• Published 5th Jun 2013
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Midnight's Shadow - Ponibius

In the aftermath of the devastating Lunar Rebellion, the newly minted Magus of Equestria, Midnight Sparkle, finds herself embroiled in the chaos in her homeland. Beset on all sides of nefarious foes, Midnight must fight to save Equestria or perish.

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Midnight Begins: Chapter 2

Midnight’s Shadow

Midnight Begins

Chapter 2

None of my little ponies are perfect.
-Princess Celestia

There are times where I must wonder what our ancestors were thinking when they decided that magi should live in towers. Those times usually correlate with when I am forced to climb the stairs of the Archmagus Tower of Canterlot. I have grown to dislike stairs with a deeply ingrained loathing that can only be born out of intimate familiarity. The rhythmic sound of hoof on stone had become an all-too-common note in my life. Just because climbing stairs was a necessity of life in a city built along the side of a mountain does not mean I like that fact.

Mother huffed from the effort of climbing the stairs of our home. The stairs of the old tower circled around its circumference to lead up into the ascending floors. “If thou art determined to spend time with Gale Kicker, I would hope that thou wouldst be less of a pawn to her machinations.”

As was her way, it had only taken my mother long enough for us to withdraw into privacy for her to criticise my actions at Cantrip’s Emporium. The privacy was only a small mercy next to what were usually scathing reviews.

I felt the weight of my legs grow as I ascended after Mother. “I know not what thou speakest of,” I grumbled.

“Neigh. And that is thy failing,” she said reproachfully. “Didst thou make any attempt to understand the pony the two of you sought, or was it merely the word of Gale which guided thy actions?”

I frowned at Mother’s observation. It was true that I had been dragged into Gale’s little misadventure on her word that ‘twas for a good cause. At the time, I could see little good in allowing a crooked merchant to sell a forbidden tome. Still, I did not wish to appear the complete fool before my mother. “'Twas true that Cantrip was dealing in forbidden articles. Some of the knowledge contained within the tome we confiscated wert most foul and vile, Mother.”

“Foals' play, Midnight.” She waved a hoof dismissively. “He had the leeway to do so.”

I narrowed my eyes at my mother. I would not have judged some of what I had found to be so harmless. The names of demons, for instance, were not things to be trifled with. Then again, what an archmagus considered a real threat might be a bit askew to the common pony. “Mayhaps if I had known that he was under thy protection, I would not have struck out against him.”

‘Twas likely that Cantrip was one of Mother’s more important contacts within Canterlot’s black market. The unfortunate reality of developing a contact within the less reputable parts of society was that one had to overlook certain activities performed by those contacts. The alternative was to be blind to the shadier world of equine society. As Mother would no doubt tell me, knowledge is power, and ignorance is dangerous.

Mother stopped short of the next floor of the tower, stopping my own progress as she blocked the stairs. “Indeed so, if thou placed less faith in thy apparent friend and simply looked into the matter for thyself.”

I gave Mother a level look, trying not to lose my temper in the face of her reprimands. “The tome in question would have been sold if I had taken the time to investigate the matter myself. The buyers for the dark tome had arrived not more than a few minutes after myself.”

She gave me a disapproving look. “‘Tis the concern of the gendarme to track those who would pursue such works—I have raised thee as a magus, not some petty guardspony.” She sighed. “You have left me much work, child.”

“By thy word, Mother.” I looked away from her stare. “I did not know this would cause thee trouble.”

She stared at me for a long moment before nodding. “Consider thy actions more carefully, then, when encouraged by the Kicker mare. Let us speak no more of this for now.” Mother finished the climb to the level of the tower dedicated to her work.

“Aye, as thou says,” I said flatly, following her into the laboratory.

Mother’s workplace was a dichotomy of the old and new of magical research. Ancient instruments whose usage goes back centuries lay next to the latest arcane inventions. Meticulously organized shelves, stuffed with tomes both new and old, sat opposite to those shelves holding Mother’s labeled alchemical and enchanting ingredients. Weathered oak tables sat in the middle of the room, covered in alchemic tubes and beakers, and a range of enchantment instruments sat on a long table against the far wall. Each had books, both ancient and newly printed, lying open or in piles.

“Hast thou saddlebags ready for travel?” Mother walked over to a safe imbedded into the wall of the tower and unlocked it.

I stepped up next to her as she opened the safe to reveal a number of potions and a few other articles mother used here. “Neigh. I had no plans for a sudden departure.”

Mother grunted in dissatisfaction. “I suppose thou wouldst not.” She studied the contents of the safe intently before wrapping a score of the vials in her green magical field and levitated them before me. “Hold these for me.”

“Aye, Mother.” I grasped them in my own ice-blue telekinetic field and followed her as she walked to a nearby double-doored closet. I looked at the vials and felt the magic within them, each brewed for different purposes from dealing with fatigue, pain, dealing with stealth, and other useful properties. “Art thou familiar with this Appleton?” I asked, considering my mission before me.

Mother pushed aside a series of skeletons and the stands from which they hanged. “Neigh, not much other than it being a den of rebels and malcontents since the end of the war. A couple of years ago we were forced to send a contingent of the Guard there. The violence between the Apple and Carrot Clans had become so fierce that the Guard was forced to hang a number of ponies to put a stop to the madness.” She pulled out a pair of small tin cases designed to hold vials and presented them to me. “Put them in here.”

I did as she instructed. “But thou knowest nothing else?”

She snapped the two cases shut. “Part of being a magus is adapting to hostile situations, daughter,” she said reproachfully. She then walked over to her enchantment bench, expecting me to follow. “I have trained thee to deal with worse than this.” I decided not to react to Mother’s provocations and merely watched as Mother began examining some of the enchanted gems that sat on the shelf above the table. I had long ago learned ‘tis not wise to get into arguments with her on most issues.

“Though I do offer some advice.” Mother placed some gems into a small bag and bade me to take it, adding it to the objects floating around me. “I recommend that thee refrain from introducing thyself by thy noble title or thy surname, Sparkle.” (1)

1. Sunbeam Sparkle had earned the title of Countess by this point in time. Given her lack of a legitimate heir, Sunbeam was able to get an exemption from Princess Celestia to make Midnight the heir to her title despite her status as a bastard.

“Why?” I asked. I was curious as to why my mother would give such advice. At least in Canterlot, they were things of prestige. Mostly. My mother had made more than a few enemies in her day.

Mother walked towards the stairs leading further up the tower, and I followed. “Because those plebeian earth ponies in Appleton will only look at thee with scorn for thy noble rank—which in turn will be nothing if they suspect that thou art the daughter of the Grand Vizier of Equestria. Some would take thee as a hostage or even kill thee for whom thy mother is.”

I shivered involuntarily. I had more experience than I cared to think about where being a hostage was concerned. “Aye, I will take thy advice to heart.”

“Good. Going by Magus Midnight should be all thou needs to engender respect in thy fellow ponies.” The two of us reached my own quarters in the tower, and Mother waved towards my closet. “Retrieve thy saddlebags. There is not time to tarry.”

