• Published 15th Nov 2018
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The Girl Who Orbited the Sun - Dee Pad



When a newly-crowned Twilight Sparkle finds an old book hidden away in the royal archives, she discovers a piece of her mentor's past she had never been told about. And the more she read, the more questions arose. Just who was Sunset Shimmer?

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Chapter 18 - Spectrum

The Girl Who Orbited the Sun
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 18: Spectrum

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Starswirl let out a tired yawn as he traipsed somnolently down the hall. He took a sizable swig of his piping hot coffee, hoping that, if the caffeine wasn't enough to help him keep his eyes open, then the scalding liquid on his tongue was. Unfortunately, his lethargic state had dulled his senses, so his beverage may as well have been lukewarm; he'd deal with the skin peeling off his tongue later when he was more than ten percent awake.

He'd stayed up far too late, engrossed in his research. He'd gotten maybe three hours of sleep at most, and he was not ready for the day ahead of him.

As if his research didn't occupy enough of his time, Princess Celestia had requested Starswirl's expertise to teach young fillies and colts at her new school. Of course, he'd been more than happy to oblige, and had been teaching at Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns since it opened its doors earlier that year. It wasn't any hassle for a night owl like Starswirl, as classes were typically held in the afternoon, after normal schooling had wrapped up. But weekends were another story. Any students willing to sacrifice their free time were welcome to attend extended classes on Saturdays, starting first thing in the morning.

And that was where Starswirl's enthusiasm faltered. As much as he enjoyed teaching a group of eager foals about magic just as he'd done for his daughter when she was a child, these Saturday morning classes coupled with his late night research sessions made for one cranky teacher that only three or four cups of coffee could remedy, and even then, only barely. Hopefully he'd be able to at least force a smile for his class today.

"Good morning, Starswirl."

Starswirl's ears suddenly perked up at the sound of the friendly voice behind him. He turned around to see none other than Princess Celestia walking toward him with a rather cheery grin. "Oh, good morning, Your Highness," he greeted back with some surprise in his voice. "Pardon my asking, but what are you doing here?"

"What do you think?" She glanced back at the saddlebags on her back, packed with textbooks to the point where the flaps could barely contain them.

Starswirl could assume that she wasn't at the school to be a student—she likely wouldn't fit in the comparatively small desks anyway. "You're teaching a class today? Well, this is certainly a change of pace."

Although the school had been established due to the inspiration that Celestia had gotten from being Sunset Shimmer's teacher, she had had little time to actually teach there herself as she originally wished; the construction of the castle, followed by the Nightmare Moon incident, the move to Canterlot, as well as the controversy at the Grand Galloping Gala all put a damper on the idea of her being a teacher at her own school.

"Oh, I'll be teaching more than one," the princess corrected with an eager giggle. "I intend to make a day of it."

"Really? I'm surprised you've managed to make time for it," Starswirl expressed with a somewhat concerned look. "I thought you were focusing primarily on Sunset."

"Sunset's been doing quite well with her lessons of late, so I decided to give her a day off."

Starswirl raised an eyebrow skeptically. "Is that wise? She doesn't usually like to twiddle her hooves when she could be spending her time improving her abilities. I believe we've been in a similar situation before," he warned her.

Celestia was not bothered by his worries, continuing to grin enthusiastically. "Actually, she was quite welcoming of the idea. After all, she has something to occupy her time now—or rather, somepony," she reminded him with a coy look.

Starswirl stroked his beard with a nod as he sighed with relief internally. "Ah, so she's with Halberd, then."

"Indeed. And he also has the day off from his duties today, so the two of them are spending some quality time together out and about."

Starswirl chuckled with amusement. "You say that as though they haven't been joined at the hip since they started dating."

"They're still young. Let them enjoy themselves," Celestia laughed.

Starswirl took another sip of his coffee. "So, are you looking forward to teaching, Your Highness?"

"Need you ask?" Celestia answered giddily. "I do so enjoy teaching Sunset, and even though she still maintains some of the exuberance she did as a filly, the notion of teaching actual children, with their wild imaginations and boundless curiosity, promises to be a memorable and rewarding experience."

Starswirl chuckled knowingly. "It's not dissimilar to being a parent, is it?"

Celestia hesitated briefly at his comment, but smiled fondly. "Yes, I suppose so."

The two of them returned to walking down the hall of the school as their conversation continued. "What will you be teaching first, then?"

"Oh, actually, there aren't any teaching spots open for the first hour. I won't be heading any classes until second period."

Starswirl raised an eyebrow. "Then why are you here so early? You're work here is strictly voluntary; you're under no obligation to arrive at the same time as the rest of the faculty."

"I was actually hoping to be able to sit in on your class first," the princess stated with a smile.

Starswirl was a little caught off guard by that. "Really? Oh, well, I suppose that's perfectly fine."

Celestia had to stifle a snicker at his reaction. "I'm sorry for springing that on you all of a sudden. That is alright, isn't it?"

"Yes, of course. I've just never had an audience to my teachings. I hope the pressure doesn't get to me," he laughed, though mostly to mask his genuine concern at the notion.

"I'm sure you'll do fine," Celestia assured. "As you said, being a teacher is much like being a parent. By your own logic, you've been a teacher longer than I have. If anything, you might even teach me a thing or two."

"Well, you're free to chime in with knowledge of your own; you are here to teach, as well, and you would certainly know more than I about magic."

"I'll keep that in mind. And speaking of which, what exactly are you going to be teaching this morning?"

Using his white magic, Starswirl removed a small stack of papers from his bags, looking them over. "To start the day, I'll be discussing different varieties of magic other than that of unicorns."

Celestia nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, it is important to be knowledgeable in many differing types of magic if you hope to understand the field as a whole."

"My thoughts exactly." They stopped in front of the door to one of the school's many classrooms. "Ready?"

Celestia nodded, gesturing for him to lead.

Starswirl took one more sip of his coffee before opening the door and walking inside, the princess walking closely behind.

The moment the door opened, a chorus of laughter and clomping hooves reverberated out into the halls. A class of approximately a dozen unicorn students were loudly horsing around while waiting for their instructor to arrive. Most of the fillies and colts were quite young, still perhaps only in kindergarten or just a little older. However, there were a few older students as well, closer to preteens. Being that the school focused on magic as opposed to typical subjects like math and biology—although there were plans to accommodate for such things in the future—there was no age separation within the classes as the curriculum currently stood; students were free to attend whatever classes they desired to focus on whatever it was they were interested in.

But it seemed no matter what kind of school it was, in the absence of a teacher, the students were going to get rowdy. Normally, Starswirl would be accustomed to quieting a class of rambunctious colts and fillies, but today that didn't appear to be necessary. The moment Princess Celestia walked into the room, all hijinks came to an abrupt stop. Without even needing to be told, the children all quietly and orderly took their seats, their eyes locked on the alicorn.

Starswirl couldn't help but grin, silently appreciating the princess's air of authority. He placed his cup of coffee on the teacher's desk at the head of the class and promptly addressed his students. "Good morning, class," he greeted.

They all responded with a rather halfhearted and distracted, "Good morning, Mr. Starswirl," again, their eyes never tearing away from the princess.

Starswirl chuckled quietly. "As I'm sure you've all noticed, we have a special guest joining us this morning. Please give a warm welcome to Princess Celestia."

"Good morning, Princess Celestia!" the class greeted in unison, with significantly more vigor than they'd given Starswirl.

"Good morning, my little ponies," Celestia greeted back with an amicable smile.

"The princess will be joining me in teaching you all for this first period, but you may be lucky enough to have her as your teacher later today as well. So, you can all look forward to that."

Elated grins spread across the faces of the students, prompting a grin from the alicorn as well.

"But don't let her presence distract you. I still have my own things to teach you all and I expect you to listen. That being said..." Starswirl turned his attention to the blackboard, erasing the crude doodles some of the students had drawn on it before he arrived. With a piece of chalk, he wrote the words, "Types of Magic," before turning back to the class.

"Now then, we've discussed in the past that unicorns aren't the only creatures to naturally possess magic. Can anypony tell me how many creatures possess magic?"

A filly in the front row raised her hoof.

Starswirl acknowledged her. "Yes?"

"All of them?" she answered, though sounded a little unsure of herself.

Starswirl smiled proudly, as did the princess. "That's right."

The filly grinned in response.

"All creatures in Equestria possess some form of unique magic. Just because that magic isn't used the way that unicorns do, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. We spoke about how pegasi are able to walk on clouds and manipulate the weather using their own inherent magic, and how earth ponies' magic gives them an affinity with the earth and plant life. But there are more types of magic still, and some we know very little about. Now, can anypony name one of those types of magic? And it doesn't necessarily have to be that of a living creature."

An older colt in the back raised a hoof. "Do potions count?"

