• Published 22nd Nov 2011
  • 8,632 Views, 136 Comments

Lacuna - Drakmire



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

  • ...
10
 136
 8,632

11 - Thaumaturgy

Twilight hiccuped.

“I must admit,” Luna said with a smile, “I did not expect to find you so amusing when drunk.”

Twilight leveled an uneven stare at a spot just behind Luna’s right shoulder. “My embarrassment is a small price to pay, Princess.” A part of her mind sobered up enough to detach itself from the inebriated whole, observing the scene as if from another pony’s point of view. “We’re...we’re almost there. We are almost there, right?” She paused a moment but then continued before Luna could respond. “And I haven’t felt sick once. Not. Once.” Twilight gave Luna a lopsided but victorious smile.

“You’ve done well, Twilight. And yes, our journey is almost complete, though perhaps it would behoove us to take some time to...freshen up.” Grinning, Luna watched Twilight sway in a gentle breeze only she seemed to feel. “As eager as I am to meet the Erudite and see this whole adventure one step closer to completion, I imagine you will want your wits about you first.”

“Whatever...whatever you say, Princess. I’m here to help out in any way I can.”

Once the boat had anchored in the harbor, Luna and Twilight disembarked with little fanfare, thanking the captain for her hospitality. Extorting a promise from them to come sail again in happier times, the captain made her goodbyes as she left the ponies to their business.

“Let us find some accommodations, if only for the day. We could use some directions, and you,” Luna tapped Twilight with a wing, “need to sober up.”

Twilight nodded, though she regretted the action. On the boat, the rocking of the waves had hardly even registered once she’d tipped back her bottle of “medicine.” With firm ground beneath her, however, Twilight found the world tilting in a bad facsimile of her first voyage.

“Princess Luna?” Twilight asked. “I think sooner rather than later would be best.” She decided against saying more as her ears started ringing. Luna gave her a concerned look before stepping away to ask for directions. Bereft of Luna’s support, Twilight found the ground rising to meet her, yet the impact never came. It took her a moment to realize that Luna’s magic suspended her off the ground, though it didn’t seem to be in any hurry to place her on her hooves again.

“Forgive me, Twilight,” Luna said as she returned. “Please bear with it, as I think this will be easier for both for us.” After seeing Twilight’s nod, Luna wended her way through the haphazard town, trailed by a semi-lucid unicorn bobbing in the air.

In stark contrast to the fishing village they had departed from, Synod Port held a bustling population of zebrafolk and other, more exotic creatures, some of which Twilight would be hard-pressed to identify without the resources of her library. They passed leonine figures armored in iridescent scales that shimmered and flashed in the daylight, stately springboks haggling over the price of dyes and saffron, thick-horned rhino-people that turned sullen glares towards anyone and anything around them. At most, Luna and her uncommon baggage garnered a single glance, but never more than that.

When they arrived at their destination, Luna let out a sigh of relief. Several orders of magnitude more hospitable than their inn in Marebasa had been, The Jaunty Jellyfish cost them only a pittance for warm beds and warmer regards from the assorted folk gathered in the common hall. Luna looked Twilight over as they took a seat by the fire. She turned to the barmare who had come to take their order and said, “Mead for me, if you would please.” Luna glanced at Twilight. “And for my friend, something that can help her out with...whatever this is.” Luna floated the nearly empty bottle of medicinal rum up for inspection.

The zebra sniffed the bottle’s contents before vanishing behind the kitchen door.

“How are you doing, Twilight?”

“I--” Twilight clutched her head, then vanished in a flash of magic.

Luna masked her alarm as best as she could. She was midway through a tracing spell when the barmare returned, holding their drinks aloft with her tail and Twilight draped across her back.

“Yours, I believe,” she said, setting down both unicorn and beverages. “Drunkard’s Folly is a cheap solution for seasickness, but not without its drawbacks.” She tapped one of the new bottles on their table. “This should help, however.”

“My thanks,” Luna said as the barmare bowed and left. Luna floated the bottle to Twilight’s lips and commanded, “Drink.”

