• 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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07 - Ultima Ratio Caelorum

Twilight gazed into the abyss. She heard faint whispers and almost-words form and dissolve before she could resolve them into meaning. Bit by bit, she pushed herself, yearning to know what lay at the edge of reason. With infinite patience, she strained beyond the borders of her self, reaching out to find herself rewarded for her efforts.

Your friends will betray you.

She recoiled as the silent words washed over her. Twilight shook her head in disbelief, yet recalled a blue pegasus selfishly reclaiming her wings in a discordant hedge maze. Twilight’s resolve flickered.

Your friends will deny you.

She no longer strained to make out the words. Drawing back as if burned, Twilight sought to drive the whispers away through sheer force of will. Unbidden, memories surfaced of her friends dismissing her most crushing anxieties out of hoof.

Your friends will abandon you.

Twilight remembered her last day with Sand, and then everything faded to black.

***

The feel of somepony nosing her side with gentle insistence roused her from her slumber. Groaning, she rolled over. Luna drew back, watching with worried eyes. Sore in places she didn’t even know she had, Twilight asked, “Princess?”

“You were thrashing in your sleep so much that I feared you might injure yourself. Is everything all right?”

Twilight stared at Luna with dull eyes, trying to fish her last memories from the remnants of her dreams, but she came up empty. “I...I think so. Thank you. I think I was dreaming about my friends...about Sand.” She looked away. “But I can’t remember anymore.” Noticing her surroundings, she turned to look across the way at the other occupied bed. “How is she?”

“Doing well, actually. Our worst fears went unrealized--Brilliant Sky woke long enough to eat a bit of something before Doctor Strangehooves ordered her back to bed.” Luna glanced over to see the doctor taking a pulse. “It seems to have simply been a case of exhaustion and shock, and for my part, I cannot detect any lingering ill-effects from the miscast spell.”

“Doctor...Strangehooves?” Twilight asked, incredulity displacing her other concerns. She felt that more important things should be taking her focus, but her mind couldn’t work its way around the name. A sudden rush of guilt prompted her to twist around, trying to sneak a discreet look at the doctor’s hooves, but the way she sat obscured them from view.

“It’s not a deformity,” the doctor said in a low voice, not deigning to look at Twilight. “It’s just a nickname from a friend that happened to stick.” She placed Brilliant Sky’s leg alongside the sleeping unicorn before rising to check on her other patient. “How’re you feeling?”

“Sore,” Twilight replied. “But...good. I guess.” Twilight fought the urge to scratch at her itchy bandages. Not wanting to sound ungrateful, she said, “Thank you, Doctor.”

Strangehooves snorted, waving away Twilight’s gratitude. “If you’re chancing fate with that one,” she said, jerking her head towards the other bed, “then it’s the least I could do.”

Luna said nothing, but within her mind, the gears began to turn.

***

“Honestly, Princess, I feel fine,” Twilight said. While Brilliant Sky continued recuperating, Luna and Twilight walked around town, enjoying the last warmth of the day.

“I believe you, Twilight,” Luna said in a voice that clearly implied otherwise. “I am only suggesting that we wait for her to weigh in on the matter before investigating ourselves.”

Twilight considered bumping Luna with her flank, but her wounds did their best to remind her why that would be a bad idea. Instead, she said, “I’m sure if I could just study her work for a bit, I could make sense of what happened.”

“You’ve worked with zebra alchemy, then?”

Twilight donned a smile she hoped looked more convincing than it felt. “Of course!” Luna said nothing, staring her down. “Okay, well, maybe it was more like...I watched Zecora work. Once.” Luna snorted, causing Twilight to sigh. “All right, I agree, we should wait for her to wake up.”

Several moments of silence passed between them. “How are you feeling?” Luna asked again, the latest in a number as of late.

Twilight gave her a steady look, not deigning to reply at first. “Luna,” she said, “thank you, really, but they’re just scratches. If you hadn’t been there, maybe it would’ve been worse." Twilight shrugged. "But you acted faster than me, faster than I could even think. But I’m all right. I promise.” Luna wore a stoic expression as she eyed the bandages covering her friend’s body. Acting on impulse, Twilight reared up, wrapping her legs around Luna’s neck. “I know you’re worried,” Twilight said in a soft voice, “but I need you to trust me on this.”

The princess stood transfixed a moment, but she hooked one leg around her friend before responding, “I know, Twilight. I apologize for pestering you so. I only...do not know what would happen if I were to lose you as well.”

