• Published 28th Nov 2021
  • 765 Views, 70 Comments

Agate's vigil - VVingnut



A filly trying to escape from the Crystal Empire gets lost in the north, eventually discovering a new tribe of ponies.

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Polar night

The cold was biting. It was also painful, numbing, and all sorts of other unpleasant things. With sufficient time, it would be deadly.

Agate didn't want to die.

After the realization that the way back was blocked by Sombra's dark magic, she just collapsed in the snow. She had no shelter, little food, and the cold was worse up on the mountain. It was obvious what was going to happen to her.

However, her body immediately started complaining and screaming at her to move. The painful burning from the cold ice and rock beneath her spurred her on to get up and shake off the snow. The same primitive, fearful part of her hindbrain that locked her legs and refused to take a step towards the Empire was now pushing her to move, run, find warmth.

"Warmth where?!" She thought angrily. "What's even around here?"

The short winter day was ending, the mountains slowly getting enveloped in shadow. Agate cast her gaze around, scanning the area intently again. The first time, she looked for signs of civilization. Now, her goals were more basic. A crevice, a cave, a tree to hide behind. Anything sufficiently large or deep enough to act as a windbreak.

There wasn't anything in her immediate vicinity. The rock shelf that she was standing on was bare, only covered in hoof-deep snow. The forest (and the Empire) were behind her, that direction discarded as fruitless. To her right, the main body of the mountain loomed massively in her vision. To her left, the cliff dropped off sharply downwards.

That just left the way forward. The cliff wrapped around the base of the mountain, tapering off to a smoother incline further on. Or at least it appeared that way. The shadows were getting long at that point, making it hard to make out the terrain. Some tree tops were visible in the distance as well, the forest likely extending along the foothills.

Far ahead and leftward was another mountain. There was a narrow cleft between them, possibly a way to walk through without getting exposed to so much wind. If she could get down safely, of course. And if it wasn't packed with snow. It probably was.

Looking at the lengthening shadows cast by the mountaintops, Agate had a sudden idea.

"The sun... Rises from the east, and goes west... Soo..."

Turning back and looking upwards, she looked for the source of light. It was hidden from view behind another mountain, but... It was to her left, so - wait, right - no, if she turned around, this was left and that was right, so the way she was looking towards was...

North. Her shoulders slumped. Of course. Of course her panicked flight took her north instead of south. It only made sense, really. If she ended up running south from those guardsponies, she'd more than likely have been ambushed again and captured.

"Starting to think that would have been the better option..." She licked her dry lips. They were starting to hurt a little bit as she talked. "Guess I'll have to stop thinking out loud..." She muttered despondently.

Shrugging off her saddlebags, Agate retrieved her crystal wool blanket. Folding it and tying the corners together, she made a makeshift cape and stretched it across her back. It flapped about in the wind, but it was better protection than nothing. Then she got another idea, and put the saddlebags on top of the blanket. That kept it from getting blown away.

As she tried to pull the knot holding the blanket's corners tighter, something dug into her neck. Raising her hoof, she felt something metal through her boot.

"The necklace Dad gave me," she thought. "I completely forgot about it. To buy passage or pay for shelter, he said. Well, I'd gladly sell it now." The lost filly glanced around, but no pony materialized to guide her to safety in exchange for the accessory.

Agate grit her teeth, turning around angrily. "One more time," she resolved, holding on to the necklace firmly. "Let's try this one more time." In the darkness ahead, the Crystal Empire still loomed menacingly.

Taking a deep breath, she began repeating the nursery rhymes again. She thought of her parents, her grandparents, her odd uncle and her friends. She kept her love for them burning, driving back the hopelessness radiating from the Empire.

A step, quite sure. Another step. A third step, this one faltering. A fourth step, and Agate could move no more. She stood in place, shivering in fear again. A lone filly's hope, however pure and innocent, could not overcome the magically amplified despair of the entire population of captured crystal ponies.

With a snarl, she turned tail and galloped off through the snow. Maybe running would warm her up a little, at least. After a while though, she was forced to slow to a trot, and then a canter, breathing heavily. She'd been traveling most of the day, and then tried fighting Sombra's magic for hours. Her energy was drained.

Soon, the last rays of the sun were gone. The moon shone clearly in the winter sky, however, letting her see everything with surprising clarity. The mountains sparkled in the moonlight, the snow not as painfully bright to look at like this. She hadn't even noticed how much she was squinting at the glare until it stopped.

Getting a tiny bit of enthusiasm back, Agate kept walking along the cliffside. The treetops were still visible here and there, showing that the elevation was still too steep to get down safely. Eventually, the sudden drop turned into a more manageable slope. A rather snowy one, however.

Careful examination of the mountainside didn't yield any results. It was impossible to see whether there was anything solid buried under the thick snow, or if she'd just sink through. Carefully putting her hooves forward one by one, the filly sought purchase on the icy rock underneath.

It went well for a while. A step here, a tiny slip there, but she managed to clamber halfway down the slope towards the wooded section, plowing through the belly-deep snow. However....

*Shhhhhhh....*

Her ears perked up at the hissing noise of displaced snow sliding downhill. There was no time to react, though, as the mass swept her up and dragged her down with it.

"EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE- Oof!" At least the mini-avalanche barely lasted a few seconds. And the landing was actually kind of soft, though she did get buried up to her neck. Squirming from the cold flakes that snuck under her scarf and blanket, she stuck her forelegs out and tried to stand up. That just resulted in her forelegs sinking through.

Getting out proved to be a bit harder than imagined. The snow surrounded her on all sides, and there was no solid surface underneath. Forcing her tired muscles to move, she tried pulling herself forward. Then, she tried wiggling out. Eventually, flopping and half-swimming, Agate managed to get free, though that also made her sink deeper down through the powdery snowflakes. In the end, her scrabbling created a hole deeper than she was tall.

Agate panted, her legs vigorously complaining about the strenuous exercise they were being put through after a whole day of trotting. Scrunching her muzzle, she looked around. There was no way she could keep going. But, maybe this wasn't too bad. All of that snow piled up all around actually seemed to be blocking the wind pretty well.

Pulling the last dregs of her strength together, she stomped the snow underneath her flat, throwing as much of it as she could aside. That done, she awkwardly yanked off her saddlebags, wrapping herself in the blanket as tightly as she could. There was no energy left to eat anything or even take off her hat or scarf. With the exhaustion from the day's journey catching up to the drained filly, she fell asleep immediately.

❅ ❆ ❅

Cold. Bone-deep, teeth-chattering cold.

