• Published 28th Nov 2021
  • 768 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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The ponies of snow

As True Sight ambled forward, her mind was methodically digging up and analyzing all of her many, many past memories. Earthsong was correct, nothing precisely like this happened before. But there were reports of strange spirits and unusual happenings from various ponies now and then. She tried to compare them to this situation.

Nothing stood out, however. The catch with lone events that never repeated themselves was that most of the time, they didn't actually happen. Ponies made up tall tales sometimes, or were just looking for something to blame. Not every slip and fall on the ice meant that the glacier spirits were toying with you, not every bad fishing trip meant that that the river spirits were mad at you, and not every missing bundle of moss meant that there were wicked shadow beasts trying to starve you. Often, you just slipped, or had poor aim that day, or a cheeky foal swiped some of the best moss to chew on.

"Mmm... Moss Hoof used to find the best patches. They never did figure out it was me."

Coming out from her reminiscing, she stopped and focused on her breathing for a moment. The spirit sight came almost effortlessly, her long years of experience making it second nature. The mare's old, but still sharp eyes turned piercing, gaining a glow that was visible in the darkness of the Long Night. The world lit up with the soft lights of various spirits, pony and otherwise. The spectacle took barely a moment, but it was enough to catch the attention of a passing northern tribesmare.

Putting down the bucket of snow she was carrying in her mouth, the mare asked curiously, "Is everything alright, elder? Do you need some help, or should I make myself scarce?" Her posture was easy, clearly trusting the shamare to have things well in hoof.

True Sight examined the northerner closely. Her first thought was to tell her that everything was fine, but this one looked familiar. Strong spirit glow, light gray coat, straw colored mane, golden eyes... Didn't she lose a filly to a drift burrower a winter ago? Perhaps...

"Hmmm... pardon my old mind if I don't get this right, but you're Glacier Glider, yes? I seem to recall you from last winter's spirit Calling." Turning her gaze from the pony, she tried to locate the wayward being that Earthsong had found. "There is a curious situation I've been informed about regarding a spirit that you might be able to help me with."

The mare gave a pensive smile while gazing into the sky, one of hear ears folding down. "Yes, elder. You helped with the song that time, as you did many winters now. Thank you for showing my daughter the path out of the darkness." Looking back down again, she continued with some confusion. "But, how could I help? I'm not trained in the ways of the shamares. I could fight some beast perhaps, but dealing with ornery windigoes and suchlike is beyond my ken."

True Sight nodded, giving her a smile. "Yes, but the spirit is supposedly a pony one. A filly, one that not only wasn't known to any of the three tribes, but also arrived now, of all times." Cackling at the mare's raised eyebrows, she added. "Yes, I did say supposedly. Many things about her are strange, and I'm going to find out what's what. In case it does turn out to be a pony, could you help comfort her? I've never been too good with distraught foals."

Glacier Glider glanced at the bucket at her hooves before moving closer to the shamare. "Tea can wait, I suppose. Let's find out who or what this supposed filly is."

The two mares made their way to the boundary of the village, True Sight in the lead. The elder took a look at Spear Throw's totem as she passed by. It was still standing tall and proud, same as the day she helped to carve out the bindings and wards before it was placed here. The stallion hadn't failed them yet, dead or alive. If he saw no danger from the mysterious spirit, she was inclined to believe him. No direct danger, at least. Tricks, well, that was a different issue.

Nothing came from the slumbering guardian. No ice pony spirit presented itself either, though. Looking around, the elder bent down to the ground like a wolf sniffing out it's prey. Most ponies thought that spirits didn't leave any tracks that could be followed, but that wasn't entirely true. You just had to be really, really good at using your spirit sight to see them. True Sight was good enough at it to see some faint hoofprints coming, trotting around, and then leading back out of the village. Hm. An honest retreat, or an attempt to lure them out?

Raising her head, she followed the tracks leading out with her gaze. Something was out there, by the spirit stones marking the path to Snowpitt. She nodded to Glacier Glider, who had been watching her with curiosity. "There's our mysterious guest. Can you see it?" After some squinting and scrunching, the mare nodded. "Good. Now, let's approach it slowly. If it's a pony, we'll try talking. If it runs away, it's just trying to lure us away from the village. We will turn around and leave it disappointed. Let's go."

True Sight took point again, with Glacier Glider following close behind. Her companion looked a tad more alert now that they were leaving the village, her ears turning in all directions. No true harm could befall them before help arrived, but everyone knew to never let their guard down whenever they entered the wilderness. No matter how close safety was, disrespecting the dangers of the land brought all kinds of risk.

Approaching the spirit, the duo stared at it intently. True Sight did so with a deep, intense scrutiny, trying to ascertain whether there were any guiles or charms attempting to befuddle her sight and mask the spirit's true form. Glacier Glider looked on with a slight wariness, then curiosity, then, as more details became apparent, sadness. It - she - really did look like a filly, and not a very happy one, if her expression was anything to go by. "Not surprising, I suppose, seeing as she met her end well before her time," she thought, remembering her bittersweet reunion with her own daughter the prior winter.

