• 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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08 - The Shadow of Your Heart

Deep within zebra zebra territory, Sand trembled. She drew herself into a smaller ball as she struggled to keep warm in her meager shelter. Even free of the highlands, the coming winter toyed with her, doing its best to remind her of all the comforts she had abandoned. Sand thought of the pleading look in Pleasure's eyes when they had parted ways. Though she briefly considered returning to her friend's side, her heart shied away from the idea of living out her days in such isolation.

The lack of direction troubled her, as it had been for nearly a week since she had left Pleasure’s cabin. All her life she had known who she was, who she had been. Born into a world of solitude and foreboding, the decision to leave the Eclipsed had brought more than a little joy to her heart, though with what had been taken from her, the memories were bittersweet. She wondered why now, with her duties complete, she couldn’t simply go back. Her mind balked at the answers she had given Twilight and her friends, but her heart offered up the honest truth: she had tasted life and known how rich it could be, and a return to the loneliness of her childhood home would suffocate her as much as any prison.

Wandering aimlessly had availed her little, however. Her divergence from her friends’ path meant Sand no longer knew which direction her journey should take. By now, Luna and Twilight will be treating with the Erudite or else done completely, she thought. As her mind lit on the zebras’ spiritual leader, an idea began to take shape in her head. Crouching and crawling, she made her way out from beneath the fallen tree. Shivering, she stretched out cramped muscles, warming up with a quick trot in place even as she imagined a spark of hope kindled in her heart. Sand pictured a distant beacon, flickering and faint, but there if she would only get moving.

Based on the vague memories of the past few days, Sand found herself far from any civilization that she could recall: Zenio’s map had been lackluster at best and useless at worst. Shaking her head, she opted to journey south, planning to navigate by sun and stars as best as she could in the thick forest. As she started walking, Sand wondered if Luna would hear her prayers if they were offered up to the moon, though she banished the thought after some consideration. Goddess though she might be, Luna had troubles enough without piling more of Sand’s own on top. More importantly, Sand still considered her a friend and didn’t want Luna to worry unduly.

As the hours passed, the forest density began to thin, leaving only scattered copses in Sand’s wake as she entered a vast prairie that stretched from horizon to horizon. Tall stalks slowed her progress to a crawl as she blazed her own trail through the dense grasses. As Sand began to flag, the sun broke from behind the clouds and kissed her hide with an enveloping warmth that did much to lift her spirits and solidify her belief that she had made the right choice.

Sand lifted her head as she heard music drifting on the breeze. Redoubling her efforts, it took only a few minutes for Sand to push through the grasses and stumble into a wide clearing. Dozens of zebras danced around a roaring fire, the sound of heavy drumbeats thumping out a rhythm that Sand could feel in her very bones. Heaps of fresh-cut grasses stood amidst a loose collection of canvassed huts that looked to be intended more for portability than aesthetics. Even through the smoke-strewn air, the stacked greenery smelled sharp and pungent, .

Feeling out of place, Sand began backing away. She made it two steps before a dancer caught sight of her, twirling over on elegant hooves to welcome her into their festivities with laughter and a friendly smile. Sand soon found herself on unsteady legs as she danced with one partner after another, trying to keep pace with the revelers. Though she did a poor job of it, no one seemed to mind in the least, pressing upon her sweet drinks and rich foods when she rested, and offering hoof and merriment when she danced.

For the first hour or so, she blushed with every off-beat shake of a leg, every misplaced step, every awkward gyration of her ivory body. As the hours flew by, however, her inhibitions faded. Warming to the music and the exuberant company, Sand felt the worries of two lifetimes fall to the wayside, as if in her every move, she shook off just a bit more of her past. When twilight finally began to creep across the sky, Sand found herself exhausted yet more whole than she had felt in ages. Lying sprawled across a heap of soft cushions set out for the weary, Sand looked over to see a zebra watching her from a reclining position. The zebra wore a smile that only grew wider as she caught Sand’s eye. Aided by the orange firelight, Sand recognized her both as the one who had been so welcoming and also as the partner who had kept her company more than any other that night.

“You dance well, little pony.” Mirth sparkled in the zebra’s dark eyes. Sand laughed, though at the well-intentioned lie or just the sheer joie de vivre, she couldn’t tell.

After a time, she found the breath to speak. “My thanks, but compared to you, I am but a candle’s flame to the sun.” She meant it too. Sand danced as though she had all left hind legs, but her companion had been music itself put to form, sinuous and graceful in a way that seemed impossibly beautiful to behold, let alone be a part of.

The zebra sat up, gesturing for Sand to to do the same. “We do not receive many visitors here, and I would be honored to spend more time with you. Would you share in my company this evening and break bread with me?” The zebra’s smile grew coy as she added, “In the morning, that is.” She gave Sand a hopeful look.

