• Published 22nd Feb 2016
  • 11,494 Views, 808 Comments

Empty Horizons - Goldenwing

Twilight wakes up, alone in the dark. And she's drowning.

  • ...

XV: The Table

There was a knock on the wall.

Twilight stiffened with one hoof frozen in the act of pulling back the blanket of her bed. She looked over her shoulder, eyeing the simple curtain that separated her little corner of the cargo hold off from the rest of the ship.

The knock came again. Three times, polite, a hoof rapping against one of the metal partitions that formed her room.

“Y’all in there, Twi?”

She’s still up? It couldn’t have been more than an hour from dawn. Twilight had spent almost the whole night brooding on top of one the Argo’s exterior ballast tanks. She had been sure that Applejack would have gone to bed.

Maybe she was having trouble sleeping as well? Or I suppose she could have just taken a nap.

Twilight’s eyes drifted back to her bed. The stacked pair of plush mattresses beckoned to her, offering a sweet escape. It would be so easy to just cast a small silence field over the room and slip between the sheets. To just close her eyes and wake up in the morning, mumble something about being tired and rush off to find something to do.

Applejack must have heard her teleporting in. She had every right to come bursting in through that flimsy curtain, and still she had decided to knock and ask as if she didn’t know Twilight was there. Didn’t she deserve a little honesty?

Twilight’s ears flicked as she heard a soft sigh from behind the curtain, followed by the clip-clop of hooves slowly walking away.


Twilight took the few soft steps to the curtain with trepidation. She pulled it aside, meeting Applejack’s tired gaze.

The farmpony gave her a worn smile. Bruises and small cuts marred her coat, and a thick layer of bandages was secured to her shoulder with a harness of gauze. Her hat had been returned to its rightful place atop her head, adorned with the scars of fresh repairs as if attempting to mirror its master.

“Y’all ready to talk yet, sugar cube?”

“I…” Twilight’s eyes roamed around the cargo hold, coming to rest on the blanket-swathed mattress where Luna slumbered. “Shouldn’t you get some rest?”

“Probably,” Applejack said. “But I reckon there’s a few ponies aboard this ship worse off than me, in one way or another. I’ll be fine lendin’ y’all my ear for a bit.”

Twilight’s chest heaved as she let out a long sigh. “Why don’t you come and sit down?”

Applejack followed her into the little room, letting out a whistle of appreciation as she took in the layers of scribbled notes and stacked books that had started to overtake it. “Y’all need my desk? Y’know I can’t remember the last time I even touched that thing except to wipe the dust off.”

Twilight felt the corner of her lips pull up at the joke as she sat against a tall stack of heavy tomes. “I think I’ll be fine, AJ. I just haven’t taken the time to reorganize in a while.”

“Shucks, it must be worse than I thought.” Applejack gave a wry little smile before plopping herself down on the bed.

Several minutes passed as the two mares enjoyed each other’s company in silence. Twilight looked up at the cargo hold’s ceiling far above her.

“Twilight,” Applejack said, drawing the unicorn’s attention to the present. “When did all this start?”

Twilight swallowed in an attempt to loosen the words caught in her throat. It wasn’t a difficult question. Twilight knew exactly when everything had started.

“It was Fluttershy,” she said. Her eyes widened as she realized the possible implications of the words, and rushed to correct herself. “N-not that it was her fault, or anything like that! It’s just—the enchantment over her. There was something…” She trailed off, a hoof circling over the floor as she searched for the best word. “I couldn’t let it hurt any of you.”

How different might things be if she had let it be? Perhaps the darkness would have split itself evenly between them, and they could have borne its corrupting influence together. Or maybe the seeds would have been just as strong, and she had weakened it by taking it all onto herself. “So I absorbed it into myself.”

“So that’s what happened there, huh?” Applejack let out a thoughtful little grunt. “We were all awful worried ‘bout y’all, y’know.”

A shiver passed over Twilight as she remembered the feeling of the saw being drawn across the base of her horn. She reached a hoof up, letting out a small breath of relief when she felt its weight on her forehead.

Applejack slid off the bed. She walked over to Twilight’s side, putting a hoof around her. “Y’all wanna tell me about it?”

“I’m sorry, AJ.” Twilight sniffled, leaning into the soft fur of her friend’s chest. “It’s just… it’s so much. It gets so dark. I couldn’t bear to inflict the same fate onto any of you.”

Applejack let out a soft chuckle. “Y’all know there ain’t one of us that’d turn down a share of that pain if ya asked, filly.”

