• Published 24th Jul 2012
  • 3,753 Views, 145 Comments

Darkened Shores - Silver Flare

An adventure that takes the Mane 6 around the world to face the what destroyed the alicorn homeland.

  • ...

17: Landfall

A small wave broke against a gentle shoreline; a roar, followed by wet sloshing noises as the ocean advanced and retreated. It seemed strangely loud. Twilight's ears twitched. She breathed in, but her nose was covered in sand, so she sneezed violently, convulsing from tail to crest. She pried her eyelids open a crack, and bright sunlight stabbed into her eyes. She figured maybe they could stay closed for awhile. Another wave crashed into shore, drenching her flanks and washing up to her middle before draining back into the sea. Twilight dug hooves into the warm sand and began pulling herself away from the ocean. A couple of strands of seaweed clung to her hind hooves, so she kicked them away.

Something was wrong. Beyond the recent disasters and the unknown state of her friends and her recent adventures in saltwater swimming. For some reason, Twilight had the impression that someone nearby was ill. Maybe it was her. She couldn't tell. She heard voices, somewhat distant, shouting orders or encouragement. The next wave just barely caught her tail. She figured collapsing back onto the warm sand would be the next logical step. So she did.

A moment later she heard a shrill voice cry out. "Twilight! Stop!" Pinkie Pie shouted.

Twilight chuckled weakly. Trust Pinkie to yell 'stop' at somepony who isn't moving. Although crawling further up the beach would be a good thing, right? Further from the waves, better hoofing, and so on? Maybe we can find some shelter. But Pinkie had sounded fairly upset. Twilight sighed and opened her eyes again. And this time, they were not aimed at the sky.

Writhing before her was an ulcerated landscape; an expansive grey and black mass of corruption. What she saw then went far deeper than the purely physical. Lifetimes of pain and self-destruction and helplessness assaulted Twilight's senses; wormed their way into her skull and into her stomach until blood ran from her eyes and her ears filled with the baying of hounds and the screaming of foals. Had another version of herself grown old and bitter with the passing of eons until all her love and joy had curdled into despite for the world and everything in it, and had this putrefied and broken version of herself wrapped its arms about her and whispered into her ear, she would have been less horrified.

Twilight Sparkle lunged backwards, scrabbling mindlessly into the next wave. When the ocean grew deeper she barely bothered trying to keep her head above water. Panic had settled into her bones, and her only thought was escape.

Something white flashed before her, grabbed a hold of her. Twilight thrashed and kicked, struggling mightily against this new threat. As she reached for her magic her mind began to clear and her eyes came into focus. A wet-maned Celestia held Twilight to her chest and was trying to keep both of their heads above water. For a moment more, Twilight still wanted to fight Celestia off. Still wanted to hurt her, despite the cost. Until she saw a faint trickle of blood running down from the corner of the Princess's mouth, and Twilight realized she already had.

The wind had disappeared, leaving silence behind. The Vigil was grounded against the nearby shore, partly in the waves, and it was still whole from what Twilight could see. And upright, for a change. Several figures had emerged onto the deck, most of whom were staring out at the crawling horror of the continent they'd discovered. There was a pristine, beautiful stretch of white beach sand untouched by the black corruption beyond. Pinkie however, her hooves dangling over a twisted section of rail, only seemed worried about Twilight. "Are you two alright down there?"

Twilight saw the concern in Celestia's expression. "I think so. Are you alright, my student?"

Twilight felt her own cheeks, expecting her hooves to come away bloody, but they were clean. She felt herself all over, pushing away from the Princess to tread water by herself. It. . . It felt so real! "I guess so. . ." She shuddered, already trying to forget what she'd felt up on the beach. What happened to this place? She tried hard not to look back at where she'd lain upon the sand, but the darkness in the corner of her eyes beckoned her. Twilight resisted the morbid pull, instead focusing on following the Princess as she swam towards the ship.

Upon the deck of the Vigil, Luna and Thistle spoke in hushed tones for a moment. Then Thistle began shouting orders at crew members, who launched themselves back into the belly of the ship. Luna threw her forelegs over the rail next to Pinkie and shouted down at the pair. "Sister, we spotted an uncorrupted isle to the north. Should we inspect the hull before we test this vessel's seaworth?"

