Triptych

by Estee

First published

When a new mission for the Element-Bearers (from an unexpected source) arrives three weeks after Twilight's ascension, she finds herself forced to confront a pair of questions: what truly makes an alicorn? And what happens if it goes wrong?

For a thousand years, there was just Celestia. Then Cadance appeared, Luna returned -- and now Twilight has ascended. There are ponies who are very curious about just what happened, why -- and how. Especially the how. Twilight herself is on that list, a freshly-minted princess with far more questions than answers, about to face a brand new one: what truly makes an alicorn?

And what happens if it goes wrong?

(Part of the Triptych Continuum, which has its own TVTropes page and FIMFiction group. New members and trope edits welcome.)

Now with author Patreon page.

Cover art by GroaningGreyAgony.

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They watched, and they grew steadily more excited as they continued to stalk their prey.

This has to be said: most Diamond Dogs do not eat ponies -- immediately. They like to think of themselves as a slaver race, and catching something simply to consume it is a waste of valuable resources. It's far better to let the pony work itself to the point of death over several years and then -- once the labor pool loses a drop on its own -- see what the marinade of sweat and despair has done for the flavor. Even then, it's a rare treat. Even in their strongest days, before the hated Diarchy, they did not allow their slaves to breed: the cries of infants were too painful for them, and allowing adults time to raise the children was a loss they could not bear. (Diamond Dogs can typically plan into the next hour and some of the brightest can make it to next week, but seeing forward to Next Generation requires a genius not seen in their species for several decades. It's part of why they keep trying to kidnap ponies: the Diarchy surely won't respond by afternoon and they probably won't be here by tomorrow -- and anything after that is of no concern. In fact, once the response does come, anything left capable of feeling concern tends to be minimal.) They did not stockade future feasts while attempting to see how combining coat colors improved the flavor. They simply waited through their eternal near-now -- and then waited some more. No easy feat for a race historically so bad at waiting that their future exists in two states: immediately is not soon enough and hurry up already! But ponies were so hard to catch and keep that waiting was actually easier. There's a Diamond Dog saying which few outside their packs have ever heard: it will be done when the mane falls off, representing a time period slightly shorter than forever which the suffering canine must still endure. So they wait. Only a few of their breed in any generation claim to know the taste of pony meat (and most may be liars): joining that honored pack is worth facing the endless chasm of time.

But these Diamond Dogs -- there were five of them, outcast from the mines together for an act of theft which had seemed more brilliant than the targeted gems for the hour they had planned through -- were at that point of considering a meal without gaining a slave first. They were hungry: they had been away from their caves for an immense duration (eight days), they couldn't burrow back in without facing the threat of exile becoming death, and they had been thrown out without maps to other warren-runs -- not that they were able to read such witchery. They had not seen a mole or rabbit for that entire pressing weight of virtual forevers. None of the local creatures were within their catching lore, and there were few dead-end fully-enclosed corners to chase things into. They hated this thing called weather, hated even more the parts named rain and wind -- especially the latter, forever stealing scents and misleading them. (It was windy today, and becoming steadily more so as they stalked: they had been lucky to see the pony rather than smelling her out.) They had no place of their own for the pony to dig through: at best, they would be trying to keep it on the surface, the pony's world -- an invitation to disaster, letting one stay under the watchful and loathed eyes of Sun and Moon. The pony was there, it was meat --

-- and it was hurt.

Female, the most intelligent of the dogs knew that much. (He had seen ponies once, from a great distance. It made him the expert.) Winged, and that made them soak trails of drool into their bare vests (stripped of gems as part of the exile: steal from the pack, lose what the pack had granted). Winged and on the ground, whimpering slightly as it picked a path through the forest. They had learned to hate the green place, learned quickly, but the pony seemed as uncomfortable here as they were, and hadn't spotted them behind the hard brown things which they could not dig through.

Female, winged -- but not flying. Perhaps not able to fly. The winged ones were the stuff of legend for Diamond Dogs: nearly impossible to catch, just as hard to keep. Those with horns could do things to them which weren't understood and those with neither wings nor horns -- no, those legends weren't something any of the five wanted to think about, especially since it didn't apply here. But the other two were on the ground, and the winged ones -- couldn't be reached. They stood on clouds and laughed at Diamond Dogs, sent rain and lightning down as the punchlines to their private jests. The canines resented those who did what they could not and few more than the winged ones, who danced with Sun and Moon far above the places where Diamond Dogs lurked and, just every so often, wondered what they were missing.

Her coat was the soft tan of dried-out surface dirt (garnet ground) with a short blue mane and tail (sapphire, low grade, good only for buckles) and deep purple eyes (finest amethyst). They noticed the mark on its flank, but it meant nothing to them: it was just a shape, and since it wasn't the shape of a weapon, it was of no concern. The colors, the twisting -- meaningless.

The wings were -- off. The tips had some of that purple hue, visible because the pony kept shaking them out from its body, moaning softly as it did so. Even to the Diamond Dogs' eyes, the feathers seemed to be misaligned, not quite right, although that could have been due to the wind shaking them: the hated gusts were still increasing in speed, and now the green leafy things were whipping into them where they hid. The expert thought she was a bit larger than the females he'd seen before -- but it did not matter. For those large eyes were squinched in pain (or against the wind, which was really bad now), and the sounds said agony came whenever those wings moved, wherever hoof contacted ground. Alone. Hurt. And there were five of them: no amount of air movement or scent confusion could change that fact.

