• 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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05 - The Gulf Between

A keening sundered the night. Unsure whether she had been dreaming, Sand rose in bed as she tried to gather her bearings. Twilight stirred beside her, but did not wake. In the dim light trickling through the window, she could see the steady rise and fall of Luna’s breathing. The princess appeared undisturbed save for an occasional soft whimper. Sand wondered at that, but decided to leave her be. Whatever had woken Sand had called to her alone.

Carefully sliding out from beneath their blanket, Sand got to her hooves, wincing at every creak and moan from the wooden floorboards. Stepping gingerly around their strewn packs and sundry gear, she made her way out into the hallway, closing the door with the hope that she would not wake her friends.

The common room could not be called ‘lively’ at such an hour, at least not without a great deal of exaggeration, but she found a few ponies busying themselves with private matters. Of these, only a pony watching a boiling kettle at the hearth acknowledged Sand’s arrival.

“Why, good evening, Mistress,” the earth-brown mare said, giving Sand a welcoming smile. “Would you care for some bread and stew? I’m afraid it’s nothing all too fresh this late at night, but it’ll ease your hunger and leave you warm inside, don’t you doubt.” Sand guessed by the soft tones and calm offer that what had woken her had only been some lingering dream. Still, she was up now, and as her body started churning into gear, it let her know that food would not go amiss.

“Yes please, if it’s not too much trouble,” Sand said, taking a seat at the unoccupied end of a long table. As the innkeeper set the meal before her, Sand tucked in, still famished from their hard push to reach Horsetooth. Focused on her warm food and warmer thoughts of Twilight, she failed to notice when a hushed silence descended upon the room, as if a gathered audience had suddenly chosen to hold its breath.

With a sidelong look, Sand spied three mares at the far end of the table. Though she could see them playing at some sort of game, they spoke in murmurs too unintelligible for Sand to make out, even in the unnatural stillness. Noticing her interest in their affairs, they beckoned her over.

“Come, come, friend, join us,” one said, her coat a dark purple.

“You’ve nothing to lose, and everything to gain,” another said, this one a bright blue.

“Always room at the table for a new face,” said the last, her color somewhere between the other two.

Shuffling over with her food between her hooves, Sand took her seat beside them, giving them a hopeful smile. “Thank you, ladies. I am Sand.”

“Is that so?” asked the first pony who spoke, amusement dancing in her eyes. “My name is Violet.”

“Indigo,” said the pony whose coat matched her name.

“And I would be--” began the last, but Sand cut her off.

“Azure? Cerulean? Sapphire, perhaps?” Sand wore an easy smile as the other ponies burst into laughter, unoffended by her interruption.

“Chicory, dear. We’re named after flowers, not colors,” said the blue mare once she had managed to catch her breath.

“My apologies,” Sand said, dipping her head for a moment but caught up in their mirth. “Are you sisters then?”

“Aye, half-sisters and yet more whole than many who could make that claim,” said Violet.

“Three fathers have we, yet our mother outlasted them all,” said Chicory.

“Alas, we have but each other now, though glad company we surely keep,” said Indigo. “A tragedy in three parts, for I’ll not think of that brigand as anything but, and her fate well-deserved.” She snorted, a sour look crossing her face.

“You’ll forgive our sister, I hope, and all of us for carrying on so. It has been a great long while since we’ve met one of your kind,” Chicory said, her eyes sparkling.

Sand studied them in the warm light of the hearth’s fire. All three were earth ponies, their matching hair flowing in smooth cascades of silvery white, like moonlight on ice. Taking a guess, she ventured, “Are there not many unicorns in these parts? I’m afraid I haven’t seen much of the town since we arrived.”

“Much to see, yet no eyes to see them. Horsetooth has more than its fair share of your pointy folk--they’re no strangers to us. No, no, dear, try again. You’re on the wrong track entirely,” Indigo said as her frown blossomed into a wide grin.

“Ah, does the town not see many ponies from Canterlot then? It was a lonely road we took, but not untraveled and certainly not rough. I’d think that there would be at least a little traffic between here and there normally,” Sand waved a hoof as she spoke, finishing by smoothly picking up a heel of bread to mop up the remains of her stew.

“Canterlot finds us well and often, being not more than a few days’ gentle ride, but unless we’re much mistaken,” Chicory said, leaning in close, “the Eclipsed still hail from far beyond the sight of those vaunted walls.”

Caught off-guard, Sand tried to cudgel her brain into processing what she had heard. Try as she might, however, her thoughts had jammed in neutral. “Who are you?” Sand asked at last.

“Chicory.”

“Indigo.”

