• 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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10
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10 - Broken

It hurt to breathe.

Pain raked long fingers over her side when Sand tried to stir. Sobbing, she lay still, fighting the dizziness and nausea that threatened to overwhelm her.

“Don’t move,” a voice said in the darkness, one she didn’t recognize.

Sand didn’t even want to risk nodding, afraid that she might vomit up whatever remained in her stomach after their ill-fated voyage. She cracked one eye open to see a blurry form looming over her. Her rapid, shallow breathing made her nose tickle, but she feared to scratch at it. Sand felt someone performing gentle ministrations, though she couldn’t help but wince at every touch, soft as each might be.

“Your hind leg’s broken, and I don’t like the swelling around those ribs,” the voice said. Sand tensed as something daubed on her side sent a line of fire racing up her flank. “I know it stings, but we can’t risk an infection, not here.”

“Where...?” Sand whispered, shutting her eye again as the figure moved out of sight.

“With a friend. Try to relax,” he said, “because this is really going to hurt.”

It felt like every nerve in her body had been lit on fire as her caretaker set the bone back in place. Sand emptied her stomach on the cold ground before unconsciousness claimed her once again.

***

“Have you seen signs of anypony else, Princess?”

Luna shook her head. “I’m afraid not, Twilight. We may not know the others’ capabilities, but Sand is a survivor. I am certain that she’s alive, somewhere.”

Twilight nodded in agreement, but her shoulders sagged. She gave an exhausted sigh as her gaze swept over the shipwrecked survivors. While Luna had been out on reconnaissance, Twilight had been tending to the wounded she could with what few supplies washed ashore.

“Why would the serpent attack our boat?” Twilight asked, sparing a moment to rub at her sore muscles. Twilight turned to Luna. “One minute we were fine, the next...” She glanced away.

“Captain Borges enumerated the risks of the voyage before we set sail together,” Luna said. She sighed, pawed at the ground. “You had already taken ill when I inquired further, however. Sea serpents were on the bottom of the list, but they can appear just like any other natural danger. I believe the captain said that they see boats as competition, mistaking the underwater portion to be rivals for territory or whatever they hold dear.”

Luna moved to put a reassuring hoof on her friend’s shoulder. “I wish I could tell you with all honesty that there was a reason, some greater purpose to this tragedy that might give meaning to our losses. I’m afraid that the truth is that sometimes, terrible things simply happen to good folk. We can only pick up what pieces we are able to and move on.” Twilight nodded, but didn’t look convinced.

They had found only three others. Of those, one lay very, very still where they had moved her up past the high tide mark. Twilight limped over, shock still doing its part to shield her from what she knew in her heart of hearts to be true. Nosing the peryton’s feathered side, she felt the coldness there, the rigor that had set in hours ago when the sunlight began to wane. Twilight laid her head down beside the body, but the tears refused to come.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, though she didn’t know for what exactly. Feeling a soft touch at her shoulder, she turned, expecting to see Luna there. Instead, one of the Tidebreaker’s crew gave her a sympathetic dip of his head as he pulled her away with gentle insistence.

“We’ll be well enough to move by tomorrow, thanks to you. Don’t blame yourself.” He turned to regard the body of his shipmate.

Twilight stared at the corpse, trying to think of what to do. She said, “We’ll bury her tonight, and try to find more help in the morning.” She looked over at Luna with dull eyes, but could find no more words.

“Rest, all of you,” the princess said. “I’ll see to our companion’s last rites and take first watch tonight.” As the least injured among them, Luna felt an overwhelming need to protect these few wayward souls that were all that remained from the leviathan’s attack. She paused, correcting her thoughts. The only ones remaining that we’ve found.

The ocean had become a churning maelstrom in the wake of the disaster. While Luna knew that more than a few lives had been lost, she had to believe that the others were merely separated, cast away on different shores or, if they were fortunate, still adrift on their wooden lifeboats. Her heart went out to Sand, praying that she had found safe harbor somewhere.

The loose earth gave way before Luna’s magic. Before long, a soft mound marked the final resting place of the peryton who Twilight wished she could have saved. Sitting beside the grave, Twilight resisted when Luna wrapped a wing around her lavender shoulders and began pulling her away.

“Just a moment? Please?” Twilight asked. Luna saw the pleading look in her friend’s eyes and relented. They all needed time to grieve. Twilight stared at the little patch of earth.

“I didn’t know you, but you died because I’m weak,” she whispered. As her eyes lost their focus, Twilight continued, “I thought that this would all be some grand adventure. Luna, Dawn, everypony. We’d all struggle and come out of this whole mess basically intact.” Twilight sniffled. “Even with Dawn’s book, I didn’t understand what’s really at stake. She tried to warn me. Luna tried to warn me.” She closed her eyes as two tears fell pattering at her hooves. “I’m sorry.” Rising, she turned to join her companions.