Wasn't flying. Couldn't fly. Easy prey.

Exile didn't pay for the honor they were about to receive, but the honor would take some of the sting away -- at least for an hour.

So they stalked, pushing forward against the wind which would not stop getting stronger, almost seeming to shove them back -- but the brown things were also good for clinging to, and the pony still hadn't noticed them. She was lost in her private torture: plant a hoof, moan, move a wing, whimper, repeat. The wings were moving a little faster now, and the smallest Diamond Dog wondered if she might be about to fly. He was quieted quickly to keep the pony from hearing them over the wind, which would have been difficult: there was a hunting howl coming from the air itself, inspirational. It told the exiles this strange world approved of their plan. Perhaps they were welcome here. Perhaps they could even carve out a warren open to the once-fearful sky.

They stalked, they got into position to surround -- and then they sprung out.

The pony bucked, wings fully unfurled -- but did not fly. Helpless, grounded, screaming something which they all dismissed. Of course it wanted them to stay back. Naturally it didn't desire them to come any closer. Meat wanted to survive: it was only to be expected. Meat was always wrong. They closed in.

The expert was watching the wings, still thinking about the concerns of the smallest. It had seen a pony fly that one time, and it knew how the wings moved. These were moving -- but not enough to get the pony into the air. And it might have been the wind moving them, the wind that now howled like a Diamond Dog in its moment of greatest triumph, a Diamond Dog about to take down a winged one --

-- and then they received an even greater honor.

The expert saw it first as it took shape: the narrow funnel at the bottom, the wide mouth at the top. The planner of the theft, on the pony's other side, spotted the second one forming, no more than five dig-scoops tall. They tried to call to each other, ask the pack for help to figure out what was going on, but they could no longer hear anything but the movement of the air as it screamed at them, shook the brown things and tore away green things and sent all the little bits of meat running away. The pony was saying something, and those words were taken by the wind as well -- but not the tears flowing from her eyes. Her coat, her mane and tail, her pain was untouched.

Just before they were hurled away, a split-second before two of the pack suffered the impacts which would eventually kill them, the exiled Diamond Dogs became the first members of their species ever to see wind.

And the last thought of the expert just before he went into the largest of the brown things was a memory of his former pack's eldest telling him the best thing he could ever know about hunting ponies: it just wasn't worth it.

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In time, these would be the last words she saw before the world went white.

A cutie mark cannot be spontaneously created. She had known that. There was no magic which would force a permanent one to appear from nothing. Even if the caster knew what the recipient's talent was and made a mark to suit, all it would buy them was the same result: a second of visibility, hours of exhaustion, and a night spent with a splitting headache.

A cutie mark can be temporarily concealed, albeit with great effort. Another well-established fact. Spells existed to briefly return the target to their youthful blank flank status, some more powerful than others. The best offensive one blocked the victimized pony's access to their special talent for a few precious seconds -- and made the splitting headache of the forced appearance spell into a fond longing, for the time when you only wanted to crawl into a hole and die was about to look like the best part of your life. Mundane disguises tended to -- wear away. Quickly, as if vaporized by the mark's resentment. Paints, dyes, fur-blending potions -- a day at best. Only clothing worked long-term, and most mares and stallions outside of Canterlot and Manehattan didn't treat their wardrobe as an everyday thing: without the matching accent, constant coverage would seem quirky at best and at worst, extremely deliberate -- especially if the pony in question was fully dressed in the privacy of their own home with no one to show their latest style off to.

(There had been a time in Equestrian history where the surest sign of a criminal -- or spy -- was any outfit which fully covered the flanks. Stop-and-search challenges had been hotly debated in the courts of the time. Fashion had, according to some, suffered accordingly, although the resulting peek-a-boo string-pull windows had apparently settled in for other uses.)

A cutie mark can be transferred, but only the mark itself moves: not the talent it represents. Something only a few ponies in the world were supposed to know. A fact which wasn't supposed to spread.

A cutie mark can be delayed, sometimes indefinitely. (And the colors had begun to leach out of her vision's edges.) Sheerest abuse, to see what somepony's talent would be and prevent them from practicing it, block them from accessing their deepest self, convinced it was better for them to remain blank-flanked their entire lives rather than be themselves -- but it happened. Parents angry that their child wouldn't be following in their footsteps, desperate to stop the branch before it spit from the main trunk. Always during the trials, they would say it was for the child's own good, that destiny didn't know as much as a loving mother or father, and she would see the Princess' eyes narrow as her mane flowed faster and the faint sparks threatened to flare into something more. None of those ponies ever saw their children again. Some of them never saw Equestria again.

And then the ones which had made it all falsely go away, masked out the horrors of a life in a wash of purest scream, with the last things understood before that flashpoint the joy and exuberance which went into the bold letters, and that the stains on the parchment had come from tears of joy.

A cutie mark can be manipulated...

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Twilight Sparkle was flying.

Sort of.

