• Published 11th Apr 2014
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At the Inn of the Prancing Pony - McPoodle

Celestia awakens from an enchantment to discover that Equestria has been taken from her.

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Chapter 2: Transfiguration and Descent

At the Inn of the Prancing Pony

Chapter 2: Transfiguration and Descent

Celestia felt like she was on the bottom of an ocean deeper than the Canterhorn was high. Somehow, she didn’t need to breathe. No, the only thing that bothered her was the weight, keeping her forever entombed beneath the waves.

It felt sort of peaceful, actually. The barnacles had begun to convert her into a castle, and that fact genuinely amused her: that she could be a kingdom instead of being responsible for one.

No! a voice from above demanded. You are not giving up so easily. It cheapens my defeat for you to fall to a menace so paltry. Wake up! Wake up, I demand it!

Celestia tried to stir. “Luna...?” she said weakly, struggling to get the words out past the incredible pressure on her lungs.

If I am to be the Lady of Nightmares, surely I can end them as well! Why will you not wake?! Is it...of course! The black-hearted fiends have crafted their curse to match your form. But you are cleverer than that, Sister, we know it! Use your mind where your body has failed you. Or do you wish your Equestria to remain under their corrupting sway?

“N...nnno!” Celestia cried. She reached out with her magic, and metaphorically wrestled with the spell keeping her in an eternal slumber. The spell was locked onto her form as an alicorn, it seemed, but the Sisters had a secret trick for when being an alicorn was more than they could stand. In an instant, Celestia’s wings disappeared, and she was now a unicorn. The weight holding her down was gone.

Celestia surged upwards, closer and closer to wakefulness. But then she was buffeted back. The spell had adjusted, and was now able to subdue her altered form. Quickly she fell, and her mind began to black out.

“No!” Celestia cried, “I can’t! I have to save...my...”

For just the briefest moment, she lost consciousness, but then suddenly, she was free.

Her horn was gone. Celestia looked now like an earth pony, but she wasn’t even that. All of her magic was locked away, where the sleeping curse could not see it. And that was what it took to hide her.

Celestia slowly, achingly rose to her feet. Only by locking her knees was she able to prevent falling back down again. She felt weaker than a newborn foal.

Inside her, deep down, she felt the wellspring of her magic. Magic that made her the rival of any single creature in Equestria. But she couldn’t touch a drop of it, or she would be put to sleep once more and this time, she might never awaken.

She noticed that it was dark. And damp. And the air around her was very stale. She very much wished she could light her horn. Or have a horn, for that matter.

Slowly, deliberately, she walked forward. It was only two steps before she bumped into a wall. Turning to her right, she began to follow it, tapping at it every few strides with her hoof. Several minutes later, she reached a point where the soft loam was suddenly replaced by solid rock.

Searching around, she discovered the edge of the rock, and traced its contours. It was a large boulder, and it was blocking the entrance to the cave that she found herself in. She leaned her body against it, and slowly began to push.

If she had access to her earth pony magic, she might have been able to dislodge that boulder in a matter of seconds. Instead minute after minute built up, as perspiration streamed down her face. The air around her became fetid, and the dirt she was pushing her hooves against seemed to be turning into mud.

After more than a half hour, she stepped back, her breath coming in gasps. The rock had not budged. Physical force had failed her.

But this realization reminded her of her dream, of the voice of Nightmare Moon. She could not call on the magic of the earth ponies, but what about their knowledge?

Slowly, carefully, she ran her forehooves over every minute crack and chipped spot in the invisible barrier before her. She felt around the edge as high as she could reach...and that’s when it came to her. An object this big had a center of gravity above her head. And that meant it could be moved...with the proper application of force.

She began digging around the bottom edges of the boulder. As she did so, she constantly tested whether or not she could move the stone. Long minutes later, she heard a nearly silent sigh as the rock settled downward, allowing air into the cave from its top edge. Thus encouraged, she redoubled her work.

Nearly an hour later, the rock finally rolled away. Several moments passed. And then a bone-tired Celestia fell out of the cave, and into the world once more. It was nighttime, and the Nightmare’s moon looked down on her.