Twilight pulled back, dropping to all fours as she matched Luna’s sad gaze with her own. “We’ll see her again, Princess. I’m sure of it.”

***

Sand retched, the bitter weeds tasting better coming up than they had going down. The thought brought a wry smile to her face, but another convulsion stole whatever mirth Sand could find in her plight. Not good, she thought. I’m not keeping anything down long enough for my body to make use of it. If this keeps up... She shooed the thought away, but a part of her couldn’t help but feel excited at the prospect. No more responsibility. No more pain, or longing, or endless waiting.

No more love, no more life, no more laughter, a part of her countered. She felt too tired to argue in either direction, letting her mind wander where it will.

Whether by providence or just plain luck, rather than simply teleporting herself into a mountainside and being done with her concerns for good, her blind spellcastings had managed to land her on top of one instead. Weak from both the physical and emotional strain, her body continued to reject the small attempts she made to sustain it.

Sand missed Twilight. Well, she missed every one of her friends, but Twilight most of all. Her heart twisted at the thought of the brief time they had spent together. Yet, as bittersweet as the memories might be, the underlying truth was that Sand enjoyed wallowing in self-pity. It felt nice to feel as though she lay at the center of the universe, with all the world’s misfortunes arrayed against her in particular.

She couldn’t keep it up forever, however. While a small part of her wanted to simply collapse and never get up again, the greater part pushed Sand to her hooves, forcing her to get up and get moving while she still could. Wobbly-kneed, she made herself take one step, then another, trying to keep an eye out for something to eat that wouldn’t prove so troubling to her stomach.

Perhaps, she thought, I did not think my clever plan all the way through.

Weak from her earlier spellcasting, Sand regretted leaving her saddlebags behind. What meager supplies they had held would still have proven more useful than the various unknowns she faced now. In the fading daylight, she felt a glimmer of hope as she eyed a distant part of the lakeshore. Watercress, she thought, happy to see at least one familiar plant. Making her way over, she laid down, pinning the green sprigs between her forehooves as she began to first graze at, then devour her meal. As time passed and her gnawing hunger faded, Sand considered her situation.

Alone, she felt lost. Her purpose fulfilled, Sand wanted simply to return to Canterlot, yet the shame of abandoning her friends warded her away from ever satisfying that desire. She shook her head. I did what was needed. I was becoming too attached to... She wondered. Twilight? Luna? Was it her friends she was attached to, or the idea of them, or of friendship in general? Dwelling, she thought, feeling a small grin creep across her face. That’s what my special talent should have been really. The ability to turn things over in my mind in a completely useless fashion. Adrift in memories, she didn’t notice the stranger until he spoke from beside her.

“Evening.”

Sand jumped to her hooves and immediately wished she hadn’t. Fighting the rush of whiteness that covered her vision, she felt her legs buckle and give out. Prone, Sand took slow, deep breaths as her sight returned. The teal stallion hadn’t moved during her small panic, only watching her with curious eyes. Resigned to whatever fate might await her, Sand felt she could at least meet it with courtesy. “Greetings,” she said.

If he harbored ulterior motives, he hid them well. Nodding, he turned his gaze out over the still waters as he sat a respectful distance away. Sand watched him for a moment before turning to take in the same sight that held him transfixed. As they sat high atop the mountains guarding Horsetooth, the sun’s last rays burned red and orange streaks across the sky. The surface of the water rippled with a faint breeze, but otherwise mirrored the riot of colors exactly. Though she knew better, Sand felt that maybe, just maybe, Celestia was watching over her. With that thought, she found a small island of peace within her heart.

The two ponies remained silent, basking in the dying light as the sun dipped below the horizon. As time passed and night stole in on chilly hooves, Sand began to tremble and shiver, unused to the biting cold.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, ma’am,” the stallion said suddenly, “but if you’re looking for someplace warm tonight, you’re more than welcome at my home. The cold always feels worse than it really is, but you’re still gonna catch your death if ya stay out here like that.”

Sand wasn’t sure what to make of his offer as his gaze roamed over her flank, but he did have a point--the past night had been taxing, and it had been far warmer than this. Fighting down her anxieties, she tried to speak through chattering teeth but only managed a whimper and a nod. As he rose and began walking, she stood and followed.

With the sun gone and the wind picking up, the frigid air chewed through her hide, making her muscles ache in sharp bursts of pain that almost felt like fire. She struggled to keep moving, to keep pace with the stallion ahead of her, but what small reserves she had built up with her earlier meal lay spent and empty now. Practically dozing on her hooves, she trudged on for an eternity, trapped in a fugue state where flashes of memories and dreams flitted by on silent wings.

