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

Lacuna - Drakmire



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

  • ...
10
 136
 8,632

06 - On Equivalent Exchange

Hate. Sand woke. Hate is here, feed the hate. Across from her, Twilight lay sprawled on top of the book. Sand wavered as she took in the sight, but scowled at the realization that Twilight had finished the story. Confirming that both of her companions still slept, Sand acted while she could maintain the self-loathing that shielded her from her selfish desires.

Recovering the book proved as difficult as anticipated. Tugging at one edge, Sand pulled slowly, ever so slowly, so as to not wake her friend. Friend, she thought with a frown, even as she worked at the tome. Some friend I’ve been. Following her around with moon-eyes, exposing her to ...this. Sand felt her gorge rise as she thought of the book between her teeth. Still, not relaxing her grip on it, she soon had it free.

Sand had made the wrong decision. While that could not be fully remedied, it could at least be ameliorated. Taking a moment to shoot her flank a baleful glare, she conceded that nopony is perfect, even when employing their special talent.

As she stood in the middle of the room, book dangling by a corner from her lips, Sand allowed herself to take one last look at her friends. Luna can still make the journey, she can still make peace. Sand looked at Twilight, who had shifted into an even more awkward position than before. The biggest mistake that led to the cataclysm was separating Twilight and her friends from each other, and what do I do? Sand shook her head, careful to avoid dropping the book. Stupid, stupid.

No boards creaked underhoof as Sand made her way to the door, for which she was immensely thankful. Eyeing her pack, she opted to leave it be--the noise of trying to arrange things together without magic would risk detection. She had what she needed, after all.

Pawing gently at the door latch, she froze as it slid out of place with a metallic rattle, but a quick look back reassured her that it hadn’t roused the others. Taking three steps out into the hallway, she departed in two flashes of white light.

***

Luna woke to the sound of Twilight’s rapid hoofsteps. Opening her eyes, she took in the panicked look in the unicorn’s expression and sat up. “Is something wrong?”

Twilight started, unaware that Luna had awoken. “Sand’s gone,” she said.

Luna fluttered her wings a bit at the announcement. “What do you mean?”

“She gone!” Twilight yelled. Cringing, she said, “I’m so sorry, Princess! I just...” She looked around, as if Sand might just be hiding behind some of the furniture.

Luna rose, trying to make sense of the scene. Both unicorns had been present and sleeping at moonfall, so she had gone back to sleep herself once she had fulfilled her duty for the night.

“What if something’s happened to her?” Twilight asked.

Luna cocked her head a fraction, surprised at Twilight’s concern in light of the previous evening. Brushing aside her own cynical reaction, she replied, “Why do you think she’s gone? Perhaps she waits just downstairs, eating.”

Twilight anxiously trotted in place. “I checked already. No one’s seen her since last night, not even Sable.” She stopped moving long enough to point her horn at the floor. Faintly, the light of magic shone forth, illuminating a number of hoofprints in the dust. “Hers. They go out the door and then just stop.”

Luna closed her eyes and channeled her own powers. Expanding her sphere of awareness, she could sense the familiar feel of Twilight’s magic throughout the room, but just beyond the door, she detected the lingering traces of Sand’s spell. “She teleported away.”

Twilight looked dumbfounded. “She...teleported? She can’t even levitate an apple slice. Let alone...” She paused, remembering the feel of warm chains soaking into her skin. “Okay, maybe she still has some things she hasn’t explained.”

Luna looked pensive. “I do not know. I would like to believe that she would have told us of something like that, but she clings to her secrets as if they are all she has. There must be other answers.” Following her instincts, Luna floated Sand’s saddlebags to her before rifling through their contents. After a few moments, she found what she suspected. Pulling out a cluster of three flowers, Luna said, “We need to find those ponies.”

***

“Do you remember her talking with anypony at all that night?” Twilight asked.

“I’m afraid not, Mistress. She took a seat over here,” Sable gestured to the end of a table closest by the hearth. “And she seemed happy enough when she had food in front of her, but I must have dozed off myself. As best as I can recall, I woke to find that she had moved to the other end and decided to sleep face-first on her stew.”

“Thank you, Miss Sable. You have been of great help,” Luna said.

The innkeeper bowed and left, busying herself in the kitchen. Twilight looked to Luna and asked, “She was?”

Luna nodded. “Earth ponies seem to be rare enough here that any of them should stick out in one’s memory. That Sable failed to even mention them leads me to believe that either Sand merely dreamed the encounter, or we deal with something else entirely.” Thinking of the flowers she had found, Luna guessed the latter.