“And Violet. Three for three, as honest answers as will ever be.” Violet smirked. “You really should think on the weight of your questions before you set them out before others.”

“But come, we talk too much and play too little, you will join us in our fun, won’t you, ‘Sand’”? Indigo asked, a hopeful expression adorning her face even as she twisted the name.

“You’ve little to lose and much to gain,” Chicory said, her face wearing the only serious expression amongst the three.

Sand narrowed her eyes the slightest bit. “Moments ago, you favored me with different odds. Have my fortunes changed?”

“Indeed they have!” cried Indigo, “At last a question worthy of an answer.”

“Yet what words could do this one justice, so hidden in the mists?” asked Violet

“A tree cut from the forest, then; do try to keep both in view,” suggested Chicory.

“For the light of morning, we gift this to you hopefully.” Indigo said, sliding a hoof towards Sand, pinning something unseen to the table.

“A part of your self, rent and riven, yet still a fragment of the whole,” Violet said.

“May it answer your questions, and may you question its answers,” said Chicory.

With great trepidation, Sand put her hoof over Indigo’s and slowly turned it over.

***

“Mistress? Your bed will surely be more comfortable than the table, though I’ll not have it said that I sent one of Princess Luna’s friends to her room like a little filly.” The innkeeper leaned in close as she spoke, shaking Sand with a gentle hoof.

Blinking her eyes against the morning light, Sand turned to regard the innkeeper. “How long...” she considered how to phrase her question, doubting her own memories. “What time is it?”

“Early morning--you’ve not slept the day away, never fear,” the innkeeper said, favoring Sand with a smile. “Your friends left for the market some time ago, though they asked me to wake you should you fail to do so on your own by now.”

Wondering whether she meant the three sisters or Twilight and Luna, Sand opted to simply find out for herself. For some reason, she felt wary of asking stray questions.

“You are too kind, Miss...?” Sand trailed off.

“Sable, if it pleases you,” she said, sketching a small curtsy.

“Thank you for your hospitality, Miss Sable. I do not know if we will be staying another night, but I will always remember my time spent here.” Sand briefly considered saying more, but decided against it. Leaving her host with a warm smile, Sand headed towards the market.

The wide roads bore marks of gentle wear, ironshod hooves and wagon wheels having done their part to pack the earth beneath Sand as she walked. Riverstone cottages thatched with reeds dotted the landscape, no more than a dozen visible at any one time. The market square lay in the center of town, the only place worthy of having worked cobblestones underhoof. Ponies had long ago learned that being stuck hock-deep in muck discouraged business for merchants and shoppers alike.

In spite of the town’s size, the market bustled with activity. Usually the result of commerce from the river, Sand guessed that there might be some other reason today. Spotting her friends proved as easy as expected, both because of Luna’s great size and due to the crowd of gawkers that seemed to always be trailing her in civilized parts. Trotting over, Sand had to push past a few ponies before she could come within comfortable speaking range.

“So there you two are,” Sand began, drawing the attention of Twilight and Luna. “Why didn’t you wake me up?”

Twilight responded first. “We tried,” she said, pushing Sand with a hoof. “You sleep like a dragon, and sound like one when you do.” Twilight and Luna shared a smirk at her expense. Blushing, Sand tried to stammer an apology, but Twilight cut her off with a friendly laugh as she said, “Oh don’t worry, you don’t normally snore. I don’t know why you were up and out so late, but I assume the party must have really been something.”

Unable to meet Twilight’s gaze, Sand looked at Luna, asking, “Have you had any luck making arrangements with a ferry?”

Luna shook her head. “Normally, the river is tranquil, the journey downstream slow but constant. Once their voyage is at an end, the ferry-ponies pole their way back here to Horsetooth, the return trip taking twice as long, but still well within reason” Luna pawed at the ground, trying to keep her hooves busy. “Yet there have been no ponies returning from downriver, and no news of their whereabouts. The ferries have stopped running until somepony finds out why and sends an all-clear.”

Twilight chimed in, “I wish we could have found this all out sooner. Now we’re either going to be behind schedule or, if we decide to wait for the ferries to start running, very behind schedule.”

Sand looked confused. “No ponies at all? Surely there must be pegasi who would be willing to at least take a look and report back.”

Twilight shrugged. “They’re plenty willing, but they just can’t. Apparently, a few did just what you suggested at first, but they haven’t come back either. Now, with the local weather team so short-staffed, they’ve had to place the well-being of the town before the issue of the lost ponies.”

Sand gave them both a frown and a meaningful look. To Luna she asked, “I suppose our course is set then?”