She came to lying on a couch in front of a heap of banked coals. Sweat trickled down her flanks and collected in little pools at her hooves, but the warmth felt too good for her to move. Well, move much. She shifted, searching for a more comfortable position as she sank deeper into the cushions.

“Feeling better?”

She opened one green eye, regarding the stallion with idle curiosity. “Yes, thank you.” She sat up, or tried to, struggling not to be engulfed by the couch entirely. Taking a proffered hoof, she stepped onto more stable ground, stretching out some of her soreness at the same time.

“Sorry about that. Mite bit hard to get up on your own if you’re not careful, but it does make for a comfy resting spot.” He favored her with a half smile.

“It does at that,” Sand said, giving him a thoughtful look. “Thank you, by the way.”

“It weren’t nothing,” he said, shrugging one shoulder. “Ya get hungry, there’s food in the kitchen. Ya get thirsty and there’s a rain barrel there too. Ya get talky and I’ll be around. Need to see to some errands before night sets in proper.” Ending with a nod of his head, the stallion turned to go about his business.

“Wait, what’s your name?” Sand asked.

He paused as if to consider how to answer. “Ain’t got one. Ya think of something that fits, ya let me know and we’ll go by that.” He waited to see if Sand would say more, but after a moment he turned and left.

***

Sand was bored. Warmth and a full stomach might be necessary for good health, but they did little to nourish her mind. Feeling that applying any random name to her host would be unjust, Sand opted to wait and learn more about him first. The decision left her with precious little to occupy her time, however. She looked around the small cabin for the umpteenth time, hoping that perhaps she had missed some detail, but she found nothing new.

Trying to track down her savior proved fruitless--whatever errands needed tending to apparently involved a great deal of travel. Sand paced in tight circles, her mind churning as cabin fever nibbled away at her sanity. She considered writing a note and setting off on her own, but when she opened the door, a blast of freezing air ushered in more than a few snowflakes. She slammed the portal shut, beating a hasty retreat to sit beside the fireplace.

“Welp,” she said, looking around again.

Rescuing her for the second time in as many hours, the teal stallion returned. “Thought of a name yet?” he asked as he shut the door behind him.

Sand shook her head. “It seemed in bad form to stick you with some moniker that might not suit you. I am Sand, by the way.”

Nodding, he said, “Pleasure.” Beginning to shuck layers of snow-dusted clothing, he seemed disinclined to say more.

Sand gave him an annoyed look, then broke into a grin. “Nevermind, we’ll go by that then. It is nice to meet you, Pleasure. Thank you again for your timely arrival.”

The stallion’s face went from teal to scarlet as the name stuck. “I guess I deserved that one. You’re welcome, for what it’s worth. Didn’t expect nopony to be way up here, especially not this time of year, but I'm always glad to have some company.”

Sand cocked her head to the side. “Why are you up here anyway? I’ve been traveling along the lake for a day now, but you’re the first pony I’ve seen hide or hair of.” Sand sat with her rump to the fire, watching the light dance across her host’s features as he stared her down.

Eventually, he said, “I don’t much like talking about what brought me up to these parts, only what’s here now that needs doing. Ya looked like ya needed help, and I ain’t one to walk away from somepony that don’t even know she’s gonna die in the cold.” He found a comfortable spot on the small couch as it did its best to consume him.

“And I surely do appreciate you taking me in, though I have to wonder at your judgment. You know nothing of my past--perhaps I am some villain, come to prey on your selflessness.” Sand smiled, hoping he’d see she jested.

He shrugged. “Ya needed help and ya ain’t done me no wrong so far. Figure there’s no use dwelling on what’s been.” Sinking into the cushions, he didn’t seem to notice how exposed he was becoming in repose. “There’s today and what ya’ve got in front of ya, and that’s enough.”

Her eyes flicked down and back up again. Eyebrows raised, Sand asked, “Are you...did you just proposition me?”

Bolting upright, Pleasure looked horrified. In a rushed voice, he said, “No! What? No! I mean I like to live in the now an...aw, forget it.” Pointedly rolling onto his belly, he gave his guest a dirty look.

Grinning, Sand relaxed. His reaction spoke volumes of his intent, or lack thereof, and while he could simply be a superb actor, it seemed unlikely. “Sorry, I suppose I’m just out of sorts. It feels like forever since I’ve been warm and had a good meal, and I guess I’m just giddy.”