Celestia's eyes flicked about nervously. "We may not have time." she said. While she spoke, Twilight noticed some sort of movement out of the corner of her eye. It should be noted that the entire cursed shoreline, beyond the waves and the sand, had a subtle and unsettling sense of movement to it. But this was a different kind of motion, and Twilight turned to look.

The prow of the Vigil had scraped a fair distance up the beach, and the very tip rested across the boundary between sand and the cursed zone. Onto the sand, right next to the hull of the ship, had fallen a small animal. Twilight's first instinct was to swim towards it to offer help. It looked like it was dying. The simple, hurt motions did more than stir her impulse to help, it also reminded her forcefully of Fluttershy, whose knowledge and heart would have been perfectly suited to this small crisis. Her eyes misted over. When will I have time to mourn the beautiful things that are now lost? When will any of us? But, finding that her hooves touched bottom, that's just where she steered herself, trotting through the gentle waves.

A second glance froze the breath in her lungs and drained all the strength from her muscles. The creature certainly looked like an overlarge rodent of some type. If an overlarge rodent had been skinned alive and unevenly coated with black sludge and grey fungus. It even moved like it was dying, reaching forward by clutching at the air before it, and dragging its soggy, bloated body behind it. For all its helpless-looking movements it was quick, having already reached the hull of the ship, clinging to the side and worming its way impossibly up the curve like a leech. Twilight thought she might be sick.

"Ware and ward, sister!" Celestia shouted. She spread her wings, her horn burst to life and the sick creature detached from the hull, surrounded by a light-yellow field of telekinesis. It pulled away with a wet sucking noise, and Celestia flung it back into the darkness. A dozen more had appeared, however, and a dozen more behind them. All of them looked like they used to be different kinds of animals. Different sizes of decaying snakes, some sort of deformed alligator, an overlarge and tumorous spider, and more, all of them oozing towards the airship.

Without exchanging a word, Twilight leaped atop Celestia's back as the Princess's magic started physically shoving the airship back into the water. Twilight took aim from between Celestia's spread wings, firing a pair of magic shots at the creatures writhing up towards the deck. But, while her aim was true, the deformities just squished and wavered without falling. With a grimace Twilight clutched at one, vaguely monkey-shaped, with telekinesis and ripped it off the ship with a soft pop. Even feeling one through her magic was like chewing on a pear gone sharp with decay, but she didn't let go until she'd flung the beast far away.

Twilight felt her skin crawl with disgust. She tried to ignore the sharp pain starting behind her temples. The airship had slid back into the waves by now, and Celestia launched herself into the air, flapping hard to gain the Vigil's upper deck. Twilight held on grimly, watching as several of the remaining creatures reached the rim of the airship and oozed beneath the railing. "Princess. . . what. . ?"

"Whatever you do, do not let them touch you, Twilight." Celestia panted. As they landed upon the flight deck, Twilight found an eerily quiet struggle. Clearly, creatures had been swarming up the far side too. Luna had placed a dome shield around herself and those near her, but the doughy, leprous creatures just seemed to. . . eat it. Twilight watched in horror as a soft-legged centipede as thick as her arm attached a sucker-like mouth to the shield and in a heartbeat had wormed its way to the inside, sliding up the curve of the dome.

Luna wasted no more time on defenses, letting the shield vanish and blasting the centipede as it fell, hurtling the abomination into the sea. Twilight joined her in flinging the creatures overboard left and right. Thistle was cornered near the prow, swinging a length of chain he'd wrapped about his foreclaw. The nearest creature, an overlarge frog thing, scraped itself towards him, shrugging off blows from the chain as though it just couldn't register any more pain than simply being alive afforded it. However, after seven or eight solid blows it finally stopped moving, but some large spider with drooping tumors backed him up against the rail, mandibles gleaming and dripping.

Then it collapsed on its side with a wet splat, legs twitching. A small dart was sticking out of its abdomen. Sun Shade winked and swept her weapon around to train it on another target. She had drawn her parasol off her back and was aiming it like a large, frilly rifle, firing paralyzing darts out of the tip. When it clicked empty, she said a very unladylike word and fiddled with a knob near the base of the handle. A giant sprawling lizard flopped towards her unprotected back, opening its mouth wide. Twilight, busy holding another creature, cried out a warning.