Celestia didn’t bother to look back up at it.

After lying motionless for some time, she crawled more than walked to the sound of burbling water. She dunked her entire head in, and took a long drink.

A few seconds later, her stomach had rejected most of it.

It took the greater part of two days for Celestia to recover enough to even think straight again. The first thing she realized was that she had been placed in Kammy’s old cave.

Celestia’s second discovery came when she bothered to lift her head to look up at the source of her drinking water. It was a marble fountain, and its back wall depicted in relief a group of valiant pony warriors fighting off a fierce dragon. Sure enough, a carved inscription described the scene as “The Valiant Bees Defeat the Fierce Dragon.”

The dragon in the picture looked nothing like Kammy. The adventurers, on the other hand, resembled Celestia’s memories of them so well that it was obvious that they must have posed for it.

There were a variety of coins at the bottom of the fountain. Curious, Celestia dug some of them out. There were crude circles of iron, copper and silver, but nothing like the regularly minted bit of the Sisters’ reign. She wondered what nature of pony would come up to this desolate mountain peak, just to drop a few coins for luck. She decided her need was not great enough to betray their hopes, and allowed the coins to drop back down beneath the waters.

The pony looked around her. She saw clear signs that this was a rest stop: the operating fountain, and the cultivated grasses—not especially tasty, but nutritious enough for a needy traveler. There was one thing, though, that Celestia failed to see. Something she knew that no tourist destination was ever without. So she walked around to the back of the fountain...

...and there found the expected collection of graffiti.

You are going to have to do a lot better than that if you expect immortality, old bean,” one neatly-painted message said. It was signed with the cutie mark of a walking cane draped with what looked like moss.

A second message was in the form of a rebus. Two dragon heads (complete with x’ed out eyes and lolling tongues) and a similarly adorned troll’s head was followed by a round red beet and the word “THAT!”. This was signed with a blue and yellow circular disk, the two colors combined in a swirl pattern. There was commentary on this message in another color ink: one dragon head was crossed out and marked as “dead when she got there”, and the troll head was annotated as “NOT dead, and came back for revenge”. This was backed up by the symbol of a tombstone painted next to the original author’s cutie mark.

Another, anonymous graffito read “I will be the best, like no one ever was.” Many, many later artists defaced this particular motto.

Finally, there was one message off in a corner. “Come back, Princess. We need you.” It was signed with the bumblebee pulling the chariot cutie mark of Rigged Bee, the unicorn from earlier.

Celestia was something that Equestria had never seen before, as far as she knew: a magic-less pony. Looking at her reflection in a relatively still portion of the fountain, she saw her familiar magenta eyes, but other than those, her body was not her own. She looked like an earth pony, but with the smaller build of a bookish unicorn. She had a light tannish coat, with a pale pink mane and tail. Her hooves matched her coat. Her unique status was conveyed most obviously by her lack of a cutie mark. But she also appeared young in this form, young enough hopefully to be taken as only a year or two late in getting her mark.

She needed a new name. Looking into the bubbling fountain, she was reminded of her sister’s first page from at least a hundred years ago, a tan earth pony with a sky-blue mane. Her name was Hope Springs. Unlike the common phrase, she was not eternal; Celestia wondered if matters with Luna might have developed differently if that pony had been around to counsel her. Celestia looked up to the heavens. “Hope,” she said out loud, “I swear to do everything in my power to keep from bringing shame to the name that I am borrowing.” She bowed her head a moment in respect, and then began her descent.

Celestia found that the rough trail that once wound up the Canterhorn to the entrance of Kameneva’s cave was now a well-worn gravel path, and at the base of the mountain, it became a road. It was a road maintained only by the constant dint of hoof traffic, not any regular attempts to repair it, or to keep it from meandering and collecting potholes.

A short way down the path, Celestia reached the border of a village. She racked her memory, but could not recall any such settlement existing here, either before her retirement, or during her brief survey of the landscape before her recent slumber. She did not consider this a good sign.