The filly was laying down on her belly, idly poking at a spirit stone that lay nearby. Every touch made the rock chime faintly and light up slightly brighter. When she saw them approaching, the ghost scrambled to her hooves, her ears folding back in fright. As she faced the two ponies, her strange qualities were made immediately apparent. The filly's irises were almost... angular, and her coat glimmered similarly in the spirit stone's light, breaking apart the rays like clear ice in sunlight. If she even had a coat, that is. Glacier Glider felt her muscles tense, doing her best to resist her mothering instincts screaming at the mare to jump the poor, sickly foal and envelop it in her fluff as much as possible.

True Sight, meanwhile, kept her glowing eyes trained on the filly. There were no lies or deceptions that she could detect. This was no trickster spirit or shapeshifting monster, hiding behind the shape of a lost pony. The fear in her eyes was genuine, too. Slowly sitting down, the elder gave the filly a serene smile. "Relax, youngling. We're not here to hurt you. Though, judging from your lost look, you don't know that. You don't know anything about us at all, I'm guessing. I certainly don't know anything about you. If Earthsong was right and you truly don't speak our tongue... Honestly, I'm not sure you're even a snowpony. Is there some faraway tribe of iceponies that we never heard about?"

The filly's ears slowly rose as the shamare talked, though no understanding came to her confused expression. At least her fear seemed to go away from the elder's calming tone of voice. When Glacier Glider heard that she likely didn't speak their tongue, she frowned and sat down on the snow as well. Taking a deep breath, she began to hum, and then chant, her throat singing making the air around her vibrate. There were no words, though the emotions in the song were clear. She sang of great sorrow, deep pain and crushing loss. Of losing your way, separated from your tribe and family by an endless abyss.

Slowly, her song morphed into one of hope, of finding your way home after being lost in the darkness. She sang of reunions, of your fellow ponies coming to find you and bring the light of the stars back to your eyes, no matter how far you wandered and how badly you lost yourself. Holding her forelegs wide open, she invited the filly for a hug.

The spirit tilted her head in confusion, looking at the mare with some skepticism. Glacier Glider kept sitting with her forelegs open, however, still humming her song. After a nervously trotting in place a bit, the filly took a hesitant step forward.

❅ ❆ ❅

Agate was confused.

After the unknown pony left, she sat down for a few minutes before getting up and leaving the way she came. After some pondering, the filly decided that there was nothing for her here. Whoever these strange ponies were, she couldn't even talk to them. And even if she could, what could they do?

But then, what was there to do now? She came all this way because of the odd enchanted crystals that were visible from who knows how far, through mountains and snow and trees. They were the only thing that truly lit up the dark world she now found herself in. What did that mean?

Making her way back to the path, she laid down on her belly. With no other leads, she just stared at a crystal while letting her thoughts wander. Idly, she poked at it with a ghostly hoof. She didn't expect anything to happen. Every crystal pony knew how to channel their magic through crystals, with varying levels of skill. Most only knew how to empower the Crystal Heart, and light up crystals in their homes when it got dark. The artisans and builders had more aptitude, molding and shaping the hard material like clay, creating both buildings and lovely works of art. The greatest ones were said to be able to create crystals with amazingly powerful enchantments, though such ponies were exceedingly rare.

Her parents never got around to teaching her. Unless a foal showed an obvious gift, it was usually done when the pony reached their teenage years. Agate could light up a tiny patch of crystal road beneath her hooves, but couldn't maintain it for more than a few seconds. So, it came as a surprise when the citrine chunk let out a tiny chime and started glowing brighter. The difference was barely noticeable, but it was there.

That brought part of her attention back, though she was still distracted enough not to hear two ponies approach her. Or perhaps it was because, strangely, they didn't seem to make any noise at all while moving through the snow. When she saw motion in the corner of her eyes, she jumped up in fright.

Neither of them looked like the pony that she saw previously. The first one was obviously old, her back hunched and her face wrinkled. Yet somehow, the weathered grandmare managed to appear terrifying. Her emerald eyes were glowing, scrutinizing the filly with an intensity she never felt before. A bunch of beads and pieces of bleached wood were woven into her white mane, and she wore a few of bracelets around her forelegs. It gave her a strange, witch-like appearance.

Was she mad at the filly for messing with their crystals? Agate was too nervous to even try apologizing. After a minute of mutely staring at each other, the old mare sat down, changing her severe expression to something more calm.

As she began to talk, Agate's suspicions were confirmed. These ponies really didn't speak the same language that was spoken in both the Empire and Equestria. The words were almost understandable, but not quite. It sounded a little bit like the poem in Old Ponish one of the literature teachers read to her class once. No one talked that way any more, though. At least, that's what the teacher said.

After the old mare stopped talking, the other one also sat down, and began to sing instead. Now that Agate wasn't so focused on the elder, she took a better look at the second mare. She didn't look nearly as exotic or threatening. Curiously gradient coat colors of gray, golden eyes and a pale yellow mane. No accessories, either. She could have passed as an Equestrian traveler.

