• Published 19th Feb 2017
  • 1,869 Views, 23 Comments

Control Freak - Pascoite

The nightmares started… Twilight can’t remember just when. But they’ve gotten worse and worse, and why won’t Luna help, and now they’ve even stopped bothering her. That scares her more than any nightmare ever did.

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Chapter 4: Assumption of Guilt

With a snort, Twilight jerked awake and immediately winced at the pain in her neck. Must have slept on it funny. Her eyes still closed, she tried to raise a hoof to rub that knot, but her foreleg wouldn’t move. What had happened last night? Something told her that if she opened her eyes to find out, she wouldn’t like the answer.

She opened them.

All around her stood walls of stone, the same dreary grays and whites of Canterlot, with their smell of dust and maybe even a hint of burnt coffee. Did that mean—? Was Celestia nearby? She almost smiled.

Twilight tried to raise her head to look around, but… luminescent cords held her down. It all came back to her. Luna.

At least Twilight had a thick cushion to keep her comfortable on the cold, hard floor. But those insidious lines crisscrossed over her back and around her hooves, even encircling her horn. She forced her suddenly rapid breathing to slow, then clenched her jaw and focused on untangling herself. The glow of her magic instantly leapt into her bindings, which flared brighter for a few moments before returning to their faint thrumming. So, no magic.

Luna. Twilight ground her teeth.

She could at least twist her head and see around the room. One window, a single wooden door… It stood wide open. Twilight blinked. Would Luna be so careless?

Twilight tried to wriggle her way out from under her restraints, but even the soft rustling of that cushion echoed like dry leaves off the unadorned marble and granite. Two white heads soon peered around the door jamb, and one of the guards immediately left. What else could she do? Twilight slumped back into the pillow. The remaining guard just stared. Come a little closer and see what happens. She’d glare at him, but it hurt her horn to keep straining that far to the side; she settled for a rough sigh and turned back to her forced view of the wall.

Minutes later, the first guard returned… No, too many hoofsteps. He wasn’t alone.

The door closed gently, then more hoofsteps moving around Twilight, in front of her. She didn’t have to look. Only the dead of midnight could send that particular chill down her spine. But no need to panic. Calm.

Twilight slowed her breathing and gazed up at Luna, who peered back as if observing the contents of a beaker. But there was something to her eyes—a filament of heat within the cold. No matter. Still and calm. Show Luna that she could relax. And after another moment, Luna began lowering herself to the floor.

With a snarl, Twilight lunged against the cords and flung a bolt of flame at the princess, but it only shot a few hooves’ distance before getting diverted, absorbed into those parasitic bonds. Twilight would have screamed, but Luna had favored her shoulder, the one Twilight had burned last night, and flinched. Barely, just a twitch of her head. “Not so self-assured, are you, Luna?” Little victories. They’d be big ones soon enough.

Luna lay the rest of the way down, just past where Twilight’s magic had reached. She closed her eyes briefly, and a few of the strands holding Twilight’s head down retracted so that she could sit up.

Luna was… letting her go? No, she still couldn’t move anything but her head. A show of trust? To what end? Twilight squinted her glowing green eyes at her jailer. Nothing left to do but wait.

The silence pressed into Twilight’s ears harder and harder until Luna finally sighed. “I pity you, Twilight Sparkle.”

How dare she! The purple mist swirling from Twilight’s eyes grew darker and gathered in pools around her forelegs, but she forced down the rising fire in her stomach. Something about that frown. Luna held up a hoof, and her ears drooped. She should be gloating. If their positions were reversed…

“I do not say that to belittle you. I mean it in earnest.” Luna pursed her lips and rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. “Your friend Fluttershy was correct. Something has gone horribly wrong—something I do not understand.”

Luna returned her gaze to Twilight’s face and searched it. That intense stare, tracing back and forth, but the corners of her mouth sank the longer she failed to locate whatever it was that she sought. And still those eyes: the trace of warmth from before had only spread, a reawakened ember beneath the insulating blanket of snow and ice. “From all I know about magic, this should not be happening. I intend to find out why it is.”