I noted the hint of disapproval in my mother’s tone as I retrieved my saddlebags from the closet. “Does something bother thee, Mother?” I emptied my saddlebags of everything I did not feel I would need for my journey, which was virtually everything. I did not enjoy the idea of leaving everything on the floor to be cleaned up later by myself or by a servant, but I did not believe Mother would tolerate any further delay.

Mother was silent for a long moment as she watched me thoughtfully. Her thoughts are so byzantine that I am not sure even she knows how she decides her course at times. “‘Tis simply that I do not like the idea of my daughter going out and facing danger. If there was anypony else available, then I would have sent them.”

I felt a pang of annoyance at my mother’s remark. “Dost thou have no confidence in me? I am old enough to do this. This is what my education has prepared me for, is it not?” In truth, I was not so confident as my words suggested. There were far too many factors that I did not know, and that made me wary.

“No proper mother rejoices over the prospect of sending their child into possible danger. Speaking of...” Mother started looking about my room. “Where is thy dagger? Thou shalt make sure to have it on thyself at all times.”

I shook my head. “I do not have one, Mother. Not since the incident with the otyugh.” That had been a most miserable experience when Mother had dragged me along to the sewers. I do not know what possesses the builders of Canterlot’s sewers to make them spacious enough for all sorts of foul and quite large beasts.

Mother’s eyes narrowed. “I thought I told thee to buy one?” she said, her tone confused and conveying displeasure. She was always accustomed to her demands being invariably done.

“I did not have an immediate need of one.” I pulled my healer’s kit my mother had bought for me at the insistence I should have one. Checking to be sure it was in serviceable shape, I put it into one of my saddlebags.

“Stay here and continue thy preparations.” Mother turned from me and ascended the stairs to her own quarters. I had just finished donning my light blue magus cloak and midnight blue hat when my mother returned. “And I thought I told thee to rid thyself of that hat.” She gave my hat a sour look and clicked her tongue. Mother never been fond of my hats.

“I like my hat,” I said firmly. I studied the crescent moon, stars, and snowflakes sewn into it, giving the appearance of snowfall in the night. Confirming my satisfaction with it, I placed the wide brimmed and pointed hat down on my head. “It keeps the sun out of my eyes,” I said, giving my mother a practical reason for wearing the hat. As a rule, my mother likes practical things. “‘Tis traditional.”

“‘Tis most tacky.” She grunted and shook her head. “We do not have time to argue about this. Run around like a fool with that thing on thy head if thou wishes.” Mother presented me with a dagger in its sheath. The sheath itself had a strap intended to be tied around a pony’s leg. “But thou wilt take this.”

My first instinct was to argue with Mother, but I bit it back and took the dagger. “Very well.” I tied the dagger around my right foreleg. “As long as thou offers no further protests against my hat.”

“The dagger is for thy safety,” she said grudgingly. “Thou wilt not always have time to cast thy spells, and a dagger struck true can kill as readily as any spell.”

“I shall keep thy wisdom in mind.” My ears perked as I spotted my holster within the closet. “Ah, that reminds me.” I pulled the holster down from a peg, and after confirming that the dozen enchanted darts were still nestled within, I tied it around my barrel. Gale had given the holster and the hoof-length blades to me on my birthday several years past, and I had enchanted each of them at her insistence. Half of them had their own unique magical effects that I thought could be useful to deal with different situations.

Mother gave me a long, appraising examination. I daresay I might even have noted a hint of maternal approval in her eyes. “Except for thy hat, thou looks the part of a proper magus.” Start a statement with an insult only to end with a compliment, such was the way of my mother. Still, compliments can be a rare thing from Mother, and I could not help but smile.

“I thank thee.” I tied my saddlebag around myself and inspected everything to be sure it settled right. “I am ready to depart, Mother.”

I could only hope that I was truly ready for what was to come.

‘Tis most awkward when Her Highness, Princess Celestia, Queen of Unicornia, Sol Invictus, Lady of the Sun and Moon, and enough other titles to fill up a small book, suddenly lands before you on the palace grounds. Social decorum does not quite address such situations. Her Highness beamed down at me and my mother after literally plummeting out from the sky to land before us.

The two of us hastened to kneel before her. “Your Highness!” Mother exclaimed. “We did not expect you.”

Princess Celestia motioned for us to stand. “Rise, my magi. I was merely out on a flight to stretch my wings and remembered that I needed to speak with you on some matter of state.”

“My sincerest apologies”— Mother made a brief bow to Her Majesty —“but I was in the process of seeing my daughter off on an important mission to the town of Appleton, and I am afraid I must not tarry in seeing her off. As such, we cannot stay and talk.”

Her Highness smiled down at us. “Is that so?” She fixed my gaze with her own, and I felt as though she were peering into my very being. It always did feel as though such things were within her power. ‘Tis a most disquieting feeling. “Then mayhaps I could have a word with Midnight?”

Mother nodded respectfully. “If such is your desire, then I have no qualm with it.”

Princess Celestia gave Mother a warm smile. “I wish for our conversation to be in private.” She waved to the palace with a hoof. “In any event, I wished to speak with thee about the budget for the magi around Canterlot. I have seen to it that the necessary documents were placed within thine office. Wouldst thou be so kind as to review them before I meet with thee? I will seek thee as soon as I am done speaking with Midnight.”

I knew from my lifetime of living in Canterlot that Her Majesty was politely dismissing my mother in order to speak with me. She had done so readily enough with myself when she wished to talk to my mother in private over one affair of the realm or another, but ‘twas a rare occurrence indeed for the opposite to happen.

“I hoped to give my daughter a few parting words before her departure.” Mother gave me a hesitant look. I had to admit, I felt my own wariness to leave my mother behind in Canterlot. Those times she was away on her duties were often times of loneliness for me. I thought of voicing my own complaints against Her Highness dismissing my mother, but decided against it, given it would likely be perceived as me speaking out of turn.

The barest frown creased Princess Celestia’s mouth. “Canst thou not say thy words now? I am sorry to take time away from family, but such are the burdens of duty.”

Mother took a long, exasperated breath and nodded. “Duty is a mountain, as they say.” She reached out and squeezed one of my forelegs. “Remember thy training and everything I have told thee.”

I nodded. “Aye. I will, Mother.” I felt my throat tighten as we worked through our goodbyes.

She spread her forelegs to offer a hug. “Now, give thy mother a hug and her kiss.”

I hugged her in a stiff, awkward show of affection between us. Hugs were never something that came naturally to Mother. “I will think of thee while I am away.” I gave my mother her traditional farewell kiss to the cheek.

“And I of thee.” Mother hesitated for a moment, giving me a long look with something behind her eyes I could not identify before giving me another hug. “Be safe, my child.”

“I will,” I assured her. Silence lay between us for a moment, Her Highness watching on, before my mother finally brought herself to making a respectful, final bow to Princess Celestia and departing. Leaving me with the ruler of Equestria. I gave her a courteous incline of my head. “What was it that Her Majesty wished to speak with me about?”

