• Published 3rd May 2012
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The Powers of Harmony - CyborgSamurai



The Mane Six develop the powers of the Elements of Harmony and must use them to stop a new villain.

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Chapter 5: Noble Goals

Chapter 5:

Noble Goals

Four Days Later-

Twilight paced in the library surrounded by a flurry of papers, notes, and books that covered the floor, taking no notice of the mess as she circled around a table in the center of the room. Beside her were the shredded remnants of a package that’d been delivered to her by the mailmare a short while ago. Her nose was now buried in a small, ancient tome hovering before her entitled, ‘A History of the Elements of Harmony.

…while the each of the Elements do have magic of their own, they’re the most powerful when combined together. However, information on their exact effects is vague, at best. At the time of this writing, the Elements have only been used twice in recorded history: Once in the Era of Discord, and again during the War of the Sun and Moon. Princess Celestia, the wielder on both these occasions, has gone on record saying that the resulting spell is Purification magic of the highest degree. However, this has left Arcana scholars confused, as ‘Purification’ is not known to fall under any school of magic…

On the next page was the same picture that she’d seen in a dozen other books: A pentagon with five different colored jewels placed on the corners and a sixth in the center. The jewels were vividly colored and shaded, with a beautiful golden star and shining circle set behind them.

I see the artist put a lot of fancy work into this one. She skimmed the contents of the book before flipping back to the picture and setting it down. That one was useless, too. I guess Fillydelphia’s libraries are about as sparse on info about the Elements as everywhere else I’ve looked.

She stared at the scribbled notes and unfinished diagrams that surrounded her; the beginnings of her fledgling spell. Maybe I'm trying something too big here. I’m not even sure this is going to work! There are just so many factors that I’m already compensating for, and without more information on the Elements, I’m not even sure I can replicate their effects, and without a more clear understanding on how they interact with each other, I can't make a stable array, and I—

Twilight let out a frustrated yell and pounded her hooves against the table. Her horn flashed, and the loose papers swirled around her in a whirlwind.

“Twilight?”

A voice from above caught her attention. She looked to see Blair sitting in the loft, holding a book and looking somewhere between amused and curious. “Are you all right?”

Twilight grunted and began to grab the airborne papers. “I’m fine, Blair. I’m not being attacked by my notes.”

His smile widened. “Even if you were, I think you can survive a few paper cuts. I was actually referring to your cry of mental anguish. Is there anything I can do to help?”

She withheld an aggravated sigh. Every time this guy opens his mouth I want to smack him upside the head. If he wasn’t so quiet and just stayed up in the loft all the time, I’d have probably blasted him back to Canterlot by now. ‘Cry of mental anguish?' Who the hoof even SAYS that?

Twilight put the few papers she'd gathered on the table. “Unless you somehow happen have an intimate understanding of the Elements of Harmony, at least a Master’s Degree in one of the schools of Arcana, or advanced knowledge of how Fusion Arrays work, I don’t think you can help.”

Blair laughed. “Pretty tall order, there. I’ll admit I don’t have any of those things, but I do have something else.”

Twilight furrowed her eyebrows. “And that would be?”

“The eye of an outsider.” Blair walked down the stairs. “Sometimes the most obvious things are the hardest to see, simply because you have such a close eye on what you’re doing.”

She made a condescending hmph. “I doubt that you can see something I can’t. Have you even ever been to University?”

“Not officially,” he said with a swift wink. “But you could say I have something akin to field experience. Now, what’re you trying to do, and what's the problem you’re having?”

Twilight glared at Blair. He hasn’t even been to University and he thinks he can help me. Does he have any—you know what? He wants to know? Fine. Maybe when I give him the laundry list of problems I’m having, he’ll realize the level of magic I’m dealing with. That ought to shut him up.

“I’m trying to create a spell that replicates the effects of the Elements of Harmony on a lesser scale, in the form of a barrier,” she said. “The problem I’m having right now is that it might be impossible.”