Starswirl nodded, writing the word "Potions" on the blackboard. "Indeed. Though the magic within potions are a result of their ingredients, usually herbs and other things that have their own magical properties. Potions are the specialty of some tribes of creatures, such as the zebras of Girafrica."

An older filly sitting beside the colt raised her hoof next. "I read about things called 'runes' in a book once. Is that a thing?"

"It certainly is." Starswirl wrote the word "Runes" in chalk. "Runic magic is much more complex, however, and not likely something you'll be learning more about until much later. But, the long and short of it is that runes are special symbols designed to draw off of the world's natural magicks, allowing them to be manipulated at will by the caster. Runic magic is very versatile, but can also be very easily mishandled if the runes are drawn incorrectly, making it a fairly dangerous form of magic in the hooves of somepony inexperienced. Anything else?"

A colt in the middle of the class raised his hoof. "What about the magic in the Everfree Forest? What kind of magic is that?"

Starswirl hesitated, giving a rather concerned look to the princess. Celestia looked back at him with a somewhat somber expression, but nodded as she stepped forward to field the question.

"The magic of the Everfree Forest is a natural form of energy that has been there for as long as I can remember. However, we have no idea where this magic comes from, or exactly what type of magic it is. At one point, it was a harmless magic that made the forest a beautiful and serene place."

"What happened?" another student asked. "I heard it's dangerous in there now."

Celestia nodded. "Yes, that's true. The only thing we knew about the forest's magic was that is was very malleable—that is to say, it was easily influenced by outside forces. That magic was affected recently by a malevolent force, corrupting it."

"What caused it?" asked another child.

Before Celestia could answer, Starswirl interjected. "That's a complicated situation and not something we'll be discussing today." He glanced at the princess who was giving him a rather grateful look back. Starswirl put a smile back on as he returned his attention to the class. "In any case, having the princess here today is a stroke of luck given the subject. She's been around for a long time and knows more about magic than perhaps anypony else in the world."

Celestia blushed bashfully. "Oh, I don't know about that. I haven't really had as much time to devote myself to studying magic as I'd like."

"What kinds of magic do you know about?" asked a filly in the front row.

The princess grinned fondly. Hearing all these questions from eager fillies and colts was starting to bring back memories. "Well, there're all sorts of types of magic that I've taken an interest in myself. However, there's a particular type of magic that I've been looking into recently: the magic of friendship."

Starswirl cast an uncertain look from the corner of his eye. He could have sworn she was discreetly grinning back at him.

The class of students all looked confused. One of the older colts in the back spoke up. "Is that real? It sounds like something you'd hear about in a kid's book."

"While there's little we actually know about the magic of friendship, I can assure you it is real. Not only that, but it is one of the most powerful forces in all of Equestria."

"So, like, we can become super powerful just because we have friends?" one student questioned skeptically.

Starswirl stepped in to interject. "It's... a little more complicated than that. What little information we have is theoretical—which is to say we can only assume how it can be used if it is indeed real."

The students all looked between their two instructors, flummoxed by their conflicting statements. "So, is it real or not?" one colt asked.

Starswirl gave a look of his own to the princess, who simply smiled as she answered.

"It is. The point I'm trying to make here is that there is no obstacle that cannot be overcome as long as you have friends by your side. While that does sound more like a metaphor than actual, practical magic, it can be both. That power is what my sister and I used to vanquish Discord after all. So, while perhaps unlikely, it could be entirely possible that you and your friends will go on to do great things for Equestria using the magic of friendship."

The students broke into quiet murmurs, some skeptical of the legitimacy of the princess's claims, while others were excited by the prospect.

Starswirl, however, was a tad frustrated by the alicorn's insistence on speaking about a subject that had been eluding him so much. "Alright, I think it's time to move on, class. Let's discuss the ways that these different types of magic can be used, and why it's important for even unicorns to learn about them."

***** ***** *****

"I think it's gotten bigger," Halberd said as he looked over the object in question.

Sunset didn't look up from her notebook, responding nonchalantly as she scribbled something down. "Of course it has. It's constantly growing." She glanced up at the miniature sun floating in the old castle's entrance hall. "Princess Celestia mentioned that hers underwent a few growth spurts, and I think that's why it's already as big as it is. But since its growth seems to be a little inconsistent, it's hard to tell how long it's actually going to take to reach full size. The princess said hers took two years."

Halberd continued to stare at the burning sphere, tilting his head in thought. "All things considered, two years doesn't sound like a long time for a sun to fully mature."

Sunset looked up from her notes and at the fireball. "I suppose not, but it at least gives me an idea of how much progress it's making."

Ever since Sunset had showed Halberd the sun she'd created, he'd done as he promised and kept it secret while also providing her safe transport between the two castles. He was admittedly pretty concerned when he first learned about it, but now that Sunset had a safer and more reliable method of moving back and forth, he felt a little better about it. Granted, it had only been a few days since he'd learned about it, but the two of them had made trips out to check up on the young sun every night since. It was easier for Halberd to accept all of this now that they could keep a more diligent eye on it instead of Sunset coming out only when she had the chance. In fact, Halberd had become rather fascinated by it; it certainly wasn't every day a new sun was born into the world. That being said, he obviously still had a lot of questions about it.

"I know you said you were going to tell Princess Celestia about this eventually, but you realize that you're effectively on a time limit, right?" Halberd pointed out. "I mean, it's eventually going to get too big for this place, too. And at that point it's probably gonna be too big to be able to hide it anywhere else."

Sunset sighed, scratching her head. "Yeah, I know." Still, she gave him a reassuring smile. "But it's like I told you before: I think I'm close to the point where I'll be comfortable telling her. My training's been going well, I'm steadily improving my skills and power, and the princess seems to be satisfied by my progress, too. If I had to make an estimate..." Sunset stared analytically at her sun before giving a dismissive shrug. "I'd say I've got at least a few months before it gets to that point. Should be plenty of time."

"If you say so." Halberd went quiet for a minute as Sunset returned to note taking. "So, hypothetically, when you eventually do tell the princess about this, what then?"

Sunset looked back at him with a cocked eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"Well, what, are we just gonna have two suns in the sky? How are you two gonna deal with that?"

"Uhhh... Huh. Guess I never really thought about that," Sunset admitted, turning her eyes up in thought. "I mean, I guess I can just keep mine hidden beyond the horizon. Although, Princess Celestia mentioned how nice it'd be if I could raise the sun for her so she could sleep in. I'm pretty sure that was supposed to be a joke, but who's to say we couldn't actually do it? I could raise my sun on any days where the princess just wants a few extra hours of sleep."

"I'm sure she'd appreciate that," Halberd chuckled. "If anypony deserves to sleep in, it's Princess Celestia, especially considering she hasn't really had a chance like that for countless years."

"Unless there was a solar flare, but those are few and far between, and not always in the morning."

Halberd gave her a somewhat worried look. "You're, uh... not worried about your sun having solar flares, are you?"

"Uh, it hasn't happened yet, if that's what you're asking. From what I understand, solar flares are something that just need to run their course. Apparently the fluctuation of energy results in magical feedback that causes those attuned to it to experience headaches, so it's not like I'm not going to know if or when it happens. As long as I don't use my magic on it during that time, I should be fine."

Again, Halberd looked at the sun. "Would've been problematic if that happened when you decided to move it out here." Having said that, another question came to mind. "How did you get it out here? How did you move something like this without being noticed?"

"It was a bit smaller than this when I carried it here. And I moved it in the middle of the night to make sure that at least Princess Celestia didn't see it glowing in the dark." She forced a rather awkward grin. "It was a little nerve-wracking carrying a big ball of fire through a forest, though, heh heh. That could've gone badly."

Halberd thought about that for a moment. "Huh. Actually, maybe that's why you never saw any timberwolves or anything whenever you came out here."

"How do you figure?" Sunset asked curiously.

"Well, if you were a creature made entirely out of wood, would you want to go anywhere near a fireball like this?" Halberd said, gesturing to the burning orb. "They probably kept their distance from you, fearing you might end up burning them. I mean, even your hair kinda looks like fire."

Sunset smirked playfully. "I'm not sure if you're suggesting my hair looks cool, or if it looks scary."

"Uh, the first one," Halberd said with an awkward chuckle. His compliment was rewarded with a brief nose nuzzle from Sunset before she returned to her notes.

Halberd glanced down at the basket sitting on the floor nearby. Today was the first time they'd come out to check up on Sunset's sun in broad daylight. Since both Princess Celestia and Starswirl were spending the whole day teaching at the school, Sunset wasn't concerned about being caught sneaking out. Considering they had pretty much the whole day, with Sunset having no lessons herself and Halberd having the day off from work, they had decided to turn the whole excursion into a date. Admittedly, there was something strangely exotic about having a meal under the glow of a newborn sun.

