• Published 22nd Nov 2011
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Lacuna - Drakmire



Visions of a dark future prompt one pony to seek help, but she cannot act alone.

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09 - Mythos

“You paid how many bits?” Sand asked. “Wait, you paid bits at all?”

Twilight gave her a queer look. “You didn’t?” Her ear twitched as muted laughter could be heard from a distant corner of the tavern.

Sand eyed Luna, wondering if she might be willing to elaborate. Instead, Luna used one hoof to push a mug of amber liquid across the table. Sand sniffed at it before giving it a tentative sip. Screwing her face up in disgust, Sand stuck out her tongue and said, “No.” She pushed the cup back to Luna, who only shrugged in response and quaffed the drink herself. Continuing, Sand said, “There are old agreements in place between the zebras and the various sea folk who route trade through Marebasa--passage for anyone undertaking their pilgrimage is just one of them. Mostly it’s zebras who ask, of course, but there have been a few others besides us three.”

“You have been busy in our time apart, it would seem,” Luna said. Though her eyes never left Sand, she wore a controlled expression that matched her tone.

All the same, Sand flushed, sensing the unspoken accusation. “I did what I thought was best,” she said, but even midway through she felt the hollowness of the words. She sighed, lowering her eyes to the tabletop. “I was a mess. This entire affair was never meant to involve you.” She flicked her gaze to Twilight. “It was hardly meant to involve me either. The only reason it does so for either of us now is because of my...” Selfishness? Desire? Wanting to impress? Sand shook her head. “...because I thought I was better at making decisions than I actually am. I am sorry, Twilight, Princess Luna.”

Twilight wore a tight frown as she stared Sand down. Relenting, she sighed as she tapped her hooves together. “I’m sorry too, Dawn. I was so caught up in trying to understand what was written in your book that I forgot to take time for my friend as well.” She chanced a tiny smile, but Sand warmed to it regardless.

“Between us, there is nothing to forgive,” Luna said, drawing their attention to her. “We are none of us perfect. In the future, however, we would like to share our points of view first, should you consider other such drastic measures.”

Chastised, Sand nodded. “I will. Thank you, Luna. Thank you, Twilight.” Coughing to break the awkward stillness that followed, Sand looked around, taking in the squalor of the tavern. “Not to question your judgment, however, but...” she let her eyes wander around the room, letting the unspoken question linger.

“It has served us well enough to gain the passage we sought,” Luna said. A crooked grin spread across her face. “It also has very bouncy mattresses.”

Sand’s eyes went wide at that, but she detected no blush in either pony’s face. Trying to fish her mind out of the gutter, Sand pulled Luna’s mug over, draining what dregs remained in the bottom. Grimacing again, she shot the princess a questioning look. “You actually drank all this?”

Luna shrugged. “It grows on you.”

“Like mold,” Twilight added, earning herself a sour look. “Princess, I practically had to scrape you out of bed this morning, if you’ll recall.” Twilight shook her head, wondering where Luna’s sense of propriety and mystery had vanished to along the way. She gave Luna a playful nudge with one hoof. “You couldn’t even get your packs on without help.”

“Ah, that reminds me,” Luna said, completely disregarding Twilight’s admonishments. She floated a dusty pair of saddlebags onto the tabletop. “Yours, I believe.”

Memories tugged at her heartstrings as Sand looked at the worn canvas, the frayed stitching, the once-black dye faded to a middling gray. The packs had been with her for ages--a simple gift given when she had attained her cutie mark. Still, dipping her head, Sand said, “Thank you, but if it would not be too much trouble, would you be willing to see to their care and put them to use? I fear that they represent a part of me that I hope to grow beyond, but I would be dismayed to see them simply cast aside.” She looked up to see Luna return a smile and a nod as the saddlebags vanished beneath the table once more. “Besides, I am outfitted as well as I can be for our voyage.” She patted her recent purchases with a reassuring hoof.

“If you left your bags behind,” Twilight said slowly, giving Sand a thoughtful frown, “then where did you get the money for replacements?”

Rubbing a hoof through her dark mane, Sand blushed. Suggesting that they move somewhere less public first, she explained that the tale would be long and some parts quite personal. Twilight shared a look with Luna, but when the princess nodded upstairs, Twilight stood, leading the way.