Sun Shade spun gracefully, her raven-black mane glinting in the sun as she jammed her umbrella into the things mouth. With the same motion, she braced the end of her parasol against one of the deck's eyelets and gave the end a twist. The center pole telescoped violently outward, shoving the hideous creature clear over the side rail where it fell into the water below. The parasol, now longer than most polearms, looked too cumbersome for the mare to wield, but she seemed to have no difficulty. She spun again, tucking herself beneath her weapon and, using her shoulder for leverage, brought the weighted parasol crashing down atop an overlarge mantis. Pinkie Pie waved her gratitude and scampered away.

A high-pitched wail of pain made Twilight's heart skip a beat. She turned in time to see Summer Reeds prone upon the deck, her hooves scrabbling uselessly at a snake coiling slowly about her body. From the way her back arched off the floor and her breathy screams, the creature's touch was enough to hurt. Thistle was the closest and, ignoring Luna's cry of protest, he bounded forward and wrapped his blunted talons behind the snake's head, trying to pry it off. He cried out in pain and surprise, and his foreclaw shook, but he held on desperately. The creature's flesh oozed like slimy toothpaste from under his grip, and as it reared its head back and opened its mouth, a bubble of putrid green phlegm formed between its jaws. The bubble burst, releasing a tiny gurgling mewling sound, like a kitten with pneumonia.

A telekinetic blast slammed into Thistle Down like a battering ram, slinging him across the deck. Her eyes aglow, Celestia stepped forward and bowed her head towards the panicked unicorn and the blighted snake. A tiny ball of searing light no larger than a gumdrop formed just above the tip of Celestia's horn, but Twilight could feel the heat from where she stood several paces away. Very carefully, Celestia touched that glowing sphere to the snake creature, and it instantly burst, its entire length evaporating into flaky, grey ash.

Twilight scanned the deck in a panic, but she didn't see any more nightmare creatures. They must have flung the rest overboard. Everyone now gathered around Summer, who didn't look like she'd been rescued from anything. Every place the creature had touched the unicorn, her fur had been stripped away, revealing the startling red of muscle and blood. And she still writhed and struggled, her eyes leaking tears and her mouth clenched shut over whimpers of pain. Twilight shouted, "Find Pin Feather! NOW!" Pinkie Pie, being the closest to the hatch leading below deck, nodded sharply and vanished.

"My dear, it's alright." Sun Shade tried hard to get Summer to look her in the eyes. "You're safe." But Reeds said nothing. Her eyes didn't even focus on anyone around her. From the expression on her face, she was still staring down the gullet of that snake thing.

Thistle limped over, clutching a foreclaw to his chest. "Reeds! Say something!" He took her hoof in his uninjured claw. "What do we do?" He asked the air in front of him, but he was clearly addressing the two immortals present.

Twilight glanced from one princess to the other, taking in their expressions. Luna looked angry, and Celestia looked grieved. Twilight was shocked to her core. "No! There must be something we can do for her!"

Celestia glanced meaningfully at her sister, and Luna nodded, waving her horn over the injured unicorn. Summer's eyes drifted shut, and her whole body relaxed as she fell into a deep sleep.

"These corrupted beasts cause more than harm." Celestia spoke to everyone within earshot, her voice heavy with regret. "They injure the soul with their touch, devouring the spirit itself. Once the spirit is torn, there is no way to restore it. I am sorry."

Thistle's eyes shimmered with shared pain. "So, we're both going to die. Is that it?" He nodded to himself, as though he'd already steeled himself to his own plight. Sun Shade gasped, and the corners of her mouth began to quaver.

The sisters shared another long glance before Luna turned and spoke. "Thy foreclaw, good Captain, does it pain thee?" He shook his head roughly no. Luna continued, "This numbness, it shall spread. And when it reaches your heart. . ."

Sun Shade cried out, her face a mess of tears, and she threw her hooves about Thistle's feathered neck. He merely nodded, and held her in return. "Shhhh. . ." He whispered against her sobs, "It's okay. It'll be okay."

"I can fix this." Twilight's soft voice shocked the air into stillness. Celestia must be right. My injury shouldn't have healed as quickly as it did. Right? To say nothing of hers. Maybe I have some kind of healing power I don't understand. And even if I don't, I have to try. I can't just watch her die. Twilight reached out a hoof and, before anyone could stop her, touched it to the vibrant blue of Summer's horn, protruding through the white streak in her mane.

