• 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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12 - To Bridge the Divide

Sand Shaper rubbed one hoof along another; heavy iron chains clinked with her every motion. Bolete lay nearby, unbound but unconscious on the grassy hilltop. The peryton’s dark feathers reflected a sliver of light from the moon overhead, and his antlered head rested on his forehooves in quiet slumber. In spite of all the commotion, he had yet to wake, and Sand briefly wondered if he had been spellbound or was simply that oblivious of a sleeper.

They had been removed far inland while they slept, far from the small port that had seen unusually high traffic due to destruction of The Tidebreaker. Sand suspected that even if she was foolish enough to call for help, none would be within earshot. A very familiar book hovered before her, looking no worse for its time spent drowned, burned, or beaten.

Selene narrowed her eyes. “Release your hold on it, and you both can go free,” she said.

Sand stared at it a moment before drawing her lips into a thin line. “I can’t. I know that my elders used something more than my magic when they leashed the tome to me, but I don’t know what. If I could relinquish ownership of it at will, I’d have done so long ago.”

Selene cocked her head. She paused a moment, then lay down close enough to press snout to snout if she so wished. Selene leaned in and said, “I believe we can aid each other in our desires. I may be able to break the link between you and my book, but we would need to do something to help you...relax your guard first.” Selene gave her a crooked grin. She bent forward, whispered into Sand’s ear.

Sand froze, then blushed furiously. She stammered something incoherent before shaking her head.

“Well then,” Selene said, her smile remaining coy, “perhaps we can find someone more suitable to help put your mind and body at ease.”

Selene rose. With a stomp of her hooves, she dismissed the spell binding Sand’s limbs together, though she left the horn ring in place.

Sand bit back a cry as a thousand needles jammed themselves into her legs. She focused on Bolete, trying her best to wait out the pain as her limbs woke. He opened his eyes to slits as he gave her a minuscule nod. Sand rose slowly, testing her limbs one at a time. Finally, she stood wobbling before Selene.

Without further preamble, both ponies disappeared in a massive flash of violet light, leaving Bolete alone beneath the starry night sky.

***

Twilight jumped to the side as a wave of sand crashed over where she had stood moments before. Her horn glowed, and the world around her turned to flame.

Thrice the height of a pony, the churning pile of sand and stone loomed over Twilight. Murky glass sparkled in the moonlight from the magical conflagration, but the golem seemed unfazed by Twilight’s display of power. The construct pivoted and leapt through the air with startling swiftness. Off-balance without her tail, Twilight barely managed to skitter away in time as the creature landed with a colossal smash that sent grit and rocks flying in every direction.

Luna stood well to the side, observing the struggle as her golem ripped a boulder from its own body and hurled it at Twilight. Luna tensed, watching as the projectile bounced off of a hastily erected shield. She bit her lip and wondered if the rigors of their training might be too much, too soon.

The construct was bound by a purer form of the Come-to-Life spell and obeyed the restrictions Luna placed upon it, but practice sessions could go wrong in any number of ways. Luna had yet to intervene, but she kept her magic active in case she needed to bring the conflict to an immediate stop.

A deep furrow appeared before Twilight, traveling towards the golem as sand flew aside in great flat sheets. The golem staggered when the ground disappeared from beneath it, collapsing in a heap as the animation magic tried to sort itself out. Twilight decided to risk the most recent--and least practiced--spell at her disposal before it could attack again.

Motes of turquoise light gathered at the tip of her horn, congealing into a growing orb of liquid energy. She tasted the sea, smelled an ocean breeze, heard the crash of waves. A ringing filled her ears as she gritted her teeth against a rising pain, a deep swelling she could feel in her soul as she drank in raw power. Surging magic threatened to send her toppling--it crashed against her with such force that she felt that either it must break, or she would.

It took only moments to finish weaving the spell, but for Twilight it felt like eons. Silence blanketed the land as she released control. A rippling sphere the size of a dragon’s egg flew from the tip of her horn, arcing out to strike the golem in the center of its mass. Twilight narrowed her eyes as she lanced the ball with a sliver of her will. When it ruptured, torrents of water poured out, washing through and over the construct as it struggled to escape her magic.

Twilight raised a foreleg and waited. When no part of the golem could be seen through the undulating surface of her spell, she brought her hoof down in a swift, sure motion. A sharp crack reverberated through the air as the spell imploded, taking the construct with it, leaving only a smooth-walled depression in the sand dune.

Twilight wore a grim smile. She turned around and took one step before collapsing in a dead faint.

Luna teleported over, easing Twilight’s fall with the aid of wing and magic. After she took a moment to check for any injuries or other concerns, the princess sighed in relief--it appeared to simply be a matter of exhaustion. As she gave one last cursory examination, she couldn’t help but notice the smile still gracing Twilight’s lips, even in slumber.

From the corner of her vision, Luna caught a glow creeping across the horizon. She took a moment to think of her sister before starting in on her task. She shaped the sand around them into a thick-domed shelter, freezing it in place with the same spell she’d used the past two nights. The princess nodded to herself and lay down, listening to the even sound of Twilight breathing.

Dawn broke. Luna found her mind wandering, but it always returned to one thought in particular: she wished she had a drink at hoof.