Blair cocked his head. “What makes you say that?”

Where to even start? Twilight rubbed her forehead and yawned. “How much do you know about the Elements of Harmony?”

“Probably about as much as anyone else,” he replied. “They’re ancient artifacts that you and your friends used to defeat Nightmare Moon. One thousand years before that, Celestia used them to banish her. I was brought up to believe that they're Divine in origin, but after I learned a little about magic, I didn’t put much stock in that.”

“That’s just what old folktales say,” Twilight said with a dismissive wave. “The truth is hard to find because the Elements have been romanticized and speculated on so much.”

Twilight nodded at the picture in the book she’d been reading. “I’ve seen the Elements in action. I've wielded their power against Nightmare Moon. And afterwards, I talked with my friends to learn what they saw and felt to validate my theory. With all that information, I was able to discern the truth. I know what their combined spell actually is.

Blair leaned forward. “What is it?”

Twilight tucked in her chin and gave him a proud smile. “A Disjunction spell. The Elements of Harmony break down magics into their base components and disperse them.”

He blinked. “Only magics?”

‘Only magics,’ he says. Twilight suppressed a sneer. “That’s all it did to Luna, but think about it this way. If they were able to negate the twisted, evil, thousand-year-old magics that possessed Princess Luna, it’s safe to say that any lesser magical ability, connection, or spell is susceptible as well.”

Twilight looked at the picture of the Elements with a hungry look in her eyes. “I don’t think you realize the potential that lies here. A barrier made out of a Disjunction spell would be impervious to any kind of magical assault.”

Blair considered for a moment. “Okay, that sounds powerful.” He pursed his lips and rubbed his chin. “Do you think that’s why Princess Luna is so weak right now?”

Twilight was thrown off-track for a moment before she remembered what Blair was. Royal Guard, Twilight. He’s probably seen her more than you.

She regained her composure and bit her lip. “Yes and no. Okay, I don’t have any proof on this. It’s just a theory, and while it makes sense to me, it’ll probably sound silly to anypony else.”

Blair sat on his haunches and raised a hoof for her to continue.

“See, they’re called the Elements of Harmony, right? And—” Twilight stopped and put a hoof to her face. Ugh, this sounds ridiculous even in my head. She took a deep breath. “I think that the Elements might, on some level, have a form of... awareness.”

Twilight stopped and looked up to gauge Blair’s reaction. His face was stoic, and his eyes were calm and receptive.

“When I used the Element of Magic, I could feel something coming from Luna,” Twilight said. “I don't know what it was, but it was... wrong. I doubt there’s a word to describe it. An imbalance? A corruption? A disturbance? None of those are quite right, but whatever it was, I somehow knew exactly how much power was needed to fix it.”


Twilight's cheeks turned pink. “This has led me to suspect that if the Elements do indeed have some form of sentience, then it's attuned to the natural balance of, well... everything. And when somepony uses them, they catch a glimpse of it so that they know how much power to use.”

“So, what you're saying,” Blair said slowly, “is that the Elements of Harmony are a literal manifestation of their namesake, and they temporarily impart the ability to see the natural order of the world so that they can be used to their greatest effect?”

“Something like that,” Twilight said sheepishly. “We had to use their full power for Luna, though. Anything less wouldn't have been enough.”

“You said that the spell breaks down magics and disperses them, though,” Blair pointed out. “Princess Luna is recovering her magic, albeit at a slow rate. What are your thoughts on that?”

Twilight’s gaze wandered, stopping on a book on the floor. On the cover was a picture of two alicorns circling each other in the sky. “Again, this is just a theory, but if the Elements are really about keeping balance, then they wouldn’t do anything to upset it. We’re supposed to have a Princess of the Sun and a Princess of the Moon, after all. My guess is that the Elements ‘know’ that, so they didn’t completely cut off her magic.”

“Makes sense,” Blair admitted. “But where did her magic go, I wonder?”

Twilight shrugged. “I have no idea.”