But they'd been at the Castle of the Two Sisters for hours at this point. The basket of food had since been rendered empty as they had picked at their provisions throughout the day. They'd basically just spent the past hour or so taking notes on the sun's progress.

"I think we should head back soon," Halberd suggested. "We wanna get back before Princess Celestia and your dad are done at the school."

Sunset didn't even look up from her notebook, giving him a dismissive wave of her hoof. "What's the hurry? We both have the day off today anyway. They'll just think we're out on a date, which is technically true, so it's not like we'll be lying to them."

Halberd looked at her a little more seriously and with some concern. "Right, I have the day off today. So if anypony finds out that we 'borrowed' a chariot to come out here, I could get into some trouble."

Sunset rolled her eyes with a smirk, snapping her notebook shut and stuffing it under the picnic blanket in the basket before walking over to Halberd. "Alright, ya big wuss. And here I was admiring you for being a 'bad boy' breaking the rules." She gave him a quick, almost patronizing kiss before heading for the door. "Come on, let's go."

Sunset threw open the doors to the castle. For once, she didn't have to adjust to the darkness outside as it was already nice and bright. However, that didn't mean she didn't hesitate once her eyes landed on the chariot they had taken that was parked outside.

Particularly, the creature sat upon it.

Sunset and Halberd both stopped in their tracks before even stepping outside. Perched upon the railing of their chariot was a small animal, no bigger than a chicken. In fact, it even had the head and legs of a chicken, but it's body was more reptilian, with dark green scales, a long, serpentine tail, and a pair of small, draconic wings. It appeared to be currently preoccupied by the golden chariot, likely curious as to what it was and where it came from.

Sunset leaned over to Halberd, though never took her eyes off the creature, whispering quietly to him. "Is... Is that a cockatrice?"

"I think so. I've never actually seen one before, but it definitely matches the descriptions I've heard."

"What do we do? Just wait for it to leave?"

Halberd shrugged. "I... I guess we could. But we really do need to get the chariot back before somepony realizes it's gone. Can you, like, blast it or something?"

Sunset balked at the suggestion. "What?! Come on, Hal. They're not magical constructs like the timberwolves. They're just animals. I don't want to hurt it if I don't have to."

"Then just fire off a shot to scare it off."

"What if that just ticks it off?"

"Then what do you suggest?"

Sunset stared at the cockatrice pecking curiously at their vehicle. "I mean, I could just put up a barrier to protect us. I doubt that little guy would be able to do much to it."

"You sure that'll work?" Halberd asked doubtfully.

Sunset shrugged. "I don't see why not."

Halberd looked back at the cockatrice, feeling a little pensive. "Alright. It's just the one, I guess."

With a cyan glow, Sunset surrounded the two of them with a magic bubble. "Stick close." They cautiously stepped outside and Sunset shut the castle doors behind her.

The cockatrice's head jerked up, whipping around toward the sound of the doors closing. Sunset and Halberd hesitated when the creature's piercing, red eyes shifted in their direction, but they carefully made their way toward the chariot. The avian beast hopped off the vehicle, eyeing the pair of ponies as they approached, but stepped back a little, cautious of the cyan barrier surrounding them.

Upon reaching the chariot, Sunset and Halberd kept their sights on the bird to make sure it didn't try something. It seemed almost as wary as they were, as though waiting for them to make the first move, it's eyes locked onto the amber unicorn.

"Looks like it's not gonna try anything," Halberd noted with a small sigh of relief. Not really feeling like they were in any danger anymore, Halberd leaned down to get a closer look at the cockatrice, although it didn't look back at him. "You know, barring the creepy, red eyes, it's actually kinda cute. I wonder if people domesticate these things. Think they could be tamed and kept as pets?"

He didn't receive a response from Sunset, prompting him to lift his head again to look at her. Sunset was staring back at the cockatrice, motionless, with a vacant expression on her face.

"Sunset?"

Halberd heard an odd crackling sound, and his eyes shifted in the direction of it. He was suddenly overcome with panic when he noticed that Sunset's hind legs and tail were steadily turning grey, becoming encased in stone.

"Sunset!"

Halberd looked back down at the bird. Its gaze never left Sunset. She'd locked eyes with the cockatrice, allowing it to use its petrification magic and transfixing her so she couldn't look away. Her barrier did nothing to prevent it.

Halberd desperately covered Sunset's eyes in an attempt to break the connection, but her legs continued to petrify. He and the other soldiers were given a brief overview of cockatrices and their abilities when it was reported that they'd appeared in the Everfree Forest. They were told that once they had established eye contact, the only way to stop them was to make the cockatrice take its eyes off of its victim. But entranced as she was by the creature, Sunset couldn't release her barrier. Ironically, the very thing that was meant to protect them now had them trapped, and Halberd was unable to interrupt its spell.

So he did the only thing he could think of to save her.

Halberd positioned himself between Sunset and the cockatrice, forcing the beast to look at him instead. The moment its red eyes met his hazel eyes, Halberd felt the spell beginning to take effect. He was in such a panic worrying about Sunset that he didn't even think to cover his own eyes. His thoughts suddenly went fuzzy, and it felt like he was about to black out.

Sunset blinked, staggering slightly and feeling groggy as though she'd just woken up from a nap. She shook her head and attempted to collect her thoughts. "Wha... What happened?" she mumbled, rubbing her temple.

It was only now that she noticed Halberd standing in front of her, half of his body encased in a stone shell. She finally remembered what was going on, spotting the cockatrice standing outside the barrier and staring up at Halberd.

"Hal!"

Sunset attempted to do as Halberd had done and jump in front of him to interrupt the spell. However, the moment she tried to move, she stumbled, collapsing roughly onto her stomach. She glanced back to find that her hind legs were solid rock up to just beneath her cutie mark, and her normally red and yellow tail was encased completely, the extra weight dragging her down. She looked up to Halberd in panic. The stone shell was creeping up his neck now.

Sunset dropped her shield, propping herself up as best she could and took aim at the cockatrice with her horn. She fired off a weak bolt of magic, striking the creature in the body. It wasn't enough to cause any injury, only some mild magical burns, but it was enough to elicit a surprised squawk from the beast and causing it to roll backwards and away from them. It quickly righted itself and didn't waste any time flapping its leathery wings and retreated back toward the Everfree Forest.

Sunset laboriously dragged herself in front of Halberd, reaching her front hooves up to use his shoulders as support as she lifted herself up to a sitting position. She looked him in the eye, but saw nothing but cold, grey stone staring back at her.

"Hal!"

Tears began to streak down her cheeks. She had no idea what to do. In a panicked frenzy, she frantically looked around for something—anything—that might give her an idea of how to fix this. Eventually, her gaze shifted up to Canterlot Castle looming over them in the distance. She only had one option, and she knew it.

Sunset clenched her eyes shut and wrapped her hooves tightly around Halberd's neck, her tears staining his petrified coat. Her horn suddenly lit up, and with a bright flash of cyan magic, the two of them vanished.

***** ***** *****

Starswirl tossed his saddlebags onto a reading table in the royal archives, sitting down with a weary sigh. He took a long gulp of his coffee—his seventh cup that day—still feeling the effects of the early morning hovering over him. But it wasn't just that. He lifted his tired eyes, staring across the table as Princess Celestia took a seat opposite him. Never in his life did he ever think that her soft and cheery smile would make him feel so disdainful.

"Well, this has certainly been an enjoyable day, hasn't it?" the princess chirped. "It's nice to teach a class of energetic children. I envy you, Starswirl; you get to do this almost everyday."

"Hrm, yes..." he grumbled in response.

It wasn't like Celestia was oblivious to her colleague's sour mood. In fact, she was fully aware of it. Her chipper attitude was entirely purposeful, and while she did indeed enjoy teaching at the school, her upbeat demeanor was intended to needle him. She couldn't help herself. She knew full well why he was being such a grump, and it didn't just have to do with his lack of sleep.

"What's the matter, Starswirl?" Celestia asked, the playful grin on her face belying her concerned tone.

"You know very well," he chided with a disgruntled glower. "Why would you bring up that 'friendship magic' stuff? We know too little about it to be discussing it with a class of young foals. They were bringing it up all day in an effort to learn more, but I couldn't, in all good conscious, say anything because we know next to nothing about it."

Celestia's childish grin shifted to an apologetic smile. "Yes, I'm sorry. I know you've been rather frustrated with your studies on the subject, and I do feel responsible for putting that pressure on you. But I think it's important to tell people about it, especially the youngsters. After all, one of them may have to take up your mantle one day if you can't make enough progress with it."

Starswirl let out another long sigh. "It was my understanding that you wanted me to take my time with this, but you're already enlisting children to take my place?"