Twilight settled more easily onto her cushion and looked away, but the soft glow of starlight remained in her sight, ice blue tempering her own tint of green.

“I think,” Luna continued, “that even in your state, you can see why I will be attending to this matter instead of my sister.” She rose to her hooves and took a tentative step forward, Twilight’s eyes widening now that the princess was in range. “King Sombra embraced the dark magic. He welcomed it. You do not, and yet cannot resist it. There is more fear and regret in your countenance than determination.”

Luna’s voice dropped to a whisper. “What has happened to you?” Twilight fixed her face in a sneer, even as tears began trickling down her cheeks. Why was she…?

Stop it, Twilight! Stop acting like such a foal!

Luna watched one of the teardrops on its journey to the floor. “We cannot keep this up indefinitely, of course. The magic required to renew this confinement spell—” she waved a hoof at the lines holding Twilight down “—will soon prove too taxing for me. My time grows short.” Her mouth hung open as if to say more, but she abruptly turned for the door.

Your time?” Twilight growled through a ragged breath.

“Yes. My time to find a solution. Or perhaps my time to…” Luna returned to Twilight’s side, even closer than before. Close enough that she wouldn’t be able to evade another attack…

Twilight flinched at the light touch on her shoulder, and soon the head of steam urging her to act had faded. Here she was with the perfect chance to strike out at her rival, and—

“You may never know how much Celestia and I love you, Twilight Sparkle,” Luna said with the first smile Twilight had seen on her in ages. “But you are dangerous. We cannot allow that threat to remain. If we fail to determine a way to heal you, the only option left would be… banishment.”

Twilight’s jaw dropped, and she began to shake. The soft touch withdrew from her shoulder, and Luna trudged to the doorway, heavy and lethargic, her wings drooping almost to the floor. “You can’t!” Twilight screamed, straining against her bonds once more. “Not if you love me like you say you do!”

“Not banishment for you, necessarily,” Luna said as she glanced past her shoulder, her head hanging low. “For me. I served my sister’s sentence. If possible, I will serve yours as well.”

Then she was gone. Twilight didn’t even see her leave. Just a vague memory of the hinges creaking. No time for anything but the one thought that consumed her, the only thing that would dispel the feeling of being trapped in a pit within her own mind: Luna… loves me.

Twilight buried her head in the cushion and wept as quietly as she could.

Once more, Dawn Ember stood contemplating the door to Princess Twilight’s room. Not her chambers, though—what had now become her room, after Luna had carried her limp form back from the Everfree. A secret, of course, but much of the castle staff knew by now. All trustworthy ponies, though, and word wouldn’t make it beyond the walls until Princess Celestia gave the okay.

Come to think of it, Ember had seen precious little of Princess Celestia through this… incident. Princess Luna would surely insist on doing whatever she could if Ember were ever in Twilight’s place, ever did what… Well, what the rumors said about Princess Twilight, if true. Princess Luna would defend her vehemently and—

Of course. Princess Luna would also have the wisdom to stay out of a situation where her personal feelings would seriously compromise her judgment. Still, Princess Twilight Sparkle. How could anypony stay objective?

Ember peered around the corner one more time at the pair of guards flanking the door down the hall. A very plain door this time, very sturdy. The kind that kept something in, not out.

The guards might let her in, if she asked. Or if she heavily implied that she was there on Princess Luna’s business. Not a lie. But she’d never spoken to Princess Twilight before, and—Luna was right. A bit of hero worship, maybe, but it especially stung when a hero fell so far.

If she had fallen. Ember had recognized the taste of that magic, but there could be an explanation. There had to be. Princess Celestia’s chosen one, ever since her legendary entrance exam to the school.

And Ember’s own failure at the same exam, before she’d believed she had a magical talent at all.

Dawn Ember sniffed at the air as she followed Fennel through the streets of Canterlot. Did the city have a unique character, all its own, one flavor? Or just a mishmash of everything in it?