The first thing that Agate noticed as she woke up was the cold. She shivered in her blanket, not even the crystal wool able to keep the northern chill away any more. Her stomach also made it's displeasure known, growling loudly at her for skipping dinner last night.

"M-maybe that's it. My b-blanket's fine. I'm just cold because I'm h-hungry. "

Reassuring herself, she reached for her saddlebags. Her shaking hooves found the bag of nuts, though she had trouble grasping it with her boots. Giving up, the filly simply shoved her muzzle into the sack and started munching. To her pleasant surprise, she found that nuts still tasted really good even when cold.

Crunch crunch. While she was busy with that, her eyes looked over what she had left. A hoofful of oats, some (now unpleasantly dry) bread, cold carrots, and a bundle of hay. At least things didn't get moldy or rot in the frigid weather. Small mercies, if they could be called that.

After the nuts were gone, she licked a tiny bit of snow from the walls surrounding her, pondering the situation. How to get out of this hole? The deep snowdrift was piled up near the steep part of the mountainside, so if she just went forward... somehow. She scrunched her muzzle at the blockage in front of her. It refused to move.

Huffing, the filly slipped out of her blanket, tying it around her neck again. The saddlebags went on, and her attire was checked and fixed where it got loose. Then, with a fierce and mighty battlecry (If there were any observers around, they might have called it "adorable"), Agate charged headfirst into the snow.

"Just like when I was running away from those guardsponies. Just have to force your way through it." Pretending to be a snowplow made it even colder, though the food helped to warm her up, along with the exertion. Fortunately, she was displacing enough snow to allow her to breathe. After a few minutes, her head broke through the surface, like some aquatic predator looking for prey.

Forging ahead, the small polar huntress kept turning her head this way and that, looking for her quarry - trees. Finding a cluster of pines off to her right, she changed course. The amount of snow in her path gradually went down, first reaching up to her belly, then eventually only to her hocks.

Sweeping off the remaining flakes off her back, Agate examined the copse. The pines were tall and and healthy, bringing some color to the otherwise blindingly white landscape. All of the branches on the trees were far too high up for her to reach, but fortunately, she could see some irregular lumps in the snow. Digging them out, she found what she was looking for - extra food.

The needles on the dead branches, likely blown away during one storm or another, still retained their deep green hue. Helping herself, Agate kept digging around the trees, trying to find every last piece of anything edible. Some of the branches were old and the needles had dried out and turned yellow. She left those alone, shoving the snow aside looking for fresh ones. Eventually, she managed to fill up her stomach some more, and collected a couple dozen of the little bunches of needles in her saddlebags.

Wiggling her tongue around while trying to get at a stubborn needle that got stuck between her teeth, the young survivalist looked around, squinting her eyes at the dazzling whiteness. The landscape was more or less the same. Snow, mountains looming all around her, snow, and some trees here and there. Covered in snow. A shiver ran down her back.

The air here was much colder than down in the valley, even on the lowest part of the foothills. But it was manageable as long as she kept moving. At least it wouldn't get worse... probably. As long as she didn't try climbing any higher on the mountain, she'd be fine. She'd be fine. Agate kept telling that to herself as she moved further and further away from what used to be her home.

The hours went by. Picking her way through the terrain, the filly zig-zagged between the larger clusters of the northern pines. Everywhere she went, Agate kept an eye out for any more fallen branches. The snow was piled up higher in places, and there were slippery patches of ice here and there, but she still managed to make good time without any serious accidents or delays.

Now and then, she'd stop and feel the necklace around her neck, looking behind her. The Empire was not visible from this elevation any more, though the clouds of dark magic could still be seen easily. The portion of the sky southwards looked as bad as ever, black as coal and still conjuring images of dark tentacles reaching for her. After the third time, Agate sighed and forcefully looked away, trudging forward stoically.

Nowhere to go but forward.

❅ ❆ ❅

The day went by uneventfully again. She travelled, foraged, and did her best to keep moving, no matter how tempting it was to just lie down and give up. The terrain went up and down, the other mountains far away away got ever so slightly closer, and the filly kept moving. After a break sometime shortly after midday with a quick meal of carrots and more pine needles, Agate set off again.

It was strange. Winter days were already short, but they seemed to be getting even shorter. Or was the sunlight simply being blocked by the mountains? She watched the shadows cast by the mighty peaks crawl across the landscape, slowly bringing darkness to the world again.

When evening came, the temperature went down. The usually still mountain air suddenly turned violent, too. It started with a low hiss, then a whistling, then a terrible howl. The fickle nature of wild weather was acting up.

Agate wasn't just walking through the cold anymore, the frigid air was blasting the filly from all sides. While it wasn't snowing (small mercies), there was no shortage of small, light snowflakes all around for the gale to pick up and hurl in her face. Light snowflakes that suddenly turned sharp and painful, stinging her eyes and cheeks. With the force the wind was blowing them, each one felt like a stab with a freezing needle.

"Alright, this is bad... Need to find somewhere to curl up..." Agate frantically looked around, trying to find a safe spot while blinking the snow out of her eyes. No good options immediately presented themselves. The area was devoid of cover, a barren spot of rock on the mountainside. Somewhere ahead though, a few silhouettes of trees loomed invitingly.

Forcing herself to go faster, the shivering filly galloped towards whatever meagre shelter could be found. All the adrenaline set her heart beating, keeping the cold away for a short precious while. When the trees finally appeared out of the darkness, Agate immediately sought cover behind the trunk of the closest one. Catching her breath, she sought out the thickest pine that could still be seen in the evening gloom, trying to feel out the precise direction from which the wind was blowing.

Shielding herself on the opposite side of the wind's direction, she quickly cleared out the snow around the roots, getting as close to the frozen ground as possible. Tossing the saddlebags off, she quickly pulled out her blanket and, after a second's consideration, the sack of oats. Munching on the last few mouthfuls of the grains, she cocooned herself as tightly as possible. Only the tiniest gap was left to allow breathing.

It didn't help.

The tree trunk provided some shelter, but it wasn't enough. The wind kept blowing, howling in her ears even through the wooly cover, stealing whatever warmth it could. While the blanket kept the worst of the cold at bay, the freezing wind didn't let her warm up, either. The filly shivered, stuck in a torturous equilibrium.

This went on for a long time. How long, Agate couldn't say. Minutes, hours... It felt like forever. Unfortunately, when the balance between getting colder or warmer was broken, it didn't go the "getting warmer" route. She tried rubbing her legs together, closing the gap in the blanket completely, any tricks her scared mind could come up with. It didn't help. Eventually, her teeth began to chatter, violent shivers wracking her body.

