• Published 2nd Sep 2012
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Harmony Theory - Sharaloth



Rainbow Dash awakens in a strange land and must discover why, and how to return home.

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Chapter 7: Translation Problems

While each of the Elements has powers of their own, it is only when joined together that they are able to call upon the Magic of Harmony. This is not a physical joining, but a spiritual one in which each Element resonates with the others. This resonance creates a constructive interference within every stratum of the universe, increasing geometrically and at a very rapid rate until reality begins to deform and rearrange itself to the will of the Elements. The Magic of Harmony itself will be discussed in a later section of this book.

Each individual Element has a particular and very important role to play in creating the Magic of Harmony. Any missing Element and the resonance will fall apart. They are like keys to a door, you need all of them to undo every lock. This is, perhaps, a subtle warning of their nature. What does anypony put behind a door with six locks? Either something very precious, or something that absolutely must never be allowed to escape.

-From the third section of Harmony Theory by Twilight Sparkle

Chapter Seven: Translation Problems

Rainbow Dash pushed the cloud into place. It had taken all of half a minute to compress the puffy cumulus clouds into something more usable, a feat which had awed Star Fall all on its own despite being something any pegasus used to be able to do without effort. Positioning was important for this part, though, so she took more care in lining up the three more proper-sized clouds she had created. Once she was sure she had the angle right she set up the second cloud below the first, and then set the third one waiting behind that.

"So, this is the field method," Dash said. "It's not really efficient or anything, you need a weather factory to do it properly, but sometimes accidents happen and you've got to make do with what you got."

"Question," Astrid said, raising a claw. "How are you keeping those clouds from drifting away?" She and Star Fall were sitting on a small but relatively flat shelf on the edge of a mountain. Star Fall had called the range the Shield Wall mountains, and explained that they were so named because they were seen as a barrier against a possible Republic invasion, should the Everstorm ever fall. Dash recognized parts of the mountain range as having existed in her time, but it was all so different that she wouldn't have noticed it if she weren't specifically looking. She wasn't a geology expert or anything, but she knew it took a lot longer than a thousand years for a mountain range to change that drastically. She was left wondering exactly how much power Nightmare Umbra had possessed.

"I told them to stay put," Dash said.

"How does that even work?"

Dash shrugged. "It just does. I push a cloud into place, and if I want it to stay, it does. Unless there's a really strong wind or another pegasus who tells it to do something else, it'll stay. Clouds don't think or anything, they do what you tell them to."

"Fascinating," Star Fall said, wide-eyed and practically salivating to see more.

"I guess. Anyway, this is the important part. You've got to get the angles right or it won't work," Dash stomped on the second cloud until it formed itself into a bowl, then hovered up to the first cloud. She closed her eyes and put her hooves on the surface of the cloud. Most ponies would be surprised at how much training went into weather-work. Sure any pegasus could move a cloud or stomp some rain out of it, but to be a real weather-pony you had to know how to do stuff like this. With a grunt of effort she wrenched the cloud open, creating a hole through it that glistened with gossamer strands of cloud-stuff. Sunlight shone into the hole, catching itself in all those criss-crossing strands that had been angled just right to cause a specific effect.

Dash jumped out of the way as the rainbow juice poured from the hole in the first cloud and splashed into the bowl of the second. Astrid blinked in surprise, and Star Fall shot to her hooves, crying out in delight.

"It's liquid!" Star Fall squealed in surprise, eyes incredibly wide as she stared at the filling cloud bowl. "How is it liquid? Why? Is it rain? How do you get the color striations like that?"

"It's a rainbow, Star," Dash said. "I don't know what 'stri-ations' are, but it looks right so I figure I got them because it's a rainbow."

"Rainbows aren't liquid," Star Fall said. "They're refracted light! They don't splash and you can't just pull them out of a cloud like that!"

"Uh, just did that, Star," Dash said, smirking as she leaned casually against the cloud-prism, her flapping wings the only thing that spoiled her relaxed 'could-do-this-in-my-sleep' look. "Anyways, this stuff is just rainbow juice. It's portable and stable and you can use it for all sorts of stuff. Cloudsdale had whole fountains that ran on rainbow juice," the cloud that had been turned into a rainbow-catching prism was shrinking at an alarming rate, throwing off Dash's balance enough to make her right herself. "Wow, I'm not that out of practice," Dash said, scratching at her head. "Must be the lower magic level or something, 'cause I should have gotten way more out of this cloud."

Star Fall fixated her gaze on the first cloud as it shrivelled into a small tunnel around the prism-hole, then popped into drifting mist with a soft 'poof'. "You took the water that made up the cloud and infused it with the spectrum. You captured light in water! But the water's glowing with it, it's radiating energy, it shouldn't stay this bright for this long."

"Again, I have no idea what you're talking about," Dash said. "I think you're asking me how long it lasts."

Star Fall looked like she was going to argue that, but then thought about it for a moment and nodded. "Yes. That'll do. How long does it last?"