As they got closer to the school, more and more unicorns trotted by, levitating their stacks of books. And Ember dragged her own bag across the ground, her horn’s paltry white glow nearly overtaxed by just that. If she failed the entrance exam…

She’d take it for Fennel and Chanterelle. She’d take it and try her best.

Fennel showed their invitation to the guard at the gate, and then a student, considerably younger than Ember, ushered them through a maze of corridors and staircases, and eventually to a large, empty lecture hall. “The examination board should arrive momentarily,” he said without any indication that she warranted more attention than the same flagstones he saw on the ground every day. And then he left them. Alone.

Waiting. She hated waiting. And that tingling—good thing she’d only had toast for breakfast. She’d worried about having an empty stomach, but now she cared more about how it might abruptly become empty again. After a few minutes of silence, Fennel finally took a seat in the front row and beamed back at Ember.

She blushed. “Dad…”

At the back of the room, a door swung open, and three unicorns entered: a scowling mare, a yawning stallion, and another mare with a gentle smile. They took chairs in the back row as a colt pushed a cart in from the side door. On it was an odd assortment of wooden parts and a small egg in a bowl.

The sour-faced mare immediately spoke up in rapid-fire fashion. “Out of those parts, construct a machine that can crack the egg without spilling the contents, then split the shell open and put only the yolk in the bowl. There are no fasteners, so your magic will have to hold the parts together as well as provide the motive force. Go.”

Ember stared back, her mouth agape. “No, I brought some samples to show you…”

“Young lady, you don’t bring your own test. If we allowed that, we’d have every unicorn in the land here trying to guess which card in the deck we’d picked.” She sniffed and poised a pencil over her notepad. “You’ll take the test we’ve given you. Now, please begin.”

Ember glanced at Fennel through the tangled forelock that had overgrown her eyes, and then to the pile of wooden pieces, her mouth hanging open again. A bead of sweat ran down her forehead. I can’t do magic.

She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth to fire up the strongest glow on her horn that she could muster. One of the smaller wooden parts scraped and jerked across the cart’s top, then another, which tipped up on its end and strained to stack itself atop the first, but… An enormous breath exhaled, and Ember held a hoof to her throbbing head. Both blocks clattered to the floor.

Ember fell to her haunches and sat panting, those eyes boring into her from across the room. Even from that far, she could practically smell the coffee on their breath. She squinted at the blocks again, willing them to cooperate. It was now or never.

She parted the hair from in front of her face put her all into making one block float. Just one. Any one. After a moment, one of them tilted up in fits and starts, like a robin bobbing for worms, but it too toppled over, falling with Ember as she sank to her knees and fought to stay upright against the sparks dancing in her vision. “I’m… sorry…”

“That’s it?” the self-appointed spokesmare said. She clicked her tongue and snapped her notebook shut.

Fennel rose from his seat, a fire smoldering in his eyes. “How do you expect a filly to do that? There’s no way the blank flanks that come here could handle that test!”

“Your daughter is also a full two years older than our normal applicants,” she shot back, halfway rising from her chair. “The test is age-appropriate.”

“So it’s demonstrate a couple o’ specific spells you’ve chosen or go home?” His voice raising, Fennel waved a foreleg at the ceiling. His voice… raising. He never did that. “How is that fair?”

“These are very basic spells, sir,” the mare answered through her set jaw, her voice taking on an edge as her eyes lingered on Fennel’s dreadlocks and Ember’s rat’s nest of a mane.

“Nonsense!” Fennel stalked over to the cart, swiped all the assorted pieces to the floor, and hefted his saddlebag on top. “Charcoal. She demonstrated its use to help reduce the effects o’ poisons.”

“That’s not new,” barked the stallion. “That’s been a home remedy for years.”

Ember backed away and pressed her side into the wall, her eyes fixed on the small picture of a mortar and pestle on her flank. She didn’t want to be any trouble… She held her hooves to her ears, shook her head, felt the blood draining from her face.