Once the door creaked shut behind them, the three ponies tried to find a comfortable means to share the diminutive room. With the bed taking up half the floorspace, they struggled into a reasonable, if cramped configuration that left little chance for personal space. In truth, after being separated, nopony objected in the least to the reassuring closeness of the others beside them. Once they settled in, Sand shared her brief travels, starting with her abrupt departure. Deprived of only the most intimate details of Sand’s encounter with Saraneesi, they inferred the rest from the way Sand blushed, heat rolling off of her body at the mention of the zebra’s name.

As her tale drew to a conclusion, Twilight said, “Dawn, I--”

A loud rapping drew everypony’s attention. Sad to break the flow of the conversation, Sand wiggled her way free from between her two friends, tripping slightly as she opened the door.

The portal swung open to reveal a well-groomed zebra wearing the city’s heraldry. He bowed low before saying, “Marebasa is honored by your presence, Princess Luna, and by your companions as well. I come on behalf of Governor Septima to bid you warm welcome, and extend an invitation to join her for dinner and,” he paused, taking an exaggerated look around the room, “an offer to remain as a guest with accommodations more befitting your royal personage.”

Sand looked back at her friends, sharing what little space they could on the bed. Of all the various ways that foreign dignitaries should look, she imagined that this was not the most ideal. Still, both sides seemed more than happy to move past the current circumstances. If word had reached the ears of the city governor, then they couldn’t hope to keep Luna’s presence a secret from the public at large.

Luna rose from the bed, inclining her head a fraction as she spoke. “My thanks to you, good zebra. Please inform Governor Septima that my friends and I would be honored to accept on both counts. We will require time to make ourselves presentable, however--would you please show us to our quarters?”

The herald bowed low once more. As they quit the establishment, Luna gave the barkeep a passing nod. Boor that he might be, Luna found herself missing his honeyed beverages already.

***

Wings tucked against her sides, the huntress plummeted through the sky. As she hit the water with a resounding crash, the rending sound startled a teal stallion awake in his nearby cabin. Putting on clothes as he prepared to investigate the noise, he couldn’t help but repress a shudder, feeling as though somepony had just walked over his grave.

Pleasure stepped outside and began walking in the direction he thought the sound had come from. Snow crunched underhoof as he made his way along the lakeshore, trying to keep an eye out for anything that would help clue him in. Fading ripples drew his attention to the narrow outlet where he had first found Sand risking death by exposure. He slowed his pace as he approached, head bowed low in caution, nostrils flared as he tried to pick out any new scents in the crisp afternoon air. Cold waves lapped at his forehooves as Pleasure turned his head this way and that, trying to discern anything through the reflected glare. Before long, the surface began to churn and flow before erupting in a massive fountain of water.

Ripping herself free from the lake’s embrace, the huntress had eyes only for the book within her keeping at first. Flapping with slow, measured beats--just enough to keep aloft--she soon became aware of the earth pony staring at her with a mixture of worship and fear. Finding the taste of both to her liking, she descended to the shoreline while keeping the tome bound in magic before her.

As her hooves touched down, Pleasure broke from his stupor, shivering even as he prostrated himself before the pony he assumed to be royalty. Wings spread, she smiled.

“Rise.”

Pleasure obeyed, unsure what else he should be doing, though he felt certain that fidgeting in place would not be the right answer. “Your Highness,” he said, scrambling for words that scurried to the furthest recesses of his mind even as he reached for them.

Gracing him with a benevolent smile, the huntress said, “Ah, a loyal subject. You’ve caught me at a most opportune moment, one in which old plans at long last come to fruition. Walk with me.” Her tone brooked no argument and Pleasure soon found himself quickening his step to keep pace with her quicker stride. “Do you have a name?” she asked, giving him a sidelong glance.

“Ah...” Pleasure blushed. Hardly wanting to announce himself with such a ridiculous moniker, he struggled for a moment before saying, “I’m afraid not, Your Highness. Took one too many conks to the noggin, I’m afraid. I tend to just go by whatever name folks give me when we meet.”

The huntress smirked, thinking of a dozen names she could saddle him with, but she opted to give him a respite. “Rather than add to the list, let us just assume your name is the last you used.” She raised an eyebrow, waiting for a response.

His blush deepened as he gave his answer.

She blinked, unable to speak for a moment as she took it in. “Pleasure? Really?” Her eyes lingered on his hindquarters. “Is it because of your particular...talents?” Letting the implications stand, the huntress tried to make sense of the three gray stones on his flank and how they could fit together with such a label.