"Out in the open like this? A day or so," Dash said. "You can bottle it, and if you distil it properly in a factory it can keep for months. If you keep it circulating it lasts longer, too, but not as long as if you process it right."

"Astrid!" Star Fall called to her guard. "Do you have something to bottle this with?"

"Just the water bottles, Fall," Astrid said, pulling an empty plastic bottle from one of her bags. "That good enough?"

"Lemme see," Dash said, and Astrid threw the bottle to her. "I don't know. This stuff's kinda thin," she dipped the bottle in the rainbow juice, which promptly ate its way through the plastic. "Nope. Not gonna work."

"Damn!" Star Fall hissed. "You have to do this again when we get to the Professor. She needs to see this."

Dash shrugged. "Fine with me. You wanna see the rest?" Star Fall nodded eagerly. "Cool. Now watch carefully, I can't really do this slow."

Dash set herself above the center of the small pool of rainbow juice. She took a deep breath, then began to spin. She whirled like a top, going faster and faster until the air around her became a vortex of confined wind pulling upward. The rainbow juice sluiced around the cloud as it was sucked into the vortex, covering Rainbow Dash with a whirling spectrum of light, almost making her look like her undyed self again. Once the rainbow juice had been drawn completely into her mini-tornado, Dash dipped down to grab a piece of the cloud then shot into the air, describing an arc that took her to the last cloud she had made.

Before she could hit that cloud she dodged to the side, turning her spin into a roll that brought her under the cloud and around again to where the rainbow juice was touching down. With practiced speed she flew the length of the arc she had made again, this time circling around it, pushing and teasing until the cloudstuff she had pulled with her and the rainbow juice fused into a smooth arc between the two clouds. Once she was done she flared her wings to the air and pulled to a hovering halt next to Star Fall, who watched with gaping mouth at what Dash had done. The rainbow glowed brightly, a wonder of nature, made with hooves and wings, the way it should be done. Not her best work, but good enough to pass inspection.

"And that's how you make a rainbow," Dash said, grinning.

"Celestia," Star Fall breathed, unable to look away. "It's beautiful."

"I gotta say," Astrid said, gaze similarly fixed on the rainbow. "That's impressive."

This just made Dash's grin widen. "I know, isn't it awesome!"

"And you used to do this all the time?" Astrid asked.

"Nah, this is the field method, remember?" Dash said, shrugging dismissively. "It's quick and dirty. Proper rainbow work takes more time, and you need the right equipment for it."

"There are no Talents for this," Star Fall breathed.

"Yeah there are," Dash said. "You guys just don't know about them 'cause no one's done it in, like, forever."

"Can I do this?" Star Fall asked, sounding to Dash like a filly at her first Wonderbolt's show.

Dash shrugged. "I guess. This is kinda complicated, though. I think you should start with cloud-kicking and rain for now."

"We need to get rid of this," Astrid said.

"What? No!" Star Fall cried, turning to face the Griffin. "Why would we destroy this? It's... it's incredible!"

"It's noticeable," Astrid said. "It's impossible. It's going to point out our trail like a neon sign. We have to get rid of it."

Dash shrugged. "Meh, cool enough."

"Wait!" Star Fall cried, leaping in front of the shining clouds. "This is probably the first pegasus-made rainbow in eight hundred years! We can't just destroy it!"

"Star, I can make another one," Dash pointed out. "Whenever I want to."

"I know!" Star Fall said, her face scrunching up as she pleaded with them. "It's just... It's the first one. It's something pegasus ponies have been dreaming of. My mother used to tell me stories, fairy tales of the ancient pegasi before the Schism, who ruled the skies and commanded storms. Who made rainbows. You made a rainbow, Dash. It's like every childhood fantasy I had coming true. I don't want to destroy that."

"I get that, Star," Dash said. When she had won the Best Young Flier's competition she'd gotten to spend a day with her heroes, the Wonderbolts. It had been incredible. She'd embarrassed herself a dozen times over in her enthusiasm, but they hadn't given her a hard time for it, and she got to fly with them, to perform tricks with them. Then, it had been over, and she had to go away. That had hurt, and she could only figure that Star Fall was feeling something like that now. A dream come true, but a dream that still had to end.

"Still has to happen," Astrid stood firm. "I'm sorry, Fall, but it's too much a risk."

Star Fall hung her head, but nodded. "I know."

Dash tried to find something that would help Star Fall, but she wasn't good with emotional stuff. The only thing she could do, the one thing she was really good at in these situations, was sticking to her friends and being there when they needed her. She thought about it, and came to a decision. "Star," she said, hoping it was the right thing to do. "You do it."

"What?"

"It might be the first rainbow in eight hundred years, but it's still just clouds and light. I did this kinda thing all the time, so it's not special to me. I'm from the past, right? So what I do doesn't really count. If you break it down? You'll be the first pony in eight hundred years to be able to work the weather. Think about that, Star. This is your chance."