"I... I have to get out of here. Find better cover, somehow. I'll freeze otherwise."

Bundling the blanket around herself as best as possible, she grabbed the saddlebags and willed her numb legs to move. Even trotting was hard, the muscles locking up and burning from the cold. Agate knew that this was a bad, bad idea. She knew deep down in her heart of hearts just what was most likely going to happen. She did it anyway. There were no easy solutions here. Just hard choices, with painful outcomes.

The night was much harder to see through, on account of the snowflakes still being blown about. The wind stung even worse now, forcing tears out of her eyes. They then froze on her eyelashes, clouding her vision even further.

The dark shapes dotting the area offered no comfort. The pines were strong, but slender, their trunks insufficient for full protection from the wind. There were no caves or walls anywhere, the foothills smoothed down by eons of erosion. The panicked filly kept galloping, pushing her body to it's absolute limits. Nothing changed, however. The landscape was the same as before. Snow, rocks, and sparse trees.

She didn't stop, though. If only to keep a tiny bit warm from the physical effort. If only to keep going until she couldn't any more. If only... if only to fall asleep from exhaustion, instead of painfully freezing... to death. Tears flooded her eyes, not because of the wind this time. She thought of her family. How she'd never see them again.

"It's not fair. I tried so hard. I was smart. I tried to go back when I saw there was no escape. I looked for extra food, I still have food. I did everything I could. It's not, it's... oh... it actually.. feels warmer, now that I think about it..." Suddenly lightheaded, Agate tripped, flopping sideways into the snow. After a short scramble, she managed to curl up in the blanket again.

This... this felt nice. It felt kind of warm. She wasn't even shivering any more! She couldn't really feel her hooves, but that was probably just because of the intense galloping just now. A tiny giggle came out of the filly's mouth, then a laugh. Her previously panicked mind became calm, serene even. "It's alright," she thought. "I'm just... I was... what was I doing? Right, getting... safe? Warm... I can still hear the wind, but... It didn't seem to matter any longer.

As she lay there, Agate swore that she could hear her parent's voices. She felt herself getting picked up by her dad's strong hooves while her mother gently nuzzled her. Carrying the dizzy filly , the parents quickly came upon a cabin in the snow. Quickly moving to the bedroom, they were soon tucking her into bed, softly whispering quiet reassurances to her.

Then Agate blinked, and she was back in the snow. She wasn't cold at all, however. In fact, she couldn't feel anything.

Exhaustion overtook the little pony, making her eyelids droop. Everything felt right, and just falling asleep felt like the best thing to do. Something beat at her chest. Clumsily pawing at it with a numb hoof, she tried to figure out what it was. It took her a moment to understand that it was her own heartbeat. That was probably bad. Oh well. Stretching out her limbs, Agate closed her eyes, drifting off to oblivion one final time.

The northern wind blew on, uncaring of anything in it's path. Nature was like that. It wasn't needlessly cruel, like some ponies said, but it didn't care in the slightest, either. It didn't care for any beings freezing in it's wake, or the perceived unfairness of the fact. It didn't care for any lost ponies in it's way.

It didn't care for the last breath of a dying filly, blowing ever on.

❅ ❆ ❅

The far north was usually considered desolate and lifeless by every creature hailing from anywhere south. "Nothing but ice and rocks," they'd say. "Maybe a few trees, at most, but that's it." Any suggestions or theories expressing anything contrary would be met with casual dismissal.

It was a form of arrogance, in a way. A sort of "Well, I couldn't possibly survive in such blasted cold, and I'm the best thing since sliced bread, so clearly nothing even worth mentioning could possibly live there."

It couldn't be further from the truth. Life finds a way, and the north was teeming with life. The rivers were swarming with fish, making their way upriver to their breeding grounds and back. Under the snow, small mice scurried about, finding the tiniest nibbles of food despite the obstacles. Cunning arctic foxes hunted them, diving headfirst into the snow to catch their prey. Even insects managed to survive, the northern bees sleeping in their hives for the cold months.

The trees and cliffs held bird nests of every kind. Great eagles, opportunistic seagulls, mighty cormorants and tiny puffins filled the skies. Ducks and geese of all kinds flapped around, feeding on the coastal grasses, seaweed, and other bounties of the oceans. Skillful diving birds fearlessly drove themselves straight into the water, coming up with struggling fish in their beaks.

The waters themselves contained beasts of all sizes, from the smallest krill to the mightiest Orca. Narwhals roamed the seas, legions of seals chasing after the multitudes of fish. And these were only the most common animals.

There were other things in the north, beings spoken about in cautionary tales. Strange spirits that you could see from the corner of your eyes that would instantly disappear if you looked directly at them. Malicious shapeshifters, abducting younglings to leave them lost in the snow. Predatory serpents roaming the waters, and massive floewolves prowling the glaciers. And if you thought you were safe from orcas on land, an akhlut would gladly prove you wrong.

And somewhere amidst all that, there was a pony.

The pony was currently patting the ground, kindly asking the snow in that location to stay firm for a while and bear the weight of the spirit stone. Her task complete, she gently placed an orange crystal on the surface of the packed snow before returning to a sleigh nearby. Taking another faintly glowing crystal from the half-full sled in her mouth, she went further ahead, repeating the process. To the right of the mare, there was another pony with his own sleigh, placing crystals along even intervals.

And so it went. They worked quietly, only stopping now and then to briefly check on each other. After making sure the path they were laying down was symmetrical and went in the right direction, they hitched up to their sleighs and went further.

Some time later, the sleighs were empty, their duty done. Taking one last look to make sure they didn't slip up somewhere, the pair gave each other a satisfied nod. The crystal-lined path was finished, leading from the direction of their tribe's territory to the village looming in the distance.

"Snowpitt," declared the mare. "We're here. Let's go meet the others and get ourselves a cup of tea. I've been craving some fresh herbs for weeks. The dried ones just don't have the same flavor." Grabbing the harness, she effortlessly pulled the sleigh across the pony-deep snow, walking on top of the drifts without disturbing a single snowflake.

The stallion caught up to her in a few moments. "Oh, you can have all the tea you want, I'm sure. Herbs always grow aplenty in the southern plains," he grinned at her teasingly. "But I get the first pick of stew when we get there. The western tribe had a bountiful season this year, or so I heard. The pots are going to be overflowing with mushrooms of all kinds." He licked his lips, imagining all the wonderful flavors dancing on his tongue. The fish and other bounties of the northern tribe's lands and waters were both delicious and filling, but nothing beat the communal stews the tribes made during the Great Gathering, each tribe adding their specialties and skills to the mix.