Twilight scrunched up her face as the taste washed over her tongue. She spluttered before managing to wrest the bottle from Luna’s control. She wiped her mouth with the back of one leg. “Ugh. The cure is worse than the illness.” She smacked her lips, sticking out her tongue as she did. “But I do feel better. That was really fast.” She looked at the remedy in her hooves. “You know, I’m beginning to have an even greater respect for Zecora than I already do.” She said nothing more, though she wore a contemplative expression.

Luna nodded. “There is much ponies and zebras could learn from one another. Perhaps once this is all over, we can establish some sort of educational exchange system to benefit both our peoples.”

Twilight nodded and put the bottle down before glancing at Luna. She paused, then let her gaze fall back to the table. “I’m sure Zecora would be more than happy to teach what she knows. It’s only her location out in the Everfree Forest that really causes any problems.” She paused a moment. “I should visit her more, really,” she said, her voice trailing off at the end.

Luna studied her friend, wanting to see if Twilight would elaborate. When nothing more appeared forthcoming, she asked, “Is there something else on your mind?”

Twilight glanced up and gave Luna a tremulous smile. “Oh, you know. Just...things, Princess,” she said. “My mind is in a lot of places all at once. Probably just the aftereffects of the boat ride.” Twilight fidgeted with her forelegs, appearing not to know what to do with them before crossing them on the table.

“Truly?” Luna dipped her head, wishing she could sit a bit closer. She lowered her voice as she said, “I would be remiss as a friend if I did not see that something in particular occupies your thoughts. Share it with me? Please? What troubles you troubles me as well.”

Twilight opened her mouth to speak, but closed it once more when she saw the earnest concern in Luna’s eyes. She took a steadying breath, letting out an even sigh as she stared down at the table.

“There were a lot of things that washed up on that shore with us that I didn’t recognize. Jars of dried plants, pastes, and oils, but I had no idea what they could do, so I left them alone.” She picked up the bottled remedy again. “If I had just known a little more, understood just a bit of what they could have done, then maybe...” Wearing a distant expression, she shook her head. “Maybe I could have saved her.”

“Twilight.” Luna peered at her friend, waiting until Twilight met her gaze. “We did everything that we could for the Tidebreaker’s crew. We cannot be prepared for every eventuality.” She paused. “It wasn’t your fault.”

Twilight nodded, but her expression failed to change. “I know, Princess. Really, I do. But I can’t help but feel responsible.” Twilight looked down at the bottles between them. “I thought that my magical studies had prepared me enough for this trip, but I couldn’t save her with any spell I know.” Twilight seemed as though she might have said more, but then shook her head and remained silent.

“Regenerative magics are rare, and truly restorative ones are all but unheard of,” Luna said. “You are gifted, Twilight, but you are also young. You cannot expect to have a spell for every occasion, not even with a great deal more study.”

Twilight gave Luna a thoughtful look. “Do you have any you could teach me? You’ve lived for...I don’t even know how long. Surely you’ve come across something I could learn? Anything that could have helped?”

Luna heard the implied question and hummed a moment before responding. “I could not have saved the one on the beach, I’m afraid. My affinity tends towards quelling magics more than bolstering ones, and what little healing powers I possess would not have been nearly enough. I believe even my sister would have been at a loss, and her knowledge of and experience with vitality spells far outstrips my own.” She gave Twilight a searching look. “Yet, there is much that I could teach you that your books might not, if you’d like to learn as we go.” Luna chanced a small smile.

Twilight thought for only a moment before her lips crept upwards the slightest bit. Her happiness touched her eyes as she said, “Thank you, Princess. I’d like that very much.”

***

“Does it seem to be getting hotter, or is it just me?” Twilight wiped away the sweat beading on her forehead.

Luna nodded. “The geography of the island lends itself to sweeping changes in temperature and environment. If I understood the directions we received, we’re likely to encounter everything short of arctic tundra on this final leg of our journey.”