After a moment, Sand blushed, returning a smile in kind.

***

“It’s breaking apart!”

Luna shook her head as the howling winds clawed at her mane. “Stand firm! Everything depends on our success here!”

Two unicorns went to their knees as a surge of force crashed against their spellcraft. The interwoven magic buckled, prompting a dozen more unicorns to join their powers to the lattice. Through their shared magic, Luna could feel the souls of her comrades, their hearts beating in time with her own as they worked to close the misty portal that had consumed so many of their kin. A web of energy spread out in a massive dome, slowly compressing beneath Luna’s ancient will as she tapped the combined magic of all those present--unicorn, pegasus, and earth pony alike.

It wasn’t going to be enough.

Luna staggered. She sensed the unbridled malice that lurked beyond the veil push back, and for a moment, despair seized her heart. She remembered the alicorns imprisoned on that faraway world--how could she possibly contend against that which could prevail against three of her own kind?

Beside her, a pony collapsed, the sheer power involved in the exchange proving too much to bear. Luna narrowed her eyes, remembering her friends and her sister, the ponies she cared about and those that cared for her on a deep and personal level. Lowering her head, Luna’s eyes blazed with argent light as she called down the moon.

Older than ponies, older than her, her sister, Discord, or anything else in living memory. Old magic, and powerful. The silver-white eye blinked shut, leaving a hole cut out of the stars as Luna drew upon it, crushing the portal beneath its might and sealing the rift with a thunderous crash that knocked everypony flying.

Within moments, Brilliant Sky regained her footing, taking a moment to clear her head before rushing to the princess’s side. “Luna! We did it! We--” she broke off and took a fearful step back.

Above them, the moon winked back into existence as it cast a baleful look upon the scene playing itself out. Menacing laughter could be made out over the groans of the injured ponies, growing in volume even as Luna turned her lucent gaze upon them. “Glory!” she cried out, her forelegs outspread. “Glory in the night everlasting!” Her words crashed over them like thunder, and Brilliant Sky joined more than one pony in pressing close to the ground. The fringes of Luna’s hair began to turn smoky and indistinct as she rose into the air, beating wings that darkened to the color of deepest night. “This time there will be no--!” Her words cut off with a hoarse scream. Luna hovered a moment longer before plunging to the earth, her body wracked with pain as she fought for control.

More than one pony remained paralyzed, unable or unwilling to help. Even Brilliant Sky quailed at the notion, but seeing Luna in pain, she remembered the benevolent soul that she had come to know over the past few days. While a far cry from being her friend, Brilliant Sky had still glimpsed the guarded heart that lay hidden from the public.

Standing on shaky legs, Brilliant Sky went to Luna’s side as fast as her hooves would allow. Not knowing what else to do, she placed a hoof on the princess’s side. “Luna?”

She looked up at the sound of her name, eyes glowing with power even while her inner struggles continued. Resisting the urge to take a step back, Brilliant Sky held her gaze steady with an open heart and all the kindness that she could convey. Luna gave a shuddering sigh as she released the power she had drawn down.

As she lay recovering, Luna whispered, “Thank you, Brilliant Sky. Yes, we did it.” Taking a deep breath, she turned to survey the aftermath.

Several ponies had taken grievous wounds in the final explosion, the rocky shoreline doing nothing to aid in that regard. Luna rose, making her way to the side of anypony left unattended as she provided what assistance she could. Stewing in grim thoughts and emotions, she hoped that Strangehooves would have enough time for them all.

***

Celestia watched her student sleep. Twilight fidgeted and moaned, suffering from nightmares and troubled dreams whose origins Celestia could not yet pin down.

Placing a gentle hoof on one lavender shoulder, Celestia hoped she could provide Twilight with some small measure of comfort. “You who are and must ever be,” she whispered, “let my love guide you to safer waters than the stormy sea which rages within you.” Twilight whimpered, but her breathing evened out as she found a bit of peace.

Nodding in satisfaction, Celestia rose on silent hooves, making her way out of the guest chambers as she walked to her personal quarters. Waiting until she heard the click of the study door closing behind her, Celestia slumped from her regal pose. Taking several measured steps, she stopped beside a window, gazing out at a star-strewn sky and the pale orb that looked back in silent companionship. Letting her pent up weariness out in a rush, Celestia fell back on her haunches as she gave a deep sigh that she could never allow in public. She felt her age tonight. No, not just tonight. For a long while now, she thought.

She shook her head, shooing her dark thoughts away. Staring at the moon, she asked, How are you, my sister? Celestia cocked her head, as if expecting an answer, though she knew none would be forthcoming. Her gaze went slack as she found her mind drifting through happier times, simpler times when suddenly Luna’s distant actions ripped Celestia from her thoughts. Wings flaring at her sides, Celestia gaped at the void carved into the sky where the moon had been, only feeling the least bit relieved when it reappeared moments later. Knowing what it portended, she couldn’t suppress the horror that dawned in her heart. In a quiet voice she asked, “Luna, what have you done?”