“Twilight?” Luna asked as her friend returned. Unresponsive, Twilight stared at the ground. A soft rain began to fall, drumming on the interwoven leaves of their makeshift shelter. “Twilight?” Luna asked again, this time a whisper louder.

“Books,” Twilight said. She looked up, meeting her friend’s gaze. “All my life I’ve learned from reading books. But they don’t prepare you for this.” She stole a half-glance back at the grave.

“Nothing does, lass.” The sailor who had consoled her earlier gave her a searching look. “Your first?” Twilight nodded. “I wish I could say that the first time is the hardest, and that it gets easier. But it don’t, not unless you turn your heart to stone. Some folks be willing to pay that price, but I think you lose too much of yourself in the bargain.” He reached out a hoof, but let it fall away before touching her. Turning his antlered head, he regarded his other shipmate in the pale moon’s light. Looking back to Twilight, he said, “Respect the dead and all they’ve done for you, but remember your friends too. They be there for you when you need them most. Just don’t shut them out.” With that, he left to rejoin his companion.

Twilight looked up at Luna, meeting her gaze for a heartbeat before turning to look at the ocean. Wordlessly, Twilight moved close, lying down beside the princess as they waited for dawn.

***

“It might have to come off.”

Sand blanched. “What?!”

“I said ‘might.’ Can you stand without putting weight on it?” the antlered buck asked.

Gritting her teeth, Sand pushed herself up. Splinted though it might be, whenever her broken leg touched anything, it sent jolts of pain arcing through her body. Chewing on some willow bark had helped a little, but the scant supplies that had made it inside the cove with them included no other painkillers.

“Wahaha!” Sand cried as she found a precarious balance on three hooves. Wobbling, she nearly fell over before the buck caught her, helping her regain her footing.

“Mm. No celebrating until it’s healed, yes. Or at least until we find a more suitable camp.” He eyed her horn. “You’re sure you can’t you use magic?”

“Quite certain, Bolete,” Sand replied. “You’re sure we can’t just rest here for a while?”

“Quite certain,” the peryton echoed. “Damp, cold, and injuries do not mix well. We need to limp our way out of here.” He pointed a hoof. “Well, you limp, I follow. Try not break more, yes.” Sand gave him a dirty look, but moved to obey as Bolete shouldered a pack of whatever scavenged materials he could carry from the detritus that had washed ashore.

The precipitous rocks might have provided reasonable shelter in the event of a storm, but they made for poor traveling. However, far from disused, the cove had a worn foot path that wound upwards into more gentle terrain. Hosting a dozen narrow switchbacks, the trail threatened to send both Sand and her companion toppling every time she would waver in her slow progress. The buck’s quick reactions saved her more than once in this regard, and they soon found themselves tired of thanking and welcoming one another.

As they crested the trailhead, Sand wished she could simply collapse in a heap, but Bolete prodded her forward when she looked ready to stop.

“Aren’t you supposed to let the injured rest?” Sand asked. She scowled at Bolete as he shook his head. “If you’re so impatient, why not just carry me?”

“Too heavy, too plump,” he said, jabbing her less injured side with a hoof.

Sand gave him a disbelieving stare. Plump? Really? She had the same build as everypony else. Don’t I? She couldn’t help but sneak a peek at her flank. Looks fine, she thought, though she felt a creeping worry steal in on silent hooves.

“Still doesn’t explain why you’re pushing us so hard,” she said, trying to shake off her newfound anxieties.

“Mm. Too windy here, need to find shelter.” He gestured with one wing back out over the ocean. “Storm’s coming, need to light a fire that will last the night.” He pointed to the deep gouges that ran along her sides. “Need to cauterize your wounds.”

Sand winced at that, not looking forward to the smell of her own flesh burning. Limping forward to take her mind off of the inevitable, she surveyed the sparse grasslands in front of them. A single thick copse of trees lay some distance ahead, but at their languid crawl, it would be ages until they reached it. One hoof in front of another, she thought, beginning to hobble forward. Bolete fell into step beside her, watching her with a worried expression as they pushed onward together.

After some time, Sand shook her head, all but collapsing onto her side. “I can’t. I need a break.” She did her best to ignore Bolete prodding her, though she appreciated that he never actually hurt her in his impatience.

“Plenty of time for rest when you’re dead. Up, up!” He gave a nervous glance back towards the ocean, not liking the looks of the encroaching clouds at all. Clucking his tongue over his patient, Bolete said, “Desperate times and all that.” Bending down, he bit firmly into her tail and began dragging her along.