It wasn’t that the journey had been overly taxing thus far, nor their discouraging lack of progress in discovering where the trickster had hidden their tails. Even Twilight seemed unconcerned with their bare rumps now that she had Luna teaching her new magics, violent as they might be. Luna’s thirst was born from simple boredom--a constant dull stress that seemed to rub at the edges of her nerves. Subtle, unfocused, it felt like a constant grating sound she couldn’t quite hear.

Yes, a drink would be very nice right now.

Luna began humming as she nosed open their saddlebags, sifting through what supplies they still had left. Though she knew better, she still held out hope that she would find some small bottle, nestled away beneath a fold of cloth, overlooked in her previous searches for the same.

No such luck.

Luna sighed and laid her head down between her hooves, closing her eyes as she willed herself to sleep.

***

Deep beneath Canterlot, the royal dungeon lay quiet, occupied only by two unicorns and their attendant jailers. The unicorns, having had two days to expend their anger and rage, mostly sat and waited. They spared no opportunity to glare at Celestia and Viridian, however. One prisoner put his hooves to his horn, attempting to pry the iron band free so that he might regain the use of his magic, but he met with no more success than he had in the countless times before.

Celestia and Viridian watched them through the bars of the cell. At an inquiring glance from her companion, she nodded, then took a step back as the red-brown stag lowered his head and focused.

Viridian closed his eyes as he began weaving the magic innate to his kind. Moments later, where there had been only the little sounds of calm breathing and idle shuffling, a faint birdsong began filtering through the air. Unseen, Viridian’s magic grew in intensity as the voices of meadowlarks filled the stony halls, swelling in volume until it seemed as though there must have been dozens of them perched nearby, hidden yet articulate.

The unicorns slumped in place. Their gazes went slack and the sneers curling their lips faded away. Celestia stepped forward, lowering her head to regard each in turn. While Viridian remained bent to his task, she allowed her cool facade to slip as her eyes darted from one unicorn to another. She whispered, pleaded with them for some sign of recognition. She waited. When neither pony moved nor gave any indication that she had even spoken, Celestia sighed. She stepped back and tapped Viridian on the shoulder with one soft wing, giving him a small shake of her head. Another failure.

Viridian raised his head, and the birdsong faded. Soon, only silence reigned in the stony halls.

The captive unicorns closed their eyes, falling asleep as Celestia floated them to their beds. Viridian nodded towards the exit.

When they had stepped out into the main corridors, Viridian said, “I fear that we’re approaching the limits of my magic, Your Highness. Whatever holds their minds in thrall appears to be beyond my capabilities. Please forgive my inadequacy.” His gaze fell to the floor as they walked..

“Truly, there is nothing to forgive,” Celestia said as she used one gentle wing to pull his head up. “If the matter was less complex, I imagine I’d have managed on my own long ago. I thank you for your efforts, and I fully appreciate that the Dagda sent one of his most capable subjects to my side.”

They stopped outside his quarters. “But for now, please rest. We’ve been at this for too long with too little sleep. I’ve some recourse left before we give up all hope, but it will take some time to prepare.” She gave him a warm smile. “Come find me in my chambers when you’ve regained your strength.” She bid Viridian farewell, leaving him to what royal comforts were within her power to give.

Her quarters provided Celestia no such solace. She sat at her desk, taking a moment to rub at the bridge of her nose before looking to a small letter written in flowing script, signed with sketches of three flowers. It lay on her desk, untouched save for the soft whispers of magic that held it flat as she reread it.

She squared her shoulders and stood, surveying the room and finding it to her satisfaction. With the precision of a surgeon, she began tracing an ornate rune circle on the ground, gouging out razor thin lines from the marble underhoof.

When Viridian arrived at her chamber hours later, Celestia had almost completed her work. Thousands upon thousand of twisting lines wove through one another, swirling into graceful spirals and tight angles, some spelling out words in a language long-dead, others hinting at pictures and symbols that seemed to shift even as Viridian looked at them.

Careful not to scuff her work, he bent low to study the delicate patterns and glyphs, trying to make sense of what her efforts had wrought. He remained silent as he watched her carve the final lines needed. The princess nodded, then sat back exhausted.

She smiled at him and gestured to the window, to the afternoon sunlight streaming through it. As the bright light crept across the engraving, it filled the carving with a luminous liquid energy that shone with painful intensity. When the entire rune circle had been thus lit, Celestia spread her wings and whispered in a low voice words that seemed to writhe and crawl along Viridian’s coat. As she finished her incantation, she reared up, horn glowing. She hesitated for one last moment before bringing her hooves down in a crash that reverberated throughout the chamber.

The carved marble cracked and shattered, tossing shining debris into the air. However, while the stone shards fell back to the ground, the gathered sunshine remained suspended, congealing into a tight sphere that spun lazily as it contracted. When at last it finished condensing, it looked like a sun in miniature, no larger than a marble.

Tears streamed from his obsidian-black eyes as Viridian wrenched his gaze away. He focused on Celestia, watching as she approached her creation with wings outspread. She leaned forward, closed her mouth around the radiant orb, and swallowed it whole. Her body grew luminous, its glow chasing away what scant shadows hid in the corners of her room.