Watching from high above, the moon kept its answers to itself.

***

Sand brought a hoof up to scratch at an itch, earning a murmur of displeasure from beside her. Feeling a leg circling her waist, Sand smiled and hugged it close. Lying still, she savored the little things: the heartbeat against her back, the subtle breath tracing its way along her neck, the warm feel of the zebra’s body pressed against her own. In the stillness, Sand knew a serenity that had eluded her for her entire life.

Half-asleep, Sand couldn’t tell how much of the morning passed before her companion stirred, only that the moment came too soon. Sitting up, the zebra gave a great yawn as she stretched, working out muscles still sore from the previous evening. Rolling over, a small grin stole across Sand’s face as she watched her bedmate in the dim light.

As promised, they broke their fast together over bread and water as they eased their way into conversation.

“So what did we celebrate last night?” Sand asked.

“Life,” the zebra said, wearing a smile flecked with crumbs. Brushing them away with a hoof, she amended, “My sister’s wedding in particular.”

“Ah,” Sand said, looking embarrassed. “I apologize for crashing out of the wild like some beast, only to prey upon your kindness at such an event.”

The zebra shot her a surprised look before grinning. She said, “I admit, you did have many of us wondering, but we would never turn away a guest, no matter what the occasion.”

Sand blushed, smiling in spite of herself. “I...am ashamed to admit this, but I do not even know your name.” She looked up, seeing the zebra eye her with great interest.

“Saraneesi,” she said, taking a bite of bread to give her guest time to fill the silence. Sand hesitated, however, prompting Saraneesi to ask, “What holds your tongue, little pony?”

“I...fear you would consider my name an ill omen.”

Saraneesi shook her head and said, “I do not know how many of my folk you may have met, but do ponies believe in exactly the same thing, all of you?” Knowing the answer, she continued without waiting. “Then you should know that we too are different.” Dipping her head, she held Sand’s gaze as she waited.

“Dawn Star,” Sand replied at last. Her throat constricted at the thought of frightening away someone who had treated her with so much care, but Sand wanted to offer up something of her true self, the only thing she had left to give. Her fears went unrealized as Saraneesi only smiled in response.

Or at least tried to only smile. The corners of her mouth tugged upwards as she fought for control, but it was no use--soon she threw her head back, laughing in a rich voice that, however puzzling, Sand found herself enjoying a great deal.

When the laughter had died down to only the occasional chuckle, Sand asked, “So, would you care to share what’s so funny?”

“Serendipity,” came the response. Still wearing a wide grin, Saraneesi explained, “My name means ‘She who comes with the dawn.’ An apt choice of words given last night, wouldn’t you agree?”

Sand wore a blank look for a moment before the realization hit her. Blushing furiously, Sand took a huge bite of her breakfast, looking for something to keep busy with while Saraneesi only looked on in delight.

Relenting, Saraneesi opted to change the subject. “So, what draws you so far from your homeland of Equestria?”

Chewing, Sand considered the best words to encompass her whole purpose. “I lost my way, and have only recently found the path again.”

Saraneesi smiled. “Enigmatic. If you don’t want to tell me, you need not worry--I will not pry. But play coy in bed, not at breakfast, please.”

Sand grimaced. She rubbed a hoof along one leg as she wondered how much would be safe to share. “I do not mean to be evasive, only that my tale is long and I am short of breath as of late. I seek the Erudite.”

Saraneesi’s eyes widened at that. She gave a respectful nod, seeing her companion in a new light. “Ah, that explains much and more. I did not think the ponyfolk knew of our eldest, let alone undertook the pilgrimage to share in his wisdom. From my lips to your heart, my prayers and hopes go with you that you might find the answers you seek. I will ask no more.”

Sand wanted to be asked more, to share herself and be known. Instead, she looked down at the remnants of their shared meal. “You have been more than kind to me, Saraneesi.” She blushed a bit as she thought of just how far beyond kindness the zebra had gone. “Would that I had more to repay you--” Saraneesi cut her off, slashing the air with a hoof.

“There is no payment here, no debt that needs settling. You are my guest, and it is my singular honor to have you here with me.” She let her gaze wander over a narrow flap cut out of the side of their shelter. “Your purpose is sacrosanct, but will you not stay here a little while longer? We break camp in two days and must part ways then at the latest, but I will understand if you wish to resume your journey sooner.” She turned to regard Sand, looking more than a bit hopeful.

Turning the proposition inwards, Sand looked for the flickers of doubt, the uncomfortable truths that would weight her decision towards forfeiting her own happiness. Instead, she found an inner tranquility and a kindled flame to warm herself by. Many choices she had made in her life still haunted Sand to this day, but as she placed her hoof over Saraneesi’s, she knew that this one never would.