“I suppose that’s getting off topic.” Blair looked up at the ceiling. “So, to reiterate, you’re trying to make a Barrier spell that replicates the effects of the Elements of Harmony, which, from your experience with Nightmare Moon, you know to be a spell that breaks down and disperses other magics. Is that about right?”

At least he can pay attention. Twilight nodded.

Blair looked down at her with inquisitive eyes. “What's the impossible part?”

Twilight tossed her mane and looked away. “My theory is that if I cast six separate spells simultaneously and fuse them together, I can duplicate the Disjunction effect. However, I have three major hurdles. First, I don’t know what schools of magic to use for the spells, although I can figure that out through process of elimination. Second, I need to use Catalyst Runes to fuse the spells together. Do you know what those are?”

Blair squinted and rubbed his horn. “The name rings a bell, but I forget the specifics.”

“In a nutshell, all magic spells have a Symbol associated with them,” Twilight said. “A Catalyst Rune is just the symbol of a magic spell that’s been modified so it can be used for fusion.”

Blair's scrunched his eyebrows. “And you can't find the Symbols for the individual Elements.”

Twilight sighed. “I’ve gone through every book here and haven't even found so much as a reference. I’ve been sending letters to every major library and University I can think of, and still nothing. I haven’t gotten responses back from all of them, but I'm not holding my breath. I do have a few other avenues open to me, but this whole ordeal is proving to be more of hassle than I anticipated.”

“I still haven't heard anything that sounds impossible,” Blair said. ”Just annoying.”

Twilight huffed and raised her chin. “That's because I haven't told you about the biggest hurdle of them all.”

Blair raised an eyebrow. “Which is?”

She propped a hoof on the table and leaned on it. “What sounds wrong about a magic spell that breaks down any kind magic?”

“I’m not sure what y—“ Blair stopped as he caught the emphasis.

And now he sees. Twilight exhaled through her nose. “Even if I use the right schools of magic with the Symbols of the Elements and perform a successful fusion, the Disjunction effect will immediately tear itself apart.”

Twilight motioned to the scattered pictures she’d drawn all over the floor, which were all five-sided stars and pentagons. “Which means I have to find a way to stabilize it. The best way to stabilize any kind of fusion is with an array, but I can’t find one that'll work.”

Blair got up and slowly walked around the room, picking up the pages one by one and examining them as Twilight continued.

“So, Mr. Outsider,” she said as she rested her eyes. “Can you solve my little conundrum? I have to either find an array that can sustain itself while it’s trying rip itself to shreds, or make a new one from scratch. Which, by the way, would be a thesis spell in and of itself. Does your ‘field experience’ shed any light on—“

“Why do you always have the purple one in the center?”

Twilight jerked her eyes open and looked to Blair, who was shuffling through all of her drawings.

The stack of papers became enveloped in a teal aura. They separated and hovered in front of Twilight in a collage, and Blair walked around the wall of paper to stand beside her.

“I assume the colored jewels you have in these pictures are where you plan on placing the Catalyst Runes,” Blair said. “In every single one, you have them arranged in the same order, with the purple jewel in the center. Why?”

Twilight looked at the diagrams before her. “The purple one is the Element of Magic. It has to be in the middle.”

Blair followed her gaze. “What makes you think that?”

“The Element of Magic is what holds all the other five together,” Twilight said automatically. “It’s said to be the most elusive, only appearing when the other five have gathered.”

“That sounds like a verse from those ‘romanticized folktales’ you mentioned earlier, not the opinion of somepony who has hooves-on experience with the real thing.” Blair poked one of the diagrams. “Tell me, is there any real reason why it has to be in the center?”

“All the pictures of the Elements have them in this setup!” Seven books flew off the shelves in a magenta aura. Twilight opened them one by one to show Blair. “In every single book I’ve gone through, not once have I ever seen them in any other pattern than this!”