“Wonderful. Maybe I’ll find a spell to combat heat stroke before we keel over from it.” Twilight panted, dragging her hooves as they moved up the leaf-littered trail. The dense jungle canopy blocked the sun from view, but still, the heat was oppressive. Using her tail to swat at the ever-present cloud of mosquitoes, Twilight considered throwing a barrier around herself, but she doubted that she would be able to sustain it for long before running out of air.

“Your spell selection thus far has been somewhat random. Why don’t you try what I showed you?” Luna pointed a hoof at a nearby tree. “At the very least, it’ll take your mind off of things while we travel.”

Twilight nodded, willing her hooves to keep moving while she pulled her awareness into herself. She pictured the tree trunk in her mind, imagined the way it smelled, the way it would feel if she brushed up against it. She imagined the inner rings of dead heartwood, the outer layers of sapwood beneath the bark. Doing her best to erase the tree from her mind’s eye, Twilight pictured a void, then reconstructed the tree within it, part by part. Keeping an awareness of it with three of her senses, Twilight cast the spell.

Opening her eyes, she noticed Luna smiling at her before directing their attention to what Twilight’s magic had wrought. Floating before them was the section of trunk that Twilight had recreated. As the creationary magic permeating it faded, the newly made log fell to the ground with a dull thud. As they stepped past it, the log began to unravel in swirling tendrils of mist.

“I should not be surprised that you’ve caught on to the spell quicker than I expected. It’s no wonder my sister took you under her wing.”

Twilight beamed. “Amber Eye’s Simulacrum plays off of a few other concepts I was already familiar with, so I’m not sure how much of that praise I deserve, but thank you all the same, Princess.” She turned to look as the final bits of the conjured log vanished into the sweltering air. “Too bad it’s not permanent. It would be nice to be able to duplicate any supplies we need along the way.”

“Agreed, but the spell teaches an important concept in holistic comprehension. If we were to--”

“--stop talking for a moment?” a voice asked from behind them.

Luna and Twilight spun with horns a-glow, not eager to admit that they had been caught unaware.

“Ahh, so touchy. You ponyfolk never cease to amuse me.”

Wearing a Cheshire smile, a slim, sandy-furred coyote sat in the middle of the path, looking from Luna to Twilight and back again. His eyes twinkled and danced as though he was always on the verge of laughter.

“And you are...?” Luna asked, moving a step ahead of Twilight.

“Bored. Shadowing you two has been a chore, so let’s play a game then, shall we?” the coyote asked, his grin growing wider still. “It’s called: ‘Where did my tail go?’”

Twilight and Luna spun around as a sudden breeze nipped at their backsides. Eyes going wide at the sight of their bare rumps, they rounded on the coyote as he winked. A swirl of prismatic lights enveloped him, spinning in a tight whirlwind of colors.

“Catch me if you can!”

***

“Greetings, child. It is good to see that you’ve arrived safely.”

Celestia gave the red-brown stag a warm smile as he rose from his kneeling position. He stood proud and tall, his antlered head accounting for a third of his height. Though he knew full well the gravity of Celestia’s summons, he couldn’t help himself as a grin stole across his face.

“Well met, Your Highness,” he said, sketching a small bow. “The All-Father sends his regards and his regrets that he could not be here in the flesh. It is my hope that my humble presence will suffice for your needs.” As the smooth rumble of his voice faded, he stole a quick look around, noticing the guards stationed discreetly throughout the room. “My name is Viridian.”

Stepping down from her throne, Celestia beckoned for him to follow as she led them out through a side passage. Viridian glanced back as two of her honor guard fell into their wake.

Noticing his look, Celestia said, “They see and hear only what they need to, no more. I trust them with my life every day, though I will admit, threats are few and far between.” She paused. “Or they were.”

He nodded. “As you say, Your Highness.”

“Have you any knowledge of what has been happening outside your island nation as of late?” Celestia gave him a sidelong look as they stepped into her personal quarters. The guards took up positions just inside the doorway, shutting it once they had all passed through.