The princess frowned sympathetically. "I'm not trying to rush you, Starswirl, and I have faith that you can handle this task." She let out a sigh of her own. "But it would be preferable to make progress on this sooner rather than later."

Starswirl stared at the princess through regretful eyes. "I'm sorry, Your Highness. I want with all my heart to help you save your sister, and I've been pouring much of my attention toward that goal... But I'm beginning to think that you may be wrong."

Celestia felt her heart sink. "Wrong? About what?"

"About the magic of friendship. You claim that it was that power that allowed you and your sister to utilize the Elements of Harmony, but maybe you were misinterpreting. Perhaps it's simply just alicorn magic that powers them."

Celestia shook her head adamantly. "No. I know that's not true. The magic of friendship is real, and it's all the more reason to inform people about it. Perhaps the more friends one has, the more of that magic will coalesce."

Starswirl closed his eyes in thought. "So, you speculate that I may not have enough friends, is that it?"

"That's not what I'm insinuating. It's just..." Celestia paused, trying to figure out exactly what it was she was even trying to say. She sighed in defeat. "I know no more than you... While I know, without a doubt, that it was the magic of friendship that Luna and I harnessed, I... can't necessarily say I know how we did it. I know of the virtues that the Elements represent, but I've never been truly clear how Luna and I represented them. Even less so now, after everything that's happened..."

Starswirl lowered his head, feeling guilty all of a sudden. He doubted that Princess Celestia was purposefully trying to guilt him into pursuing this subject—he never intended to abandon it—but it was clear now that, despite her insistence toward its existence, there were doubts in her mind as to whether they could find anything to push them in the right direction.

"Your Highness!"

Starswirl's and Celestia's heads shot up suddenly at the voice calling out from the hall. They hurried out to see what the problem was, finding Scabbard galloping toward them.

"Scabbard, what's wrong?" Celestia inquired worriedly.

"It's Halberd and Sunset! Come quickly!"

A feeling of dread welled up inside Starswirl and the princess, and they wasted no time following Scabbard toward the castle's entrance. Once there, they found a small group of soldiers had already gathered at the bottom of the steps. But it was what they were gathered around that was of immediate concern.

Sunset Shimmer lay on the ground in frightened tears, gouges trailing in the dirt behind her from where she had dragged her petrified hind legs. Standing next to her was what would appear at first glance to be a stone statue, but its resemblance to Halberd was unmistakable. Lance was present already, his hooves on his frozen brother's shoulders as he stared in silent shock.

Starswirl immediately went to his daughter's side, leaning down and attempting to help her up. "Sunset! Are you alright?! What happened?!"

With her father's help, the tearful unicorn managed to stand up and plant her stone legs onto the dirt to balance herself. "I-I..."

Celestia looked the two young ponies over, analyzing the situation carefully. Based on the evidence, it didn't take much deduction to figure out what caused this. "Did a cockatrice do this?"

Sunset nodded, teeth clenched and trying her hardest to fight her tears back, but failing miserably. "We... We have to help him..." she sniffled.

Scabbard looked to the princess. Despite the seriousness of the situation, Celestia looked surprisingly calm; not that there wasn't concern in her eyes, but she was clearly considering the scenario carefully. "Your Majesty, what do we do?"

Celestia stared at the petrified pegasus, thinking deeply. She then turned her gaze to Sunset, holding a hoof to her shoulder and looking into her eyes compassionately and resolutely. "Sunset, you must remain calm. Halberd is alive, and we can save him.

Sunset stared back into her teacher's reassuring, pink eyes. She had to remember what Celestia was teaching her. Once again, she found herself in a harrowing situation and all she could do was panic. Sunset managed to choke back her sobs and wipe the moisture from her eyes, though the glint of tears was still visible. "What... What do I have to do?" she asked with determination, though her voice was shaky.

"You aren't doing anything," Starswirl corrected her sternly.

Sunset's resolve faltered at the order. "But, I—"

"Sunset, I know you want to help him, but in your condition you can't do much."

"But we can still help him," Celestia reiterated. "A cockatrice's petrification spell is reversible. Unfortunately, the only thing that can reverse it is a cockatrice."

"So how do we get a cockatrice to reverse the spell?" Lance inquired, a hint of desperation in his voice.

The group of soldiers listened intently for their princess's instructions.

"From what I understand, cockatrices are surprisingly intelligent animals with a strong sense of self-preservation. The spell is something that they only use when they perceive something as a potential threat. But if that threat were to actually attack, the cockatrice wouldn't likely have time to apply the spell and would prefer to flee."

Starswirl nodded as he stroked his beard thoughtfully. "I did some cursory research on the beasts and have found some articles about cockatrice attacks. In some situations, they would capture a cockatrice and force it to reverse the spell."

"How exactly do you force a cockatrice to change somepony back?" asked Scabbard.

"By threatening its life," Celestia stated bluntly. "As I said, their self-preservation instincts are strong and they're quite smart. If they were to find themselves in an inescapable scenario, they may be willing to release their victims if they felt it would save their own life."

Lance nodded, a steadfast look in his eye. "So we head down to the Everfree Forest and catch a cockatrice. Got it."

Scabbard, seeing that Lance was about to take off on his own, grabbed him forcefully by the leg, giving his fellow soldier a silent, reprimanding glare. Lance tucked his wings back in with a sigh.

"We're going to need to make preparations," Celestia informed her guards. "It would be foolhardy to traipse into the Everfree Forest without a plan of action. Lance, Scabbard, gather up a squad of soldiers. I will escort Sunset and Halberd to the infirmary. Then, we will all meet up for a briefing before we head to the forest."

"'We'?" Scabbard questioned with concern. "Your Highness, are you suggesting that you're going as well."

Celestia nodded with adamant resolution. "I shouldn't have to remind you that I'm not a helpless damsel. Luna and I have faced many foes that could threaten the world as a whole. Still, I cannot let my guard down in the face of a creature like a cockatrice. A momentary lapse in concentration could be dangerous, but my magic may be useful in subduing our quarry. Not to mention that cockatrices are not the only threats in the Everfree."

"Then I'll go as well," Starswirl insisted. He looked to his distraught daughter with deep compassion. "I don't think I could stand by and do nothing while Sunset is suffering."

"That's fine, but we should hurry," Celestia said as she lifted Halberd's petrified body with her magic. With a flash of light, she, Halberd, and Sunset vanished.

The soldiers began to disperse in a hurry to seek out other guards to enlist in this endeavor. Lance was about to hurry off to do the same, but was stopped by a concerned hoof on his shoulder. Scabbard was looking at him seriously.

"I know he's your brother and you're worried about him, but don't do anything rash, okay?"

Lance could see the genuine worry in Scabbard's eyes. He let out a sigh and nodded. "Right. Sorry about that. I'll keep my head on straight, promise."

***** ***** *****

Princess Celestia, Starswirl, Lance, Scabbard, and a squad of eight other soldiers stood at the entrance of the Everfree Forest, mentally preparing themselves for their mission. Even though it was starting to creep close to the twilight hours, the sun hung high in the sky as though it were noon; Celestia wanted to make this as smooth of a process as possible, so she did something she didn't often do and took advantage of her control over the sun to give she and her companions some extra light. It wasn't likely it would be of much help under the nigh impenetrable canopy of the forest, but she figured she'd try anyway. She had a feeling her subjects would want an explanation for this, so she had sent her remaining guards into Canterlot to assure them that everything was under control and hopefully stop them from making any rash assumptions.

Celestia turned back to face her team of soldiers. All of them were equipped with their weapons of choice, whether that be spears, swords, or bows. Scabbard had elected to carry a simple woodcutter's ax along with his bow and arrows, while Lance wielded his trusty spear. Celestia and Starswirl were both unarmed, but not unarmored. Starswirl had borrowed a set of golden soldier's armor to provide some protection, though he was not quite accustomed to the weight of it. The princess, on the other hoof, was adorned in rather extravagant armor of the same gold color, but with purple accents and a deep purple gemstone embedded in the chest plate. She had originally not planned to wear anything more than her usual regalia, but her soldiers had insisted that she properly protect herself. Aside from their weapons and armor, everypony present also carried with them a small, burlap sac.

"I would like to go over the plan one more time before we enter the forest," Celestia informed the group. She received no objections. "Our mission, on the surface, is rather simple: subdue and capture a cockatrice. However, while cockatrices are not terribly aggressive, they are still dangerous. Encountering one on your own could result in you being trapped as a statue in this dark forest for the rest of your days. As such, we'll be dividing into three groups of four, both to cover more ground in our search and provide assistance to each other. Do not, under any circumstances, separate from your group. Each group will have at least one unicorn. Unicorns, use your magic to provide light for your team, and if you manage to successfully capture a cockatrice, fire a magic flare through the canopy; we may not be able to see it, but it should be loud enough for anypony to hear it, and that will be the signal to rendezvous back here."