Viridian suspected that he would never be able to find words meaningful enough to do her presence justice. Just by being near her, he felt a shared empathy with all living things, a kinship that undercut anger, hatred, strife. From her smile alone, he sensed the fragility of life, and how precious it was as a result.

He understood a fragment of her true self, if only for just a moment.

Viridian knelt, nearly prostrating himself before a soft touch forced him to look up. He shuddered as her wings enfolded him and brought him close. As the glow surrounding them drowned out all else, he closed his eyes, focusing on nothing but her scent as they disappeared together in a flash of white light.

Cold air streamed over his coat, and he felt damp grass underhoof. The world around them began fading into view, and he felt Celestia pull her wings away. Viridian fought down a sense of loss as he blinked away tears and lingering flash spots. He looked around and saw green hills rolling out to distant mountains, punctuated by the occasional rocky outcropping, but no sign of civilization. His gaze fell upon three earth pony mares standing close together, like the cool end of the spectrum, talking to a scarred ivory unicorn wearing a horn ring. Though he was not as well-versed in pony magic as he would have liked, Viridian guessed that the band wasn’t merely a fashion statement. Nearby, Selene stood, watching and waiting.

Celestia moved forward, still infused with power. The air grew clouded, vaporous, as though her very majesty caused their surroundings to steam away. Sand looked up as Celestia approached their group.

“Lady...”

“In a moment, Dawn Star, I promise.” Celestia said, glancing casually at Sand. The princess did her best to mask her alarm at seeing Sand’s hide covered in thick, poorly healed lacerations. She shifted her gaze to Selene, narrowing her eyes the smallest fraction.

Selene returned a cold smile. “What? No Elements brought against me this time?”

“No Elements,” Celestia conceded, “though if I recall correctly, you attacked us first.”

Selene snorted and tossed her head. Chicory broke from her sisters and came to stand beside beside Selene, watching her silently. After a moment, Selene lowered her gaze and pawed at the ground. “I apologize for that unprovoked attack. I acted in a rage when I felt that you were mocking me by withholding what I most desired.”

Celestia’s eyes went wide. “I...I accept your apology, Selene. Thank you. Nopony was hurt, and I am certain it was simply a matter of misunderstanding one another.”

“Many evils in the world could be prevented with just a little more understanding,” Violet said, moving to sit on the other side of Selene. She glanced back, beckoning Indigo to bring Sand forward. “And thus do we seek your help in breaking the evil that leashes this one against her will to something she does not own.” Indigo placed a hoof on the ivory unicorn. Celestia frowned as she saw Sand flinch beneath the touch.

Selene floated the book before them, letting it hang in midair. “A piece of my self, such as it is, severed from me before I was given form, bound with her magic and her soul.” She gestured to Sand. “I have studied the geas used to seal it, but I cannot risk breaking it without endangering your...whatever she is to you.” She gave Sand a sideways glance.

“And how is it you think that I can help?” Celestia asked, drawing her lips into a thin line. She gave Sand a pointed look. “After harming my friend thus--”

“She did not do this to me, Lady,” Sand interjected.

Celestia paused, then relaxed visibly. “My apologies, Selene. It was ill-done of me to assume you were responsible for her condition.”

Selene gave her a dismissive wave with one dark hoof. “Easily admitted, easily forgiven.”

Celestia continued, “Yet if you have studied the spells used and have come up at a loss, I do not see what assistance I can offer--your knowledge of the Eclipsed far outstrips my own, especially in regards to what magics they use. Each tome I’ve ever examined has had its own unique bindings--divergent magics, I would assume--and I’ve had even less time to examine this book than the others.” She paused, glanced at Viridian. He nodded. “But we will assist in any way that we can. What would you have us do?”

Selene cocked her head, studying Celestia as if for the first time. “I find myself at a loss to explain your sudden change in attitude. I would know why, first.”

“Why what, exactly?” Celestia asked.

“Why you would suddenly choose to help me.” Selene gestured to Sand. “I have taken and bound your friend. I attacked you in your own home. You turned the Elements upon me. Why choose to help me now?”

The princess remained silent for long moments. Then: “Because of the love I bear for her, and because both of you are in need of aid.” She gave Selene a steady look. “I do not believe you are evil. I might have thought otherwise a few moments ago, but not now.”

Celestia sat back on her haunches as she held Selene’s gaze. “Luna and I have had a great deal of time to discuss our past. She called herself an engine of desire, of grief, of anger when she fell to her madness, yet none of those things are inherently evil. Taken to extremes, however, they can easily lead any of us down a path of destruction, turning us into a danger both to ourselves and to others.”

A crease appeared between Selene’s eyes. “Yet you do not fear this now? You’ve no idea what I will become when whole I have no idea, in truth.”

“Learning to trust one another ultimately requires a bit of faith, I’m afraid,” Celestia said. “By all accounts, you have held yourself in check thus far, and I believe that you’ve chosen your own path and your own actions.”

“And we shall remain by your side while you need us,” Chicory said to Selene.

“We will not abandon you,” Violet added.

Indigo nodded. “We believe in you.”