Viridian shot the two unicorns a nervous look before he returned his gaze to Celestia. “An inkling, or perhaps a bit more. We shelter in the All-Father’s embrace such that we need not fear the outside world. Being one of a few granted free passage, however, I have heard whispers on the wind that trouble stirs from afar. I’ve not heard much more than that, I’m afraid.”

Celestia hummed. “I hope you will forgive me when I say that this was not quite what I had hoped when I made my bargain with the trickster, but I suppose I can’t be too picky. Still, while I am sure you will hear my concerns with all due--”

“Ruin finds us all!” one of her guards screamed.

The unicorn surged forward, charging headlong at the hart. Accelerated by a flash magic, he cleared the distance across the chamber in less than an eyeblink. He crashed against an unseen wall of force as Celestia threw up a protective barrier around Viridian.

Rebounding in a spray of warring lights, the unicorn staggered, then shook his head. The other guard vanished behind an expanding bubble of iridescence that washed across the chamber.

Mantled in her full power, Celestia stood within a clear space amidst the raging torrent of light and magic. An angled whirlwind spun in midair, ripping a hole in the bubble as the spells came in contact with one another. The cyclone built to a frenzied speed before Celestia drove it forward, using it to smash one guard into another.

Knocked senseless, whatever spells the unicorns might have raised in defense were cut short as Celestia levitated both guards within transparent shells of rippling energy.

Still radiant with power, she stood as close as the barriers would allow as she brought them to eye level. “Foalish,” she said. Her gaze bored into each of them as she stripped off their barding. Without the magical armor to make their appearances identical to the rest of her guards, their coats and hair returned to their natural forms. Looking none the worse for losing the spell duel, two unicorns unfamiliar to Celestia glared back at her through their prisons. “Did you think I would believe you to be my personal guards because of some paltry glamour? Did you think to take me unawares, here, in my seat of power?”

“You knew of this?” Viridian asked, coming to stand behind her. His voice held no accusation, and despite what Celestia expected, his stance held no trace of the anxiety he had displayed before the attack.

“I apologize, Viridian. I knew of their deception, but I did not expect them to act so rashly in my presence. I had hoped to feed them false information to see what played out, but it seems they would prefer a less subtle route.”

She turned to look at the unicorns, snuffing out every wisp of magic they conjured in their attempts to escape confinement. Sight unseen, she levitated two small iron bands from a decorated chest in the corner of the room. Placing the suppressors over the horns of her captives, she saw them grunt and strain, their spellcastings stilled.

“I fear I lied to you when I said that these,” she gave each unicorn a disapproving frown, “were my protectors. I beg your forgiveness, Viridian.”

The hart stared at Celestia in open disbelief. “Truly?” Seeing a look of worry flash across her face, he hastened to add, “There is nothing to forgive, Your Highness. I am in your debt for saving me.” He gave her a small grin. “In truth, it was quite exciting. Deerfolk magic is far less flashy.”

Relaxing the smallest fraction, Celestia offered him a small smile that vanished as she turned her attention to the impostors. “Now, as for you, my little ponies...” She gave them a considering look.

“Eclipse blind you,” one of them spat. “Your time is drawing to an end.”

“Ah, and so we come to the true heart of it, and with so little fanfare,” Celestia said, regarding both of them with an infuriatingly calm expression. Still, beneath her cool exterior, Celestia struggled to keep her heart from breaking as her eyes slid from one unicorn to another. Are either of you among my beloved? Returned to my side twisted and broken from your corrupted home?

‘Your Highness?”

Celestia lowered her head, turning to look at Viridian. “Old powers have begun to set their pawns in motion, I am afraid. These,” she narrowed her eyes as she flicked a glance at the nearest unicorn, “are the first of many, I imagine. It will take some time to explain, and I must beg your indulgence while I deal with these...ponies.” Looking around, she added, “If you are content to wait here, I will ward the chamber against further intrusion.”