I felt the power of Princess Celestia’s gaze upon me. “This is to be thy first mission for Equestria, is it not?”

“Aye, ‘tis so.” I confirmed. “There was nopony else available to go to Appleton, so my mother is sending me to deal with a series of disappearances there.”

Taking a moment to perceive my surroundings, I noticed that everypony in the courtyard was giving us a wide berth. I had to wonder if this was due to nopony being able to summon the will to approach the Princess or part of some strange power on the part of Her Highness.

“I wish thee well on thy quest.” Something about her gaze became more distant. “I remember the day thy mother brought thee before me to bless thy birth. I think thy mother was as surprised as anypony that she was now a mother.” She chuckled to herself, the laugh having a hint of sadness to it. “To think that the day thou art going out into the world as a full magus is already upon us.”

“‘Tis what I have been prepared to do my entire life,” I said, as much to myself as to her.

“Aye, ‘tis so.” She stroked one of my cheeks with a hoof. “And yet thou hast already experienced so much pain.” Though I suppressed the unpleasant memories, a cold shudder ran down my spine. Her Highness withdrew the hoof and her expression became stern.

“Thou willst face many challenges in the coming years. Many great burdens will be placed on thy shoulders, and they will weigh heavily upon thee.” She placed an encouraging hoof on my shoulder. “But know that I place these burdens on thee because I believe in thee, Midnight. Know that ‘tis through the challenges we face with that we show what type of ponies we really are.”

Her Highness bent down to kiss me once upon each cheek. “I bid thee to defend my little ponies: to be strong for the weak, to bring justice to the realm, and to be a point of light in the darkness.”

I felt my knees shake as I gave her a respectful bow. “By your will, Your Majesty. I will seek to please you and do my duties to the best of my ability.” There was something about the Princess’s words that pressed down upon me. The fact I was about to leave Canterlot and my home, be away from the only family I knew, was only now becoming real to me. ‘Twas a frightening prospect.

“Now thou had better be off.” She waved me off like a mother encouraging her children to run off and play. “Thou hast much work to do and little time to do it.”

“By your leave.” I made a final bow and moved to depart for the Kicker Compound.

“Oh, and one final word of advice for thee.” Her Highness gave me a conspiratorial wink. “Listen to the counsel of thy bodyguards. Thou willst find their wisdom most useful to thee.”


“Good tidings, Midnight! I am coming with thee to Appleton!” Gale gave me a hug that made me worry if I was going to have some of my ribs broken before we even departed. She had wasted no time greeting me upon walking through the gates of the Kicker Compound.

“What!?” I squeaked. Having ones ribs nearly crushed makes it rather hard to speak properly.

Gale released some of the pressure of her hug, and I took the opportunity to gasp in a breath. “Mother has given me permission to come along as an observer of thy mission.” She leaned in to whisper conspiratorially into my ear. “Officially, I am only to observe thee and step in if thou art in trouble, but ‘tis quite the opportunity for us to spend time with one another away from thy mother, aye?”

“Aye, that sounds most wonderful.” I gave Gale a strained smile and tried to wiggle out of her clutches before I found myself in a death hold.

While I was indeed happy to hear that Gale would be coming, I believe I now saw the game she was playing. While I cared for Gale deeply as though she were my sister, I could not help but see the machinations she had put into motion. She was always hoping to distance me from my mother while strengthening her bonds with myself, and in this instance she seemed to have done an admirable job of doing so. At the very least, the physical distance with my mother and closeness to Gale gave her a considerable lead in their latest plays against one another. I did not doubt that she did so with the best of intentions, but ‘twas most irritating to be the focus of such political games. Also, there was the matter of my mother’s inevitable retaliation for this slight to her.

Somepony besides us cleared his throat. “If it would please the Lieutenant Colonel and m’lady, perhaps we can proceed with preparing for our journey?” he said in a deep baritone voice.

As my mother had taught me, I took in the stallion’s appearance to gain a measure of the pony. He was a pegasus built for power rather than speed and looked every bit the soldier in his blood-red plate armor. His dual-toned, dark blond mane was mostly covered up by his helmet, and I noted the slightly darker streaks of hair on his light brown coat, likely caused by battle-scarring. He carried himself in that way confident and able soldiers always did as he stood stoically before Gale and me. He cut quite the imposing figure while he loomed over a head taller than myself. It seemed that Gale had selected quite the specimen of his breed to be my bodyguard for my mission to Appleton.

Gale let out a reluctant sigh and released me. “Aye, ‘tis best we make our final preparations. But first let us take care of our introductions. Midnight, this is Sergeant Stalwart Kicker.” She motioned towards the large stallion and then back to me. “Stalwart, this is Lady Magus Midnight Sparkle, heir to the County of Shetland.”

“M’lady.” Stalwart gave me a salute.

“‘Tis my pleasure to meet thee.” I bowed my head respectfully.

I straightened myself and spoke in what I hoped sounded like a commanding voice. I was Stalwart’s superior in rank, and this was my mission to Appleton. “Shall we depart without delay? I trust that a chariot has been procured.”

“Neigh, not quite yet,” Stalwart said firmly. He moved closer to me and he started looking me over intently. I gave him a questioning glance. “First, I wish to examine your equipment to be sure ‘tis suitable.”

“Why?” I asked patiently. I suddenly felt uncomfortable as he walked a circle around me. “I assure thee that all of my equipment is fine.”

“Neigh, I disagree. Let us step over here.” He motioned towards the central courtyard of the Kicker Compound, and Gale and I followed after him there. The old, repurposed fort had a large courtyard that I knew the Kicker clan used for any number of purposes, including training, instruction, and general gatherings. Even then, a group of children were being led through a series of martial exercises by a couple adults. Ponies paid us little mind as they went about their business, either coming or going, or talking with other ponies.

I narrowed my eyes at Stalwart when he stopped. “What is wrong with my equipment?” I looked to Gale, and she seemed content to let Stalwart do as he will as her mouth curved into a slight smirk.

Stalwart pointed at my saddlebags. “Your saddlebags are unsuitable for travel and combat.”

“They seem fine to me.” I looked to the cloth saddlebags that had served me well for the past couple of years. They had proven comfortable enough to wear, and did well to carry such things as books and gems.

Stalwart’s response was to step up to me, grab the side of one of my saddlebags, and with a quick jerk, rip the bag open. The contents of my saddlebag fell to the ground, and I was too shocked to do little else but stare on in horror.

He gave me a firm look that did not give even a hint of remorse for destroying my saddlebag. “That is what would have happened if a branch had caught your bag or if an enemy had gotten a grip on it.”

“That was no excuse for thy behavior,” I growled. I began the process of picking up my personal items from the ground with my telekinesis.

“But it made my point all the quicker. Come, we will procure you a proper set of saddlebags.” Stalwart walked towards one of the buildings in the compound, clearly expecting me to follow.

I gave Gale a pleading look, but her response was to give me a nonchalant shrug. ‘Twas clear whose side she was on in this argument. Seeing little other choice, I gathered the rest of my belongings and trotted after Stalwart. The stallion had not even bothered to check to see if I was following him.