Blair shook his head and neatly restacked the papers on the table. “Let me teach you something about art. At one point in time, like everything else, there was no kind of representation for the Elements of Harmony. Nopony knew what they looked like, or thought they had to be arranged in any particular way, shape or form.

“Then, at some point, an artist came along, and one of two things happened: Either he was inspired by the story of the Elements to make a picture, or he was commissioned by somepony else to do so. In any case, since these are some of the most powerful magical items in the land, we can assume that they weren’t just lying around. They were kept somewhere safe, and the artist couldn’t access them for reference.”

Blair tapped the side of his head. “So what does any artist worth his salt do when he doesn’t have a visual reference to work with? He uses his imagination. If other ponies like the image he’s made, it may become popular. If that popularity continues to grow over time, it can become the standard reference. Let enough years go by, and the original object and the picture it’s based off will become blurred. Ponies will assume that the picture is the real and only representation, instead of just the way one pony thought it might be.”

Twilight stared incredulously at Blair. “You’re saying that the diagram in all the books is—”

“Purely symbolic,” Blair said. “An artist’s rendition. Nothing more.”

“That can’t be!” Twilight motioned at all the books, papers, and diagrams. “This picture is everywhere! It has to have some kind of significance!”

“You've seen the actual Elements of Harmony, right?”

Twilight nodded.

“So have I.” Blair straightened and gave her a mock salute. “I was on duty when Princess Celestia placed them in Canterlot Tower.”

Blair picked out one of the books Twilight had pulled from the shelf, and pointed at the image of the six sparkling gemstones. “When you had them, did they look anything like this?”

“N-No,” she admitted, “they were actually just rocks.”

Blair did a double take. “Rocks?”

“We were surprised, too,” Twilight said with a shaky laugh. “They didn’t change into the jewelry until after Nightmare Moon smashed them.”

Blair closed one of the hovering books and placed it on the table. “So if they were rocks when you found them, can we then assume that that's what they always were?”

“I guess,” she said with a shrug.

“Then you've just disproved the credibility of the picture,” Blair said. “Are you going to trust that over your own memories and experiences?”

Twilight walked over to the neat stack of her diagrams, picking up a few and staring at their identical layouts. “It's just that... everything I've read says that the Element of Magic is special somehow. It never says in what way, but it did only show up when the other five were gathered against Nightmare Moon, and that’s all in the books too.”

Blair thought for a moment. He suddenly gasped and burst out laughing. “You explained that in one of your theories, too.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Which one?”

Blair raised a hoof to his chin. “You suspect the Elements have some kind of awareness, or perhaps a limited form of sentience, right? If that’s true, to what extent? Do they think? Do they feel? Do they have personalities? How about an appreciation for, let’s say… dramatics?

Twilight dropped the pictures, letting them flutter to the floor. “Are you suggesting that the Element of Magic only appears last because it thinks it's cool?!

Blair laughed again. “It would fit with your theories, and as you’ve interacted with the artifacts themselves, I’d be inclined to trust your opinion over anypony else's, save for Her Majesty's.”

Twilight facehoofed. It fits in with my theories, yeah, but that can’t really be the reason! The Elements couldn’t be so… so… flippant! We were at Nightmare Moon’s mercy and my Element decided to hold back for the sake of THEATRICS?

“Let's just say I agree with you,” Twilight muttered. “If the Element of Magic doesn’t have to go in the center, where does it go? A Catalyst Rune has to be on the corner or center of an array.”

“You’re thinking about the art again,” Blair replied. “Does an array need to have five sides?”

“No,” she replied, “it can have as many—”

Twilight's lips parted as the pieces clicked.

“Oh.”

Blair flicked his wrist. “Try that.” He then gave her a small bow, and walked back up to the loft.

Twilight stared at his retreating form. “How’d you see all of that?”

Blair stopped on the stairs, looking down at her. “I told you, the only reason you didn’t is because you’ve got your nose pressed so hard to the paper. You're very smart, Twilight, that much is obvious. I might know more about art, but that's only because Ace is a skilled painter, and has a habit of not shutting up about it.”