Acknowledging Viridian’s nod, Celestia vanished in a flash of light, returning within a heartbeat minus two captives.

“If they were impostors, may I ask what has become of your real guards?” Viridian lowered his head, hoping his question wouldn’t be out of line.

“They are safe. My guard-captain found them deep within the armory before you arrived--unconscious and tied up, but largely unharmed. I imagine that the impostors wanted to make as few ripples as possible before striking, and for my part, I wanted to see what they would do.” Celestia gestured for Viridian to sit. “It may help to have the full context of what has transpired recently.”

She began explaining about the Eclipsed, about the prophecies, about Luna’s journey. Asking only the most pointed questions, the hart soaked in the flood of information, managing to keep a reasonable handle on things as the hours passed. When her tale wound down to the most current affairs, Viridian took a moment to fully digest all that he had been told before he spoke.

“And you know nothing of the last prophecy? The one that your sister even now strives to avert?”

Celestia shook her head. “Even removed from whatever dark predictions they brought to light, the stories weighed on my soul. To know exactly how so many of my ponies would fall to madness and worse...it took a great deal of time for my heart to mend each time I read one of those books. I only hope my sister forgives me for my weakness and inflicting this upon her.”

Viridian nodded, closing his dark eyes in thought. “I suppose it only matters insomuch as what actions your sister will have to perform, though from the sound of it, she seems quite far along on her journey. Have you had word from them?”

Again, she shook her head. “I know that she yet lives, but that is enough. For now.” Celestia gave him a small smile. “I have complete faith that with Twilight beside her, Luna will succeed in her task, though I cannot deny feeling some anxiety at not knowing their exact circumstances.”

She gestured to where the impostor guards had stood earlier. “Regardless of my worries, as you know, there are pressing concerns here that I must attend to.”

“And so you petitioned the All-Father for assistance. I see.” Viridian rose, walking to gaze out through a window over the pastoral countryside and the distant town of Ponyville. Turning his head, he asked, “And what is it you hope to accomplish? War? Mobilization would be difficult in the extreme, but common threats have ever been a strong motivator.”

“No, I’d not have war brought to these peaceful lands if I can help it even in the slightest.” She joined Viridian at the window. “The difficulty is two-fold: Luna’s shadow-self and the master it serves. I cannot move against one without risking an incursion by the other. My resources are too few here--we are not a warlike race. Not for ages now.”

“Surely you have the means to train?”

Celestia gave a fervent shake of her head, adding a negating motion with her hoof. “No. I’ll not have violence bleed back into my children when I spent so long breeding it out of them.” Seeing Viridian’s quirked eyebrow, Celestia grimaced. “I have not been--”

“I hope you’ll forgive my impudence, Your Highness, but I understand some of the burdens of rulership. I may not be blessed with the fathomless wisdom of the Dagda, but I know of necessary evils. You’ll find no judgment from me.” Celestia relaxed, but he added, “But neither will you find absolution, should you need it.”

She hesitated before giving a slow nod. “Moving on: have you any advice on the matter at hoof? I would like to hear your thoughts first if so.”

Viridian sat on his haunches as he stared at the ceiling. A few moments of silence passed before he spoke. “That you reached out to the trickster to contact us speaks of enormous desperation.” He lowered his gaze to meet hers. Celestia frowned, but gave a slight nod. “If you’ll not risk mass armament and war, then what about a small team? Though they eventually discovered powerful artifacts to aid them, you cannot deny the effectiveness of the fillies you sent headlong into danger against Nightmare Moon.”

“Those were exceptional circumstances. Added to that, we have already seen the ineffectiveness of the Elements when used against Luna’s shadow-self.”

“Selene,” Viridian corrected. Celestia stopped, cocked her head. “She has taken a name. I do not know whether it bodes well or ill that she chose one so closely tied to your sister’s own, but Coyote was quite specific in his information.”

Celestia brooded on this for a moment.