"Twi. . . !" Celestia's sharp panic came a moment too late, for Twilight didn't hear it. For beyond that simple touch, Twilight had also opened her senses up to the unicorn lying before her. In between one heartbeat and the next, the sun and the sky and her friends were gone, replaced by a vast gulf, an endless and starless expanse. A lightheaded fear overtook her as she felt herself pulling further and further from herself. As she fell, she voicelessly called out for a pony she barely knew, yet felt entirely responsible for. She cried out in every direction in a place where direction was meaningless, and nothing could be heard.

But Twilight had been propelled by grief and loss, and her pain allowed her no true tether to herself. She made no attempt to hold back, and the various layers of her identity sloughed away. Gone was the sorrow of the past couple of weeks, leaving a defiant student of Celestia, still stinging from the knowledge that she'd been lied to. Then that was stripped away, leaving her surrounded by her friends after the defeat of Discord, giddy with the elation born of survival and true friendship. Then that was gone too, leaving a young filly contemplating the stars and her own death through her bedroom window, and vowing in the darkness of night never to let herself be forgotten. The loneliness threatened to break her heart.

Then even the knowledge of mortality was gone, and Twilight stood beneath a clean sun, filled with an acute sense of her own capacity for joy and life that might stretch out forever. As she stared about the grass and wildflowers that suddenly surrounded her, she cried out in pleasure, and her voice was high and squeaky. She rolled and gamboled, reveling in a smell of spring and the vitality surrounding her. But something broke through her foalish glee, an unpleasant smell wafting through the light breeze. Twilight looked about her curiously, innocently. The meadow didn't stretch on forever. A few trotting paces away she found a wilted flower, its core having been eaten away by disease.

In fact there were several. Looking up and beyond them, Twilight discovered city streets. Although they looked like they could have been just any streets in any city in Equestria, these weren't simply roads, buildings and parked coaches. The walls about her seemed lightly smeared with the grit of loss and regret, and a quiet despair. Turning a full circle, Twilight felt a surge of anxiety, glimpsing the inside of a classroom through a window. The chalkboard was scribbled with anxious and elusive strokes, making Twilight feel strangely as though she needed to escape something. Is this a dream? Or is this somepony else's dream?

Acting on impulse, Twilight turned and ran as fast as her hooves could carry her, but she didn't make it far before she tripped and fell over a large, discarded piece of metal. The room she'd found herself in looked like a workshop, strewn about with tools and engine bits and diagrams and grease stains. But this room was fantastic! Every nut and bolt was solid and real, full of potential. Every tool had a use, and it was beautiful. In this room, everything made glorious sense. Twilight smiled from the bottom of her soul, even as the realization hit her. This isn't somepony else's dream. This is somepony else's life.

There was a door in a corner, and through this door Twilight pushed without consciously electing to do so. She found herself upon the deck of an airship, but one that seemed to stretch for miles. Every line in the deck was a stanza within a poem. The vibrant thrum beneath her hooves was an eloquent hymn sung to the essence of life itself. The sky simply ached with freedom. Twilight thought she saw a figure in the distance, so she skipped towards it.

She had to navigate around pictures. Photographs lay here and there, all of them framing a pegasus she should have found familiar, just as she should have been able to identify the love with which all of them were taken. But while the feeling struck filly Twilight, their meaning eluded her. As she carefully picked her way through the upturned images and their bright colors, she failed to see who she approached. Twilight stopped abruptly as the polished wood before her gave way.

Twilight felt herself go rigid with terror. Summer Reeds lay within a charred crater, her deep blue coat mostly gone, revealing unhealthy, pink skin eaten away by boils and blisters. Her body squished sickly as she reared her head back in pain, eyeless sockets gaping as she reached out. Unable to move, unable to breathe, Twilight watched the soft, grey hoof reach towards her.

It touched her hoof.

Twilight screamed.

And found herself surrounded once more by her friends, having been pulled back from Reed's form by Luna's strong hoof. Celestia hadn't actually stopped talking. ". . .ight! Don't reach out to her with your magic! I know your intentions are pure, but the effects can resonate through your leylines. We can't risk losing you too."