I caught up with Stalwart right as he reached the counter of what I believed to be the quartermaster post in the Kicker Compound. At least that would explain the bags, mess kits, waterskins, and other basic items any soldier would need lying about the room.

“One saddlebag for the magus.” Stalwart gestured with his head towards me. “She needs something that will survive the road.” He gave me an inquisitive glance before turning back to the mare. “Better give me the smallest bags you possess.”

“Aye.” The clean-cut mare behind the counter nodded and walked towards one of the walls. “Playing foalsitter again, Stalwart?”

“Bit too old to be considered a foal,” Stalwart said gruffly. I shot the both of them a scathing look. It did nothing. He took a saddlebag from the quartermaster and stepped up to me. “Take your old saddlebags off so we can put your new ones on.”

I considered arguing with the sergeant. I was not happy with the way he had treated me thus far. Also, the saddlebags Stalwart had been given seemed to be of a coarser material and were less aesthetically pleasing to me than my own, silky-feeling bags. The problem was that I did need saddlebags to carry everything I might need, and even if I repaired my old bags with a repair spell, ‘twas unlikely Stalwart would let me use them without argument.

I sighed and removed my old saddlebags. I quickly removed everything from the bag that had not been ripped open and held the bag up. “Can it be arranged to have these returned to my mother’s tower?”

Gale took my saddlebags into her teeth and tossed them onto her bag. “I will call for a porter to have them delivered when we are done here.”

Without comment, Stalwart put the new saddlebags on me. With quick and firm motions that could only have been born out of experience, he shifted the bags to better sit on my back and then tightened the strap around me. I grunted when he tightened the bags too much, and he loosened the bags a notch or two to allow me to breathe properly. The new saddlebags were not as comfortable as my old ones and were much bulkier than I was accustomed to.

“Good, I was worried they would be too large for you.” Stalwart tugged on the bags to make sure they stayed in place, nearly knocking me to the ground in the process. I did not doubt my bodyguard could have pushed me to the ground with ease if that had been his desire. “There, that should work.” He did not seem to note the baleful glower I was giving him as he calmly patted the sides of one of my bags. “Be sure to take advantage of the pockets of your new bag. ‘Tis a good way to keep some equipment separate from everything else in your bags you might want to retrieve quickly.” I felt like a filly being lectured to, rather than a full-grown mare. “Now let us see what you plan on putting in your bags.”

I picked up my belongings with my telekinesis to put into my bags. “I assure thee, I selected everything with great care.”

Gale interposed herself between my cloud of items and myself. I was beginning to wonder whose side she was really on. “I think ‘twould be wise for thee to let Stalwart look through thy belongings, Midnight. I assure thee, he most knowledgeable.”

“Aye.” Stalwart pointed to everything in my telekinetic field. “From this point forward you will have to carry everything on you at all times, both weighing and wearing you down with every step. ‘Tis a common mistake by new recruits to try and carry everything they think they may need. They quickly learn the error of their ways after a long march or flight or when they need to flee from or chase an enemy. Given it is my duty to keep you alive, I would prefer to avoid having you learn this the hard way.”

I closed my eyes took a long breath to calm myself. After thinking it over, I decided it was best to let Stalwart examine my belongings. I was confident at least most of what I had brought would be deemed worthy of bearing with us, so it was unlikely there would be much to be upset over.

I looked at Stalwart levelly and tried to keep a growl out of my tone. “Very well. Thou may examine my effects to see what is suitable to bring, Sergeant.”

Stalwart gave me only the barest nod before beginning his examination. He quickly selected out the small bag that contained my makeup, confirmed what it was at a quick glance, and placed it inside my old saddlebag. “Neigh.”

“I did not bring much makeup. ‘Tis only a small bag,” I protested.

“Useless weight,” he said firmly, continuing to look through my belongings without missing a beat. “There is no need to impress a bunch of earth pony farmers with such things.” He reached the half dozen books I had decided to bring with me, a mixture of reference volumes and a couple magical tomes. He looked at the title of each, frowned, and then decided they were undesirable.

“I need those!” I said as he placed each within my old saddlebag. I levitated one of the books out of the title and presented it before Stalwart. “What if I need Lore Keeper’s Monsterum Totus but do not possess it?”

“Then we will manage.” Stalwart pulled the book out of my magic field and put it into my saddlebag. “These books are bulky and heavy, and are not worth the weight.”

I stomped a hoof. “But what will I read on the journey? Am I just to sit on the chariot and do nothing? Thou wouldst leave me with nothing to read or study.”

“You should have selected thinner volumes.” Stalwart finished putting my books away and turned back to the rest of my belongings. Fortunately, he did not find much else to remove other than some minor trinkets. Finished with everything I was holding with my telekinesis, Stalwart proceeded to examine myself. He pulled my dagger from its sheath, and finding it to his approval, returned it. He did the same with my throwing darts, though he tightened its strap around my barrel so that it would not shift around.

He gave my hat a disapproving scowl and leaned in to bite down on its rim. I jerked back away from him and held the hat in place with my forehooves. “Neigh! The hat stays!”

“Your hat serves no purpose and only draws attention to you,” he lectured to me in such a way that made me feel like a filly. “You are leaving the hat here in Canterlot.”

Stalwart stepped up to me and looked ready to rip the hat from my head when Gale interjected. “Let her retain her hat, Stalwart. Otherwise we shall never hear the end of it. ‘Tis likely she will lose it in good time, anyways.”

“I will not,” I objected obstinately. I eyed Stalwart suspiciously lest he make another attempt to remove my hat.

Gale cocked an eyebrow at me. “Pray tell, what happened to thy last hat?”

“‘Twas not my fault that the hat caught on fire,” I told her.

Gale gave me a knowing smirk, not unlike that of a cat who knew she had a mouse trapped in a corner. “And the one before that?”

Someday I would learn how to smite a pony with naught but a look. “I assure thee that the ravens that nest at the Archmagus Tower made good use of its thread after they removed it from my head.”

“And what about the one—”

“Thou hast made thy point, Gale!” I turned from the two of them and shoved my belongings into my saddlebags and closed them. I gave Stalwart a scowl. “Are we done now? I was under the impression that time was of the essence for our mission.” I was quickly growing impatient with my bodyguard. I doubted Her Highness ever had these types of problems with her guards. Certainly not Mother. Mother would never tolerate being treated like this.

“Not quite.” Stalwart motioned for Gale and I to follow him out of the quartermaster office. “Undue haste will only cause trouble for us later. We must be sure to be prepared. An hour or two should not make too much of a difference either way compared to being ill-prepared for our task.”

I could find no fault with his logic and followed him. “This better serve a purpose, Sergeant,” I said bitterly.

Gale nudged me in the ribs and gave me a reassuring smile. “Do not be like that. Sergeant Stalwart is merely trying to assist thee.”

“By thy word,” I said neutrally.

The three of us entered a building I readily identified as a smithy. Weapons and armor adorned the walls, and the temperature was noticeably warmer than it was outside. A large stallion was working a bellow. He noticed us and pushed up the goggles to look at us. “May I be of service?”