Twilight’s body began to shake as more tears fell down her cheeks. The words came slowly to her at first. “I’ve started having these thoughts... Horrible, destructive thoughts. I just get so angry sometimes, and then the magic starts to flow through me, and it’s like there’s this voice just screaming in my head, demanding that I do these terrible things.” She turned into Applejack’s open embrace, her voice rising in pitch and speed. “That stallion shot you, and I almost killed him, AJ! I w-wanted to—oh, Celestia, I c-can’t even bring myself to say it!”

“There, there,” Applejack cooed, running a hoof through her mane. “I gotcha. Yer alright. Yer okay.”

Great big sobs wracked Twilight’s whole body. “I’m so s-scared, AJ. I—I d-don’t know what’s h-happening to me!” Her voice devolved into wordless gasps as all her pent up fears came pouring out.

“S’alright, sugar cube.” Applejack rested her muzzle on Twilight’s head as she held her tight. “We’re here for ya. No matter what. Ya’ve always got your friends.”

Twilight didn’t know how long she spent like that, babbling wet nonsense into Applejack’s embrace. It only ended when she fell into a dark, dreamless sleep in her friend’s hooves.

“Don’t you think it’s a bit… tasteless?” Rarity asked, lowering her voice.

Whitehorn arched a brow as he looked up from the stuffed bell peppers on his plate. He swallowed, looking around. “The song, you mean?”

“Well, yes, of course,” Rarity said. “Have you been listening to the lyrics?”

Sunday until Saturday
Cats be coming round my way
Ask me to come out and play
But I know just what I’ll say

They were seated in a booth set against the window of a large inn. It was on the second floor, with a clear view of the clean-paved street below and the ocean beyond. The rising sun hung low over the horizon, silhouetting the shapes of airships drifting through the sky.

A live band played from a stage on the far side of the first floor. A drumset and contrabass set an upbeat rhythm, while a guitar and clarinet provided a swinging melody. A long-maned mare in a provocatively-cut dress sang at the front of the stage as her hips moved with the beat.

Won’t you fall, fall, fall
In love with me
Won’t you fall, fall, fall
For me

Whitehorn’s ears twitched. The corner of his mouth screwed up as he leaned back. “Not the best choice in song, I would say.”

“I’m going to go say something,” Rarity said. She slid out of her seat.

Whitehorn reached out with a hoof. “Countess, it’s fine.”

“It’s not fine!” Rarity snapped back. “There are ponies in here whose entire world has fallen out from under them. Some of them twice!”

“And those ponies aren’t little foals that need to be protected from ravenous tavern bands by their Auntie Rarity,” Whitehorn said. He stood up, standing in front of her with a wry little smile. “You’ve done enough, my Lady. They don’t need you to speak for them.”

Rarity held his gaze for several seconds, her body tense. She sighed as she looked away from him. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have lost my temper like that, it’s just—”

“It’s fine.”

“—everything that’s been happening, and I just feel like—”

“Countess Rarity. Rarity, look at me.”

“—there’s still so much I should be doing, and—”

Rarity stiffened as a gentle, pale blue hoof reached out to grab her chin. Her gaze was pulled upwards to meet Whitehorn’s kind eyes.

“You need to take a break,” he said. “You’ve done so much already. You barely slept during Fellis, and there must be a few dozen ponies at least that will always remember being pulled from the waters by ropes glowing with your magic. Captain Breeze will ensure they make it to safety as soon as the Ambrosia’s fit for travel once more.”

He let his hoof fall, gesturing towards the table. “Please, my Lady. Let’s take a few moments to ourselves. Not a one of the ponies whose lives you saved would begrudge us a nice lunch to celebrate before we part ways.”

Rarity let out a shaky little giggle. Goodness, what was that scent he was wearing? “I suppose you’re right, Whitehorn. Maybe I should follow Pinkie’s example.”

She sat down again, eyeing her roasted cauliflower with new spirit. Her ear twitched as she heard Pinkie saying something downstairs, perhaps to one of the survivors she had joined in celebration. She sounded happy. But then, she just about always sounds happy, doesn’t she?

Whitehorn nodded, slumping back into his seat across from her. They ate in silence for a few minutes, exchanging small comments about their food and savoring the chance to simply sit and breathe and live their lives.