Face burning with shame, Pleasure said, “No, Your Highness, it was just a name a friend gave me as a joke.” He thought for a moment. “At least, I hope it was a joke.”

Shrugging, the huntress said, “It matters little. You are Pleasure, now, no matter what others might call you. And you have the honor to be the first to witness my triumph.” She directed her gaze to the book, licking her lips in anticipation. Working slowly so as to savor the effects, she began channeling her magic, wanting to pluck away at the book’s essence as she consumed it. Tendrils of power snaked from her horn, but where they should have found purchase and torn the book away in pieces, they rebounded and slid off, denied access to the artifact.

She frowned and redoubled her efforts. Pleasure took a step back. As her magic and mounting frustration washed over him in palpable waves, he found himself fighting the urge to simply turn tail and flee headlong off the edge of the nearest precipice.

The huntress gave an hoarse scream as she hurled the book aside, slamming it into a boulder that cracked and fissured beneath the force. Bereft of her magic to suspend it, the book fell to the ground, completely unscathed.

She rounded on the now-cowering teal pony lying prostrate at her hooves. In spite of her earlier satisfaction, she found the sight somehow unpleasant. Unsettling, even. In that moment, her rage finished playing itself out. “Rise,” she said in a weary voice. As Pleasure got to his hooves, the huntress sat back on her haunches, looking spent. “I am sorry you had to see that. Only...” she scowled at the book before continuing. “This was to be it. After so long...” she gave a shuddering sigh. To Pleasure, she said, “Do you know what it’s like to live forever?” She shook her head. “Nevermind. It was a foolish question, but one that not even I have a good answer for.” She fell silent, lost amidst her own thoughts.

Pleasure’s ears dropped, but he ventured a question. “Your...Your Highness? Is there anything I can do to help?” He didn’t even know what she had been trying to do, let alone how he could possibly help somepony as capable as she. Still, it seemed like the decent thing to do.

She turned to regard him, not speaking as she considered the open honesty in his offer. After a while, she said, “Yes. I believe that there might be. Come.” She got to her hooves, but paused a moment and said, “And do not call me ‘Your Highness.’ I am no royalty, in truth.”

“What should I call ya then?” Pleasure asked, unsure at this new turn of events.

She hesitated, looking as if she didn’t even know herself. Seeing past her guard for a moment, Pleasure felt a small thread of understanding connect them, if only just.

“Selene,” she said after a time. “Call me Selene.”

***

“Posh,” Twilight said. “Too bad Rarity’s not here. I don’t even know what half of this stuff is, let alone how to use it.”

As Sand looked around their adjoining bedrooms, she had to agree. The sheer opulence of their chambers dwarfed even the most extravagant suites within Canterlot Palace. Each bed alone took up more space than their entire room had back at the seedy tavern, though Luna gave hers a distrustful poke with one hoof. “Feathers,” she said, frowning just a bit. “Though I suppose it would be uncouth to jump on these beds even if they were made of springier stuff.”

Twilight smirked, but Sand could only shake her head. “You two have grown strange in our short time apart.”

“You’re one to talk,” Twilight said, giving her a mock glare. “Before you vanished into thin air, you were usually so serious, always worried about the future.” About me, if Luna was right. “But now? I don’t think I’ve seen you lose that smile of yours completely, not since you mentioned your fillyfriend.”

Sand blushed, knowing it to be true, but she felt compelled to say, “She isn’t...we’re not together like that, not exactly.” Looking up, Sand noticed Twilight beaming at her and she relaxed. “But you are correct. She is always in my thoughts and I imagine it will be a long time before that changes, if ever.”

Twilight couldn’t be happier for her friend. True, there had been twinges of jealousy at first. Yet as she felt the deep-seated joy and satisfaction that radiated from Sand’s every action, Twilight quashed whatever dark emotions threatened to take root in her heart. Still, her curiosity got the better of her. “So...do you mind if I ask you about...?” She gave Sand a sly look.

Sand’s eyes went wide as she struggled for any of a dozen ways to answer the question, all of which evaded her.

Rescuing her friends, Luna cleared her throat to get their attention. “Twilight? Sand? Perhaps you could have this discussion later? We are to meet for dinner, and there is much to do in preparation.” She sniffed one wing. “To begin with, a bath, I think.”

Ushering them out, Luna closed the door behind them as they descended into the communal bath house that served their section of the mansion. Slick from the condensed water vapor, the marble tiling underhoof nearly dumped them on their rumps more than once, but they managed to make it to one of several unoccupied pools.