What she was mostly doing was feeling like the biggest idiot the alicorn sub-species (currently, to the best of her knowledge, numbering at four) had ever produced -- a state she had spent most of her post-transformation time in. Here's Twilight Sparkle, Princess Of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. That's right: we have a Princess each for the Sun, Moon, Love, and now for unknown reasons, the universe has decided we need somepony to exemplify the need to get up at three in the morning and make sure the one a.m. reshelving is still intact. Behold her as she does not even remotely majestically soar above the clouds, probably making sure each one has been molded to a regulation shape and trimming off the edges of whatever doesn't fit. She was sure somepony in the Canterlot Courts was having that particular conversation, possibly even printing it under the name Gabby Gums Junior. She'd had it a number of times, mostly with herself and twice with a very patient owl who had, to his credit, done his best to present "Hoo?" as a counterargument in all the right places, none of which had convinced her of anything.

Twilight flew --

-- to be fair, she was in the air and she was moving, but it would be hard to call it flight. Certainly not in front of Rainbow Dash, who would have been falling out of clouds, trees, and whatever else was handy with I'll-care-about-your-feelings-later -- maybe -- laughter at the sight. Twilight didn't understand flight.

This mystified her.

She understand aerodynamics better than most pegasi (which inevitably offended them should she happen to bring it up. Again) and had more of a grasp on telekinetic levitation, pun intended should one happen to exist, than ninety-nine percent of the unicorn race. Shortly before her transformation, she had been researching self-levitation, a trick accomplished by very few unicorns. (She blamed the educational system. Unicorns were taught to let their natural magical field flow forward and fully surround the object they wanted to lift. Letting it go backwards then became a twist of thinking most were unable to surmount. Only the youngest, who didn't know any better and had low body weight to move anyway, did it naturally: anypony with even the most basic training wound up having a giant fundamental to unlearn.) Somehow, none of that added up to wing movement resulting in smooth passage through the atmosphere. She had flown once, immediately after her coronation, when the joy had suffused her to the point where it had to be expressed -- and that had resulted in her taking an aerial tour of the land around Canterlot while happily singing to herself about how everything was going to be fine. She had done it without planning, without a checklist, without thought, and told herself (once she had landed) that she was going to be repeating the experience whenever she liked.

She had been wrong. And she was not flying. She was --

-- well, call it 'randomly flailing at the air with wings which seemed ready to part from her body, somehow resulting in semi-coherent short bursts of movement in any given direction, occasionally including 'down'.' It's a lot kinder than what Twilight was calling it.

And now here she was at five in the morning (chosen under the certain knowledge that there was no way under Luna's waxing Moon that Rainbow Dash would be awake to witness anything), over Ponyville -- all over Ponyville -- trying to keep a quasi-straight course. Trying to go around the nighttime clouds (which Rainbow Dash was supposed to have cleared before the previous sunset) from fear of going into them --

-- and when she did make inevitable tumbling contact (collision), finding herself going through.

She was an alicorn. The best of the three main races -- she wasn't sure how crystal ponies worked into it and hadn't found a way to ask the Princess yet -- put together. Clouds were supposed to be solid for her. She was supposed to be able to manipulate the weather at her command. And she had tried. She'd reached out to them with her magic, found herself able to move them -- but that was nothing: Rarity had been able to do as much under the influence of Star Swirl's spell. She couldn't trigger rain and lightning on command any more than Rarity had been able to (although some of the results from her fumbles had gone into the Everfree and earned her a stinging twenty-minute lecture from Zecora, all in iambic pentameter). She couldn't physically touch the clouds without her standard vapor-walking spell. She could try to control her levitation vector, balance off the pressure she put on herself against the ground below her and use her field for last-minute saves before crashing into Berry Punch's re-relocated home. She could consider everything she knew about physics and thaumaturgy and throw it all together --

-- but she couldn't fly. Not more than once. And she didn't know how she'd done it then, hadn't been paying enough attention to analyze and replicate...

Something else she hadn't been able to ask the Princess about, one more question on an ever-increasing list. Pardon me, but exactly how do you keep from plummeting through every cloud you land on? Any hints, maybe a, oh, I don't know, manual, or is this something that takes a thousand years to master?

Her mind noted the last sentence --

-- and her body went into City Hall.

To wit, the bell at the very top.

Her head rang. The bell chorused nicely. Lights began to come on all over Ponyville as its citizens decided to take a quick look at the latest disaster before running away from it.

Those who peeked outside found a softly vibrating bell humming to itself in a fast-fading night as the first of Celestia's twice-daily command performances sent a hint of glow across the horizon. None of them saw the shaken purple alicorn making her unsteady way back towards the library. On hoof.

She needed to figure out how to fly. That was the least of it. A symptom -- or rather, the first thing on the checklist. Once she got that right, everything else would fall into place. It had to.

Everything was not fine. And she had no idea how to fix it.

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Quiet Presence had been reading for most of the night. A new couch -- full-length to allow his body to spread out -- none of this 'sitting' fad some of the fillies were crowing about -- beautifully padded, imported by pegasi couriers at great expense and nearly dropped into his koi pond, came with a dozen sample quills for Luna-knew what reason -- had proved immediately addictive, and he had luxuriously stretched across its length, levitated his chosen tract into the built-in holder, and allowed his field to flick across the pages at need.

