whose aim had been prealigned, breathed out. Just a little. And one very loud bleat later, a ram with a lightly singed and quickly respiraling right horn was crashing through the trees, trying to get back to its charge and find anything to hunt which wasn't a pony and didn't come with scales and fire. There had to be plenty of those around -- somewhere else. Somewhere far away, where it and its fellows could begin the process of pretending nothing which smelled and looked like what they hadn't ever fought existed and would take great pains to make sure nothing like what had never happened in the first place ever happened again.

Spike shrugged. "Slow learners," he opinionated -- then looked at Rarity. With that familiar, slightly dopey smile which he only got around the unicorn, "You saved my life again."

"And you've saved mine. Are we keeping a running tally?"

He laughed. "Twilight made me take the count out of the Code." But the smile didn't fade.

Fluttershy slowly trotted up. "...I'm ready." She looked up at the canopy, noted the colors visible in the specks of sky as the fast-dropping Sun began the final portion of its descent. "...we need a clearing... we'll need to make camp soon..."

They continued through the forest. No sounds followed them.

And Twilight thought about the other part of Fluttershy's tending to her flock and the beloved pets of Ponyville, the part no pony talked about, the bit everypony seemed aware of and never discussed. How Fluttershy understood the natural cycle best of them all, and there were ponies whose cherished companions were sick beyond help or injured past recovery, ponies who would bring their loved ones to Fluttershy knowing that the fragile pegasus would take them in. Would cool them with water and ice, would give them the medicines to take their pain away in the final hours, would gently stroke a wing against their heads as she whispered words of comfort to them. Words which would be the last ones the animals ever heard. She understood predator and prey, knew the necessity, but she mourned regardless -- and when either one could no longer continue, or a cherished friend was about to take the final gallop, Fluttershy would be there. She never let any animal who had been a friend go alone into the dark.

They had not watched her as she went to the woodchucks. Not listened. Tried not to notice when the squealing stopped.

Rainbow Dash, already moving close to her friend, suddenly pressed tighter, their feathers touching, cyan brushing into yellow. They walked together that way, with one pegasus carefully not paying attention to the tears in the other's eyes.

For Fluttershy would leave no poor thing to suffer.

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"So who's got a story?" Rainbow Dash asked. "Mine -- might need a little work." One of the traveling conversations had turned into a flank-blistering lesson regarding wanton cruelty to the common comma. (In retrospect, bringing half the first draft of Volume One? Not a great idea. Especially for Twilight, who had read as much as she could stand with her headache before beginning the harsh edits. To wit, three paragraphs. Or something which was meant to be paragraphs without ever quite making it.)

"I've got a new one!" Pinkie happily declared. "Cranky taught me some donkey legends! Have any of you ever heard about the travels of Donkey Hote?"

"Aw, no," Applejack groaned. "Not a donkey story..."

Pinkie fixed Applejack with a sudden hard stare, which had to cross the full fire circle -- they were on opposite sides -- and picked up extra heat along the way. "And what have you got against donkeys?"

A fast, defensive, "Nothin'! It's jus' that -- all their stories always end the same way. Badly. Everypony dies, or everypony was jus' dreamin' the whole time an' their real lives are miserable, or the lovers find each other an' then one of them dies out of nowhere, or they both do, or there's that stinker where one killed his fool self thinkin' the other was dead, an' then she wakes up an' sees he's dead, so she lies down an' dies next t' him, then both their families get mad an' they all kill each other. It ain't a donkey story unless there's a pile of bodies in the middle of the last page an' every survivin' character is so depressed, they're fixin' t' join 'em."

"But this one's really funny! It's got all sorts of comedy in it! And -- I don't want to ruin the best part, but just wait until you hear the bit with the windmill...."

"Yeah? How's it end?"

"Um..."

And that ended the longest exchange Twilight had seen Pinkie and Applejack have since they'd made camp. The earth ponies had worked hard to help clean the ground in the small clearing, ring a fire pit with rocks, and Applejack had rigged an earth pony firestarter stick to get the actual blaze going with. (They were already working to conserve Spike's reserves. Twilight had watched the process with some interest, making a number of mental notes which managed to find their proper filing area in her somewhat-less aching head. Not as effective as magic, certainly, but -- workable.) But they weren't talking.