Blair grimaced and stuck out his tongue. “Now, I’ll leave you to your work. That may have been your biggest hurdle, but it sounds like you've got a few others to clear.”

Twilight considered what he had said as he went back upstairs. Sure, its basic knowledge that arrays can be almost any shape, but to notice that it was off because I was following the design that's in all the books?!

She shook her head. Her thoughts were getting jumbled, she was stumbling over herself, and a headache was threatening to form. She picked up all of the drawings of the arrays and diagrams she had made, seeing them in a new light.

You know, if I used a Dacrenzic Containment Field in conjunction with the Catalyst Runes at a six-to-one scaling power ratio, the centripetal force might be enough to hold the barrier together! And then I could…

“Miss Pinkamina, please wait up!”

Pinkie bounced happily through the dense foliage of the Everfree, the thick, sweet smell of bluebells, primrose, and sage filling her nostrils as she hummed a merry tune. The branches of the trees above rustled and creaked in response to her as she passed, and she stopped in a copse of elms to look back at the speaker.

Ewwww, what is with him and my full name! Nopony calls me Pinkamina! Vigil had just appeared over a hill, sweating and panting. He took a quick look at the area before running up to her.

Pinkie smiled mischievously as he approached. “Oh come on, you slowy-Mcslowerton, it's not that hard to walk through the forest! And pleeeeeeease, just call me Pinkie. Or else I’ll start calling you Viggy, and I know you don’t like that name, even though it’s really cute!”

Vigil cleared his throat and looked away. “My apologies, Pinkie.

She stood on her tippy-hooves to see behind him. “Where’s Rassy?”

Vigil’s eyes widened. He looked behind him, then all around. The other guard was nowhere to be found.

“Not good,” Vigil muttered. “We'll have to—”

A loud crashing noise came from their right. Vigil jumped in front of Pinkie, crouching into a wide stance. Ras bolted into view a few seconds later, nostrils flaring and face pale. He skidded to a halt upon seeing the two of them.

“Dammit, Ras!” Vigil hadn't shifted from his stance and was looking where Ras had emerged from the brush. “Did you bring trouble with you?”

Ras was gasping for air as he gazed at the forest floor. He managed a weak shake of his head. “Got... lost... panicked... sorry.”

Vigil narrowed his eyes, but he said nothing more as Ras slowly straightened up. Pinkie went over to him, her eyes filled with concern.

“Are you okay, Rassy?”

Ras managed to look up into her vibrant blue eyes, staring at her for a brief moment before swallowing and regaining his composure.

“Yeah, I'm fine.” He turned to Vigil. “I zoned out for a sec and didn't realize she'd gone off the trail again.”

“Trail?” Pinkie echoed. “I haven't been following a trail! There isn't one that I know of! I've just been walking to my landmarks!”

Vigil warily eyed both her and the trees around them. “Walking isn’t how I'd describe what you're doing. If I had to choose a word, it'd be zigzagging.”

That's a good word. I like it! Pinkie rocked back and forth like a metronome. “What do you mean?”

“I mean you haven’t gone more than thirty feet in a straight line,” Vigil said flatly. He pointed a hoof at her and moved it around like a slithering snake. “Every time it looks like you’ve found a trail, you swerve off somewhere else. And by the by the time we’ve realized it, you’ve already gone and turned another direction!”

Pinkie laughed. “What are you talking about, silly? This is the same way we came last time!” She pointed to one of the elm trees in the small grove they were in. At about chest level, there was a single hoofprint with two carved dots above it. “See? This is one of my landmarks! It’s the hoof-smiley-face tree!”

Ras lowered his head and cleared his throat. “I remember the way we took the first time we came out here.” He walked over to the ‘hoof-smiley-face tree’ and tapped a large root with a hoof. “We came in from this direction, which is west. I know because I tripped over this root and fell flat on my face.”