“Well, it was new to us out in the sticks. And she found a way to process it that made it faster-acting!” he shouted as he slammed a pouch of charcoal powder onto the cart. The standing mare jutted her jaw forward. “This one!” Fennel yelled as he held up a brown ceramic amulet. “Infused with sulfur, realgar, and wolfsbane. Unless he’s starving, a timber wolf won’t come anywhere near somepony who’s wearing it.”

“Does that really work?” the formerly silent mare asked, her eyebrows raised.

Fennel shook and rattled a letter with Canterlot Hospital’s logo emblazoned across the top. “And three years ago, when she was just a filly, she figured out that a mining explosive would make an effective heart treatment!” He stood, red-faced and panting, while Ember tried to conceal herself behind the cart.

The outspoken mare huffed and strode out of the room. The stallion’s frown deepened.

Ember couldn’t stop shaking. When she was rejected. When she was laughed out of town…

The remaining mare floated her glasses onto the desk in front of her and took a deep breath. “Sir, please understand… I don’t doubt that what she’s done is real and even impressive. But it’s just not the kind of thing we teach here.” She rubbed her eyes and gave Ember a sympathetic smile. “In fact, it’s a very uncommon talent. I hear of it from the zebras, but not in Equestria. If we accepted your daughter, what would she do here? We’re just not equipped to develop that kind of magic.”

“Where, then? Where does she go?” Fennel leaned on the cart for support and looked near Ember, but not at her. “Somewhere across the ocean?” His voice cracked.

“I… don’t have an answer for you. I wish I did.” Her gaze flicked toward Ember briefly, then down to her glasses.

“I will teach her.”

All eyes shot over toward where Princess Luna had entered from the side door, and once Ember had recovered enough to reassert control of her body, she bowed deeply. Fennel was still standing. She poked his ankle, but she couldn’t get his attention. If he didn’t regain his senses soon, he might be arrest—

“Rise, all of you. Please.” Luna strode up to Ember and raised her chin with a hoof. “So this is what I sensed. My own magic tends more to the understated, but I have never encountered any quite like yours… It is like—” she squinted and cocked her head while a thoughtful smile sent its tendrils across her face “—intuition without awareness.” Luna closed her eyes, and the midnight-blue glow from her horn lit Ember’s face. “Like the flower that knows exactly when to bloom, but not why.”

Ember stared back. S-somehow, the words… She would have never thought to explain it that way, but Luna—Princess Luna—had it perfectly. Did she understand?

Princess Luna knelt in front of Ember. “Nature whispers to you, but she speaks in riddles, yes?”

Th-the Princess… Dawn Ember nodded her head clumsily. She probably would have still, no matter what the Princess had said. But that was right. Yeah…

“And no other magic works enough to be useful? Even though you have presumably sought advice from a magic teacher where you live?”

Ember pursed her lips and shook her head. “I can make enough light to see in the dark a little.”

Rising to her hooves, Luna turned to the remaining mare at the back of the room. “Admit her and assign her a room. Non-magic curriculum only, private study hours with me first thing each morning and with the Royal Gardener each afternoon.”

Fennel stood, his mouth hanging open. And then the sound of a clearing throat drew Princess Luna’s attention toward an armored stallion at the side door. “Ah. I see that I must attend to other business at the moment. I will have one of the senior students show you around—pardon me, but I have neglected to ask your name.”

“D-Dawn Ember.”

“Well, Dawn Ember. Your guide can also recommend somewhere to get your mane cut, if you wish.”

By reflex, Ember pulled a clump of her forelock across her eyes and held it to her nose.

“But…” Ember started; Princess Luna only chuckled.

“I understand. Until later, Dawn Ember.” Princess Luna strode out of the room, beckoning for the two remaining examiners to follow. And with her departure, the room lost something… A certain solidity, a firmness—and the sheen of starlight.

Fennel had said his good-byes, shooed her on to follow the guide, and promised to write often. Which he did, every week, like clockwork.

No way they could afford the train trip again, but Princess Luna had furnished a student rail pass and a generous monthly stipend, which she saved up and took to her family every time she visited. Fennel would argue that it was her money, but Ember would say that it was what she wanted, then shoot Chanterelle a meaningful look. And once outnumbered, he’d relent.