"I... I don't know," Star Fall said, eyes wide with fear. Dash recognized that too, her experiences with the Best Young Flier's competition was turning out to be very handy today.

"You can do it, Star," Dash said. "I know you can."

"I think you can, too," Astrid said. "You've got magic, Fall. I think anything she can do, you can do too."

"Come on, Star," Dash said, giving the white pegasus her most confidant smile. "Make the history books."

Star Fall gulped, then flew out to the clouds that the rainbow sat on. "How do I do it?" she asked.

"Focus on your cloudwalking magic," Dash said, figuring it would be the closest she could get to the weather-working powers until she figured it out better. "Put it all in your hooves. Then, when you've got it all focused, turn around and buck that cloud hard! When you do, release all of the magic you've put in your hooves into the cloud. Don't give it a direction, let it blast out everywhere. Alright?"

"Okay," Star Fall said, her hovering erratic as she shook from anticipation. She closed her eyes, drawing in her focus, then with a high-pitched shriek that was probably supposed to be a war-cry or shout of effort, she kicked the cloud.

What Dash hadn't counted on was the fact that Star Fall was a Magic Talent, and so when she let a burst of magic out of her hooves, it was a bit more spectacular than when Dash did it herself. Light exploded across the side of the mountain. Thunder cracked through the sky and an avalanche began to slide two peaks over. Dash and Astrid cringed back, but when the light had faded they found Star Fall gingerly peeking over her shoulder to see the cloud she had kicked broken apart and fading away. The rainbow started to break up a moment later, rainbow juice falling in a mist from it that was taken by the mountain wind before it could fall to the ground.

"I... I did it!" Star Fall said, grinning from ear to ear.

"Nice work," Dash said. "Next time, though, you might want to use a bit less magic." Star Fall ducked, her cheeks going red, but when Dash and Astrid started laughing she joined in. She had done it, taken the first steps into re-learning the lost power of the pegasi. It was going to be a great day.

***

They landed for lunch in a town on the other side of the mountains. Astrid took off to the nearby forest while Star Fall and Rainbow Dash made their way in to buy something. The Griffin hadn't been happy with it, but allowed that so long as they were careful they shouldn't be at risk. Dash was excited to be in a town in the future. She had been grilling Star Fall as they landed outside of the town and walked their way in. Star Fall just wanted a burger. She wanted it so very badly.

"What do you use for money?" Dash asked.

"Bits," Star Fall replied, eyeing the buildings as they came up on them.

"Wow, that's the same money we used back when I'm from!"

"Same term, different system," Star Fall said. "Can we not talk about money? I'm not really good with the stuff."

"Wait, you've got some, right? How are we going to pay for lunch?"

"I've got money," Star Fall assured her. "A royal line of credit, too. Accounting just was never interesting to me."

"Me too," Dash sighed. "I had to learn so I could manage the weather team in Ponyville, but it's so boring! Twilight liked it, though. She's totally into numbers."

"Math's fine," Star Fall said. "I love math. It's accounting I can't stand."

"What do people do for jobs?" Dash asked. "I mean, I guess there's still farming and stuff, but a lot of pegasi worked the weather patrol at least part time."

"Depends on your Talent, I guess," Star Fall shrugged. "You do whatever you're best suited for."

"That's a lot like when I come from," Dash said. "Man, I expected the future to be way different. Do you have flying cities?"

Star Fall gave her companion an incredulous look. "I thought you said you grew up in a flying city? How would that be futuristic for you?"

"I grew up in a cloud city," Dash said. "I'm talking like with rockets or anti-gravity stuff."

Star Fall shook her head. "No. No flying cities. Cloud or otherwise."

"Jet packs?"

"Jet packs?" Star Fall repeated.

"Yeah, so earth ponies and unicorns can fly too?"

"No, still need wings to fly."

Dash huffed in disappointment. "So what is different about the future? It looks like nothing's changed in a thousand years!"

"I don't know," Star Fall said. "We kinda had an apocalypse eight hundred years ago. Makes it real hard to do a side-by-side comparison."

Dash thought about that for a moment before nodding in acceptance. "Okay, yeah, I get it. You had to rebuild from that."

"Yes we did," Star Fall said as they stepped out into the main street of the town. She spotted the burger place and her mouth nearly dripped with saliva at the thought of a big, juicy patty between two overstarched hunks of bread, lettuce, tomato, ketchup and mustard. Pickles optional, but at this point she didn't really care. Her post-Everstorm hunger had ebbed to manageable levels, but she still felt like there was an empty hole in her middle that needed to be filled.

"Star, when you said 'Royal line of credit', what did you mean?"

"What did it sound like?" Star Fall said, speeding up to a trot in her eagerness to eat.

"When you say 'Royal' what..." Dash trailed off.