Luna did her best to ignore the frightened looks and open stares as she stepped down into the steaming water, closing her eyes in bliss as she imagined the heat and purity of the water washing away not only the dust of her travails, but her worries and darker concerns as well.

Twilight sighed, luxuriating in the hot water. “When we get back, I might have to start going with Rarity on her trips to the spa if they’re anything like this.”

“They’re even better,” Sand said from beside her, eyes closed as she inhaled the clean scent of the water. “Unless somepony sneaks up and starts giving us massages too.”

“That could be arranged, should you wish it,” a fourth voice offered.

Three pairs of eyes opened, turning to regard the zebra mare who stood at the waterside armed with several bath towels. At their curious looks, she bowed her head before saying, “Apologies. I am to see to your well-being while you are within Marebasa, and especially so while under the Governor’s care. I did not mean to eavesdrop, but should you require...other services, you have but to ask.”

Sand raised an eyebrow at the implied offer. Giving her friends a quick glance, she asked the zebra, “Join us? There’s more than enough room for everyone here, and company is always welcome.”

Smiling, the zebra found her seat as they scooted around to even the distance between them. “You keep vaunted company, and I am honored to be accepted into your circle, however briefly. My name is Xanthia, but I am afraid I am at a loss for your names. Though,” she gave as much of a bow as the water would allow, “Her Royal Highness, Princess Luna I am very familiar with.”

Twilight gave her a lazy smile, exulting in the warmth of her bath. “My name is Twilight Sparkle, and this is D--Sand Shaper,” she said, gesturing with a splash towards her friend. Catching the zebra’s expression at her misspoken introduction, Twilight explained, “It’s complicated.”

The zebra nodded, staring at the pendant hanging from Sand’s neck. “So I can see.”

Twilight saw the look and asked, “What do you mean?” Sand had mentioned the necklace as a gift, but not anything more than that.

Their striped companion paused a moment, treading around the more personal answers, but Sand saved her the trouble. “It’s a mark of Saraneesi’s tribe, Twilight. Guests rights are sacred to them, but this is more of a...” Sand spent a moment looking for the right words. “A standing offer to be more than just a guest if I should so ever desire.”

The zebra nodded. “It is an open invitation to travel with them whenever desired. She would be somewhere between a guest and a member of the tribe itself. Honored, but expected to pull her weight.”

Luna quirked an eyebrow at that. “I admit, I would be tempted to accept such an offer were circumstances different--I find my knowledge about zebra culture sorely lacking. Do you plan to accept?”

“Perhaps,” Sand said, wanting to leave off the matter for the time being.

“I apologize if I forced the discussion early, or if it was wholly unwanted ,” Xanthia began, but Sand shook her head.

“Not unwanted, merely ill-timed,” she explained. “We’ve not had many opportunities to discuss more personal matters.”

“Oh?” Xanthia asked. “My reports placed two of you arriving by Horsetooth raft over a day ago.” As they ponies looked at her, she grimaced. “Ah, almost twelve minutes this time. And here I thought I had gotten better at this.”

“Governor Xanthia Septima, I presume?” Luna asked from her reclining position. She felt no need to suddenly sit up straight--if she wanted to play coy with her station, then Luna cared little to fall back on cold formalities.

Xanthia bowed. “At your service. I did mean what I said earlier, Your Highness.” She smiled.

“Please, call me Luna. These honorifics would drive me to drink, had I any at hoof,” she said. Hearing a clink beside her, she turned to see a tall glass of some amber liquid resting on the ground nearby. Craning her neck as she looked around, she found no attendant in sight. “Commendable stealth,” she said before sniffing at the drink. “Hard apple cider?”

“Not quite to your liking? I can arrange for some of The Rat King’s mead, if you’ve truly grown a taste for only their...beverages.” Xanthia made a face of exaggerated disgust, causing Twilight to laugh.

“See, Princess? I’m not the only one.” Twilight grinned as she splashed a little water towards Luna.

“You do seem to have developed some questionable preferences,” Sand added.

Sticking her tongue out at the other ponies, Luna took a sip of her drink. “Thank you, Governor. I am certain I will find this most enjoyable and hopefully less cause for criticism from my friends.” She turned a glare in their direction.

The zebra regarded their exchange with an amused expression. As Luna nursed her cider, Xanthia said, “I must admit, you are not as my reports would have me believe, let alone the rumors surrounding you. It seems I owe Zenio a drink of his own when next I see him. He has been quite glowing in his praise of you as of late, a marked departure from his normal demeanor.”