Pleasure regarded her with a wary eye before responding. “You’re welcome to stay as long as ya need, though I could use some help around the place once the weather clears up if you’re feeling especially grateful. As for your other insinuations, I don’t exactly ken to that.” He gave her an even stare, daring Sand to say something. When she remained silent, he continued, “Storm’ll likely be on us tonight, best to just hunker down and wait it out. I pulled together some firewood and laid in some stores, so if the cabin fever don’t get ya first, ya can be on your way soon enough.” Pausing a moment, he added, “If ya want.”

“I will...think it over, but thank you for the choice,” Sand said. “Tell me though, what do you do to keep yourself sane? I don’t mean to look a gift horse in the mouth but--”

“Wait, a what? Why would ya get a horse as a gift?” Pleasure took on a perplexed look.

“It’s just an expression,” Sand said, drawing her mouth into a firm line.

“Says who?”

Sand ignored him. “What I meant to ask was what do you do to keep from going mad with boredom?”

Pleasure shrugged. “Think, mostly.”

Sand groaned. It was going to be a long night.

***

Around her, the town slumbered. Luna sat outside, watching the moon trace its path across the sky in silent companionship. Lover, jailer, mentor, self. She felt her age tonight, but took comfort in the knowledge that old as she was, the moon was somehow older still.

“What are you thinking, old friend?” she asked. If it made a response, it fell on deaf ears.

After a time, she heard somepony approaching, the crackle of hoarfrost underhoof making any sort of stealth impossible. Turning to regard her visitor, she nodded in acknowledgement and said, “Should you not be in bed?”

“I’ve rested enough for two lifetimes, Your H...Luna. I’ve more than caught up on my sleep for tonight.” Brilliant Sky paused in her advance, but after a moment’s hesitation, she took a seat nearby. “How is your student?”

“My sister’s student,” Luna said. “Twilight Sparkle is doing well, though she yearns to examine your spellcraft and learn what went wrong.”

Brilliant Sky sniffed. “My spell was flawless, the materials hardly so.”

Luna regarded her with a small frown. “Regardless, the ritual nearly killed you and injured my dearest friend.” Brilliant Sky shrank a little beneath Luna’s gaze. “I can only hope that your confidence in your abilities is well-earned, and that your expertise proves invaluable.”

Brilliant Sky wilted. “My...my apologies, Pr...Luna. I will do everything in my power to help make this right.” Reaching out with a beseeching hoof, she staggered as several of her wounds twisted into sharp lines of pain.

Luna moved to her side in an eyeblink, offering her enough support to keep from keeling over entirely. “You overstrain yourself. Come, we should not be out here in the cold in your condition. Rested or not, a warm fire will do you better than freezing on the ground.”

They made their way back to the inn, Luna ensuring her pace would be slow enough to not tax her ailing companion. Opening the door, warmth and smells of comforting things washed over them. Seeing the unicorn through, Luna paused at some distant sound, feeling compelled to look around. Straining, she listened to the sound of the wind wailing through the streets, trying to make out anything over the rising howl, but it proved futile. As the two companions retired for the night, the cold moon watched on in quiet anticipation of the things to come.

***

“Form follows function, my sisters.” Chicory looked at her siblings. “The Nightmare rides.”

***

“I'm telling ya, that’s how I got it.”

“That can’t have been true!”

“Listen here--it was the scariest day of my life, and I'm glad I got my mark and all, but I’d have rather found it some other way that wasn’t being buried in an avalanche, believe you me.”

Sand eyed Pleasure’s flank again. “So your special talent is...causing landslides?” She gave him an unadulterated look of incredulity as she resumed eating her breakfast.

Rubbing a hoof through his sky-blue mane, he grinned, “I like to think of it more like...widespread landscaping.”

Shaking her head, Sand continued chewing for a moment before saying, “So I guess that’s why you’re up here then? Better to keep the snow and loose rocks spilling down when you expect them than to leave it to some unwary traveler.”

Pleasure nodded. “In one. Kind of a lonely job, but folks treat me right when I get to see ‘em, and I get to keep ‘em safe in the meantime. Means a lot to know you’re doing right by your neighbors.” Sand looked up at those words, seeing him as if for the first time. “What? I got something stuck on my face?”

Slowly, Sand shook her head. “No. It’s just hard to tell the measure of a pony sometimes, and I thought I had gotten better at it. I feel I’ve wronged you, giving you such a ridiculous name. Won’t you tell me what it really is?”