Twilight's wide-eyed stare met Celestia's determined gaze, and she swallowed weakly. "Oh. . . Okay." She replied, trying to act as though she wasn't as shaken as she really felt. But she was shaken to her very core. She was suddenly certain that she'd made a grave mistake.

But at that moment a muddy brown pegasus burst out of the open hatchway, shoving his way through to the injured unicorn. He scooped Summer's head gently off of the wood of the deck, cradling it in the crook of his arm. "Oh, no no no." His voice quavered a little. "Summer, please. Say something." His eyes never left the sleeping face before him. "W-What happened to her?"

"Sky." Thistle reached out from around Sun Shade's embrace with his undamaged foreclaw to grip the pony's shoulder. "I'm sorry."

"Back up!" Pin Feather burst onto the deck, shouting. "Give me some room! Sky!" The gryphon received no response, so he growled through his beak. "Fine! If you wont move, at least help me get her on the stretcher!"

Clear Sky didn't move. With one hoof, he gently caressed Summer's face, from her ear down to her chin, before moving his hoof down to the tiny silver wrench hung about her neck. It had stopped moving when Summer Reeds had stopped breathing. Sky made a strangled noise, as though his throat was crowded with grief he couldn't articulate.

Celestia's voice was as bleak and clear as the tolling of a bell. "She's gone."

Over the sound of Sky's quiet keening, Twilight rubbed her hooves together and broke into a cold sweat. A spot on her right hoof had gone completely numb.

With the engines restarted, Cloud piloted the airship through the calm waves towards the far side of a nearby island. She rebuffed all offers of aid or assistance until the Vigil had been properly anchored near the less hostile shoreline of the bar of land, separated from the continent by a swath of clean ocean. Then she staggered off to the mess hall, where she proceeded to lay waste to the kitchen before falling asleep on a nearby bench, snoring loudly.

After scouting the island, Celestia and Luna led a group of exhausted ponies and gryphons onto the first solid land they'd seen in weeks. The island wasn't large, maybe a mile across. A small grove of trees and some light shrubbery were the only living things in evidence. As the distant sun settled into late afternoon, a solemn cadre of figures filed their way beneath the branches. A pony-sized swath of fabric, enveloped in a faint purple field of telekinesis, floated near the front of the line. To Twilight Sparkle, it was the heaviest burden she'd ever carried.

They found a relatively clear patch of ground, a place where an old tree had fallen, revealing a stretch of blue sky far above. Kelbrri, Thistle and Sky immediately began clearing the area, quietly lifting and moving dead branches and large rocks. Clear Sky's face was blotchy and tear-stained, but he moved as though physical exertion was the only form of expression he understood. Sun Shade and Pinkie helped, while Twilight focused on lifting the bulk of the dead tree, dragging it out of the way with her magic.

A few of the crew members had found two shovels and a pickaxe in a storage locker. Those they set aside as everyone gathered into a loose circle. Thistle said a few words about the pony he'd known. A gryphon named Cirrel said even more, her eyes shimmering with tears. Sky said nothing, his eyes never leaving the thick bundle of cloth laid gently upon the ground. Twilight nodded. She understood the way it felt; trying to hold yourself together even as you can feel broken bits of yourself falling to the ground around you.

When it was clear that Sky wouldn't be saying anything, Thistle limped to his Third Helm's side and gently placed an arm about his shoulders. But it looked like he was trying to console a statue. Sun Shade stood tall beneath the green leaves and lilted a wordless melody into the air, a progression of notes Twilight didn't recognize. It was a beautiful tune, exploring both love and loss, and it brought Twilight's thoughts back to her missing friends. She wondered if she would have the courage to say anything over their bodies. She wasn't certain she would. Sky's only response was to clench his eyes shut, and he rocked slightly where he stood.

The moment it was over, Clear Sky spun, lifted a shovel in his hooves, and began digging. Thistle and Cirrel joined him, working together wordlessly. While the pair of gryphons dug at the ground, Sky attacked it, ruthlessly chipping and hacking at every obstruction. Twilight suddenly felt like an intruder, as though she hadn't been close enough to the unicorn to have earned such grief, so she turned away. She spotted a couple more figures walking slowly towards her through the trees. Celestia and Luna both paused nodded respectfully to Twilight before moving past her, bringing water to those working.