Luna nodded, but Twilight looked baffled. “It is?” she asked.

“‘As perilous as it needs to be,’ Zenio said. Even if we did not directly cause it, I suspect that this is our fault in part.” Luna looked around at the crowd as a few ponies began to mutter amongst themselves.

“We’re still in Equestria though,” Twilight said, as if it could explain away their predicament. “Do you really think we’re responsible for...whatever this is?” she asked Luna.

“I am afraid we have only speculation and the words of one zebra to go by, Twilight. I do not know,” Luna said. “Grounded as I am, it seems we must venture forth on hoof and see what we can do to help.”

“Perhaps we should begin sooner rather than later, ” Sand said, feeling unfriendly stares boring into her hide.

“Agreed,” said Luna. “Let us be off.”

As Sand fell into step behind the princess, she felt the burning stares of the townsponies loosen and vanish, any ill-will directed at them dissipating in the streaming light of day.

Sable greeted them with a smile and a wave, but busy seeing to other patrons, she left her welcome at that. Tromping upstairs, they collected their scattered belongings in short order. Nosing her saddlebags into position, Sand detected a faint, perfumed scent from within. She didn’t really have to guess what she would find, but as she loosened the cinches, she could see the flowers, fresh and full: chicory, indigo, and violet.

***

“It’s really beautiful here,” Twilight said.

They walked alongside the river, doing their best to keep it in view through the rocky terrain. The overcast sky muted the blend of colors, but peeking around boulders and from small clumps of grasses, tiny wildflowers danced and bobbed in the wind as though to wave their passing greetings.

“This area has not changed much over the centuries, it would seem. The ponies at Horsetooth come from old stock,” Luna said, looking around as they walked. “I never spent much time in this part of the kingdom, though now I have to question why. The highlands here rise farther than even Canterlot, and I would imagine that one could see the stars all the better for it.”

Sand looked over at Twilight, though the latter appeared lost in thought. Stepping closer, Sand brushed up against her friend, breaking Twilight’s concentration. “A farthing for your thoughts?” she asked. At those words, Luna glanced back at the two but said nothing.

“A farthing? You actually have one? I thought Equestria took those out of circulation years ago.” Twilight looked confused.

Sand wore a grin, and from the corner of her eye, she could see one beginning to creep over Luna’s lips as well. “I suppose I’m somewhat behind the times. A bit for your thoughts then?” she asked, trying to keep her friend on track.

“Oh, well, I was just thinking about how things can change. You may not have suggested it directly, Princess, but if you decided to build an observatory out here to make use of the clear skies, we’d probably see at least a few ponies take up residence nearby to make use of it full time,” Twilight said. “Astronomers, most likely, but then you have the support staff and other students that would come out as well. I haven’t ever heard of a town springing up around something this specific, but I’ve heard plenty of small villages that formed around mines, forests, or even something as abstract as a trade route.”

“Commerce, one way or another,” Luna said, drawing their attention to herself. “Mineral rights, logging rights, access to trade--a town needs some kind of economic support to keep itself going. Colleges and more scientific pursuits are funded from afar, but they maintain the lifelines to their respective communities. Farming villages might be able to sustain themselves, but if they can’t turn a profit, however small, they risk stagnation and dying out.”

Twilight nodded. “Makes sense. Horsetooth must be supported mostly by river trade, though I have to wonder what they trade--it’s not as though fishing is a common occupation.”

Sand remained silent, dwelling on that but finding no answers. The marketplace had been largely devoid of goods, and what few there were seemed like the remnants of whatever last ferries had the good fortune to make it back. The assembled crowd had been more a result of Luna’s presence than a booming showcase of wares. As Sand thought back to the baleful looks they had received, a thought occurred to her.

“Did you notice a lot of unicorns in town?” Sand asked her companions.

“I wasn’t really paying attention but...I suppose?” Twilight scrunched her face up in thought. “Now that you mention it, I do remember seeing a few. More than a few, really.”

“Almost all the ponies we met were unicorns,” Luna said, frowning. Seeing her friends’ looks, she quickly amended, ”I meant no disrespect, of course.”

Sand and Twilight looked at each other before rolling their eyes in unison. Trotting up beside Luna, they gave her a playful bump on either flank. Twilight said, “Of course not. We know you’re our friend. But what do you think it means?”

“The only earth ponies I can even recall are Innkeeper Sable and...” Sand trailed off, aware that her mouth had run off before her mind could restrain it.

Unable to resist, Twilight prodded. “And...who?” She flashed Sand a friendly smile, hoping to coax out her secret. Perhaps she’d learn who Sand had been up with all night, though a part of her heart darkened at the thought.