Asking around town proved tiresome, but it earned them another lead. Before stepping into the apothecary’s shop, Twilight didn’t know what to expect. Afterwards, she still wasn’t quite sure. The smell of dried herbs and sour, dead things assailed her nostrils, but she felt intrigued. Twilight saw a few plants she thought she recognized, but she would need Sand beside her to say for certain. Briefly, Twilight wondered how her friend would handle being there, but before she could dwell on the thought for long, the shopkeeper met them with a smile and small bow.

“Well met, Your Highness, and to you as well, child,” the unicorn mare said, her hide a muted forest green.

“Hail to you, apothecary,” Luna began. “We beg your indulgence in a small matter of importance.” Luna floated out the three flowers. “What can you tell us of these?”

“Indigo, chicory, violet. None native to these parts, but if I’m not much mistaken,” she stepped forward, sniffing at them, “these are fresh-cut. Where did you get these, if I might ask?”

Luna pursed her lips before responding. “We were hoping you would be able to tell us. We search for a missing friend, and this is all we have to go by--they have been stowed in her gear for some time now.”

“Puzzling indeed, Your Highness. Though it is only a hunch, you might consider asking the sisters.” The apothecary wore a neutral expression, watching as Luna and Twilight gave each other a look.

“What sisters might those be?” Luna asked.

***

“Not what I expected,” Twilight said.

They stood before a monument. Three statues posed in silent homage to the earth ponies whose likenesses they bore. Though the stone was old, the area appeared well-kept, free of debris and litter, with only a few half-spent candles marking where somepony had kept a vigil.

Twilight moved closer, reading out loud from a bronze placard. “Chicory, Indigo, and Violet. Three for three, as generous as anypony could ever hope to be. May they stand as a beacon for all who lose their way, in this life or the next.” She sighed. “A dead end. Literally.”

Luna said nothing, levitating the flowers from her pack and placing them at the feet of one of the statues. Carved out of gray stone and worn with time, there was no way to determine which was which. Luna hoped they would not be offended if she refrained from guessing. Seeing Twilight’s curious stare, she said, “I am merely following the suggestion offered to us.” Turning to the statues, Luna thought a moment before speaking. “Sisters, we come seeking your guidance--our friend has lost herself, and we beg your assistance in finding her. Will you aid us?”

As Luna’s last words faded away, a gentle breeze stirred their manes, but nothing else happened. The princess looked to Twilight, but she just shrugged. Luna sighed, turning back to examine the statues in the hopes of finding something else that might help them. “I do not know what to think,” Luna said as she circled the monument. “I admit that I had held some vain hope that we might come and find our answers neatly laid out for us.”

“I just want to know why she would pick up and leave all of a sudden, without even telling us. I mean, we’re her friends, right?” Twilight asked, exasperation mixing in with her worry.

“We are. Though,” Luna gave Twilight a sideways look, “as of late, she has been worried about you.”

Wearing a puzzled expression, Twilight asked, “What was she worried about?”

“That she has brought ruin to her heart’s desire, and in doing so, doomed you all,” said a new voice.

Luna and Twilight spun around, seeing three ponies sitting where the statues had stood before.

“She once had to decide between what she loved and what was necessary,” Chicory said, giving Twilight a significant look.

“Yet here she chose what she loved over what needed to be done,” Indigo added.

“For railing against her nature in such a way, she has removed herself from the stage,” Violet explained. “You both have what you need, and she trusts you to carry out your duty.”

They took a moment to respond, but it was Twilight who first spoke. “Who are you? What have you done to Sand?”

Luna was only a hair’s breadth behind in asking, “Why should we continue forward knowing our friend suffers?”

The flower sisters regarded each other, an unspoken conversation flitting between them. Finally, Chicory spoke, addressing Luna and Twilight. “We will assist you, just this once, because we have a stake in the outcome.”

“You must press onwards because it is both what she wants and needs you to do," Indigo said. "She betrayed her purpose in allowing her emotions for you to change her course.”

To Twilight, Violet said, “We have done nothing to the light of morning. Though she strayed from her path, it was she who found the will to travel it once again. We simply returned to her a measure of what she sacrificed to become what she is.”

“We will forego the quaint answer we reserve in most cases for your first question,” Chicory said with a smirk. “We are like her, in a way, bound to this world, to come back again and again through no fault of our own.”

“Would that we had a goddess of our own to cherish us,” Indigo said, giving Luna a predatory look. She took an involuntary step back, flaring her wings.

