• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,107 Views, 999 Comments

Triptych - Estee


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

  • ...
38
 999
 11,107

Converging Lines

She talks to the rock, and it will not listen to her.

This is not a typical stopping point for her dreams. Memories are incredibly rare, fully coherent storylines only slightly more common. Her nightscape tends to be a chaotic thing, with bits of ideas chasing each other around a twisting land. Pastry and candy will feature prominently, and sometimes make up the land itself. If a concept holds together for a virtual five minutes, it's almost an event, proof that there was something deep on her mind which needed closer examination. Otherwise -- things come, things go, and while it all makes sense to her, it generally leaves Luna with a pounding headache.

But this was a day for being -- reminded. She had been thinking about her first family. About the way somepony she considered to be a friend had acted towards her. About feel. Put it all together and it has sent her back, stabilized the nightscape into a place she still hates, trapped her in a younger body on a grey field under a grey sky with no knowledge that there is an older self coming at all. She is there and then has become now.

In the now of dream, she pushes the rock with her head, as her father taught her. Contact is essential for the youngest, or so the earth pony way teaches. The old earth pony way. Her father is an adherent to the strictest of traditions solidified by age into what he sees as absolute law, imposes them on his family without concern for what they might be thinking, for only his beliefs are the proper ones. He has certain -- standards.

There are no unicorn-enchanted conveniences on the farm. None at all. It is not the old way. Everything is done by hoof and mouth and feel. Any attempt to do otherwise will be punished. Any attempt to discuss otherwise is punished. Her father does not like unicorns. She has his long rants fully memorized, starting with the one about being ripped off on the prices as the most common, and then there's the one about how the Sun and Moon must secretly hate being touched by that filthy horn. He thinks of the Princess as a unicorn and thus he does not like her -- to use the mildest of terms. Every so often, her father will hire a unicorn who's especially desperate for bits, set them to breaking apart rocks which were good for nothing else for hours on end, underpays them horribly, gives them only the leavings from the family meals, tells them to sleep in the fallow fields and then carefully notes the upcoming rain days on the calendar. It cheers him immensely.

He will deal with pegasi, for there are few other ways to get the final product to market in time, especially for the most distant of customers. But he does not like them either. Endless complaints about the cost of moving simple things, how mass shouldn't matter for shipping cost, featherweights with featherbrains, good only for arranging rainstorms on poverty-stricken worthless unicorns who could just conjure bits if they were really so talented. He rants against each in turn, has special rants for taking on both at once when he feels they've been conspiring against him. There was a truly epic rant the previous night, although this was an especially rare specimen: it had cause. A monolithic rock which he had personally been working on for four years, shipped out to a repeat client with a promise of payment after delivery, had been dropped. Somewhere. The pegasi had been apologetic, refunded his bits, but it did not matter. They could not find it and, after he had finished screaming at them, were no longer so willing to look again. She had been in her bed during that fight, huddled under the blankets, wondering if he would be calm in the morning. He had not been.

He does not like most other earth ponies. They have grown weak, he will yell, they take the magic of those lessers for granted and it's all just a conspiracy to hurt their race, perhaps even drive them to extinction should the other two ever learn certain truths and perhaps figure out how to duplicate them. Any true earth pony who works with one who does not follow the oldest of ways, or one of the others for any reasons other than strict business (while ripping them off as much as possible in the process), is a fool, a traitor, or both.

Her father likes very little, and loves even less.

She is pushing the rock. She has been pushing this same rock for half a day. It is the first one on the West Field. She was taken off the North Field after it became clear she was making no progress. (Again. Always.) The rocks she speaks to do not revert for her efforts: she at least does not make things worse when she tries. The fields she is set to do not become fallow -- just frozen, locked into Tartarus-chained stability until she leaves.

Her head hurts. It hurts from the uneven pressure of the stone against it. (She must develop callouses, she has been told. She cannot seem to make one form on her heart.) It hurts from the effort of trying to talk to the rock. It aches from the silence which has been her only answer for all her life. She longs to hear something, tries so hard every time no matter what her father says. He claims she doesn't make any effort, that all their line has had the feel and she has it too, she just doesn't care and would sooner see her family starve than try. He cannot hear her efforts. He will not listen to her protests. He takes her crying as a sign of weakness.

She is trying not to cry now. She is begging. She has been begging the rock to respond for hours, wants nothing more than just a single whisper. Never receives it. The only thing which has happened is that one of her ears is now twisting, without her consent or ability to stop. This and similar uncontrolled movements happen sometimes, starting over the last two moons. The family has seen it. They feel it makes her defective. Another thing which makes her defective.

Her sisters yell at her because her father does, and in that way win an extra share of his approval. Her mother barely acknowledges her, gives her no more attention than telling her to set the table or, if it's a good day, one where the rest of the family has done so well that her own failures can be overlooked after no more than twenty minutes of yelling, to help prepare dinner. She feels a little better in the kitchen, where the things she does work like they're supposed to. She would be happy to simply cook for the rest of her childhood and never return to the fields -- but there is always another morning, always the call to go and speak. Always another failure.

She does not attend school. Her mother educates her on writing, reading, and some math: just enough to know when a bill is written properly and if the ripping off is being done to standards. Her father tells her who she should hate. Those are all the lessons they feel she needs, especially since she can't do the single most basic thing. There are almost no books to read in the house anyway, none of interest beyond a few cookbooks and a single precious baking guide. The others are about different types of rock. (She has them all memorized anyway.) Anything else might present dangerous ideas. There are stories told, of course -- mostly about other ponies. And what happens if you talk to them.

She is not allowed to meet other ponies. She is supposed to stay out of the way on the scant occasions when those of other races are present. She is not permitted to speak with them. There is a single exception, but it is rare.

She has never been so much as a single hoofstep beyond the border of the fields.

Five nights ago, her father had yelled at her mother about other ponies. About her. About whether one of those others was her true father, because surely any child of his would have the feel and that meant her mother must have...

She had heard it all. She is sure she was meant to.