But they hadn't been alone. Applejack had been following them, and she had Rarity draped gently across her back. And Rarity's startlingly blue eyes were open, blinking at the world around them. Twilight gasped and leapt forward through the brush, throwing an arm about each of her friends and burying her face in Rarity's mane.

"Twilight." Rarity's voice was affectionate, but weighed down with heavy exhaustion. "It's good to see you too."

Twilight pulled away to say something. She wanted to say something profound and heartfelt, but she was no longer sure what she was feeling. Unlike the last time she'd seen her friend, when she hadn't allowed herself to feel anything at all, now she was simply overwhelmed with a complex mix of joy and sadness, guilt and relief and pain all mashed together. She was at a complete loss. So she threw her arms about her friends again and just cried for awhile. And like true friends, they held her tightly and didn't let go until the flow of tears subsided.

That evening, the crew started a bonfire upon their beach, using broken pieces of furniture scavenged from the Vigil and bits of driftwood. Luna's moon peaked over the rim of the horizon, bathing the world in a soft glow. Twilight refused all of the food she was offered, despite her stomach's loud protestations. After accepting some water, she settled herself down on the sand far from the bonfire throwing red and green embers into the sky. She'd chosen a vantage where she could watch the crew and the fire, but she could also clearly study a stretch of the dark, cursed shoreline beyond the silver-capped waves.

She wasn't alone for long. Pinkie Pie dropped to the sand next to her soon enough, sighing heavily. "Hello, Pinkie." Twilight glanced fondly at her friend before turning back to contemplating the crawling evil aura on the other shore.

"Whatcha doin'?" Pinkie Pie's lack of optimism did little for her grammar.

"I'm trying to figure out what this darkness is." Twilight answered, her purple brow creased in thought. "And I'm trying to think of a way to study it that isn't suicide."

"Oh." Pinkie joined her in staring. "Is that easier than thinking about Spike and Dashie and Fluttershy and what might have happened to them?"

Twilight's breath caught in her throat, and it took her a few attempts before she could reply. "Yes Pinkie, it is."


They stared in silence for only a moment, because they were joined by two other figures, one supporting another. "Ladies," Rarity asked politely, "Would you mind a little company?" It was almost the same bright tone she would have used had she run into them at Aloe and Lotus's Day Spa back home in Ponyville. Almost.

Twilight's response was to leap up and give Applejack a hoof lowering Rarity to the sand and trying to make her comfortable. Applejack smiled her gratitude. "Thanks for the help, Twi." She tried to tip her hat to her friend out of habit, but she discovered once again that it was gone. "Ah, dagnabbit. . ."

"Don't mention it."

Pinkie hadn't stopped staring at the far shore, but she spoke. "Twilight's trying to figure out what that icky-crawly black stuff is."

"Huh." Applejack settled herself onto the sand, leaning gently against Rarity's back. "Any ideas from the studious unicorn?"

"Our only clue so far is the water. See that?" Twilight pointed with a hoof towards the shore. High tide had come and gone, once again revealing the pure white sand of the beach fairly glowing in the moonlight. "The Princess mentioned her fear that this evil would spread to the borders of Equestria. But it never did, and we can see why."

Applejack squinted, following Pinkie's steady gaze. "Um. . . 'cause it's fussy as a cat?"

"Cats are not fussy." Rarity proclaimed. "They simply have a refined sense of dignity."

"Heh," Applejack smirked. "If y'all say so."

Twilight shook her head. "No. It's because moving water disrupts magical energy. All it really tells us is that this stuff probably obeys the same laws that all magic follows. Beyond that. . ." Her voice trailed off as a thought occurred to her. "Pinkie, what do you see?"

The tip of Pinkie Pie's tongue stuck out the corner of her mouth as she glanced uncomfortably up and down the far shore. "Um. . . I see what looks like the world's worst time-share opportunity. I also see some seriously unhealthy foliage. Hmmm. . . I feel like there might be a joke in there somewhere about herbal medicine, but. . . I dunno. Who cares."

Twilight's eyes softened around the edges. "Okay. Fair enough. But how does it make you feel?"