It took Star Fall a dozen steps before she realized that Rainbow Dash was no longer following her. She tore her gaze away from the familiar sign of the restaurant and looked back. Dash had stopped in the street, her mouth hanging open, eyes wide and shocked. She wasn't staring at one thing, though, she was looking at the ponies around her. Her gaze snapping from one to another with a near-panicked intensity.

Star Fall rushed back to Dash's side. "What is it? What's wrong?"

Dash shook her head, drawing in a shuddering breath. "Their cutie marks," she said, once more falling into Old Equestrian.

"Talent Glyphs, Dash," Star Fall said. "The Solar words are Talent Glyphs. What's wrong with them?"

Dash pointed a hoof at one passing pony. "Growing Grapes," she switched to another. "Lightning Spells," then another. "Strength. That one's Flight. Growing Carrots, Forging Steel, Making Pottery, Trading Goods."

Star Fall looked at each pony Dash had pointed out. "Yes, what about them?"

"I can read their cutie marks," Dash said, her voice sounding haunted.

"Of course you can," Star Fall replied, trying to figure out what the issue was.

"No, Star, I can read them!" Dash said, trying to whisper and failing as her breathing came in short, hurried gasps. "Those aren't right! They're just a bunch of symbols, and I can read what they mean!"

Star Fall put comforting hoof on Dash's shoulder, her eyes softening as she began to understand. "They weren't like that in your time, were they?" Dash shook her head. "Okay, come on. You're drawing attention like this, let's go sit down and we'll talk about it, okay?"

It only took a little more coaxing to get Dash into the restaurant. Star Fall left her sitting at a window-side table, still staring at the flanks of passing ponies, while she got them both food. Fast food joints didn't get the name by accident, and so she was setting a tray down on the table only two minutes later.

"In your time, what were Talent Glyphs like?" she asked, unwrapping one of the three burgers she had ordered for herself and taking a big, juicy bite.

"Like mine, like yours," Dash said. "They were personal. They meant something, but only you really know what that something was. They were important, you know? They meant that you had found yourself, that you knew that you were special. The ... the cutie marks weren't just about your Special Talent. They were about you. The real you, the core of who you were, who you wanted to be, who you could be. It's an image of your soul."

"That's beautiful," Star Fall said, entranced by the emotion she was hearing in the other pegasus' voice.

Dash shook her head. "I'm no good at talking about them. I never had to think about it before, they were just always there, and everyone knew what they meant and how important they were."

"I think you're talking about them just fine," Star Fall assured her, then spent a moment finishing off her first burger. "The Glyphs are one of those things that have changed. There's a lot less magic around now than when the Goddesses ruled, and the consequences are more than just pegasi losing control of the weather."

"But that?" Dash poked a hoof at another passing pony. "What happened? Why do they look like that? Why can I just read it?"

"You can read it because the Direct Glyphs are universal," Star Fall said. "Their meaning is clear, no matter what language you speak. It's not actually reading them it's... well, the mechanics of the Talent Glyphs are a kind of deep magic, stronger than any unicorn's power. They might even be fundamental to the universe itself. They're certainly intrinsic to ponykind. As to what happened? I don't know. I'd guess the Schism is what caused this, just like it caused all the other differences between my Equestria and yours."

"So why do you have a normal one?" Dash asked, then pointed out the window. "See that one over there? He's got a normal cutie mark. Why are they normal when a lot of other ponies have these... these words?"

"There are two types of Glyphs," Star Fall explained. "The, uh, the word ones are called Direct Glyphs. They are immediately apparent, that is easily read, and they identify the pony's Special Talent. Glyphs like yours or mine are called Abstract Glyphs, because their meaning is obscured."

"Ob-what?"

"Hidden. They are a picture, not words. Their meaning is up for interpretation. About a third of the population has Abstract Glyphs. No one knows why that is, it just happens. Sometimes Abstracts aren't that hard to figure out. Like mine," Star Fall gestured to her flank, to the mark hidden by her dress. "My Talent Glyph doesn't just tell you what my Talent is, but it's pretty clear. My Glyph is a magic circle, one of the prime circles. Seven points, seven lines, seven places, seven paths."

"That's a lot of sevens," Dash commented absently.

Star Fall took on a distant look. "Seven is an important number in magic. In life, too. They say there are seven stories of the origins of the Goddesses."

"I heard something like that back in my time," Dash mumbled, distracted by watching the ponies in the street. "Twilight and Rarity talked about it once. I never figured that out, I mean, I've heard like two stories on how the Princesses came to rule, not seven."

"It's an obscure reference," Star Fall said, shaking her head. "I guess it was obscure even a thousand years ago."

"Yeah, some things don't change, I guess," Dash said, slumping in her seat. "I just can't believe cutie marks of all things would change."

"Talent Glyphs, Dash," Star Fall reminded her. "And I don't think they've changed, not really. I just think they've pared down a bit, gotten to the basics. They're still everything else you said about them. They are still personal. They still mean something. They still remind you that you are special, and a lot of ponies will say that they're still a part of your soul that you show the world. It's just some of them are more explicit about it than others."

