• Published 5th Aug 2014
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CoH (Book One) : Of Magic and Masquerades - Diespitris

It is up to Twilight Sparkle to find a way to protect the Crystal Empire on her own. Yet, when its former king offers her a helping hoof, she has two choices: befriend him, or reveal him. Despite her choice, there will be consequences to face.

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Chapter Five : Traces in the Snow

“Thanks for accompanying me, Fluttershy. I really appreciate it.”

“Oh, it's no trouble at all. I'm always happy to help.”

Twilight smiled at the pegasus, who smiled in returned. She was lucky to have somepony walk with her so early in the morning, even if it was just to check up on everything. The previous night, after receiving the response letter from Princess Celestia regarding the temporary addition of Royal Canterlot Guards, she and her friends cleaned up what remained of the faire.

Fortunately, they made quick work of it before they called it a night. Despite the day's hectic and... confusing events, Twilight slept like a rock. As did Spike, though she didn't have a problem letting him sleep in when the sun came up. The little dragon deserved a break, and she didn't think he would want to come along anyway. So, she contently trotted alongside Fluttershy instead as they made their way down the sidewalk.

The streets were nearly silent, though there was the occasional crystal pony who passed them with a friendly greeting. Everypony else was clearly indoors. Twilight speculated that they were with their families to make up for lost time, since it was probably impossible for them to do so whilst under the rule and forced servitude of King Sombra. Then again, many of them were probably still asleep; when she and her friend left the palace, it was almost nine o'clock.

It felt like they were walking through an empty empire and it was a little unnerving.

Fluttershy, on the other hoof, wasn't intimidated by the illusory emptiness. There was a small, comfortable smile plastered on her face as she admired the blue and gold hues that reflected off the crystal buildings in the morning light. They were colors that reflected off their translucent coats as well. Whatever spell that was cast upon them by the Crystal Heart hadn't worn off yet, not that anypony complained.

It was quite the phenomenon—one that Twilight was tempted to research. She didn't know how long it would last. But, until it subsided, even she would take the time to accessorize. The silk ribbons were practical, and they were easy enough to weave into her mane and tail.

As they walked, the noise of chatter slowly broke through the silence. Twilight's ears perked up. “Do you hear that?” she asked.

Fluttershy's head tilted to the side as she listened. “Oh,” she whispered. “They sound like voices.”

“Let's go check it out.”

The duo picked up their pace as they followed the voices. Soon, after they rounded a few corners, they reached a section of the empire that was close to the edge of the Crystal Heart's protective barrier. There, they discovered a group of crystal ponies who were gathered at what appeared to be a small cafe. Only five mares and three stallions were seated at the round tables that set in front of the establishment. Although, they all seemed to be enjoying hot mugs of drink as they chatted. As Twilight and Fluttershy approached them, a waiter even emerged to give refills.

“Good morning!” chimed Fluttershy.

The crystal ponies smiled at them. “Hello, there,” replied a stallion whose coat was a light shade of emerald.

“Yes, good morning, Lady Twilight, Miss Fluttershy,” added a peach-colored mare. “What can we do for you?”

Twilight raised an eyebrow, but she ignored the appointed formalities. “Oh, uh, we were just out and about to make sure that everything was okay,” she replied. “You can never be too careful, after all.”

“That's awfully kind of you, but I think everything is okay.”

“Even if it weren't okay,” punctuated a gold-coated stallion, “we have the Crystal Heart back. No evil-doer can enter the empire.” His fellow ponies nodded and murmured in agreement.

“Wow,” breathed Fluttershy. “Is it really that powerful?”

“Of course!”

Twilight smiled. “Sounds like your memories are beginning to return.”

“Little by little, but we're getting there.” The stallion's cobalt eyes shifted to his drink. “Then, we'll be able to put our lives back together...”

The pink mare took a sip from her mug. “And it's all thanks to you, Lady Twilight,” she said. “Without you, who knows what would've happened to us?”

The unicorn's head tilted ever so slightly. There it was again. Lady Twilight. It was an honorary title, she guessed. It was new, but not the terrible kind of new. “Well, if I wasn't the one to find it, I'm sure that somepony else would've come across it eventually,” she replied, a faint blush gracing her cheeks.

The green stallion shook his head. “'Eventually?'” he pondered, chuckling. “We've already heard of the secret doors, Milady. Rose Quartz is in the right state of mind. There's no telling what would've happened to us if you didn't bring us the Crystal Heart when you did. Probably would've taken us days, or even weeks to find it ourselves.”

Seated nearby was a blue-coated mare, who shuddered upon hearing his words. “Sombra could've come back,” she said softly, though loudly enough for everypony to hear.

“Don't say things like that, Arctic.”

She shot him a glare. “Hey, it could have happened, Ardent. It could still happen. He's still out there, remember?”

Rose Quartz left her table to join Arctic at hers. “Yes, but the Royal Sisters sealed him away,” she said, placing a comforting hoof on the other mare's shoulder.

“And he sealed us away, but we came back. Who's to say he won't come back?”

Twilight's heart began to race as she glanced between the present ponies. It didn't help when they all turned their attention to her—clearly expecting some form of reassurance. “Well, the power of the Royal Sisters is far greater than Sombra's,” she explained slowly, so that she wouldn't trip over her own words. “If they banished him to the ice of the Arctic North, then that's where he'll remain. Besides, the Crystal Heart is back where it belongs. Even if he did return, then he wouldn't be able to get in, right?”

Arctic's expression softened. “Yes, I guess you have a point,” she grumbled, leaning against her friend. Rose Quartz gently ran a hoof down her back, whispering some more words of comfort.