"Feel? Twilight, I don't. . ." Pinkie's eyes unfocused, and a small shudder ran through her making her mane sway in front of her face. When she spoke next, her voice sounded far away. "I feel. . . I feel lonely. Like I've spent my entire life looking no further than my own stupid nose. Because if I really thought about it, making others laugh is about the most meaningless thing I could do with my life. Smiles don't last long. Joy and laughter don't last long. Everypony dies alone, and that's the cold truth. We all die alone."

Her three friends shared a worried glance. Twilight began to contradict her. "Now, you know that's entirely. . ." Twilight ran out of steam, as her logical mind couldn't refute those awful words. And her feelings were a jumbled, unhelpful mess.

"It is true." Pinkie's voice was small and defenseless, and tears hung in her wide eyes as she implored her friends, "Nothing really matters in the long run, does it?" It wasn't phrased as a question.

"I have heard quite enough of that." Rarity had teetered to her hooves, planting her splinted hindlegs into the sand. She loomed over her companions, glaring disapprovingly down her muzzle. "I'll admit it, Pinkie Pie, that when I first met you in Ponyville I thought you were exactly that; a frivolous joke. A sugar-fueled punchline, and nothing more." She glanced around defensively. "What? The first time we met she burst into song and bounced around me like an excitable beach ball. What was I to think?"

The pale unicorn stalked forward, her menace undermined by the way she had to push her hindlegs out to the side and swing them forward to move, kicking out plumes of sand. Pinkie's cheek twitched, and her ears flicked in surprise. Rarity continued, "I figured you to be a two-dimensional and shallow pony, but I tell you this right now. I smiled. And the more time I've spent with you, I've learned just how wrong I had been to judge you. You weren't throwing parties and baking cakes and telling jokes for the attention you garnered. Deep down, you truly cared about the ponies around you. You were celebrating everypony else, but never yourself.

"So I began to see you in an altogether different light. You are correct about one thing. The world is a vast, lonely place filled with rejection and sorrow. Joy and laughter do not last long. Yet that is what makes you so special, Pinkamena Diane Pie. In a strange sort of way, I've come to see you as a noble warrior, fighting back the forces of spite and sadness one innocent smile at a time. I've come to respect your life's mission, for I find it quite heroic to stand in the dark and hold a torch aloft that others might see. Those fleeting smiles reach farther than you know, much farther."

"Hey, yeah!" Applejack threw a hoof around Pinkie from the side. "That is what we love about'cha! Hoo-ey, you've got a way with words there, Rarity! Couldn'ta said it better iff'n I tried for a month."

Rarity didn't respond to the compliment. She just kept her smile trained on Pinkie's face. "You have become quite dear to us, sugar-fueled antics and all, Pinkie. I daresay none of us would change you for the world."

Pinkie's eyes swam back into focus, her unshed tears finally leaking down the sides of her face. The smallest, sweetest smile began at the corners of her eyes and spread to her mouth. "Thank you. That. . . that means bunches and bunches."

"Wow Rarity," Twilight smiled too. "If we get out of this alive, I want to put that in a letter to the Princess. It was a stroke of genius."

"Well," Rarity tossed her mane as best she could, it being unbrushed and unstyled as it was. "I couldn't just let our dear friend wallow. She deserves better than that." Rarity smiled fondly.

"Well that wasn't fun." Pinkie implored Twilight with large eyes. "Did it help you learn anything?"

"Hmmm. . . I'm not sure. What do you see, AJ? Do you feel the same things?"

"Whelp, uh. . ." Applejack squinted into the distance. "Not really. I just feel like I'mm'a be sick. Like I'm chewin' on an apple all filled with worms."

"YUACH!!!" Rarity backpedaled awkwardly away from the horrible imagery.

Pinkie Pie tilted her head a little. "What about you, Twilight? What do you see?"

Myself. "I'm. . . I'm not entirely certain."

"Heh, sounds like Twilight's worst fear ta me. Not knowin' something." Applejack chuckled weakly. "In any case sugar, I'm glad yer' back with us."

"So am I." Pinkie Pie added, her ears drooping into her straight mane. "You really scared us back there on the sideways airship. It's like you were part zombie or something."

Twilight gave her friends the ghost of a worried smile. "It hurts a lot less when you don't allow yourself to care."

"Of course it does, darling." Rarity settled herself back onto the sand. "But that's not the point, is it? If one is to allow oneself the joys of this world, one must also be open to the pain it brings." She tried in vain to get her mane to fall properly, but it was clearly a lost cause. "Do tell, what is our plan of action?"