A brown earth pony dressed in a rough woolen shirt and cap was tilling the soil outside of his house when he spotted Celestia approaching. In an instant, he had rushed into his cottage, leaving the garden hoe behind. “Take anything you want!” his voice cried from within. “I’ve got radishes and carrots in my fields. If you’re looking for a place to sleep, there’s a decent inn at the other end of town.

“Sir!” she cried out, standing carefully a couple of ponylengths beyond the villager’s fence, so as not to threaten him in any way. “I’m just interested in some information. Can I ask you some questions?”

One of the window shutters slowly opened, revealing the stallion’s cautious face. He leaned over to the side for a bit, clearly angling to see Celestia’s cutie mark.

With some slight reluctance, she positioned herself so that he could see it.

To her surprise, his reaction was one of relief. “Oh, you’re one of us!” he cried. He was soon out of the cottage and leaning over the fence to get a better look at her. “Welcome to Redfern. My name is Loam Planter.”

“Hope Springs,” Celestia said, holding forth one hoof.

“A pleasure to meet you, Miss Springs,” Loam said, reaching out to gently shake her hoof. “You certainly are a rare sight. What causes you to leave whichever village you came from?” Before Celestia had even had a chance to open her mouth, the pony continued with a second question. “Or are you a refugee? I mean, Redfern won’t shut out any refugees, but if you’re the first of many, we are going to need to prepare.”

Celestia frowned inwardly. From the tone of the stallion’s words, it seemed that fleeing for your life from the destruction of your village was not only the most likely reason for one “such as her” to be travelling, but also that such destruction was a regular event.

“I am merely a traveler,” she told him, “and not fleeing from any disaster.”

“I see,” he said, nodding. “Did you go up to see the monument, then?” He gestured at the path that she had taken.

“Yes, yes I did,” she said. “I wonder if you know anything about the engraved ponies?”

“Oh,” he said, his tone turning despondent. “Sure, I know about the Bees. I’ve got a little pamphlet I pass out to all the heroes that come by to look at it. I suppose you’ll be headed for Hoofington next?”

“Hoofington?” Celestia asked in confusion, taking the crude piece of papyrus that the stallion was hoofing her. “Atop yonder peake,” she read out loud, you will find a marker for the awesome battle between the Ponies Bee and the Dragonne of the Mountains. The marker resembles the crude image below. This is a pretty good likeness. The Bees forced the fell beast to flee her nest, never to return. A portion of her hoard was returned to a grateful populace. I see you know your Old Equestrian.”

“But of course, Miss,” Loam replied. “Heroes only truly respect commoners who know the old tongue.”

“I...” she turned the pamphlet around to make sure there was no part of it she had missed. “I see no mention of Celestia in here.”

“Well that part’s a little controversial, so we tend to leave it off of the official brochure,” Loam said, looking around to make sure that nopony was listening in on their conversation. He beckoned the other pony to come closer, after which he whispered into her ear. “Legend states that among the dragon’s hoard was a magical artifact containing the imprisoned spirit of Princess Celestia, a spirit placed there by the wicked Nightmare Moon during their cataclysmic battle. As soon as she was released, the Princess ascended to the Astral Plane, where She became the Lonely Goddess.

Celestia leaned back incredulously. “Why is she called the Lone—”

Ssshht!” an alarmed farmer pony exclaimed, drawing one hoof across his neck. He beckoned the visitor back within whispering range. “She’s called the Lonely Goddess because the other gods allow nopony to worship Her. It is prophesied that if She ever does get a worshipper, it will mean the end of all suffering and unfairness in Equestria.” Loam leaned back with a smile, before adding, “Or the end of the world. The two rather resemble each other, after all.”

A determined look came over Celestia’s face. “Do you have any idea where the Bees currently are? Particularly Rigged Bee. I would very much like to speak with her.”