“Ow, what?” Sand began to ask as she slid over the grass. Receiving only a grunt in response, she said, “Fine! I’ll get up, just let go of my tail!” She flashed him a glare, though she couldn’t tell whether he saw it or not. Still, he released her, smacking his lips as if he’d tasted something vile.

Her brief respite on the ground had done little to alleviate her dizziness. She forced herself up, taking several moments to give her vision time to clear and her head a chance to stop spinning. “Not feeling so...” Her eyes rolled up into her head as she passed out.

Bolete flew to her side in an instant, but beneath her dead weight, he could only lower her to the ground. Shaking his head, he gave their destination a little scowl, then bent to resume pulling the unicorn rump-first to safety.

***

Why would I choose to call myself ‘Selene,’ of all the possible options? She paced back and forth. Even of my own volition, I chose to stand in Luna’s shadow. Shaking her head, the alicorn turned to her companion and said, “Are you certain?”

Pleasure nodded. “I’m afraid so. There ain’t a lot I can do for ya other than point ya in the right direction, but even then...” He shrugged. “Last time I saw her was when we parted ways right there.” He nodded back towards his home.

Selene sighed. The trail to the last tome had grown sporadic from Horsetooth, but the tracks were fresh. Whoever guarded the artifact had chosen to abandon it at the bottom of the lake quite recently, but direct pursuit of the pony was out of the question. Without the book to act as a beacon, Selene would need to hunt down the guardian by more conventional means.

Concentrating, Selene focused on donning her traveling garb. Her form shimmered and solidified, giving her the appearance of a pale gray pegasus with light blue hair. Shaking out her mane, she smiled at Pleasure’s surprised expression. “More to your liking?”

“Ah...” was all he could manage at first, blushing at the coquettish gaze Selene turned on him. Seeing her grin broke him out of his stupor. “Why’re ya male?”

“Oh, many reasons, but right now I think it’s enough to see the reaction on your face,” Selene said, looking him over. “Among other places.”

Pleasure backed up, but Selene matched him step for step until he felt his tail press against the closed door of his cabin. “Well, I’m glad to have helped ya in any way I could, but I should really be getting back to my chores now.” He gave her an awkward smile.

Selene reined herself in, though she couldn’t suppress a pang of melancholy as she did so. There would be opportunities to pursue her desires later, once things settled down. For now, she needed to remain focused on her task. Selene backed up and said, “Another time then. You’ve been of great help to me, and I will see to it that you are suitably rewarded once I have completed what needs to be done.” Leaving him with a coy smile, Selene turned and flew off into the night.

***

Sand woke to the smell of singed fur. Groaning, she propped herself up, feeling countless pains traveling over her body with every breath. The little rain that made it through their lean-to provided a cool relief in comparison to the fiery ache of her bound leg. She noted the fresh sensation of her backside hurting, and she turned to find her companion regarding her in the flickering light of the campfire.

Sand expected Bolete to offer any number of snarky remarks about the taste of her tail, but instead he asked, “How do you feel?”

“Sore.” Feeling something resist when she shifted positions, Sand looked at her sides. Her more grievous wounds had been dressed with ragged strips of fabric while a wet compress encircled her injured leg. She gestured at the poultice. “To keep the swelling down?”

“That and to help the bone mend. It’s no zebra potion, but you should be able to walk on it tomorrow. Just keep it warm or else the effects won’t work.” He returned to grooming himself, chewing at the numerous misaligned feathers that shone inky black in the firelight.

“Thank you,” Sand said Surprise crossed her face when she received an irritated glare in response. Lowering her head, she asked, “What?”

“Today you, tomorrow me. Like it or not, we’re in this together. Don’t be so surprised when we need to look out for each other.”

“I wasn’t. I--” she stopped as Bolete went back to ignoring her while grooming himself. Unsure what to make of his behavior, she scooted closer to the fire. Looking around, it seemed as though she had slept through the worst of whatever storm had passed over them. Morning light could be seen filtering through the clouds in places. She laid her head down between her hooves, watching her companion clean himself within their mostly-dry shelter. The smooth movements and small sounds were hypnotic, and Sand soon felt herself drifting asleep again.

“Two days, maybe three,” he muttered, pulling Sand awake. Seeing her watching, he elaborated, “Your bones will knit, but it will still hurt to walk. Overland travel will be slow. Only one settlement on this island, and it’s on the far side. Of course.” He shook his head and continued nipping at his feathers.

The firelight reflected off his plumage. “Can’t you just fly out and bring back help?” Sand asked.