Luna sat up a bit at the mention of the zebra who had set her on this course. “Oh? And how might that be?” she asked.

Xanthia gave Luna a soft smile. “The same as most of my people, I’m afraid. You’ll excuse me for being so blunt, I hope?” Luna nodded, prompting her to continue. “Zenio only gave voice to a foolish, but widespread belief that has proven harder to dispel the more we fight it. Presenting evidence to the contrary has only seemed to reinforce the popular notion that you are somehow a malignant spirit, looming over us from your neighboring throne.” She snorted derisively. “Still, all our words will be dross should you complete the journey you’ve undertaken.”

When, I complete it,” Luna corrected, adding a smile of her own to show that she meant no ill will.

Xanthia nodded. “Of course, my apologies. The Tidebreaker is a sturdy vessel, and I have complete faith that it will see you to your destination safely. Captain Borges is an old hand at sea and has provided safe transit for many of my people.”

“Was Zanzibar your doing then?” Twilight asked, making a mental leap of faith.

Xanthia shook her head, albeit with some hesitation. “Not directly, no. When you and Luna took a room at that decrepit tavern without so much as a whisper of official greetings, you raised many hackles. It did not seem to matter that one such as you,” she nodded at Luna, “could never realistically hope to keep your presence unknown without some form of disguise. Many believed that you were here on some sinister errand, so one of my advisors volunteered some of his subordinates to keep an eye on you. Zanzibar may be a brute and a ruffian, but as they say, ‘when in Roam, do as the Roamans do.’”

“Though we are glad to have secured passage with so little effort, I find myself less pleased that we were bilked out of so much coin on a supposedly holy mission,” Luna said, though she didn’t appear to be overly concerned.

Still, Xanthia paled beneath her stripes. “I...I will have words with my advisor and his underling. Whatever coin was swindled from you shall be returned in full, plus interest. Please accept my apologies. You are correct, the journey you have set hoof on is sacred, though I fear not all of my people see it as such.” A frown creased her face, easing only the slightest as Luna made a placating gesture.

“Please, we do not wish to get anyone in trouble here, only that we come to an agreement that lets us continue with minimal delay.” With a small shake of her head, she added, “There have been too many of those, as of late.”

“Of course. I will see to it later this evening. I understand that your ship raises anchor at dawn--I will have what supplies I feel will be beneficial added to the Tidebreaker’s manifest before then.” Rising from the water, Xanthia took one fluffy white towel from the stack, leaving the rest for the ponies. As she rubbed herself down, she said, “I will take my leave until dinner. The sun and moon light your way.”

“And may the wind be always at your back,” Sand replied, earning a respectful nod from the governor as she departed.

***

Celestia stared at the cases that had once housed the Eclipsed tomes of prophecy. Glimmering within, the manifested Elements now took the focus of the various enchantments and wardings that shielded the kingdom’s most powerful artifacts. She hadn’t truly expected them to work on Luna’s shadow-self, but still, she had hoped against hope that things could be simple for a change. Shaking her head, Celestia turned her back and walked out, sealing the small room behind her with a twist of magic and key.

“Perseus,” she said to the winged pony who fell into step beside her, “tonight I would like to fly. How do you feel?”

The guard snapped to attention and said, “Hearty and hale, Your Highness!”

Celestia graced him with a warm smile. “I hope so, Captain. Come, let us see if an old friend of mine will humor us for a time.”

Their steps took them to one of countless balconies that perforated the massive palace walls. Taking a moment to regard the moon in its silent glory, Celestia spread her wings and ascended, closing her eyes as she focused on the feel of the wind streaming across her body. As she drew higher and higher, she could hear the guard behind her beginning to struggle. Leveling out, she circled once to come up beside the pegasus.

“Perhaps I should fly slower?” Celestia suggested.

“Why, are you feeling tired already, Your Highness?” Perseus asked, panting between words. “It must be all those sweets you gorge yourself on between meals. They go straight to your thighs, you know.”

Celestia clipped him with one wing, though not enough to do more than make him wobble mid-air. “You wound me, Captain,” she said, smiling as she gave a single languid flap to his half dozen. “I will have you know that I only indulge myself every so often.”

“More like every time you think nopony is watching you,” Perseus said, thankful for the sudden thermal that let him glide while he regained his breath. “But your guards are ever vigilant, Your Highness.”