The tract was a mere three hundred years old. Quiet Presence liked to think of himself as somepony who was open to newfangled ideas.

If you were to describe Quiet Presence... well, there's the challenge, really. There are ponies whose coats and marks display bright colors and shapes, energetic ponies whose presence seems barely ground-bound (and a third who simply aren't). You have everyday citizens who stand out in their way, to the point where you almost seem to be spotting them everywhere you go. And then you had Quiet Presence, who is -- and that's about all you could say for him. Ponies generally looked at him as if something very interesting was on the other side and after a few seconds, most of them started to see it. About all most ponies managed to retain was 'I think there was a unicorn...' And that was accurate, of course: his family was proud of their unicorn heritage, generation after generation without openly mixing their blood, he was honored by his horn and all it represented, the purity of it...

...the visible purity, anyway...

...but to say what he looked like, physically? He was the second-newest thing in the room after the couch (and there had been a tremendous fight with his spouse over buying something made in this century), he had a horn of standard issue, certainly he was a stallion even if his build didn't fully reflect his gender, his coat seemed to blend against the grey stone walls of the family castle and rendered him into a blinking part of the landscape if he stood still long enough (which he frequently did) and his cutie mark -- was barely there. The subconscious would register that he had one, but making out the exact shape of it required a long inspection and several go-overs to make sure nothing had moved while you weren't looking. Which was ridiculous, of course, cutie marks didn't move -- but it gave off the same impression he did, on the rare occasion he made any at all: that the whole thing could just fade away at any moment and nopony would care.

Even his field was colorless, the only indication of its presence being tiny twinkles at the corner of each page.

He flipped the parchment over, read another paragraph, took a moment to ponder the words he had been over dozens of times before. They still confused him. Warnings about the powerless... well, the author was widely believed to be mad, but that was all the more reason to examine her words. Insanity had a way of finding insights where the sane did not dare to glimpse. Clearly not this particular passage, but -- here and there. Just not here and now. Another page.

There was a knocking sound, perilously close to his right ear.

He did not jump: he was not in a position for it and jumping showed a certain lack of reserve. Instead, he turned his head slowly to the right until he was looking directly at the table lantern, brought in to banish the shadows which would otherwise accumulate near a book's spine. It was now hovering a precise three inches over the marble surface, surrounded by a steady silver glow.

It went back to table level: the base knocked against the stone. Up, down. Three times. Returned to hovering.

Quiet Presence took a long, slow look around his study. There were bookshelves, lamps, extra couches for when he had guests, serving tables for snacks and books which had yet to be reshelved. What there was not: a single window, in part because they were rather pointless when your favorite reading space happened to be underground. When your rulers had control of the sky and some of your personal library could be considered a bit -- controversial -- you got into the habit of building enclosed spaces. His ancestors had spent centuries perfecting the craft. Decorating had been most of it, and thus the "this century" tiff.

Back to the lantern. The silver glow held it without even a hair's worth of shift. There wasn't a sparkle in it.

Carefully, so as not to pull any fragile muscles, Quiet Presence got off the couch and slowly trotted up the passageway back towards the main castle, making sure to nudge all the proper things with his field along the way. The lantern remained behind, still glowing. Every so often, it knocked again.

Eventually, he reached the door, opened it, and let a sincerely impressed politeness serve as his immediate ambassador. "With no line of sight," he told his honored guest, "over more than eighty paces on the most direct angle, based purely off your memory of where I would place a lantern if I was in the room at this hour. If I could just learn that trick --"

-- and his visitor's muzzle hit Quiet Presence's shoulder. Soot was dislodged on impact.

The rest of his greeting was put aside indefinitely.

It took time and care to bring the older stallion through the castle's open passages without being seen. They were able to move somewhat faster once they reached the concealed travelways, but they were still restricted by that hobbled movement, that horrible dragging right hind leg, and by Quiet Presence's weakness of body. He could barely take the weight of his companion, could barely withstand his own most days.

"Not broken," his visitor rasped out, coughing more black dust with each word. "Just -- pulled. Pulled through the fire and forged..."

"Easy, first friend," the younger stallion told his guest, trying to keep his burdened voice steady. "We're almost there. I can have help here within the hour." Private help, those who would speak of this to no pony except each other. If the injured stallion had come here instead of a hospital...

A head shake: more black cloud staining the stone. "I need -- rest more than anything else." A sigh. "She is not here, I know that now. I told her to come to you should anything happen, but..."

Quiet Presence blinked: for a moment, there seemed to be but a single stallion in the dim passage, leaning against nothing. "I haven't seen her." He had seen her all of once. He hadn't enjoyed it. He had understood, certainly, shared the pain and regret, but...

"No. You would have called to me. But I had to be sure..." A few more paces. "I think -- she teleported. I couldn't stay behind, not for more than a few minutes, and even that was a risk, but the tang in the air -- no time to analyze, but it had to be a teleport..."

Quiet Presence moved -- but considerately, bracing the older stallion so that his injured elder would not fall at the loss of his support before switching position to face him directly. He had to be eye-to-eye for this, had to be. "A teleport? You're sure --" cut himself off. "Of course you're sure, you wouldn't be here if you weren't..." Each word more excited than the last: still soft, but only the need for secrecy keeping them from becoming full shouts, the sheer rapture threatening to erupt in a storm of decibels. "It worked?"