“Alas, we have but each other and our love for this land.” Violet put a restraining hoof around Indigo even as she laid her head against her other sister.

“Your war,” Chicory said, letting the words linger before continuing, “is but one of many horrors that could yet be, save for the actions of those with the integrity to do what must be done.” She regarded Luna and Twilight with a steady gaze. “We do our part, and so must you do yours.”

***

As they walked, Twilight couldn’t shake her melancholy, and even Luna appeared at a loss for words. They returned to Horsetooth simply by placing one hoof in front of another, barely aware of the town as they travelled through its outskirts.

Luna felt shackled. Not just by the restrictions of her pilgrimage, but by an increasingly dangerous world and the mysteries beyond. She loved her life, loved her sister and everypony, to some degree. Yet because of that, she feared for them in a fundamental way that she reckoned only Celestia would truly understand. Missing her sister dearly, Luna wished she could simply close her eyes, turn around, and return to her evening sanctuary within the palace walls, there to watch the stars and live a quiet life. Perhaps this Erudite had the right idea after all.

A cold wind blew over them, leeching the torpor from their bones and the sluggishness from their minds. Luna pulled her head up, straightening her shoulders as she did so. “The rift,” she said, drawing Twilight’s attention. “It must be our first priority. We need know more, and I would like to gain other answers from our friend, the apothecary.”

Their steps returned them to the herbalist’s shop in short order. Twilight felt an eerie sense of déjà vu as the apothecary spoke.

“Well met, Your Highness, and to you as well, child,” she said, causing a chill to crawl along Twilight’s spine.

“Greetings to you, shopkeeper. We thank you for your guidance earlier,” Luna said.

The apothecary bowed low. Rising, she said, “I live to serve, Your Highness. The shrine to the Three Flowers has ever been a place of solace for us in dark times, and I suspected that your search would lead you there eventually--I merely hastened it along.”

Luna frowned, but her words belied the action. “Your kindness shall not go unrewarded, Miss...?”

“Woad,” she said, inclining her head.

“Miss Woad, then. What can you tell us about the ponies that that shrine was built for?”

She shrugged. “Will o’ the waters, as the story goes. Legend tells us that if you lose your way in the highlands, the sisters will guide you to the river’s edge where you can regain your bearings. Foals that go too far afield during play, travelers that stray from the beaten path, lovers that get a bit too carried away with one another--anypony really. You need only be lost and in need of aid.”

Woad looked back and forth between the two. “How did you find your friend when you arrived? I assume she must have been amused at whatever chase she sent you on, only to lead you to a beacon for lost ponies.”

Luna dipped her head while wearing a tight frown. “I am afraid we did not find our friend there at all, though we have cause to believe that she is...well.”

Woad blanched. “My apologies, Your Highness! I did not mean to find levity in your...I only thought...” At a loss for words, her chagrined look faded as Luna waved a reassuring hoof.

“You did not know, and you are not at fault. Our appreciatation for your assistance has not diminished.” Luna looked at her friend, but Twilight only gave a small shrug in return. Luna said, “As you’ve provided us with such help already, we wondered if we might trouble you further for your thoughts on the disappearances downriver.”

“Ah, you believe your friend...” Woad gave a quick shake of her head. “I apologize, it is not my place to pry. My thoughts are based on mere gossip, only as much rumormongering as I hear in the marketplace.”

“Still, we have little enough to go on. Please.” Luna nodded for her to proceed.

“You’ll forgive me, Princess, but your recent decree on gem trading was met with...mixed results.” Luna frowned, wondering why those words made her think of Twilight. For her part, Woad waited to see how Luna would react, not wanting to bring undue wrath upon herself.

Shaking it off, Luna said, “I am not sure I follow. Please, I will not be upset if you speak your mind. However harsh the truth might be, it would have served us well as of late. I’ll not have you hold back for the sake of propriety.”

Woad sighed and nodded. “We need gems to live here, or rather, we need the trade that they bring. The zebrafolk downriver have long been agreeable partners with Horsetooth, providing us with ample coal not only to satisfy our needs, but also enough to ship north in trade with larger cities. We’re a simple village with simple necessities, and many of the luxury goods you specified in your mandate serve us no purpose here. The town is full of miners and miners’ families--keep us warm, keep us fed, keep us safe and we’ll be happy. We’ve no need for rich silks or precious metals, though the spirits those zebras can brew might find plenty of use if what little trade we have left dries up.” Woad set her lips in a grim line at the thought.

“But couldn’t you just trade those things away like you did with the coal?” Twilight asked.