Celestia took a moment to look the squad over. They all seemed to have a grasp on the situation, so she continued. "Furthermore, the cockatrices are not the only threat we may have to face. If you find yourselves encountering a timberwolf, the best course of action would be to escape. However, if fleeing is not an option, then you'll have to do your best to incapacitate it. Just remember that a dismembered timberwolf will reconstitute in time, but you can use that time to escape. If anypony in your squad is seriously injured, make their safety your priority. Escort them out of the forest and bring them back to the castle immediately for medical attention."

The princess held her brown, burlap sac aloft with her magic. "These sacs should suffice to contain a cockatrice; their beaks and talons are no sharper than that of an ordinary chicken, so they shouldn't be able to tear through it. Just remember to avoid eye contact with the creatures at all costs. Does everypony understand the mission?"

She received a series of affirmative nods.

Starswirl looked up to the princess. "Are we ready, Princess?"

Celestia nodded, turning back to the forest. "Yes, let's head inside. Starswirl, Scabbard, Lance, the three of you are with me. Everypony else, form your squads, be on guard, and good luck."

Once they had all entered the forest, the three groups split off in different directions. It didn't take long for the light of the sun to be completely blotted out by the malicious treetops. Seeing as providing light for her subjects was one of Princess Celestia's most important duties as ruler, she took it upon herself to illuminate the way for her companions using her golden aura. She kept the light of her horn fairly dim, however, so as not to attract the attention of prowling timberwolves, as well as avoid frightening any cockatrices away.

As they carefully traversed the dark and dreary forest, Princess Celestia couldn't help but let out a somber sigh. The Everfree Forest used to be so beautiful. Back when she and Luna first built the Castle of the Two Sisters, they would spend a lot of time simply exploring the forest and taking in the wondrous sights. It was certainly a simpler time back then; Canterlot had not yet been founded and their kingdom had not been fully established. There were times in Celestia's life where she felt that, no matter how many years passed, barely anything would change, and that wasn't necessarily a bad thing in her mind. But it just made it all the more jarring for her to see just how much could change in the span of only a few weeks.

"Princess?"

Celestia was jostled out of her reminiscing by Starswirl's voice. He was looking to her with great compassion, likely having taken notice of the wistful expression on her face.

"I'm sorry, Your Highness, but I don't think this is a good time to be lost in thought," he said to her in a concerned tone.

Celestia nodded, turning her eyes forward. "Yes, you're right. Apologies. We need to remain focused so as to avoid being caught off guard."

"I'm sure you can handle a few timberwolves," Lance assured with a lax grin. "Besides, we might not even run into any."

"And now you've jinxed us. Thanks a lot, Lance," Scabbard chided sarcastically.

Lance simply shrugged off the comment. He then glanced at the weapons fastened to Scabbard's armor, particularly the ax. "You know, there are actual weapons back at the barracks you could have brought. There're even some battleaxes you could've taken instead of a lumber ax."

"Those would be a little unwieldy for me. Besides, what better weapon is there for dealing with creatures made of wood?"

Lance conceded the point with a nod. "You got me there. I mean, ideally fire would probably be most effective, but, you know..." he remarked, glancing around at their highly flammable surroundings. He then held his spear out with his wing, looking it over. "I might prefer spears, but I can't imagine they'll be too effective against timberwolves. I could probably keep them at hoof's length, but that's about it."

"Same with my arrows, but we may be able to deter them if we can keep them at a distance."

"Worst comes to worst, the princess can just blast them. Right?" Lance said, casting a confident smile up at the alicorn.

"True, but even then they will just rebuild themselves," Celestia responded.

Lance chuckled, sizing up the armor the princess was wearing. "Actually, with how intimidating you look in that armor, the timberwolves might think twice about attacking us."

Celestia looked herself over uncertainly. "Is it too much? I haven't actually worn this since Luna and I battled King Sombra."

Lance dismissively waved off her self-consciousness. "No way. You are rocking that look, Your Majesty," he complimented, eliciting a light blush from the princess.

"Is this really an appropriate time to be flirting with the princess, Lance?" Scabbard said with an admonishing scowl.

Lance was not at all deterred my his scolding. "First of all, it's never inappropriate to pay a lady a compliment. Second, I wasn't flirting with her. I'm just trying to keep everypony's spirits up." His expression suddenly fell and he breathed a deep, worried sigh. "There's a lot at stake here after all..."

Starswirl shared Lance's sentiment. Even though Sunset hadn't gotten it as bad as Halberd, he was more concerned about how distressed his daughter was about her boyfriend and about the situation as a whole. "All the more reason to remain diligent. We all want this to be resolved as quickly and efficiently as possible."

"I know you don't exactly have too much invested in this mission, Scabbard, but I appreciate you coming out here to help," said Lance gratefully.

Scabbard raised an eyebrow, looking insulted. "What are you talking about? I have just as much at stake here as you."

Lance gave him a puzzled look. "What?"

Scabbard stared at him with conviction and compassion. "Halberd might not be my brother, and Sunset isn't my daughter or my student, but that doesn't mean I don't care about them just as much as you all do. Halberd's your brother, and you're my comrade and friend, and, by extension, so is he. I consider everypony at the castle to be like my brothers and sisters, especially since I don't get to see my own family very often."

Lance silently stared back into Scabbard's eyes, observing the serious resolution within them. He gave his comrade a fond and appreciative smile. "I feel like I don't say this enough, Scabbard, but, thanks for having my back."

Starswirl observed as Scabbard returned the smile with one of his own, displaying the camaraderie between the two of them. The bearded unicorn closed his eyes, suddenly finding himself deep in thought.

But Starswirl suddenly found himself brought to a halt by the princess's outstretched wing. Her expression was serious and focused.

"Hold," she instructed her companions quietly. She pointed ahead of them to a gnarled tree some distance away, but still close enough to be barely visible by her illuminating aura.

The four of them stared forward. While it was barely noticeable within the darkness, there was certainly a figure perched upon a branch of the tree. It was small and clearly avian in nature, but while they could only make out its silhouette, its striking, red eyes seemed to penetrate the darkness as it stared in their direction.

"Do not make eye contact," Celestia warned, her voice barely above a whisper.

"That a cockatrice then?" Lance asked for clarification.

"Yes. Now, it's just a matter of subduing it without scaring it off."

The cockatrice continued to eye them warily from its perch.

"How do we approach it?" Scabbard asked cautiously.

"If it believes its life is in danger, it may flee," said Starswirl. "Considering it's extremely lucky that we found one so quickly, I'd rather not let this chance slip by."

The cockatrice tilted its head curiously, waiting for the group of ponies to do something.

"Princess, can't you just grab it with your magic and toss it in the sac?" Lance suggested.

Celestia nodded. "That would probably be the best course of action."

The princess was about to do just that, but as the glow of her horn intensified, the cockatrice shifted its gaze to the side, lifting its head. The avian's sudden shift of attention was followed by a low snarl coming from the trees, and the ponies turned to their right. Two sets of glowing, green eyes peered out from the darkness between the trees, and a pair of prowling timberwolves emerged into the light of Celestia's magic.

Lance and Scabbard took up defensive positions in front of Starswirl and the princess, their weapons at the ready. "Great. Nice to know the timberwolves have an impeccable sense of timing," Lance growled, pointing his spear forward.

Celestia chanced a quick glance at the cockatrice. It had hopped up to a higher branch and was keeping an eye on the wolves; it seemed to perceive them as the greater threat here. If the cockatrice felt it was safe within the tree, then there was a chance that it may not flee. However, apprehending the beast with timberwolves nipping at their heels would be a risky maneuver. They'd have to dispatch their attackers first to ensure a safe extraction.

Starswirl looked up from the corner of his eye at Celestia, being careful not to look away from the timberwolves for more than a couple of seconds at a time. "We could simply use our magic to break them apart and retreat with the cockatrice while they reconstitute."

"I don't know if that would be wise. A powerful blast of magic might frighten it away."

Starswirl grimaced. While he didn't want to have to handicap himself in this dire situation, he also didn't want to squander this fortuitous chance to complete their mission more quickly than anticipated. He had to think about what Sunset must be going through right now. Ensuring they acquired the cockatrice now would quell everypony's concerns in a timely manner.

The timberwolves didn't wait any longer for them to formulate a plan. With vicious barks, both of them sprinted forward toward the two soldiers. Lance thrust his spear out to meet one of the wolves halfway, planting the tip firmly into its wooden chest. It did little to slow it down, however, but Lance maintained a firm grip on the spear's shaft, being pushed back and at least keeping some distance between him and the beast.