The mare snorted, flicking her snow-white tail at him. "Really, is that so? Planning to gorge yourself silly and leave nothing for me? Well then, maybe I should just go ahead and help myself to some. I'll save a bowl for you, of course, though first pick gets the best bites. Catch me if you can!" With that, she galloped off towards the village.

"Wha- hey! Snowshoes, you get back here this instant!" Sputtering, he gave chase across the plain, trying to run the mare down. It was futile, of course, as she was much better at snowwalking than him. Her hooves effortlessly kicked off the snow, the only marks of her passage being the tracks of the sleigh she was dragging behind her.

Laughing, she turned her head backwards, winking at her unsuccessful pursuer. His own hooves were plodding through the snow, leaving clearly visible hoofprints. "What's the matter, Wayfinder? Can't gallop as well as you can track? It's alright, I'm sure you can find your way to Snowpitt - long after I make it there and have my fill, of course!"

Snorting, Wayfinder kept up the pace. She reduced her speed somewhat, teasingly waving her tail in his direction. They were both joking, of course. The tribes all brought enough food to last throughout the entire Long Night, and there would be plenty for months to come.

They galloped on, laughing, trading fake insults and cavorting through the snow, quickly making their way to the village. It was time to meet with their sister tribes once more.

❅ ❆ ❅

Agate was falling.

Or was she flying?

Falling... upwards? Floating, perhaps?

She shook her head, trying to clear the fog from her brain. It didn't work. Maybe because she didn't have a head any more. Or a brain.

Wait, what?

Something wasn't right here.

Looking around, she saw... nothing. Nothing but darkness surrounded her. There wasn't even the tiniest speck of light to be seen. That was concerning, but nothing crazy. The crazy things began when she attempted to check if there was anything blocking her eyes. Her forelegs just... weren't there anymore. Or her hindlegs, or neck, or any other body part. She felt nothing and saw nothing. Like she was just a pair of closed eyeballs, floating somewhere in the dark. If even that.

Agate tried to scream, and nothing happened. She tried to breathe in, but she couldn't feel her lungs, either. No sound, no light, no smell... Nothing. What was happening? Where was she? Her fear increased as she tried to remember the last thing that happened. Did... did she die? Is this what death was? An eternity of darkness, forever alone, screaming into the nothingness?

After silently panicking for a while, she tried recalling things. Trees, snow, her parents, any image to occupy her mind with instead of the omnipresent darkness. Slowly, the oppressive gloom seemed to part the tiniest bit. She imagined waving her forelegs around, and the faintest streaks of something flashed in her vision. A tiny flicker of hope went through her mind.

"Come on, I can do this. I have forelegs. I - have - FORELEGS, DARN IT!" Willing, imagining, forcing her body back into existence, the filly slowly began to see some details again. Her forelegs showed up, though they were oddly dark and translucent. Concentrating on maintaining the vision, she poked herself on various parts of her body. The action still failed to provide any sensation of touch.

"Grrrr..." Turning away from her ethereal and half-visible body, Agate looked around. The world became a strange, washed out mass of black, gray and off-white. The only points of reference were the coal-black mountain peaks, still standing against the dim sky. Any fine details were completely lost, though. Everything but her immediate surroundings were a featureless, solid black.

Focusing on the spot beneath her hooves, she tried the same trick that made her body reappear. She focused, willing, demanding for the world to become visible again. It was a slow process, but bit by bit, she started to make out shapes in the darkness. There was a rock to her left, oddly muted and non-sparkling snow underneath her, and a... branch? Piece of fabric? Something strange was sticking out of the snow.

Squinting her eyes, she kept staring at whatever it was, without blinking or stopping. Following the odd shape underneath the snow, she saw the edge of a flap of fabric. Her blanket! And underneath, there was... there was... She blinked a few times then, her mind refusing to comprehend just what it was seeing. Eventually, though, it clicked.

She was looking at her own face, eyes closed and peaceful. It was her body, frozen in the snow.

❅ ❆ ❅

Agate didn't know how long she sat there, staring. Days, perhaps weeks. The world didn't seem to change much, and it was near impossible to tell apart day from night. Mute, unmoving, unfeeling, she just sat by her remains. She didn't cry, as she had no tears any more. She didn't scream, and she had no breath to do so. She didn't bother thrashing around, as she couldn't affect the material world any more.

She was dead.

Seeing her own expired body certainly drove the point home. Agate was just a spirit now, colorless, weightless and barely visible. She looked longingly at her agate-purple coat, barely visible in the gloom. Her agate-blue mane, which her mother liked to brush. Her agate-green eyes that her dad admired, closed forever now.

"How come agate has so many colors, mom? Doesn't that make them separate gems, like your garnet red coat and dad's sapphire blue?" Unbidden, a memory popped into her head, reminding the filly of better times.

Her mother smiled, meticulously connecting golden links together in a delicate golden chain. "Well, dear, your father could probably explain this better. But, it's not so simple. You see, agate actually has dozens of dozens of colors and shapes that it takes. The important thing is it's composition, however. The main ingredient is chalcedony, formed in just the right way. And various tiny pieces of other minerals end up making a whole riot of color. And even gems that are traditionally known to have only one hue quite often turn out to have more, even if they're rare. For example, though the "true" color of sapphires is a deep blue, there are also sapphires with shades of violet, pink, orange, and others. There's also pink, blue, yellow and other diamonds. The list goes on." Finishing her work, she gently put down the chain, picking up a red-orange gem and holding it against her dark red coat. "See here? That's a garnet your father cut and polished. My name's Garnet Necklace, so we're both garnets. But the colors are still different. Each gem is unique, just like my precious Agate," she explained while nuzzling the grumbling filly.

Her parents did their best to teach Agate everything they knew about minerals, gems and crystals. They told her that they'd be happy if she chose to follow in their hoofsteps, but only and only if that was what she truly wanted. "My father, your grandpa Coal Hoof, was a blacksmith," her dad had explained. "He'd make every day things. Nails, horseshoes, though he was skilled enough for the Guard to trust him with maintaining their weapons and armor, when the need arose. Now, I didn't have the strength he did. I couldn't swing a smith's hammer, but I discovered an affinity for a jeweler's chisel. When he saw my work, he just laughed, clapped me on the back so hard I almost fell over, and congratulated me on producing something that he'd just end up smashing to glittery powder if he tried to make it." Chuckling, her dad shook his head. "Remember, it doesn't matter what you choose to do in the world, as long as it's honest work. We'll be proud of you either way."