And the older stallion said "No -- and yes." It was a statement. Most of the things he ever said were statements. Few questions which weren't rhetorical, the self-doubt over the teleport was as much as he'd ever expressed. Simple plain words: I have said this, therefore it is true, even if you don't understand it. Maybe it's even true because you don't understand it. It was stated and for him, it was done.

The younger blinked again: gone, back. "I -- don't understand."

"I will," came the reply. Another statement. "With rest. We are closer -- so much closer... we may even be there... but I need rest."

And Quiet Presence understood that nothing more would come without that rest, took some of his elder's weight again, helped him move towards the hidden bed nestled among the emergency supplies.

But he was wrong. Three more words came, all tinged with amazement, awe -- and perhaps, just a hint of weary satisfaction.

"It was beautiful..."

Stated. Therefore true.

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It wasn't as if Twilight was the only one awake at this hour, of course. Some denizens of Ponyville rose earlier than others, but most of those in town stayed within their homes or workplaces until the sun had fully risen. Of her friends -- Applejack rose when the need to work overcame the last lingering desire for sleep. Or rather, she slept when her body's need for rest finally overwhelmed the drive to work: even after acknowledging her inability to do everything by herself, the mare often greeted Luna and Celestia in turn for several days before somepony finally stopped her, typically by placing something too solid to push in front of the hard head and waiting for the exhausted effort to slip into snoring on the spot.

Fluttershy had to deal with her current flock and at any given moment, a good part of it would be nocturnal. Twilight had suspected the real reason the pegasus allowed her mane to obscure her eyes was so that nopony could tell when she was catching an emergency nap: she was up at all hours on any given day, and night, and often beyond. It had to catch up with her eventually -- but Twilight had never heard so much as a yawn, and getting a word of complaint was a complete loss. Fluttershy being so very sorry, I'm so weak for needing sleep, please don't hate me for it? Considerably more likely.

Rarity's inspirations frequently would not allow her the comfort of a bed (sleep mask: silk, mattress: down, sheets: thread count reaching for five digits) until every last one was at least sketched into less tenuous existence -- or patterned, or sewn, occasionally a dozen times before she was satisfied. Or collapsed with horn against sewing machine, whichever came first. Twilight had walked in on her one morning to find her in that state -- with the machine surrounded by her signature soft blue glow, still running. Dream-casting: a sign that a unicorn had pushed herself past her limits to the point where the subconscious took over and started implementing designs of its own. From all evidence, Rarity had been dreaming of spirals. None of those designs had ever seen the light of the Boutique's windows.

Rainbow Dash could be counted on for sleep. Any hour, any day, any occasion -- and the more important said occasion was, the better it was for napping through. How does one develop the skill to clear the sky in ten seconds flat? By never doing it in the originally-allotted two hours. It was an open secret around Ponyville that there were pillows hidden in strategic locations just about everywhere, although never too close to the rubber balls and eyepatches.

As for the last...

...there was a light on within the back room of Sugarcube Corner. (Which Twilight was slinking behind, still trying to stay out of sight. Because it wasn't as if there were any other purple alicorns about at this hour.) This was hardly an unusual event: ponies expect to get their baked goods within minutes of venturing outside and any establishment not willing to serve during every hour of the day was begging for a short lifespan and a former owner seeking a job in weather manipulation. Manehattan, notorious for never sleeping (Applejack had snorted "At least they do somethin' right!"), had pioneered the twenty-four hour waft of fresh bread, and other cities had followed suit. Ponyville didn't have enough night traffic to justify that kind of business yet, so the Cakes went with the small town pattern: the bread rises with Celestia. Or else.

There was a view of pink through the glass. It caught Twilight's eye, mostly because it had been a view. Not a glimpse or a sudden flash: this had lasted long enough to not only register, but get filed under Unusual Events, Better Check This Out Before Something Horrible, Possibly Involving Mirror Pools, Happens. She reluctantly turned -- she never knew what she was going to get here, only that it would leave her either smiling, with a pounding migraine or, in extreme cases, both -- and peeked through the smallest pane.

Pinkie Pie, of course. Alone, which was a bit of surprise: she would have expected the Cakes to be awake and fully immersed in their craft, an art and science which still hadn't reached the PhD stage of getting the frosting even. And -- moving. Carefully. No pronking (the word for that four-hoofed hop Pinkie was often caught in -- Twilight had been surprised to find there was one), no near-rainboom speed sprint from station to station. Instead, the hyperactive earth pony was trotting at a measured pace between her self-given assignments. Ingredients were pressed tightly between front hooves, measuring cups gently lifted by teeth and tipped at calculated angles for exact measures of time. Twilight could easily imagine Pinkie's train of thought -- a prospect that normally left her shaking -- and it went as a simple One, two, three -- and next. Scoop, pour, mix. Stir for one, two, three, four -- and next. Measure, check. Level off contents of tray, excess back to bowl. Move to oven. Pull protective heat covers over mouth (and said covers just came out of bucking nowhere because a weirdly calm Pinkie remains Pinkie) and place new tray in, then remove old tray with teeth. Carry to display plate and shake muffins loose so that they land in a perfect pyramid. One, two, three, and stop and look directly at me --

"Oh, hi, Twilight!" It was a whisper. Not a stage the-town-square-can-hear-me-and-I-mean-in-Fillydelphia whisper: a real one. "You can come in if you promise to be careful. The door's not locked."