Her life had changed that day. All their lives had. Princess Luna had made her dream happen.

But the one thing that stuck with her most, after all these years, was how alone Fennel had looked when she left him behind in that lecture hall.

For her own good, he’d said later on in a letter. He would be fine.

And for her own good, Ember turned around and headed toward Princess Luna’s study. Her mentor had left a note asking her to stop by anyway. Princess Luna could fix this. She could fix anything. And Ember wouldn’t want to remember Princess Twilight this way. She’d introduce herself later, after Princess Luna had straightened everything out.

The walk back to her study had never seemed so long for Luna. Fortunately, she’d learned the castle’s layout well enough that even if her eyes were open, she wouldn’t need to pay attention to where she was going. As it was, a glowing image of Twilight floated behind her eyelids from where she’d stared at her sister’s student at length.

All day long, she sat at her desk and turned things over in her mind. Like compost. And like compost, the more she turned it, the more it smelled.

Nothing made sense. Nothing. Save for Luna and Celestia, magic should not be strong enough to make an unwilling servant of anypony, and even the princesses knew to be vigilant now, for themselves and others. How?

For quite possibly the hundredth time that sleepless day, Luna rubbed her eyes and started at the beginning. Some piece of logic must have been escaping her. And as she met with failure yet again, her thoughts turned to the inevitable backup position: how could she take on Twilight’s affliction for her?

Faint hoofsteps scuffled from the hallway, past Luna’s desk, and toward the laboratory. Luna didn’t look up. “Anything new today, Dawn Ember?”

“No. At least not research-wise.”

“What then?” Luna exhaled sharply.


Finally abandoning her train of thought, Luna glanced at her student and froze. The wild, tangled growth of pale-green mane was gone. Ember’s forelock, now clipped straight across, curled gently above her eyes, and her neatly trimmed mane was combed to one side. Order out of chaos—a stripe had even appeared where none was evident before, tinted a slightly darker shade.

Luna’s heart sank. She never failed to notice the look on Ember’s face when asked to assist in hunting down dangerous magic. Yet Luna kept coming back to ask her. And here Ember was the one making a conciliatory gesture.

“You kept complaining…” Ember said, letting her eyes wander toward the window as she blushed.

Luna broke into a grin. “Do you like it, Ember? You should never compromise who you are.”

“I’m getting used to it.” Ember slanted her head toward a “See Me!” note tacked to the laboratory door. “So, what did you need to tell me?”

Luna’s infectious grin melted away, and she steepled her hooves against her chin. “I have made some… arrangements for you. Your work with the Royal Gardener has proven most rewarding. When you have finished your coursework at the end of this term, I want you to spend a month studying with the Royal Geologist. And then I would like you to take an apprenticeship.”

Ember wrinkled her brow and scuffed a hoof at the thick rug. “I thought… I was being a good student…”

“Dawn Ember, you have been a wonderful student. But I told you when you first arrived here that I did not fully understand your magic. Nopony here does.” Luna forced a smile and briefly flicked her eyes to the window, to Twilight’s old room across the courtyard. Empty now. Of course, it had stood empty the entire time Luna had been here, except for one recent night. But Twilight was here, just not where she belonged. Chaos where there should be order—Luna glanced at Ember’s mane again. “At best, I have created opportunities for you, but I am not the mentor you need.”

“Oh.” Ember’s eyes traced a few of the complex swirls in the carpet’s pattern. “I’m… sorry…”

“You need not apologize,” Luna said, rising from her seat. “I have learned much from you, and there are few ponies who can claim to have taught me anything. However, the opposite is not true: you have learned precious little from me, nor can you. The time has come for me to entrust you to one more capable than I. Zecora, a zebra who lives near Ponyville, has agreed to teach you. She is rather gifted in these arts.”

Ember’s mouth hung open, and her eyes widened. “L-leave? Again?”