Coming out of her reminiscing, Agate looked around. Now that she lost her focus, the world became pitch black again. Willing her sight to work, she sighed inaudibly. Glumly looking around, the ethereal filly thought about her parent's words, pawing at the ground. Her hoof just passed through, leaving no mark. What was she supposed to do now? She didn't need to run anymore. There was no cold, no hunger. But any kind of work, honest or not, was beyond her capabilities. She was a ghost. She scoured her memories for anything useful, thinking back as far as she could possibly remember. But, for all the life advice her parents gave her, unsurprisingly, there wasn't anything about dying and becoming a bodiless spirit.

Wasn't something supposed to happen after you died? Something... a vague memory flitted through her mind. Something about the Pale Mare coming to collect you. Well, she'd been sitting here a while now, and no mares, pale or not, bothered to show up.

"Ugh. This is dumb. No one's coming for me. And I don't want to keep sitting here forever. Alright, Agate, think. Use that head of yours. She glanced downward at her frozen body. "Maybe not that one. Gah, focus, FOCUS. Alright. What's even happening to me right now? The ethereal filly took stock of her situation. "Good things: I'm not cold any more. I don't feel hungry. I don't feel tired or sleepy. Bad things... I'm dead. Main bad thing, really. Also, I can't see all that well for some reason. Must be the lack of eyes. Her gaze was drawn downwards again. How can I see at all, then? No, doesn't matter... think, think... Can I actually move away from here?

Carefully standing up on all fours, Agate took a hesitant step away from her body. It was very strange. She couldn't feel her hooves hitting the ground at all, but the scene did shift a little. Taking a few more steps forward showed that she could, in fact, move around freely.

"Alright, that's something. But... I still don't know what to do or where to go." Going back to the Empire was certainly an option, but for what? Not like she could save her parents. Attempting to free them wouldn't achieve anything if she wasn't able to interact with the material world. No ability to steal some keys, unlock their chains, anything at all.

The lost ghost sat down again, pondering her predicament. She wasn't coming up with anything smart, all of her life experiences useless. And nothing her parents taught her would help in this situation. But, she did have more family than that, didn't she?

Her grandparents weren't all that forthcoming with life advice. Mostly, they just said that she was a precious little gem and gave her little gifts and treats. And she only had two grandparents. Other foals at school usually told her that they had four, but her mom once said her parents "Didn't approve of her marrying the son of a sooty blacksmith," before telling Agate that it was their loss and not to worry about it. Which was probably true. Grandpa Coal was pretty awesome, and not sooty at all.

Her dad had a brother, though. As he once explained to a then-younger Agate, a father's brother was an uncle to his children. And he came to visit every now and then, when his Guard duties would allow. And uncle Obsidian Spear was full of advice about tricky situations. Thinking back to the last Hearth's warming, she tried to recall his visit.

They were in the family's sitting room, relaxing in various ways. Her dad was lounging on the couch reading a book, while mom was slowly drinking a glass of mulled crystalberry wine, her eyes closed in pleasure. Agate herself was laying on a rug near the crackling fireplace, sipping on some cocoa imported from faraway places. Uncle Obsidian went to the kitchen to get some wine himself, returning shortly with a stout glass and settling in next to her dad.

"Ahhh, that hits the spot," he exclaimed after a big gulp. "Boy, what wouldn't I do to have something like this after giving the runaround to a mad yeti in a blizzard. Even with the coats they give us to wear under the armor, it still feels like my legs are going to fall off every time after wilderness duty."

Her dad chuckled, turning a page in his book. "You knew full well what you were getting into when you signed up, and then volunteered to protect the prospectors, lumberjacks and other risk-takers that go tromping through the wilds. You've been doing it close to two years, though. Shouldn't you have earned that transfer to the Spire that you were aiming for by now?"

"Aye, but you know what they say in the Guard: The reward for work well done is more work, ha! They're telling me that I'm one of the best rangers they have, and that I'm irreplaceable until they get a new crop of recruits and beat their sorry flanks into shape." Taking another pull of the wine, he savored the taste for a minute before continuing. "So, the Major's promising the palace transfer for my entire squad and a promotion to Sergeant for me, with the caveat that I stay on for another year to make sure none of the quarries and mines become nesting grounds for yetis, ice worms, or who knows what else."

"Sergeant in the Spire? Well earned, after all the work you did. Though, I'm sure you're going to miss all the excitement when you're in your cushy new post." Shooting Obsidian a look, he continued sarcastically. "I can already imagine the news: "Imperial guard Sergeant goes stir-crazy in the palace, runs off to wrestle yetis naked!""

Even her mom snorted at that, while Obsidian started guffawing loudly. "Ahaha, Radiant, you bonehead! You know full well that's not how it goes. Going off alone would get me eaten. No engaging beasts without your squad by your side, and if you're working solo in a bad situation, run like your tail's on fire, unless you have civilians to cover. There's plenty of ways to find excitement in the city without going out to court death, thank you very much."

Agate, who had been listening quietly so far, piped up with a question. "Um, uncle Obsidian? Isn't it a bad thing to run away? I mean, aren't guards supposed to be fearless and unbeatable?"

That seemed to amuse him even more than dad's joke. "Haw! Oh, kiddo, there's a big difference between being brave and dumb as a rock, though ponies often confuse the two. If you don't retreat when you need to, you might be fearless, but that sure as heck won't make you unbeatable. Quite the opposite, in fact." Taking another swig of his wine, he got off the couch and sat down next to Agate. "And regular ponies that never served in the military have some very, very wrong ideas on what protecting ponies actually entails. Why don't I teach you some Guard wisdom, young Agate?"

The filly nodded eagerly. The only knowledge of the ponies defending the Empire came from a few fairy tales that she read, and a few vague statements about them being "the Empire's shield and spear."

Settling in, he began. "Alright, first and foremost: there is a very, very big difference between stage fights, spars, contests, and a real battle. I'm guessing that when you're thinking of members of the Guard fighting, you're thinking of something along the lines of the crystal faire jousting tournament?" After Agate's nod, he continued. "Well, a true fight is nothing like that. Firstly, opponents in contests like that are usually more or less evenly matched, so that it doesn't turn out too boring." At the filly's puzzled expression, he explained: "It wouldn't be very exciting to watch if one of the ponies just stomped the other one flat in five seconds, would it? Bang, boom, slam, it's over. In a real fight, though, that is exactly what you want. It's not about being fair, honorable or a showoff. It's about winning, as hard, fast, and with taking the least amount of damage as possible. Especially if you're faced off with a wild beast that doesn't care about playing nice."