Twilight spoke. "Well, Thistle is pushing his crew to repair the airship tonight. He's hoping it'll be sky worthy in a day or so. For their part, Princess Luna told me she would cut the night short by a couple of hours so she and Celestia can begin searching the coastline, in case our friends were somehow swept to shore like we were. I disagreed, based upon probability. They're likely still far out at sea, if they're alive, and that means we'll need the airship to save them. Although, with my calculations, it'll take us two months to canvass the entire area they're likely to be. And without fresh water, they wont make it more than a couple of days."

"Sounds t' me like we need a better plan." Applejack said. "Can't you do some kind of magicy stuff? Maybe with these things?" She tapped a hoof against her golden necklace.

Twilight nodded. "There's a couple of spells I can try, but I don't think they'll work. However, I am going to try everything we can think of at the first light of dawn."

Pinkie Pie sighed. "Oh, if only we could send them a message telling them we're looking for them. That would help keep their spirits up."

Twilight sat bolt upright, her panicked eyes large and shimmering with the flames of the distant bonfire. At the same instant, Applejack exclaimed, "Wait! Can't the Princess just. . ."

Her words faded as Twilight galloped into the trees and brush. How could I have been so stupid? We can send more than a note to Spike, wherever he is. We can send supplies! AUGH! I'm so dense sometimes! Why wasn't this the first idea I had? Twilight had a vague idea of where Princess Celestia said she would be keeping watch, on the opposite end of the narrow island from her sister. It was only a couple of minutes, but it felt like forever before Twilight caught a glimpse of pale, radiant white through the trees.

Twilight burst onto a rocky stretch of shore as Princess Celestia turned towards her. She didn't smile. "Twilight, is everything alright?"

"Princess! We can send supplies to Spike! Canteens of water, wrapped food, even a lifeboat if we compressed one enough. . ."

At this, the Princess did smile a little. "You're very right, my student. I've sent a few parcels along several hours ago, including a note."

Twilight's ears perked in surprise, and then drooped as the implications hit her. "And you haven't received anything back, have you?"

Celestia shook her head no. "If I had, I promise you would be the first pony to know." Twilight nodded, then hung her head. Celestia traversed the rocks with delicate grace, and she raised one golden-shod hoof to lift Twilight's face up towards hers. "That doesn't mean anything, you know. If Spike is asleep, or unconscious, or if he managed to inhale enough water to put out his inner fire, we wouldn't get a reply. Your friends may still be okay."

Twilight sighed and nodded again. "Thank you, Princess." She didn't sound very reassured. She turned to leave.

"Please wait." The deep sadness in Celestia's voice froze Twilight where she stood. "There's something else I need to say. Twilight, I've. . . You know, it's not that. . ." Twilight wasn't sure she'd ever heard Princess Celestia stammer before. It was disconcerting. "As my student, I've always wanted you to grow and become stronger. You know that. And it's also true that I have tried to prepare you to face the terrible things in this world. Yet I want you to know that I never wanted anyone to get hurt. I will do absolutely everything in my power to find your. . . no, our friends. I promise you."

Twilight's gaze had drifted off to stare at the far shore. "I know you will. Even if you didn't care about us, and I know you do, but you still need us. You need the Elements of Harmony to win this fight for you."

It was a long moment before Celestia spoke again. "I'm not certain what my sister has told you, but I have never intended you to be my weapon. I have never taken away your right to make your own choices, to think for yourself."

Twilight's brow furrowed deeply as she focused on the beautiful peytral adorning Celestia's neck. "Yes you have." She said with conviction. "You kept the whole truth from me, from all of us. By withholding information, by changing my conception of the truth, you could ensure I made the decisions you wanted me to. I haven't been able to make my own choices all along." Twilight continued before Celestia could interject. "But it doesn't matter. You know full well that I can't turn back now. I couldn't live with myself. So yes, I'll keep fighting for you. I'll try to find a way to help unravel this curse." Twilight tapped her front hoof against the ground beneath her, trying to feel the extent of her numbness. Everything but the very edge of her hoof felt nothing, like it belonged to somepony else. "I guess we'll just have to find a way to live with whatever it'll cost us."

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