Sand stopped walking, sitting in the dirt as she rubbed a hoof through her dark chocolate mane. “You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I don’t have all the answers to your questions that might come up?”

Doubling back, Twilight sat across from her friend, remaining silent until Sand’s mismatched gaze found her own. “Dawn...”

Sand sighed. “Right. I apologize for...” Sand trailed off as Twilight gave her a half-lidded glare. “I’m working on it, I promise,” Sand said defensively, though she gave Twilight a smile. When her friend finally returned one of her own, Sand told them of the previous evening’s events in full, or as close to it as she could recall.

“What did she give you?” Twilight asked.

“I wish I could remember. Whenever I think of that moment, my memory just ends and progresses to me waking up in a puddle of cold stew.” Sand scowled at her friends in mock anger. “You could at least have left me a cloth or something to wipe myself with.” A worried expression crossed her face. “It...it didn’t stain did it?”

“What? Noooo...” Twilight said, trying not to look insincere, or at least trying not to look at the brown soup stain that ran along Sand’s muzzle.

“Do you feel any different than you did last night?” Luna asked, trying to keep them on topic. “New memories, restored powers, anything?”

Sand shook her head. “To be honest, I expected to feel more...whole somehow. As if some brilliant shaft of light would break through the clouds and I’d suddenly be able to see.” She waved her hoof in a grandiose gesture as she spoke, finishing with a disdainful snort. “Mostly I just feel...better. Though in truth, that might be more the feathered bed than anything else.”

“The mind has a way of sorting things out on its own, given time,” Luna said. Trusting that she wouldn’t have to belabor the point, she let the matter rest. “As we don’t know when another opportunity will arrive, perhaps...lunch?” Luna stole a hopeful glance at her own packs. The market might be starved for river trade, but the bakers had been in good form and Luna entertained thoughts of trying some of the pastries she had packed away.

“You don’t need to sleep...do you need to eat then?” Sand asked as they broke out a small picnic, complete with checkered blanket.

Luna shook her head, but took a bite of a cream-colored puff before answering. “My sister and I got into the habit of it long ago, mostly as a polite measure. We learned that watching ponies eat while we did not do so ourselves unnerved them, so we took up the practice to ease any undue anxieties.” She didn’t even know what to call what she was eating, but Luna found it divine--a lemony-flavored pastry that practically melted away when it touched her tongue. She would have to look into importing these.

Twilight took a bite of her apple when she remembered something. Getting Sand’s attention, she asked “What was it you were going to tell me about Princess Celestia?”

Sand gave Luna a look, but she appeared too involved in her treat to notice. As Twilight learned about the first dinner after Sand arrived, Twilight grew first surprised, then astonished, then horrified. Sand finished her tale, and after a few moments of silence, Twilight could only manage to turn and give Luna a pleading look.

“Mmm. I am afraid that she speaks the truth,” Luna explained, offering Twilight a reassuring hoof on her back. “It was almost as if my sister had decided to go out of her way to see just how gluttonous she could be. From what she told me later, she had an inkling of who you were, thus I suspect she was gauging your reaction to help narrow down her suspicions.”

Sand chewed on a tomato, considering Luna’s words. “That could very well be. I didn’t know any of the other envoys, in their lives or my own, so I was not privy to their mannerisms.”

Twilight broke from her shocked stupor at that. “I thought you knew the other ponies Celestia took under her wing?” Twilight asked, giving Sand a suspicious look.

Putting up her hooves defensively, Sand gave Twilight a little smile. “I knew of them, and only because their past lives were noted in our annals--required reading for some of us.”

Twilight made a noncommittal sound as she went back to her apple, her mind still reeling a bit at the thought of her regal mentor being such a slob when it suited her. She filed Sand’s remarks away for later study, wondering what else Celestia might do when she didn’t wear her public face.

The rest of their meal passed in silence, or rather, with words left unspoken. Aside from contented chewing noises from the ponies, a number of songbirds had perched themselves in a nearby poplar, serenading any who would listen with bright notes and cheerful tunes.

“What do you think we’ll find?” Sand asked nopony in particular, her voice stilling the birdsong. “A large spider, its web stretching the river with the missing ponies wrapped in silk cocoons? Or perhaps a garden of stone statues, home to a vengeful cockatrice with a menacing gaze. Or worse! A basilisk. Maybe we’ll find nothing at all, the ponies having mysteriously...” Sand stopped when she saw her companions’ looks. “Sorry.”

“Let us keep moving so we can find out for ourselves,” Luna said, brushing stray crumbs from her coat. “This idleness only adds to the mystery and gives us time to conjure up dark thoughts.”