Dash spent a few long moments staring at the ponies before shuddering. "I gotta get some air," she said, standing up.

"Dash, you haven't even touched your food," Star Fall admonished.

"I'm not hungry," Dash replied. "Look, I get what you're saying. I just... I can't stay here."

"We're heading to a big city, Dash," Star Fall reminded her. "You're going to be seeing a lot more ponies with Direct Glyphs."

"I know that, all right! I know," Dash's wings jerked nervously as her eyes darted about the restaurant. "I just gotta clear my head to process it. I gotta fly."

Star Fall knew she wasn't going to be able to keep the other mare there. Future shock was hitting her hard. "Find Astrid," Star Fall said. "Fly with her a bit. Don't go too far without her. We're in the Kingdom, but you're still not safe, even with the disguise."

"I got it," Dash said. "I'll play it safe."

"Then go, I'll come find you two when it's time to head on." Dash barely nodded in reply before she was galloping out the door. She took off immediately, leaving a blue-pink streak hanging in the air for a second, causing a few ponies to stare in wonder. "Etherealizing." Star Fall shook her head, unwrapping her second burger. "In public. That's not going to come back to bite us, no sir."

She considered Rainbow Dash as she ate. With everything she'd seen the mare accomplish, it was very hard to remember that she was supposed to doubt her assumed identity. It had become so easy to talk to her like Dash really was from a thousand years ago, and with her multitude of abilities as well as her complete ignorance of modern times and history, it was all adding up to her telling the truth. Yet she couldn't let go of the last few of her doubts.

Rainbow Dash had been a hero, and had died. All her knowledge of the life and times of Twilight Sparkle agreed on that. But she hadn't mysteriously vanished or been annihilated by some enemy or anything that would explain her showing up in the future like this. No, by every account Rainbow Dash had died peacefully. In bed. Of old age.

But if this mare wasn't Rainbow Dash as she claimed, then who was she?

***

The sun had fallen below the horizon, stars spreading through the sky as the last fingers of twilight receded into the west. They had been flying most of the day, with only a few breaks to eat or rest. Astrid had said that she wanted to make the capitol before nightfall, but even assisted by her magic Star Fall wasn't strong enough of a flyer to keep up that pace, and now they were soaring through the growing darkness.

Rainbow Dash could go for longer. She wanted to go for longer, to fly and fly until she was back in her own time, with her own friends and surrounded by ponies who didn't have weird cutie marks that could be read like a text book. She wasn't one to brood, but she couldn't help but dwell on everything that had happened to her since she woke up in that hole. They were coming up on the capital fast, though, and her calming flight would soon be over. Then she might finally get an answer to the question of why she was here, and more importantly, how she could get back.

Star Fall glided closer to her. "Dash, are you okay?"

Dash nodded, shaking off the heavy thoughts. "I'm fine." She wanted to leave it at that, but the look of concern in Star Fall's blue eyes made go on. "Look, I'm sorry about ditching you like that earlier. I just got kinda overwhelmed, you know? I guess I'm not as cool with this future thing as I thought I was."

"It's okay," Star Fall assured her. "You didn't wander off or do anything stupid. I think you're dealing with it fine. I also think you need to talk about it."

Dash let out a frustrated huff. "I don't even know what to talk about. I mean, I though I had a handle on this stuff, you know? You told me about the Schism and Nightmare Umbra and everything, and I'm going to stop that, so I'm cool with it. And everything else was just like back home, except every town has stuff you'd only see in Manehattan or Canterlot. I thought I could take anything the future could throw at me. But cutie marks? I just... I can't wrap my head around that, Star."

"Talent Glyphs," Star Fall corrected. "I would think that knowing all your friends and family, your very country is long gone would be a harder shock to the system."

"Star, I'm going to get back home," Dash said, utter conviction in her eyes. "Just because they're all gone now doesn't mean that they'll be gone then, and that's what's important. But cutie marks aren't supposed to change like that. They're part of ponykind, as much as wings on pegasi or horns on unicorns. Just knowing that they can change, it's messing with me, Star. Cutie marks shouldn't do that."

"Talent Glyphs," Star Fall said, at the edge of exasperated. "No one but me will understand you if you keep saying it like that."

Dash looked away from the white pegasus, training her eyes on the glow coming from behind the tall hills ahead of them. "It doesn't feel right to call them that," she said. "Talent Glyph might be the right words, but it's the wrong meaning. When I'm talking about cutie marks, I mean cutie marks, not Talent Glyphs. They're not just your Special Talent. They're more than that. Calling them Talent Glyphs, well, it just doesn't work for me, okay?"

Star Fall examined Dash in silence for a long moment. "That's the second," she said.

"The second what?" Dash asked, looking back at Star Fall.

"The second time you've run into translation problems," Star Fall explained. "Every other word, phrase, idea and object you've been able to translate perfectly. Your speech patterns, your little personal turns of phrase, all of that comes through. Except for some reason you can't translate cutie mark as Talent Glyph."