It had been a long day for everypony, though -- and threatened to be a longer night. They were on short rations and would remain so until they found a source of food. Water hadn't been a problem and wouldn't be as long as Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy could find and wrestle down clouds -- although that usually just meant Dash. But no food had appeared, and they'd carefully divided out a third of what they had between them before sharing it among the group. The rest had been grass. Twilight hadn't eaten wild grass in years, and it had grown no tastier during the long abeyance. The others had wound up with similar reactions, starting from Rainbow Dash openly wiping off her tongue on her removed saddlebag through Rarity repeatedly asking for "Just a little more water, please -- I swear, Applejack, I'd sooner have a mug of Flim-Flam cider than this rot..." and Fluttershy finally deciding the real reason the herbivorous part of her flock stayed around was just to avoid this experience.

"I've had good grass, truly I have," Rarity assured them. "Hentucky Blue -- there's nothing finer for a light snack when a lady is watching her figure before everypony else can get a peek. But this? Is not it. This is enough to make one think about meat." She -- and several other ponies -- shuddered. "I believe something marked territory on this. Several times."

"Starting a fire is marking territory," Spike pointed out. "At least for some of us... Twilight, how's your head?"

She sighed. "Getting there. I can --" she checked: yes, she could surround and lift one of the waiting firewood branches "-- handle the basics. But..." Her head twinged, and it moved up the scale from there. "...that's it: basics. I'm sorry, but -- I can't manage a shield spell tonight. They're always harder without a structure to anchor on, and the way I'm feeling..."

"Just rest up," Spike said. "I've seen you try to do too many things when you're not in the right condition before, remember?"

Twilight managed a small chuckle. "There's no dorm nurse to pull me to any more, either."

Rainbow Dash looked briefly curious. "Wait -- Twilight's gotten hurt trying new tricks?"

"Exhausted, usually," Spike explained. "She'd try too much, or for too long, before she was really ready, and --" a quick look at his big sister: the smile told him to continue "-- was too stubborn to stop. There were a lot of nights in the dorm when she'd just keep pushing until she passed out." A side glance to Rarity (after another check with Twilight). "And one of them was after the differentiation lesson."

Twilight sighed. "I was just so sure I was overlooking something really basic..."

Rarity was intrigued. "So -- over your full school terms, how many times did you...?"

Brother and sister together, "Nine." Spike laughed, then added "And she's heavier than she looks, and the nurse was two floors down, and I had to bring the patient to the office when it was drain because it was supposed to be a lesson to me, so I'd stop her the next time -- but have you ever tried stopping Twilight when she gets a problem she wants to solve?"

Twilight managed a smile. "I've gotten better."

"Yeah. Now you usually stagger to bed on your own."

Twilight ruefully nodded. "And I know better than to try a shield spell when I'm like this -- so I'm sorry, everypony, but we'll have to stand watches tonight."

"...I can take the first one," Fluttershy volunteered. "...and maybe the last. I'm not tired, really... I can stay up for a few hours and let everypony rest..."

"Ah can stand the first one," Applejack gently offered. "It was a long day for you, sugarcube."

"...but really... I'm not tired..."

"Well -- if yer sure..."

"...I'm fine."

"Okay. But Ah'll get second."

Pinkie Pie volunteered for the third -- "I would have been up anyway" -- and that brought them back to the original problem. "So -- no donkey stories because some ponies don't want to risk a sad ending, at least in a story." A long, clearly miffed look at Applejack. "Anypony else got a new one, then?"

"I know one about Star Swirl --" Twilight began, and stopped as the usual result manifested at the instant she hit the name: five ponies and one dragon simultaneously pretending to fall asleep. "Oh, come on! One night, I'm going to tell this!"

"But not tonight!" Rainbow Dash chortled. "Oh, and --" suddenly quieter, just a little "-- it is night, and -- we're on a mission, and -- you know, Fluttershy had a really long day... I don't mind if anypony wants to -- say it." The looks passed around the fire circle, picked up no heat. "The one for wanderers. I'll even lead, okay?"

Another circle of glances, this time with Dash excluded -- and then they all nodded.

Rainbow Dash got up, stood on all four hooves, looked up at the star-filled night sky.

Softly, with the voices of the others behind her, "Luna watch over us, for we know not where we are. Luna guide us, for we know not where we travel. Luna protect us, for we know not who we will meet. Luna keep us under your wings under blessed night until waking day, when Celestia will stand her watch. Luna watch over us -- and know we love..."

She sank back down, ruffled her wings a few times. "It's funny," she said quietly. "My dad taught me that one when I was a filly, and I thought -- it was just another name for the Moon. Maybe everypony did when they were that young. And they still made sure we learned it... Pinkie?"