Luna held a breath. She had to tread very carefully. Her poor student would always react so quickly, so rashly at the thought of being left alone.

“Fear not, my faithful student. It is not far from here.” She beckoned Ember over and took her pupil’s hoof in her own. “I still expect you to deliver progress reports personally, here at the castle. I think monthly should suffice.”

A glimmer returning to her eyes, the taut line of Ember’s lips curled upward. “Thank you, Princess.”

“You—you may…” Luna choked, coughed on her words, and tried again. “You may have to deliver them to my sister, however,” she added, her voice breaking.

Luna clenched her jaw until it hurt, forcing her face into an impassive mask of stone. “I may find myself… indisposed.”

The princess swore she could hear every individual grain of sand in her hourglass scraping through the pinched center and landing on the pile. More seconds gone, seconds that may be meaningless to Luna, but that Ember would never get back again. She owed Ember so much. But she owed Twilight so much more.

“Indefinitely,” she finally croaked.


Luna leaned forward over her desk and took a deep breath. After a long, hard stare, she answered. “I have a debt to pay. I am sorry that it must affect you in this manner.” She stood and forced another smile, both of them regarding each other a while longer until Luna once more broke the silence. “I am not going anywhere yet, though. Get some sleep. I will see you in the morning.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Ember tugged at her book bag’s strap with her magic… but still couldn’t lift the whole bag. She dragged it behind her on the way out.

And in that dark doorway, the ghostly afterimage of Luna’s student glowed in her eyes… until Luna glanced at the pad of white paper on the easel by the entrance.

Twilight Sparkle!” she shouted and stumbled backward over her chair. “How did you get free?”

The purple unicorn made no reply, merely watching.

Her chest heaving, Luna looked to the door and considered summoning her guards, but Twilight had moved to block the way. And yet… she was the wrong color. Luna held a hoof to her chest, and Twilight turned purple once again as she drifted with Luna’s gaze from the dark hallway to the white paper. Just sliding, not blinking or walking…

Luna slowly approached and reached out a tentative hoof, tapping the image on the nose. An illusion? No, it was too dependent on the background, and it did nothing but stand there. What possible use would that be?

But her cutie mark: a mortar and pestle. Luna had been staring at Dawn Ember for minutes on end, and now against white…

Luna’s eyes shot wide open, and she bolted out the door.

Dawn Ember sat on her haunches and fought down the tingly jitters dancing in her chest. It wasn’t often that somepony found herself summoned during the night before one princess, let alone both of the royal sisters. Worse, she had no idea what was going on. No explanation, no assurances—just a “Sit down, please,” and then silence. And they were staring at her.

“Yes,” Princess Celestia finally broke in, “she bears a passing resemblance to Twilight Sparkle, now that she has gotten her mane cut, but—”

Princess Luna sharply raised a hoof, and the silence oozed back in to smother Ember. The furrow of her brow deepening, she glanced back and forth between the princesses, but Luna’s glare added a hasty “And sit still, please.” Ember held her breath and tried not to blink.

“Now look at Bronze Patina,” Princess Luna said, pointing at the white pegasus guard who had removed his armor. “Quickly.”

At his sovereigns’ request, the guard stood with his wings flared to present a large white background, but the raised eyebrow was entirely of his own bidding.

“There!” Princess Luna hissed. “Do you see it?”

Princess Celestia’s mouth hung open. “She is… a perfect double of Twilight Sparkle! But what does it mean?” she added, whirling to face Princess Luna. “An afterimage?”

With a slow nod, Princess Luna levitated a scroll she’d insisted on bringing up from the student records storage on her way here. At least the brief stop had given Ember a moment to catch her breath. Princess Luna unrolled a little of the scroll and jabbed a hoof at it. “And look at that date. Does that stir anything in your memory?”

Princess Celestia let her gaze drop to the floor, but then she jerked her head back up, and her eyes widened. She mouthed something silently, but Princess Luna had apparently deciphered what she was trying to say and nodded in reply, her wings unfurling halfway. Finally, Princess Celestia found her voice and turned to Ember. “This date is your birthday?”