Selene froze, then gave the sisters and Celestia a tentative smile. She said, “I...thank you. All of you. It is a dark thing that nibbles at my heart--the feeling that I will stand forever in Luna’s shadow, that I will never be complete until matters are settled between us. It is the hammer that was used to shape me, the goad used to drive me, and I fear that I will always bear that mark upon my soul. I will do my utmost to resist its influence.” Her gaze grew distant. After a moment, her eyes snapped back into focus. “To the matter at hoof, however.” She beckoned Sand over, waiting until the ivory unicorn stood before her.

“From what Selene has explained to me, I have subconscious guards in place,” Sand said. “Like a foal holding onto a toy in her sleep, my body and soul cannot release the book without becoming disturbed in the process. The less I trust the pony or ponies working to dispel the magic, the tighter my grip becomes, and the worse the effects should the book be wrested from my control.”

She looked back at Selene. “As much as I appreciate not having my life and spirit ripped to tatters, or...having other things done to me,” she said, blushing, “I hope you’ll understand when I say that I don’t quite trust you.” Selene said nothing, but gave Sand a familiar crooked grin. Sand shook her head, but chanced a small smile before turning her gaze back to Celestia. “You, my Lady, are quite another matter.” Sand’s eyes twinkled and her smile grew warm and wide.

“Dawn...” Celestia said, matching the smile with one of her own.

Selene cocked her head as she watched their exchange. Finally, to Celestia she said, “I will need you to hold her mind and magic steady while I search out the threads binding her to my fragment so that I can sever them safely. It will not take long, but I am afraid that the process will not be wholly pleasant, no matter how much you hold her attention.”

Sand nodded, then reached up and removed the horn ring. Her eyes remained fixated on Celestia, however.

“I am ready, Lady.”

Celestia took a deep breath, but let it out when she felt a hoof on her shoulder.

Viridian said, “I believe I can assist in some small way without interfering. With your permission?” Celestia glanced at Sand and back, then nodded. Viridian lowered his head in focus.

Though there were no birds in sight, the songs of countless nightingales filled the air. Around them, the frigid highland grasses changed to a sunlit meadow, warm and soft and safe. A breeze that should have brought with it the smell of cold rains instead swept across them carrying the scent of wildflowers and honey. No cloud marred the sky, and everypony in attendance felt unknown tensions melt away as they looked around.

“A powerful illusion, to fool the senses thus,” Selene said, giving the buck a contented smile.

“To ease the mind and body,” Viridian said.

“Dawn,” Celestia said, horn glowing, “open yourself to my magic, and do not look away from my eyes.”

Selene closed her eyes, focused, and waited. When Sand and Celestia had established a harmony, Selene directed her will outwards. In her mind’s eye, she saw herself crawling over the princess in miniature, shapeless, formless, seeking the bridge between Celestia and Sand, looking to hide within their joined magic and slip past Sand’s defenses.

Selene found the connection and rode it.

She expected a turbulent river of emotions, churning with rapids and hidden snags. Instead, she found a placid stream, smooth as glass. In a way, it made it even more difficult to remain unnoticed--her presence stood out on the tranquil surface, but she bent her will low and skimmed across the subtle tension like a water strider.

The geas’s anchor points within Sand’s body and soul had already been mapped out, and it took Selene only moments to find them again. As she readied herself to snip them all at once, she took a moment to pray, asking whatever higher powers might be listening to guide her. With a spiritual lurch, she severed the bonds.

Sand screamed. She screamed, and her harmony with Celestia broke. She screamed, and Viridian’s illusion shattered. She screamed, and the magic holding her in place vanished. She writhed on the ground while her mind, body, and soul retched as one. Sand didn’t feel Celestia fly to her side to comfort her, didn’t see Viridian kneel as he began casting another spell, didn’t hear the murmurs of the flower sisters.

For a time, she knew only agony. But it began fading.

Her breath came in ragged gasps and sobs and whimpers. Gradually, the pain subsided, and as it did, she became aware that voices were raised in anger around her. As the rushing in her ears died down, she began to understand the words being thrown back and forth.

“...foalish to trust you,” Celestia said.

“I did everything I could to safeguard her well-being, I swear it!”

“Please.” Sand winced. Her throat felt jagged and torn, but at least the argument ceased. “Please,” she said again, unable to think of more.

“Dawn, forgive me,” Celestia said from beside the unicorn.

Shaking her head the tiniest bit, Sand said, “Between us...” Sand coughed, then took a deep breath. “Between us, Lady, there is nothing to forgive.”

Celestia wrapped soft, white wings around her friend. Sand savored the touch of her feathers, the smell of her fur, the sound of her breathing. She listened as birdsong returned to the air, and she turned her eyes to Viridian as he touched his antlers to her side. Warmth spread through her body, as though she basked beneath the fierce summer sun instead of the pallid winter light washing over them in truth.

Sand stirred, and Celestia drew back to regard her friend. The unicorn smiled before turning to Selene. Sand met her gaze, then prostrated herself before the alicorn. “Thank you, Selene. I know you did your best, and I am thankful to be free of my burden at last. I will be forever in your debt.”

Selene stood frozen. After a moment, she said, “No.” Sand raised her eyes, looking worried, but Selene gave her a calm smile. “There is no debt between us. We both had little choice in what was done to us, and I am thankful that you appear to be unharmed.”