He looked uncomfortable. “It’s all right--it might as well be Pleasure. I ain’t had a proper name in dog’s years, really. Wasn’t born around here for anypony to tell me what my folks called me, and getting conked by rocks all the time ain’t done me any wonders in the remembering things department. Lotsa things don’t like to stick, and I guess my name’s just one of ‘em.”

Shrugging, he tried to look casual as he studied Sand for her reaction. She said, “Names are vastly overrated.” Meeting his curious gaze with a smile, Sand said, “It would be a very long story. And why look at that, the sun’s come out!”

Getting up from her seat, Sand trotted over to the window and peered outside. Deep powder coated everything within view, the rippling blue of the mountain lake providing the only break in the painful whiteness. Squinting through her snowblindness, Sand felt more than saw her cabin-mate crowd in beside her as he tried to make room for himself at the small window.

They watched the unchanging scene for a few moments before Sand said, “You never asked what I was doing up here.” She turned slightly, looking at him with a gray eye.

“Can’t say I wasn’t curious, there being no clear way up to here and all, but I can’t rightly go digging into your business when I’d have minded ya doing the same.”

She studied him, letting the moments tick by as she considered all that had transpired. “Thank you,” she said, leaving it at that.

Pleasure looked unsure of how to respond to that, so he just nodded.

Sand turned away from the frosted landscape. “What kind of errands need to be taken care of? I am many things, but ungrateful is not one of them.”

“Simple stuff, but lots of it. Takes me a while to get it all done, but I'm sure with your magic, we can get everything squared away right fast.” Eyeing her horn at first, Pleasure looked at Sand’s face and saw a hesitation there. “Ya don’t have to if ya don’t want. I ain’t gonna hold it against ya.”

Sand shook her head. Tired of long-winded explanations, she just said, “I’ll do it the earth pony way. It helps me retain an appreciation for the hard work you all do.” Sand thought she saw a glimmer of respect in his eyes as he began showing her what needed to be done.

***

A shadowed figure pawed at the ground, unearthing the faint scent of her quarry. The trail lay long dormant, and while no magic could fully erase its existence, somepony had certainly tried. Gazing out over the ocean waters, she narrowed her eyes against the bright day. With the beat of mighty wings, the pursuit resumed.

***

“Is something wrong, Your Highness?”

It took a moment for the question to register, but when it did, Celestia shook her head. “Thank you, but I am fine.” Caught while walking to morning court, their course diverted suddenly, taking them instead towards a small room adjoining the Royal Library. Standing before a sealed door, Celestia turned to her escort and said, “Would you be so kind as to go to my academy and fetch Professor Star Fall? You should be able to find him in the observatory, or thereabouts.” The dusky unicorn bowed low and vanished in a cloud of magic, leaving her alone.

Horn shining with an aura of power, Celestia unlocked the chamber that only she had access to. She hoarded her collection of rare and valuable books not out of a displaced sense of possession, but rather a concern that their contents would prove to be more trouble than they were worth should they fall into the wrong hooves.

Reasoning that it would be a little while yet before her guard returned, Celestia shifted her attention to the scant tomes before her. Bound with magic and things even older, the books looked almost nondescript in comparison to their restraints. An empty display case at the end marked where Sand’s charge would find its final rest once all the excitement died down. Beside the vacant container, Celestia found what she sought: Star Fall’s story.

Undoing the seals proved more difficult than she remembered, and she struggled with them still when an ancient pegasus sidled up next to her. Too distracted to notice the new arrival, she accidentally bumped him with her flank as she moved to take a different approach. Turning suddenly, she caught the old stallion grinning like a fool.

“Princess,” he said, his smile not flickering in the face of Celestia’s scowl.

“How you ever managed to become so stealthy without flight, I’ll never know,” she said. Smiling, Celestia brought one leg around her friend, sharing an embrace. “It is good to see you again. I visit too little.”

Pulling back, he said, “True, but the times when you do make up for the times that you don’t.” He smiled, bending the multitude creases on his face into a web-work of happiness. “Now, you didn’t call me here just to reminisce, I take it.” His eyes fell on the book he had presented to Celestia so long ago.

“No, I’m afraid not.” She looked over at the halfway-undone seals and shook her head. “I felt compelled to come here, all of a sudden. It has been long years since we last discussed it, but do you think we missed anything of significance when Nightmare Moon was freed?”

He fluttered his wings, disturbed by the thought. “I’d hope not. The dream was fairly straightforward: be with the Bearers when they encounter Nightmare Moon, and you bring ruin to everypony. You’ve read the text as much as any of us.”