“More like ever voyeuristic,” Celestia said, spiralling around her friend on the same updraft. “I swear, if I catch another one of you eying my flank, I will have to rethink my policy on lunar banishment.”

Perseus gave her a dubious look. “If you did, you’d have no one left to watch over you. No harm in looking, Your Highness.”

Celestia grinned but didn’t deign to reply.

***

Several hours later, they touched down to the clatter of pebbles and bones underhoof. An enormous cave loomed before them, facing away from the coastline that surged and roared at the edge of their hearing. Perseus tried to peer into the shadowy depths, but Celestia held no such reservations. Striding forward, her voice echoed off the walls as she called out.

“Jor!”

Celestia waited, cocking her head as she listened to the diminishing sound of her words being thrown back at her.

“Jor!” she shouted again.

A deep tremble answered her call. The sound of something colossal shifted in the wet darkness, as though a landslide rolled towards them. Too well-trained to retreat, Perseus stood firm, though he could not slow his heartbeats as a massive rumble made every bone in his body shake.

A voice like the sound of the world ending said, “You know I do not care for that name, little pony.”

“Your full name is too much of a mouthful,” Celestia replied with a smirk.

“Mmm. A mouthful is more than could be said of you, let alone your tiny companion.” A deafening chuckle crashed over them. “Why have you come here, little pony?”

“You will address Her Royal Highness, Princess Celestia with all due respect!” Perseus found himself shouting, wondering where his sudden bravura had come from.

What had been deafening before could be considered a whisper at the cacophonous laugh that threatened to lift the ponies from their feet. Wings spread in anticipation of such, Perseus relaxed only the slightest bit as the noise died down.

“Tit for tat, little pony. You stand in my home making demands, but I am forgiving. Within reason, of course.”

Seeing Perseus about to make a potentially fatal error, Celestia held out a restraining hoof. “Jormungandr, my old friend. We have come seeking your aid.”

“Ahh, at last I am granted the courtesy of my name. You have my thanks, Celestia.” Though he could see nothing of the speaker, Perseus could hear the smile in the voice. “So then, what brings you to my humble oceanside manor?”

“Why, the end of the world, of course,” Celestia said. “You’ve let go of your tail, after all.”

“Pah!” the enormous voice boomed. Perseus staggered under a rush of air that reeked of fermented seaweed and rotted fish. “That old fable?” the voice asked. “I would have expected you to know better than that.”

Celestia quirked an eyebrow. “So you’re saying you’re not the one responsible for my sister calling down the moon?”

They could hear heavy breathing as Jormungandr digested this tidbit of information. He said, “Well, now isn’t that an interesting development? But to answer your question: no, it was not my doing. But you knew that already, so why have you come here?”

“Can a pony not simply visit an old friend?” Celestia asked in her sweetest voice.

Jormungandr grumbled deep in the recesses of his cave, though it still made their teeth shake. “Speak. You woke me from a dream that I am eager to return to.”

“I seek an audience with the All-Father,” Celestia said.

His voice rumbled in disapproval. “Then why come to me? Request an audience with him as royalty to royalty. I am no messenger to ferry your words back and forth.”

“Because I seek a private audience with nopony the wiser, and because you owe me a favor.”

The crash of the serpent’s laughter threw them back, and Perseus flattened his ears in a vain attempt to dampen the noise. “You think me subtle?” Jormungandr asked. “You think me sly? Have you seen me in the past, oh, thousand years or so?” The air continued to gust in fits and spurts as he chuckled to himself.

“You? Subtle? Hardly,” Celestia conceded. “Coyote, however, is another story.”

Perseus and even Celestia took a step back as a massive orange eye slid open in the darkness, turning its baleful gaze upon them. Thrice the size of the princess herself, Jormungandr’s eye regarded them with a light of its own.

“Covered in lamp oil, you come asking to play with fire,” he groused. “Very well. This once, I will pass the word along. But be warned: crafty as you are, he is more clever still. Trust nothing he says at face value, and never assume that he means you well. I’ll not have your misfortune weighing on my conscience.”

Celestia bowed low. “I will remember your warnings, Jormungandr. Thank you. Should I expect the usual messenger then?”

Sliding his massive body backwards, the world snake closed his eye and said, “With him? I would expect anything other than what is ‘usual.’”

***

“Did you really bring me out all this way to spectate for you titans?” Perseus asked when they had put some distance behind them.