***

All told, the town had lost a dozen ponies, and twice that many bore injuries that they would carry for the rest of their lives. No one blamed Luna for what happened, but neither did they thank her. She had expected as much, but experiencing the aftermath hollowed out a part of her heart that she felt might never heal. Even Sable had grown distant. Polite, yes, but reserved, as if Luna might level the inn down to its foundations with her mere presence.

There was nothing left for her here.

“The ferries will be up and running again soon,” Brilliant Sky informed her. “Later today, most likely. There’ll be folks eager to see new coin and fresh stock now that the danger’s passed.” As one of the few ponies who would dare approach Luna after last night, she served as an envoy of sorts. “I do not mean to hasten your departure, but the townsfolk will be eager to put all this behind them.”

Luna nodded, hiding her sadness as best as she could. She asked, “And yourself?”

Brilliant Sky frowned a moment before responding. “I know you travel a lonely path--will you not reconsider?”

Luna shook her head. “You are kind to offer your companionship, but this is my road to walk.” And you are not my friend, no matter how much I wish I had one beside me now.

Brilliant Sky watched Luna as they made their way to the docks, there to await the first opportunity to venture downstream. Sitting off to the side, they drew little attention as the dock workers went about their business, lashing planks together to serve as makeshift barges while more proper ones could be fashioned during their initial forays.

“I want you to have this,” Luna said. She pushed a pair of saddlebags towards the other pony. Crafted from the finest materials and covered in rich velvet, the royal seal of the alicorn sisters could be seen emblazoned on the sides. “I owe you much and more for...for saving me. For saving all of us from me.” Luna stared out, unable to meet her companion’s gaze. “They are only a trifle, but they have seen me through trying times, and I hope that they will serve you just as well.”

“Luna?” Brilliant Sky asked, unsure how to react.

Luna swallowed and risked a sidelong glance as she added, “I would request that you visit us in Canterlot sometime when this is all done. I...would be honored to do what I can to help you in your life’s ambitions and pay back my debt to you, if I ever can.”

Whatever else might have lain in her heart, Brilliant Sky could only find the words to say, “Thank you, Luna. I will remember.”

***

Twilight paced back and forth, unable to sit still for more than a few moment at a time. Upon her brow rested the manifestation of her Element, gleaming in the afternoon light.

“Are you sure about this, Princess? I mean, really sure?” The words came from a blue pegasus, her rainbow tail twitching with pent up energy.

“I am quite positive, Rainbow Dash,” Celestia said, tranquil as always.

“If you say so, Princess--we trust ya. Don’t we, Dash?” Applejack shot her friend a look.

“Of course we do, dear Applejack. Princess Celestia has proven to be more than wise in these matters,” Rarity added, looking prim in her casual finery.

“Just...what do we do when...when it shows up?” Fluttershy hid behind a curtain of pink hair, not bothering to ask what ‘it’ might be.

“We throw it a party!” Pinkie jumped into a celebratory pose but deflated when she saw her friends’ disbelieving stares turn in her direction. “Oooooor we do what the Princess said we should do.” She poked the balloon gem hanging around her neck.

“Do you know what ‘it’ is, Princess?” Twilight asked, missing Fluttershy’s sudden glance. “I know you wouldn’t have called us all together without good reason, but it sounds like nothing’s been going crazy in Ponyville or even here in Canterlot.”

Celestia gave a small shake of her head. “I only know that a grave threat approaches, and such dangers can take many forms. While I have my own suspicions, I am afraid that solid details are few and far between. An incomplete picture could give us the wrong impression, and so I would prefer to wait and see. Though I’ve gathered you all here in case events take a turn for the worse, I believe that our best course of action now is simply to be as patient as we can.” However unsatisfied Twilight might be with her curiosity running rampant, she nodded, not wanting to gainsay her mentor.

Still, hours crept by as Twilight railed against the endless waiting. Finally, as the moon crested the horizon, the doors of the throne room opened of their own accord, swinging inward on silent hinges. Through the portal stepped a creature cut from the fabric of the night sky itself, appearing as if a pony had been drawn in silhouette against an ever-shifting starscape.

The Bearers jumped to their hooves, taking a loose formation with Twilight at the point. Even Celestia appeared more than a little perturbed, though she kept to her seat as she observed their visitor’s nonaggression.

The huntress stopped a respectful distance before Twilight and her friends, holding her head proud as her mane billowed in a shadowy facsimile of Celestia’s own. Or perhaps Luna’s. Now much closer than before, Twilight could see faint outlines where the pony should have had a face, though other parts of her seemed indistinct and hazy.