She has been working this field for hours. She will work it until sunset, and then perhaps beyond, skipping meals, staying out here as long as she can stall before her father calls another failure upon her and the yelling begins again. And this will continue for what she sees as the rest of her life, a road ahead going nowhere and still so very long.

There is a sigh, behind and above her. "You are the saddest little pony I've ever seen, Pinkamena."

She jumps a little in the furrow of her own weary trail. It is -- him. She had not known he would be coming today -- but then, they seldom get warning. He just -- comes. He is the only unicorn permitted to be on the farm when he does not have business with her father and even then, he is something much less than welcome.

He comes to see her. This makes her father very angry, and he will yell at her afterwards. Sometimes -- more. But he still permits the visits, perhaps because he is not entirely sure how to stop them. And -- he owes this unicorn a debt. This makes him very angry, especially as part of that debt seems to concern her, with the rest being about her mother. He cannot repay it. He rants to the fields about an angry world which will not let him shake this horned intruder from their lives. He tries to supervise every visit.

The rest of the family is inside having a meal. She is trying to work through it, if her endless failure could ever be called 'work'. There is no supervision.

Another sigh. "They never trim your mane," he says. "I know it's supposed to be a tradition that the mane is never cut until the cutie mark comes, but yours grows so fast..." A gentle hoof reaches out, brushes a little of the straight fall away from her face. She did not turn to look at him after that little jump. She is still trying to talk to the rock. "I wish you would tell me what was wrong. I wish you would talk to me about anything. I worry about you."

She does not answer. Neither does the rock.

"I was just in the area," he tells her. "Another one of mine is in flight camp." She does not know what that is, will not ask. He continues anyway. "She's a year older than you. She's been having trouble, too." More softly, "I wish you could meet her. I wish you could meet all of them. So many..." He stops himself.

A silver glow surrounds the unresponsive rock. She pushes against it. No movement. None at all.

"I'm working." A whisper of protest.

"You push rocks up and down the field all day and your father calls it work," he says. "And then he screams at me about how bad you are at it. And then he screams at me because he screamed at me about that. And he never tells me... well, I don't expect him to. He follows the oldest ways. It's a miracle he didn't throw me out the night you came, Pinkamena."

"...please don't call me that," she whispers.

"What?" Confused, but sincere in wanting to know.

"That -- name. I hate my name. It's stupid." Because Pinkamena is the name of a failure. If she had another name -- if she was another pony...

The hoof makes the gentlest of contact with her mane again, brushes it back a second time. "Names can mean too much," he calmly tells her.

The glow will not release. She cannot push the rock. The only thing she can do with it and he will not let her. But she pushes anyway.

"You'll hurt yourself," he tells her.

"...don't care."

He sighs again. "I want to help you," he tells her. "But I can't. Not unless I know what's wrong. And you won't talk to me. If you said anything at all, even once, the smallest hint..."

She does as she has been taught. She says nothing.

The glow releases. She pushes the rock. He walks alongside her for a minute or two.

Finally, he says "I'll be back another day. Maybe I'll finally find one where you're ready to speak. But... I will come back. Until we know what's wrong. Until it's fixed."

A hoof goes under her chin, tilts her head to face him. Lets her look at the only warm smile she ever sees.

"I'm not giving up on you."

And then he is gone. She goes back to pushing the rock. Pleading with it. Delaying the time until -- after. The after which keeps getting worse.

It is four days before the blast of color will explode across the sky. It is three moons before the last time her father will ever yell at her. Three moons and a sunset before she steps off the fields, never to return. Another moon spent running through a wild zone before he finds her again and takes her to something infinitely wondrous called a town, where a newly-married couple has just opened a bakery and doesn't mind a little live-in help during the hours when she is not trying to catch up with her new studies, learning how to play as a child long after everypony else did. But in the dream, she knows none of this. It is simply now, the same now it has always been and will always be, with a small filly in a field, pushing a rock which will not listen to her. The now she is waiting through.

She spends most of her time waiting to die.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The horn is the seat of a unicorn's magic. Backlash comes when somepony knocks them off the perch.

Untold generations of unicorns -- typically the most egocentric ones -- have complained about this. Those few who believe their race was set above the other two simply for having magic have always treated it as an especially sore point. All the power (more for some than others), all the potential (ibid), and all it can take to ruin them is a simple moment of hard contact. And armor does no good: anything placed over a horn beyond a simple fall of mane represents a barrier to outgoing spells. Wear a helmet into battle if you so desire, but place steel over what's not quite bone and take away most of your prowess. The horn must stay exposed if the field is to be used. It's one of the many factors which has kept unicorns who were a little too full of themselves from taking over. Because with the horn exposed, backlash is an ever-present risk. They'll even use it against each other in battle: any edge over your foe, after all, and many unicorn combats come down to a series of maneuvers designed to get around the other's guard and land that physical blow. It can end the fight. It can do a lot more.

There are four stages of backlash.

The first is known as Stage Zero (much to Twilight's perpetual annoyance). This is the stage the typical unicorn deals with in their everyday life, when a field is being used for nothing more than simple manipulation of a small lightweight item or three. To make sharp contact with a horn while it's channeling the energy of the field in this fashion will disrupt the flow of magic. The field winks out, the objects fall, and the unicorn is probably rather annoyed with her little sister. Talented casters can usually ignore S0 if they see it coming and keep their field going regardless, but it takes a skilled unicorn and a lot of very discomforting practice.

Stage One comes when a unicorn is using more energy, something beyond basic everyday impact on the world around them. At that point, disrupting the field will cause it to briefly flow against the unicorn. Typical results include headaches, bruising, a moderate weakening of the field which makes everything more difficult for a few hours, and mild nosebleeds. A unicorn who's already weakened or injured (as Twilight had been) can be knocked out by a particularly bad S1 -- and the more powerful the unicorn, the more severe an S1 tends to be: there's that much more energy moving the wrong way. A very good, braced caster can stay on their hooves and keep going, but at this stage, the spell is pretty much always disrupted, and multiple S1s are cumulative in their effect on the unicorn's body.