The earth pony's right ear had just gone back. Then forward. Wriggled twice. Repeated the cycle.

Pinkie looked directly at Twilight, raised a hoof to her mouth as if wiping away grass stains, blocked her lip movements from casual side view, mouthed the confirming words.

They were being watched.

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She heard the voices at the same moment she saw the light. And then she moved closer, as close as she dared, for these were other ponies -- and they might have information.

And there she had stayed.

There were six of them: the voices told her that much. Six. She'd set a personal record. (Plus one, seven altogether, but that one almost did not seem to be a pony at all -- improbability upon strangeness.) She could see three of them from this angle, her body crouched low in tall grass, hidden in the shadows of thick trees. The pain was very much with her, would never leave, and the urge to vocalize it kept crashing against the barrier of her clenched jaw -- but she had not uttered a sound since reaching this position. She would not.

Three ponies. In her sight. At the same time.

Two were pegasi. One was cyan, and her mane and tail flowed with all the colors of a prism. Her voice was brash, and she had trouble staying still: little shifts of the hooves, vibrations of the wings. A sense of flight temporarily postponed and ready to be instantly resumed. She looked at the world as if deciding which parts of it she might want to own. The cutie mark -- a tri-color lighting bolt, plus a cloud. Possibly worked in weather manipulation. The second -- a classic beauty, she knew that much from some of the books and a few memories kept towards the back. A lovely shade of yellow, the long mane and tail a hue of pink she desperately wanted to remember in full detail later (if a normal 'later' had still existed), shy eyes and a retiring posture. There was also a sense of movement waiting to resume with that one, but of a different kind: she flinched at the cracks and pops from the fire, seemed ready to flee at any harsher noise. The mark -- three butterflies, and that almost sent a signal all the way through her agony, nearly made a new thought come. Put together with the names, and it felt as if she should know them. Something mentioned -- something overheard...

The third was orange. Three apples on the flank. Muscular, strong. A blonde mane and the thickest tail she'd ever seen, one which needed a loop of thin rope at the very end just to keep the hairs from going everywhere. A hat -- the second one with a hat: the cyan pegasus was wearing one in a strange style, but she clearly wasn't comfortable with it, had been distractedly adjusting it for much of the watching time. But this orange mare, the one with the freckled face, almost seemed to have hers as an extension of her body. It hardly shifted when she moved, only changing position when she wanted it to. Why hide the horn that way? The hat would forever be in the way of a field, an initial obstacle to be overcome for every spell. A strange fashion choice at best.

Two of the hidden others were definitely unicorns: there had been talk of spells. One was talented -- a shield spell had been part of the discussion: even if she could not cast it now, just being able to manage it normally raised her in the ranks. She couldn't begin to take a guess at the sixth, a voice which ranged from enthusiastic to happy through overjoyed with occasional stops at deeper, harsher emotions. One of the hidden unicorns had a faint Canterlot accent overlaid with something else: time spent in the city, but not a lifetime. For the rest of them -- none had accents she could place, or ones where she had been told the origins. The other unseen unicorn had an accent she wasn't sure existed.

But there was no shield spell. And the orange mare's saddlebags were resting on the ground, one was open --

-- and she could see food within.

They had not spoken about him. They sounded as if they were lost. No help to follow them from a distance --

-- but I could listen, I could hear them talking if I stayed far enough back, I could just --

-- no. Following those who didn't know where they were or where they were going was begging to make things worse. Company for a night, company who would never know she had been there.

Company with food in an open saddlebag.

She was so hungry.

It was their food. They seemed to have very little.

But --

-- she was so hungry...

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Twilight had never learned any spells for communication without sound. She had heard legends of them: castings which allowed ponies to speak mind-to-mind (although never for long or too closely: the legends claimed thoughts would leak, ones meant not to be sent crossing the gap, incidental memories following along), but had never found one in the library. Spells existed to replicate sound at a short distance, but the sound had to be made first. Being hit by a spell would sometimes let the target experience some of the caster's emotional resonance, but -- that meant being hit by a spell, and it required a powerful caster along with, typically, a not particularly friendly spell. Not something subtle to be done by firelight. Making plans without tipping off the spy would be difficult -- perhaps impossible.

Pinkie Sense. She had learned to trust it. She had also learned to check the condition and relative proximity of all available medical supplies whenever it started going off. She'd never identified a pattern to its manifestations (other than the one which said 'And I will be aching for hours at the very least') -- except for one: it most typically showed up when Pinkie had been -- well -- not partying for a while. If the baker had strength to spare and no social calendar dates to cross off for the day, that was when Pinkie Sense was likely to appear. Not guaranteed -- just more probable. All this told her was that it took a certain amount of energy to work. Every other detail remained a mystery, and one she had almost given up on trying to solve.