The shopkeeper hesitated before answering. “Yes and no. Peddling diverse wares is viable for smaller merchants like myself and traveling salesponies, but it’s not reliable for an entire town. We can’t really draw up a contract with Fillydelphia, for instance, for some undefined amount of mystery goods.” She shook her head. “Buyers don’t like being told that maybe this week it’ll be bolts of silk, or it might be exotic hardwoods or fragrant oils. Without the assurance of a fixed resource, we cannot guarantee what kind of trade we’ll receive in return.”

Luna sat on her haunches, rubbing the bridge of her nose with one hoof. “I did not foresee the effects on smaller villages such as this. I apologize--”

“No, please, Your Highness, we may be simple folk, but we understand that you did what you must to ensure that we’re taken care of. Princess Celestia has always been good to us, and if she trusts you, then we trust you as well.” Woad drew herself up, proud and unwavering. “It is truly only a little hardship, but we will persevere and find a way through it.”

Luna gave her a polite smile. “I will take your plight into consideration, you have my promise. We may yet come to some accord that truly is to the benefit of everyone involved, but it will take some time. We ask that you have patience, however, as there are matters of some urgency that need attending to.” Luna felt her smile fade as her mind drifted to a different realm before she brought herself back into focus. “And what way have you found to weather this hardship?”

Woad deflated. “I...assume you have noticed how many unicorns we have in town?” she asked. Luna nodded, so the shopkeeper continued, “That’s because somepony came up with...ahh, a creative way to maintain the gem trade.”

“You found a loophole and decided to skirt the law,” Twilight said flatly.

Woad cringed, but said, “I suppose...yes. The law only forbids normal gems from being traded away, but we realized that we could enchant them with spells and simply call them “talismans” or “amulets” or somesuch. But most of us don’t have those kinds of powers, just the little bits specific to our talents.”

Luna sighed. “So you brought in unicorns that could, presumably with some compensation.”

Woad nodded. “Earth ponies aren’t much for magic, but they’re hard workers and know the value of a good job done well. Most of the ones in town went downriver with our first shipment to make sure everything went right with the new stock, but we never heard back. A few ponies assumed that they had simply taken the enchanted gems and fled, so they left in pursuit. We haven’t heard back from them either, and now no one wants to investigate further,” Woad said. “Except you two.”

“Three,” Twilight said reflexively before she remembered. “Or...two.” Her ears plastered themselves to her head even as she slumped in place.

Woad gave Twilight a compassionate look and said, “I don't know what happened to your friend, but I hope that you find her.” To Luna, she said, “I fear that I have nothing else to offer in the way of information. There was talk of stopping you at your last departure downriver, but...”

“We understand,” Luna responded. “While we do not know what happened to the missing townsfolk, we pray for their safe return. Thank you for your assistance today, it is truly appreciated.”

Woad escorted them as far as the door, adding in a whisper before they left, “Most of the better gems were enchanted by one unicorn in particular--Brilliant Sky. I don’t know what you found downriver, but if it’s powerful enough to make ponies go missing, I’ll bet her gems had something to do with it.”

Luna turned to ask her more, but Woad vanished, closing the door with as much polite fervor as she could manage.

“Well, that wasn’t very nice,” Twilight said. “At least we’ve got a lead though, so we should just be able to ask around town again.” Twilight grew confused as Luna shook her head.

“Woad was forthcoming with much of her information--all but that last bit. Whoever this ‘Brilliant Sky’ is, I suspect we would do Woad a great disservice by having our trail of inquiries lead back to her shop.”

They opted to split up. Luna might be many things, but ‘subtle’ was not one, at least as far as appearances were concerned. Agreeing to meet back up at the inn after moonrise, Luna began wondering what she would do to keep herself occupied for the next few hours while Twilight continued their investigations.

***

Twilight returned to Sable’s inn later that evening to find Luna surrounded by ponies as they played some sort of game together. Wondering what could keep them all so enthralled, Twilight crept in on quiet hooves, trying to avoid disturbing them as she observed. Gathered around one of the tables, a pegasus with an hourglass cutie mark appeared to be leading them. Twilight marveled that in the firelight, his golden coat almost seemed to take on a metallic sheen.

“Very well,” he said in a half-whisper, his speech punctuated by a wracking cough, “roll for initiative.”

Luna picked up a cup between her hooves. Several vigorous shakes later, she upended it as a multi-faceted rock tumbled out, revealing an arcane symbol that caused some of the gathered crowd to groan while others all but rubbed their hooves in delight.