Her song was unlike anything Agate heard before, though. It had all sorts of weird and amazing whistling, chanting and almost growling sounds. Agate just sat there, drinking it all in. It made her feel strange, a strange tightening in her chest and throat, almost like she was about to cry. Like she was alive again.

After a while, the mare quieted down, only humming the melody. Then, she spread her forelegs, as if she was inviting the filly to get a hug.

"What? But... I can't touch stuff any more." Haltingly, the filly took a step forward. Then another one, slowly. The mare just kept sitting there, an expression of serene patience on her face. "What does she think is going to happen?"

But as she got closer, the mare did something impossible. She reached out and grabbed the filly, wrapping her in a firm hug. Somehow. Unexpected sensations flooded Agate, things she never thought she'd feel again. The pressure of a hug, warmth, the feeling of a pony's coat against her face. She just sat there, slack-jawed, until she managed to collect her thoughts a bit.

"Her coat..."

Now that she was reminded of physical sensations, she remembered something else, too. It was cold. She didn't feel it any more, but the cold was definitely still there. Everything was covered in snow and ice, though the two grownups didn't seem to care in the slightest.

The explanation for that mystery was now being rubbed in her face. Literally. These ponies were... She didn't see it in the dark before, but to call them "fluffy" would be like saying that the heart of a forge is toasty. Their barrels were fluffy. Their legs were fluffy. Their fetlocks were fluffy and wild, and unlike some Equestrians that she saw with thin, wiry coats, they were fluffy. Their manes were voluptuous and long, and their likewise impressive tails looked like they could be used as blankets. They weren't even wearing anything, besides the accessories on the older mare. The cold clearly didn't bother them.

Still gawking a bit, Agate gently ran her ethereal hoof through the mare's coat. There was some feeling there too, somehow. Could she only touch living ponies?

"Ugh. Doesn't matter." She tossed those thoughts away, focusing on the moment. The hug was nice, and she didn't want to ruin it by being weird.

❅ ❆ ❅

True Sight observed the pair silently, considering the situation. The mare was lost in her world, gently nuzzling the spirit's mane. "It seems that inviting Glacier Glider to come along was the right choice. But what do we do now?" The circumstances were still peculiar, though a few things were obvious. The little one was a visitor from an unknown tribe. Whether she was dead or alive was irrelevant. The rules of hospitality applied regardless.

As for the mystery of the filly's tribe and how she got here, well... that's why she told Earthsong to summon the other shamares. Perhaps they'd be able to figure out what this all meant if they all put their heads together.

Getting up from her sitting position, the shamare cleared her throat. "Well, Glacier, it looks like we thoroughly determined that our guest means us no harm. Do you think you can lead her back to Snowpitt?"
'
Glacier Glider turned her head, snapping out of her trance. "I think so, but elder, what is she? She's truly not a snowpony, is she? Such a short coat and strange appearance... Do you think she's just a sickly foal that never got her coat?"

Smiling, True Sight replied. "I can't answer that, unfortunately. My eyes can pierce through lies and tricks, but they don't exactly tell me things. I can tell that she's not pretending to be anything she's not." After a glance at the filly, she continued. "Of course, that doesn't mean that I have the faintest clue as to what she actually is. Judging by her fascination with your own coat, though, I'd have to guess that her appearance is normal for her tribe."

At those words, Glacier Glider tightened her hug, her eyes going wide. "A whole tribe of bare-coated ponies? But... the cold, the wind, the, the... How do they live?!" Some noises came from the filly, though Glacier didn't seem to hear them. If she wasn't dead already, she would have likely suffocated from the mare's instinctive attempts to warm her up.

❅ ❆ ❅

Darkness. All-enveloping, all consuming darkness.

Strange shapes, brushing past her, surrounding her, enveloping her.

Muffled sounds, dancing on the very edge of her perception.

Agate's entire world was fluff.

❅ ❆ ❅

True Sight raised an eyebrow, pointedly looking at the filly. Glacier Glider looked down, then sheepishly pulled the spirit's face out of her chest fluff, her ears folded in embarrassment. "Sorry about that, little one. Couldn't help it, you know? Most snowponies would probably do the same thing, if they saw you. Or drag you away to warm up in their home, most likely. If you were still alive, of course. Poor thing. Speaking of home, we open our doors and tend our hearths for you, guest of far away. Will you partake in our warmth?" She gesticulated towards Snowpitt, gently taking the spirit by the hoof and pulling her in the village's direction.

The traditional invitation didn't mean anything for the filly, of course. She sat there, blinking slowly, before saying something in her language. It was the first time she actually spoke, and both mares listened with rapt attention. It sounded almost familiar, yet still incomprehensible. There were some differences in accents between the three tribes, but never to the point that the ponies couldn't understand each other any more.

Shaking her head, Glacier kept gently tugging the filly's hoof. "I'm sorry, little one, I don't understand you. Perhaps we can teach you our words, and then you can tell us where you came from. But to do that, we should go somewhere more comfortable, yes?" She nodded towards the village again.