Celestia didn’t respond for several minutes, prompting Star Fall to take a comfortable seat on the carpeted floor while he waited. Sitting back on her haunches, Celestia decided to fill him in on Sand and the tidings she had brought.

When it was over, he gave an appreciative whistle. “So she was one of my folks, eh? That would explain why she was with that attractive sister of yours.” Celestia glared daggers at him, but Star Fall only chuckled. “What, are you going to banish me to the moon for eyeing the royal flank?”

“I could, you know.”

“No you couldn’t. You told me why yourself.”

Celestia narrowed her eyes, making him smirk even harder in response.

“Not like it matters much anyway,” he said finally. “I don’t know where they got off to, but I imagine I’ll be gone before they return.”

Celestia dropped her angry pretense, looking shocked, then sad as his words settled in. “Merryweather...”

“Oh stop that. You know it happens to all of us lesser ponies, and it’s not like we won’t see each other again.” Looking up, he said, “Hey, hey now, don’t do that...” Moving up to her, he did his best to nuzzle away the tears trickling down Celestia’s face, but his diminutive stature made the gesture only partway successful.

Still, Celestia managed a smile for her old friend. Wrapping him in a gentle embrace with wing and hoof, she couldn’t bring herself to share her fears of how Sand’s arrival might have changed things. With the quiet of the library surrounding them, they enjoyed what little time they had left together.

***

Sand waggled all four booted hooves in the air, failing to realize that doing so would shower her with the accumulated snow and debris from their work outside.

“Gah!” She spat out leaves and dirty snow. “How do you get these things off?”

Pleasure looked on with laughter in his eyes, though he managed to keep a straight face otherwise. Taking his time in walking over, he eventually helped Sand with her boots, undoing the straps and plucking them off with long-practiced ease. “I don’t think this really counts as the earth pony way, but I’ll forgive ya, just this once.”

Glares from upside-down ponies tend to be more humorous than intimidating, it turns out, and Pleasure’s chuckles did nothing to diminish Sand’s ire. With her hooves free, Sand regained her footing, brushing herself off as best as she could.

“Well, what’s next?” she asked.

Pleasure shook his head. “That’s about it, really. At least until something else breaks down around here, but thanks to you, I can take a load off for a little while at least.” He nodded and said, “Thank ya kindly for your assistance today.”

“I hardly consider myself out of your debt, but at least it’s progress.” When no response seemed forthcoming, she looked up. Seeing him watching, Sand asked, “What is it?”

“Ya don’t have to stay here if ya don’t want. I know ya think ya owe me still, but we’re square in my books.”

Sand eyed him, looking for some hidden meaning behind his words. She looked down, pawing at the ground. “I...confess that I do not really have anyplace else to go.”

He looked on in understanding, but couldn’t find the words to speak. It wasn’t so much the awkwardness of the moment that held his tongue, but rather his disinclination to pry into other ponies’ business. Keep himself to himself and nevermind the rest of the world. Sand looked up, searching for some kind of response, but he could only nod, struck dumb as always.

Sand took on a brave stance, though she couldn’t keep her ears from drooping. “I...I take your hints. I will manage to find someplace, then. You said there was no way up here--is there a way down then?” She left the obvious questions unasked, choosing to leave him to his mysteries. Goddesses knew she had enough of her own.

Pleasure frowned, looking hurt. He said, “I may have exaggerated a bit, but the truth is that it ain’t anything close to easy going either way. If ya’ve got a billy goat’s tenacity, ya can scale the rocks down, around the far side where we were working this morning. Might be a tad easier with magic and the like, but it’s a long drop either way, so ya should be extra careful.” Seeing the confusion and loneliness in Sand's eyes, he sought to pull the words from his heart, to express his compassion and understanding for her plight. He wanted to tell her that she didn't have to be alone.

Instead, he looked down at the ground and said nothing.

“Thank you,” she said after a moment, not able to bear calling him by the silly name she’d come up with on a whim. Taking a step forward, she gave him a quick hug and whispered, “For everything.”

Then she was gone.

***

“It doesn’t appear to have grown any since we last saw it,” Twilight said, stepping around the rune circle. “Can you feel anything?” She looked up, leaving the question open to whoever wanted to answer.

A horn glowed dark blue, its light warring against the flickering torchlight illuminating Brilliant Sky’s workshop. Positioned around the tiny cloud, everypony kept a respectful distance both from it and from each other. The amount of magic contained in the small space was liable to cause unexpected feedback if they weren’t careful, and nopony was eager to make another trip to the clinic, especially after seeing the accident earlier.