“Greetings to you, child,” Celestia began, ignoring the snort of derision that echoed in the chamber. “What business have you with us this evening?”

Narrowing her faint eyes, the huntress said, “I have come for what is ours.”

“And what’s that?” Twilight asked, holding her head low as if ready to charge.

Their visitor gave her no response. Celestia stood, descending from her podium as she spoke. “We will happily return anything of yours that is within our power to give.” She came to a stop behind the group of smaller ponies, wings outstretched as if she could shelter them all.

“Your feigned ignorance falls on deaf ears. Your contract with my master is old, but not forgotten,” the huntress said, flaring her wings in agitation as she stomped one hoof.

Twilight bristled at the display, but part of her mind wondered at the import of the exchange. Taking in the sight before them, Twilight’s mind put two and two together. “‘...the stars will aid in her escape.’” She turned to Celestia and gave her a questioning look. Unseen by the others, the huntress smiled.

Celestia regarded Twilight with a serene expression as she responded, “I did what I thought was best, Twilight, given the circumstances.” To their visitor she said, “The books in my keeping are yours. Their guardians have passed on...” A hitch caught in her throat, and for a moment, Celestia found herself unable to continue speaking. Channeling her magic, she summoned the scant half dozen books that had been the source of so much trouble over the long years of Luna’s banishment.

The huntress couldn’t restrain a look of raw hunger as the tomes floated towards her. As they neared her starry form, the books faded into scintillating mist, wrapping themselves around her body. Growing more substantial by the moment, she solidified to the point that one would have to strain to make out the coruscating lights within her.

“Finally!” she hissed as she consumed the final tome. Looking down at one translucent leg, a frown crossed her face. “Where is it?” She looked up. “Where is the last one?!”

“No longer in my keeping,” Celestia said, a small smile gracing her features.

Oathbreaker,” the huntress spat. “You knew the terms of the concord and willingly violated it!”

“Princess?” Twilight asked, looking back and forth between the alicorns.

Celestia dipped her head. “She is correct, Twilight. I thought--”

Black lightning crackled as it raced across the chamber to strike Celestia’s hastily erected shield. The Bearers whipped around to stand fast against the new threat, all reason dropping away as they fell back on their instincts to guide their actions. The huntress lowered her head as a smoking orb of nothing coalesced at the end of her horn.

“Now, Twilight,” Celestia whispered.

She needed no further encouragement. Drinking in raw magic, Twilight tapped into the essential goodness that her friends embodied, channeling energy to a degree that far outstripped the limits of her already considerable talents. The light in the room scattered, breaking apart into prisms of colors that swirled and spun, dancing in a helix that rained down upon the intruding alicorn even as she released the conjured sphere from her horntip.

With Luna, it had taken away her dark powers. With Discord, it had sealed him into a stone prison. With the huntress, it did...almost nothing. Black energy crashed against a frenzy of light as the primal forces clashed and clawed at one another, smiting each other in a spray of brilliance too painful to watch.

“Fools!” she snarled. “Do you think to menace everything that comes your way with the Elements? They are old magic, but even still, there are constraints: I am not evil.” She pawed at the ground, making sure to keep everypony in view. Behind her, the door slammed shut, sealing themselves even as guards began pounding for entry.

“Your twisted logic may allow you to believe otherwise, but I know what you truly seek,” Celestia said, “and there can be no goodness in pursuing what your master desires.” She regarded the other alicorn with a mix of regret and pity. “Will you not reconsider your course of action? You are a part of my sister, and thus I love you even as you are now. Please...”

The huntress reared up, bringing her hooves down in a crash of thunder. “You ask me to trust you even as you admit to breaking a pact older than living memory and more sacred than the celestial charges you keep? No.” She gave Celestia a bitter laugh. “No, I think that I shall find my own way.” She looked at Twilight in particular as she added, “And you, my little ponies...You should consider what it means to truly be good or evil and why your powers are meaningless against me.”

Turning without preamble, she willed the massive throne room doors open, slamming them against the walls with such force that cracks formed in the stonework. Dozens of guardsponies rushed in to surround the departing alicorn. As if repelling them with an unseen force, she passed through their ranks unmolested, vanishing into the night before anypony could offer pursuit.

***

The river gurgled beneath her boat as Luna hung her hooves over a railing, watching the land pass at a languid crawl. Two days closer to the true mouth of the river, Luna found it difficult to suppress her boredom. The few ponies who had dared board the same craft as her kept their distance, offering Luna the courtesy her station demanded, but nothing more.