At this point, Garnet had her ears pointed towards the conversation, listening in eagerly. Dad had said that his brother was always sharing pieces of wisdom he learned from his job, but mom wasn't always there during their meetups. "Now, the thing about running away comes from the fact that most contests have clearly defined borders. Get tossed out of the arena, and you lose. And even some officers have this foolish notion that retreating means "cowardice". However, there is nothing, nothing that gives you a bigger advantage in a battle than outmaneuvering your enemy. There were plenty of battles where one side either faked a retreat or even genuinely lost and was running away, only for their commanders to reorganize the ranks and completely turn the tides on their foes. All because the "winners" thought that the fight was over, and completely abandoned their lines and discipline to chase down some easy-looking targets."

Agate sat quietly, eagerly drinking in the information, still taking occasional sips of cocoa. This was so different than what she experienced! If foals were pushing each other around, whoever ran away would inevitably get called a scaredy chicken. Adult fights weren't like that at all! Meanwhile, her uncle plowed on. "Now, I could try telling you about those battles, but I think it'd be better if I gave you some examples you could use yourself. A great many pieces of military discipline can actually be applied in day to day life by regular ponies. I know it's possible nothing like this ever happened to you, but tell me, did you ever see someone win against others just because they chose a clever location to stand in? A high spot on a hill to push others down, or maybe a narrow entrance to face multiple opponents one by one? Some foals roughing around in school, perhaps?"

Agate thought back, scrunching her muzzle. Bullies didn't really pick on her, and they swiftly got dealt with by teachers if they harassed others. Causing strife among your fellow ponies was a grave crime in the Empire, risking harm to the function of the Heart. "Well, it doesn't happen often. But I faintly remember one time on the... second year, I think. An older colt stood on top of the stairs to the second floor, blocking the entire class and laughing at them. He'd bonk ponies on the head if they tried to get past him. And none of them could even raise their hooves high enough to hit him back, since he was higher up. One of the teachers heard the commotion and dragged him away by the ear, though."

Her uncle was smiling widely, evidently satisfied with her example. "Perfect, Agate, just perfect. A classic example of holding the high ground, along with the stairway doubling up as a narrow pass. A single pony holding off more than a dozen others, until he got taken down from the back by the teacher. Now, quick question: was there any other way to get past him? Schools usually have multiple stairways to the same floors, yes?" At her slow nod, he continued, gesticulating wildly. "So then, here's the rundown: the colt gets a great idea to feel clever and strong, and makes a blockade in a strategic location. His goal is to stop other ponies from getting up. Without thinking about any alternatives, the others just try to bull rush him head on, fulfilling his goals."

At Agate's confused look, he elaborated. "He wanted to outsmart the other foals, right? Well, he did. If they just stood there and laughed at him, he would have been the one to look foolish. Or, if a few swift-legged foals peeled off from the group to go up a different stairway and come up from his back, he'd have been surrounded from all sides, and forced to give up. But he knew that he'd win against anyone that came at him directly, and so attacking him wasn't actually interfering with his goal at all, but fulfilling it. He wanted the other foals to try and get past him, because he knew that they'd fail."

Agate sat there, slack-jawed, as her young, simple mind was being presented with all sorts of complexities and amazing ways to look at a situation she had never considered before. Was this how adults always thought? No wonder they always looked distracted!

"And so, retreating to outmaneuver him was the only actually viable strategy in that confrontation you described. Remember, Agate, anyone that tries to tell you that running away from an unwinnable situation means you're being cowardly is either trying to trick you into losing, or has the intelligence of a hunk of crystal." He punctuated his point by tapping his hoof on the floor, producing a deep "thunk" sound, and making the filly giggle.

Her mom snorted quietly, raising an eyebrow. "That's well and nice, Obsidian, but how much of it could she really apply in real life? I don't think that my filly's going to become some grand general, leading platoons of foals in glorious conquest."

Grinning back at her, he shook his head. "You're thinking too much about the physical aspect of it, Garnet. A conflict doesn't have to be a literal fight. These things just as easily applicable to regular situations, and even things like conversations. For example..." Draining the last of his wine, he stopped for a moment to deposit his mug on a nearby table.

"During my own childhood, there was this one little smartflank that figured out how to get other kids into trouble. He'd do things to provoke them - call them names, toss spitwads in their manes, throw erasers at them, and so on. And every time anyone hit back at him, he'd cry bloody wolf like you wouldn't believe. Got a lot of foals in my class sent to detention, yours truly included. It took me a while to learn not to take the bait, but let me tell you, it was the most valuable lesson of my life, one I wish I'd learned sooner. Honestly, I think the world would be a better place if more ponies just learned not to jump at the dumbest provocations imaginable."

Mom nodded slowly, mulling it over. "Alright, I can see your point. Certainly could have used some of that discipline myself when dealing with my family, I suppose." Suddenly shaking her head, she quickly changed topics. "Never mind them, I shouldn't talk about such things during Hearth's Warming. So, what is the reverse? Does not taking the bait help in Guard duties?"

Getting up, he gave her a wry grin. "Oh, like you wouldn't believe. Getting tricked into abandoning your post could wreck your entire career in the Guard. Back in training, they'd set us up in lines, taunt us or scream in our faces, and any pony that reacted in any way would have to run laps until they collapsed. I never failed, since I've kept thinking of that little brat from school." Picking up his glass, he took mom's glass too, making a return trip to the kitchen to get a refill.

They spent the rest of the evening talking, with Agate mostly listening to her uncle's stories and advice. She didn't get all that many chances to put his teachings to use, though the few times she did were very satisfying. It was hard not to lash out at ponies that were deliberately annoying her, but knowing that that was what they wanted, and she'd lose if she did it made it easier. And their disappointed expressions afterwards made the effort totally worth it.

And then the memory was over, and she was back in the snow, trying to apply her uncle's wisdom to her current predicament. It was still hard, but a few vague ideas were forming in her head.

Well, we already tried retreating. That's how dad explained it to mom so she'd agree to leave. Not sure I can... outmaneuver Sombra, but... Ooooh, I bet I could totally distract him. Scare the pants off him! Can he even catch me any more? Oh, I could... I could scare him at the right moment so that he falls down the stairs. He'd be terrified of ever climbing down a staircase again. Everyone is scared of ghosts, right?