“No. I brought you with me because I am scared, Perseus.” Celestia flapped slowly, letting the steady rhythm lull her into a calmer state.

“And no wonder. We never got an actual look, but...how big is he? I feel fortunate that he didn’t just devour us whole.”

“Jor is quite large, I will admit, but he does not frighten me. As far as world-enders go, he is fairly nice. Loud, but hardly unkind.” Celestia banked, pulling up closer to her friend. “No, I’m afraid of failing. I felt my sister call upon primordial powers that are, at best, a double-edged blade. I trust her implicitly, but if she resorted to such drastic measures, then I fear that there are old forces aligned against us. We will need all the assistance we can muster.”

“And what devil’s bargain did you make tonight to make that happen?” he asked, beginning to pant as he felt his strength flag.

“Nothing set in stone, but here, let us rest a moment,” Celestia said, touching down on a thick oak branch. Whatever appreciation Perseus might have expressed died on his lips when she added, “You’re too heavy to carry on my back all the way home. I’m not the only one who’s been indulging in sweets, it would seem.” Celestia gave her friend a knowing grin. Perseus stuck out his tongue even as he lay gasping.

“Before you entered my service, did you travel much?” Celestia asked once he had regained his breath.

“A bit here and there. Mostly within the borders of Equestria, but I roamed so far afield at times that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn I’d ventured into other lands on accident.” Perseus reclined against the tree trunk as she scratched at an itch beneath his barding. “But really, I enlisted when I was pretty young, and most of the time since has been spent accompanying you on your errands.”

Celestia nodded. “I expect you would not have had much contact with the Dagda’s people then, save for the occasional envoys that arrive in my court.” She sat on her haunches, reminiscing. “They are an old and proud people. Their lineage goes so far back that it becomes lost in the mists of time, even for somepony as long-lived as me. The deer-people have been constant, if distant friends of ponykind for ages. I do not know him as well as I would like, but the Dagda has always made it clear that he holds us in high esteem.”

“So why the cloak and dagger act with this mediator, this...Coyote?” Perseus gave his wings an experimental flap. “We can go whenever you’re ready--I’ve rested enough and we still need to get back before my shift is over, or else ponies will think you’ve run away with me.” He gave her a wink, receiving a groan in response.

“Come then, O mighty seductor, let us be off.” With a powerful flap of her wings, Celestia cleared the treetops with ease, though she lingered to ensure her friend had not been exaggerating his recovery. When they had regained their altitude, Celestia said, “Coyote is many things, though ‘devious’ might be the best term to describe him over all others. He can see things, hear things, do things that I cannot. If it amuses him, he can either be of enormous assistance or enormous danger. There’s the rub.” Celestia shook her head. “Nothing can ever simple, it would seem.”

“But why play with fire? If this Dagda regards us so kindly, why not just send him an envoy and share a meal together?”

The Dagda does not allow outsiders onto his island-nation, be they ambassadors or simple travelers. Foreigners that find their way to his borders are politely, but firmly turned away without exception. For whatever reason, his people are strongly isolationist, though his fond regards seem to imply that they are not xenophobic. The deerfolk that arrive in my court do so only sporadically across decades in order to maintain relations, but I have no means to hasten their arrival should I need to send word quickly.”

Perseus nodded, seeing the connection. “Is your sister in so much trouble that it necessitates all this? She’s less experienced than you, sure, but she seems to be more than capable, especially now that you sent your student to keep her company.”

Celestia sighed, rolling midair to give her an excuse not to answer right away. As she righted herself, she said, “Luna and Twilight can take care of themselves, and a great deal more than that together. It is their companion that I worry about.”

“Dawn Star?” Perseus asked, grinning at the surprised look painted across Celestia’s face. “We are ever-vigilant, Your Highness,” he reminded her.

“A voyeur and now an eavesdropper as well. My opinion of you plummets by the moment, Guard-Captain.” Celestia smiled, giving him a playful bump as they soared. “But yes. Her ties to that...creature which graced our palace might prove troublesome. She is bound up in this whole affair tighter than she knows, and I only hope that she realizes that she will be infinitely better off if she has her friends beside her.”

***

“Oh sweet Celestia, I’m sorry for whatever I've done to deserve this.”

Twilight leaned over the edge of the boat for the dozenth time while Sand rubbed her back with a reassuring hoof. Waiting until her friend staggered back from the railing, Sand offered up a ladle of water. Too weak to even nod her thanks, Twilight took a long, slow sip as Sand helped her drink.