They had spent frantic days trying to feed and care for the dozens of refugees they’d brought with them on the Sip of Ambrosia, yet Rarity could barely remember anything specific. It was all just a blur of rushing to and fro, lending her hoof or horn wherever she could help. Holding the injured down as the ship physician did her best to treat wounds without enough medicine, rationing and distributing food, helping foals find their parents, or at least a warm place to sleep. The only thing she could really remember clearly was butchering her fledgling wardrobe to meet the demand for bandages and blankets. A high price to pay, but then clothes were fairly easy to replace.

A frown graced her face as she thought of something. “Whitehorn, darling. What was that you said about us parting ways?”

Whitehorn was gazing out the window with a distant look in his eyes. He blinked, turning back to face her. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“You said we were celebrating before we parted ways,” Rarity said. “Weren’t you planning on returning to Heighton with Pinkie and I?”

“Ah, yes. Hrm.” He looked up, rubbing his chin with a hoof. “Did I not mention it already? I thought I had.”

“I don’t think so.” Rarity took a sip of her wine as she reviewed her sparse recollection of the past few days. It was another white variety, though not as delightfully zesty as the wine she’d had in Heighton. “But to be honest I might have forgotten even if you did. Would you be a dear and refresh my memory?”

He gave her a smiling nod. There was a lull in the music as the band paused to take requests from the crowd. “Of course, my Lady. I’ll be taking a ride north aboard whichever ship leaves first, to a baronland where I have some business. Altalusia.” He looked down to his plate, slicing into a pepper with his knife. “It’s about as far north as Heighton is south, actually.”

“But what about your article?” Rarity asked. “Won’t you need to be in Heighton to find a paper to publish? Or at least see its reception?” She tossed her mane, giving him a sideways glance. “And I do believe you were just telling me about letting ourselves take breaks, no?”

Whitehorn snorted, snickering to himself. It was perhaps the least proper thing Rarity had ever seen him do. “I don’t think you know how many contacts I have with the Heighton broadsheets. I’ll have Mister Drifts send the final draft to my apartment, and Fritzy will have copies sent to the proper ponies. I hardly need to be there to see how it’s received. The people will listen, or they won’t. It’ll be out of my hooves either way.” He pointed at her with his knife, propelling a stray piece of onion onto the table. “And don’t you talk to me about deserving breaks. You’ve only been in this game for days, and I feel as if you’ve already accomplished more than I have. I have catching up to do.”

The band began to play once more. This new song had a darker rhythm to it, the mare at the front of the stage drawing out each word as she cast her voice across the room.

When you are ready, I will surrender, take me and do as you will.
Have what you want, your way’s always the best way.
I have succumbed to this passive sensation, peacefully falling away.”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous.” Rarity tittered as she waved the words away with a hoof. “You’ve been writing for years, darling.”

Rarity almost didn’t notice the darkness that seemed to fall over Whitehorn’s eyes. “It’s as I said, Countess. Ponies listen, or they don’t. And there’s nothing I can do on that front.” He let out a heavy sigh as he pointed at his horn. “This heavy thing doesn’t even make a decent night light, you know. All I have is my words, but it seems that ponies will not be inspired to act until the world drops out under their hooves. Words can’t get anything done.”

Rarity grimaced as he turned to eye the crowds shuffling past each other in the street below the window. The tight robes and clean dresses of the ponies under his smoldering gaze made a stark contrast from the soot-stained world that would await him in Heighton.

Looks like a subject change is in order, Lady Rarity.

“So what’s this business that’s suddenly important enough to keep you away from home?” Rarity asked.

“It’s a… pet project of mine. Well—” He chuckled to himself as he pulled his gaze back towards her. “That’s how I like to think of it, at least. I could probably go on about it for hours, so I’m not going to bother—”

“I’ll have none of that, darling,” Rarity said. “As an artiste myself, I understand what it is to be excited about something you care about. Do go on.”

He grinned at her. “Well, I did warn you.” He lifted his mug to his muzzle and took a long sip of his cider. “It’s essentially—Hrm. The idea is an organization that could harness the power of the Gifted, to compress it all down into one sentence.”

Rarity arched a brow. The band continued to sing in the background.

And when you come back, I’ll be as you want me, only so eager to please.
My little song will keep you beside me, thinking your name as I sing.”

“Just think about it,” Whitehorn continued, the darkness that had passed over his eyes now replaced with a foalish eagerness. “Everything that you and Pinkie did, just working on your own? And imagine how things might have been different if Mr. Drifts had been more cooperative? Each Gifted has the potential to do so much good, but they’re too busy pursuing their own ends to aid their fellow pony.”

“But how would you get them to change?” Rarity asked. “I’ve only met a few, and even the nicest ones seem more interested in their own affairs than public works.”