After some hesitation, the spirit got up and nodded, trotting alongside the two mares. Glacier Glider lead the way this time, True Sight following along. They soon passed the sparse trees surrounding the southern side, moving past the houses and totems of various ponies. The filly kept turning her head in all directions, looking at everything with wonder. She stopped briefly to examine a windchime before catching up with them.

"Curious little youngling, isn't she?" Remarked True Sight. "Really makes you wonder what her tribe must be like. It's like she never saw a house before."

"Maybe she hasn't," supplied Glacier Glider. "Not a log one, at least. Perhaps her people build theirs from ice, like we do. Either way, I'm sure she'll tell us as soon as she is actually able to. Too bad I won't be able to hear her story until next year. The long night is almost over, and it will probably take her some time to learn our language." Making a small detour, she went to pick up the bucket of fresh snow she left on the ground.

They soon made their way to the ceremonial grounds, where the shamares of the three tribes were all waiting by the huge firepit. A number of regular ponies surrounded them too, having heard about the mysterious spirit that came to them at such a strange time. Some of the elders were sipping from cups of tea, others quietly chatted between themselves. Everything went silent as the collected ponies noticed the two mares and spirit filly approaching them.

Slowly, everyone started whispering among themselves, taking in the spirit's unusual appearance. A few foals peeled away from the crowd and tried talking to the filly, though she shied away, muttering something incomprehensible. The shamare's ears turned at that, attempting to glean some meaning from the foreign sounds.

Earthsong stood besides the others, taking in True Sight's calm gait and relaxed expression. "I take it the spirit is not a danger, then. Seems like I was mistaken in my assumptions." She cast her gaze downward, slumping her shoulders.

"Oh, don't be so harsh on yourself, you fretful foal," True Sight casually dismissed her pupil's self-deprecation. "You're a fine shamare in your own right, and you need to stop worrying about making mistakes so much. No one is perfect, we've been over this a dozen times already. Anyone else here would have assumed trickery of some kind if they heard what you said."

"We did, in fact," one of the other shamares spoke up. "But it seems like you dismissed that possibility. So, would you fill us in on what you managed to find out?"

While True Sight was explaining the few things they managed to ascertain about the filly, Glacier Glider led her closer to the congregation of shamares. She still seemed a little nervous, but the fact that the group was made up mostly of kindly-looking grandmares that were giving her reassuring smiles seemed to calm her down. The two sat down on the snow again, a number of other ponies approaching the pair with curiosity.

The group, meanwhile, was digesting the news. The eldest shamare of the northern tribe, with a coat so white she was almost invisible in the snow, spoke up. "So. A young filly, that came to us from a tribe that none of us ever even heard of. And they never heard of us, I assume. What does this mean, exactly? What happened that drove her all the way here, instead of the resting grounds of her own tribe? Is this an omen of danger for the three tribes?"

"What could the danger even be, Blizzard Heart?" True Sight asked her. "If this tribe is so far detached from our own people, then what could possibly threaten us from so far away? We know of great many different beasts and suchlike that live in our respective tribe's lands, yet they never roam far from their territories."

Earthsong stepped in, providing a middle ground for both of their arguments. "While True Sight's general assertion is true, there is the fact of various animals slowly migrating closer to Snowpitt every few decades, before our hunters chase them away. However, no ordinary bear or wolf would be able to chase a spirit so far, from... wherever she came from. Perhaps she was actually traveling here with someone else, and got lost somehow."

The shamares quieted down, mulling on the information. Eventually, Blizzard Heart spoke up again. "So, what kind of event was this? Was she the unfortunate foal of some brave explorers, travelling far away to settle new lands because their tribe had grown too large? Or was it the opposite, and something so bad befell their tribe that they scattered to the winds, and their shamares weren't even able to guide the lost spirits home?"

A mare decked in an elaborate feather headdress and a fur coat shook her head, sighing. "All this guesswork is pointless. We know too little about what actually happened to even make an educated guess. We might as well sit here all season, making predictions and wild assumptions. Yet even if we somehow guess correctly, we won't know it. Let's not spend our time doddering like a bunch of old mares, yes? The spirit is right there. We can ask her as soon as she learns how to speak."

The congregation of shamares, which was made up almost exclusively of old mares (including the mare with the headdress) made various noises of amusement. One of the northerners, a young mare barely into her adult years, raised an objection. "Elder, I understand that this filly may be harmless by herself, but Blizzard Heart still has a point. As you know yourself, a tern's return from their wintering lands does not bring the summer, but signals it. We do not know what the arrival of this foreign pony means to the three tribes. We should still try to glean some knowledge from the spirits about her appearance here, in case something terrible does follow her."

Blizzard Heart pursed her lips, making a sour expression. "While I thank you for your support, Current Weave, unfortunately, Sky Breath is probably correct," she nodded towards the shamare with the feather headdress. "You are an utterly outstanding guide of the waters, so much so that you almost never deal with other issues. Yes, we could certainly commune with the world's spirits, though I fear that it would not be of much use here. They rarely, if ever, are able to give any useful, or even meaningful, insight into pony matters. I doubt we will learn anything until our guest can speak our tongue."