Gathering their things in short order, they set out again. Before long, the road veered away from the water, vanishing around the corner of a hill and through easier terrain. Opting to break from the well-worn trail, their pace slowed as they picked their way across jutting rocks and loose earth, being herded closer and closer to the river as the land on either side of it rose sharply. All but getting their hooves wet, they failed to notice a fog growing thick around them until they found themselves scarcely able see one another.

“This would make for a great way to start a scary story at my next sleepover,” Twilight said, giving a nervous laugh. The other two didn’t smile.

“We’re still riverside, right?” Sand asked. “I can barely hear the sound of the water.”

“I can barely hear either of you,” Luna said. “I would prefer not to get separated in the mist. Would you two mind...” She gestured them both closer, hoping they could see her clearly. Stepping to either side of her, Twilight and Sand felt a faint brush of feathers on their backs as Luna extended her wings, touching both ponies at their withers. “I will try to slow my step so that we need not break contact, though in this murk, my guess is that speed won’t be a concern.”

Sand shivered, though whether from the chill seeping into her bones or because Luna’s feathers tickled like mad, she couldn’t say. Doing her best to keep pace, she soon fell into step, taking a small measure of comfort in Luna’s presence.

“Do you think this is the source of the disappearances?” Twilight asked.

Luna looked unsure. “It could very well be. The geography seems ill-suited for this kind of standing fog, but at least the terrain appears to be getting easier to navigate.”

Sand noticed that as well. Pebbles rattled underhoof as they walked. Yet unlike the fine muck that they had been stepping through outside the fog, the ground here felt firm, unlikely to make them slip or swallow them with each step. Peering downwards, Sand realized that tiny shells blended together with pebbles to form a sort of crunchy carpet. Acting on a hunch, she said, “Could we stop a moment? I’d like to check something.”

Luna nodded. Sand broke from the group, though she trailed her tail across the backs of their legs so as to stay in contact while she investigated the water. Stooping to drink, her first taste proved her suspicions correct. “Brackish,” she announced. “I think that we’re at the mouth of the river.”

Twilight said, “But that can’t be right, can it? It was going to be at least three days from Horsetooth if we had found a ferry...” Twilight trailed off as she heard it, as they all heard it. “Seagull,” she said, then corrected herself. “No, lots of seagulls.”

“I can barely see my own nose in this accursed mist, but we have the water to guide us. Let us see where it leads. I am suddenly eager to feel the sun again,” Luna said, adding a shiver for good measure.

As Sand resumed her place at Luna’s side, she wished it would be less awkward to walk closer to the princess. Luna might be more aloof than her radiant sister, but Sand wanted to be in close contact with somepony, and Twilight sheltered beneath Luna’s other wing at the moment.

They made their way slowly along the bank, having to make minor course adjustments to skirt the occasional driftwood that blocked their path. After the fourth such occurrence, Sand peered into the mists. “I think I see something,” she said. “We might be close to the edge of the fog.”

As they stepped out into the bright sunshine, tendrils of mist clung to their coats as if unwilling to let them go. Assuring herself that her friends remained by her sides, Luna stretched her wings. Her muscles longed for the rigors of flight, not the rigid conformity of their shrouded journey.

Scattered clouds dotted the skies out to the distant horizon, yet a blazing light shone down from the heavens. Twilight smiled as she turned her face to the sun, feeling her muscles relax as warmth spread throughout her entire body. “I didn’t realize how cold I was until we got out of there,” she said.

Sand nodded, still shivering. “Do you recognize this place? Either of you?”

Before them, the river fanned out in a wide arc, the fresh water mixing with brine as the tide stole inwards, bit by bit. Rocky pools dotted the shoreline, and as the ponies walked up to investigate, small crabs scurried out of sight.

“I do not,” said Luna with a frown, “and I have been most everywhere in Equestria. My memories are old, but they are not worm-ridden. This place is unfamiliar to me.”

“Twilight?” Sand asked.

She shook her head. “If Princess Luna doesn’t know, I probably won’t be of much help either, at least not without more landmarks. I’d really like to know where we are, but right now I’m more curious as to where everypony else is. Do you see any ferries or even signs anypony has been here before us?”

“I could probably think of a few explanations that’d work, but nothing solid,” Sand said. “High tide probably washed away anything that might’ve been left here, hoofprints, riverboats, what have you.” After a moment she added, “Hopefully not ponies though.”

“This...” Luna said, drawing their attention with her tone, “is not our world.”