Bolete said nothing as he held up one wing, spread wide for her to see. Of the half dozen pinion feathers that would normally flare out from the edges, he had only a solitary one remaining, and even it appeared bent at an odd angle.

“So it’s not that I’m too heavy for you after all,” Sand said with a tired grin.

“Too plump,” he reiterated, earning a scowl in return. Chuckling, he said, “All ponies, not just you. Even your pegasuses, I have no idea how they fly.”

Thinking back to her previous life, Sand closed her eyes and said, “On wings of joy.”

***

“I see. Thank you.” Woad bowed low as Selene saw herself out of the apothecary’s shop. Spreading her wings, she took flight. She hoped that the air would clear her mind and give her room to think. Luna was here along with another pony not more than a few days past. That must be the key.

Horsetooth passed out of sight as she broke through the cloud canopy. Gliding in tight spirals, she considered her options. Immediate pursuit is a gamble. I’ve little to go on save for the words of a few townsponies, and there’s no direct link to be had with the unicorn Luna travels with. Yet, a chance to see this come to completion so quickly... Selene shivered in delight. Better to be cautious, though. To lose a day collecting more information will be trivial, but to track the wrong target for a fortnight or more, only to lose my quarry? She shook her head, plunging through the clouds again as she took Woad’s suggestion to heart. Now where is this monument the shopkeeper spoke of?

Her hooves touched down in front of three earth pony statues frozen in regal poses. Still robed in her pegasus illusion, Selene garnered little more than a glance from several others who knelt in silent prayer. Reading the placard, Selene snorted. A foal’s errand.

Turning to leave, she stopped as her feathers prickled. Sweeping her gaze back and forth, Selene couldn’t shake the feeling of somepony watching her, but the only others she could see were busy gathering up their belongings. She paced around the monument, looking this way and that. Though she soon found herself alone, the sense of being spied upon only intensified.

“Well, hardly a princess, this one, but I’m not as picky as some others,” Indigo said.

Selene rounded on the voice, seeing three mares where the statues had stood moments ago.

“Hardly anything, for that matter,” Violet added, earning a glare from Selene. “Are you sure she’s worth lowering your standards for?”

“I will blast you into the skies,” Selene spat.

“Oh come now, you wouldn’t do that to your dearest friends now, would you?” Chicory quirked an eyebrow.

Flabbergasted, Selene gaped a moment before saying, “Friends?” Her scowl resumed its place as her disguise faded. Now standing at eye-level with the three ponies who dared mock her, Selene felt much more in control. “You’re no friends of mine.”

Chicory clucked her tongue. “Dear me, but you don’t know who we are, do you?”

Indigo eyed Selene with open hunger as she said, “But we want you to know us.”

“Steady now,” Violet said, placing a hoof on Indigo’s shoulder. “Always so eager, you are. I do hope you’ll forgive us, Selene.”

Drawing back as if stung, Selene regarded the three ponies with deep suspicion. “Who are you?”

“Friends, of course.” Chicory gave her a matronly smile. “And you’ll need friends to accomplish what you’ve set out to do, even if it flies in the face of what you want.”

“You know quite a bit for some nameless ponies in a backwater town,” Selene sneered.

“Don’t be cruel. It doesn’t suit you,” Indigo said. “We are your friends, and despite our misgivings, we do care for you.”

Selene’s face twisted up in internal struggle, but finally anger gave way to curiosity. “Then who are you? What...why?” Every question on her mind struggled to exit her mouth at the same time.

The sisters looked at one another.

“Violet.”

“Chicory.”

“And Indigo.” She added a leer for good measure, but Violet cuffed her on the back of the head.

“Mind your manners.” To Selene, Violet said, “You want the last tome, yes?” Seeing Selene’s wide-eyed look, Violet nodded. “Of course you do. But for all the wrong reasons.”

“Your master is hardly the only one with a vested interest in this world,” Chicory said. “Yet we would rather not see this peaceful land become a war zone for the sake of one tyrant or another.”

“And who do you serve, then?”

“Not Celestia, if that’s your fear,” Indigo replied. “Nor Luna, though I’d serve her in different ways.”

Enough.” Chicory gave her sister a tight frown. Seeing Indigo’s cowed expression, she turned back to Selene and said, “I say this in honest truth: who we serve matters little, only that she cares for your well-being, and thus we do as well. Your choices are still your own to make, though if you follow your master’s path, even that freedom will be taken from you.”

“To seek a true name is a dangerous business,” Violet said. “Simply knowing one can bind you just as surely as the earth leashes the sky.”