“Wait, you don’t know?” Loam asked incredulously. “After liberating the whole of Equestria from the forces of evil several times over, the Bees grew bored with fighting the same old foes, and travelled to the strange land of the camels. There all but two of them perished while facing an endless series of trials in the Desert of Desolation. Specifically, Big Bee was turned to stone for accidentally seeing the goddess Aoris bathing in an oasis, and Zig Bee was sucked into the sands by an efreet. The fate of Hug Bee is too horrible to contemplate. Only Zag and Rigged Bee survived to tell the tale. The siblings were given a small home by the queen of the unicorns, to be cared for by a team of royally-appointed servants for the rest of their days. Zag died almost immediately, the result of a really nasty lingering curse he caught from a naga one dark and stormy night back from the very early days of their adventuring. I never heard what happened to Rigged, but she’s surely dead by now—it’s been seventy-five years since those days.”

“S...seventy-five years?” Celestia asked in disbelief, sitting down hard on her rump. The whole story sounded so fantastic to her, as she was certain that efreeti and nagas only existed in ancient ponytales.

“Oh yes,” Loam said with a smile. “Look, whatever your next steps are, you’re going to have to spend the night here in Redfern, and I’m afraid I barely have enough to support myself, so I suggest you follow me.” He walked through and locked the gate, then began taking the main road into the village, followed by a silent Celestia. As he walked, he began to rattle on. “That was in my great-grandfather’s day. Those were far different times. The heroes who come by today can only wish to reach the epic heights of the Bees. Moldy Cane’s Party of Unique Adventurers only saved Equestria twice, for example, before the lizardmen got them. Not that I have anything against Moldy Cane! He saved my life once from a rampaging pack of dire wolves. Of course, there are no woods within five days trot from here, so a pack of dire wolves showing up with no warning is really odd, but that’s the way of heroes. Moldy brushed it off as the type of random encounter he would have on any normal day.”

As they walked, Celestia noticed that the streets around her were largely deserted at first, with the occasional pony peeking out at them. Those that Loam caught looking he encouraged to come out, and soon several ponies had emerged to cautiously follow them.

“Did...did the Bees leave behind any children?” Celestia asked Loam, in hopes that they might have received any knowledge that would be useful to her.

“No,” Loam replied. “Did I forget to mention Zag Bee and the naga? That put the rest of them off of...that sort of relationship from then on.”

“Oh,” Celestia said with a shudder. She had, after all, read the stories.

“So what are your plans?” Loam asked, as he stopped before an inn. “Do you truly wish to become a hero, after all that you have heard? Rare is the heroine who ends her days as happy and comfortable as Rigged Bee. I mean, adventurer ponies, for all the good that they do, are...” He tried to think of a polite way to phrase what he had to say next, and failed. “...Touched in the head. They obsess themselves with experience. Every second of their lives, they plunge from one exciting experience to another, and when they are talking together, all they will discuss is who has had the greater experiences. It’s not normal.”

“I do not wish to become an adventurer,” Celestia replied, “only to learn more about them. You mentioned the village of Hoofington?”

“That would be city of Hoofington, Miss, clear beyond the Unicorn Kingdom and through the Everfree from here. There you will find the Inn of the Prancing Pony, where ordinary ponies become heroes. At least...that is what the heroes themselves tell me, the ones that do not prefer to rob me blind.”

Celestia shook her head. “They sound more like monsters than ponies,” she remarked.

“They stand between us mortal ponies and the gods,” Loam explained, “shielding us from Their rightful wrath. The laws of mere ponies cannot and will not apply to them.”

Celestia looked at the tiny inn before her, and tried to imagine what Hoofington’s inn might have become in the century since she had last visited it. “I...I have no money,” she said suddenly. “But I am perfectly willing to work for my pay.”

Loam Planter beamed. “You’re right, you are one of us, with an attitude like that!”

Celestia looked around her, at the several dozen ponies that were following them, stallions, mares and foals, and with a sudden chill realized what it was that united her with everypony in Redfern: not one of them had a cutie mark.

Author's Note:

There's no chronological relationship between the two whatsoever, but the author accompanied this chapter with a Guest Review of the album Rumours, by Fleetwood Mac.

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