“Well, that’s where the organization comes in,” Whitehorn said. He waved an aimless hoof in the air for a few seconds, mouth open. “It’s—alright, here.” He pulled a napkin over, picking a pen out of his vest pocket and beginning to scribble onto it. He continued to speak around the pen, his voice surprisingly clear despite the obstruction.

“So you have the Throne, right? But there’s nopony in it. It’s been vacant for centuries, and nopony can muster the support or the power to claim it for themselves.” He drew a triangle in the center of the napkin, and then a circle at each corner. “Without a central authority, power goes to whoever has the money, the land, or the popular support. You’re a discerning mare, I’m sure you saw it at Crazy’s party.”

Rarity frowned as she leaned forwards to get a better look at the doodle. She gave a slow nod. “The barons, the politicians, and the merchants, yes. It seemed nearly every guest there fit into one group or another.”

“Right. And although each of those groups have their own internal power struggles, the one thing they all have in common is the Gifted.” He spoke quickly, drawing lines between each of the circles. “All of them want Gifted. Soldiers for the barons, negotiators for the merchants, manipulators for the politicians, and every shade in between.” He looked up from the napkin, meeting her skeptical gaze. “This gives a Gifted immense opportunity. Assuming they can defend themselves from bounty hunters looking to sell them into service, they have the unique position of being wanted by everypony in power.”

“What are you getting at, darling?” Rarity asked.

Whitehorn grinned around the pen. “It’s the difference between the past and the present, my Lady. In your time, magic was as free as the air we breathe, and the Throne was there to keep the powerful and their squabbles in line. Now the Throne is gone, and magic is a precious thing.”

No, you can’t help it, if you have been tempted, by fruit hanging ripe on the tree.
And I feel useless, don’t care what the truth is, you will be here come the day.”

“Some Gifted are content being pieces for the power players,” Whitehorn continued. “Some of them try to play the game themselves. And some place themselves…“ He dropped the pen, his eyes flicking aside before he regained his focus. “Some keep themselves more independent. But there’s not a single one that has their fellow pony’s interests at heart.”

“And your solution to this problem would be what, exactly?” Rarity cocked her head, her wine glass levitating at her side.

“Two birds with one stone, my Lady. An organization that can rein in the Gifted, and place them in the role the Throne once had. Keeping the powerful in line, and using their magic for the common good.” He tapped a hoof on the triangle at the center of the napkin. “I call it the Gifted Table.”

“That… sounds an awful lot like coercing ponies to do as you like, darling,” Rarity said. She frowned down at the napkin and the idea it described. “I doubt the Gifted would freely serve your cause, and I doubt those in power would listen to them.”

“I’ve already made some progress on that, actually,” Whitehorn said, leaning back. “I have enough support among the merchants and mayors, but nobles are reluctant to do anything that makes their retinues weaker. I’ve spent years already just trying to get a baron with enough power to back me, but once I do… well, it could be the first meaningful thing to happen in the Equestrian Court for decades. Just think of all the good that could be done!”

“And who would lead this Gifted Table of yours, dear?” Rarity asked. She arched a brow pointedly. “You?”

Whitehorn chuckled. He pushed his spent meal away and dropped a few bits onto the tabletop. “It’s been too long since I was able to stretch my legs.” He stood, extending a hoof towards Rarity. “Would you join me for a small promenade, Countess?”

Twilight had never realized before just how well Applejack’s warm body served as a pillow.

She raised her head, cautious of disturbing her friend, and checked the clock that she had bought during her brief time in Leviathan Wakes. It was only ten in the morning. She couldn’t have slept more than four hours, and she didn’t really feel any more rested than she had when she fell asleep crying into Applejack’s chest.

Why was she awake? Had it been another nightmare? She didn’t remember casting any sleep spells on herself, but then she also didn’t remember any dreams of drowning.

With a mental shrug, Twilight nuzzled back into Applejack’s coat. The farmpony stirred, mumbling something under her breath about hats, but didn’t wake.

It felt like hours passed. Twilight had her eyes closed, but sleep didn’t come to her.

What’s wrong with me? A sardonic grin came onto her face at the thought. There were several things wrong with her, and had been for what felt like forever. Had it really been less than three weeks ago that she woke up in the ruins of Canterlot?

The grin was gone as quick as it came. Twilight sighed, opening her eyes. Were her friends and the rest of the crew all worried about her? Did they think she was still hiding? Were they worried about her? And when was the last time she’d had something to eat?