“I’m sorry, Princess, but the manticore catches you by surprise,” the pegasus said, brushing an idle strand of white hair from his face. “You are paralyzed by its sting and lie helpless before its slavering jaws. It will be up to your noble companions to save you from a gristly fate.”

Taken aback by the ensuing clamor, Twilight bumped into a haphazardly placed stack of dishes that collapsed in a loud clatter, drawing several pairs of eyes, including Luna’s, to her. Twilight grinned sheepishly. “Sorry.”

Most of them returned their attention to the game, but Luna smiled and beckoned Twilight over. Scooting aside, she made room for her friend at the overcrowded table. More than one pony turned an envious gaze as she sat down.

“Twilight! I am happy you’ve returned. Would you care to join us in our fun? I am certain that we could arrange something.” Luna looked at the golden pegasus, receiving an emphatic nod in return. She graced him with a wide smile, to which he blushed an extreme shade of crimson as his wings flared outwards. Luna returned her gaze to Twilight and said, “There, now, why don’t we familiarize you with how this works...”

As Luna went over the increasingly complex set of rules, Twilight found herself unable to figure out how to react. On one hoof, she had garnered more information from the townsponies that would aid them. On the other, nothing she had learned would help them tonight. Flanked by friendly faces and the warmth of the inn, Twilight began relaxing in a way she had almost forgotten she could manage. A dopey grin crept across her face as she absorbed the intricacies of the game laid out in front of her. Before long, she found herself caught up in the shared camaraderie and sense of adventure that, for once, didn’t place the fate of the world on her shoulders.

***

“How did you even get into that?” Twilight asked in a low voice, looking around at the sleeping forms of the few remaining ponies from their evening together.

Luna looked around, making sure that those who slept were made comfortable, or as comfortable as wooden tables could be. Gesturing towards their room, Luna said nothing to her friend until they made their way into their attic chamber.

“I had only realized that by sending you off, I was left to my own devices for several hours. I...do not handle being alone very well,” Luna said, her eyes going distant. Feeling a reassuring hoof placed on her shoulder, Luna smiled at Twilight and continued, “When I broached the subject with Sable, she mentioned that a group of ponies would be by soon for some weekly get-together and that they were always happy to include new ponies in their activity. I suppose I am pleased at how things turned out, all things considered.”

“I would say so!” Twilight grinned from ear to ear. “Honestly, I’ve rarely seen you look so happy,” she said.

Luna took a seat as she considered Twilight’s words. “I suppose I am at that.” She smiled. “Thank you for playing with us tonight. I know you must be fighting the same dark anxieties as I am, but I think that if I were to let them become my entire world, I would fracture and break under the strain. But now, down to business. As I am certain you would have mentioned any pressing information, I can only surmise that what you found is something we have the night to digest.”

Twilight nodded. “I used the illusion spell you taught me to pretend I was somepony new in town, a unicorn looking for work. It took a little doing, but I met Brilliant Sky.”

Luna rocked forward in her seat, her full attention on the matter at hoof. “And?”

“And she doesn’t seem like a bad pony, not really. Ambitious, maybe, but not mean-spirited.” Twilight put a hoof to her chin. “She reminds me a little of Rarity, actually. The way Brilliant Sky acted, she seemed like she really wanted to be known, and this was supposed to be her means of making that happen. Only now, even though that’s exactly what’s happened, it’s not exactly the result she was angling for,” Twilight said with a shake of her head.

“She wanted to be famous,” Luna concluded, “but not vilified. Do the townsponies hold her responsible for the disappearances then?”

Twilight shook her head. “No, at least not yet. There was some talk that mentioned her name in conjunction with the missing ponies, but I didn’t find anyone all that angry, let alone angry at her. Everypony’s seemed more concerned about the missing townsfolk and the town’s livelihood than blaming somepony for their misfortunes.”

Luna nodded. “This town is filled with good folk. I’m glad to see that my fears about angry mobs were unfounded. So do you have some thoughts on where we should go from here?”

“Well...Brilliant Sky seems to be the best lead we’ve got. I was only able to talk to her for a little bit since it took me a while to find her, but I don’t think we’ll have the same kind of trouble in the future.”

Giving Twilight a puzzled look, Luna asked, “What do you mean by that?”

Twilight returned an enigmatic smile. “It’ll make more sense tomorrow.”

Luna looked cross for a moment before giving a small chuckle. “You’re getting to be as bad as Sand, you know.”

Twilight’s smile grew wistful. “Thank you, Princess.”

***

“P-Princess Luna!” Brilliant Sky prostrated herself on the cold ground.