Pinkie shook her head. “This is the route I took last time, and the time before that, and the time before that, and the time before that! It’s always the same: Over the dry creek bed with the big cracked stone in the center, keep going until you see the lightning-struck-split tree. Go down the hill and past the weeping willow twins, then straight forward to the hoof-smiley-face tree. Then it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to Zecora’s! Easy as pie!”

“We passed all those landmarks,” Vigil agreed, “but the way you took to get to each one was completely different. You’re going back and forth all over the place, sometimes even backtracking and going in circles.”

“And it’s taken us twenty minutes to get to this point.” Ras looked up at the sun, which was past its zenith. “If we’d gone in a straight line, we’d have gotten here in half the time.”

Vigil nodded. “If you know where you're going, why are you taking such a strange route?”

Pinkie giggled as she looked over at the hill they'd come from. “If I am, I don’t mean to. I'm just going the direction that feels right. It usually takes me about thirty minutes to get to Zecora’s, so I thought we were making good time.”

“Well, if you don’t mind,” Vigil asked politely, “could we try taking a more direct path instead of what you think feels right?”

“Sure!” Pinkie bounced out of the copse, and the two guards followed behind. “Zecora’s is just a little ways from here anyways.”

Vigil frowned. “And if it's not too much trouble, could you please walk instead of jumping like a kangaroo?”

She ceased her hopping and gave a slight pout. “Party pooper.”

The three earth ponies fell in step together as they walked through the thick of the woods. The sun’s rays shone through the canopy in spotty rays, creating dim shadows and tufts of grass taller than others. The steady rushing of flowing water could be heard from some ways to the north.

“Pinkie, can I ask you something?”

“Sure, Rassy!”

Ras paused for a moment, looking out into the forest. “Why're you taking lessons in herbalism? This is a lot of trouble to go through, and you don't seem like the type that'd be interested in this kinda thing.”

Pinkie bit her lip and stared at a patch of sunlight. I don’t know if I want to tell them this yet. Oh, why not. They’re my super-duper guardspony pals, after all! If they’re going to protect me, I suppose the least I can do is confide in them. “It’s kind of a personal reason,” she replied casually.

Ras snapped his head to her. “I didn’t mean—“

“I know,” she said as she held up a hoof. “I like you guys, and you both have to come out here with me, so it's only fair.”

Pinkie lifted her back legs to adjust her saddlebags. “If there’s one thing more than anything, it’s making ponies happy and seeing them smile. Ever since I got my cutie mark, I’ve done everything I can to make ponies have fun and play with each other and sing songs and have a good time!” She beamed at the two. “That’s why I like throwing parties so much.”

“We picked up on that,” Ras said as he shook his mane. “I’m still finding stray pieces of confetti after that enthusiastic greeting of yours.”

She giggled and looked up at the sky. “I think I miiiiiiiiiight’ve used too much powder that time. At least I didn’t put the cake batter in the party cannon and the confetti in the oven like I did one time by mistake.”

Pinkie looked ahead to a small hut that she could now just make out between the trees and underbrush. “Zecora has lived here in the Everfree for a while, but it was only last month that any of us really got to know her. I used to think she was an enchantress that put curses on ponies. I even wrote a song about how evil she was! You wanna hear it?”

“Ah, that’s quite all right, Pinkie,” Vigil interrupted. “Please continue.”

Pinkie gave him a sly grin, but obliged. “After a little adventure with a meanie-tricksy-trickster of a plant called Poison Joke, the girls and I found out she isn’t anything like that at all! She’s just a pony who lives out here so she can get the herbs she needs for her potions. And after we all got tricked by the Poison Joke, she even made us a remedy to cure us! That was super nice of her, don’tcha think?