By Stage Two, bracing does no good except to perhaps keep the unicorn conscious -- which at this point isn't always a favorable result. Star Swirl, Celestia, Luna -- legends say they could keep working through an S2 and even ignore some of the worst effects. (But then, legends say Star Swirl could consistently work through a hat -- and wore one just so everypony would know it.) Everypony else will have the spell disrupted, perhaps because it's rather hard to focus on your magic when two of your ribs just fractured themselves. Unicorns unlucky enough to have this level of backlash hit them can look forward to torn muscles, deep hoof clefts, bleeding from ears and eyes, weakened senses for a few days, and a potential addiction to the painkillers they are assuredly going to need. And at this stage, the pony who started the backlash may want to be some distance away, because some of the disrupted field will move out -- and from there, things might happen, depending on the backlashed unicorn's overall strength. Nothing as harsh as what the target's going through, but minor to moderate random magical effects can appear as the field burns off energy on the surrounding environment. (Ducking is generally recommended.) But whereas every unicorn in the world has run into an S0 (in part because they're deliberately inflicted in school: how else will they learn to deal with them?) and many have had the misfortune of an S1 even in peacetime, very few personally know what an S2 feels like. Because for this stage to hit, the unicorn must be channeling enough of their personal reserves to achieve a double corona, and that's hardly an everyday event. (Twilight herself went through a single S2 in her fourth year of school. It's not something she likes to talk about.) Cumulative S2s typically don't happen because after the first one hits, most unicorns won't be doing any more magic for a while. Or moving.

Stage Three is talked about around unicorn campfires when the storyteller wants nopony to sleep through the night.

Stage Three requires a triple corona.

Stage Three kills.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Her first thought as consciousness reluctantly began to flow back: Well, it happened again. Pinkie Sense goes off, and? I get hurt...

Voices filtered into her awareness next. "...is she going to be all right?" Fluttershy was worried about her. Of course she was. Fluttershy always had to be worried about something or her worry muscles would start to lose tone.

"I told you, dear, she'll be fine... just a little touch of backlash from that falling branch. Bad luck to have that windstorm when we did." Rarity -- making excuses? But...

And a new voice, male: "I'll agree with Miss Rarity. The Princess already slept through the worst of it -- and see, she's starting to wake up."

Twilight opened her eyes.

The first thing she saw was a stallion's reassuring expression. Look past that: dark blue with copper mane. Middle-aged unicorn. Glance down the side -- the common sort of red cross for a cutie mark. He smiled at her. "Good morning, Princess Twilight. How do you feel?"

She searched her memories. Put several of them aside for later before going with a sincere "Surprised... how long was I out?"

"The whole night," Applejack said, looking somewhat concerned herself. (Twilight looked up. She was on her right side: twisting her head let her catch the first glimpse of rising Sun. It looked to be a clear, warm day.) "Ah knew you took a hard hit in that fight, but Ah didn't think you'd be in that much trouble from a second one..."

"It was just backlash," Twilight automatically insisted (even though she wasn't sure Applejack knew what backlash was) as she looked around a little more. There were two other newcomers in camp. Both unicorns: a second stallion, younger than her medical attendant, dark green with a gold-and-black mane and the familiar compass rose for a cutie mark, with the other a young mare, very light blue with a white mane, mark showing a loop of rope. "I... think I missed something." She tried to stand. All four hooves seemed to be there, and the medic allowed her to get up.

"We found you a few hours ago," the new mare said. Looking shy, blinking large silver eyes. "I'm Helping Hooves, Princess. These are Traveler and Heartbeat," indicating the medic with the later. "We're one of the search parties."

Twilight blinked several times. "Searching -- for us?" Had the Princesses located them and found some way to send help from afar after all?

Heartbeat ruined her brand-new day: he shook his head. "Pure random coincidence," he said. "There's search parties all over the area. Ours ran into yours. I just hope somepony's run into him by now." His face twisted into concern, and he took a deep breath before shoving most of it away. "We spotted your fire in the middle of the night. The Element-Bearers explained about the storm." He sighed. "Unnatural weather in unnatural places... as Miss Rarity said, just bad luck. We were waiting for you to wake up before we brought you back to town. You're not that far out -- a quarter-day's gallop. But you know backlash -- if at all possible, you don't move the patient until she's up and talking and can tell you how she feels. You were sleeping normally anyway and all the signs said a bad Stage One tops, so we decided to wait for the Sun to get the word from your mouth." Grinning, "And it's more than my life's worth to take chances with the health of a Princess."

Windstorm? But it was... no, they've got some reason for lying: just play along... "Thank you, but please, it's just Twilight Sparkle..." More survey of the area: the damage from the wave was still present: broken saplings, damaged trees, fallen branches, torn-up dirt where plants had been ripped away. There were some scorched portions of earth about: the fire. Everypony seemed to be okay, although Rarity was surely longing for a bath and Spike seemed to have put most of the fire out by rolling on it.

Typically, a frustrating "You're quite welcome, Princess."

And I'm still missing something. No, a lot of things. Her checklist had been torn at the middle, leaving a huge gap of ignorance. Discord had probably done it. He thinks we're a search party... why are the others -- minus Applejack, who just looks really uncomfortable -- lying? Actually, maybe we are a search party. We could be anything, so why not that? They'd certainly found something...

...no. If the others weren't talking about it, then she wouldn't either. Not yet.

Rarity gave her a little more help. "We've been having quite the discussion, they and we. About our problems with the rams, the raccoons stealing most of our supplies while we were fighting... I'm afraid it's made us all look rather bad."

Traveler immediately protested. "It would be hard to make you look bad, Miss Rarity." (Spike glared at him.) "There's a lot of ponies who wouldn't have done so well in a wild zone. Flebian rams -- the three of us would be lucky if we were still breathing. Getting a raccoon pack just then while your backs were turned -- just more bad luck. I swear, it sounds as if the seven of you have had Discord breathing down your flanks since the moment you got here."