Sand shuddered. “I...would not use that word, perhaps, but thank you all the same. The pain is fading, and I believe I shall recover, given enough time. However...” She pointed to the book, still floating midair, wholly intact. She directed a questioning look at Selene, but said nothing. For her part, Selene studied the book for several heartbeats before speaking.

“After all this time, after all this effort, to have it here at last,” Selene said. “It is such a little thing, yet I find myself strangely fearful. I had no such qualms when I first discovered it, yet now...” She cocked her head, revolving the book slowly, watching it turn.

Celestia kept her gaze on Selene, a hint of respect returning to her eyes.. “It appears that I’ve misjudged you again, Selene. After seeing your compassion for my friend’s suffering, I am convinced that you have the strength to overcome whatever corrupting influence has been woven into you, into the book. When you are with friends,” she said, making a wide gesture to encompass everyone present, “you have the strength to become more than what you are alone.”

Selene said nothing as she turned in a slow circle, meeting the gaze of every pony--and deer--around her, receiving a nod from each. She stepped to the book and placed her horn upon it.

As she absorbed the last fragment of her self, her body grew more substantial. She opened her teal eyes to watch the faint translucence fade from her body. The coruscating lights within her vanished from sight as solid, pewter-grey fur covered her form.

She expected similar treatment for her mane and tail, but when she turned to look, she saw that they remained as though cut from the starry night sky, billowing in their own unfelt breeze. Selene drew her lips into a thin line, but she supposed a constant reminder of her origins would not go amiss.

A realization occurred to her, and with faint trepidation, she craned her neck to look at her flank. There she found a dark purple moon, shadowed such that it appeared almost black, eclipsing a sun that mirrored Celestia’s own, both superimposed upon a blue blotch of daytime sky.

She was turning back to regard Celestia when she heard a distant wail just at the edge of her hearing. Selene cocked her head; her eyes lost focus while she strained to make out what it might be.

“You hear the sound of the cosmic winds flowing across the lunar plains,” Celestia said. “A fragment of the moon’s true name. Luna knew it first, and I learned it once I had to take control. Now you have it as well.” Celestia dipped her head. “I hope knowing that we share this connection will guide you in dark times when you find yourself lost.”

“You would gift me with this? You would play into my mast...into its hands?”

Celestia shook her head. “If it had been my gift to give, I would still have entrusted it to your keeping. However, you know it intuitively because you were a part of Luna. Should you truly seek to extend the will of your former master, you would need to seek out the other pieces of the name on your own.”

Selene nodded. “I...will need some time to gather my bearings.” She turned her head when she felt a hoof placed gently upon her flank, touching the new-made mark there.

“Whole at last,” Chicory said, withdrawing her hoof.

“With friends beside you,” Indigo said, smiling.

“There is time to rest, but still much to do,” Violet said. “We should be off soon.”

“I...yes. Thank you.” Selene turned to face Celestia. “I may never be the paragon you are, but I will strive to ensure that your faith in me is well-placed. Here, let me give you something for all that you’ve done for me.” Her horn glowed, and with a dip of her head, a luminous map appeared in midair.

Celestia stepped forward to investigate. Her eyes went wide when she saw what two particular circles emphasized: Canterlot and Fjieena din Tor.

“Take it,” Selene said, furling the map and sealing it with a conjured ribbon. “I hope that this will aid you in what you seek.” She turned, then paused and looked back around with a sly grin on her face. “I admit, it is a bit of a hollow gesture. With the geas broken, your lover there should regain both her memories and her powers in time, and I imagine she’d have been able to supply you with the same information about her home.”

Celestia wore a warm smile. “Yet you’ve saved us time and much uncertainty, and done so in good faith. We thank you, Selene. May the sun and stars light your way.”

Selene nodded, turning back to the three sisters as they closed their eyes in concentration. Selene did the same, and a moment later, they vanished together in a flash of violet light.

“She does seem to have a flair to her magic,” Sand said, studying the sparkles falling to the earth where Selene and her entourage had disappeared. “And I...Lady? Are you all right?”

Celestia had closed her eyes and slumped in place where she sat. As Sand came to stand before her, Celestia gave her friend a tired smile. “Thank you, Dawn, but I am simply exhausted. We should depart as well, while what power I siphoned off still flows within me, however sluggishly.” She beckoned to Viridian. “Please. I will need your assistance.”

The buck stepped over. He met Celestia’s gaze and his eyes closed of their own accord. He felt her presence settle over his shoulders like a gentle snow, and he shivered, unconsciously calling forth his magic. He felt it rolling off his body in smooth tendrils, drawn towards Celestia as she drew upon his energy to fuel her spell.

“Lady, what...” Sand said as the world around them disappeared in white light. “...Are you doing?”

Sand looked around as the Canterlot throne room faded into view. She shook her head to clear the flash spots when she felt Celestia collapse beside her. Guards rushed to Celestia’s side, kneeling to aid the princess. Her eyes fluttered open and she gave them a weak smile.

“Thank you, everypony, but I just need to rest for a while. I am afraid that was quite taxing, even with Viridian’s aid.” She inclined her head in the briefest of nods to the buck, but he only gave her a worried frown in return.