It was going off now, and it said they were being watched. Twilight had faith in that. And she knew their medical supply situation was horrible.

"My father taught it to me too," she admitted. Raised a hoof to her own mouth to wipe away her own imaginary grass remnants, mouthed Pony? Pinkie nodded and made a point of blinking a single time: just one. "Maybe they're words for fathers to pass on..."

"It is funny, really," Rarity smoothly acted, stretching her legs and arching her back: just loosening up, nothing to worry about, surely wasn't going to leave the fire and go check anything. "Mine too -- and he's not exactly a stallion much concerned with words." She very carefully did not look at the surrounding shadows.

"Mine didn't," Pinkie said. "But my family was -- different that way." Her right front hoof casually flicked a non-existent bug away -- then another. Both in the same direction.

Twilight judged the angle. Somewhere behind me and off to the left... Well, there was only so much grass to wipe away without...

Reluctantly, she captured some more in her field, forced herself to take a very messy bite just so she could get rid of the excess. She wished she had left more excess. Hostile? her lips asked while her tongue vowed to hate her forever.

Pinkie gave her a mildly dirty look, because of course she had to do the same. A frustrated, disgusted chew, and then she mouthed Can't tell...

All right. A single pony, somewhere in the dark, watching them. Possibly lost. Potentially a spy. Maybe even -- could they be this lucky? -- the mission, and that would wrap things up in a single night and get them home, which meant it was completely impossible. One pony, if it came down to hostilities, against six Element-Bearers with a dragon on the side. But a pony who had made no offensive move.

They all knew what was going on now, had enough experience with Pinkie Sense to have some of the more common sequences memorized -- and given the number of poorly-hidden photographers around Ponyville, 'we're being watched' was currently as common as it got -- but they didn't have a plan yet. And there were reasons for a single pony to be hiding in the dark which weren't bad for them, although Twilight was having trouble thinking of any. A reporter out here? How many bushes did she need to probe? Was she in any condition to try a blind circle-sweep and see what she could identify, especially with a tree right behind her to disrupt and so many others out in the forest --

-- and then she felt it, a split-second before seeing it.

Magic. Uncertain. Disorganized. Off. There was something -- misaligned about it, as if it wasn't quite right, like there were other factors trying to find their way into the watcher's field, not so much contamination as a weird blend, and she couldn't pin it down --

-- eyesight took over.

There was a hint of color inside one of Applejack's saddlebags. The open one. The one they'd taken some of their dinner from.

Slowly, the color strengthened. It was gold, oddly metallic for the hue, putting Twilight in mind of Rarity's finest (and hardest to make) capes. There were sparkles there -- but instead of the white points of twinkling light normally seen, they were multihued. Some reds, a few greens. Mostly dark blue. (Had she ever seen that before? Even read about it?) And they all surrounded the food within the bag and cautiously slid it out, scooted it around the edge of the fire circle, staying low...

Twilight was very carefully not watching. They all were. Even Rainbow Dash was cautiously paying a given lack of attention. "I know, Pinkie -- rock farmers," the pegasus continued the conversation. "And you have never told me how it's possible to farm rocks. One of my roommates in flight school said it's just something ponies do to get a subsidy for not growing food."

"It's not!"

"Then what is it?"

"It's -- rock farming!"

A not-particularly-faked groan. "Pinkie..."

The field seemed to hesitate at those words: the pull briefly stopped, then resumed.

A single pony, hungry in the dark. A spy or hostile force would have stolen all the food, left them to their own hunger. This was just a single apple and some hay stalks. Taking just enough to try and live on.

Somepony who was lost.

Twilight risked it without adding the blocking hoof: mouthed the word Lost to the others, gathered several subtle nods in response. But -- why hide? Why not step towards the warmth of the fire and company of ponies who could help protect a lost stranger against the wild zone? Not even Fluttershy would stay back in that situation -- maybe. This one refused to take the chance...

Only one thing to do, then.

She stood up.

"We don't have much," she announced to the night, "but you're welcome to some of what we do have. I wouldn't wish this grass on anypony. Just come out so we can see you?"

A gasp, almost directly behind her, the field yanked on the pitiful ration, the glow and its contents skidded into the dark...