"I can do it, I just don't think it's right," Dash protested.

Star Fall shook her head. "I'm not saying it's impossible for you, I'm just saying that unlike how easily you've taken to every other aspect of Solar, there's these two concepts which you still automatically convey in Old Equestrian. It's interesting, and it makes me wonder why those two are the ones that aren't translating properly for you."

"I don't think I follow you," Dash said. "And you said this is the second. What was the first?"

"Dash, what's Discord?"

Rainbow Dash was about to answer when Astrid let out a warning cry. "Heads up!" she called out to them. "We've got company!"

Dash looked to where the Griffin was gesturing and her keen eyes made out a wing of four pegasi swooping towards them. At Star Fall's direction Dash slowed down to a near hover as the patrol intercepted them. They wore uniforms that were a bright gold edged with red, covering them right down to the flank, concealing their Glyphs. Their eyes were covered by goggles that were similar to the ones Astrid and Star Fall wore, protecting their eyes from the wind that they didn't have the magic to fend off naturally.

"Hail Griffin!" One of the pegasi called out as the other three circled around them. "State your name and purpose!"

"Sergeant Astrid of the Steelwing Clan," Astrid replied, turning her head so that the pony could see her clan markings. "My mission is to escort these two into the city, Royal assignment."

The lead pegasus's eyebrows shot up at that. "Royal assignment? Who are these two?"

"Lady Fallen Star and her hoofmaid Firefly," Astrid said. Dash winced at the false name, but managed to smooth her features before the pegasi noticed her reaction.

Even through the obscuring goggles the disbelieving look the pegasus was giving Astrid was obvious. "I don't see a horn on her head to go with those wings. You expect me to believe she's nobility?"

"Adopted nobility," Star Fall interjected. "I am legally the daughter of Professor Twinkle Shine."

The pegasus focused his gaze on her. "So, you're the one," he said.

"I am," Star Fall confirmed, raising her chin and looking as regal as she could while her tired wings flapped hard to keep her hovering in the air.

The pegasus shook his head. "You've either got the grace of Celestia on you or the luck of Luna in you. Either way, I know ponies who'd chew their back left hoof off for a shot at what you've got."

"Is there a point to this?" Astrid growled.

The pegasus held up a placating hoof. "No offence meant. A pegasus getting adopted into the nobility has raised a lot of spirits, I just wanted to make sure she knew that."

"Thank you, sir," Star Fall said as graciously as she could. "I will try to live up to that sentiment."

The pegasus gave her a midair bow. "We'll escort you in."

"That's not necessary," Star Fall said. "Astrid is more than capable of protecting me and my maid."

"I don't doubt that, but..."

"But nothing," Astrid snapped. "You've done your duty, seen us, identified us. Now shove off."

The pony looked like he was about to respond to Astrid's insult, but thought better of it as Astrid's raptor stare bore into him. "Fine. Be on your way." He waved to the circling pegasi, and the whole group rose away.

"What was that all about?" Dash asked.

"Guard Patrol," Astrid said. "Supposed to stop any air traffic coming into the capital, make sure it's not spies or crooks. Celestia knows they're crap on the first part, but they're good for the second."

"No, I mean that nobility thing," Dash clarified, looking at the white pegasus with new appraisal in her eyes. "I remember you saying you had a Royal account or something, Star. Are you really a noble?"

Star Fall sighed. "Not really."

"Yes you are, Fall," Astrid said.

"No I'm not!" Star Fall insisted. "The Professor adopted me, but it's just so I could get a proper education in magic. It isn't the same thing."

"So this Professor is a noble?" Dash reasoned.

"Every Magic Talent is," Star Fall sighed. "It's how the Crown rewards talented ponies for serving the Kingdom."

"Well, you're a Magic Talent, wouldn't that make you nobility anyway?" Dash asked, only slightly confused and working through it quickly.

Star Fall sighed. "It would, if I were a unicorn."

"What does not being a unicorn have to do with it?"

"Dash, in your time were there any nobles who weren't unicorns?" Star Fall asked.

Dash thought about it for a moment before shaking her head. "Not really, but that didn't mean anything. I mean, being nobility didn't really mean anything except to them. Something about old families from the pre-Equestria times. I never paid any attention to it, to be honest, that was more Rarity's gig."

"Well it means a lot now," Star Fall said. "And all the noble families are unicorns."

"Okay, so what about when they have a foal who isn't a unicorn? Do they just kick her out of the house?" Astrid and Star Fall stared at her for long enough for it to be uncomfortable. "What? What did I say?"

"Dash, you can't have foals from outside your species," Star Fall said.

"Uhh, okay? But we're all ponies, so what's the problem?"

"Pony is the genus, Dash. Unicorn, Pegasus and Earth Pony are all species. We're not closely related enough to interbreed, except in rare instances, and the foals that result are always sickly hybrids that are more often than not sterile themselves."