“While you may feel as though you stand in Luna’s shadow, remember that you did what she could not,” Indigo said. “Your strengths were her weaknesses, and you used them for a thousand years in a far more noble manner.” She stepped down, moving towards Selene as she spoke. “You have the power to stand within your own light.” Selene said nothing as Indigo placed a hoof on her chest. “Let us help you. Please.”

“Why?” Selene’s voice held no inflection, no tone. Balanced on a tipping point, she could only wait to see which way their answer would push her.

The sisters took a moment to regard each other before directing their gazes at Selene. In a soft voice, Chicory said, “Because you don’t have to be alone.”

***

“Has there been word of any other survivors?” Twilight asked. The zebra shook his head, prompting her to sigh. “Thank you.”

“No news, I take it?” Luna asked once Twilight came within earshot. Their camp sat at a distance from the small fishing village that acted as a port. Though it was unfair to assume so, Luna didn’t want to chance fate that these zebras would be overly superstitious.

Twilight shook her head. “It’s been two days. I want to stay here and wait for any others, but I don’t know that it’ll accomplish much. We can leave word on where we’ve gone if any other stragglers do make it here, but we should decide what to do soon. Word from the perytons is that the next ship might be the last for a week, maybe more due to that storm.”

Luna hummed as she thought. She disliked the idea of leaving anyone behind, but Twilight spoke the truth. Nodding sadly, she said, “We should press on. I can only hope that there are more survivors, and that they will make their way here in time.” Watching Twilight stare back out over the ocean, she added, “Our journey is almost at its end. Then we can return to the lives we knew.”

She looked at Luna, remaining silent for a moment. “Do you really think so? With all we’ve seen and done?” Twilight recalled what Luna had told her about the closure of Horsetooth’s rift. “With all that’s likely to happen to us?”

A beat. Luna said, “No, I do not.”

Twilight nodded, unfazed by the attempt to mollify her. “Me neither. There’s still that alicorn...thing out there doing who knows what. Dawn’s missing, though I have to agree with you--she’s alive somewhere. And on top of it all, we could be making this trip for nothing if the world still ends in flames.” She looked at Luna before shaking her head. “I just wish we had something concrete in front of us. Give me a manticore for Fluttershy to soothe, or wayward friends to show the light of reason to, or even a nightmare to turn our magic against.” Twilight flinched, sneaking a guilty peek at Luna, but the princess waved her concern away.

“Tangible obstacles would be a blessing at this point, but I believe we’re on the right track,” Luna said. “Try to get some rest before the boat arrives. Your injuries are on the mend, but...” She gave Twilight an appraising look. “You’ll want to recover whatever strength you can to help weather your seasickness again.”

Twilight groaned. “I’m going to go ask around first, maybe some of the villagers have something that will help.” Ensuring that Luna would be fine for the brief time without her, Twilight returned to the tiny port town. Her brief inquiries bore fruit, and after a few bits changed hooves, she had her remedy. Twilight returned to Luna with a beaming smile.

Luna took the proffered bottle, eyeing its contents through the dark glass. Uncorking it, she took a deep whiff and drew her head back at the aroma. “That’s rum,” she said, quirking an eyebrow at her friend.

“The rum is only to suspend the medicinal agents. My herb lore isn’t as good as it could be, but I recognize a few of the plants that went into it. Hopefully, it’ll help.” Twilight smiled. “One small victory, but better than none.”

Luna grinned and said, “Surely, even if it doesn’t quell your nausea, I’ll at least get to see a tipsy Twilight. I’d give much to learn what kind of drunk you are.” Her grin only grew as Twilight gave her a dirty look.

“Well...” Twilight furrowed her brows. “Well, try not to drink it all first.” She gave Luna a challenging smirk, but the princess only shook her head and chuckled.

“Get some rest, Twilight. We’ve a long way to go yet, and there will be time enough to work on your comebacks later.” Offering an outstretched wing, Luna folded it over her friend’s shoulders as Twilight laid down beside her.

As the afternoon burned away, Luna’s thoughts drifted to many places. Twilight is right, of course. Our journey will hardly be over when we meet with the zebras’ spiritual leader. I can only hope that whatever task he sets us on, it leaves my friends relatively unscathed. She looked at the sleeping form beneath her wing. You’ve learned an inkling of what grief truly is. Was it worth your curiosity, my little pony? To come on this journey with me? Twilight gave a little snort and rolled over in her sleep. Luna smiled, giving her friend a soft hug. She began humming a wordless tune as she spied the rum bottle lying nearby. Levitating it towards herself for a moment, Luna checked her desires and placed the bottle in Twilight’s pack instead. It would hardly be fair to indulge at the expense of my friend. Still, she let her gaze linger.