"You have no idea," Twilight darkly said. Keep it going, but don't risk adding too much... "Unfortunately, the automatic recovery spell I've been working on is for books."

Rainbow Dash laughed at that, and probably would have laughed regardless of the situation. "They're going to lead us in so we can restock. The town merchants will just bill the Princess later." Her expression suggested she'd been thinking of potential ways to abuse that for at least an hour -- and failing. "We can get back to the hunt after we're in shape to stay out here for more than one night."

Helping Hooves blushed. "And we're honored by your presence, Princess -- you and all the Bearers, and your companion as well. To think that all of you would come for him..."

And out of a (verbal) nowhere, Pinkie Pie: "We wanted to. I really wanted to, and so did Fluttershy. The others really came along to help us. We go together, you know. Can't have two Elements out in the woods by themselves!"

"...yes," Fluttershy softly added.

"Can't have that!" Applejack declared, possibly because it seemed safe to say.

Heartbeat beamed -- then bowed low, bending his front legs until his chin was almost against the damaged ground. "We're honored regardless, Princess," he told Twilight. "Honored that you would care so much as to help, even when you're not one of his." And Luna's mane, now the other two were doing it...

Heartily embarrassed, "Please get up." They did. "I do feel all right to travel, so -- if you would lead the way, kind mare and stallions? The sooner we're resupplied, the sooner we can go back to the search. And I promise we'll all keep a closer eye out for masks."

The search party laughed at that, a little too loudly: the sound which said it wasn't all that funny, but a Princess had made the semi-joke and therefore laughter had better be happening. Once that horrible sound had stopped, they did their best to help pack up the last of the Royal Camp, and then took the lead on walking the other (Royal) search party out of the wild zone: close enough to be easily seen, far enough away to let the Element-Bearers talk. Pony courtesy again -- and besides, only a certain class of people would presume to eavesdrop on a Princess and her entourage.

Twilight still allowed much of the projected quarter-gallop to pass before risking it and kept her voice low anyway. "Anypony want to fill me in...?"

Rarity took it. "It seems one of their own has gone missing after a fire," she told Twilight. "There are ponies combing the countryside -- searching all the way across the continent, in fact: it's just more intense locally. Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie knew the name, and we built the story from there. Remember, the press saw us depart, darling -- sooner or later, that story is going to arrive here. Being another search party gave us a reason to be in the area without telling them what our mission really is, especially as we're not sure ourselves."

Twilight slowly nodded. "But -- why not tell them the truth?"

Rainbow Dash snorted. "Because I've read more than enough Daring Do stories to know that when you tell a bunch of completely random strangers about a secret mission, they're either evil henchponies working for the bad guys or they turn into your closest allies -- and in that case, Chapter Fifteen comes along and boom!, they're dead. I didn't know if they were the enemy and if they're not, then they're too nice to bump off in the middle of the book. Just because we're allowed to look for help doesn't mean we should be grabbing Granny Smith's loudspeaker and rounding up a pony posse every three steps! We've -- got to be careful."

O-kay... Well, she'd always wanted Dash to get some book learning under her wings. Twilight was almost certain this wasn't what she had meant, but... "It's kind of a restrictive cover story, though. What if we need to hang around this town?"

Applejack sighed. "What if we ain't s'posed t'? The problem with not knowin' what we're s'posed t' do is not knowin' what t' include or exclude. One of the problems. Ah mostly just stood around an' kept mah mouth shut. Besides, we had time t' talk before those three showed up an' right now, most of us think it might be 'bout -- her."

The group slowed at that word.

"Her," Spike said softly.

"Miss Gold Field," Pinkie tried out before shaking her head. "No, that doesn't work..."

Unnoticed by everypony, the group's spoken volume was dropping. It was slightly more difficult to pick out on Fluttershy. "...Twilight? That -- push... the one which hit everything... could you have done that?"

She's asking if this one's stronger than I am. It was a question Twilight had been asking herself throughout the breakdown of what remained of their damaged Royal Camp. Softly, "No. Not against that wide an area and that many objects with that kind of force. A narrow cone, maybe. As a wave -- I couldn't. It may not make her stronger than me, though -- just powerful in a different way." Was she lying to herself? "Maybe that's a spell I could learn." Twice? "But she does have strength."

Rarity looked as if she really didn't want to ask her next question. "When it hit -- did you feel --"

Twilight searched her memory, continued sorting. "-- like it was wrong? There was something to that magic... something I haven't felt before..."

"No," and that was Pinkie Pie. "The hurt."

Twilight blinked. Then she did it again. Turned to stare at Pinkie, completely missing a startled Applejack. "You got that? The spell was that strong?" For an earth pony to pick up on resonance... she'd never heard of that happening.

"We both did," Rarity told her. "Pinkie and I were right behind you before that first push hit. You got the initial brunt and we got the rest. Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, Spike, and Applejack -- they didn't pick up on it. But both of us -- we felt it. Maybe we absorbed it. How much pain was there. And..." She couldn't finish, looked to Pinkie for help.

"Hatred," Pinkie gently concluded, worry in every syllable. "But -- not at us. Not completely, anyway. Self-hatred." And deep regret, sorrow in knowing there was somepony out there who desperately needed laughter, somepony she couldn't currently help. "It's -- easy to tell the difference."

"I knew it was a her," Rarity made herself resume. "Something in it just came across that way. But we didn't have a chance to follow you: we were rather busy with keeping the forest from going up. There was only so much Spike could roll over in a hurry. And then you ran off -- and when we went to find you... I could see it was backlash, especially after I spotted where your horn had hit the tree." Concern increasing with each word. "I had to explain it to the others. If she had gotten the best of you in a fight, then... We had to tend to you, and chasing her through the dark was a bad idea to begin with..."

"It -- wasn't a fight," Twilight told them. "Not really." Embarrassed, "A fight would have meant I at least got a spell off. I weakened that second push a little, but..." More sorting: she was fairly sure she had it all together in the right order. "This is what I remember happening."

They all trotted along in silence for a while after the story was complete.