Luna shared a look with Twilight before saying, “Please, rise. And call me Luna, if you would. I dislike formalities.”

The cobalt unicorn looked up, horrified at the thought, but swallowed nervously as she nodded. “Of...of course...Luna.” She winced but gave Luna a weak grin.

Twilight moved forward to put a reassuring hoof on the nerve-wracked unicorn’s shoulder. “She won’t bite. Honest.” Twilight gave her a smile.

Taking a steadying breath, Brilliant Sky asked, “To what do I owe this most unexpected of honors, Your H...Luna?” She looked from Luna to Twilight and back again, keeping a brave face in spite of her anxieties.

As Luna began explaining, Twilight looked around the cavern that Brilliant Sky called home. Hidden within the mountainside, the chamber was the remnant of an exhausted mining node, any gems having been stripped from it long ago. While once it might have been left to succumb to natural entropy, Brilliant Sky had managed to furnish it a great deal. Bed, bookshelves, and even a small kitchen adorned several nooks and crannies that had either been carved out by mining picks, or hollowed out with magic. An entire wall was filled with unguents and magical reagents, making Twilight wonder just how diverse this unicorn’s talents were.

The most eye-catching features, however, were the rune circles. Gouged out of the rocky floor, Twilight recognized some patterns and could piece together guesses at others, but a very few mystified her completely, having never shown up in any of her textbooks. Puzzling over the thought, Twilight’s attention was drawn back to the other ponies sharing the room with her.

“And you think I’m somehow responsible?” Brilliant Sky asked, a hint of indignation creeping into her voice.

Luna shook her head. “We believe that there are a number of factors at play, but malice is not one of them, neither from you nor from any others.” Twilight wondered if Luna lied or if she truly believed that. It was disquieting to consider, but her voice drove the thought away. “Your enchantments have been noted as being the most potent, more than any two or three others unicorns combined.” The blue unicorn drew herself up at the praise. “And we would like to know why that is.” Brilliant Sky sagged a bit at that.

“Princess,” she began before she could help herself. “My apologies...Luna. I want to help the others as much as anypony, but you’re asking for the secrets of my livelihood...” Brilliant Sky’s glanced at Twilight and back, but they had seen the motion.

“You have no need to fear my companion poaching your methods,” Luna said. Motioning with one hoof, she said, “Brilliant Sky, may I reintroduce you to my sister’s star pupil, Twilight Sparkle.”

“Reintroduce...?” she asked, confusion written on her face.

Twilight gave her a sheepish grin and chuckled. She said, “Sorry for the deception. I was here yesterday--the new unicorn looking for work? I promise I wasn’t here to steal your secrets, we’ve just been seen around town a lot and it seemed easier to come in with a fresh slate.”

Brilliant Sky gave Twilight a measured look before responding. “Deceptive, but practical,” she said. Slowly recovering her composure, her nervousness was quelled by the cloak and dagger methods surrounding their meeting. If Luna had wanted to crack down on questionably-legal trade, she would not have come herself, nor bound herself up in so much secrecy. At least, I hope not, she thought. “What would you like to know then?”

“Well, we’d love to see a demonstration, if you don’t mind. The best way to learn is by doing, am I right?” Twilight wore an innocent smile, causing Brilliant Sky to just shake her head at the other unicorn’s naivete.

“Of course. However, I fear that what you see won’t quite live up to the stories--I’m down to using gems with severe imperfections, which will affect the overall quality of the work.” Without waiting for a response, Brilliant Sky trotted to a pile of debris stacked in an otherwise unused crate. Sifting through the garbage, she pulled out a fractured star sapphire the size of a grapefruit, examining it with a critical eye before shrugging. She floated it over to one of the rune circles that Twilight actually recognized--a simple bound enchantment for making something lighter than it would be naturally. Leaving it suspended in midair, Brilliant Sky channeled the trickle of power that would activate the circle. With a flash and a dull murmur, the enchantment seeped into the gemstone.

Eying the work critically, Twilight found herself unimpressed. “That’s it? No offense, but that’s really basic magic. The rune work is excellent, I’ll admit,” Twilight said, pointing at the circle, though she was careful not to touch it, “but any foal with a spark of levitation magic could do what you just did.”