“I sense nothing. I still maintain that it is only residual magic left over from the supercharged gem, and that it will dissipate in time.” Brilliant Sky looked between Twilight and Luna, but the others were caught up in study. Releasing her spell, she sat on her haunches and did her best to be patient. After all, this was ultimately her fault, and she couldn’t suppress a twinge of dismay when she looked over Twilight’s injuries again.

Distracted, Brilliant Sky jumped back in alarm as a sudden peal of thunder washed over her. Looking around, she saw that her companions shared her surprise. Turning, she stared at the roiling mists that moments ago had been placid, if not entirely inanimate. Now, churning with a fierce energy, small forks of lighting crawled across and through the haze, prompting the ponies to take several cautious steps back.

Suddenly, a blue-purple field enveloped the cloud, though bright flashes of light could still be made out through the translucent barrier. “Go!” Luna shouted with ancient authority. When neither unicorn moved, she added, “Now!”

Not needing further encouragement, Brilliant Sky turned on her hooves and fled, Twilight trailing close behind her for a moment before stopping to call out, “Princess?”

“The inn.” Struggling with the unexpected strain of her spell, Luna gasped, finding her words cut short. “GO!”

Feeling somepony pulling her by her tail, Twilight broke from her stupor when she saw the primal fear in Brilliant Sky’s eyes. Nodding, Twilight began to run, the other unicorn keeping pace beside her.

The disused mining tunnels allowed in no natural light at their location, so both Brilliant Sky and Twilight found themselves trying to navigate by hornlight, though it did as much to blind them as illuminate their surroundings. Stumbling, Twilight grunted as the ground rose to meet her, the impact reopening several of the larger slashes on her body. Dazed, she failed to notice which way Brilliant Sky had taken down the twisting passageways. Getting to her hooves, Twilight tried to follow the sound of hoofsteps, but the branching nature of the tunnels and echoes from the rocky walls soon had her utterly lost.

“Your friends will abandon you,” a voice whispered at the edge of her hearing.

Twilight froze, unsure if she had heard the words or simply imagined it in her rising panic. Turning in a small circle, she tried to see down the passageways but found nothing save for the soft darkness waiting for her at the edge of her horn’s light. The distant clatter of rocks underhoof made their way to her ears, but they too vague to be reliably followed.

“Brilliant Sky?” Twilight called out, a tremulous note finding its way into her voice. “Luna?” She turned in another small circle, as if to catch some horror before it could pounce. “Anypony?” Twilight backed into a wall, her heart thudding in her chest as she tried to calm herself down. Only then did she notice that several of her bandages had been torn off, fresh trails of blood making slow progress down her flank as she stared at them in dull shock.

Twilight shook her head, trying to clear it. The wounds weren’t serious and would close on their own, but that still left her lost deep inside a mountain. Skilled as she was, this far into unknown territory she would need to know a dozen more anchor points if she wanted to teleport back to town safely. Briefly, she considered returning to the enchantment chambers, her heart and hopes going out to Luna.

“You will abandon your friends,” the whisper continued, closer than before.

Twilight gave out a strangled cry before she could help herself. Forcing down her panic through strength of will alone, Twilight began channeling her magic, looping her power in on itself as she pushed herself first to the edge of safety, then burnout.

“What are you doing, little pony?” the amused whisper asked from just beyond the expanding ring of light. “Attacking the darkness?”

“Proving you wrong,” Twilight said through clenched teeth.

With a flash and a twang, she returned to the only place left that made sense to her.

***

Luna lay worn, but not broken. Chest heaving with exertion, she rested against a chamber wall as she fought to regain her breath. When Twilight teleported in with a crash of magic and light, Luna first believed that her spell had failed, but felt no less surprised when she saw the truth of the matter.

“Princess! Are you all right?”

Luna looked on in mute exhaustion as Twilight rushed to her side and gave her a quick look over. Finally, Luna found her voice. “Twilight? I thought I told you to go to the inn.” She thought for a moment. “Ordered, actually.” Still, Luna felt better with a friendly face beside her.

“I know! I’m sorry, Princess. I...I got lost.” Twilight looked away, abashed. “I must have tripped following Brilliant Sky out, and by the time I got back up, she was gone.” She shivered as she remembered the events afterwards, though the gesture didn’t go unnoticed.

“What is it?” Luna asked. “Did something else happen?”

Twilight explained about the whispers and the voice. “The accusations sounded so familiar too, but I can’t quite place my hoof on why or where.” She frowned and shook her head.