“I see it as a good sign, overall,” Celestia said. “In making her own choices, this Selene at least elevates herself from simply being a nameless tool to a creature with some free will. Though I fear the results should she find and consume the last tome, it would appear that there is at least a glimmer of hope now. I must trust that my sister and her friends will be able to handle things on their own should matters come to a head.”

Celestia levitated an ancient book off her shelf, opened it to a marked page. She turned it around with all the gentleness she could muster, yet bits of parchment still cracked and flaked away. Letting it hang in midair for Viridian’s inspection, she asked, “In your travels, have you heard of this location?”

The hart mouthed the name highlighted by Celestia’s magic, wrinkling his nose as though he could taste some foulness. “I have not, yet I would think such would surely stand out. Fjieena din Tor? ‘Hope’s Betrayal?’ Who would ever name their city such?”

“Who indeed? Over the years, I’ve scoured every text in the entire royal library several times over, and I can find no other mention of it. Yet, the hoofnote alludes to it as though it should have been common knowledge at the time that this was written--some scant years after the solar occultation created the Eclipsed.” She closed the book, returned it to the shelf. “Though there are many mysteries in this world, it may be the lead we need. The students who have returned to my side have never been able to tell me where the Eclipsed hail from. With this name, and the ponies who attacked us, I maintain a slim hope that we can track down the answers which have so long eluded me.”

Turning, she asked, “Will you join me? I would like to see to our guests from earlier, now that they have had some time to cool down. Perhaps they will enlighten us with new information.”

Viridian moved to her side, saying, “They seemed less than inclined to behave with civility, but perhaps your faith is well-placed.” As they began walking to the dungeons, he asked, “Forgive me for prying, Your Highness, but I do have to wonder: what bargain did you strike with Coyote?”

Celestia beamed him a mischievous smirk. “From one trickster to another, I knew something that would appeal to him: my sister.”

***

Twilight and Luna stood panting, not noticing the tang of the ocean air. Their exhaustive pursuit had taken them out of the thick jungle and into the open skies of the island coastline, but they had drawn no closer to catching the thief.

“Give them back!” Twilight shouted.

Livid, she could only splutter malformed curses as Coyote danced and yipped just beyond her reach, waggling the ponies’ colorful tails alongside his own as he jumped in and out of the ocean surf.

Luna said nothing, only panting while she considered what to do. Magic had availed them little--for all their talk of arcane sciences, the creature before them had defied their attempts to restrain him through spellcraft.

“What can we do, Princess? I don’t want to hurt him but...” Twilight gave a frustrated growl.

“He has directed no malice towards us, and I’ll not see him harmed. Though,” Luna frowned, pawed at the ground, “I cannot help but feel the need to buck him into the moon for the way he keeps taunting us.”

Coyote flipped over onto the sandy shore, clutching his belly as he laughed long and loud and hard. “I thought you would be amusing enough by yourself, but together, you’re a treat! Celestia, you sly devil, managing to surprise even me!”

“My sister?”

“Princess Celestia?”

Twilight and Luna exchanged a mystified look before turning back to Coyote.

For his part, he had managed to work the quaking belly-laughs down to mere chuckles. He rolled over and laid his head on his forepaws. “Indeed! Why, I thought she’d swindled me when I first found you two prattling on about the most mundane things. Yet this has been great fun, you’ve no idea.” His tongue lolled out to the side, but Luna couldn’t tell whether he made the gesture in exhaustion or mockery.

Luna took a cautious step forward. “So...we can have our tails back then?”

Coyote’s eyes went wide before another grin stole across his muzzle. “What? Oh, no no no! Not so easily as all that.”

“You called it a game,” Twilight said, narrowing her eyes. “It can’t be a game if there’s no way to win.”

Putting a dainty paw to his chest, Coyote said, “Did I say you couldn’t? No, just that you couldn’t simply ask and receive.” He lashed his tail own tail back and forth, causing Twilight’s and Luna’s own to dance alongside as well. “What shall we do with you, hm?” He gave an exaggerated look of thoughtfulness.