We did block the mirror pool properly, right? Well, inside was better for not being spotted than out, and Pinkie had no idea what she'd been up to -- she thought. It was Pinkie: being sure about anything generally wasn't Twilight's best bet. She went in.

Pinkie smiled at her, nodded, and then continued her careful, measured, precise ballet among the ingredients. More smells wafted. Every last one of their sources remained unconsumed. Twilight was beginning to feel somewhat unnerved. "Pinkie?"

"Yes?" Turn, lift, crack eggs between teeth so that none of the shell went into the bowl, mix. Twilight had heard a lot of talk about 'the inherent limitations of mandible dexterity' from her instructors in magic kindergarten. None of it seemed to exist here.

"Where are the Cakes?" Is that something only the real Pinkie would know -- oh, stop it: I blocked that thing with Tom.

"Still asleep," Pinkie softly replied. "It was a bad night with Pumpkin and Pound. She's got a little hoof infection and of course if she's up crying, he's going to cry just to make her feel better. I told them I'd take care of the morning shift." Spin, remix, fold in nuts...

Twilight took the chance. "But aren't you going a little -- slow?"

Pinkie stopped.

Blue eyes focused on purple. Narrowed. Just for a second, it seemed as if the curls of her mane were losing loft -- and then she rolled her eyes and went back to her dance. "Baking is chemistry, Twilight. Do you know what happens when you rush chemistry?" Set down the latest bowl for a second, reared back on her hind legs, spread the front legs out. Softly, "Boom!" And back to four-planted work. "Eat fast, run fast, play fast -- bake slow." Just the smallest head shake. "The Cakes wouldn't let me be here at all if I didn't..." She let the unspoken words finish for her, allowed Twilight to hear the ones Pinkie would never say: Are you going to zap me into a pool any time I do something that doesn't fit what you expect of me?

Twilight went with the ones she had to say. "I'm sorry."

"Okey-dokey-loki!" The dance continued. "And get your magic away from those cupcakes!"

The field-surrounded one (carrot, blood orange filling, cream cheese icing) guiltily slipped back under the display dome. "But -- there were thirteen..."

Pinkie Pie gave her a Look and a smile -- one that Twilight had spent moons on the receiving end of, the combination which said Do I have to write the Princess just because you've been confronted with a prime number?

Twilight lightly blushed and sank onto her haunches, resisting the urge to look outside for a photographer. Yes, the Alicorn Of Obsession. Conqueror of horrors. Part of the team which reverted Luna, battled Discord, freed the crystal ponies. Taken out of herself by the prospect of a number which couldn't be divided by two, three, and six all at the same time. Equestria's newest some-kind-of-royalty. All hail.

She stayed in that humiliated position for a while as Pinkie continued her rhythmic dance. Lift, spin, tuck, fold, mix... there was a certain beauty to it. Yes, it was chemistry: the scientist in her could appreciate that. Add all the essences together in proper proportion, make sure the ratios were just so, and a kind of magic would seem to happen on its own. She'd never seen this kind of delicacy and care from Pinkie Pie, this level of rational straight-line progression while sticking to an assigned checklist of actions. Never expected to have this of all things in common with her friend.

She smiled. No headache came with it.

The gentle silence stretched out as the Sun's rays climbed the door, reached the panes and let the first streams of light through...

"Twilight?" A rare serious tone. This was a day which was going to stick in her memory for a long time. A very long --

-- and stop. "Yes?"

In total sincerity with innocence resplendent on a field of I Felt Like Asking, "Where do alicorns come from?"

Twilight blinked. Several times. None of them did anything to make the question or Pinkie's softly inquiring gaze go away.

Awkwardly, "Well -- when two alicorns love each other very much..."

Pinkie snorted as she placed another fresh tray in the oven, took a finished one out, held her words until the cupcakes had been frosted and sprinkled with a dash of hazelnut. "That's just sex, Twilight. I know all about sex, for Celestia's sake!"

"...you do?" And that had just slipped out.

Pinkie stopped again, looked at her, smiled, said "Sometimes there's only one thing left to make somepony happy," got some more eggs, totally ignored Twilight's front legs collapsing under her in shock as her wings, unbidden, unordered, and completely un-everything, stood straight out. (They didn't do what she wanted, they didn't do what she understood...) And before Twilight could even begin to suppress the internal flood of Who, what, where, when, how many, at the same time? Anypony I know? Everypony I know?, Pinkie chanted, in singsong, "An earth pony and an earth pony make an earth pony, a unicorn with a unicorn is a baby unicorn, pegasus plus pegasus equals pegasus -- but add any other, even once, and even if it takes generations, that other will come again..."

Twilight marshaled every resource she had left, which required dusting into all the corners and gluing together a lot of scraps. "That's foal stuff, Pinkie Pie."

Pinkie nodded. "Sure is! But Twilight -- you weren't born an alicorn. You were made one."

I sort of made myself -- I think... At least, that first burst of magic had seemed to come from inside, and not from her horn... But she'd told the others that, responded to every question in the deluge as best she could. For now, she just nodded. Her wings refused to go down. The right one was perilously close to an open bag of flour.