"...she sounds like she's in horrible pain," Fluttershy whispered. "...anypony's voice -- sounding like that... why wouldn't she accept our help?"

"I don't know," Twilight sighed. "She's scared -- I know she's terrified of something -- but... not what. And there was something about the way she said my name... like she knows me."

"...everypony knows you now, Twilight... oh. I'm sorry... I didn't mean to ruin your clue..."

"No -- it's not that. Maybe not knowing me. More like it was something --" she hesitated "-- personal. I've been trying to remember all morning if I ever saw that combination of colors: dark purple horn, gold glow, multicolored sparkles. I'm sure I've never seen that. I don't have your memory, Pinkie, but something like that would stand out -- especially having sparkles of anything other than white. I don't know her, not by her magic -- even if she knows me."

"Twilight?" This voice came from a lower level: she looked down at Spike. "I've been thinking -- about her. About why Discord would send us out here, just in case it was her he was sending us for. She was really strong, I know that. I've been around enough really strong unicorns to know, even if I can't pick up the feel. And -- all you saw was her horn. Do you think -- maybe..." He put his arms out to the sides, bent them back towards his body at the elbows, flapped them.

Twilight laughed, and it was a relief. "An alicorn? Another one? Come on, Spike! There's been unicorns on my level in the world. Some of the legends say stronger. A lot stronger, if you believe everything they say Star Swirl could do and don't pretend to fall asleep. It's a lot more likely that this is somepony who's --" and now the thought started to sink in "-- strong -- and can do things I can't -- who doesn't like me..." Uh-oh. "But -- why would Discord be concerned about that?"

Applejack had a ready rejoinder for that one. "Why would Discord be concerned 'bout anythin'?"

Not even Fluttershy could answer that.

Twilight shook her head. "Occlop's Tail Trimmer: the most likely explanation is usually the truth. She's a strong unicorn with a weird field and something -- odd to it. I'm not going to go seeing alicorns everywhere without some proof."

"I know you didn't see wings," Spike pointed out. "But just because you didn't see them doesn't mean they weren't there."

Another laugh, this time slightly forced. "And if I see them, I'll believe them. Not before. There's three -- four alicorns in the world. I'm not placing a tenth of a bit on getting to five within one moon. No, I didn't see wings." And she didn't (wouldn't) expect to. "All I saw was the horn, and her glow, and..." Thinking hard. "...height. She could have been standing on higher ground or had her front hooves elevated on a tree root -- but if we were both on level ground, then judging by how high up her horn was -- and I didn't hear flapping or feel a downdraft, Spike -- she was tall. Maybe a little shorter than Luna. And we've seen regular ponies that tall before -- remember that one mare coming out of the bowling alley?" Pinkie automatically supplied the name in the background: Allie Way. "Just -- something to remember. One more identifier." Name, cutie mark, race, colors of mane and tail -- height wasn't a common feature to pick somepony out by, although it was somewhat more reliable than luggage. Still more than they'd had.

"But she could be the mission," Rainbow Dash considered. "Or part of it. Or none. Or..." Disgruntled, "This is where Daring Do gets another clue, by the way." She looked up at the sky as if expecting one to fall onto her back. Nothing happened.

Twilight had decided to think about something other than a dramatic twenty-five percent increase in the alicorn population. "Fluttershy -- you knew the name of the pony they were looking for?" (Pinkie Pie knew thousands of names. Many of them were associated with parties.) The pegasus nodded. "That's lucky." Was that a hint of field hue ahead, or just a weird tint in the cloudless sky?

"...not really... not if they haven't found him yet..." She sounded even more worried than usual, which took some real work. "...oh, I hope he's okay... I'm glad we're in the area, I was thinking about him for all of yesterday, but..." A glance at Pinkie. "...it's funny. I was in so much of a hurry, I didn't think about your going too..."

"I know!" Pinkie laughed. (Twilight wasn't really paying full attention: she was squinting ahead, having just caught a definite glimpse of non-gold field as they climbed a small slope on a trail which was starting to become a road, with the upcoming magic manifesting as a smooth pinkish surface moving up in a hemisphere.) "I was going to come get you at first, but then I just thought you'd be on the train and if I went out to find you, I'd miss the first one, or we'd both get stuck packing up your stuff and arranging help so we'd miss two trains, or three if Angel decided to make a fuss, and it was just faster to see if you were in the passenger car -- I'm sorry, I know that kind of sounds like I wasn't thinking of you at all..."

"...no, that's okay... we both had the same reaction... we had to go..."

"Wait," Twilight distractedly said, still trying to make out the shape of the stable spell ahead. (The ground evened out still more beneath her hooves, and there was a scent of burnt wood and scorched stone.) A shield out here? And the non-Royal search party was heading for it without a trace of concern? Maybe they were evil henchponies. Rainbow Dash would be gloating for days. "You both know this pony?" In more than a party way for Pinkie and for Fluttershy, at all?

"Well, of course we do!" Pinkie indignantly said. "He's only the most important pony in the world -- for us, anyway! Without him --"

-- and the view opened up all at once as they crested the little rise.

A shield spell. Covering a burnout. And ponies. So very many ponies...

Sort it out. First, the burn. The foundation of the home -- and foundation was almost all that was left, a few partial walls and the arch of a doorway, some husks that might have been the most durable of furniture plus touches of soot-blackened metal -- indicated it had been bordering on estate before it had been destroyed. Seventy feet across at what Twilight was sure had been the front, perhaps fifty deep. Many rooms could have been contained in that kind of area, and that was assuming it had been one story in height. There were no hints of the remains for gardens around the perimeter. Trees, a few of which had taken their own damage, a path leading up to what was now definitely the front door, the remains of a sign near the entrance. Something which might have been a foal recreation area off to the right side: she could see the remnants of what she was fairly certain had once been been playground equipment. No secondary structures. Just what had once been somepony's home, and her first look at it made her wonder how anypony could have survived being inside when the fire hit. No pony could have come through that without magic, and there were few spells which would have done the job. And the home had been so large, would have held so many ponies...