If Brilliant Sky was offended by Twilight’s frank assessment, she said nothing, merely nodding . “Agreed. Novice work at best, but here’s where things get more involved.” Without turning, she floated several jars from the shelves, measuring out this and that while simultaneously kindling the flame in her small kitchen. Setting a pot of water to boil, she began grinding ingredients together in with a mortar and pestle until she had reduced her reagents into a a fine paste. “Zebra magic,” she explained. “They don’t have horns, obviously, but they can mix potions and poultices that evoke powers just as diverse and powerful as our own. Moreso, I’m inclined to believe, though I’ve no proof of such.” She scraped the paste into the roiling water.

“I arrived late to the party, but while the townsponies toiled at their simple enchantments with their shoddy rune work, I travelled downriver to see if there were more...specific requests that our clients might have in mind before the first shipment went out.” A sly grin stole across her face before she remembered she had an audience. Quickly suppressing her mirth, she continued, “Ah, the zebras were most welcoming of my interest, and they were kind enough to teach me some basic recipes and show me the foundation of their magic. I’m afraid that my secret is no greater than simply combining their magic with our own, though I’ll pretend no false modesty: this is quite difficult.”

“That really is amazing,” Twilight said, genuine awe in her voice; Brilliant Sky preened at the compliment. “I wish I could ask you to teach me, but I don’t want to intrude. But it’s such a creative way to work around the shortcomings of gemstones, it’s a wonder that nopony’s tried something like it before.” Luna felt suspicions creeping up along the back of her mind, but she chose to remain silent and observe for the time being.

Brilliant Sky pulled the mixture off of the fire, eyeing it before nodding to herself. Floating the pot over, she poured the concoction into the pattern carved into floor, careful to distribute the liquid such that the entire surface held an even amount of the thick glop. With the gem still floating where it had before, Brilliant Sky channeled her magic again, this time only building it in place. The air grew thin, and Twilight felt her head begin to spin as dizziness toyed with her senses. She had no time to organize her thoughts on the matter before their host reared up, bringing her forehooves down with a resounding crash as she unleashed the pent up magic in a single burst of light.

The liquid in the rune circle began to churn as it burned away, the vapors swirling to congeal around the hovering sapphire. A tension in the air mounted as the powers unleashed by horn and hoof condensed, building to a crescendo before ripping through the chamber in a silent scream of power that staggered all three ponies to their knees. The gemstone shattered, sharp fragments of rock shooting in every direction as the power focused within it refused to be contained.

Twilight screamed. Several fragments had embedded themselves in her hide, and while none looked to have caused more than shallow lacerations, they burned with a fierce light that shone from beneath her skin.

Luna ran to Twilight’s side, her horn already aglow with magic as she carefully worked at the shards, pulling them free from her friend’s body as gently as she could.

“I’m all right, Princess...I’m all right,” Twilight said with a gasp as Luna’s speedy work removed the last fragment from beneath her skin. “How is...oh no..”

Twilight struggled to her feet, rushing to Brilliant Sky’s side. The other unicorn lay prone, several deep gouges bearing testament to the fury of the unchained magic she had employed. She appeared to have taken the brunt of the explosion.

“Please be okay, please be okay...” Twilight said, more to herself than anypony. She placed an ear on Brilliant Sky’s side, able to discern a strong heartbeat over her own panicked breathing. “She has a pulse, but...” Twilight grimaced as she looked the unconscious unicorn over. Blood streamed from a few large wounds and several smaller ones. Whether the fragments had only scored deep cuts or were themselves embedded, Twilight was in no position to know.

Luna knelt beside her, bending her will towards removing the shards as best as she could. “Twilight, please look around and see if you can find anything to help stop the bleeding.” In truth, Luna wanted to keep Twilight busy, wanted to keep her from going into shock. If she could manage something useful in the process, all the better.

Twilight nodded and stood on shaky legs. A quick survey of the room revealed that other than her magical apparatuses, Brilliant Sky lived a spartan life. Yet while she lacked any clothing, there were several neatly folded napkins and a tablecloth lying unused in on corner. As she floated the items over to Luna, she turned to examine the rows of bottles and jars that held the more organic components of Brilliant Sky’s enchantments. Most of the labels meant nothing to her, but with a small surge of hope, she recognized the names of two plants Sand had taught her about, one a styptic agent, the other a disinfectant. Bringing the two jars with her, she returned to Luna’s side to see what aid she could offer.

In short order, they had Brilliant Sky patched up as best they could. Luna had dressed the wounds with expert skill, but without bindings to keep the makeshift bandages in place, those that didn’t simply stick to the unicorn’s wounds had to be held in place by the force until the bleeding stopped.

“How is she, can you tell?” Twilight asked, limping over to sit beside them.