Stalwart nodded to the stallion and motioned towards me with his head. “Is there a set of barding that would fit her?”

The stallion rubbed a hoof against the stubble on his chin. “She is an awfully small pony.” I hated how other ponies always referred to my small stature. ‘Twas not my fault I am a small pony. “‘Twould be best if I did a custom job for her.”

“We are leaving upon the hour.” Stalwart shook his head. “There is no time to commission a new set of barding.”

Seeing this as a waste of time and effort, I stepped up to the two stallions. “I do not require barding.” I gave Stalwart an even look. “I am no soldier, Stalwart. I am a magus, tried and true, and such armor is not needed for a pony of my position.”

Mother had trained me in the way of the arcanist. While those magi who emphasised melee combat, those of the battle magi, were more prone to wearing proper barding, ‘twas considered gaudy and showed a lack of confidence in one’s magic to defend oneself—either through spells or enchanted gear. Mother had ensured that I had sufficient spells to protect myself. Sometimes through all-too-harsh methods.

“Neigh, but as long as you are under my protection, you will be given what defenses you can. I will not see you slain when it could have been prevented.” Stalwart turned back to the smith, having decided for himself that the debate was done and over. “Show us what you have available, and we will see how it fits.”

I opened my mouth to voice my displeasure, but I was stopped when I felt Gale place a hoof on my shoulder. She gave me a reassuring smile and a slight shake. “‘Tis fine, Midnight. Besides, ‘twould make me feel much better if thou wert better protected against thy enemies.”

I rubbed at my forehead due to the pain I felt building up there. “This can only make me a mockery among my fellow magi.”

Gale gave me a wry grin. “‘Tis better than being dead. Wouldst thou not say so?”

“Many things are preferable to being horribly killed, aye,” I granted her. “But still, I am not enthralled by the idea. Armor looks ... heavy. Not to mention what my mother will say of the matter.”

Gale looked me in the eyes with a sad, pouting look about her. “Please, for me?”

I let out a long sigh. Gale always seemed to know how to provoke me to do as she wished. “Very well. I shall try on some barding.”

Gale quickly wrapped me in a hug that made me reconsider the appeals of wearing barding. On one hoof, it might protect me from Gale’s hugs. On the other, she might very well crush my armor, causing it to squeeze and break my bones, puncturing and crushing my organs as I spasmed to death. I hoped it was good barding—preferably enchanted.

The blacksmith brought over one of his sets of armor on his back and presented it to me. “This is the smallest barding I have at the moment.”

I lifted up the barding from his back with my telekinesis. The plate armor looked new. It had not even been painted with the traditional Kicker Clan blood-red or any other color. “It looks ... acceptable.” In truth, I did not know much about barding other then it tended to involve a lot of steel and cloth to hold it together.

Stalwart motioned with a hoof for me to put the armor on. “Let us see how it fits.”

“Very well,” I said patiently. I attempted to put the armor on—emphasis on “attempted.” Stalwart stepped in to assist me somewhere between when I dropped the criniere and when I somehow managed to untie the peytral from the croupier. (2)

2. For those unaware, the criniere is the section of barding meant to protect the neck, the peytral covers the chest, and the croupier protects the hindquarters.

Stalwart picked up the criniere from the floor. “Have you never worn barding before?”

“Neigh,” I said solemnly. One of the sections of the armor fell to the floor with a loud clatter. The shoulder guard, I think.

He let out a resigned sigh. “Release your hold of the barding. I will assist you with putting it on.”

“Aye.” I released my magical hold of the barding and immediately regretted it. My own magical strength is quite considerable. In terms of pure magical strength I am among the most powerful unicorns in all of Equestria; I can lift a significant amount of weight telekinetically. What I can carry with my own body is considerably less.

My knees nearly buckled under the weight of the barding as it pressed down on me. I grunted as I pushed myself up and locked my knees into place. I was beginning to wonder if Stalwart had conspired to make me leave my books behind just so he could place this additional burden on my back. Stalwart proceeded to strap the armor to me and tied its various parts into place, nearly knocking me over in the process. His work complete after a few minutes of him repeatedly telling me not to squirm, he stepped away to examine how I looked. The results were less than awe-inspiring.

“I look like a filly trying on her mother’s clothes,” I said flatly. To put it generously, even the smith’s smallest set of armor appeared to be two sizes too big for me.

Stalwart looked to the smith. “Is there nothing smaller?”

The smith shrugged. “Neigh. There is little call for barding for a pony this small. The filly barely even has any bulk to her. Are you sure she is even eating properly?”

“I am standing before thee.” I gave the smith a look that I hoped was scathing, but there seemed little hope of that when I was more concerned with not collapsing under the armor. I may very well never have gotten up again were I to have fallen. The smith certainly seemed less than impressed with me, given he did not even give me the dignity of a reply.

Gale held a hoof up to her mouth as she snickered. “Thy appearance is most comical. ‘Tis a shame, but I do not believe this armor will do. Just look what happens when I do this.” I was not prepared when Gale gave me a sudden, rough shove to the flank, so I fell to the ground like a great oak being chopped down after the ministrations of an ax.

“Gale!” I yelled as Gale clutched her sides as she laughed uproariously. I attempted to stand up, but the weight of the armor and its poor fitting made it nearly impossible for me to move. My failed attempts to salvage what remained of my dignity only served to cause Gale to laugh even more.

Gale eventually managed to fight down her laughter and moved to assist me. “Sorry, sorry, let me remove that armor from thee.” ‘Twas probably fortunate that Gale was to help remove the armor for me; ‘tis likely I would have just throttled myself in the attempt. I did not wish to go down in history as the first magus to manage to choke herself to death with her own armor.

Stalwart ran a hoof through his mane and shook his head. “It seems we will have to procure thee armor at a later date.” He gave Gale a resigned look. “At least her magus cloak should be enchanted with protections, so she will have that much protection.”

I looked up at Stalwart—at least as best as I was able to given the restrictions the armor placed me under. “My cloak has no enchantments placed upon it.” Stalwart’s head whipped around to look at me while Gale looked at me as though I had suddenly grown two heads. “What? My cloak is merely ceremonial.”

Gale rubbed at her face with a hoof. Based on the grimace on her features, she looked to be in physical pain for some reason. “Midnight, pray tell, why hast thou not placed any enchantments on thy cloak?”

“There has been no need,” I told her. “Placing those types of enchantments on a cloak takes time and effort to do, and I haven’t felt the need to do so.”

“Compared to some of the enchanted items thou hast created?” Gale reprimanded.

I grumbled under my breath as Gale began the process of untying some of the straps that held the barding in place. “That talisman was intended to provide an assessment of the likely lifespan and cause of death for a pony, based on their health and lifestyle. I could be most useful for chirurgeons.”

Gale scoffed. “Did that talisman not claim that I should already have been dead for several years?”