Scabbard fired an arrow at the second wolf, striking it in the shoulder, though it barely seemed to notice and kept barreling forward. Scabbard was about to jump out of the way of its jaws as it leapt at him, but the wolf was stopped short by a white wall of magic. Starswirl stepped up alongside him, his horn glowing brightly. The timberwolf shook off the impact, lashing at the shield with its claws. While Starswirl felt each strike via a sharp pain in his horn, his barrier held firm.

Seeing that it wasn't making any headway against the two unicorns, the wolf instead turned its attention to the pegasus that its partner was attacking, rushing over to team up on Lance.

Lance wrenched his spear free from the timberwolf's wooden hide, following immediately by thrusting it straight into the wolf's open maw and hitting the back of its non-existent throat. But it responded by simply clamping its jaws shut, snapping the spear in half and spitting the tip out onto the ground.

It was only now that Lance noticed the second timberwolf dashing toward him from the left. But a large log enveloped by a golden aura suddenly struck the beast from the side, shattering its body to pieces and scattering them some distance away.

But Lance didn't have time to thank the princess as the first wolf was still on him. He had taken his eyes off of it for just a moment and it pounced on him, pinning Lance to the ground beneath its claws. Lance quickly grabbed the tip of his cracked spear, jamming it vertically into the wolf's mouth as it prepared to bite him, keeping its jaw pried open.

An ax wrapped in a light blue aura suddenly lodged itself firmly into the timberwolf's neck. While the blade itself didn't do much damage, the weight and surprise of the strike caused it to stagger off of Lance and lose its balance, falling over.

Scabbard didn't waste any time removing the ax with his magic. The wolf clamped its jaws hard enough to completely shatter the spear tip holding its mouth open, but was then struck in the neck by the ax again. Scabbard repeatedly hacked away at the wolf's neck, chipping away at the wood until its head came free of its body and dropped to the ground.

Scabbard helped Lance back to his hooves, and the two watched cautiously as the green glow of the wolf's eyes faded and its body fell apart.

With both timberwolves incapacitated, Princess Celestia turned her attention to the cockatrice. But, much to her shock, it wasn't in the tree anymore. She looked around frantically, hoping it was still nearby and hadn't fled during the skirmish. She happened to glance down to find it standing right in front of her, staring back up at her intensely.

Celestia suddenly found herself unable to move, her thoughts becoming muddled.

Starswirl took notice of the princess's state, a stone shell beginning to creep up her hind legs. However, before he could act to save her, a snarl caught his attention. The timberwolf that the princess had previously disassembled had reformed and was rushing straight at him.

The creature was halted when Lance landed on its back, causing it to reel in surprise and flail around to shake off the pegasus.

While Lance had that wolf occupied, Scabbard noticed the remains of the decapitated one begin to glow green, its pieces shaking and beginning to converge. He quickly used his burlap sac to scoop up the wolf's severed head, though through the force of the beast's magic, it fought against him, attempting to rejoin its body.

"Starswirl! The princess!" Scabbard called out frantically as he struggled to keep the wolf's head under control long enough to help Celestia.

Starswirl looked back at Lance worriedly as he continued to grapple with his adversary.

"Hurry up!" Lance instructed from the beast's back.

Starswirl turned to the princess, her stone prison just starting to encapsulate her head. He brought his burlap sac down over the cockatrice while it was still focused on the alicorn, the little bird-lizard struggling to free itself and squawking loudly. He looked up to see that Celestia had unfortunately met the same fate as Halberd, her entire body turned to stone, leaving just her armor to provide color on her otherwise grey form. But he didn't have time to worry about her.

Lance was finally thrown roughly to the ground and the timberwolf wasted no time looming over him. This time, Lance had no weapon with which to fight back, and Scabbard was still preoccupied trying to prevent the other one from reforming.

But the sound of a loud squawk prompted the timberwolf to raise its head. Its ethereal, green eyes met the piercing, red gaze of a cockatrice being held aloft by white magic. The wolf let out a quiet whimper, transfixed and unable to move as its wooden body gradually turned to stone.

Once the wolf was completely petrified, Starswirl replaced the cockatrice into the bag where it continued to struggle futilely.

Lance crawled out from underneath the petrified timberwolf, breathing a sigh of relief. "Thanks, Starswirl. That was some quick thinking."

"Thinking is what I do," Starswirl said with a grin. "I'd prefer to leave the physical stuff to those who are trained for it."

"Guys!"

Starswirl and Lance turned to Scabbard, briefly having forgotten about him. Scabbard lost his grip on the bagged head, and it slipped out and reattached itself to the timberwolf's neck. It rose back to its feet, its eyes glowing a fierce green once more and giving the trio of stallions a furious snarl.

The three ponies stood side to side, protecting the petrified princess behind them.

"So, any more cunning ideas in your bag of tricks?" Lance asked Starswirl, a surprisingly confident smirk on his face despite the danger before them.

"Unfortunately, no. We don't have time to restore the princess to normal with that thing on us. We may have to escape and come back for her later."

"Not happening," Scabbard argued defiantly, staring down the timberwolf with fire in his eyes. "I pledged to loyally stand by Her Majesty's side no matter what. To leave her here would be no different than to betray her and this kingdom."

"Hate to say it, Starswirl, but Scabbard's right," Lance agreed, his smirk persisting. "As much as I want to get back and save Hal, my friends' safety is just as important. It's all or nothing now."

As concerned as Starswirl had been about the whole situation, he himself found the notion of a tactical retreat disagreeable, despite it being his own suggestion. As the three of them stood side by side, staring into the eyes of the malicious monster growling at them, Starswirl knew they were all of the same mind right now.

"Dunno what we're gonna do, but we're gonna do it," Lance stated confidently. "Gotta laugh in the face of danger, right?"

For some reason, the words of his comrades stuck in Starswirl's mind. Inexplicably, he felt the magic in his horn spike, as though he'd suddenly found a well of secret power within that he never knew he had. Starswirl's eyes suddenly widened, as though he had just been struck by a great epiphany.

But he had no time to ruminate on the thought. The timberwolf's patience had run out and it began sprinting at them.

Starswirl's horn began to glow fiercely, the white light blinding the wolf and forcing it to a stop. And before the beast could recover from the visual onslaught, Starswirl loosed a beam of magic from his horn. The beam completely enveloped the timberwolf, even tearing a gouge in the dirt and felling a tree behind it.

The light from Starswirl's horn faded and he fell back to his haunches, his horn smoking with white steam. Scabbard grabbed the sac holding the cockatrice with his own magic, seeing as Starswirl was now too drained to hold it himself, and Lance stood by to provide support to the exhausted unicorn.

"You okay, Starswirl?" Lance asked, no lack of shock and awe in his voice and expression.

He managed to give the pegasus a reassuring smile. "Yes, I'm fine," he panted. "Though I've never output that level of magic before."

Scabbard was staring expectantly at the remains of the timberwolf. Its pieces were scattered all over the place, darkened and smoking as though they'd been burned, though no embers were present. The three stallions waited quietly to see if it would regenerate, but as the smoke faded, it became clear that it was too burned to rebuild itself.

A collective sigh escaped the lungs of the three stallions, but there was no time to rest on their laurels. Scabbard was the first to turn around, gazing regretfully at his princess and removing his helmet respectfully. "How could we have let this happen?" he muttered with a touch of self-loathing.

"Don't fret, Scabbard," Starswirl reassured. "If anything, by being turned to stone she allowed us to more easily capture the cockatrice."

Scabbard's remorse was not quelled by Starswirl's words. "Still, it was our duty to ensure she never came to harm. We should have been more diligent." He felt a firm slap against his back, and found Lance casting him a grin.

"You can't expect to be able to do everything at once. Believe me, I know how you feel. Just be thankful none of us were hurt."

"Besides, we can change her back," Starswirl reminded him.

Scabbard turned his attention to the furiously squawking bag in his magical grasp. "Then I'd rather not waste any more time."

"So, you're sure this'll work, Starswirl?" Lance asked somewhat skeptically.

The unicorn nodded. "All of the accounts I've read about are confirmed cases. I've no reason to doubt their credibility."

"Then how does this work?" inquired Scabbard. "The princess said they can be 'convinced' to return their victims to normal. So, do we just... explain the situation to the cockatrice? Are they smart enough to understand that?"

"Supposedly, if they feel their lives are in danger, they may be willing to cooperate," explained Starswirl.

"Right." Lance pulled an arrow out of Scabbard's quiver, turning his attention to the trapped avian in the sac and making sure it could hear the venom in his voice. "Alright, listen up, bird brain." He pressed the tip of the arrow against the bag, prodding the cockatrice's scaly body just firmly enough for it to recognize the threat and prompting it to cease its flailing. "If you don't wanna end up a kebab, then you'll do as we tell you and turn the princess back to normal. Get me?"

There was a brief moment of silence before the cockatrice let out a meek cluck.