Celestia rose, and with the help of a few willing shoulders, made it to her chambers in short order. She sighed as she laid spine to feathered mattress, closing her eyes as the weight of their recent expedition finally caught up to her.

“Lady?”

The princess opened her eyes by half. She favored Sand with the same weak smile that she had used in the throne room. “I will be fine, Dawn. In time. I drew off the tiniest sliver of the sun’s power when I went to treat with you and Selene, for I did not know what to expect. While not as...drastic as what my sister did on your quest together, I am afraid that it does take quite a bit out of me.”

Sand wanted to ask about Luna, about the powers spoken of, but she saw exhaustion claim Celestia. Sand decided to leave her friend to a well-deserved rest.

Viridian trailed her out, and he shut the door behind them. “What do you make of that?” he asked.

A moment of silence passed as Sand considered the question. “Teleporting from here to wherever that was must have been taxing in the extreme. To do it twice?” She shook her head. “What did she do to you on the return trip?”

Viridian looked pensive. “I’m not certain, exactly. But come, let us walk. No need to disturb Her Highness while she sleeps.” He nodded down the hallway.

“She tapped into my magic somehow,” he continued. “I felt...connected. Did you not feel the same before Selene severed the book from you?”

Sand stared at the ground as they walked, not really paying attention to their surroundings. “Perhaps. Yet the Lady and I knew one another’s thoughts and emotions in those moments. It sounds like she did something slightly different with you if you’ve been left in the dark.”

Viridian nodded. “We might do well to ask her when she’s fully recovered. You ponies have countless mysteries about you that I’ve yet to pierce.”

“Truly?” Sand looked up, eyeing the red-brown buck. “We’ve no other obligations, and you’ve piqued my curiosity as well. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of deerfolk visiting Equestria, let alone met one in the flesh. Perhaps some discussion over dinner then?”

He quirked an eyebrow and said, “Indeed. Let us see in what ways we can trouble Celestia’s chefs.”

***

“Could you pronounce that again please?” Sand asked, giving Viridian a perplexed look as she floated a shaking cup of tea to her lips. Goddesses, I had forgotten how much simple pleasures mattered.

Jormungandr,” he said, enunciating each syllable as clearly as he could. “I am told that Princess Celestia simply calls him ‘Jor,’ though I would not dare to do so personally.”

Sand made a noncommittal sound. “So she talked to him why? It sounds as though she should have just gone directly to this messenger, this Coyote.” She took another sip, narrowing her eyes at her cup as it wobbled in midair.

Viridian nodded. “Had she the means, I believe she would have bypassed both parties altogether and simply contacted my people directly. Yet we are a...cautious people, and not easy to reach on a whim. Princess Celestia felt that our aid might be needed at a moment’s notice, and Coyote had the means to reach us with her request when others could not.” He took a moment to examine her. “I promise I will not leave your question half-answered for long, but first, how much do you know about the world beyond Equestria?”

Sand struggled a moment to float her teacup to a standstill without spilling any. She said, “A bit. I was reborn in a city outside of Equestria’s borders, but the journey was uneventful and, while my memories continue trickling in, largely forgotten.” She shook her head. “I admit, I led a sheltered life, one mostly spent in study. What little I know of non-pony cultures comes from a...friend of mine.” She blushed. “And that, mostly about zebras.”

Viridian stifled a smile. “To answer your question, she sought Jormungandr out because he knew how to get in contact with Coyote, and she did not. The trickster and the world snake are each remnants of ancient cultures, ones long since turned to dust, and they keep closer company with each other than with still-viable domains such as Celestia’s and Luna’s.” He paused. “I doubt we will see much of them in the future, however. Dominions come and go, and creatures like Coyote and Jormungandr have learned how to survive the storms of change by disappearing when troubles arise.”

“And yet we must struggle,” Sand said. “Unable to cower and hide lest all that we love come to ruin.” She sighed. “And your own nation? You’ve nothing to fear from this looming threat? I’d expect quite a bit more than a single envoy if this was seen as more than a trifle.”

He shook his head. “I would not be here if that were the case, amiable as relations between ponies and deer might be. We would not want ourselves drawn into a war in which we had no stake.” He paused, giving her an inquiring look. “I hope you’ll forgive me if some of my information is less complete than I’d like? Details have been far and few between at times.”

“Of course.” She nodded. “Please.”

“I should first mention that the All-Father sent me here on precious little information, yet I have come to believe that Celestia’s call was more than warranted. However, at her insistence, I have refrained for requesting more assistance--she has great faith that a smaller force of individuals will perform better than a large army, however disciplined they might be.” He left Celestia’s confession about war and breeding unspoken. ”The trapped alicorns that Luna felt on the other side of the rift, and more importantly, whatever exiled them--these things are very real concerns to us and any creature of free will.”

“Luna told me that she sealed the rift at Horsetooth--at great cost, no less. Why concern ourselves with that now?” Sand asked.

Viridian looked pensive a moment. “You did not think it odd that so soon after your return from the rift, Selene made her presence known?”

“Coincidences are just that,” Sand said, giving the buck a thoughtful frown. “Yet now I cannot help but wonder...” She looked off to the side, not really seeing. “The same place?”