"Wait!" Twilight spun as the others began to get up themselves, took three steps away from the circle and the wide tree trunk she'd been sitting near, leaving her perfectly visible against the background firelight. "My name is Twilight Sparkle --" she couldn't make herself add the 'Princess' "-- and you're welc --"

It all seemed to happen at once, and it would take her hours to sort out the actual order.

Another gasp, somewhere ahead of her, this one startled, shocked, and -- pained. There was loss in that sound, and regret, with despair soaking through. And hatred.

A golden glow, low in tall grass. A purple horn. Dark purple, much darker than her own coat, the shade of Rarity's deepest dyes. Purple reaching towards black.

A flare, the glow rushing outwards.

The wave.

She felt the field before it hit. Felt the raw power, the surge, and even a bit of what was behind it, the taste of the somehow-wrong magic carrying a little of the caster's resonance. For a moment, there was a distant sense of agony -- but not her own. It was as if she had two bodies with the second connected by a single fine thread, and the other end of the silk was on fire. The emotion behind the spell impacted her next, all of the flavors in that single exclamation and something else, something so strong that the empathic residue went into her own thoughts, took over for a single fraction of a second --

-- hate self hate this hate me hate being want to die want to die want to die --

-- and kept her from countering.

The field hit everything. Every tree, every blade of foul grass, every item and everypony behind her. Shoved all of it backwards.

Twilight flew. Not the way she had wanted to, not the way she couldn't. Ten feet straight back. Everything that could be moved went ten feet back, and that included her friends, all their supplies, some of the smaller trees, broken branches, plants torn from the ground and the fire, now scattered and threatening to spread...

Gasps behind her, ponies scrambling to get back up, rolling away from flaming branches and hot cinders. Rainbow Dash had recovered before hitting the ground, was already going up for a dousing cloud. Twilight forced herself to her hooves, tried to shake off the intruding emotions --

-- ran forward again, following the glow which was galloping away in the dark, this time gathering as much magic as she safely could. Magic which wasn't going to be enough if something like that came again, but if she could deflect even a portion... "Please!" she called out. "I -- I know you're scared! We can help you! I'm --" and was this the right time to play that card? "-- a Princess, and --"

The others were fighting the fire behind her, or trying to get reoriented. It was just her and the distant unicorn -- the one who had stopped moving. She froze to match it. All she could see was the glow at ground level, still pulling the food -- and the same around that deep purple horn, with leaves and Luna's shadows hiding everything else.

That was when the voice came, and she wished it hadn't.

It was a broken voice. Every word had been forced through ground glass coating the interior of the throat, a tongue of barbed wire pushed against teeth wet by acid. It was a voice which said the effort required to speak was the worst thing to happen in her life -- but all that was needed to top it was living long enough to hear her own words.

"Princess -- Twilight -- Sparkle..."

There was loathing in that voice.

Twilight fought the urge to shudder, felt her wings vibrate. "Yes!" she tried, forcing herself to continue. "Please -- I can hear you're hurt, and I know you're hungry..."

Silence.

She didn't think about what had happened with the intruder's magic. Tried, with limited success, not to let herself think about it just yet. Concentrated on the sound of that horrible pain, the thought of what it would be like to hurt so much as to make any words sound like that. The urge to fix it. "You were just -- scared." The power in that spell -- the agony... "You can come out. I'm not mad at you, I promise. None of us are. Fluttershy knows some medicine -- if you're wounded, she can do some things for you..."

There was a sound, a single sharp note. It could have been a laugh. She hoped it wasn't. She would have given so much not to hear that laugh (if laugh it was) again.

"Just -- come out..."

More words. Horrible, pressured, agonized, thoughtful words.

""Twilight -- Sparkle. Unicorn. Alicorn. Success. The -- one who -- finished."

Finished -- what? "...please -- we won't hurt you..."

In a tone that made the ground glass into powdered bone, "Hurt..." And that horrible mockery of a laugh. "Don't. Want. To. Hurt..."

Twilight took a step forward. Just a small one. Just enough to notice.

Just enough to scare.

The wave came again, she tried to deflect, got everything into her spell she could manage, trying to shield her friends with what little she had to give. And she did manage to weaken it a bit, enough so that the sweep eventually faded out beyond her hindquarters --

-- but it was still more than enough to pick her up a second time, fling her straight back, and this time her lit horn went into the wood first.

The last word to go through her mind was backlash.

And then that first-stage backlash ripped through her, took all light and pain away, and sent her down into Luna's blessed dark.