The clarion sound of a bell tolling stole her attention. Though the shouts were too faint to make out, she could see the harbormaster yelling at his subordinates while glancing off into the distance. Turning to look, Luna saw a faint speck of a ship on the far horizon. She let Twilight sleep until the ship had actually docked. Once it had, however, Luna roused her friend with gentle insistence.

“Time to go, Twilight.” Luna gave the muzzy unicorn a bright smile. “Our destiny awaits.”

***

“A week.” Sand gave Bolete an even look. “At least my friends are all right, but we’re stuck here for a week.”

“Perhaps more, perhaps less, yes.” The peryton fidgeted. “Unless you can conjure up another boat with that horn of yours. The last one left just yesterday.” He gave her bandaged leg a severe expression.

“I apologize for my frailty,” Sand replied, narrowing her eyes. “I told you that you were free to go ahead on your own, however. The terrain was not difficult, and I would have managed.”

Bolete remained silent for a moment, only looking out over the sea. Turning back to her, he said, “Bad form to abandon a friend, yes. Just as bad to suggest me capable of doing so.”

Sand’s eyes widened. “I...I apologize.” She lowered her head. “I did not--” She stopped when Bolete glared at her in return.

“It is enough that you understand. Now let me look at your dressings.” He stepped towards her and peeled off the patches covering her smaller wounds.

Though still tender to the touch, the pink skin beneath looked far better than the ragged lacerations she’d worn the first night after the shipwreck.

Bolete hummed. “Healing, but no more poultices except for the leg. Your body will reject the medicine soon. Trust you’re fine having scars as long as you keep your leg, yes?” He looked up.

“Yes. Yes, thank you.” She looked her body over, then sat on her haunches. “So what are we to do for a week?” Looking over the village from their nearby hilltop, Sand guessed that recreation would be hard to come by.

Bolete shrugged. “What else? We tell stories.” Clearing his throat, he began.

***

Long ago in a faraway land, there once was a baker’s daughter, lowly of birth, yet lovely to behold. Fair of hair and dazzling of eye, she captured the hearts of all who would look upon her.

Though countless suitors sought her favor, she spurned even the most ardent advances made towards her. Deeming herself far beyond their station, she turned her nose up at the common-born rabble that would hound her from sunrise to sunset.

One day, while accompanying her father to market, she spied a great commotion in the crowd ahead. Craning her neck, it was not until they had drawn closer that the baker’s daughter could see its source: carried on the backs of a dozen servants, a royal palanquin bore the prince aloft through the throng of bodies pushing in around them.

“Finally,” said she. “One whose station is worthy of my grace and beauty. Yet how to stand out as a flower amidst the dung heap?” The baker’s daughter looked around, spying an overturned apple cart that had been abandoned for some time. Climbing atop it, she preened and waited.

As the litter passed nearby, the pony within had sudden cause to glance up. Like the most radiant sunlight streaming through the clouds, so did the baker’s daughter shine through the dreck of her surroundings. Instantly smitten, the prince ordered a halt as he beckoned her over. Knowing that all hunters enjoy the chase, she resisted his affections, demanding from him a feat worthy of her beauty.

“Anything! Anything within my power, it shall be yours,” he said. Longing filled his heart and soul as he beheld the baker’s daughter draw up in thoughtful pose.

After a time of consideration, she said at last, “Find for me gems and finery befitting my loveliness. Yet not the rich fare that you surely have in plenty, but the rarest kind, of the rarest materials.” Thus spoken, she left him wanting, gracing him with a coy smile and a silent promise should he succeed.

Now, it needs be said, the prince was of stout heart and solid mind, yet even the best among us can become muddled by our desires. He did not see the arrogance in her stride, the proud posturing of somepony lending herself airs she had no right to. The prince saw only a creature worthy of worship. Being of generous spirit, he hastened back to his father’s palace, there to plan and work.

A fortnight passed, then two. Paper littered the prince’s chambers as he discarded idea after idea. Frustration mounted until in his rage, he drew his father’s ire.

“What keeps you so late into the night, my son? What black humor drives you to roam the palace halls like one haunted?”

“O father,” the prince replied, “I am smitten and know not what to do.”

“Surely, there must be more method to this madness than what you profess,” the sultan said. He listened as his son explained, going to great lengths to remain patient while the prince described the overwhelming beauty of the baker’s daughter, and the task she had set him on.

“Put this common-born out of your mind. We will find one more befitting you station,” the sultan began saying, but the prince would hear none of it. Knowing his son to be stubborn once he had set his hooves in, the sultan relented.