“After that whole thing, I felt like I owed her an apology.” Pinkie winced as she remembered all the assumptions she had made about the zebra. “You know, what with the song and all. But when I told her about it, she laughed! So then we got to talking, and she told me about where she's from, why she's here, and all the other kinds of potions and stuff that she makes. Turns out she’s something called a Shaman, and she’s in charge of making medicines and remedies for a village bigger than Ponyville back in the Zhevra Flatlands! Isn’t that great?”

Vigil gave her a deep nod. “Anypony who spends their life helping others is okay in my book. But then why is she here?”

“She’s on something called a Dhutsaka,” Pinkie said. “It’s a special Shaman thing where she has to go somewhere far away to help the ponies of another land and learn more about plants. Zecora chose Equestria as her land, and she says that she can’t leave here until she’s made a difference in some way. That’s why she was so happy to take me as an apprentice. If I complete her training and promise to use it to help other ponies, it counts as part of her Dhutsaka!”

Ras stumbled as he stared at Pinkie. “Are you saying that you’re only learning from her so that she can complete her… whatever that thing is called, so she can return home?”

“That would be amazingly nice and cool of me, wouldn’t it?” Pinkie shook her head. “But I didn’t even know about that at first. She told me later, and I think that’s more why she accepted me as a student. I'm learning from her for another reason.”

Pinkie nodded at the hut, which now stood a hundred yards away. “When I saw Zecora with all her herbs and potions, I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if you could make a cupcake that cured Poison Joke? Or a fritter that helped you get better from a cold? How about a punch that can heal wounds?’ The possibilities are amazing! And my parties would be all the better for it!”

She smiled at the two of them. “For me, it’s just the greatest feeling to help ponies who are hurting inside, whether they're feeling sad, lonely, or just plain ol' crabby. But lately, I've been thinking that that's not enough. I want to be a pony that can ease the physical pain and suffering of others, too.”

Pinkie began to feel a warmth in her heart. Her voice became soft and earnest, and her pace slowed. The two guards looked back at her.

“I don’t like seeing ponies when they’re in pain,” she said. “When I see somepony who’s down in the dumps, I want to help them. I can't let them get stuck seeing the downside of things, not when there are so many good things to see and hear and do in life. But I feel like I can do more than that.”

Pinkie brilliant blue eyes sparkled and shone with an inner light. “No, I have to do more.”

The plants and trees around them gently swayed as a breeze picked up. Vigil stood stock still, and Ras sneezed as he scratched his nose. The colors of the forest brightened, and Pinkie whispered three words that carried on the wind.

“So I will.”

The light in her eyes faded as Pinkie resumed her normal bubbly tone. “Buuuuuut, all I really know how to do is throw parties and bake goodies! And while balloons and cake and games may be great for cheering people up and having fun, there are a lot of things that parties can't help with. They don’t do much for a broken leg or somepony who's sick, for instance. And I want to help them, too.

“So that's why I’m learning herbalism,” she said. “I don't know how well it's going to work at first, but I know that if I work at it and try my best, I'll be able to throw the best parties ever!”

The two guards were silent as she finished. “That's very noble of you,” Vigil finally said. “To want to help people on the deepest level you can, well... that’s worthy of respect. I tip my hat to you.”

Pinkie blinked several times. “You don't have a hat! How can you do anything with something you don't have? Are you hiding one somewhere?” She zipped over to Vigil, inspecting him from every direction in a speedy pink blur. She picked him up with apparent ease, looking underneath for the insinuated headwear.

“Um, Pinkie?” Ras tried not to laugh. “It's a figure of speech. He doesn't actually have a hat.”

“Yes, poor choice of words on my part,” Vigil agreed. “Now, if you would be so kind as to put me down?”

The trio closed the distance to Zecora's home, which was a gnarled tree covered in square runes and large masks, colored with blue and yellow paints. Pinkie walked up to the door and knocked. A spicy aroma and a husky voice floated out from the open window.

“And as always, you come right on time. Come in, come in, Maalufunzi of mine.”

VIgil raised an eyebrow. "'Maalufunzi?'"