That settled it. She wouldn’t be able to fall asleep until she saw her friends again and made sure they were okay. And she had something to eat.

Twilight eased herself away from Applejack’s warmth. She pulled the blanket up over her friend’s body before slipping out into the cargo hold that was the closest thing she had to a home. Her horn glowed as she cast a few pings around her. Rainbow wasn’t in her makeshift cloudhome. Fluttershy wasn’t in her little room, either.

Twilight made her way out into the halls and up to the second deck, pinging as she went. A large stallion that could only be Flint was in a room with a great deal of guns. She saw no reason to disturb him. Knowing him, he probably hadn’t even noticed her absence. Two ponies were in the control room, while a third pony sat alone in the common room. A pair of mares were together in the clinic. Rainbow and Fluttershy.

She made a beeline for the clinic, thinking of how useful Trails’s ping spell was. She wondered if the other unicorn used it to keep track of her friends just like Twilight just had. She didn’t seem capable of sending out radial pings, so perhaps it wasn’t as convenient for her. Twilight made a mental note to ask Trails about it later, and maybe offer some coaching.

Twilight slowed as she approached the clinic door, a pang of guilt passing through her. She could still clearly see the ugly redness that had covered much of Rainbow’s face. How could she have spent so long feeling sorry for herself when one of her best friends had been dealing with such a terrible wound? She hadn’t even stopped in to check if her friend was okay. Oh, Celestia, please tell me that she’s okay.

The door was slightly ajar as she came up to it. Twilight pushed it open with a hoof, stepping quietly into the room crowded with medical instruments. Rainbow was lying on the bed at the far end, looking out the window. Twilight hesitated as she saw Sea Sabre was standing beside her. I guess Fluttershy is elsewhere. The stern-eyed pegasus turned to watch as she entered.

The word caught in Twilight’s throat as she pushed it out. “R-Rainbow?”

Rainbow jolted, her body stiffening at the sound of her name. She took a deep breath as she turned to face Twilight. “H-hey, Twi.”

“Oh, Rainbow.” Twilight raised a hoof to her muzzle. A knot of emotion formed in her stomach as she saw her friend’s bandaged wounds. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“Just don’t worry about it, alright?” Rainbow asked, her voice cracking. She looked away again, hiding the strips of gauze that covered the space where her left eye had been just a day before. “I’m glad to see you’re alright, Twi. AJ was looking all over for you, earlier.”

Sea Sabre cleared her throat. “Give yourself some time to recover, Rainbow Dash. We’ll talk again then.” She stepped past Twilight, looking back at her from out in the hall. “Twilight?”

“Yes, Sabre?” Twilight asked, tearing her gaze away from her friend.

“Things turned out better than they could have, yesterday, but it’s clear to me that they very easily might have gone much worse.” Sabre’s stare bored into hers. “In the future, I won’t hesitate to do what’s necessary if I feel you’re endangering my crew.”

Twilight gulped. She thought back to the bloody mess that had covered the Argo’s walls. “I understand.”

Sea Sabre nodded. “I’ll be up front. Come talk to me when you’re done here.” She closed the door behind her, and the sound of her steady hoofsteps gradually faded away.

“She’s pretty intense, huh?”

Twilight looked back to Rainbow. The brash pegasus seemed unusually small, almost like a filly staring out her bedroom window. “I don’t think I’ve ever once seen her smile.”

“There was that one time,” Rainbow said. “Remember, after we came back from what’s left of Ponyville? She said the dive was a ‘success.’ “

A small chuckle escaped Twilight’s lips. It didn’t feel right. “That wasn’t really much of a smile, but I guess you’re right.”

An uncomfortable silence settled into place. Twilight let her eyes amble around the room, uncertain what to do with them. She opened her mouth to speak, but closed it without making a sound. She didn’t know how long it was before she tried again—there was no clock in the room—but Rainbow beat her to it.

“It’s… weird,” she said. She turned away from the window, looking instead at the wall. She held her left hoof out in front of her. “There’s like… it feels like my eye is open. But it’s just… dark. It doesn’t really hurt that much anymore, and sometimes I just kind of… forget what happened. And I try to open my eye but—” Her voice caught as she let the hoof drop. “But it’s already open.”

“Oh, Rainbow.” Twilight stepped up to the bedside, leaning her head against the pegasus’s side. “I’m so sorry.”

“Can you fix it?” Rainbow asked. She kept her voice carefully neutral.