“‘Tis a work in progress,” I protested. At least Gale had not brought up that time I tried to enchant an autonomous broom. I am not sure that my mother, the palace staff, or Princess Celestia had quite forgiven me for what had transpired.

Gale finished removing the criniere and removed it from my neck. “Thou wouldst be better served by a cloak capable of deflecting blows.”

Stalwart took the criniere from Gale and gave it to the smith. “Aye.” He sat down next to the two of us as Gale continued the belonged process of removing the armor. He crossed his forelegs before his chest and closed his eyes, appearing to be deep in thought. “Gale, how much martial training has Midnight received?”

I lifted my head to try and make eye contact with Stalwart, but he deliberately did not meet my gaze. “I think I would be an authority on that matter.”

He let out a patient sigh. “Gale knows what I am looking for. Be silent,” he said with the tone of a parent’s dismissing the annoying pratel of a child. “We are discussing how best to keep thee alive.”

Gale finally untied enough of the straps to allow me to squirm out of the too loose, yet still restricting armor. “She has received virtually none. I have taught her some of throwing darts and the art of stealth, but that oathbreaker Archmagus prevented me from teaching Midnight everything I would have wished to. Such as how to defend herself with her hooves.” I had to bite down on my tongue to keep from making a scathing remark when Gale made the comment about my mother being an oathbreaker. I feared that bad blood would never be settled. “She knows some magic to defend herself, but she has little experience using it.”

Stalwart rubbed at his eyes when Gale finished her assessment of me. “You know how to give a stallion confidence in his ability to complete his mission, m’lady.”

I finished extracting myself from the armor and sat up. “Aye, I thank thee for the vote of confidence.”

“‘Tis not all predictions of doom.” Gale poked me in the ribs, causing me to jerk away from the offending hoof. “Midnight here is a powerful and capable magus in her own right. She just requires more training in certain areas.”

Stalwart rubbed his chin while considering that for a moment. “‘Twould be best if we started her martial training as soon as we can.”

I tilted my head to the side as I considered the idea of training me in the martial arts. “I am not sure I see the point. In case thou havest not noticed”—I motioned to my body with a hoof—“I am not a very large pony. It strikes me as a bad idea to fight with my hooves given nearly any enemy I would face would be larger than myself.”

Gale gave me a quick smack to my shoulder that sent a flare of pain through my leg. “Thou wouldst be surprised how little it can take to do significant harm to another with proper training.”

Stalwart nodded. “More options in combat are never bad.”

“And maybe you would be able to carry a decent set of armor if you put some muscle on those skinny legs of yours,” said the smith as he collected the barding from the floor.

I frowned at the whole idea. I had seen guardponies train in the past, and the whole experience seemed quite unpleasant given the way they tended to hit one another and throw each other around. The idea of myself being subjected to all that pain did not appeal to me. “I will ... consider it.”

“Excellent!” Gale slapped me on the back. “Thou willst see, we will turn thee into a proper soldier yet. We will start on the morrow.”

“Huzzah,” I said mutely. I had a feeling that there was no escape from this training.

Once Sergeant Stalwart had finished with what felt like every detail about myself, we were ready to depart from Canterlot. Gale and Stalwart had strapped themselves to a chariot, and we had spent the better part of the afternoon flying over the Equestrian countryside. I had ridden in an airborne chariot a few times in the past, and for myself the process came to be a dull one. There was only so many green fields, villages, bodies of water, and forests I could look at from up high before it became rather mundane for me.

After considering what it would be like to fall from the chariot and hit the ground a few times, I quickly came to loathe how I was not allowed to bring any of my books along. I was accustomed to being in a constant state of activity. Mother was not a mare to tolerate idleness, and she was quite capable of finding work for me to do if I could not find things for myself. Stalwart seemed to have no similar compulsion and made no issue with me silently sitting in the chariot. If Stalwart noticed me staring balefully into the back of his skull for a straight hour, he did not show it.

Having little else to do for stimulus, I had taken to practicing the casting of some of my spells. I was in the middle of fine-tuning an illusion spell when I noticed Stalwart and Gale slowing down. Looking over the side of the chariot, I saw us approaching a town, though we were not descending as would have been typical for an approach to land.

I turned to the pegasi pulling the chariot and saw them speaking quietly to one another. “What are you two talking about?” I asked. “Are we to stop in that town?” The day was starting to get late, and I could see that the sun was already approaching the horizon. It would make sense to acquire lodgings before it became too late.

The two of them glanced at me and then exchanged a look between themselves that I could not read. Gale turned her head to me. “Midnight, could you retrieve my map from my saddlebag and hold it out for Stalwart and myself to examine?” she asked, completely avoiding my question.

“Of course,” I said, a hint of weariness in my tone. I could sense that the two of them were not telling me something. Still, I pulled Gale’s map out of her bag and levitated it out where my two bodyguards could see it. I also took the pains to cast an eavesdrop spell under the guise of my telekinesis so that the two of them would have a much harder time speaking to one another without me hearing—especially at such a close range. ‘Twas a common enough spell used in Canterlot and most helpful to listen in on conversations nopony knew you were interested in.

Stalwart leaned in to whisper to Gale, his eyes scanning the map. “Have you seen anypony walking in the town?”

“Neigh,” Gale whispered back. “It does not say so on my map, but I believe Crossroad might have been Lost.”

Lost. A word that had come to have an evil definition since the end of the Lunar Rebellion. The war had devastated many communities throughout Equestria. Communities had effectively ceased to be as the war destroyed whole villages or caused their residents to flee. Conditions had not improved throughout many regions in Equestria during the last decade. More towns all along Equestria’s borders had fallen to monster attacks, mysterious circumstances, or even had their whole populations suddenly disappear overnight.

I looked down at the town, and nothing initially seemed amiss, but on closer inspection, I saw that nopony seemed to be walking about the streets of the town. ‘Twas not so late that there would not be any ponies going about their business.

“We bypass it then,” Gale said with a firm finality. “There is another trading town a few more leagues down the road. Are you able to fly that far?” Looking at the two of them, I noticed that they each had a sheen of sweat from the flight. No doubt dragging a chariot while still wearing armor had taken its toll on the two of them.

“I will endure.” Stalwart wiped a hoof across his brow. “A little longer at least.”

I leaned against the front of the chariot. “Should we not investigate? Ponies could be needing our help.”

Stalwart gave the town a glance and shook his head. “Neigh. ‘Tis not our mission.”

Gale craned her head to give me a serious look. “A Guard patrol should investigate the town sooner or later, assuming they have not already. ‘Tis not a town marked as Lost on the map, but ‘tis a couple months old.” She poked at the map for emphasis.

“So we are to do nothing?” I asked, more inquiring then accusing.

“There are times of initiative, but this is not one of them.” Gale pointed down towards the possibly forsaken town. “‘Tis likely whatever has happened is done and beyond our ability to remedy. We would most likely just waste our time investigating and show nothing for the effort.” Her hoof then moved to point at the horizon. “But we are likely to do good in Appleton if we arrive in time to solve the mystery that has befallen it.”