Their eyes followed her gaze to the far horizon. As the cloud cover broke, they could see twin orbs hanging motionless in the sky. One a pale gray, the other a reddish-bronze, dark blemishes accentuated their likeness to Nightmare Moon’s prison. But for their color and duality, they could be the selfsame moon that watched over Equestria not so long ago.

“An axis. We’re at an axis,” Sand said, collapsing on her rump in shock.

“Do you never run out of secrets and mysteries?” Twilight asked.

Sand took a moment to collect herself, but when she saw Twilight smiling at her, she realized her comment had been in good fun and not accusation. “I suppose I will one day,” she said, returning the smile. “Until then, I guess you’ll just have to keep sharing moonlit nights with me while we talk into the early morning.”

Twilight said, “I promise we’ll spend more time together--I still have to finish the book, after all.” Wearing a hopeful grin, Twilight seemed oblivious to what she had done.

Sand did her best to not appear crestfallen, but still, her smile faltered and died. “Yes. I suppose there is that as well,” she said.

“I can feel them,” Luna said in a ragged whisper. Paying no attention to Twilight and Sand’s exchange, Luna had not taken her eyes off of the twin moons hanging low over the water. “They’re like...sisters and--” her voice cut off, going from an almost reverent tone to a controlled neutrality. “Sand Shaper.”

Sand gave Luna an anxious look. “Is something wrong?” she asked.

“You seem to have some inkling of where we are. Is there a way...back?”

Sand could feel the suppressed urgency in Luna’s voice, and her heart began picking up speed. “I...would imagine so. The way we came in should take us back out again, I suppose.”

“Then we should depart with all haste,” Luna said, turning to look at them. “Now.”

Neither unicorn thought to question her suggestion when they saw the panicked look in Luna’s eyes.

“Princess?” Twilight asked.

“In a moment, Twilight. I would like to be sure we are away. Far away.”

Sand shivered as they plunged back into the fog, unable to control her body’s protestations at the change from warm sunlight to all-pervasive chill. Luna walked with wings spread, but exercised far less diligence in keeping them at wingtip than she had on their previous trip, choosing instead to pull them closer.

“Princess?” Sand asked after some time, echoing Twilight.

Luna pulled to a stop. Drawing in a deep breath, she let it out in a shuddering sigh before speaking. “I apologize. When I reached out to the moons, I...I felt them there. They were like sisters to me, and I suspect they were that in truth to each other. Alicorns,” she explained, “banished to the skies. You would not have been able to see it from the glare, but I felt another prisoner within the sun as well. Whoever won that struggle, it was not my kind, and I felt a malevolent gaze turn upon us when I sought further answers.”

Sand looked horrified. “Is it still--”

Luna shook her head as she cut Sand off. “I have felt no eyes upon us for some time now, so I do not believe that we were discovered. I would rather we not dally here, however.”

Saying no more, Luna resumed walking, ushering the two unicorns alongside her with a gentle push from her wings.

After a long time spent traveling with words left unspoken, Sand broke the silence. “I feel guilty saying this, but I’m glad for what happened back there.” Luna turned her head, giving Sand an inquisitive look. “I...feel safer now, even fleeing whatever peril you felt,” she said, giving Luna a bump with her shoulder. “I know we are not as close as...well, as close as I would like, and perhaps it is inappropriate of me to speak thus, but...”

“We care about you, Princess. Even if you’re distant sometimes,” Twilight said from her side.

Luna regarded her friends a moment before taking a step back so as to address them more easily. “You are both dear to me. I apologize for anything I have said or done to indicate otherwise,” Luna said, “Yet while my sister informed me of what could be, I...am not certain that I am ready for such a...” she hesitated.

“Burden?” Sand suggested.

“For such a responsibility,” Luna corrected.

“I don’t think you’ll have much of a choice, I’m afraid,” Sand said, shaking her head. “We do not return because Celestia wants us to. We come back because she loves and needs us, just as we love and need her.” Sand started, quickly adding, “Please do not take that to mean you should try to wall yourself off from caring about others. You do not have to be alone.” Sand wondered if she had overstepped her bounds, but Luna only watched her with silent interest.

The river babbled in the newfound quiet surrounding the three ponies.

Finally, Luna said, “I have questions, but I feel we should be out from this...place between places before we delve further.” The others agreed, and this time, Luna did not have to use her wings before they drew close beside her.

***

Sand rolled in the grass, relishing the warmth of the ground and sun on her skin. “I felt like I’d never be warm again,” she said, wearing a contented smile.

Twilight grinned. Seeing her friend this carefree was rare, and she almost felt bad for calling her back to what needed to be addressed. “So...an axis?”