“Then the task you must perform must balance out the tarnish upon our name for taking a lowborn into our house. On the far isles, across the narrow sea, lies an orchard guarded by a beast, noxious of fang and loathsome to behold. Yet the trees there grow dazzling gems for fruit and have the most delicate scrollwork inscribed upon bark made from purest gold. Win your way past their guardian and collect these treasures. Return here with them and I will have our finest craftsponies create a work of art that will stand through ages when even our family name is dead and gone.”

Now, the story of how the prince won his way through this trial with the aid of fire and steel is a tale for another time, but suffice to say, he returned burdened down with riches beyond what even his father had imagined.

Thus supplied, the sultan’s people crafted garments that would befit the sultana herself, yet the prince presented them with all humility to the baker’s daughter. Having fulfilled her wishes, they were married beneath the arching sky and before the eyes of those that loved them.

In time, they had a daughter. Though the prince surely loved his wife still, the blue foal with the silver-white mane stole the purest of his heart’s affections. As father and daughter grew closer, husband and wife drifted apart. Who can say what evil had lain within her all this time, just waiting for a chance to come forth? Yet we know that jealousy built upon spite, such that one night, she did murder her once-beloved husband. Fleeing before anypony became the wiser, she took only her child and what riches she could carry.

Their travels took them far beyond the horizon to a city where ponies only knew her by her ever-present beauty and the glamor of her finery. As an earth pony, she had only her cunning and her seductive wiles to work by, yet she wielded them with a finesse that would have done justice to the most skilled artisans.

A merchant pony, enraptured by her charms, promised both her and her daughter hearth and home for her hoof in marriage. Knowing that her choices were limited, the baker’s daughter accepted. Though wed with less fanfare than before, the merchant provided more than ample wealth for the baker’s daughter to live the life she had grown accustomed to.

As tends to happen, they soon bore a daughter between them. Born with her mother’s silver-white hair, the child’s violet coat more closely matched that of her father.

Delight filled their household as the family, both old and new, bonded as one. Yet, perhaps poisoned by her transgressions in the past, the baker’s daughter grew envious of the love and attention the new foal received, both from her first daughter and her husband. Conspiring against him, she had her husband killed by his rivals, thinking to divide the spoils of his wealth among them all. Yet, in this she had learned but little: trust no pony that is willing to become less of one for the sake of material gain.

This time, she had only time to gather her daughters to her side before she was chased from the city. The cries of “harlot!” and “murderer!” nipped at her backside as she fled.

Long travels and harsh winds bore her even farther afield. When she reached the last city she would call home, her beauty had weathered their journey poorly. Reduced to begging on the street, she still had some of her old charm, and thus she soon took up company with a lowly baker. At last, her journey had come full circle, and so they married with hardly a whisper or batted eyelash.

In time, the two foals were joined by a third. With hair to match her sisters, the newest addition to their family had an indigo coat--a happy medium between her two siblings.

It was clear that the three sisters loved each other, despite their differing fathers. For his part, the baker held no ill-will in his heart towards his wife’s past, and he asked no questions of her children’s origins. Yet for all this, broken and dispirited, the baker’s wife saw only the affection she so longed for being once again diverted from her.

How the baker died remains a mystery to this day, but what is known is that his wife joined him in death, leaving three orphaned fillies to fend for themselves against a harsh world. Their story, however, is best left for another time.

***

As his tale drew to a close, Bolete regarded his companion.

“Is that it?” Sand asked, turning to look at the peryton.

Bolete ruffled his feathers. “Yes, yes, and what of it?”

“That’s not an ending! What happened to the fillies?”

“Another time, like I said. The story was about the baker’s daughter.” Illuminated by the campfire’s light, Bolete gave her an odd look. “Like it. Don’t like it. It passes the time.” He prodded her with a hoof. “Your turn.”

She pushed away thoughts of her time in Horsetooth. Squaring her shoulders, Sand called to mind something old, long buried within her mind. Something waiting to be told.

***

Books. Books contain so much knowledge, such a wealth of ideas that anypony with the conviction and drive can learn almost anything, should it be written down. Among the pony races, unicorns are, perhaps, the most susceptible to the lure of learning what secrets lie hidden on dusty shelves and within ancient manuscripts. Curio was no exception.

She had an insatiable need-to-know that should have landed her in trouble more often than not. Yet, sharp-eyed and fleet of foot, she almost always managed to evade detection by her elders. What Curio didn’t understand, however, was that the punishments she kept one step ahead of were never meant to be cruel. Rather, they were only to warn her away from dangers her young mind could not comprehend, let alone defend against.

Even when nosing into other ponies’ business, Curio could always be found with her two siblings. The eldest of the three, Curio cared little for the scant difference in their ages, though the other two idolized their sister as only the younger truly can. What frequent mischief they found themselves in, they did so together.