Current Weave sat there, complete and utter confusion written on her face. "But elder, I... I don't understand. I guide the kayaks through the waters, and I direct the fish into our nets. I tell ponies which currents to avoid and which ones are calm and bountiful on a given day. How is that not useful for pony matters? Ones such as procuring food, or staying safe?"

Several of the elders smiled at the young mare's inexperience. Blizzard Heart clicked her tongue, shaking her head. "That is well and good, but what do the spirits actually tell you, hmm? You are able to feel whether a fishing ground is getting depleted, or if the water is twisted up and roiling angrily under the surface. However, you are the one that interprets the meanings and potential consequences of those things. The currents might tell you "we are fierce and fast today", but you're the one telling your tribe to avoid that patch of water, not the spirits."

Clearing her throat, she borrowed a cup of tea from a nearby shamare before continuing. "So, if we were to ask, say, the northern winds whether something dangerous and capable of great destruction is following that filly, what would they tell us? Does the wind even know what danger or destruction is? What would cause danger to the wind? Could the wind be destroyed? The very notion is ridiculous beyond words." The confusion in Current Weave's expression was slowly replaced by comprehension as the old shamare finished her lecture.

"So, when the spirits of our brethren come to us from the wilds, we can ask what fate befell them and what dangers lurk out there. But when we talk to the spirits of the world, we can but listen and interpret what they're saying and how it affects our tribe the best we can. Directly asking about things completely beyond their care is almost always pointless."

The conversation died down for a brief moment again. Current Weave bowed her head in gratitude for the shared wisdom, while Blizzard Heart finished off her tea. However, Sky Breath seemed to have changed her mind regarding the plan of action. Pulling off a painted avian mask from her back, she affixed it to her face, giving her headdress a shake. Answering the other's curious looks, she simply shrugged.

"We might as well try. The worst thing that could happen is we'll find out nothing worthwhile. But I would hate myself terribly if it later turned out that my advice was the cause of some tragedy happening to Snowpitt while we were away. There are only three days left until we go our separate ways, so let's do what we're able to while we're still here."

After a minute of weighing her words, the other shamares slowly nodded one by one. A large amount of shuffling ensued, various trinkets, amulets, staves, bones, and other ritualistic trappings getting retrieved from their safekeeping.

The group split up, going in various directions. Earthsong moved closer to the fire pit. Digging through the thin snow surrounding it, she made a bare patch of dirt. After rhythmically stomping the ground several times, she slowly sat down, then laid down completely. Pressing her ear to the earth, she covered the other ear with a hoof. Thumping the ground with a foreleg, she began to hum deeply, sending vibrations through the earth. Several others took up similar positions, some moving closer to the trees.

Blizzard Heart stayed where she was, breathing deeply. Her face held an expression of deep calm, posture straight, ears alert. Slowly, her breaths became more powerful, the wind actually stirring around her with each inhalation and exhalation. A few shamares from various tribes joined her, and the small group soon became enveloped in a small bubble of blizzard, the winds swirling flurries of snow around them. Some began to whistle, imitating the fierce sounds of the northern gales, while others raised their forelegs, swaying back and forth like trees.

A dozen or so retrieved small pouches, finding clear patches of ground, or laying down mats with runic symbols woven into them. Some of them grouped together, some went alone. Quietly paying their respects and asking the spirits for guidance, they shook the pouches, tossing out collections of bones, carved shells and bits of other things. True Sight joined one group, observing the resulting shapes and quietly discussing their possible meanings in relation to their current predicament.

Sky Breath, meanwhile, was moving around in jerky, bird-like motions, letting out some birdcalls now and then. The wind stirred up around her as well, though it didn't have the freezing bite of the north. Soon, ethereal shapes of various avians were flitting past her, some slowing down briefly to circle around her before flying off. She'd invite some to land on her foreleg, nuzzling them with the wooden beak of her mask before letting them loose again.

Around half of the shamares cleared the area, joining the ponies sitting on the sidelines. They, like Current Weave, had skills in different areas that they could not apply in this situation. They quietly slowed their breaths, so as not to distract the spirits with their presence.

The crowd was watching the spectacle with mild curiosity, though most of them were more interested in their ghostly visitor. She was still in Glacier Glider's grasp, leaning back against her with the mare's forelegs wrapped around the filly's barrel. Clearly, while the display of shamaric magic was nothing new to the inhabitants of the village, it was something completely alien to the filly. She sat, slack-jawed, rapidly turning her head back and forth between the various shamares performing all kinds of feats.

Glacier Glider was watching Earthsong with some curiosity, peeking at the filly in her forelegs from the corners of her eyes now and then. Different tribes often had ponies gifted in different fields. Her tribe didn't have any shamares that could talk to the earth, seeing as the ground was covered by leagues of ice almost all the time. Therefore, this was an unusual sight for the northern tribesmare. Shamares sometimes required privacy to perform their rituals, but the vast majority of the things they did were either part of public ceremonies, or free for any curious pony to watch and possibly learn from.