“Ah! I have it: a treasure hunt!” He thwacked his tail against the ground three times, and the stolen appendages vanished in a puff of sparkles. Clearing his throat, his voice took on a melodic quality as he spoke.

“A day and two nights,

Lost in the dark gloom

Lie sleeping through time,

As still as a tomb

Seek out an old ghost

To learn what he knows

Lest that which you love

Be left for the crows"

Coyote thumped his tail once more and vanished, though his wide grin took a heartbeat longer to disappear than the rest.

Twilight’s mouth worked silently for a moment before she found her voice.

“What.”

Luna turned. After several moments of quiet contemplation, she asked, “You’ve no thoughts on his puzzle then?”

“Well...” Broken out of her daze, Twilight put a hoof to her chin. She sat down, though she spared a worried glance for her backside first. “How big is this island again?”

“Expansive,” Luna said. “If we walk at a reasonable pace, we should reach the monastery in a week or so.” She paused. “A day and two nights? That would be quite a stretch, even if we could travel as the crow flies, but that does not explain the remainder.”

Twilight sighed, pawing at the sandy ground as she thought.

“I’m not sure. “Seek out an old ghost” is pretty obvious, but I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as just knocking on the Erudite’s door and expecting our tails to be there waiting for us,” Twilight said, cringing. “Especially if they weren’t. I feel...naked without mine.”

Luna quirked an eyebrow. “You’re almost always naked, Twilight.”

“You know what I mean, Princess.”

Luna nodded but said nothing, turning to look out over the water as the dying sun burned orange and red streaks across the sky.

She said, “We should press on for now. In time, the answers may come to us, but we are not bereft of anything more than our pride.” She gave her rump a tight frown. “Embarrassing as it might be, perhaps it would not go amiss to approach our destination with some humility.”

Twilight blanched, but squared her shoulders as she looked Luna in the eyes. “You know what? You’re right, Princess. We’ll have plenty of time to think on it while we walk, and if not?” She shrugged. “We can tell people it’s a new fashion statement.”

Luna grinned. “Let’s be off then. We still have a ways ahead of us and we can make some progress before we need to stop to sleep.”

As they walked, the ground beneath their hooves grew grittier, the coarse sand turning fine and milky white as the moon rose to watch over them. The salty smell of the ocean faded as the air grew arid, the scent of dust carried in on every breath.

Twilight studied their surroundings as the world around them rolled away in undulating dunes.

“Do you happen have a map, Princess?” she asked.

Luna shook her head. “Just the word of those who have made this journey themselves. No two tell the same tale, yet all say never to leave sight of the beaten path.”

Twilight made a noncommittal sound. “I was just wondering how long we should expect to be in this desert. We’re not well-provisioned for extremes in climate. The sun was scorching today, and if it catches us out here, exposed...” She looked to Luna. “Well, I don’t suppose Princess Celestia could take pity on us if she doesn’t even know where we are.”

“Mm. I wonder about that,” Luna said. “That trickster all but admitted that my sister directed him to us, though I know not how that came to pass.”

She looked out over the hills, shifting and windswept. “But you are correct: our supplies would not sustain us if we were to be caught in the open by daybreak. We can look for shelter if you’re feeling weary, though we’ll likely need to remain there the entire time that the sun is out tomorrow.”

Twilight looked to the skies, to the gibbous moon. “No clouds, not that I’m surprised, but that means there’ll be enough light to travel by while it’s cool out.” She glanced over to Luna. “I vote we push on through the night. At the worst, we can arrange some kind of shelter with magic, I’m sure.” She paused a moment before saying, “Speaking of which, what were you trying to get at before we were interrupted?”

Luna spent a few minutes tracing her thoughts, trying to remember the time before the chaotic pursuit the coyote had put them through. Recalling the gentle back-and-forth of teacher and student, she smiled.

“Harmony,” she said at last, nodded to herself. “About magic and the workings thereof. Intuitive spellcasting and the rigors of advanced arcana. Yes, there are many places we could go from that point.”

She looked to Twilight as they walked.