With a sigh, Ardent smiled at Twilight. “Thank you for that,” he said. “I guess some of us are more on-edge than others.”

“I completely understand,” she replied. She then looked at Fluttershy. “Let's go.”

The pegasus gave her a nod. “I'll follow you.”

After one final farewell, Twilight lead her friend around the cafe and towards the shield. Alongside the inner rim was where they walked—occasionally making small-talk over the span of two hours. It was a pleasant stroll, up until they came upon the eastern end of the empire.

Chills rippled across Twilight's fur when she suddenly stepped in something cold, wet. Automatically, she looked down. It was snow. Melted snow.

Fluttershy, who failed to notice her friend's sudden stop, squeaked in surprise when she stepped in a similar puddle. “Oh, snow?” she mused, lifting up her right foreleg. “Where did this come from?”

“Outside, obviously.” Twilight glimpsed over the puddles, making out the trail they formed. It didn't lead anywhere specific. Even if it did, the majority of the water had already evaporated; only the snow and water closest to the barrier remained, though it wouldn't be long before they, too, were gone. Evaporation was a common phenomenon. The sudden appearance of melting snow was not.

Curiosity got the better of her and, cautiously, she poked her head outside. Fortunately, yesterday's storm was long gone. All was now calm, and the landscape was completely covered in a blanket of fresh snow. Yet, before her was evidence that somepony, in fact, came in from the tundra. Preserved in the snow was a much clearer path of hoofprints.

“Fluttershy, come look at this,” she called.

Albeit timidly, Fluttershy stuck her head through the shield. She regarded the hoofprints with uncertainty, yet also with a nuance of intrigue.

“These were made by a pony, weren't they?” asked Twilight. It never hurt to have the confirmation of a second pony, especially when that pony dealt with animals on a daily basis. That kind of hobby came with a wealth of information that she, unfortunately, didn't have, and being able to identify tracks was one of them.

Sure enough, the pegasus took only one more contemplative look at the trail before she smiled and nodded. “Yes,” she said. “These are pony tracks. Definitely.” She held a hoof over one of the hoofprints. “A large pony,” she added,” most likely a stallion.”

Withdrawing her head, Twilight bit down on her lip. “That's interesting,” she said under her breath.

“Why's that?”

“Nevermind. Somepony was probably out playing in the snow, is all.” Playing all the way out there in those hills...

She would bet the Elements of Harmony on the certainty she felt regarding the pony who made those tracks, too. Unfortunately, there was no time to investigate further. Judging by the position of the sun in the sky, it was a little after eleven. The guards were to arrive soon. She had to meet up with Shining Armor. “Come on, Fluttershy, let's go.”

~ *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~

As soon as she walked Fluttershy back to the palace, Twilight made a bee-line for the train station. The lack of a snowstorm made for a quick and easy venture and, to her delight, Shining was already there—crystallized coat and all. “Mornin', B.B.B.F.F.,” she chuckled. “Sleep well?”

The stallion gave her a smile. “You bet, how about you?”

“Slept like a rock, despite sleeping on one.” Sure, the large crystal slab that served as her bed was heavily padded and quite comfortable, but she wanted to at least attempt to make witty banter with her sibling. Fortunately for her, Shining did find it amusing. And they talked some more as they awaited the train. It was nothing special; they simply updated each other on their individual mornings.

A few minutes later, the familiar howl of a locomotive brought their conversation to a halt. The pink paint of the Friendship Express was visible in contrast to the encompassing white of the Frozen North. Its raw power sliced through the snow like butter and the two unicorns leaped backwards to avoid the tidal wave of powder that came crashing down on the wooden platform as the train screeched to a stop.

From the second car emerged an orange pegasus in a full suit of armor, followed by a varied unit of Royal Guards. Shining Armor stepped forward and saluted. “Welcome to the Crystal Empire,” he said. “Glad to have you here, soldiers.”

The pegasus guard, as well as his comrades, returned the gesture. “Glad to be here, Sir. Lieutenant Flash Sentry and company, reporting for duty.”

“Nice to make your acquaintance. I'm Shining Armor.” Technically, he wasn't Captain of the Royal Guard anymore. He wasn't about to start referring to himself as “Prince” Shining Armor, either. Those were two major changes to which he had yet to adapt.

Then, clearing his throat, he motioned towards Twilight. “And that's my little sister.”

She walked up beside him and smiled. “My name's Twilight—Twilight Sparkle.”

Flash Sentry removed his helmet and he bowed his head. “It's nice to meet you, Miss Twilight,” he said before he slipped the article of armor back on. He then flashed her a smile. A split-second later, however, he returned his full attention to Shining. “So, Sir, where do you want us?”

“Follow me, gentlecolts,” replied the former Captain. “I'll set up your routes.”

As the lieutenant and the other Royal Guards trailed after her brother, Twilight took a second to gaze off into the distance as a thought passed through her mind. With the addition of the extra security, she would have to execute her next move with caution. Those hoofprints weren't going to investigate themselves, after all. If her suspicions were correct (and they were, without a doubt, correct), then the last thing she needed was getting caught red-hoofed by a vigilant guard. There was no way she would be able to explain herself to Shining and she sure as Tartarus wasn't going to lie to him again. He knew her better than anypony, and vice versa. She knew how he would react.

Worse yet, if word reached the crystal ponies about King Sombra's return...

She shook her head. No. It shouldn't. It couldn't. It wouldn't. She had to find out more before anypony else knew. Yes, she needed more information. Much more, and if she had to devise another stealth mission in order to obtain it, then that was exactly what she was going to do.

Author's Note:

For the record, the MLP Wiki is my best friend.