"Huh?" Dash was completely thrown by this statement.

"Unicorns can't have not-unicorn kids," Astrid said.

"Yeah they can," Dash insisted.

"No they can't, Dash. This is scientifically proven fact," Star Fall said.

"They totally can, and that's seen-it-myself fact," Dash declared.

Star Fall opened her mouth to retort, but shut it as a sudden thought occurred to her. "You've seen unicorns have non-unicorn children."

"Yeah. Well, not, like, been in the room when it happened, but there's lots of foals that've had parents that were from different tribes. Hell, I know a pair of earth pony parents who had twins where one was a unicorn and the other was a pegasus."

"This is incredible!" Star Fall said, eyes wide and staring off into space. "If this is true, then it means that magic has an effect on pony genetics and breeding just like it does on all the other sapient species! This overturns centuries of thought! It would certainly take the wind out of the sails of the Pony Superiority movements. Astrid, do you realize what this means?"

"That eugenics projects aren't just for Griffins anymore?" she asked, unsure.

"Yes! I mean, no! Well, okay, maybe. We'd certainly have to do studies on whether the techniques developed for Griffin, Diamond Dog and Dragon propagation would have any relevance for ponies. I can't see having the same urgency for pony-based engineering projects as there were for the others, but we could certainly avoid all of the mistakes made with them."

"Hey, Star," Dash said. "I have no idea what you're talking about. Again. It sounds really interesting, I guess, but can we get back to the part where you're a noble?"

"Okay," Star Fall said, shaking off her thoughts on the magical inheritance of ponykind to answer her friend's question. "When I got my Talent I had to be trained in it, but a pegasus can't enroll in the University for magical studies. My family didn't even have the money to send me there in the first place. Professor Shine was there when I discovered my Talent, though, and she offered to be my mentor and pay my tuition. Then she offered to officially adopt me so that I could take the magic classes. My parents weren't thrilled with it, but they knew I needed to be taught."

"Whoa, wait," Dash said, holding up a hoof as she processed this. "So your parents aren't dead or anything, and they gave you up for adoption to get you into a school? That is messed up."

"They didn't 'give me up'," Star Fall said. "They're still my parents, just not my legal family. Nobles sometimes adopt young or adult ponies who would bring honor or resources to their house. It's just that usually it's another unicorn they adopt. I'm the first non-unicorn to be adopted into a noble family in over fifty years."

"That's not all," Astrid said, snickering. "Tell her about your inheritance."

"Inheritance?" Dash asked.

Star Fall sighed. "Since the Professor doesn't have any other family and isn't interested in foaling, I'm also heir to her entire estate, including her title."

"And that's why no matter how much she whines about it, she really is a noble," Astrid said.

"Screw you, Astrid," Star Fall snipped.

"Always happy to clarify, Fall," Astrid said, chuckling.

"Wow. You gotta be pretty famous, huh?" Dash asked.

Star Fall shrugged sheepishly. "Maybe a little, but not for the right reasons."

"What do you mean?" Dash said, laughing. "You're a badass Magic Talent pegasus who can walk through the Everstorm and was adopted by freaking royalty!"

"Nobility, not royalty," Star Fall corrected. "And almost everyone doesn't know about the Magic Talent. Also, you shouldn't talk about my Talent where others can overhear, it's not safe."

"Not safe? What?"

"We're kind of spies," Star Fall said.

"Way to keep cover, Fall," Astrid snarked.

"It's not like she wasn't going to figure it out," Star Fall said.

"Also, I think you already told me that," Dash said, frowning as she thought about it.

"See? Not new news," Star Fall said to Astrid, who rolled her eyes.

"Whatever, Fall," Astrid sighed. "Dash, her Talent's a secret. She can get through the Storm without a guide and walk right into a Republic city and no one will look twice at her because she's a pegasus, not a unicorn, and they won't figure what she can do with her magic. If word got back to the Republics about what she can do, that would be over, and she'd be a target."

"Oh," Dash said, understanding coming quickly. "They'd send one of those guys, the Changelings, after her. Right?"

"Maybe," Astrid said. "Whatever they did, it wouldn't be good. Got it?"

Dash nodded. "Yeah. Keep a lid on it. Don't worry, I know how to keep secrets," she thought for a moment before speaking again. "So, if you keep your Talent quiet, how did you go to those magic classes?"

Star Fall laughed. "Oh, that? Professor Shine is the strongest Magic Talent in the Kingdom, maybe even the world. She lectures at the University, and she had me audit the classes so I could 'understand the family business'. Everybody just thinks she's making me take them so I can be a researcher or assistant to her. They probably think my Talent is in being a librarian or scribe."

"Heh, wait'll they see what you can really do," Dash said, eyes gleaming.

"If I ever get the chance to go public, they will," Star Fall assured her. "Does that answer your questions?"

"Not all of them, but it's good for now," Dash replied, stifling a yawn. "Are we going to your place?" she asked.