“My sister has been busy in my time away if even her star pupil has little knowledge of war magics.” Her gaze shifted away. “In truth, I am not certain whether it is wise or foolhardy of me to bring the topic to light. However, as voracious a reader as you are, you’d have learned about the shadow times eventually. I can only hope my experience will give you some context.”

Twilight furrowed her brows. “War magics? Has it ever been that bad?”

Dipping her head, Luna said, “Ages ago--beyond numbering. The conflict with Discord brought us to the attention of the Equestrian ponies, but my sister and I have roamed this world for far longer than most histories know, and there are dark things that remain even today, watching from the deep places of the Earth. We’ve done our best to ensure that those kinds of horrors remain unknown to most ponies within our kingdom.

“Our subjects lead mostly idyllic lives, thanks largely to my sister’s influence in the intervening years since my banishment. She sustains an enchantment that does much to keep the harsher realities of the world at bay. Maintaining the royal presence in Canterlot is more than just for show.”

Luna stopped in her tracks, waited until Twilight did the same. Taking a step forward, Luna poked one of the faint scars crisscrossing her lavender hide, a reminder of their ill-fated voyage with Sand. “A minor scrape, really, but it’s taken all this time to heal to this point. Is it still tender?” Twilight nodded. “Within the borders of Equestria, mundane injuries are almost never life-threatening. At worst, what should be crippling would only take days to heal, if even that.”

Twilight paused in her steps as she absorbed Luna’s words. She remembered countless harms befalling her, yet none with any long-lasting consequence. Seeing that Luna waited for her, Twilight trotted to catch up.

“However, as with any great power, my sister’s magic has its limitations. Should you venture beyond its reach...” She gave Twilight an appraising glance. “Well, you’ve had a sip of that kind of knowledge. Though I hope you’ll never know more than that, I suspect we’ll have to drink deeply from that fountain before all is said and done.”

Twilight tilted her head. “But we’re just seeking out the Erudite to establish goodwill with the zebras. No more superstitious fear among the common folk, no more war looming on the horizon. Sure, he might send us on some other quest, but I don’t think...” she trailed off when she saw Luna watching her with sad, searching eyes.

After a moment, Luna said, “You are correct, Twilight. My apologies.”

They walked for a time with only the sound of the night wind whispering between them.

“I’m sorry if I said something...” Twilight began, but Luna gave a slow shake of her head.

“No, Twilight. It is nothing.”

Luna drew her lips in a thin line, then said, “‘War magic’ is a term more grandiose than it needs to be, but it would not be far-fetched to simply call it ‘combat magic.’ The difference is only one of scope, after all.”

Stopping, Luna gestured for Twilight to do the same. A hum grew in the air as Luna’s horn glowed with a light-blue brilliance. Eyes going wide, Luna released the spell, causing the ground in front of them to erupt in a spray of rocks and sand. A depression the width and depth of Twilight’s library home was carved out of the ground, yet the magic continued pushing forward, gouging a deep trench that only petered out after several dozen meters.

“As swords were beaten into plowshares, so too were many spells reworked in time to be more useful outside the context of war and combat. This one, for instance, is used in a lesser form to till the earth in some places. Yet, if you know the diminished forms they take today, you can trace the lineage of the spells back to their origins and their full potential.”

They stared at the furrow carved out by Luna’s magic, listened to the hiss of sand as the desert did its best to fill in the wound.

“Before the sun rises then, let us see what I can do to prepare you for things I hope never come to pass.”

***

Dreaming of distant friends, Sand woke when she felt an iron ring sliding down her horn and heavy chains binding her legs. She opened her eyes to see a dark form looming over her, smiling with cold certainty.

“Hello, my little pony,” Selene said. “It seems that I’ve found you at last.”

***

(Enormous thanks to Cold in Gardez. He expended the digital equivalent of a box of red pens marking up this chapter, and without his help, I would be infinitely worse off than I am. And again, my thanks to Chris for his keen-eyed observations that help keep the chapter as smooth as possible.)

Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!
Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!