“You’ll get your sea legs in time,” Sand said. “Until then, you’ll want to keep as much water in you as you can. Food too, when you feel a little better. You won’t be able to hold it down when you’re like this though, so no use in trying.” Twilight nodded the barest fraction, but the movement sufficed. Taking a moment to stroke Twilight’s hair, Sand hoped the small gesture would provide a modicum of relief for her ailing companion. Standing, she said, “I’m going to go find Luna, but I’ll be back soon. Don’t go anywhere.” She grinned as Twilight managed a ghost of a scowl at the notion.

Sand found the princess staring off the starboard bow. “A farthing for your thoughts?”

Luna turned, having been so distracted that the question took her by surprise. “Ah, a variety of things, though nothing of much interest. How is Twilight doing?”

Sand grimaced. “Green and sicker than I’ve seen anypony in ages. She’ll be fine in time, but she’s taking to the ocean like a fish would a bicycle. She too weak to even use magic properly.” Sand looked across the deck as Twilight heaved her form up on the railing again. “Somehow, I find myself able to sympathize.”

Luna cocked her head. “I find it curious,” she said. “You claimed to have little magic, but a teleportation spell of the magnitude you used to escape us would prove taxing, even for accomplished unicorns like Twilight.”

Lips drawn into a thin line, Sand said, “I didn’t escape; I fled. Like a coward into the night.” She shook her head as Luna began to say something placating. “No. I abandoned my friends.” She made a negating gesture with one hoof. “As for the spell, it was less teleportation and more...pulling myself along. Like climbing with a grapnel and rope. I hurled the book in a random direction, then pulled myself after it. Several times, actually. The first jump was only as long as it was to ensure neither of you would be able to follow my tracks, and the strain involved nearly killed me.” Sand pawed at the ground, frowning as she did so. “With the corners I cut, I suspect that Twilight would have little trouble with the magic I used.”

“Interesting,” Luna mused. “My sister told me how your kind are bound to your tomes, though after seeing you cast from it once, I should have inquired further. And where is your book, at any rate? I’ve seen you go through your packs as you aided Twilight and--” she looked over. “Perhaps we should have this discussion later. Our friend looks even worse than she did a moment ago.”

Twilight sprawled in a heap, staring with vacant eyes at the clear blue sky overhead. Her tongue lolled out to the side as she contemplated her folly in not spending the time finding a spell to stifle motion sickness. A shadow blocked out the sun.

“You’ll dehydrate if you just lay in the light like that,” Sand said, nudging Twilight with a gentle hoof. The seasick pony didn’t even grunt in response, only rolling her eyes to meet Sand’s own. “I’ll go see if I can find more ginger in Xanthia’s supplies, but if not, we can start trying some things I have with me.”

Sand went belowdecks as Luna took her spot. “You know, Twilight, I could just levitate you for a while. At the very least, you wouldn’t be rocking back and forth so much, but I fear it would only delay the inevitable when I’d have to put you down again.” Luna knelt beside her friend, wondering what she could to to help alleviate Twilight’s distress.

Stroking Twilight’s mane, Luna began to sing a wordless tune. Soft and low, Luna’s voice flowed over her friend like cool rain on a hot summer day. As Twilight focused only on the sweetness of the sound, her nausea and worries ebbed away. Twilight marveled at her friend’s hidden gift, wondering why she had never heard Luna sing before.

“Breach!”

The lookout’s voice shattered the mood. Twilight winced, feeling as if a spike had been hammered through her skull. Luna moved her companion out of the way as deckhands scurried about in a frenzy.

“What’s the matter?” Luna asked a passing sailor.

“Sea serpent! Dead ahead and heading right for us!” The peryton said no more, rushing away as the captain yelled at him.

The deck fell away for a moment as a massive crash tossed the ponies through the air. Landing with a thump and a groan, Twilight felt Luna’s magic envelop her as the boat continued to quake and shudder. With an ear-splitting din, the the hull caved in as the serpent rammed their vessel. Ocean water poured through the opening, and the ship began to sink.

Luna spread her wings and prepared to take flight, but she grit her teeth instead and resisted the impulse to fly. Sliding on the swiftly tilting deck, she clambered to the railing and peered over, looking for the nearest life raft. Spotting one as it landed in the water, she floated Twilight beside her and vaulted over the edge, praying that her leap of faith wouldn’t mean their deaths.

***

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