"And I've never heard of Celestia being with somepony -- ever. Just rumors, but we never see her with a very special somepony, not even once! And Luna hasn't had much of a chance, not with how little time she's been back -- and we'd see if they were with foal, wouldn't we? Unless there's magic which hides that. They probably know that spell. Maybe they invented it. They've had a lot of time to work on it, right?" Completely and utterly innocent of the havoc she was wreaking a few paces away.

Twilight's brain rebelled. She would not picture the Princesses having sex. She would not, she would not -- oh Sun and Moon, she had an image of Luna coming up to a handsome stallion and Canterlot Royal Voicing him into bed and it would not go away...

Pinkie watched her, seemed to become aware that the last question was not going to be answered. "And Cadance is adopted. You said so."

Her mind grasped onto that, heaved her out of the turbulent waters as the last echoes of And Now Thou Shalt Satisfy Thy Princess -- Or Face Her Wrath! were pushed away with fervent hopes that they would drown on the spot. Weakly, "She mentioned it once..." The left wing began to droop.

Pinkie nodded, very enthusiastically. Curls bounced. The bowl pressed between her front hooves never shifted. "But maybe they did have a somepony, once. Or lots of someponies, because of how old they are. But I've never heard of a male alicorn. Not even in stories! -- well, not stories anypony tells twice, or even once if you're just a filly, I had to sneak around until I heard somepony else telling one. But if there was a male alicorn, and a Princess had a foal with him, the baby would be an alicorn, right? Unless maybe Celestia or Luna or Cadence wasn't always an alicorn, like you weren't always. So would the baby be an earth pony, or a pegasus, or a unicorn, because they're kind of all three? Could the foal become an alicorn one day? Do you have to have a Princess as a parent or ancestor before you can become an alicorn? And if Celestia and Luna weren't always alicorns, who made them that way, or did they change themselves? And what were they originally? So what do you think?"

And stop.

She had never raised her voice.

The first intact thought to get through Twilight's incoming migraine was Would zapping her into the mirror pool really be so bad? In a voice that made the prior one sound like it had just taken fifth place in the Equestria Games on sheer raw health, "Pinkie..."

"I've been thinking about this," Pinkie told her in a matter-of-fact tone, as if everypony had been thinking about it and she just happened to be the one elected to let it out. "Ever since you changed."

Twilight's memory lanced back, speared the first target to come into view. "Pinkie, these are foal questions!"

This nod sent pink curls going everywhere. The bowl's level still hadn't shifted. "I know they are, Twilight. I asked them when I was a little bitty Pinkie. You asked them too, I bet! Everypony I know asked a teacher or their parents, and we all got told the same things. Foal questions. Questions so silly you only asked them because you were tiny, and no one older cared what the answer was or even that the question existed. You asked it once and they told you not to think about it. Not to care, because asking it meant you were stupid and if you stopped asking, you were smart! Because they didn't think about it and they never wanted to. I'm thinking about it now. You make me think about it. I don't understand why you're not thinking about it."

I'm not thinking about it because --

-- because I asked my teachers and parents.

Because they're just foal questions. They're silly. You only ask if you don't know anything and it shows you don't know anything and haven't learned, but when you do learn you don't get the answers, you just learn not to ask the questions.

Who made the world?

Why do the Sun and Moon have to be moved by magic?

Were the Princesses always as they are now?

And Pinkie's question. Which had once been hers, which had probably once been everypony's. Which had been dismissed, and forgotten because it had been dismissed as being too silly to ask. But Pinkie didn't care about what other ponies saw as silly. She just wanted an answer.

"Where do alicorns come from?" Pinkie Pie repeated, and waited for her answer.

Twilight was an alicorn, if just barely, if not on any level her mind and body and deaf-to-her-desires wings fully understood. And...

"I don't know."

...maybe that meant it was time to ask again.

Her right wing drooped. The flour tipped over.

She barely registered the sound of Pumpkin and Pound Cake laughing as their tired parents escorted them into the bakery, smiling with weary pride at Pinkie's progress. Letters to write, questions to ask. If she could make herself ask them: just speaking the words to Spike seemed like an impossible task. Perhaps something better said in person -- but to the smiling, reassuring, and suddenly oh-so-intimidating presence of the Princesses?

Where do alicorns come from?

And how did the newest one ask?

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Three days' gallop outside Baltimare, a tan pegasus with a blue mane and purple eyes, her flanks bearing the strangest cutie mark Equestria had ever known, stood next to the unconscious body of a canine form which was no longer adorned by a vest. One of the miniature tornadoes had carried the garment away, collected it along with branches and leaves and one of the bodies and so much, so very much of the blood.

Her front hooves pounded on its rib cage. She cried out to it, in surprising sorrow, in distress, pleading for it to wake up, to breathe. It complied with none of this.

She screamed. And then she fled, eyes streaming tears as her pain-wracked hooves repeatedly impacted the ground, as her wings stretched and tried to flap as they grew ever more purple, as her cutie mark burned...

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She sleeps.