She was a bit worried that the filly would get scared and try to run away, but it seemed that she was too fascinated by the whole display to be afraid. Gently running her hoof through the filly's mane, she waited for the rituals to reach their conclusions. Bit by bit, things quieted down. The winds slowed, then ceased, the whistling and howling fading into the distance. The earth shamares stopped their singing and thumping, the ground no longer shaking from their efforts. The bones and trinkets were carefully gathered up in their respective pouches, quiet murmurs of thanks being said to the spirits for their wisdom.

For a good while everything was quiet, as the shamares came out of their trances and mulled on what they managed to find out. Some ponies peeled off from the crowd, going to the cooking hall to retrieve some refreshments and snacks for the elders. A few foals approached the filly again, attempting to communicate with the stunned spirit. They didn't have much success, as none of them could understand each other, but that didn't seem to bother the foals very much. They ran their hooves through the spirit's remarkably short coat, offering their condolences for getting separated from her parents and wondering what the rest of her tribe looked like.

True Sight was the first to speak up, after swiping a hoofful of pine nuts from a pony passing out snacks to the elders. "Well, it was nothing we didn't figure out already. An unexpected surprise, which our guest certainly was. A long journey, which I assume she had to undertake to get here. A lot of confusion, as the bones landed in odd ways. Certainly something the spirit also caused aplenty. No warnings of danger, though. Anything else from the rest of you?" She asked, addressing the rest of the mares that cast the fortunes from the bones. Most shook their heads, with one adding: "Some of the bones landed sharply, pointing to danger and a journey. But I assume that the dangerous journey was what got her here, not something in the filly's future." The rest nodded in agreement.

Earthsong came next, shaking off the few pieces of dirt clinging to hear coat. "It is still winter, and the earth sleeps. Still, I did my best to find out where our visitor came from. The hooffalls of a spirit are hard to hear, but I am fairly confident that I felt echoes of her passage coming from the south. At least, with everyone here in Snowpitt, I don't think it could have been any other spirit or pony." The other shamares that listened to the earth stood quietly, not having anything else to add.

That made some ponies perk up in curiosity. The south was barren, or so it was thought. As far as anyone knew, the forest at the foothills of the mountains was the last barrier of life before a lifeless wasteland began. Yet somewhere out there lived a tribe of strange ponies.

Blizzard Heart still sat in her original spot, surrounded by the other wind speakers. The cold wind covered them all in snow and hoarfrost, making them look like statues. Unlike the rest of the group, they didn't get up or reach out to the ponies bearing food and tea. A few of them were brushing snow out of their coats, looking perplexed. Blizzard Heart wiped her muzzle, revealing a similarly confused expression on her face. Everyone looked at the elder, patiently waiting for her to collect her thoughts. Rushing the answers was pointless.

Eventually, the elder spoke. "This is truly a strange time. The spirit of the north wind is... I can't quite say specifically. It is... joyous? Victorious? Proud, smug, satisfied... either a combination or not quite exactly one of those things. It is nothing I've ever heard before. " The others around her nodded, one of them muttering, "Never have I felt the northern winds be anything but indifferent." Blizzard Heart closed her eyes again, trying to put into pony words what she felt from the wind.

"And the reason for it's feelings is... freedom. A lack of an obstacle. A new plain for it to roam and blow through, something that has been denied to it for the longest of time." Slowly rubbing her chin, she eventually nodded, satisfied with her interpretation.

The other gathered shamares glanced between themselves, not sure what to say. "What could possibly deny the wind itself access to a plain?" Asked True Sight. "It would have to be the size of a mountain. A massive mountain! And then, what could remove that mountain? Nothing could wreak destruction that terrible, not even the constellation titans themselves!" Her exclamation was followed by slow nods from the collected ponies. "And if it is truly some calamity that terrible, well. I doubt it would be in our collective power to stop it, if it came for us. At the same time, no creature that eats mountains would concern itself with something as small as us. A bear does not bother hunting mice."

"And whatever happened, I can say that it is, indeed, most likely not coming for us," interjected Sky Breath. Taking off her mask, she continued. "The spirits of birds told me of something frightening happening in the south. Something so terrifying, that many of them flew blindly from their nests, some of them picked off by predatory birds or eventually dropping dead from exhaustion. But whatever it was, it is over now. They flew around the area they left, and there is nothing frightening any more."

True Sight shook her head. "Well. That was certainly far more than any one of us expected to find out, I think. Even if much of it is still uncertain." Furrowing her brows, she bit her lip. "However, none of it sounds good for our guest's tribe. Usually, I would say that we are honor-bound to send out search parties and find her parents. But, seeing as she was the only one that came here, and we do not know the lands to the south, it would be rather pointless, if not dangerous. We can only hope that her scattered tribe manages to pull themselves together again from whatever fate befell them." The gathered ponies looked at the ghostly filly with sympathy. It was a painful thing, to learn news of an amazing new tribe somewhere far way, only to then find out about their potential demise.