While the idea of leaving whatever had happened to the town below us rankled something within me, I found myself agreeing with the logic of Gale’s statements. While I could have ordered us down to see what befell the town, likely it would come to naught. If we were less fortunate, we may very well wish we had found nothing. I had heard stories from other royal magi of some of the things they found in Lost towns—things that had caused the fall of the village or predators of one variety or another. Neigh, we would find ourselves more useful in Appleton.

I pushed off the front of the chariot and sat back down. “Let us continue on, then.”

We flew off, leaving the town of Crossroad to its fate.

We arrived at the merchant town of Greendale late in the evening. A dozen roads leading from the farm communities in the area converged on the town and made it a central hub for the region. Due to the constant influx of merchants, we hoped there would be lodgings available for travelers such as ourselves.

We landed outside of the town. Gale and Stalwart were weary from our journey and did not wish to fly about the town trying to find an inn. I hopped from the chariot after it had landed to lighten the load for two of them and proceeded into the town. We stopped in the Merchants' Square where the roads leading into the town met. ‘Twas different than I was used to in Canterlot, with its stalls and stores crammed in next to one another with only chaotically placed, curvy lanes to separate them. The sun was starting to hang over the horizon, and many of the merchants in the town were going about closing their shops and stands for the day as their customers made their way home.

Gale nudged Stalwart with a shoulder to get his attention. “Stalwart— take Midnight and and find some food ‘fore the farmers close their stalls? I would prefer to not have to eat nothing but trail rations this entire trip.” Gale waved towards the wooden, thatch-roofed buildings surrounding us. “I will see if I can find us some warm beds to sleep in.”

Stalwart began untying himself from the chariot. I considered assisting him with my telekinesis, but ‘twas likely he would find someway to criticise me for doing so. “Aye, sounds agreeable. Meet back here when we are done with our respective tasks?”

Gale nodded. “Let it be so.” She looked to me. “Midnight should have money to purchase food, aye?”

I looked about the stalls around us and the ponies walking about, slightly distracted by the unusual sights and sounds about me. “My mother gave me bits to cover expenses, aye.”

“Good. I shall see both of ye soon.” Gale took the chariot further down the street and disappeared from my view.

“Come. I believe the farmers are selling their food this way.” Stalwart started leading the way down one of the lanes, and I followed.

The Sergeant led us truly. We found ourselves in a circle of stalls of farmers in the process of packing up their wares for the day. Looking around, I saw an apple farmer. Deciding I would like an apple or two before bed, I started my way to her stall before Stalwart placed a leg before my path to stop me.

I looked up to my bodyguard with an annoyed frown. “Is there a problem?”

He nodded towards a pair of other stalls. “Let us buy some carrots or asparagus instead.”

One of my ears twitched. “We can buy some after I get a couple of apples. The farmers do not appear to be in that much of a hurry to leave.”

I moved towards the apple farmer but Stalwart stepped in my way. “I do not like the appearance of that farmer,” he said gruffly. “He has the look of a pony of the Apple Clan, and most of them do not look favorably on a royal magus.”

I craned my neck looked around Stalwart and confirmed that the apple farmer looked much as most of his kind did to me. No clothing except a wide-brimmed hat, a weathered look about her, dirty, nothing out of the ordinary. I turned back to Stalwart to fix him with a scowl. “All I desire is to buy some apples. She should want to sell apples so that she can purchase other goods and services. I do not see what the problem is.”

“To some ponies, their pride is worth more than a few bits.” I gave him a quizzical look as I tried to see what he was trying to say. Stalwart sighed and continued in a patient tone. “Many of the Apple Clan are still angry over what happened during the war and will not sell to an agent of the crown such as yourself. (3)‘Tis best just to buy from one of the other farmers who are less likely to cause trouble for us.”

3. The majority of the ponies from the Apple Clan had sided with the Lunars during the Lunar Rebellion. The Lunars’ defeat at the end of the war created long-standing tensions between the Apple Clan and Princess Celestia lasting for over a century before generational shifts and the passage of time eventually smoothed relations. Looking at other letters and diaries from this time period, it was not uncommon for any agent of the crown or even unicorns in general to be refused service by a member of the Apple Clan. Apple-based dishes became a rarity in Canterlot for nearly a decade as a result of the unofficial embargo on the part of the Apple Clan. It is likely that Midnight, due to the status of her mother, was one of the few ponies in Canterlot who still ate apples on anything close to a regular basis at the time.

I let out a patient sigh and nodded. “Very well, let us go to the carrot farmer, then.” ‘Twould seem I would not be purchasing apples this day. ‘Twas possible Stalwart was exaggerating the problem, but I was not in the mood for a conflict with some earth pony farmer. Knowing my luck, she would start throwing rotting apples at me just for asking.

The two of us stepped up to the carrot farmer’s stall. The carrot farmer turned from the crates of carrots she was loading into her cart and gave the two of us an inviting smile. “How can I help you two?”

“Aye, can I buy ... six carrots?” I looked to Stalwart to confirm that the number of carrots was fine with him, and he nodded in agreement.

The carrot farmer’s smile became all the wider, and she leaned on the counter of her stall. “That will be ten bits each, m’lady.”

I was surprised by the price of the carrots. I could buy gem shard or a ticket to a play for the price of each of those carrots. I had not been aware food was so expensive, but if that was the price of goods at the market, then there was little to be done about it.

“Very well then.” I levitated my bit purse out of my saddlebag and started counting out the sixty bits.

The carrot farmers eyes widened, and she started glancing about nervously. I was wondering what was disturbing her when Stalwart slammed his hoof down on the bits I was counting out, grabbed my bit purse, and then slid the bits back into the purse.

“Thy pardon, good farmer, but I must have a word with m’lady.” I was about to raise a word of protest at Stalwart’s actions when he bit down on my ear as though I were still a little filly and dragged me away from the stall.

“Owowowow,” I protested as Stalwart pulled me along. A few of the ponies gathered about giggled and laughed at my humiliation as my bodyguard dragged me along painfully. Eventually he let go, and I gave him a sour look as I rubbed at my ear. “What is the meaning of this? I was merely buying some carrots as thou wished.”

“No carrots are worth ten bits apiece,” he said firmly.

I pointed at the carrot stall. “Those ones are.”

Stalwart rubbed at his eyes as though in pain. “Are you familiar with the practice of haggling?”

“I am aware of the concept.” Finished rubbing at my ear, I looked at my hoof to confirm that Stalwart had not slobbered onto it. “I should let thee know that I have been tutored on economics.”

Stalwart gave me a level look. “Then ‘twould seem that your tutors neglected to teach you its practice in their lessons.” He sighed and shook his head. “E'en in Pegasopolis, we knew the act of bargaining, and we did not even make transactions in coin.” He nodded towards the carrot farmer, who in turn was staring in our direction with a befuddled look about her. “She expects you to haggle for a better price. The ten bits she offered for the carrots were but her starting price for the carrots.”

I blinked slowly at Stalwart. “Why? That seems like a terribly belabored way to go about buying carrots.”