“I—I don’t know,” Twilight admitted. “There might be a book out there with a spell that would work, but healing magic isn’t like other magic. It’s—oh, I don’t want to get your hopes up, but I just can’t bring myself to say no, either.” I don’t want to fail you, too.

“Save it, Twi. I figured it’d be something like that.” Rainbow paused, and Twilight felt her weight shift further towards her. “My only regret is that that cocky bird got the best of me. I’m not letting that happen again.”


“She threatened my friends,” Rainbow growled. “She would’ve killed AJ. Though I guess I didn’t really need to tackle her, huh? Fluttershy told me about how you just teleported AJ to safety, and how she fought off all those ponies.” She snorted, shuffling her wings. “I was the one that needed rescuing in the end.”

Twilight pulled back, trying to catch her friend’s gaze. “It wasn’t your fault.”

Rainbow turned to face her. A slow-burning fire simmered in her good eye as she jabbed a hoof at the patch of bandages on her face. “This is my fault, Twi. I wasn’t good enough, and Gava got me. That’s it.” She looked back to the window with a deep breath. “Sabre said she’ll give me lessons once my wounds heal more.” A dark smile pulled at the corner of her mouth. “I’m gonna learn how to use wingblades. The next time I meet Gava, I’ll be ready for her.”

Twilight couldn’t help but frown at the back of Rainbow’s polychromatic mane. The pegasus was coping with her injury well, but Twilight couldn’t help but feel that she was taking it in the wrong direction. Would she wake up one day to find her loyal friend replaced by a callous soldier like Flintlock, or a cold warrior like Sea Sabre, or even a bloodthirsty killer like Gava? She couldn’t help but feel like the course of Rainbow’s life had been inexorably altered by yesterday’s events, but then who was Twilight to talk? And could she even really blame her?

“Just be careful, Rainbow,” Twilight said. “And don’t let this whole thing change you for the worse. You’re a wonderful, loyal friend, and we all love you.”

Rainbow’s smile widened into a warm, familiar grin. “Thanks for stopping by, Twi. AJ was looking for you earlier, by the way. I know Shy’s real worried, too. I told her you were fine, of course, but y’know how she is.”

Twilight smiled back at her. This was more like the Rainbow Dash she knew. The secretly caring, loudly independent mare that had grown on her so fast during the Summer Sun Celebration. “If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

Rainbow shrugged. “Same to you, Twi.”

With one last empathetic squeeze, Twilight left the clinic. The door closed behind her with a quiet click. She took a deep breath, wondering what to do next. Sabre had said she wanted to talk, but Twilight wanted to find Fluttershy and make sure she was okay, too. She sent out a couple more pings, but the only thing different was the presence of a third pony in the control room. Well, maybe Fluttershy is one of them. She might be keeping Sunfeather company.

It was a short walk to the front of the ship. Twilight stepped through the control room door’s hissing steam clouds to a wide view of sparkling blue ocean visible through the glass. Sunfeather and Star Trails were discussing something over open charts by the navigation table. Sunfeather didn’t even look up, but the latter offered a friendly wave before refocusing on the charts. Sea Sabre stood next to the vacant control dais, staring out at the empty horizon.

Twilight dipped her head to Star Trails, trying not to stare at the clean dressing on her shoulder, and continued on to Sea Sabre’s side. “You wanted to talk?”

Sabre’s eyes flicked towards her. “I made an observation during our engagement with Gava that I believe to be significant.”

Twilight grimaced. She looked down, scratching at the ground. “Sabre, I know that I nearly lost control yesterday. I’m so, so sorry. I never want to put you in that position again, and—”

“Not that,” Sabre said. “That matter’s been resolved. This is about where we go from here.”

Twilight blinked. The pit in her stomach eased somewhat, but the core of it remained. She looked up to meet Sabre’s eyes. “Well, I need to do some tests on Princess Luna’s condition, and some research into dreams and healing magics. So if we could—”

Sabre lifted a hoof, cutting her off. “Did you see a mooncursed pegasus mare anywhere on Gava’s ship?”

Twilight cocked her head. “Mooncursed?”

“Sharp teeth, dark coat, tufted ears.” Sabre spread one of her wings. “Featherless wings. Anything like that?”

“Oh!” Twilight let out a little giggle. “In my time we called them thestrals, actually. Pretty much all of them worked in the service of Princess Luna, so most ponies didn’t really see much of them, and—”


“Right, sorry.” Twilight screwed up her eyes, tapping a hoof to her chin as she reviewed her broken recollection of the fight with Gava. “Sorry, Sabre, but if I did see anypony like that, then I don’t remember. My memories of her ship are a little… spotty. Why do you ask?”