Sand stopped mid-roll, suspending all four legs in the air as she gave Twilight an upside-down look. Though she considered explaining from that position, Sand felt the gravity of the matter demanded a more serious approach. Still, she quite enjoyed the feel of the grass on her mane. Rolling upright, Sand cleared her throat before speaking.

“It’s only a hunch, but it would make sense. Our semi-prophetic dreams do not come ex nihilo. I did a lot of research on it when I was...home,” Sand looked pained for a moment, but pressed on. “Not everything that comes to us is some dire prediction of world-shaping disasters. A lot of it is harmless, often times completely impossible.” She nodded at Twilight. “I read one account...several, actually, where you were male, for instance.” She smirked as Twilight’s eyes grew wide.

Sand continued, “That’s what set me off in my searching. If all we received were things that could be, it would have been different. Yet we saw so many strange versions of this world that I began thinking that there must be others out there where these things had actually happened. I believe our world lies at a sort of crossroads where many things may be possible, yet we have managed to exert enough control to keep them idyllic. Usually.” She stole a glance at Luna.

“Axis...A convergence of many places,” Luna said, talking mostly to herself.

Sand nodded. “Perhaps your nightmare works to subvert the good nature of ponies by showing us the horrors of other places...but the more time I’m given to view things from another angle, the more I find myself believing that it acts as a filter, spanning a divide that we would otherwise fall into.” She gestured in the direction of the fog, left far behind in their eagerness to escape it. “Like that one. With what we've seen, I am beginning to feel like I may have drawn the wrong conclusions about the effects of the eclipse.” She frowned. The thought of being mistaken on such a fundamental level troubled her. Shaking her head, she continued. “I did not think this world had more of such places than my home. Do you think that this one is responsible for the missing ponies from Horsetooth?”

“I do not know, but I fear we tread in more dangerous waters than I had thought,” Luna said. “If we could simply come and go from that place, I worry that what resides beyond the veil could do so as well. If that is the case, we face far worse things than the dark times written in your book, Sand Shaper.”

“Worse...?” Twilight gave a mirthless little chuckle, her gaze falling unbidden on Sand’s pack where the book slept.

“This just gets better and better,” Sand said, rubbing her temples. Looking to Luna, she asked, “So do we have a plan of action?”

Luna hesitated. ”It galls me to simply turn our backs to it, but without knowing more about how the rift functions, any efforts directed against it would likely avail us little.” She shook her head. “I am afraid this is not what I had anticipated. I had pictured...Wildlife troubles perhaps, or maybe some minor danger that needed to be averted.” She gave them a rueful grin. “It seems I have a great deal more to atone for than I thought.”

“We have to warn the villagers,” Twilight said. “They can’t risk sending more folks this way. Maybe we can get them to put up some warning signs or something.”

“I’m not convinced that will do enough. That would only deter some while encouraging others,” Luna said. “I think we need to find out more--with any luck, we can discover something that will help us bind this...this wound closed. From the sound of it, this is a new occurrence, so perhaps the townsponies will have heard of something that might have changed recently.”

“Back upstream then?” Sand asked.

Luna nodded. “We should be off. The day is waning and the ponies we’ll want to talk to will all be abed, but with luck, Sable will be able to put us up for the night and we can spend tomorrow sleuthing around.”

***

“Why, Your Highness, I thought you would be halfway across the land, by now.” Sable greeted them with a surprised smile as they stepped into the inn.

“Whatever do you mean, Miss Sable?” Luna asked.

“From the whispers around town, you three went to investigate whatever was happening to the ferries, but when I heard nary a word for two weeks...” she said, frowning. “Well, I feared the worst.”

“Two weeks?” Twilight asked. “We were there just this afternoon.” Luna and Sand shared a look over their friend’s protestations.

“I don’t know what to tell you then, Mistress,” Sable said, lowering her head. “But you’ve been gone for a fortnight now. I’m afraid I rented out your old room, but I’ll see what I can do for you ladies.” Hanging up her apron, she bustled around the counter and back through the common room, leaving the three standing in the foyer.

“I...did not expect that,” Sand said.

Twilight nodded, pondering the implications of their little jaunt. Still deep in thought, she said, “If we were gone for two weeks and we just stepped through for a few minutes...”

Luna saw where she was going and said, “Then any of the ponies who stepped through and decided to stay longer might think they’ve only been gone for a few hours, at most.”

Twilight shook her head. “That doesn’t really add up though. I mean, yes and no, but from the way we heard it in the market, a bunch of ponies went missing all soon after another--within a few days maybe. If you just stepped through and were admiring the scenery, time would be flying on the other side. So you’d get one pony through the mists, then for them moments later, they’d be joined by another, then another. There’d pretty much be a shipwreck’s worth of collided ferries on the far side, but I didn’t see anything like that. Not even close.”