Stalwart rubbed at the side of his head. “I do not decide these things. ‘Tis merely how they are done.” He regarded me as his mouth curved into a slight frown. “Have you never bought food before?”

I shook my head. “Neigh, the servants of Her Highness’s palace always delivered food to me. My time was better spent studying than visiting the marketplace for food.”

Stalwart grumbled something under his breath that I did not understand as he looked about the farmers market. “I will go ahead and purchase our food for the night,” he said, motioning with my bit purse.

I did not appreciate with how Stalwart seemed to be dismissing me, and I stomped a hoof on the ground to get his attention. “I believe I can negotiate with some lowly earth pony farmer.”

“Neigh.” Stalwart pushed his helmet up to run his hoof through his mane. “Midnight, ‘tis late, and I wish to purchase something to eat before the farmers leave.” He regarded me for a moment before letting out a long sigh. “I will teach you how to haggle properly in the morning, but now is not the time for it.”

He moved to go back to the carrot stall, but I stepped in his way. “I do not appreciate being dismissed as a child, Stalwart.”

Stalwart closed his eyes and rubbed at the base of his muzzle. “Please, let me buy our food, find our room, and then we can sit down with Gale to talk about this.” I opened my mouth to protest but he raised a hoof to cut me off. “Not now. Later.”

I puckered my lips and let Stalwart make his way to the carrot stall to haggle with the farmer. Annoyed with my bodyguard and not wanting to watching him negotiate with my bit purse, I quickly grew bored standing about doing nothing. This was a condition I was not used to, and I did not find it to my liking. Seeing little else to do, I started examining other stalls and falling into my own thoughts.

It seemed that fortune had not been in my favor this day. Just this morning I had been safe at home in Canterlot with Mother, but now I was off to deal with some mysterious disappearances that I knew next to nothing about. I had only come up with some general ideas on how to proceed once we arrived in Appleton. My mother had seen to it that I had received some training on how to conduct an investigation, but those lessons now seemed a poor substitute when faced with the real thing.

To make my discomforts worse, I have been given a bodyguard who seemed more and more determined to treat me like a child. At the rate I was going, Stalwart was going to start mashing my food for me and then feed me my meals with a small spoon. My only relief was that Gale had decided to come with me, but she seemed more than happy to side with Stalwart on all matters.

Possibly worst of all, I was profoundly bored.

I was eventually brought out of my state of melancholy when I heard Stalwart clear his throat. “Come on, let us go to our rendezvous with the Lieutenant Colonel.” I saw that he had a bag with filled with our purchases.

“Very well.” I turned and followed after Stalwart, not particularly wishing to get into another argument with the stallion.

Stalwart craned his head to look back at me. “Are you doing well?”

“Aye,” I said simply, looking down at the ground.

Stalwart looked as though he wanted to say something but seemed to think better of it. We arrived where we were to meet Gale and waited until she trotted up to us.

Gale gave us a smug smile. “I have acquired us lodgings at one of the local inns.”

“I hope it is inside this time. Last time we were on a mission, I had to sleep in a barn,” he said in a good-natured manner.

Gale smacked him on the shoulder hard enough that it would have threatened to barrel me over—Stalwart was barely even fazed by it. “Now thou hast to admit, it was a good barn.”

Stalwart smirked at Gale. “Only as far as barns can be judged. I believe I only woke up with three ticks on me in the morn.”

I frowned at the idea of Stalwart having to sleep in a place where he could gain parasites on his body. I knew that being a soldier was not the most hygienic of occupations, but that sounded outright unpleasant.

“Come, I do not wish to tarry in getting to bed.” Gale waved for us to follow her. “It has been a long day, and I wish to have an early morning.”

We followed Gale to a three-story inn near the Merchants' Square. By the looks of it and its customers, it was unsurprisingly intended to serve the various merchants and travelers visiting the trading town. With a polite nod to the proprietor of the inn, Gale led us up to our room. The room itself was a spartan arrangement with a large bed, a stand with a washbasin and mirror, and little else.

One problem immediately came to mind when I saw the room. “Gale, there is but one bed.”

Gale began the process of stripping off her armor. “‘Tis good that thy sense of perception has not failed thee this day.”

I took off my saddlebags and placed them against one of the walls of the room. “But there are three of us.” I cast an alarm spell on the door to our room, intended to alert me if anypony should happen to try and open our door, or stay overly long in front of it.

“Aye, ‘tis so,” Gale said without concern. She saw that Stalwart was in the process of setting his sleeping pack on the floor. “Ah! I have also procured thee a pillow and blanket, Sergeant!” She picked up the extra pillow and blanket, and with a flourish, placed them in their respective places around Stalwart’s sleeping bag.

“I thank you for your considerations, m’lady.” Stalwart had not taken the effort of taking his armor off and merely made himself comfortable on his sleeping bag. He pulled out a couple of carrots out of our grocery bag and proceeded to eat.

I was about to ask Gale where she was to sleep when she plopped herself down on the bed. She must have seen the anxiety on my face, for she gave me a mischievous smirk as she settled herself. “Is there a problem? There is room for the two of us.” She patted the spot on the bed next to her.

“B-but ‘twould be improper!” I decried. “For two ponies to share the same bed...”

Gale continued to smirk at me and otherwise seemed completely unconcerned. “Then thou canst sleep on the floor if it upsets thee so. Truly, thy disdain for beds will serve thee well in the coming times. Mayhaps thou should practice sleeping on a solid surface? See how Stalwart has already made his rest comfortable 'pon the floor.” She pointed to Stalwart, who indeed seemed to take no issue with sleeping where he lay.

I stood indecisively as Gale pulled the covers of the bed over herself and laid her head on her pillow. I looked to Stalwart and saw no hope where he was concerned as he chewed on some of the vegetables he had haggled for. I truly did not desire to sleep on the hard floor of the room, and I did not see Gale moving no matter what arguments against proprieties I might have. I probably could have gone to see the owner of the inn to see if I could buy another room, but I had a feeling Gale and Stalwart would object to such a measure.

Seeing no other recourse, I sighed and laid myself down on the other side of the bed.

“Goodnight, Midnight,” Gale said with a hint of smugness.

“Goodnight, Gale,” I replied, making myself comfortable on the bed.

I felt her hoof on my shoulder. “Do not worry; everything will be fine in time. Times may seem hard now, but you will see that these things take time to get used to, and you will adapt to them. Thou art strong enough to overcome them.”

I let out a long breath and closed my eyes to try and sleep. The trials of the day had left me mentally exhausted, and already I was homesick. “By thy word.”

Author's Note:

I would like to thank Chengar Qordath for letting me play in his playground for the Lunar Rebellion Era and Winning Ponyverse in general. His help really helped to make this story possible.

I would also like to thank Comma-Kazie for his invaluable help in editing and bouncing ideas off of.

Finally, a big thanks to all my prereaders, Infinion, droplet739, notMurphy, Garbo802, mrjerrio, q97randomguy,
Pav Feira, Swiftest Shadow, Incidental Pegasus No. 5, and JJ GingerHooves for all their work to make this story all it can be.