Luna spoke without taking her eyes off the sleeping unicorn. “Physically, she appears stable. Her wounds were not grave, and though there was notable blood loss, because of your help it was not nearly as severe as it could have been.” She said nothing for a moment, but then, “As for her mind, I cannot say. She drew forth a great deal of power, and I did not recognize what she cast when she unleashed it. I begin to suspect, however, that we might have seen a bit of how the rift came to be.”

Twilight looked around, as if seeing her surroundings for the first time. A faint mist clung to the ground where the spell had gone awry, and Twilight couldn’t repress a shiver as she watched it writhe and shift. She wrenched her gaze away, focusing instead on Brilliant Sky. The steady rise and fall of her flanks proved reassuring, but they had no way of knowing how long she would remain in this state.

“We can’t leave her like this,” Twilight said, placing a gentle hoof on the sleeping form. “But we can’t stay here forever if...if she doesn’t wake up.”

Luna nodded. “Agreed. If we are to offer her the best care, we need to move her to town.” She took a moment to look at the swirling mists that hovered over the levitation circle. Frowning, she said, “And I would prefer to do it sooner rather than later. I’ve no idea whether that mist is a parting of the veils or simply remnants that will dissipate eventually, but I would rather study it in less pressing times.”

Twilight struggled to her hooves as Luna focused, the glow around her horn brightening as she levitated Brilliant Sky off the mattress. Pacing herself so that Twilight need not struggle, they hobbled their way out of the tunnel system and into the bright light of midday. Within the cavern, Twilight had forgotten that they had only arrived that morning and she had to shield her eyes against the harsh glare of the outside world.

The trip to town took twice as long as it normally should have, thanks to their injuries and limping gait.

The town lay quiet with the hustle and bustle of the daily market having evaporated, and the few ponies that went about their business paid them no mind until one actually looked at the three. Gasping in shock, an orange pegasus half-galloped, half-flapped over to them in a rush of feathers and dust. As he directed them to what passed for the town’s clinic, they made their way there as quickly as possible, drawing a small crowd of onlookers as they did so.

“Come in and set her down on the bed over here,” a matronly earth pony said. Luna directed her burden to a soft mattress lying against the wall of the clinic, pulling back the covers with her magic even as she did so. Initially fearing the clinic to be run by no more than a well-meaning midwife, Twilight felt a small surge of hope as she noticed that the pony had an asklepian for a cutie mark. While the others busied themselves seeing to Brilliant Sky, Twilight collapsed to her haunches, releasing a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding. Giving herself a look over, Twilight realized that with all the bandages going to aid the other unicorn, her own wounds had bled out and dried in long streaks of crusty brown from the lines gouged out of her hide. She gave herself a grim smile as she wondered how many of the stares they had gotten had been directed at her in particular.

The doctor returned, eyeing Twilight for a moment where she sat before moving to stand in the doorway, addressing the throng of curious ponies. “Okay, that’s enough gawking. Everypony get back to your work, this isn’t some carnival!” With that said, she closed the door behind her, though she left it unlatched should somepony else actually need her help.

Lowering her muzzle, the doctor began pushing at Twilight’s rump with gentle insistence. “Take a seat on the other bed there and we can have a look at your injuries.” As Twilight limped over, the doctor retrieved some necessities from an overhead cabinet, and soon, the sharp smell of alcohol filled the room. “I’m not going to ask what you were doing,” she said around a mouthful of cotton, dabbing at Twilight’s cuts. “However, I will suggest that in the future, you consider using protection if you go for a repeat performance.” When nopony reacted to her insinuations, the doctor snorted. “Okay, bad joke.”

Twilight felt too tired to respond, hardly even wincing as the doctor dabbed at her cuts before binding them in clean linen. A firm but gentle hoof pushed Twilight onto her back where she had the fewest lacerations. “You both look like death warmed over,” the doctor said, looking first at Luna, then back to Twilight. “Your wounds aren’t so bad that you need to stay here, but consider yourselves under orders to get some rest.”

“And our friend?” Luna asked, looking at Brilliant Sky.

“She’s a friend of yours?” the doctor asked. Shaking her head, “Nevermind. Not my business. You did a good job with your triage, Princess, but there’s nothing there that indicates why she’s still unconscious. I’ll keep her under observation for the night, but check back again tomorrow and I might have something more for you.”

Twilight didn’t want to move. The excitement of the day and her injuries had drained her energy, so as her lids began fluttering of their own accord, she found no strength to resist when sleep overtook her.

***

(Once again, special thanks to Chris for taking time to look this over and help me smooth out several rough patches that just stuck out too much)

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