Now that the oppressive stillness was broken, Ember wished it would return. “I… I don’t know.”

“Why not?”

Ember couldn’t meet that intense stare anymore and watched her hoof scuff against the stone floor. She couldn’t muster anything above a mumble. “That’s the day my parents found me in the woods. We decided it’d be my birthday.”

Princess Celestia leaned forward. “And who are your real parents?”

Her jaw set, Ember scowled and grumbled an answer. “They are my real parents. They raised me.”

Princess Celestia’s hoof immediately went to her mouth, and her shoulders stiffened. “I… I apologize, Dawn Ember. I meant no offense.” She waited until Ember had made a half-smile and shrugged off her ire. It was okay—Princess Celestia wasn’t really thinking that way, but it got old hearing that question. Nopony ever thought first before saying something like that. “But with whom did you live prior to that day?”

“I don’t remember anything before that. Just waking up in the woods. And my ears ringing.”

Princess Celestia frowned at the floor. “Please. Tell me about it, to the best of your memory.”

Dawn Ember awoke and immediately scrambled to her hooves. She gritted her teeth and looked around for the source of the explosion—her ears still rang from it—but nothing echoed through the forest. Just green, as far as she could see. Quiet green, much like herself. Her knotted shoulders relaxed, and she blended into the foliage. By color, she supposed, but in spirit, too. Just another leaf among the underbrush.

She pricked her ears for any further trace of whatever sound she thought she’d heard, but nothing. Gone, maybe never there in the first place. That darker green patch a few dozen paces away certainly hadn’t reacted to it.

For a moment, she watched it. Picking through the leaves, grabbing a few and stashing them away, without much direction. An earth pony stallion, but when she closed her eyes, he felt like part of the landscape. Green, slightly cool, and slow-moving. At least, that was the impression that rolled through her mind, and she’d learned to trust those… when? When had she ever felt something like that before? She tried to think back, but nothing came to her. Not only about her feelings, but… nothing at all.

Yet it didn’t seem wrong. The forest didn’t remember. It knew the here and now, no more. So what about this other piece of the forest? He belonged here as much as she did, if her instincts meant anything.

She followed him around on his meandering path but kept her distance. No need to interrupt. His wanderings eventually took him around the far side of the hill, where she began to pick up the bitter scent of wood smoke.

And then… a clothesline, woodpile, small garden near a bend in the creek. Behind it all, a one-room cabin built right into the slope, just another part of the forest.

It was perfect.

She trotted right up, like she owned the place, and stood staring at the stallion above her on the porch. “You from around here?” he asked.

“I dunno,” she answered with a shrug and a small frown. Something told her that her answer should upset her. But it didn’t. Wherever she’d been, she was here now, and it just fit. One with the hills, the trees, the sky.

“You lost, dear?”

She shrugged again and smiled, her eyes darting to his brown dreadlocks and some kind of leaf he had for a cutie mark.

He finally turned all the way around. “What’s your name?”

“D-Dawn… Ember?”

An easy laugh escaped his lips. “You askin’ or tellin’?” When she squinted in place of a reply, he continued, “Name’s Fennel.”

Her smile only grew. She snorted a laugh and swiped a hoof across her nose, but she didn’t say any more. At least until a loud growl resounded from her stomach. For the first time, her cheeks felt more warm than the cool mountain air brushing against them for… as long as she could remember.

“Look,” Fennel said, “my wife, Chanterelle, is inside. Probably still havin’ her mornin’ coffee with the local mailmare. Thrush knows everypony ’round these parts. If anypony knows where you belong, it’s her.”

He beckoned her toward the door, but all those names didn’t mean much to her. Where she belonged, though? She had no doubt of that.

“We’ll get you some lunch, too,” he added with a wink.

She trotted right in to catch the wonderful smell of hot vegetable soup, just as a voice from within called, “That you, Fennel? Who you talkin’ to?” The voice’s owner, a gray earth pony mare, sat at the table. Her brown mane and tail were braided, and a pair of mushrooms adorned her flank. “Who’s this?” she asked.