But the elder wasn't finished."Now then," she spoke sharply. Snapping out of their gloom, everyone turned her way. "You know the rules. We open our doors and light our hearths to any traveler. She is a slightly unusual guest, but a guest nonetheless. We might not need to feed and warm her, but we are still obliged by the rules of hospitality." Now that a clear course of action was being presented, many ponies perked up, listening attentively. "And it doesn't look like she feels drawn to our tribe's resting grounds at all." Glancing at the filly, she saw the spirit nervously taking a few steps away from Glacier Glider, following a few foals that were trying to involve her in some game. She didn't even look at the firepit ringed with spirit stones. While no fires were lit at the moment, it was still a beacon for any of their lost tribespeople.

"So, here is what we are going to do. We will build her a totem, and give her a place to stay in Snowpitt. Yes, this is usually only done for guardian spirits. But these are not usual circumstances. We do not know when, if ever, her tribe's shamares will manage to call her back home. She might someday decide to make the journey herself, even. Until that happens, she will be free to stay as long as she wants to." Various ponies nodded at her, muttering between themselves. Plans were already being made. A tree would have to be selected from the southern forest, proper apologies performed to calm it's spirit, then cut down for the totem pole. Dyes would be retrieved, sacred carving tools would need sharpening, and proper blessings would need to be laid down by the shamares.

All of the plotting was interrupted by a jaw-cracking yawn from True Sight. "Tomorrow, that is. We can start tomorrow. For now, it's late, and I need my beauty sleep." The ponies chuckled, helping the tired elders up and leading them back to the warmth of their lodges. As she was passing Glacier Glider, True Sight nodded to the mare. She would doubtlessly take the filly in for the night. Heck, she'd probably fight anyone trying to take that honor away from her. Matters settled, the elderly mare went off to get some well-deserved shuteye.

❅ ❆ ❅

These ponies were strange.

That wasn't just her opinion, Agate decided. These ponies were well and truly strange. She scratched her head, still wondering just what in the world was that display of magic about. There was nothing else it could have been, even if it was quite unlike anything she ever saw, or heard about. Unicorn and pegasi performers from Equestria came to the Empire to show off all kinds of flashy magic and fancy tricks, though nothing like that. There was an occasional earth pony too, usually performing their admittedly impressive feats of strength. But they couldn't summon a blizzard with a song - not even the pegasi were remotely capable of doing something like that - or do any of the other things the group of old mares did. Even if she didn't understand most of the things they did, she was sure it was just as impressive to the ponies that actually understood what was happening.

Her wonderings were interrupted by the trio of foals that had been pestering her for some time. The adults were mostly giving her space and looking on in curiosity or sympathy, but it looked like the three decided to get her to interact with them, one way or another. They were two colts around her age and a younger filly, all sharing their tribe's ridiculously fluffy coats and cavorting around in the snow without a care. She was mildly jealous of that.

The younger of the two mares that brought her to the village was still holding on to her. One of the colts, a gray-coated, black-maned ball of fluff waved her over, trying to get her to leave the mare's hug. The mare smiled, nuzzling her mane and nodding towards the foals. Uncertainly, she went over to the trio. They smiled widely, obviously considering this a huge victory already. The colt started babbling something, though he was talking so fast that she couldn't even tell apart the separate words.

"You remember that I can't understand you, right? You already tried talking to me the first time you approached me."

Again, they didn't seem to care. Getting her to talk seemed to be a success in their eyes as well. They kept talking at her, while the other colt started miming things and hopping around, wagging his brown tail excitedly. It might have actually worked to explain whatever rules of the game they were trying to impart to her, if they all didn't keep getting distracted by each other's differences. The young filly, who was the quietest of the three, kept looking at her sides, examining her short coat with great fascination, comparing it to her own eggshell-brown one. While Agate herself couldn't help but stare at the colts that were displaying their uncanny ability to somehow not only walk, but outright jump on the snow without sinking through at all.

The gray-coated colt noticed her staring at his forelegs. Raising one foreleg to his muzzle, he examined it with some confusion. Not finding anything out of place, he asked the brown colt something. He shrugged, pondered a moment, and uncertainly answered, pointing to the snow. The gray one's eyes lit up, and he excitedly pointed to the side. Looking in that direction, Agate saw a log house with a pine tree growing next to it. The trio made their way close to the tree, waving her over.

Following them, she saw the gray colt puff out his chest in pride. He pointed to her muzzle, then his hooves. It seemed like he was saying, "Watch me." Coming close to the tree, he gave it a firm buck. He was still a foal, though, so it barely did anything, but some snow did fall from it's branches. Moving next to the powdery, fresh pile of snow, he pointed to his hooves again, and then stepped right on the snowdrift. All without even crushing it. When he stepped off, there was barely a hoof mark on it. He puffed his chest again, a self satisfied smile on his face.

Agate was suitably impressed. This kind of ability would have certainly come in useful during her journey. The brown colt went next, performing only slightly worse. He left visible hoofprints in the snow, but it was still amazing how he managed to just ignore gravity.

The young filly stood next to Agate, her ears folded. As the brown colt stepped off the snowdrift, he started to say something obviously encouraging to the filly, the gray one soon joining in. Slowly, she started walking forward, though it was obviously taking her more effort than the two older foals. Sticking her tongue out in concentration, she carefully climbed on top of the drift, methodically putting one hoof in front of the other. Her skill was clearly not as developed, because as soon as she stopped, the filly started sinking through.