Second: the spell. Standard -- no, actually, it was flickering a bit around the edges and near the peak (about twelve Celests up). Substandard. She could have broken it within a minute without the additional pressure of repeated changeling impacts, and Shining Armor would have had a good laugh spotting the flaws, followed by a good lecture correcting the caster. Or it simply might have been up too long without reinforcement -- or the repeated small collisions along the lower edge were taking their toll.

And that brought her to the ponies. Within the shield -- four. She couldn't quite tell what they were doing beyond a continued inspection of something at the back left corner. Outside -- not counting her own group and the search party who had led them in -- at least a hundred. Virtually all young adults. Ponies from everywhere. She had never heard so many different accents in her life, nearly every possible tone to a pony voice gathered and with the arrival of Rarity, the assembly was probably complete. (No other pony sounded like Rarity. Nopony ever did.) The majority were unicorns, followed by pegasi and some extremely outnumbered earth ponies -- only four, clustered in a tight knot. Several unicorns and two pegasi wearing official-looking vests were calling to those ponies who were milling about the border. Trying to get their attention.

"Okay, everypony, here's what we need now! Do we have any teleporters? Any teleporters who can try to handle a jump to San Dineighgo? No? Wasn't expecting it, kind of an ultimate longshot, but had to ask. All right, then I need three pegasi willing to make that trip. All right, you -- you -- and you with the map on your flank. Good map, by the way. Say hello to each other, get your names right, then head over to Coordinator -- he's the one with the red tape, can't miss him -- and get your party and destination registered. Unicorns next: I need four unicorns..."

Fluttershy was staring at the remains of the home. Weeping. "...I... never thought it would be so bad..."

"Maybe everypony's okay!" Rainbow Dash tried to reassure her. "I mean, if they're sending out search parties, then they didn't find -- anything -- inside there, right? Maybe everypony got out in time!"

"...but -- why hasn't he come back yet? What could have happened?"

Twilight was trying to breathe steadily. How many ponies in a home that size...? "What could have happened here?" she softly echoed, feeling as if she was asking the air as much as her friends. Was that metal in the one corner? Was it melted? How hot could the fire have been?

Pinkie, right next to her on the left, and Twilight knew there would be tears in the blue eyes. "No... oh no, oh please --" and she broke for the downside of the little road, galloping towards the shield. There was a rush of wings, and Fluttershy was directly behind her, one moving at the speed she only achieved when truly upset and the other keeping up with a rush Twilight had only seen once before, when they had been closing in on a greyed-out Rainbow Dash, trying to restore the final Element...

"Pinkie Pie? Fluttershy?" No answer: they were focused on something more important than her words. "Oh Celestia, what happened --" and then she was racing down behind them, the others trailing in her wake. Heads turned at the sound of a fresh approach, eager, hopeful faces desperate for news --

-- every one of which saw a slightly-built purple figure with a single pink stripe in her mane, one with a horn and wings pressed tightly against her sides.

Identification was something beyond immediate, and it was already starting as she passed the ponies who had led them in.

"Princess!"

"It's the new Princess!"

"Behold the approach of our royal savior, for Canterlot has come to our aid!" Apparently the local library had a copy of Noteworthy's reading material.

"Princess, can you find him with a spell? Do you know where he is?"

"Are those -- the Element-Bearers?" (Above her, Rainbow Dash took what little she could get.)

"Princess, we didn't know you were coming! We should have laid something out for you! I can go get something right now! -- do you like Hentucky Blue? It's imported!"

"Princess..."

There were dozens of variations, every one of which hit her like a field-propelled pin and took its share of virtual blood. And that was before some unsung genius, possibly the same pony who had turned his speech back centuries at the sight of her, decided to dip his chartreuse head towards the ground as his front legs sank into a low bow. Other ponies saw that. Wondered why they hadn't thought of it. Then wondered why they hadn't done it already, followed by a quick concern as to whether they should be doing it now, and --

-- there were a hundred ponies bowed down in front of her. All the pegasi had landed just to make it a complete count.

Dear Princess Celestia,

About all those times my friends performed an Official Royal Greeting Stance upon your arrival:

I think we owe you an apology.

Probably several.

P.S. I did not have the single most embarrassing moment of my life today, but I am putting it into the top ten with exact rank to be determined later.

Your faithful student whose face is currently on fire,

Twilight Sparkle

"Please get up..." The too-soft tones of mortal embarrassment. Top eight, definitely. (Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy were still moving ahead of her, the former now having a much easier time of it. The others had stopped behind her, (actual) search party included. She couldn't see them. She was so glad for that, because there was a chance they couldn't see her face.) A little louder, "Please get up, everypony. I'm just here to help with the search, the same as everypony else..."

One of the ponies lifted her head a little. There were tears in her brown eyes. "Princess..." Twilight waited. That seemed to be all she could say, because she said it again just to get her point across. "Princess..."

Twilight couldn't tell if Rainbow Dash's forever-short patience had chosen that moment to run out or whether the opportunity to boss that many ponies around in one shot was just too tempting: the results were the same either way. From overhead at top volume, "Hey, listen up! The Princess is very pleased with your greeting, but taking a timeout on the ground like this is keeping you from getting anything done, so she requests that you all get up now and get back to what you were doing before she got here! Because it's not like she could have you sent to the Moon or anything --" (a lot of ponies looked up at that point) "-- and she's really not that kind of pony anyway, but you're all just wasting --"

There were now a lot of ponies who were not bowing down. In fact, there were a lot of ponies who seemed extremely eager to get back to whatever they had been doing so the Princess could have some space, and the phenomenon was spreading across the land faster than a sonic rainboom. Within seconds, the crowd was back to what it had been doing before their arrival, only with the addition of an invisible bubble around Twilight which nopony dared to cross.

"Rainbow Dash!"

Which got her a smug "What? It worked, didn't it?"