“Insidious,” Luna said. “I thought I had managed to contain it, but it would seem something slipped by me unnoticed.”

Twilight turned, alarmed that she had forgotten why they had fled in the first place. “Is it...safe?” The menacing storm cloud still raged, but now an almost opaque sphere of force surrounded it, keeping its expansion and anything else it might produce in check.

Luna nodded. “As safe as I can make it. Without the moon watching over me, I had to resort to a different means to contain it, but it should not trouble us. For now.” She left the explanation at that, simply not having the energy for much more. Getting to her hooves, she felt a deep and profound exhaustion, wanting little more than to stumble into her bed and sleep for a thousand years. “Do you know the way back?” Twilight shook her head. ”Very well, I will lead but...I will need your help.” Extending a wing, she shared as much of her weight as she could with her friend as for the second time in as many days, they slowly limped back towards safety.

***

Dark hooves touched down on the rocky shore. Unseen, the huntress opted to shed her nighttime disguise, relishing the feel of cold moonlight flowing over her. Snapping back to her task, she lowered her head, horn glowing as she looked around for the remnants of the trail she followed. Searching in expanding circles, she passed it over three times before picking it up again. She frowned. Weak as the signs were, she would have to forgo flight to avoid losing her way. Still, doing so would give her ample opportunity to avoid having to take up her illusion again, and she looked forward to traveling unimpeded for a time. Shaking her head, she began walking.

***

“Your Highness!”

Brilliant Sky hastened to Luna’s side as she spied the two ponies exiting the tunnels. Rushing to offer what support she could, she found herself unable to meet Twilight’s gaze as they crossed paths. Once beneath Luna’s other wing, she found the courage to speak. “I’m so sorry, Twilight! I didn’t realize you had fallen behind at first, and when I went back to check, you had vanished.”

Twilight bit back a sarcastic remark as to when she had decided to return. Instead, she said, “It’s okay, I should have called out sooner.” She wanted to say more, but Luna pressed a wing against Twilight’s side. Unsure whether the princess meant it as a reassuring gesture or a quieting one, Twilight opted to believe the latter.

“We do this to frequently, as of late,” Luna said as the ghost of a smile graced her lips before vanishing with her next words. “And I imagine it will not be the last or least time that we do.”

Silence accompanied them the rest of the way back to the inn. Partially invigorated by the gaze of the moon, Luna found herself needing her companions’ support less and less as they traveled. More than once did she count herself blessed to have ponies who cared for her, though she had to quash a niggling doubt as to their base motivations for doing so. Brilliant Sky may not be her friend, exactly, but Twilight certainly was, and she could take solace in that fact.

When they walked into the inn, they found a letter waiting for them.

“It came just this afternoon,” Sable explained, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes as she stretched in her chair. Walking over to join them in the common room, she slid the missive across the tabletop as she took a seat beside them.

Unfurling the letter with her magic, Luna took a moment to give the words a quick scan before taking a more measured rereading, giving her time to chew on their import. After finishing it a second time, she let it fall as she rubbed a hoof along the bridge of her nose. “Must nothing be simple?”

Twilight gave her a concerned look and asked, “What is it? Whatever it is, I’m sure we can get through it together.”

Luna was already shaking her head as Twilight finished speaking. “I am afraid that this time, that is simply untrue.” She looked at Twilight with sad eyes. “My sister has called for your return. You are to travel back to Canterlot with all due haste once you have secured what you need for the journey.”

Twilight was on her hooves in a heartbeat. “What? Why would Princess Celestia do that? She knows how important our mission is!” How much you need us beside you, she thought.

Hearing the unspoken words, Luna nodded. “She would not do anything to stay our purpose unless something more pressing reared its head. While I do not wish to part ways with you, I can continue on my journey. You are needed at home.” Luna regarded her friend, already rebuilding the shell around her heart that would allow her to continue on alone. “She fears that the Elements will find use again, and soon.”

Twilight sat back on her haunches, though she found herself more surprised at her lack of surprise than anything else. Where once she might have felt that wielding the Element of Magic would be a rare occurrence, the magnitude of revelations recently made her realize that as powerful as they were, the Elements had to come from somewhere, and be made for some ancient purpose. There were old things, dangerous things that lurked in the places beyond, and they were stirring into action.

“I do my part,” Luna intoned, breaking Twilight’s reverie, “and so must you do yours.”

***

(As ever, a special thanks to Chris for taking time to look at this chapter and helping me fix several problems, not the least of which is my tendency to go off the rails and leave you readers in the dark about important things!)

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