"Sounds like it's willing to comply," Starswirl remarked. He took the bag from Scabbard, opening it and slowly lifting the cockatrice out. He made sure to turn it away from himself and his companions in case it had any bright ideas about trying to turn its gaze on them. He held it before the petrified alicorn. "Now, reverse the spell."

The cockatrice hesitated, earning it a vindictive poke from Lance's arrow. It focused its gaze on the glazed eyes of the stone mare. Within seconds, the rocky shell began to crack until it eventually shattered, shards of stone littering the ground and returning color to the princess's mane and tail and allowing them to flow once more, while her grey body had reverted back to its pristine white.

Celestia blinked, glancing around in confusion. "Huh? Wh-What happened?"

Scabbard breathed a deep sigh of relief to see the princess was alright. "Welcome back, Your Majesty," he said with a smile, trying to play it off coolly to hide the actual elation he felt.

The princess glanced down to the cockatrice in front of her, her memory coming back. There was a brief moment of fear in her mind, but the cockatrice itself looked to be quite uneasy. Starswirl was quick to drop the creature back into the sac again, where it immediately began to kick, flap, and squawk once more.

Lance rolled his eyes at the disgruntled bird. "Sorry, but we need you a little longer. We'll let you go when we're done with you, so stop making a fuss," he hissed at the cockatrice.

Scabbard stared guiltily at the contained cockatrice. "I feel a little bad that we have to treat it like this considering it might not even be the same one that attacked Sunset and Halberd."

Lance showed no such remorse in his face. "Yeah, well, it attacked the princess, so it's not entirely innocent either. It could've just run away in all the chaos, but it decided to stick its beak where it had no business being. Guess I can't complain, though; made things easier for us."

Celestia looked around, finding one of the timberwolves had been turned to stone, and the other in smoldering pieces scattered about the forest floor. She was admittedly a little concerned and curious about the shallow trench in the dirt leading to a fallen tree, but chose to ignore it to focus on the more pertinent matter.

She passed a grateful smile to her companions. "Thank you for the assistance. I don't know what I'd have done without you all."

Lance waved it off with a dismissive grin. "We don't have to tell anypony that that happened. After all, you were the one who said you weren't just a damsel in distress."

Celestia giggled warmly, appreciating his sentiment. "In any case, you seem to have accomplished our task with aplomb. It would be unwise to linger here any longer lest more timberwolves show up to investigate the commotion." Without a moment of hesitation, the princess fired a golden orb of magic into the air, penetrating to canopy above. While they couldn't see it, the group heard it explode loudly like a firework in the sky above the forest. "Let us rendezvous back at the forest's entrance."

Making a brisk pace back the way they came, Celestia, Starswirl, Lance, and Scabbard—along with their ensnared quarry—successfully escaped the Everfree Forest with no further hassle. The second group of soldiers weren't long rejoining the them, but it took a few more minutes for the third group to return.

Celestia observed with care and concern as the final four ponies emerged from the forest, a relieved sigh escaping her lips. "Good, everypony is accounted for. Are there any injuries?"

One of the members of the third group—a mare—stepped forward to report. "No, Your Majesty. We did not encounter any timberwolves, nor cockatrices," she informed with a touch of disappointment at not being able to complete their objective themselves.

"No worries," the princess assured, gesturing to the sac held by Starswirl, from which some rather miffed clucking could be heard. "We have a cockatrice here, but I thank you all for your participation in this endeavor. Now then, we need to deliver this creature to the castle posthaste."

"One moment, Your Highness."

As Celestia and the soldiers were about to start the trek up the mountain and back to Canterlot, she stopped to look back at the mare again. "What is it?"

"Our group scoured the deeper recesses of the forest, all the way to the ravine leading to the old castle. We spotted one of our chariots parked on the other side."

Celesita quirked an eyebrow. "What would one of our chariots be doing there?"

"Must've been Halberd and Sunset," Lance surmised with a disapproving grimace. "They had to have come out here in order to get attacked by a cockatrice."

"What in the world would possess them to come out here when they know full well the dangers?" Starswirl pondered with a disappointed shake of his head.

"Questions we'll have to ask once we assure their safety," Celestia dismissed for the time being. "For now, let's focus on helping them. She then turned to a pair of pegasus stallions among the soldiers. "Retrieve the chariot at the old castle if you would."

The two saluted and took off over the forest to carry out the task, while everypony else began heading back to Canterlot.

***** ***** *****

Sunset Shimmer breathed a heavy sigh. With only the walls of the castle's infirmary to look at, she found her mind wandering to all sorts of unpleasant places as she lay upon one of the beds, her hind legs sinking deeper into the mattress than the rest of her body. It certainly didn't help her mood that the only thing in the room for her to look at was the statue of her boyfriend, propped up by the wall as though he were just an ornament they hadn't found a place for yet.

She wasn't actually alone, though. Quill was present, as well, having been informed of the situation and offering to keep Sunset company while they waited. Although, currently he was pacing worriedly back and forth, his hoofsteps on the floor only serving to add to the amber unicorn's anxiety.

Sunset had never felt so helpless. She'd been there to help Halberd out of dangerous situations before, saving him from the fountain statue when they were kids, and fending off the timberwolves when they'd attacked him. But now, she was forced to simply lay on a bed, her chin resting on her fetlocks, and waiting in painful anticipation for her father, Princess Celestia, and the soldiers to return from the Everfree Forest. What made it even worse was knowing that this time it was her fault that Halberd was put in danger, and there was nothing she could do to help. Meanwhile, the other people she cared about were putting their own lives in danger to fix her mistake. It didn't seem fair.

But before she could kick herself further, the infirmary's door opened. Quill halted his pacing, and Sunset finally managed to lift her head, a relieved and hopeful look in her eyes when she saw Lance, Scabbard, Princess Celestia, and Starswirl enter the room—all of whom were still in full armor, including the princess and Sunset's father. Several other soldiers remained out in the hall. Sunset and Quill also noticed the brown, burlap sac Starswirl was holding in his magical grasp, something begrudgingly writhing and clucking from within.

"You got it?" Sunset inferred.

Starswirl nodded. Not wanting to waste any more time, he removed the cockatrice from the bag, a rather displeased look on the half-reptile's face. He held the creature in front of his daughter, causing Sunset to flinch instinctively. "Reverse the spell," he commanded tersely.

The cockatrice lifted its beak defiantly, clearly more than a little ticked off to be in this situation.

Lance stepped forward, fearlessly prodding a hoof against the cockatrice's green belly. "Listen, feather face: we might be herbivores, but that doesn't mean we can't turn your scaly hide into a fancy, designer purse."

The cockatrice scowled, but reluctantly gave in and turned to Sunset. The amber mare found it difficult to bring herself to look the creature in the eye given what happened last time she did that, but considering the situation it was in, the cockatrice wasn't really in a position to disobey the order. Sunset pensively looked the bird in its beady, red eyes. She felt a similar sensation to when this happened earlier; her thoughts growing fuzzy and muddled.

The other five ponies in the room, as well as a few soldiers peeking in from the hall, watched the stone encasing Sunset's hind legs and tail crack and fall away in pieces, the mattress finally able to support their weight without issue.

Starswirl forcibly pulled the cockatrice away from his daughter, allowing Sunset to regain her senses. She immediately glanced back at her legs, a figurative and literal weight being lifted as she was able to freely move them again. She was quick to climb off the bed, giving her father a grateful hug.

"Little early to celebrate yet," Lance reminded them, turning to his petrified brother.

Starswirl nodded, bringing the cockatrice over to Halberd. "Now, just release him and we'll release you," he instructed the creature.

The cockatrice rolled its red eyes grouchily, but did as it was told. Lance was finally able to let himself relax as he watched the grey shell break away to reveal Halberd's more lustrous, silver coat beneath.

Finally free from his stone prison, Halberd looked around, perplexed by his surroundings. To him, he had just been outside the Castle of the Two Sisters a moment ago, but now found himself within Canterlot Castle's infirmary. It reminded him of the disorientation he'd felt when Sunset had first teleported him. To add to the confusion was the visual of Starswirl and Princess Celestia adorned in golden armor. "Uh, what's going on? How'd I—"

Before he could finish his thought, he was pulled in for a tight, caring hug by his older brother. Halberd took that moment to recall what had happened, taking notice of the grumpy cockatrice floating nearby.

Lance pulled back, a playful, yet grateful smirk on his face. "You gotta stop scaring me like this, Hal."

Halberd didn't have much time to relax before he was tackled into another hug by Sunset, who buried her face into his neck, practically in tears. Neither of them said anything, and Halberd just wrapped his hooves tenderly around her shoulders.

Starswirl slipped the bag over the cockatrice once again, though not without some belligerent squawking and kicking. Celestia took the sac from him, turning to the guards peering in through the door.