Ember walked right up to her and hugged her. “Goodness!” the mare said through her sudden grin.

“Ah!” Fennel said as he came through the door. “I see you’ve already met Chanterelle. And this—” he pointed at the blue-gray pegasus next to her “—is Thrush.”

Everything about this place—the smells, the tastes, the sounds, the ponies—just felt right. All warm and safe and calm.

“You seen her before?” Fennel asked from the stove, his back turned as he ladled out four bowls of soup.

Thrush gave her a glance up and down. “Can’t say as I have, but I’ll ask back at the office. If nothing there, then you might want to take her to the Guard outpost in Vanhoover.”

Ember hopped into an empty chair and took a deep sniff of steam from the bowl he set in front of her. “Sounds like a plan,” he answered. She waited until he’d brought over the rest and taken his own seat, then grabbed a spoon in her hoof and dug into her soup. So good! She couldn’t remember eating anything that tasted this great, but then she couldn’t exactly remember eating anything before.

When she’d gotten to the last bit of broth at the bottom, she set her spoon down and shoved her snout right into the bowl. She sat back in her chair, her belly all nice and warm and full, and watched the curious look Fennel shot her. He patted his forehead. “Why don’t you just levitate it?” he said, his eyes flicking between her spoon and her horn.

“Oh, I can’t do magic,” she answered. Very terse, very matter-of-fact. But how did she know that?

Chanterelle leaned over toward her. “Give it a try, sweetie.”

With a light sigh, Ember brought the strongest glow she could to her horn. She focused on the spoon, pictured it in her mind, and imagined it floating up, over, and into the bowl. It barely rocked side to side. She clenched her jaw and poured even more resolve into it, but if her horn lit up any more, she couldn’t tell. And the spoon merely scuffled along the wooden tabletop and clinked against the bowl.

“Maybe you just need more practice,” Chanterelle said. She poked her nose toward the offending silverware. “You can work on it some more later—”

“No!” With a growl, Ember flopped her head down onto her forelegs. “No, it doesn’t work, and it never will!” She was well past the age that she would have shown some magical talent if she had any. Though if she’d actually tried it before, she couldn’t recall.

“I can’t do magic.”

“You never recovered any memories earlier than that day?” Princess Celestia asked.

Dawn Ember twisted her mouth into a wry smile. “No. A few vague impressions, maybe. But nothing definite, like anything I’d actually done.”

“And the Royal Guard? Did you check with them in Vanhoover, like Thrush suggested?”

“They took a missing pony report and circulated it all over Equestria.” Ember didn’t exactly like discussing the before time. It never led to any progress, and thinking about it just made her skin crawl. Maybe she’d been nothing. And she couldn’t get more alone than nothing. “No responses on it, so after a year of keeping me on as a foster child, they adopted me.”

The Princesses exchanged a quick glance and raised eyebrows. “Perhaps,” Princess Celestia said amid a rustle of feathers, “it is time to pay my faithful student a visit. I suspect we may find what we seek with her.”

“Wait here,” Princess Luna said to Ember with a pointed stare before striding after her sister.

Dawn Ember happily obeyed. She felt much more fatigued than she should have from that… encounter, but it always left her weary to try dredging below the bedrock of her memories. The same, every time. Tiring, frustrating, and ultimately fruitless.

She pulled out one of the cushions from beside the throne and lay down on it. Then she let her eyes wander up to all of the stained glass windows around her. With only a quarter moon in the sky, she couldn’t make out much detail, but she’d seen them often enough to remember how they looked, particularly the less ceremonial ones, showing Twilight and her friends as a group. Not alone.

After one more glance around the empty room, Ember let out a heavy breath and laid her head on the pillow. Alone.

Author's Note:

I really love the double meaning of the chapter title here. The obvious one is that everyone assumes Twilight is guilty. But "assumption" can also mean something taken upon oneself, so it also refers to Luna saying she is willing to accept Twilight's punishment.

Coming March 12, Chapter 5: Recesses of the Mind