She rested her head upon her hooves and turned her gaze skywards. To soar. She stretched her wings, giving them an experimental flap, though never enough to risk actual flight. While hindered by recent events, her underlying purpose remained unchanged, and Luna remembered the firm restrictions placed upon her. Perhaps I should have asked Sand to cast a geas over me so that my temptation need never become a factor. Luna frowned, wondering where her friend had disappeared to. More than a little anger mixed itself in with her concern as she thought of all that had transpired between them. Though she knew Sand believed her choice to be the correct one, Luna couldn’t help but feel a bit betrayed. Not even a word or note to us, she thought. Not even to Twilight. It felt as though a shadow crossed her heart, but it took her a moment to realize that it came from a pegasus chariot high above.

Descending, the charioteer held the transport just above the waterline long enough for Twilight to cross over onto the barge. Receiving her thanks with a nod, the pegasus pulled away, vanishing in the sparse cloud cover.

After giving her friend a hug, Twilight took a seat beside Luna, filling her in on what had transpired at the castle two days prior. Luna grew wide-eyed, remaining silent even as Twilight concluded her brief tale.

Eventually, Luna asked, “And after all that, my sister felt safe in sending you to me, unescorted?”

Twilight shrugged. “The way that other pony acted...” she turned away, gazing out over the water. “It didn’t seem evil, not really. It was like she got so mad that she lost control, but we’ve all had moments like that.” She looked back at Luna and said, “Afterwards, Princess Celestia sent the others home, but told me that I should rejoin you.” Leaving the reason unspoken, Twilight scooted closer to Luna until each could feel the warmth rolling off of the other’s body.

Luna smiled, giving her friend an appreciative nuzzle. Hesitant, Luna asked, “Has there been...have you had word of Sand?”

Twilight shook her head as she stared out across the river. “Not a whisper. Princess Celestia said about the same thing when I asked her. Wherever Sand is, she’s far from her friends.”

***

Stepping apart, unicorn and zebra regarded each other for the brief time they had left together. Around them, carts loaded for travel waited only for the word to get moving.

“I cannot thank you enough, Saraneesi.”

“You can and have.” She touched the golden pendant hanging from the unicorn’s neck. “Remember me.”

Sand pressed her lips against Saraneesi’s hoof before raising her head. “Always.”

“Should you find your way to these lands again before the spring, seek me out. Our travels will take us a few weeks before we arrive at Roam, there to shelter with other tribes to ride out the winter and the dark months.” Saraneesi turned her head as if she could make out the distant city.

“How will I know where to look?” Sand asked.

Her friend smiled. “Simply find any well-worn path and follow it into the rising sun. All roads lead to Roam.”

Pulling up the hood of her cloak, Sand watched the zebrafolk depart. Dwindling into the distant horizon, Saraneesi favored her with a backwards glance, wearing a smile that Sand could feel more than see as they vanished beyond sight.

***

Stretching out a chorus of sore muscles as they disembarked, Twilight and Luna surveyed the bustling zebra metropolis. Horsetooth’s quaint homestead feel had given them the impression that the ponyfolk traded with a moderate town or small city at best, but the port city of Marebasa sprawled for leagues in every direction on its side of the river.

Jostled to the side as ponies began unloading enchanted gems for trade, Luna cast a worried look at the shimmering wares but held her peace. As of yet, only one pony knew the secrets that allowed pony and zebra magic to fuse inside the precious stones. After having seen the potential side effects of such, Brilliant Sky had sworn an oath that she would abandon that avenue of spellcraft and take her secrets to the grave and beyond. Still, Luna worried.

“Wow. Just...wow.” Twilight looked around, awestruck at the sheer enormity of Marebasa. Canterlot might be where the creme de la creme gathered to celebrate high society, but it had nothing on the urban sprawl of a true city. “Where do we even begin?”

Luna drew her lips into a thin line, seeing the multitude of dark looks directed their way. “I cannot mantle myself in illusion, thus we are sure to meet resistance wherever we go. We are mice lost in the woods here, yet I cannot simply have you running around playing at being a detective as we did in Horsetooth.”

“Your Highness?”

Luna turned, surprised to hear a pony speak without the polite diffidence that had traveled with her down the river. Trying to picture how her sister would act, she asked, “Yes, child?”

The orange earth pony dipped his head in respect and said, “Beggin’ your pardon, but I couldn’t help but overhear. If you’re lookin’ to shack up somewhere and get your bearin’s, I know someplace that’s not too particular about the company they keep, as long as you’ve got the bits. It’ll keep you warm, keep you out of sight, and if you’re lucky, it’ll keep you safe.”

Sharing a brief look with Twilight before returning her attention to the orange stallion, Luna said, “Thank you. Your assistance is most appreciated.”

***

“I can see why they might not be considered ‘discerning,’ but we do have to start somewhere,” Luna said, trying to sound reassuring. Twilight remained quiet, trying her best not to be sick all over the dust at their feet.

The Rat King did its best to crush any expectations they might have had about civil accommodations. Scarred zebras loitered against the walls as they entered, openly hostile as they eyed both ponies. Twilight caught more than one pair of eyes roam over her body, lingering on her flank even as she tucked her tail close in against herself.