Sabre let out a neutral grunt. “Nopony else did either, and that’s the problem. Gava’s closest ally is a thestral, as you call them. Her name is Anatami, and they always—always—work together.”

“Maybe they had some kind of falling out?” Twilight suggested.

Sabre shook her head. “Not likely. I see two possibilities.” She took slow steps around the control dais as she spoke, gesturing with a wing. “First, she’s hidden somewhere aboard the Argo. Anatami is the subtle thinker behind Gava’s brawn, and I wouldn’t put it past her to be spying on us right now. I’ve already had the ship searched, but she’s an experienced saboteur that could have slipped past us.”

A chill ran down Twilight’s spine. She immediately lit her horn, sending powerful pulses of magic throughout the ship. The Argo was a complicated affair of clockwork machinery, but the flesh of living ponies had a feel distinct from cold brass or other metals. “I can’t sense any extra ponies aboard. If she is hiding somewhere, then there must be some advanced magic hiding her.”

“Magic is not a field she has much experience with, unfortunately,” Sabre said.

“Unfortunately?” Twilight asked.

“It means the second possibility is more likely.” Sabre came to a stop in front of Twilight, extending her other wing. Noon sunlight filtered through the bubble of glass in the room, casting a short shadow at her hooves. “They split up. And the only reason that they would split up is if they had to in order to keep track of multiple targets.”

Twilight’s blood ran cold as she made the connection. “Rarity and Pinkie.”

Sabre nodded. “We don’t know how long they’ve been tracking us. I believe Anatami might have been following your friends ever since they left Heighton.”

“But—we have to warn them!” Twilight began to pace, her eyes growing wider and wider. “I don’t know how long they were planning on staying at Fellis Island. They might’ve already returned to Heighton by now.”

“Fellis is closer,” Sabre said. “Star Trails and Sunfeather are refining our course now. Unless you have any objections, we should be there within the week.”

“Oh, but what if we’re wrong?” Twilight leaned against the control dais for support, putting a hoof to her chest. She didn’t know what she might do if she lost any more of her friends. “What if they’ve already been caught?”

“I don’t think Anatami would act on her own,” Sabre said. “She’s very deliberate. Gava will probably be making to rendezvous with her now, however, and I expect that to be when they strike.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Twilight snapped, her nostrils flaring. A surge of magic welled in her breast, and she was quick to push it down. “My friends are in danger! We have to get to them before anything happens!”

Sabe frowned at her. “I’m just telling you the situation. Even with the damage you did, Gava’s ship can outpace ours, and she has a headstart. Even if we go to the right location, she’ll beat us by a margin of days.”

“Oh, no. Oh, Celestia, no, no, no… “ Twilight shivered against the cool surface of the control dais. She looked up as Sabre laid a hoof on her shoulder.

“I’ll leave it up to you what you tell your friends,” she said. “I would recommend against letting the future affect you before it happens. At this point, all we can do is prepare.”

Straterra was a different affair altogether from the ash-clogged streets of Heighton. It was a smaller island, not even half the size of the Heighton mainland, but it seemed to display double the glamour. The streets were paved in neatly set, painted stones. Carts trimmed with vibrant colors were pulled down the center of each path by ponies in clean clothes. Mares and stallions spoke of business as they made a brisk pace down level sidewalks, wearing robes and dresses that each shouted for Rarity’s individual and dedicated appreciation. Restaurants, inns, and spas beckoned with bright signage, whispering of leisure and lodging to every open eye.

“I must say, this is quite the change from Heighton,” Rarity mused as she and Whitehorn walked down one of the island’s six central roads.

“The two islands serve very different purposes,” Whitehorn said. He gestured upwards, indicating a tower barely visible behind the bulk of the airships moored to its sides. “Straterra is a place of trade, not industry. Merchants come here laden down with bits or goods and trade one for the other in some of the best-accounted warehouses in Equestria.”

Rarity glanced behind them, her eyes scoring along the building faces. “You know, I don’t think I’ve seen a single home or apartment yet.”

“There are none,” Whitehorn said. “Straterra is more trading post than city. The closest thing it has to permanent residents are the ponies that work in its services, and many of them stay for only a few years before moving on.”

“But who pays for it all?” Rarity asks. “Who builds all these towers and warehouses and docks?”

“The merchant lords do, in bits and pieces,” Whitehorn answered. “They invest in the island as it serves their purposes, adding new towers or supporting new restaurants or repaving roads as they see profit.” He eyed his surroundings. “It’s all sort of piled up at this point. It’s actually quite surprising how quickly rival traders will cooperate when there’s bits on the line.”