Thinking up more ways to use her ghostly visage, Agate turned towards the blackened mountain and started climbing straight up. She couldn't see the Empire from here, the valley blocked by the mountain's curvature. Before going back, she had to find out if Sombra's fear magic still worked on her now that she (probably) had nothing to fear any more.

The cold and wind certainly weren't a bother. She felt none of the former and could barely hear the latter. The situation didn't change as she climbed higher and higher, her ethereal hooves somehow finding purchase on the steep rock and ice without issue.

As she climbed, Agate turned her eyes to the strange sky. It was impossible to tell whether it was day or night. Some kind of orb was hanging up there, and it had patterns on it sort of like the Moon, but there were no stars. Looking straight at it didn't hurt her eyes, though. The whole sky was a strange off-white color, too. And despite the light up above, everything besides the sky was pitch black, as if it was the deepest night. It was like her sight didn't depend on the amount of light any more.

Having reached a spot where Dream valley could be seen again, Agate focused into the distance. Even with her strange new vision, it shouldn't have been too hard to see the massive Spire looming over the terrain. However, scanning the area towards the middle of the valley revealed that the Empire... the Empire was...

Gone?

There wasn't... there was... the spot was just empty. Not just "a plain covered in snow" empty, either. Barren, bare ground where a city stood for... who knows how long. Not a single structure, farm field, or any other sign of habitation marked the landscape. Like the city just vanished into thin air.

"Oh, come on."

Agate didn't even get angry or sad this time. Life threw too many curveballs at the filly all at once for her to care any more. She just huffed, only feeling annoyed with the absurdity of it all. What even happened here? Was there a fight? Did Sombra have to run away and stole the entire city? No, that was ridiculous.

"Alright, now what do I do?"

The ethereal filly went back to scanning the mountains. Where to go? Equestria? No point now. Seeking shelter was for the living. Go to the spot where the Empire used to stand and wait? Probably pointless. She didn't know if the city would even come back from wherever it was taken.

After some time of turning her eyes here and there, she noticed something strange. There was a tiny line of orange somewhere in the distance, no thicker than a hair. Moving her head back and forth didn't make it disappear. Whatever it was, she wasn't just imagining it. Looking around, she checked the direction.

"North. Of course. Well, I went so far north already. Why not keep going? No shame in retreat, after all... And it's not like I have any other ideas."

Slowly, Agate began to carefully clamber down the mountain. Then she realized that she was being silly, and simply jumped down the steep slope as far as she could. A stab of fear still passed through her as she was falling, but instead of slamming into the rock, she just landed with the gentleness of a feather.

"Huh. Cool... Wonder what else can I do. Could I float? I think I remember a story where a ghost could fly..."

Willing herself to fly produced no results. Jumping as high as she could still brought her down to the ground. Shrugging, the filly set to galloping. The action was both familiar and strange. She still ran as if she was alive, but not having a body made for some odd differences. For one, being weightless meant she didn't have any inertia. She could stop on a dime, disorienting herself, or make sharp turns that normally would have made her slip and fall.

She galloped through the dark landscape, never stopping, never tiring, keeping the faint orange ribbon in her sight. Faintly, she was aware of the terrain changing around her. From the mountainside, her road led her across a snowy pass to the other unnamed mountain to the west. Skirting around that mountain, there were even more mountains in her way. That didn't faze her, though. What would have been a daunting and impossible task previously now just meant a small detour here and there, navigating the treacherous rocks and snow-choked ravines with comical ease. Mountain after mountain, she made her way forward.

It was impossible to tell how much time she spent on her journey. Traversing even a small part of the first mountain took her days, but she didn't need to eat, sleep or even be careful any more. Occasionally, Agate would glance up, but the sky remained as confounding as ever. Shrugging, she kept going. Even if it took days or weeks, she had all the time in the world now. Probably.

Eventually, she made it to the gap between the two final mountains in the range. Climbing over the highest point, she stopped for the first time since beginning her gallop. The rocky walls surrounding her parted, and a vast snowy plain opened up before her.

No signs of life were immediately visible, but that didn't stop her. Reorienting herself to face the orange ribbon - which had grown to the size of a line of fireflies - the filly galloped away again. As she raced down towards the plains though, she stopped dead in the tracks. There was a forest in front of her, but that wasn't what made her stop. It was the color.

It was the second thing that had any sort of color in the black and white world. Unlike the orange line in the distance though, the trees were glowing the faintest shade of green. Trotting up to one pine, she began to examine it. She couldn't smell or touch it any more, but -

"Huh."

Reflexively, she still put a ghostly hoof on the bark of the tree. And the faint glow shifted slightly, almost like a sleeping pony shifting in their sleep before going back to slumber. Agate watched the tree a while longer, but nothing else happened. Shrugging, she moved out again, though she kept glancing at the sleeping pines now and then.

As she kept going, the world seemed to be getting ever so slightly more colorful. The trees, the moss, and even the ground were faintly tinted in various hues. She saw an owl flash past for the briefest moment, making her jump in fright. When was the last time she saw another living being? That was probably a good sign.

Exiting the forest, she saw a rather wide river ahead. This new obstacle briefly stumped the filly. Could she walk on water? Or would she sink to the bottom?

"Oh, right. It doesn't matter. I don't need to breathe any more. "

Getting a running start, she leapt into the river. She did sink, though the river's flow didn't affect her. Standing on the bottom, she took a few minutes to examine the interesting underwater plants growing on the riverbed before making her way out. Reflexively, she tried to shake the water out of her coat, only to remember that she didn't get wet any more.

"I hope no one saw that," the embarrassed spirit muttered under her breath.

Finding her target, the intrepid traveler set off. There was a small forest on this side of the river too, but it soon gave way to a snowy plain. The journey turned dull again, the landscape a flat expanse of white. Only a few shrubs broke up the monotony here and there. Fortunately, she was getting to the orange-colored mystery quite fast. What used to be barely a hair-width line of light in the beginning of her trip turned into a long line of separate fireflies in her vision.

Finally reaching one, Agate stopped, staring slack-jawed at the object sticking out of the snow.

"A crystal. Oh my..." She examined the crystal from all angles, attempting to determine it's type. "Topaz? No, that's too big... it would be worth a fortune... Carnelian? No, the hue doesn't match. Hmm. Looks almost like quartz, but... Oh! Citrine! That must be it. Citrine doesn't glow by itself though, so it's also enchanted somehow..."

But what did it mean? Were there crystal ponies here? Looking around, she saw that the crystals were arranged in parallel lines, as if marking out a road on the snow. The path began not too far to her right, leading off somewhere to her left. Which was... west, probably? The path was obviously artificial, but she didn't think that crystal ponies were the ones to make it.