"Return it to the Everfree Forest," she instructed, holding the bag out for somepony to take, though there was some noticeable reluctance before a unicorn mare cautiously received it and took her leave alongside a couple of other guards while the remaining soldiers dispersed to return to their usual posts.

Quill stepped forward. "Your Majesty, would it not be wise to keep the creature in captivity? It would certainly be useful to have a cockatrice on hoof in case something like this happens again."

"While that is true, we already promised it its freedom for helping us. It would be unfair to go back on our word."

Scabbard turned his attention to the two younger ponies. "You two okay?" he asked compassionately.

Sunset and Halberd finally broke off their hug, both of them giving their saviors smiles of deep gratitude. "I... think we're fine," Halberd said, looking himself over to make sure there were no patches of stone left anywhere on his body.

"Thank you so much," Sunset said appreciatively, her voice a little shaky. Her eyes became much more apologetic. "I'm sorry you guys had to do all that for us. I wish I could've done something to help."

As relieved as he was to see the two youngsters were unharmed, Starswirl now saw fit to furrow his brow sternly at his daughter. "That's not the only thing you have be feel sorry about. The soldiers happened to find a chariot parked outside the old castle. And..." With a flash of white magic, he produced a picnic basket with a red and white checkered cloth inside. "...this as well."

Sunset's pupils shrunk in horror, and Halberd did his best to conceal his own worry, giving a concerned glance to his girlfriend through the corner of his eye. Sunset had been so fraught with fear for Halberd that she'd completely forgotten about the stuff they'd left behind in her haste to get him to safety. She didn't think for a minute that they'd venture that deep into the forest in search of a cockatrice.

"What exactly were the two of you thinking, having a date in the Everfree Forest?" Starswirl scolded.

"Are you trying to get attacked by every type of monster that shows up there, or what?" Lance added, glaring at Halberd. "After what happened last time, I figured you'd want to stay away from that place at all costs. And stealing a chariot? Come on, Hal, you should know better."

Halberd shrunk back in shame.

"Taking the chariot is not an issue on its own," Celestia chimed in, her voice containing more concern than anger. "You're welcome to borrow a chariot for your dates whenever you please, Halberd. But using it to travel to the Everfree Forest and not telling anypony is incredibly dangerous. Had Sunset not been as skilled with magic as she is, the two of you could still be trapped out there with nopony knowing where you are."

As guilty as the two of them felt for worrying them, Sunset and Halberd were also deeply relieved. It appeared that nopony actually entered the Castle of the Two Sisters, thus their secret was safe. But it was certainly alarming to know that the soldiers were just a dozen or so feet away from a miniature sun and not even realizing it. But there was still one more worry on Sunset's mind. She found herself repeatedly glancing at the picnic basket her father was holding, hoping that nopony took notice of the nervousness in her eyes. Her notebook was sitting in that basket, concealed by the checkered blanket. If anypony were to find that, the cat would be out of the bag. She needed to get it back without arousing suspicion.

She painted a remorseful look on her face, mostly to play along in hopes of getting her notebook back, but she also felt genuinely bad about all of this. "You're right. I'm so sorry. I just thought it'd be an interesting place for a date, and I didn't think any of the monsters would come across the ravine to attack us."

"Don't be mad at Sunset," Halberd interjected. "I should have been more adamant about not going."

"You should have just told her how stupid an idea it was," Lance chastised, firmly prodding a hoof against his brother's chest. "I know you're not exactly the most confrontational person, especially when it comes to her, but don't be a doormat, Hal. There are times where it's perfectly fine to say no, even to somepony you care about as much as her."

Halberd grimaced slightly. In reality, he knew full well that if he refused to take Sunset, she'd only end up going by herself, but he couldn't tell them that. And he didn't take kindly to the way Lance was inferring that Sunset was the one at fault here, but, again, he couldn't exactly jump to her defense without raising suspicion as to why she needed to go out there.

It was actually Sunset who stepped in to defend Halberd. "Don't be mad at him, Lance. I was just a little overconfident about how safe we were."

"An issue I was hoping we were past," Celestia chimed in.

Sunset's ears fell back, her heart sinking in response to the disappointed sigh that had escaped the princess's lungs. "I-It won't happen again, I promise!" Sunset insisted desperately, hoping to assuage her teacher's doubt.

"I should hope not." A smile finally managed its way back onto the alicorn's lips. "In any case, I'm just glad you two are okay."

"Yes, just be glad nopony was hurt," Starswirl added with a warning tone. He placed the picnic basket on the bed Sunset had been laying on, prompting an unnoticed sigh of relief from his daughter. The bearded unicorn then looked to Celestia, a smile of his own upon his face. "And its not like nothing good didn't come from this."

Celestia tilted her head, puzzled by the remark. "Oh? How so?"

Starswirl chuckled quietly. "I think I finally understand what you've been saying about the magic of friendship. In fact, I believe I may have experienced it firsthoof."

The princess's smile curved even further into an elated grin. "Really? How much did I miss while I was turned to stone?"

Quill's ears suddenly perked up, slight panic in his eyes. "You were what?!"

Sunset and Halberd were equally as shocked, not to mention starting to feel even more guilty to have put the princess through that.

Celestia waved off the concerned looks with a hearty chortle. "It's no big deal. I was lucky enough to have some good friends there to help me." She cast another grateful smile to her three companions. "So, does that mean we're one step closer to restoring the Elements?"

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Starswirl said with some uncertainty, though his grin never faded. "But it's a starting point. And with your assistance, Princess, I think we can begin making some respectable headway."

"Then what say we get a jump on it tomorrow?" she suggested with vigor. "Right now, I think we could all use a little rest." Her eyes suddenly widened. "Oh! And I still need to lower the sun! Gracious, everypony must be thoroughly confused. Excuse me." With that, Celestia hurriedly took her leave, Quill following closely behind.

Starswirl let out a yawn. "Yes, I'm quite exhausted after all of this. I'm not accustomed to this level of physical labor."

It was only now that Sunset took notice of the scratches and dents on their armor, though primarily Lance's and Scabbard's. Her guilt only deepened as she thought about it. "Wait, did you guys have to deal with timberwolves, too?"

Lance took off his helmet, running a hoof through his wild, white mane. "Look, as much as I wanna keep giving you guys crap for your recklessness, I just want to lie down for a bit. Nopony was hurt, so I'll cut you guys some slack for now. Just don't do anything so stupid again, okay?" He received a pair of remorseful nods. "Alright, let's head home, Hal. Mom and Dad don't need to know about this, so keep your lips zipped."

Halberd nodded. "Yeah. But I'll catch up in a bit, okay? I want to talk to Sunset."

Lance gave a halfhearted flick of his hoof as he made for the door, Scabbard following his lead. "Sure, whatever. Just don't take too long."

With only Starswirl, Sunset, and Halberd left standing in the now quiet infirmary, the bearded stallion gave the two younger ponies one more reprimanding stare. There wasn't really anything more he could say that hadn't already been said, but he did give his daughter a relieved hug to see that she was okay, as well as a pat on Halberd's shoulder before he took his leave.

Sunset waited for a moment until her father's hoofsteps could no longer be heard, then shut the door to the infirmary. She hurried over to the basket laying on one of the beds, lifting the blanket to make sure her notebook was still there, which it was. The book itself wasn't necessarily important—just a log of her sun's progress for her own curiosity and to compare it with whatever information she could manage to get from the princess—but she just couldn't risk it being discovered by anypony.

"So, what now?" Halberd asked worriedly.

Sunset sighed reluctantly. "I need to go out there, Hal. We can't just stop because we got caught. You know how important this is."

Halberd rubbed his foreleg, apprehensive and remorseful. "I-I know. If they knew why we were out there, they'd understand what was so important."

"But we can't—"

"I know that." He stared into Sunset's eyes, the compassion and concern he was exuding just piling onto her growing guilt. "But this is just giving us more reason to tell them as soon as possible. It's gonna be harder to keep checking up on it now without getting caught."

Sunset sighed, throwing her head back. "We just need to keep it to late night visits."

"It's not exactly easy for me to sneak out of the house unnoticed. Do you think we could at least cut down on how often we check up on it?"

Sunset bit her lip pensively. "I... I don't know if that's a good idea, but we may have to if we don't wanna get caught." She laid her forehead against Halberd's. "I'll do what I can to speed things up with Princess Celestia, but I can't really make any promises."

"I get it," Halberd said quietly. "I'm just worried about you, that's all. It's not that I don't trust you, but it'll make things so much easier if you just told the princess, even if she got mad."

"I just need a little more time. I know I keep saying this, but I know I'm close." She gave Halberd a brief, tender kiss, both grateful that he was alright after this experience, and that he continued to stand by her side despite his worries and doubts. "Go home and get some sleep, Hal. I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"