“Two bits a night,” the bartender said, twitching his gaze to Twilight before adding, “Bit ‘n a half if you just need a couple hours.”

Luna narrowed her eyes at the insinuation, but swallowed her pride. “We will both be staying the night.” Digging into the jangling bags at her side, she dropped three round coins on the countertop. “We will need drinks and something to eat as well.”

The bartender grunted, sweeping the bits off the counter before fishing out a grime-encrusted key and sliding it over to Luna. “Up the stairs, third on the left. Food’s at dawn and dusk, half bit more if you want mead that don’t taste like runny pisswater.” He smirked as Twilight’s jaw dropped. “First time out of your sun-kissed lands, little pony?” Before Twilight could respond, Luna dropped another bit onto the polished wood and ushered her friend away with one outstretched wing.

“Not what I expected,” Twilight said as she tried to find a clean spot to sit on. Failing that, she sighed and tucked her tail beneath her as she made do with the floor.

“I imagine much of our journey will be far different than we anticipated,” Luna said, eying the lone bed with distrust. She placed a careful hoof upon it, testing the springs as she placed more and more of her weight down. Twilight watched, unsure what the princess intended. For her part, Luna found the resistance to her satisfaction as she stepped up, wobbling her way to the center of the bed and as she began to hop up and down. Grinning, Luna stopped a moment and asked, “What is it?”

For the second time in as many minutes, Twilight had to remember to close her mouth from when it had come unhinged. Shaking her head, she couldn’t find the words, but Luna understood.

Doing her best to ignore the questionable bedding beneath her, Luna sat back on her haunches and said, “Long ago, you taught me the value of finding what little pleasures in life we can, even--no, especially--in situations such at this.” Her grin didn’t fade as she offered Twilight a hoof.

Taking Luna up on her silent offer, Twilight couldn’t help but agree--it was pretty fun.

***

“You sure you didn’t just want it for another hour? I got folks askin’ after it, an’ with the ruckus you two put up already, figure you might have worn yourselves out.” Garnering a few chuckles from around the room at that, the bartender gave the ponies a little leer as he went to get their meal.

“Princess...” Twilight said, almost pleading.

“We must persevere, Twilight. For all our sakes, remember what is at stake here.” As she spoke, Luna kept an eye out for danger, not eager to draw even more attention to them if she could help it. “We need to find someone who can direct us further--surely if this journey is so significant to zebrakind, there should be answers aplenty should we just ask.” Keeping her voice down did little against the sharp ears of those around them however, and before either pony could object, a hulking figure took a seat at their small table.

“Yer lookin’ fer the Erudite?” she asked. The questioning look Twilight shot Luna was all the answer the zebra needed to continue. “I can get ya on a ship, set sail in two days’ time. Fifty bits each an’ a lock a yer hair, Princess.” The zebra’s smile revealed a mouth full of immaculate teeth, possibly the cleanest things Twilight had seen since their arrival. Overhearing the exchange, other zebras, both angry and encouraging, could be heard throughout the common room. The brute twisted around and shouted, “Shut yer pie holes!” Returning her attention to the ponies, she said, “Sorry ‘bout them. Right bunch of uncivilized barbarians they is. So whadda ya say?”

Luna considered the offer, more than a little tempted to take it sight unseen. Much could happen in two days, however, and she found herself balking. “We will...give it some thought. Coin only, however, should we decide to accept your bargain.” Luna didn’t know the full extent of what alchemy could do, but if a unicorn could rip open the gulf between worlds with just a smattering of knowledge, Luna shuddered to think what might be possible with a part of her own body.

The zebra shrugged, her smile not diminishing in the least. “Take yer time, but not too long neither. Perries ain’t known for changin’ their manifests at the last minute.”

“‘Perries’?” Twilight asked.

Zanzibar nodded. “Quirky bastards they is. Half deer, half bird--falcon or eagle or somethin’. Right good sailors though, don’t you doubt.” She winked at Twilight as she rose, dwarfing the chair that had heroically managed to support her weight. “Name’s Zanzibar, ain’t hard to find when ya change yer mind.”

As the massive zebra swaggered away, Luna took a sip of her drink, grimacing at the taste. “If this is what they serve to those who pay extra...” Still, she took another long swallow, trying to steady her nerves and corral the thoughts racing through her head. She had to give the helpful pony credit. While the tavern itself might be everything they hoped it wouldn’t be, they had snared a potential lifeline already.

Luna took another long pull from her mug, finding that the unpleasant taste had diminished between sips. Setting it down empty, she nodded her thanks as the bartender placed a refill beside it. Before long, a forest of empty tankards covered their table, prompting Twilight to shepherd the princess upstairs.