Jumping off, she sent a flurry of snow cascading behind her as the colts laughed. As she shook her fetlocks clean of snowflakes, the gray colt was gesticulating something to her again, pointing at his hooves and the snow. Probably explaining this snowwalking skill of theirs.

"Still can't understand you," Agate said with a smile. "But thank you for showing this to me. That was very interesting. You ponies clearly know how to survive in the cold."

Further conversation was interrupted as the mare that almost hugged her to death came back. Saying something to the foals, she turned to Agate, pointing at her, then herself, then some houses in the distance. Probably inviting Agate to go with her again. The foals seemed disappointed, but they didn't argue. The two colts waved goodbye, while the shy filly gave her a quick hug before galloping off.

The mare smiled, waving her over. Agate followed, examining her surroundings. The village seemed to be quite uniform, all log buildings with some having stone foundations. A few trees grew here and there, though not many. And of course, everything was covered in varying levels of now and ice.

Soon, they made their way to one of the buildings, a log house that was far longer than it was wide. A longhouse. She giggled internally at her joke. Making their way inside, they were greeted by the sight of a number of ponies relaxing in various positions. Some were lying in beds, others were boiling something in clay pots hung over the several firepits inside. Further to her right, a family seemed to be teaching their foals something, holding out a rope demonstratively and tying it in various knots.

The mare went to the left side of the building, Agate following along. They came to a segment of the building that was most likely owned by the mare. The filly curiously looked around at the things stacked on shelves and hung from the ceiling. There were nets, ropes, and several long spears, with spearheads made from some unknown white material. Was she a member of the Guard that these ponies had?

A stallion greeted the mare, the two rubbing their noses affectionately. He was huge, almost half again her size. His pale gray coat was similar to the mare's, though his mane was black, and his fetlocks were curiously white as snow. She was so busy staring at the giant that the two fillies that snuck up on her went completely unnoticed until one of them poked her in the back.

"Eek!"

The two adults - probably the filly's parents - turned around, the stallion letting out a rumbling chuckle while the mare rolled her eyes, gently admonishing the foals. The duo gave guilty smiles, obviously not having any true remorse for startling Agate.

The mare spoke to them, gesturing at Agate while the rest of the family looked on curiously. The stallion nodded then and again, while the fillies were openly staring at her in naked fascination. The explanation didn't take very long, and soon the family went back to their business after nodding at her and making a wide gesture around the longhouse. Probably inviting Agate to make herself at home. The mare retrieved a clay pot and a pouch of herbs. Opening the pot, she suddenly stopped, smacking herself in the head.

Running back outside, she soon came back with the bucket of snow she was carrying previously. Pouring it out into the pot, she carried it over to one of the firepits. Agate watched her with one eye, while she kept examining the family's belongings. It really looked like they were warriors of some kind, or perhaps craftsponies that made weapons and other things, like grandpa Coal. There were some clay pots, likely containing food, and a large bed covered in soft-looking moss that was large enough to hold the entire family.

Soon, the mare came back, adding the herbs from the pouch to the pot. The stallion was busy carving out a new spearhead from the white material, meticulously grinding down the blunt edges into sharper ones with a piece of rock. What was it made of? Some kind of exotic northern mineral? She certainly didn't see anything like it before.

Unlike the other foals, the two fillies didn't seem interested in playing, electing to lay down on the bed and mutter sleepily among themselves. It was probably late at this point, though Agate still had trouble telling time. Soon, the mare poured out the tea into clay cups for herself and the rest of her family, softly calling out to the two fillies.

Things quieted down as the family partook in the drink. Looking around, she noticed that the rest of the inhabitants were looking tired as well, retreating into their sleeping corners. The four soon finished their tea, stowing the cups away on a shelf and making their way to the bed as well. To Agate's surprise, the mare waved her over. What now? She didn't sleep ever since she died. Could she sleep if she tried, though?

While the filly was still a bit skeptical, these ponies clearly knew a lot more about her current state of being than any pony in the Empire. Following the mare on the bed, she laid down among the other fillies, in between the parents. The mare gave her a knowing smile, reaching out with a foreleg and gently closing Agate's eyes, cooing soft reassurances. A brief stab of panic ran through the filly, reminding her of being lost in absolute silence and darkness right after she died.

However, she could still feel the coats of the fillies lying next to her, and hear the gentle breathing of the other ponies around her. Opening her eyes for a moment just to reassure herself that she could still see, Agate closed her eyes again, trying to capture the feeling of drifting off to slumber.

It didn't quite work. After laying there for a while, she didn't feel herself getting even a bit sleepy or tired, though when she opened her eyes again, the fires in the pits had burned down to glowing coals, indicating that a lot more time than she expected had passed. Closing her eyes, she tried clearing her mind of thoughts. It took some effort, but eventually she managed to enter a kind of half-sleep state, feeling like she was floating on nothing. No nightmares chased her this time.