Airships floated overhead like mechanical clouds, casting a spotty shadow over the island below. Rarity walked at Whitehorn’s side in silence, seeing the city in a new light. Straterra was Fellis Island’s closest neighbor, but it clearly wasn’t the best place for dozens of penniless refugees.

Luckily, Captain Breeze had agreed to give those refugees who needed it passage to Heighton, with instructions to bring them to Crazy Rich for aid. Or perhaps it wasn’t luck, and more the assurance of fair payment from Crazy’s coffers. Rarity hadn’t felt comfortable making such promises with another pony’s money, but she hadn’t seen any other choice. She was sure she could convince Crazy to honor the deal.

“You still haven’t answered my question, darling,” Rarity said.

“Ah, yes. Apologies, my Lady. You don’t often have the chance to enjoy fresh air like this, living in Heighton.” Whitehorn took a deep breath, smiling as he exhaled. “I understand your suspicions, Countess, but I can assure you that I have no interest in any leadership positions, no matter the benefits.”

“So after all the effort you’ve put into realizing this Table idea of yours, you would just walk away and leave it to the whims of others?” Rarity asked, her mouth twisted into a skeptic curve. She kept one eye on the passing fashions as they walked. It was the first time she had felt underdressed since the apocalypse, and she found the experience quite refreshing.

“Well, I would certainly stay on for a time to handle any… bumps during the transition,” Whitehorn said. “But only as a parent might guide his foal. I would remove myself as soon as it was clear the Table could stand on its own.”

“I don’t know, darling,” Rarity said. “Power changes ponies.”

The stepped out into a wide, circular plaza centered around an airship docking tower. Fountains sprayed water into the air from four corners, lending a pleasant backdrop to the combined chatter of the plaza’s occupants.

“I’ve had power before, my Lady, and I have no interest in holding it again.” Whitehorn let out a small chuckle. “The ponies at the bottom only feel the pressure from above, and imagine that it must be paradise to stand at the top of the hierarchy. But pressure runs both ways. Workers must pay their rent, managers must meet their quotas, and even a duke will find a knife in his back if he displeases too many loyal servants. There is no place safe within the system.” He paused, adding quietly, “I sometimes envy the Gifted who choose to spurn it.”

Rarity couldn’t help but smile at the little speech. There was something about it that just seemed so sincere. “And wherever did Whitehorn the Writer come across such wisdom?”

He smirked, looking at her from the corner of his eye. “I was lucky enough to be born to an influential couple on a merchant lord’s fleet. They wanted me to follow in their steps, of course, and backed me in the running for a position among the lord’s administration.” He looked away and shook his head. “It was an enlightening, if stressful, experience.”

“And what did your parents think of your enlightenment?” Rarity asked. A cool breeze blew past, toying with her mane.

Whitehorn’s casual smile stiffened, barely perceptible. “I never told them.”

A minute passed in silence. They came to the edge of the island, and turned to walk alongside it. Their hooves clopped with steady rhythm against the wooden dock. A stallion and mare shouted at each other about their different opinions on the proper price of rice.

“So you’re heading for Altalusia to speak with someone about this Gifted Table,” Rarity mused. “Who might they be?”

“Duke Titus. I’ve spoken with him several times before on the matter, and he’s remained a staunch cynic. I don’t have high hopes, but he remains the Table’s best chance.” Whitehorn let out a long sigh. “I fully expect to return to Heighton rejected once more, but… well, I just feel like I ought to have another try after what happened with Fellis.”

Rarity nodded, more to herself than anything. She still had her doubts about the idea. Some silly part of her imagined Gifted ponies marching in chains on their way to feed starving foals, but she was quick to dismiss it. Whitehorn was a good stallion. He was honorable and carried himself with the proper pride of a gentlecolt, and she found herself believing that he had no interest in personal power. And all the good that could be done…

That was the real kicker, the words that had come up so many times in her talks with him. All the good that could be done. It truly was an ideal that held the potential to change Equestria massively for the better. Every Gifted held that potential, and surely some proper guidance—careful not to overstep its bounds, of course—could only do good?

“Is there…” Rarity hesitated before pressing on. “Is there anything I could do to help, darling? Or Pinkie, perhaps?”

Whitehorn blinked. He cocked his head, and a small smile pulled at his lips. He stopped mid-step, turning to face Rarity fully. “Do you know, I think there actually might be.”

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