Flopping onto the filthy mattress, Luna said, “I think she loved you.” Noticing that only half of her had made it onto the bed, she pulled her hind legs up beside her. “Or at least the idea of you.”

“Zanzibar?” Twilight’s voice held a mixture of disbelief and disgust.

Sand,” Luna corrected. “You were too caught up in that book of hers to notice the looks she’d give you when you weren’t watching. She told me...she told me a lot the night before she vanished.” The color drained from Twilight’s face as Luna lay down on her belly. “Ah, much better.”

“She...” Twilight shook her head, struggling for words. “...my fault?”

“Yours as much as hers, which is to say, neither of you are to blame. Nopony chooses who they fall in love with, let alone how their hearts handle being rejected.” Luna closed her eyes.

“What? But I didn’t...” Twilight trailed off, pensive. Now that Luna mentioned it, she could remember seeing Sand disappointed time and again as they talked, but she had always chalked it up to the weighty subjects being discussed. Now she wasn’t even close to certain. “Princess--” Twilight stopped as she saw Luna breathing in long, slow breaths, eyes shut in slumber. Mostly to herself, Twilight wore a sad smile and whispered, “You’re taking up the entire bed.”

***

Asante.”

The zebra bowed in response, returning behind the counter as Sand walked out of the shop with a new pair of saddlebags. Drawing her hood up against the bright overcast sky, she walked down the street and began haggling with merchants for what basic supplies Saraneesi’s bits could buy her. Though she felt shortchanged, Sand soon had her packs filled with food and the sundry gear she had abandoned in Horsetooth.

Her hoofsteps took her through a dirtier part of the city, the squalor first hinted at, then becoming the norm. Still, a strong breeze brought the tang of salt to her nostrils, and Sand pressed on to find the docks not nearly as crowded as the marketplace. Filling her lungs with clean air, she looked around, searching for the ship she hoped to depart on the next day.

The perytons were not difficult to spot. Griffon-like in their distributions, their antlered heads and cervine shoulders gave way to the hindquarters and feathered plumage of an enormous bird of prey. Sand hesitated, unsure how to approach them to negotiate passage. One hoof in front of another and be polite, she told herself, the same as the first day she had returned to Celestia.

Walking up to one figure who seemed to be directing more than laboring, Sand hoped he would at least be the first mate, if not the captain. “Well met,” she said once she had caught his attention. The peryton nodded in response, but turned to bark another order as one of his crewmates dropped a crate beside them. Continuing, she said, “I request passage under the terms of the morning sun.” At those words, Sand found herself being scrutinized, the antlered head dipping low even as he lifted the edge of her hood.

“You are no zebra to demand such,” he said, letting the cloth fall back into place.

“I am no zebra, it is true, to make this request, but still I make it. I come to you in good faith and with an open heart.” Sand nosed around in a saddlebag, searching for only a moment. Offering up a sprig of juniper berries, she waited.

The peryton snorted. “Someone has taught you well.” He took the proffered gift and tucked it away beneath a wing. “Return at dawn on the morrow and you will find safe passage aboard my ship.”

“Thank you, captain. The sun and moon light your way,” she said.

“The stars would be more suitable,” the captain said, foregoing the traditional response.

Turning around, Sand began walking back to her inn when she caught sight of two figures that made her legs lock up even as she wanted to bolt in panic. Drawing her hood up as far as she could, Sand turned to and fro, looking for a convenient stream of zebras to walk with as she forced her legs to bend and move.

“Captain says he wants ta meet ya first, can’t rightly blame ‘im. Truth is, yer getting a steal at whatcha paid. Not all folks be so civil as yours truly.” A heavily-muscled zebra led Luna and Twilight along the dockside, earning a few looks, but nothing that lingered.

“We are happy to honor his request, and we thank you for your...generosity,” Luna said, careful to keep her tone neutral.

Sand knew she should keep going, should simply melt into the crowd and remain outside the scope of their lives, but she couldn’t help but watch to see what played out. A chill crept up her spine as the trio stopped at the peryton she had just treated with. Though their voices were too indistinct to make out over the crowd, Sand could imagine the rough shape of the conversation they shared. Only when the captain nodded in her direction, however, did Sand realize her folly.

Twilight turned and saw.

“Dawn?”

Sand felt the name more than heard it. She backed away, stumbling into a dockworker who cursed at her clumsiness. Ignoring him, Sand fled, heart hammering in her chest as guilt consumed her. What could she do? What could she say? She came to a skidding halt as Twilight blinked into existence ahead of her.

“Dawn?” Twilight asked again. As close as they were, Sand could make out the raw hurt and confusion in her voice.

Sighing, Sand drew back her hood as she looked her friend in the eyes.

“Hello, Twilight.”

***

(Again, special thanks to Chris for helping me iron out some pacing issues and making sure I keep this story coherent!)

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