Pinkie smiled. "It means 'Sacred Apprentice,' or 'Student of the Sacred Arts.' Zecora says it's a really special thing to be given the title, so I'm trying as hard as I can not to let her down."

Ras chuckled. "Better get in there, then. You've got potions to make."

"Yep, yep, yep!" Pinkie put a hoof on the doorhandle. “You guys gonna stand out here again?”

Vigil nodded. “There's not much room in there, anyway.”

“Okey-dokey-lokey!” She opened the door and walked inside. “Have fun!”

The two guards walked away to their posts, alone with the natural sounds and sights of the forest. As they stopped, Ras turned to Vigil and spoke in a low voice.

“Did you catch the change in her attitude?”

Vigil nodded. “This is something she cares about.”

“Do you think she’ll be able to do it?” Ras asked. “Combine herbalism with her parties, I mean.”

“She’s very motivated,” Vigil replied. The slightest hint of a smile played on his lips. “If anyone can make it work, it’s her.”

“I've never seen anyone who believed in something so strongly.”

Vigil’s face reverted back to it’s usual stoic mask. “Determination like that only comes from seeing the grittier side of life.”

Ras jerked his head over to his partner. “What do you mean?”

Vigil gave him a sidelong glance. “You’re not an idiot, Ras. I think you can put two and two together.”

He let the barb slide as he thought for a moment. “You're saying she has a rough past?”

“Ponies don't just wake up one day and decide they want to spend the rest of their life helping others,” Vigil said. “Something must have happened to her to make her want to do this.”

“Maybe she just comes from a family of doctors or philanthropists or something,” Ras suggested.

Vigil’s voice adopted an edge. “Now I know who didn't read her personnel file.”

Ras’s rolled his eyes. “And you did? Half the time those things are either wrong or incomplete. It's easier to just ask the subject.”

“Watch your tone, Private Rasuuqai,” Vigil said coldly. “We may be undercover, but I'm still your commanding officer. I can very easily have you standing before the Disciplinary Review Board upon our return to Canterlot. Is that what you want?”

Ras stared at him for a moment longer before directing his gaze to an ant on the ground. “No, sir.”

Vigil returned his attention to the forest beyond. “Pinkie’s immediate family owns a rock farm south of Ponyville, and the Pie clan has been in the practice for several generations. She’s a black sheep.”

Ras failed suppressed a chortle. “Pink sheep’s more accurate.”

Vigil's face was expressionless. “The file didn’t indicate that anything traumatic has happened to her, personally. My guess is that she’s seen something, or somepony close to her has experienced some kind of loss or pain.”

“And that’s why she’s so driven to help others?”

“Most likely,” Vigil said.

“We should ask—“

“That's none of our business.”

“She just told us one of her deepest goals in life,” Ras pointed out. “I don’t think she'd mind telling us more.”

Vigil snorted and stamped a hoof. “You need to stop being so damn rude. Did it ever occur to you that it might hurt to talk about something like that?!”

An awkward silence fell between the two guards. From overhead, a bird let out a high-pitched warble as it took off deeper into the forest.

“It’s not like I want to upset her.” Ras kicked a pebble on the ground. “I’m just curious.”

“That curiosity is going to get you in trouble if you don’t rein it in,” Vigil said. His voice was stern, but it held no malice. “Be patient. If she wants to tell us, she will. In the meantime, keep your mouth shut. It's not our place to ask.”

Ras nodded as he looked out at the field they had just passed through. He could just make out the copse of elms where the ‘hoof-smiley-face’ tree was. “I’m surprised that you didn’t think her goal was silly.”

Vigil narrowed his eyes. “You really don't listen at all, do you? I have nothing but respect for ponies who dedicate their lives to helping others. Her methods might be unorthodox, but she has a heart of gold. It’s an honor to defend her.”

Ras was left alone with his thoughts as they continued the rest of their watch in silence. He looked away to hide the smirk playing on his face. Poor, naïve Vigil. You’re as clueless as she is. I almost feel bad… almost.