Their parents toiled endlessly over books, writing and reading to the exclusion of almost all else. Yet, it should not be inferred that they were wholly unfit to care for their children. They saw to it that Curio and her siblings were fed, sheltered, and warm when needed, but otherwise, their studies kept them busy. Is it any wonder then that while Curio and her siblings viewed each other as family, they saw their parents merely as aloof custodians?

Left to their own devices, they explored what meagre wonders their city had to offer. Chief among them, the monolithic city library held tomes in numbers beyond count. For want of more exciting pursuits, Curio and her siblings would often find themselves within, searching for the darkened chambers and disused reliquaries they felt certain must exist, waiting to be found by those of firm resolve and stalwart purpose. Stern lectures and lashes to their blank flanks could no more deter them than the stars could refuse to shine.

Perhaps it was only due to the carelessness of a librarian, overworked and exhausted, or perhaps something more sinister played its hand, but Curio and her siblings eventually found what they sought. Sneaking in at night through an unlocked window, they first feared that they would be caught and ejected from the premises, as they had so many times before. Yet, fortune favored their boldness. Finding nopony attending to their ruckus, they pushed forward, exploring the places where their elders had forbidden them to go. Stealing through the darkness, they found door after door unlocked. Thinking nothing of their luck, they descended down twisting corridors, their way lit only by the dim glow of their horns.

Though they passed several ornate doors, they felt drawn to one at the end of a long hallway. Hewn from a single piece of ironwood and carved in the likeness of a weeping mare, the door simultaneously thrilled and terrified them, yet they could no more resist its call than they could still the hammering of their hearts. Standing slightly ajar, it beckoned them forward with silent promise.

Curio looked at her siblings as if asking whether they should turn back now. They might balk and argue, but her siblings would follow her course should she dig in her hooves. True to her nature, however, she pressed onwards, doing her best to ignore the ball of ice that nestled in her stomach and the tightness constricting her throat.

As they passed through the open doorway, they noticed a sickly green radiance lighting the room, yet they could not discern its source. Looking around at what their curiosity had wrought, they spied book after book suspended on magical pedestals. Investigating further, they soon learned that powerful wards and enchantments kept their prying hooves far from whatever knowledge lay within the tomes.

All but one.

Nondescript in every way, a single volume lay untouched by enchanted shackles, or at least, none that the three young unicorns could sense. Though the most magically adept among them, Curio could still scarcely conjure more than foxfire to light their way. Yet in her heart of hearts, she knew that the book could unlock her true potential if only she would read it.

When she touched its cover, the room exploded in a spray of light and sound.

Curio sobbed, pulling with all the force her small frame could muster. Try as she might, however, she could not remove her hoof from the book. Tears streamed down her face as her siblings added their strength to her own, and with a wet, slurping sound, they wrested her free from the book’s grasp.

All at once, the room returned to how it had been before their intrusion. Curio, however, lay on her back, staring at the ceiling with vacant eyes and a blank expression. After failing to rouse Curio from her stupor, her siblings struggled to carry her back through the winding passageways and out to find assistance.

Once they found somepony and explained what happened, help was swift in arriving, and in force. A half dozen mares and stallions crowded around poor Curio, some whisking her away to what passed for the town’s hospital, others doing their best to calm her siblings as they wailed and cried. It took them some time, but when the stilted tale of Curio’s fate had drawn to a conclusion, the little filly and colt could only sniffle and cower as their parents descended upon them in a cold fury. All but dragging the children along, they hastened as one to the hospital and Curio’s side.

Their sister didn’t stir, didn’t flinch, nor look at them when they stood beside her. The book, their parents explained, fed off her vitality even now. Linked inextricably with the tome she had touched, Curio existed only in a fugue state that she could never be free of in life. So long as they sustained her, their sister might breathe, might be soft to the touch and warm to hold, but she would never again truly live. All this for the sake of their curiosity.

Their parents left them alone in the room, there to consider the wages of their sin. Long hours they spent at her side, unspeaking, unthinking. Eventually, young as he was, the colt drifted off to sleep, curled up on the bed beside his beloved eldest sister. For her part, the filly looked upon Curio with a fathomless depression that threatened to steal her voice away.

“If only we had known,” the filly whispered, “what horrors could be averted with just a little cautious guidance, a little more knowledge.” She picked up a pillow between her hooves. “I am sorry, my sister. Forgive me.”

As three lives became two, she lay down and wept. Curled up next to the one she loved more than anything else, the filly did not notice that her mark had at last appeared: a pair of golden scales, unevenly balanced, measuring what she loved against the weight of necessity.

***

(Nyah ha! Thanks again to Chris for running quality control on this, my most depressing chapter yet)

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