He nodded. “A window at Horsetooth compared to a gaping portcullis at Fjieena din Tor, both opening out onto the same world. And with Selene no longer acting as a filter...”

Sand groaned. “Then whatever lurks on the other side of the divide could march an entire army of its own through. From what you’ve told me, it already sends my people against Celestia.”

“Scouts, most likely,” Viridian suggested. “Probing our defenses and what kind of response Celestia might give. Thus far, there have been only the two impostor guards. They have been heavily spellbound; nothing we’ve been done has managed to cleanse their minds of outside control.”

“May I...may I see them?” Sand asked with only the faintest tremble in her voice.

Viridian gave her a consoling look. “I am afraid that is not my decision to make. While Princess Celestia has given me free reign with my judgment, the two unicorns are still her prisoners alone.”

Sand sighed. “I suppose I will ask her once she’s recovered. I only...” She looked away. “I hope I do not know them.”

The buck nodded, but said nothing.

“I should have pressed Selene for more details when it became apparent that she wished me no harm,” she said, looking off to the side as her gaze grew distant.

A sudden flare of pain caused Sand to twist in her seat, rubbing one hoof along her side. From the corner of her eye, she caught Viridian studying her scars, and a worried crease appeared between her brows when he kept his silence. Sand appeared to struggle for a moment before continuing..

“I cannot help but feel that we approach a tipping point,” Sand said with a frown. “I only hope that we learn what needs to be done before it is too late.”

***

Three days after Sand’s salvation, Luna looked upon the monastery with quiet apprehension. At first glance, it felt decrepit and disused. She studied it more closely and to her surprise found that the grey stone walls appeared whole and unbroken, well-tended even. Jungle vines covered the temple’s surface in thick ropes and mats, yet they only crawled over, not through. Perhaps it is simply age that lends this place an air of fragility, Luna thought.

Twilight stood resolute, expectant. “Well, no time like the present, Princess,” she said, striding forward. Luna wanted to ask her to wait, but refrained as her friend took the thick brass door knocker in hoof, giving several resounding knocks. Luna cringed involuntarily, feeling that the sound was too jarring in such a hallowed place.

The door swung open with little fanfare. Out of it peered the head of a striped colt. He looked them up and down a moment before vanishing back out of sight. Twilight and Luna shared a look, then took a hesitant step forward just as the zebra colt reappeared rump-first. When he came fully in view, they could see that his mane was cropped close to his skin, and he wore thick orange robes in spite of the oppressive heat and humidity. After a moment, they saw that he struggled to drag an unadorned crate out using only his teeth, so Twilight hastened to aid him with a little magic.

The colt pulled the box to a stop before Luna and Twilight, then stood back to regard them with an inscrutable expression. He said nothing, but after a moment, his eyes darted to the box before returning to stare at the ponies.

Luna shrugged and pulled the lid off with a flick of her magic. She peered inside, quirked an eyebrow at the crate’s contents before looking at Twilight and gesturing her over.

“Not as easy as just knocking on the door and getting them back, you said?” Luna gave Twilight a toothy grin.

For her part, Twilight said nothing, simply sticking her tongue out at Luna. Twilight levitated her tail out of the box, floated it to its proper place on her backside, and hoped for the best. She gave a little yelp as sudden feeling returned to her tail, tingling as though it were a limb that had been asleep and only just woken.

Luna replaced her tail and gave it a small swish, happy to have it back. She looked over to see Twilight practically cradling her own tail in her hooves. For some reason she could not explain, Luna thought of Rarity.

“We thank you for these gifts,” Luna said, addressing the colt with a bow. He returned a nod. “How did you...?” She spoke to the colt’s back as he turned to head back inside, pausing a moment to beckon them to follow. The ponies shared a look, then filed in behind him as he led them deeper into the monastery.

In spite of the sweltering heat outside, the inside of the monastery was cool, refreshing. Twilight felt as if she had come out of a daze, her mind seeing clearly and smoothly for the first time in ages. She looked around, noticing several zebras of all ages attending to their own business in small knots of quiet activity. Most wore the same orange robes as their silent guide, but a scant few appeared to be travelers like themselves.

Dim light washed in from the windows, augmented by numerous candles burning with soothing ivory flames. A plush red carpet spread out underhoof to give some semblance of quietude, yet Twilight found their muted hoofsteps to still be the loudest things she could hear.

The colt led them down several narrow passageways before they ended up in a small nook tucked away from the main thoroughfares. A table for three had already been prepared, and he gestured for them to take their seats as he began serving them tea and biscuits.

“Er...thank you,” Twilight said, giving Luna an awkward look before returning her attention to their diminutive server. “We actually came here to--”

“Meet with me, yes,” the colt said in a tenor voice as he finished doling out the last of the refreshments. When he looked up, they saw the measuring gaze he leveled at each of them, the depth of thought at work behind his expression. They realized that they had found him at last: the Erudite.

“You should know this first: your ivory friend survived the shipwreck that split your party. The last reports I’ve heard placed her in Celestia’s company three days ago,” he said. The colt took a seat, giving them an expectant look.