There is a game some older ponies play called Buck, Marry, Kill. Twilight went through a quick twenty mental rounds without ever getting Dash out of the Kill position. She finally gave up when she found herself creating a new ranking known as Kill Twice. "...let's just go see if there's anything we can do. And where we can resupply." That was their cover story and she was sticking to it. "Let's just look for the pony with the red tape... Coordinator -- now why does that sound familiar...?"

(Several curious ponies did follow in their wake. At a distance.)

He didn't take long to find, especially since Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie had found him first, making out lists on the far side of the shield bubble. The dazed brown-and-white unicorn stallion was already being questioned, mostly by Pinkie Pie. If you could call it questioning. "-- but if you've already covered that area, then why not spread a few ponies over to this section? And I can cross a few things off the map for you! For starters, he is not in Ponyville. Some ponies checked before we left. He's also not in the Hall Of Legends in Canterlot, although I'm not sure why he would have been because he's not that kind of legend, at least not just yet but I'm sure he could get in there if he wanted to, and it's not as if the Princesses need him, although there might be a spell to hide it, we're still looking into that, I never got the chance to ask --"

"-- I'm sorry --" he clearly wasn't "-- but who are you?" And just like that, Twilight knew him. The voice hadn't changed. However, the air of self-importance radiating from his speckled coat had gotten five feet wider.

"Pinkie Pie!"

He looked Pinkie over. He didn't seem all that happy with the result. "And -- what does that mean to me, exactly?"

"It's what it means to me! And him!"

"Oh -- one of his. Yet another one." He looked her over again, and it seemed to the approaching Twilight that he took a little too long in doing so. "A fifth... Well, there must be a search party which will have you. Somewhere. Go look around until you find one. I believe there are four others you might be comfortable with and if you keep your mouth shut long enough, they might even get you away from here."

Pinkie, to what might have been her credit for patience or just another sign of how little attention she was paying to the exact wording, continued with "But I'm already part of a search party! Only another search party found us and brought us here, even though they weren't searching for us, because we got a little off track, wherever the track was supposed to be -- the railroad station is pretty close, right? Maybe we should have looked for the tracks. Anyway, I just really really need an update --"

"-- you were in a search party. And you. Got. Lost." The unicorn had gone from dazed to annoyed and was now heading for I do not care with no other planned stops along the route. "Then get back to them. I have no updates for you. I'm not sure you would listen if I did."

From just over Pinkie's head, "...sir, we just wanted to know if there's been any news..."

"So does everypony. You two are part of the same group? Then please rejoin it immediately and refrain from wasting my time, which I assure you is much more important than yours..."

Which was all Twilight could take.

"Yes," she said as she stepped forward, letting just a touch of anger go into her voice. She knew this type. She knew him. Put him in Canterlot and he would immediately place himself in front of the Princess so he could pretend to have her authority when the crown wasn't looking. The Princess always dismissed this kind after a day or two of letting them suffocate in their own self-importance. Twilight didn't have that kind of patience at the moment -- and just as important, this was finally somepony she could take it out on. "They are part of the same group. A group known as the Element-Bearers." Buck it: if she had any weight added from these stupid uncooperative wings, this was the time to throw it around. "She is Kindness, which is why she's still being polite to you." The anger was coming fast -- too fast. Not as quickly or strongly as it had risen at the ravine, but there was still so much looking to emerge and she'd given it an opening for what she thought was a deserving target, Spike was lightly tugging on her tail and she didn't care... "And she is Laughter, which really makes me wonder how she's restraining herself at the sound of you trying to order them around because believe me, that is funny."

(Ponies were backing up in all directions. Several bumped into the shield. A few tried to keep on going.)

He turned to face his accuser, face already flush with a bored sort of fury. His expression fell apart. His dull grey field, which had been holding a clipboard, winked out and dropped the tablet on his own front right hoof. There is nothing more fearsome to petty power than having the actual thing show up, and a slightly-built purple once-unicorn clearly represented more actual than he'd ever had in his sights during his life.

"And I," Twilight continued, trying to ignore the increasingly-hard tail yanks, "should be familiar to you, given the number of times you tried to attach yourself to my flank. But right now, I would like you to think of me as Magic, which gives me a very long list of options for the next thing I might want to do and should give you a very short one for how you might want to consider answering their question: has there been any news?"

She was being petty herself. So what? She was two hoofsteps away from Blueblood. It didn't matter. Ponies like this were a reason to be angry, and she doubted anything else would have gotten the job done. Didn't care if anything else would have worked.

"I -- I --" he stammered.

"Yes, that is very helpful," Twilight nearly spat. It felt as if her tail was about to be yanked out. "I see your talent for obfuscating discussions has suffered over the years. Do you know what's even more helpful than a repeated pronoun? The rest of the sentence. So let's try for that, shall we? You -- you -- what?"

"I -- have no news at this time -- Princess..."

"Thank you," Twilight very nearly hissed. "See? Now your precious time has been saved. Simple, wasn't it?"

The bureaucrat tried to get his field around the clipboard again. It took three attempts before he could grasp it, and he moved away while sliding it along the ground. There was a murmur at the far edges of the crowd.

"Twilight, dear..." Rarity carefully began.

"I don't care. He deserved it." The murmur was getting louder. No doubt this was going to make the papers. Dangerous Princess Abuses Local: Is This The Next Nightmare Moon? So what? They would have said that if she'd dunked another photographer. They already had.

"I know a certain amount of well-placed harmless malice can serve as relief, but this may not have been the ideal time, and malice directed at a pony is never truly harmless..."

Pinkie Pie was looking at her with open concern. "He was just a meanie, Twilight! I know how to deal with meanies. You keep going until they tell you what you want just to make you go away! I would have had him in another minute!"

"...it wasn't -- nice," came from a little ways above. "...but nothing bad happened..." Were those cheers off in the distance? Maybe local law enforcement had been summoned to arrest her.

"Sugarcube, y'ain't been doin' well since we left --"

"-- I'm fine!" Lots of cheers, and now there were ponies flowing away from them. "Some ponies need to be scared a little! There are ponies you can't make friends with, Applejack! Not on first meeting, not at the last, not ever! I know him -- you don't! There are few ponies who deserve that more! You'd have a better chance --" and even she couldn't believe the words were sincere "-- of getting friendship from Discord! And why is everypony cheering?"