"Citrine, citrine... that's not common in the Empire at all." All of their homes and roads were built with either blue or red colored crystals that were found in the area around the city, molded, shaped and grown in various shapes with crystal pony magic according to their needs. Orange wasn't a color that was used anywhere. So who put these crystals here, then? And how was she able to see them across mountains, days or possibly weeks of travel away?

"I really hope this isn't some weird bait to lure in ghosts or something..." Slowly, Agate trotted down the path towards whatever strange destination it led to. She took her time to look around, but there still wasn't much to see. The frozen plain carried on as far as she could see in every direction but the one she came from. There were no landmarks besides the crystals leading her ahead and the mountains she passed through to get here.

Once again, the path didn't take all that long to traverse. The cutoff was oddly sudden. The crystals just stopped in a rather nondescript patch of snow, as if the short road was still under construction. Scrunching her muzzle in confusion, Agate took a few steps forward beyond the boundary.

Once the glow of the citrine-lined path was behind her, more lights appeared ahead. Those didn't look like the glowing crystals, though. In fact, they looked remarkably like lit-up windows of homes. Creeping forward, the filly examined the dark, angular shapes the light was coming from.

"Definitely not crystal ponies..." They were indeed houses, but ones she only ever saw in picture books about Equestria. They were built using big, sturdy logs, with no crystals in sight. Various curious shapes and squiggles were carved into the wood, some of them glowing softly with various colors. They almost looked like letters, but not ones she recognized. The village had some trees growing here and there, along with some kind of strange logs that were stripped bare and stood upright. Getting closer to one, she saw a face of a pony carved into it, along with more of the odd script and various shapes and symbols. Some kind of statue?

Her musings were interrupted by a gasp and an exclamation in a language she didn't recognize. Looking away from the statue, she saw the shape of a pony watching her from deeper in the village. It looked like her suspicions were correct. It was hard to tell what kind of pony it was in the dark, but it definitely wasn't a crystal one. After a minute of staring at each other, the pony said something unintelligible again. Agate shrank back, her ears folding down.

"I- I'm sorry, I don't understand you. I.. I was hoping to find... I don't know what I was hoping for. I just didn't want to keep sitting on that mountain forever, I guess. Help, maybe? Can anyone even help me now?" She fidgeted, awkwardly trotting in place. Was she scaring the pony? She was a ghost... "Uh, please don't be afraid. I couldn't hurt you if I tried. I, um... You probably don't understand me either. Should I leave?" The filly briefly glanced back, looking at the bleak wilderness.

The pony visibly stiffened at her words. More alien language reached her ears. Looking closer, she saw that the pony was staring at the wooden pole next to her very intently. Blinking, she glanced at it. She could have sworn that the wooden pony face was looking back at her, but that was probably just some trick of the light. The stare-off continued for a short while.

After a few minutes of nothing happening, the pony looked back at Agate, silently waved her hoof towards the village, and galloped off. Blinking, Agate was left standing there. What just happened? Was that an invitation, or a warning to stay away from their homes? Lost and confused, the ghost sat down on the snow.

❅ ❆ ❅

Deeper into the village, not far from a large firepit ringed by more crystals, sat an old mare. Her face was wrinkled and her posture tired, though her sight was sharp and her eyes seemed to almost glow in the dark. She held a steaming cup of tea in her hooves, taking delicate sips now and then. One of her ears turned to the sound of hooves approaching rapidly, the pony obviously in a rush for some reason. Soon, a younger mare galloped up to her.

"Elder, elder, *huff* there's something - " she babbled, the words coming out in a rush.

"Calm yourself, Earthsong. Breathe in the wind and get your breath back. I'm sure whatever is happening can wait a few moments," the old mare replied with that slow, unhurried way all old ponies often used to infuriate their younger charges. Which is probably why the old ponies found such amusement in using that way of speaking as much as possible.

*Huff* "Yes, elder. " After a few moments, the mare named as Earthsong continued. "There's something very strange at the edge of the village. I was out walking back to my home, when I felt a faint whisper of an approaching spirit from the earth and trees. I went to investigate, and saw the spirit of a young filly... or something pretending to be one." She pursed her lips, grimacing. "It was very odd. She had the shape of a pony, but didn't have a coat at all. Even in the deepest illness, I never saw a pony lose their coat completely. In fact, she sparkled, almost like she was made of ice and not flesh and bone. My first thought was of an unbelievably brave ijiraq, daring to creep up on Snowpitt like that, but her eyes weren't red. And I never heard of one shapeshifting into a spirit, either...." She trailed off, staring into the distance with a frown on her face. "And when I tried calling out to her, she replied to me in a strange tongue I never head before. Trickster spirits usually learn how to mimic our language, not give themselves away like that."

The old mare brought her back to the present. "That is indeed strange." Taking a gulp from her cup, she continued. "But I don't see what upset you so much. As you said, it would take a daring beast or spirit indeed to try and get past the wards, guardian spirits and all of the combined shamares and warriors of the three tribes. Daring or incredibly foolish. Speaking of guardians, I'm certain that they would have alerted us if something malevolent approached the village. Any sign of them?"

Shaking her head, Earthsong replied. "No, elder. The spirit, pony or not, actually got really close to Spear Throw's totem. I called out to him, but after taking a look at her, he went back to slumber. And I'm sorry for my fright, but for all my years of learning from your wisdom, I have never heard of anything quite like this. All of the tribes are here. None, not one reported any missing ponies or lost spirits that they couldn't call back to their tribal grounds. And not even the oldest teaching songs and chants mention anything about a tribe of coatless ponies made of ice. This still feels like a trick, somehow."

"Well." The elder tapped her hooves on the snow, mulling on the situation. Then she grinned widely and cackled, making Earthsong's eyes go wide in surprise. "Don't look so shocked, young mare. I have seen ninety winters by now. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find anything that's new or surprising any more? If what you're saying is true, then we very well might have to create new teaching songs about what's going to happen tonight. Now," she got up and stretched, her back letting out several loud cracks. "Go and gather up the other shamares. All of them, elders and their pupils. Tell them about what happened. I'm certain they will be quite curious about this as well. Meanwhile, I'm going to go and take a peek at this ice pony spirit of yours. If she's hiding something, I'm certain I'll see it. After all, they don't call me True Sight for nothing."

Earthsong nodded, trotting off towards some homes further away, while True Sight ambled in the direction of the totem Earthsong mentioned. Odd winds were blowing tonight, and as elder, she gladly went to do her duty and unravel their secrets.