"No, I don't want to wake the Professor if she's in," Star Fall said, frowning. "Astrid, can we get a hotel room for the night?"

The Griffin shrugged. "Fine with me. We should be well beyond any normal pursuit, and a hotel is as good a place as any to throw off any tails."

"Alright, then. We'll get a room tonight and then go and see the Professor tomorrow," Star Fall said. The other two nodded their agreement, then started towards the hills, and the glow of the city that stained the clouds drifting above it with a warm golden light.

***

"I'm betraying you"

***

The insistent knocking on the door was what woke Rainbow Dash from her dreams. Her eyes popped open to see sunlight streaming through the curtained window of the hotel room they had checked into late in the night. She was unpleasantly sweaty and the covers of the cot she was in were twisted around her legs, forcing her to kick them vigorously to free herself. By the time she had oriented herself enough to look around the room the other two occupants were already in ready positions. Star Fall was leaning up against the wall beside the door while Astrid stood in front of it, carefully looking through the peephole. Her wings were flared and her talons flexed in readiness. Neither of them looked as groggy as Dash felt.

"Who is it?" Star Fall called at a nod from Astrid.

"Service escort," came the reply through the door.

Star Fall and Astrid exchanged a look that spoke volumes, none of which Dash was privy to. "We didn't order any service," Star Fall said. "I think you have the wrong room."

There was a scraping sound as whoever was outside the room shoved something under the door. Dash crept up to take a closer look, but a quick gesture from Astrid made her shy back. They were taking whatever this was deadly serious. Star Fall put her hoof over whatever had been pushed under the door, mumbling too quietly to hear. When she took her hoof away there was a glow coming from the object.

"It's good," Star Fall said, and Astrid yanked the door open.

Standing outside were two ponies wearing well-tailored dark suits, a stallion and a mare. Both were unicorns, and they each wore a strange device in one ear. They looked around the room with the kind of quick precision that Dash had only seen in a few of the Royal Guards. Their gaze lingered on her, assessing, but they moved on before Dash could even think to challenge them.

"Agent Case, Agent Green," the stallion introduced himself and the mare. "Agent Fall, your presence is required by Agent Gamma immediately."

"I just got back into the city," Star Fall said. "I was going to go see the Professor first."

"Professor Shine is in a meeting with the Crown," Agent Green said. "Agent Gamma said to assure you that you will be able to see her this afternoon."

Astrid rolled her eyes. "And I bet Gamma had nothing to do with setting that meeting up, huh?"

The two agents regarded the Griffin with the studied wariness of ponies who knew they would lose a fight if they got into one, but were determined not to show fear anyways. "Agent Gamma's dealings with the Crown are irrelevant to the current situation," Agent Case said. "We've been sent to escort you, there's a car waiting out front."

"Rrrg! I haven't even had breakfast yet!" Star Fall steamed. "Fine. Let's go."

Star Fall stormed past the agents, Astrid shrugging and following after. When Dash tried to go, though, the agents blocked her path.

"What the hell, guys?" Dash said, narrowing her eyes. "Hey, Star! You're not gonna leave me here are you?"

"You are not part of our orders," Agent Green said. "Identify yourself."

"She's Firefly," Star Fall said from the hall. "She's with me, and she gets to come along."

The two agents looked at each other before Case turned to her. "She's on your authority, then," he said.

"Damn right," Star Fall grumbled. "Come on, Firefly," she said.

Dash took the opportunity to rush past the agents and catch up with Star Fall. "What the hay is going on?" She asked in Old Equestrian.

"Remember I said I was spy?" Star Fall said, Dash nodded. "Gamma is my boss. She wants to talk about world of night. About what I saw there. I was hoping to do it after speaking to teacher, but Gamma is tricky mare."

"So we just go talk to this Gamma pony, then we go see your teacher, right?" Dash asked, annoyed at the delay but also curious about Star Fall's secret-agent stuff.

"Hope so," Star Fall said, sighing. "But you will not talk to Gamma. I don't want you under her attention. Too many questions, no answers. Until we talk with teacher, you are secret."

"Cool," Dash said.

"Not cool. Serious. You can not let her know about you," Star Fall said, glaring at Dash. "Do not say anything. You are Firefly, hoofmaid to me. You be quiet and do as you are told."

"Jeeze, Star, I get it," Dash said, taken aback. "Don't worry, I can do this secret agent stuff."

"Just be careful."

"Hey, this is me," Dash said, posing for a moment. "Awesomest pony in Equestria, past or present. No way I'm going to let you down!"

Star Fall smiled and shook her head. "Okay. I believe you," she said. Yet she was worried, and it came through clearly in her less-than-perfect grasp of Old Equestrian. Dash had to wonder who this Gamma pony was, and why she inspired this intense a reaction in Star Fall. Whoever she was, Dash resolved to do exactly what Star Fall had asked, and stay out of it. No matter what.

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