They turned. They looked around, ultimately peering through the shield bubble --

-- and then Pinkie and Fluttershy were off again, with a briefly confused group of five following in their wake. Briefly. The cause of the celebration was evident within seconds: it was the confirmation that was the problem -- at least the visual end of it.

It took some time for them to work their way in, and even Rainbow Dash keeping up a stream of "Element-Bearers! Element-Bearers and a Princess coming through! Come on, everypony, move! -- oh, buck it -- Spike, how much flame do you have left?" didn't do much. There was too much happiness taking place, too many tears of joy for any kind of authority to get a word in edgewise, royal or not. The relief was more important, the outpouring of affection and love took over all. Long minutes to even get close, minutes with ponies pressing into their flanks and sides and waving tails in their faces, the Royal Bubble shattered without a thought. Not even Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash were safe, as the pegasi in the crowd jostled with each other in the air for better positions. But slowly, the seven worked their way closer (with no flame used). Hoofstep by hoofstep, they continued their pressed-in approach as some of the happiest ponies Twilight had ever seen went by going the other way.

And there he was. The final piece to the little puzzle which had been humming along in the background since the previous morning. Fluttershy needing to travel, Pinkie Pie leaving town as well. Suddenly thinking about Trotter's Falls while watching Rarity battle against differentiation. All these ponies gathered from all over Equestria. All who must have been equally as desperate to come here and finally have their chance to help the one who had helped them.

A unicorn in late middle age, his warm mauve coat starting to grey a little around his muzzle. Limping a little, the right hind leg dragging. Kind orange eyes. An unusually stocky build. Mane and tail of soft red, putting her in mind of a winter fire meant to warm travelers for hours. Cutie mark showing outstretched hooves and a bundle of blankets held in a silver field.

Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy had seen him now, and she had never heard the pegasus call out so loudly, never heard her match the earth pony in open volume. The joy was equal in their voices and they reached him at the same time, both crying out as their own tears began to flow. Twilight lost their words in the babble of the crowd, but she knew what they would be.

Purest relief.

Happiness.

Love.

Pinkie draped her front legs over him, gave him the nuzzle meant for relatives. Fluttershy gently landed, covered him in her wings before doing the same. He nuzzled back, laughing a little. "And you two as well? How much of Equestria has been disrupted because an old stallion doesn't turn up on time? -- no, it's not criticism, Fluttershy, it never could be. But all of you have your own lives, and you two surely had more important things to do than come and check on me..."

"Never!" Fluttershy laughed, and wing-hugged him again. "You're all right, I'm so glad you're all right -- your leg! Has anypony looked at your leg yet?"

"About a hundred ponies and counting," he assured her. "It's not that bad, I promise..."

"Legs heal!" Pinkie declared. "If that's all there is, it doesn't matter! As long as you're okay, my first friend..." Another nuzzle. "You're okay... thank Celestia and Luna you're okay..."

They both seemed to become aware that there were other ponies waiting their turn, withdrew slightly, crying and beaming and as happy as Twilight had ever seen them --

-- but that just gave him space to see Twilight.

His eyes widened --

-- then twinkled. "Now I know you're not one of mine," he said. "I remember them all, young lady. And I'd certainly hope not to have made so much of a fuss around the continent as to bring you here." Looking around, spotting the others. "So I can only assume that all of you followed them in to help, and may the Princesses bless you for that -- although --" with a small laugh "-- given the pony I'm looking at, they might already have. So -- what can I say to our newest member of the royal family?"

But Twilight knew what she could say to him. The only thing there was to say.

She dropped to her front knees, dipped her head low and felt her wings do the proper thing for the first time in weeks as they spread and dipped with her.

"Sir."

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

She had been following. Not too close -- no, definitely not too close. Once again, she was being careful, and now she had a reason to be more careful than ever.

There were ponies ahead -- their voices told her it was another new record number of ponies, by orders of magnitude -- and she made sure she was hidden, got under full cover again just before several cheering pegasi streaked through the clear skies above her. She could hear the joy in their voices, hear the name. And she knew he was all right.

And before the previous night, it would have been enough. She would have known that she had done a single thing right, if only by accident. That he was well. Still would not (should not) take her back, but he would live and with that knowledge, she would have been content to find some way to die.

But not now.

At first, after her encounter, she had been ashamed of herself for many reasons. Not the least was that she had broken a rule -- one of the most fundamental -- and she had done it the instant she had spoken. But that shame had faded quickly in the face of a simple realization: she had not broken that rule at all.

Should she have found herself on the outside, she was not to speak to anypony who did not know of The Great Work. And that -- had not happened. She had spoken -- to a pony who had completed The Great Work. One of only four in the world to have done so. Delivered here by a providence which suddenly seemed determined to make partial reparations for what had happened.

And with that, hope began to bloom.

Her failure -- was still her failure. Her horror. She could not be fixed. (She would not allow herself to have that hope. She had failed. She did not deserve to hope for that and after a single breath, stopped.) There had been a single moment. It had passed and could not be taken back or changed. The past was frozen: there was no point in wishing for it to be altered.

But -- here was one who had succeeded. The most recent. (In her pain, she had not initially thought about the names as closely as she now felt she should have. Some names repeated, after all -- nearly all did in time -- and she had no memories for this. It had only been sight which told her the final truth.) And if there was anypony in the world who might have the last piece -- who might know where it had all gone wrong -- why would it not be the purple once-unicorn she had seen against the firelight?

She would follow that pony. She would get the information from what was nearly the best of all possible sources. And then, knowing now that there was still a he in the world, would deliver those final truths to him so that he would at last have his answers. It was a new reason to live, at least until she brought those most crucial of facts to him as her final apology.

Twilight Sparkle had to know what had gone wrong. How to make it go right.

And so Twilight Sparkle would tell her.

No matter what she had to do in order to get those answers.

She owed it to him.