“It was like our own private beach,” Sand said.

“Watched over by a malevolent force capable of banishing multiple ponies to the heavens,” Luna added before seeing the looks from her friends. “Sorry.”

Twilight called forth the various explanations that would fit their limited information, but the scraps were too few. She pushed them away for the time being. Yet another thing to puzzle over later, assuming they ever found more pieces. “I don’t know. Maybe we should ask about why there are so many unicorns here? Might as well add something else to our growing pile of mysteries.” Twilight shot Sand a meaningful look.

“We can ask around in the morning, Twilight. For now, our host returns,” Luna said, nodding towards the returning pony.

“Well, I am mortified to suggest it, but I will not turn you away outright. We have...” Sable hesitated before forcing herself to continue,”...we have a room, yes. It is in the attic. Actually, it is the attic, where we keep the spare furniture. I am so sorry, Mistresses!” She nearly broke into tears as she bowed low.

Twilight and Sand just looked at each other and shrugged. A room was a room, as long as it was clean and warm, but Luna was more diplomatic. “We thank you for your generosity, Miss Sable,” she said, gently pulling the innkeeper upright. “We are in your debt for providing safe lodging on such short notice, and we would be honored if you would join us over dinner this evening. Once you are free from the other patrons, of course. Simply come knock on our door when you are ready--we are in no rush tonight.”

“Of..of course, Your Highness! But please, you must be exhausted, let me show you to...” she blanched, but continued as Luna gave her a warm smile, “...to your chambers.” Straightening herself, she led the way. They walked through the common room, up the stairs, and up yet more stairs. Finally, they stood within their palatial abode for the evening as small puffs of dust stirred languidly by their hooves.

Shooing the innkeeper away with polite but firm insistence that the accommodations were to their liking, the three ponies sunk to the floor, thankful that there appeared to be resting pads and mattresses aplenty.

“At least it’s warm?” Twilight suggested.

“I think it’s rather cozy, actually,” Sand said, looking around. “A few odds and ends, to be sure, but I somehow feel less a nameless stranger in this room than when I’m simply occupying the same guest room as so many others before me.”

“It--OW!” Luna cracked her head on a wooden strut as she stood up. Reassuring her friends with a raised hoof, she said, “I am all right. I suppose this room was hardly meant for ponies to walk around in easily, let alone those of my stature.” She rubbed her hoof over a raised bump, wincing as she did. “I meant to say that it should do well enough for the evening, though I suppose I will have to pay more attention than I am used to.”

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Twilight asked, wearing a concerned frown.

“I will be fine, but thank you.” Luna took a seat near the middle of the room, trying to gain the most clearance should she forget her surroundings.

“Well, if you’re sure...” Looking at Sand, Twilight asked, “Since Sable might be a while, do you mind if...?” Twilight left the question unfinished, but her gaze fell to the saddlebags that lay piled between them.

Reminding herself that she had agreed to this in the first place, Sand bent over her pack and pulled out the book. If Twilight saw the fractured look in her friend’s expression, she said nothing. Silently, Sand laid down at a distance, placing her head between her hooves.

Luna studied the pair, noticing that Sand’s mismatched eyes never left Twilight’s own, though the studious unicorn paid neither of her friends any mind. The princess wondered at that--she could feel Sand’s melancholy washing over them even as she lay at the far side of the room. Knowing Twilight to be a caring soul, Luna found it perplexing that she could ignore their friend's obvious distress. Perhaps Sand had been right--the book’s influence was changing their friend somehow, and not for the better. Eyeing the overhead supports, Luna picked her way across the floor and lay down beside Sand.

"What troubles you so?" Luna asked in a hushed tone.

“I feel like I’m losing her,” Sand whispered, still not taking her gaze off Twilight.

“You give her too little credit,” Luna whispered back, “but I understand your concern. Truly, through and through.”

Sand’s gazed flicked to Luna’s own before turning to Twilight. “That you do, I have no doubt.”

Luna surprised both of them by leaning down and offering Sand a soft nuzzle, a gesture Luna normally reserved only for her sister. “We are, all of us, stronger together. As you asked that she talk to you about her concerns, I would ask that you talk with me about the same whenever you so desire, and perhaps more importantly, whenever you need.” A faint smile played across Luna’s lips as she said, “We are friends after all, are we not?”

Sand smiled and said, “That we are.”

***

(Special thanks to Chris for helping me flesh out several scenes to help keep the characters...well, in-character.)

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