It took a moment for his simple words to register. Then: “She’s alive!” Twilight beamed Luna a huge grin. “I knew you were right, Princess!”

Luna smiled, no less radiant than her friend. “We both were, Twilight. I am enormously pleased to have confirmation of our faith, however.” She turned to the colt. “Thank you very much for informing us of this. May I ask how you came by this information?”

He nodded. “Of course. Swift wings bore the letter here just this morning with a report from my sources.”

“Your sources?” Luna asked, raising an eyebrow. “Spies?”

The colt shrugged. “If you wish. More like ponies who know that I’m interested in both you and your friends and are happy to pass word along to me.”

“Well, we appreciate you letting us know,” Twilight said as she elbowed Luna. “Don’t we, Princess?”

“Of course. My apologies if I sounded anything less than utterly grateful. We have worried long about our friend, and I am happy to hear that Sand is in good company.”

He nodded. “To business then?”

“One more question, if you’ll oblige us?” Luna asked.

He gestured for her to continue.

“How did you get our tails?” The princess gave the young zebra an appraising look.

“An oddly cheerful zebra dropped them off here and told me that you would be arriving within the week to claim them. He seemed to mean no harm, and odd as the cargo was...” He shrugged his shoulders. “There are many peculiar things in the world.”

Luna asked, “You did not know him?”

He shook his head. “Should I have?”

Luna and Twilight exchanged a look. Twilight shrugged.

“Perhaps not,” Luna said. “We only hoped that you might shed some light on a mystery he left us.”

The colt’s eyebrows rose. “A mystery greater than two pony tails stuffed in a box that magically reattached themselves to their owners?”

Twilight snorted. “When you put it that way...”

Luna nodded. “It does sound...strange. Yet he left us with a rhyme we’ve had little luck in deciphering.” She took a moment to recite what she could recall with Twilight filling in any missed gaps. Between them, they had the entire rhyme in order after a few stilted attempts.

The colt hummed to himself as he took a sip of tea. “I may have an answer for you, but I would like an opportunity to consider it at length first, lest I give you only an incomplete thought. In the meantime, shall we proceed with why you’ve made this journey?”

“I...yes,” Luna said, ruffling her feathers. She hesitated. “I apologize, I’m afraid that you’ve thrown me off balance.”

He said, “You wish to bridge whatever divide stands between our people, yes?” Luna nodded. He took a moment to consider his words. “Since you set out from your home, how often did you ever feel yourself to be the target of prejudice, fear, or hatred?”

Luna blinked. “In truth, very rarely. I felt some dark looks upon us in Marebasa, but...” She stopped to consider all that had transpired. “No. Almost never, really.” A crease appeared between her brows. “But Sand’s book...”

“Was merely a guide, a warning,” the colt said. “A potential disaster that you’ve long since averted.” He looked up at them. “Word has spread far and wide, faster than wildfire, about the perils you’ve faced and overcome. Anywhere that one zebra meets another, they learn what you’ve done. Even now, they respect you for your courage, your tenacity. Their fears of the nightmare you once were fade from their minds. However, the previously unseen horrors you’ve uncovered, those are the true peril.”

Twilight groaned. “Sand was right then,” she said, looking miserable. “We prevented one disaster only to cause another, and now we don’t even know the details.” She looked up to see the colt shaking his head.

“I am no seer to know the future entirely, I only speak as one who knows the heart of his people.” He looked at Luna. “Yet I believe that this evil would have reared its head regardless of your actions.” He shook his head. “I am afraid that I can offer little more than some advice at this point.” He spread his forelegs wide. “Ultimately, even with what influence I have, I believe that my part in your story is almost at an end.”

Twilight’s ears dropped. “So that’s it? We’re stuck in an even worse situation than before with no way forward?”

The colt hesitated, looked inwards. After a time, he said, “The rhyme you told me earlier, I think it is a potential key for your to pursue.” He looked up, meeting their gazes. “You saw a sun and two moons beyond the rift at Horsetooth, yes?”

Luna gave him a startled look before she remembered. “Your...sources?”

He nodded. “Something of that sort. Some of the ponies you linked with to close the rift reported fragments of memories that seemed oddly out of place in their minds, yet corroborated with others’ experiences too well to be a mere coincidence.”

“I see,” Luna said. She blinked, paused a moment. “Oh...I see. A day and two nights--the sun and two moons. Three alicorns banished, lying dormant.” She nodded to herself, then stopped, shook her head. “The rift was sealed, however.” She frowned. “At great cost to both the ponies of the village and to myself.”

The colt shook his head and shrugged. “That is my only take on the matter, I’m afraid. I’ve little else to offer except a bit of advice.”

The young zebra gave them both a searching look before saying, “You’ve learned much on your journey here. About yourselves, about each other, about just a few of the other cultures of this world.” He paused, then gave a small nod. “But, at long last, I think it is time that you returned home. Your friends need you and you need them.” He gave them a warm, toothy smile. “It is finally time to go home.”

***

(Special thanks to my reviewers Cold in Gardez and Chris -- they help me improve more and more every chapter, and without their diligence, this would be a moldering heap of text, I have no doubt. They're both better authors than I, so if you're in the market for some good reading, go check out their stuff!)

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