Pain, even constant pain, unending cascades of lightning searing across the nerves, can only do so much to combat exhaustion. It is possible to hurt so much that sleep becomes impossible, twisting muscles and sudden fractures of bone proving there's still strength for one more scream. But it's equally possible for the agony to reach a point where it's almost numbing: everything hurts all the time, so you can't isolate any single part. The internal and external horrors slowly shift to background noise. There's nothing left to fight with -- after so many hours, barely anything left to understand why fighting was ever necessary. A perpetual wash becomes the tide which carries a mind too weary for resistance into Luna's lands -- or at least the tiny pocket she'd been given for her own, a place Luna knows nothing of.

In her dream, she goes back to the good days --

-- and on the good days, there were other ponies.

He didn't know everything, he would tell her (although he was always trying to learn). There were things she needed to know which he simply wasn't an expert on. And for some of those things, he would give her books and with others, he would not bring up the subject again for moons before suddenly returning to it with a will and a head full of facts he'd just finished acquiring -- but with a precious few, he would decide that she needed to gain her knowledge directly from a different source. She would have some warning (some anticipation, hours to days and weeks of waiting, barely restrained as she looked ahead to the sheer idea of other, somepony who was not he or she). And then -- there would be somepony new, somepony she would see but once. Those memories were recorded, preserved, kept safe where nothing could touch them, becoming clearer each time she went over them.

There were two performances. Each was rehearsed before the visitor arrived, every time, and he would not give permission for her to see them until he was satisfied that she was perfect on every detail. She always was. He always checked.

The more frequent role: she was one of his. He had been the first for her, as he was the first for so many. She was staying with him for a time, for he had taken an interest in her education: he felt she had great promise. (This was the tale of the summer and winter, the story for holidays, the one which explained why she had time to be on the estate.) As this new pony was an expert on a subject -- and there were so many subjects to study -- would his guest be so very kind as to take a day and teach her? For he knew that this was the pony who would give her the best information, the most thorough experience of the topic, and all the other persuasions which were hardly necessary because the guest had agreed to this long before arrival and was simply going through the necessary etiquette with him before proceeding. (She had learned about etiquette early.) And this role stayed the same as the years passed, with the only change coming from the costume department: as she aged, a simple country dress was added to her wardrobe, and then a pleasant come-calling gown for formal dinners. She knew every hue of both by heart.

But with others -- few enough that their faces took almost no room in her place of memories -- he would introduce her with open pride. Impress upon the visitor just how important this was, how they and they alone had a piece of the puzzle which had to be given to her so that she would, in time, finish The Great Work. Perhaps this would even be the last piece. (It never was.) She would thank those guests for coming herself, gracious and as elegant as she'd been taught to be, so very welcoming and grateful that this pony would give their time to her. And those ponies would --

-- look at her.

She would be looked at when she was playing the first role, of course. But those looks were different. For the most part, they were warm and gentle (she would be sure to remember the eyes in detail later: eyes were important), welcoming her as much as she welcomed them. Not as excited, of course, they could hardly be that and she locked most of it in -- but perfectly content to be in her presence for a day. With the second part --

-- pity and sorrow.

Disgust.

And once...

...that had not been a good day. It has no place in this dream. A memory to replay on a different night, after things have become still worse. For now, let her listen and talk in the protected places, ask questions of those who don't look like her in order to learn about the world she had never walked in, being educated by those who had been brought by the one she loved so much.

She knew she loved him, because he had told her so.

That had been the first lesson.

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Mornings in Ponyville shimmer. The pegasi generally don't give them much of a choice.

This was a market day, and the open field was beginning to fill with those vendors who neither required nor wished a full-time shop in town. Some always arrived earlier than others. Applejack would show up in time, of course, but her time was at least two hours ahead, after she checked the fields, examined sick trees for signs of recovery and healthy ones to make sure they hadn't caught anything overnight, searched through her crop for choicest samples of the new harvest, polished and shined and verified that her personal money bag had a single golden bit to start with ("Seed money," she'd told Twilight, and refused to say more), oh, and then there were chores to complete and perhaps a stray animal to round up and Celestia only knew what kind of state Apple Bloom would be in should the youngest of the family have woken up in the middle of the night with a plan for yet another spectacular failure, this time of the Luna-witnessed variety. No, Applejack came when everything was settled at the Acres for a duration of at least one morning, which meant there were days when Big Macintosh was the one who pulled the cart into the field for a day of quiet bit collecting and the occasional piece of soft philosophical debate.

Lyra was already there, of course: it wasn't an official market day unless the mint-green unicorn was frowning at her instrument, making meticulous micro-adjustments to the tension of the strings. There was a price to pay for every gift: Lyra's gift was perfect pitch, the ability to tell exactly which frequency a note was vibrating on -- and the price was the horrific wincing and tooth grinding she went through every time she encountered a tune which wasn't exactly to scale. (Lyra didn't hang out around Pinkie much for fear of jaw fracture -- hers or Pinkie's was almost a moot question.) She wouldn't start a performance unless her lyre was tuned to a level of perfectionism which nearly scared Twilight. And as she worked, she unconsciously adjusted her body into positions which made Twilight's spine ache. There were days when it was genuinely hard to look at Lyra for any real length of time, and many ponies tossed bits with their eyes closed.

Snowflake was pulling at a guide rope with his teeth, allowing the intricate layers of twine within the pile of fabric in front of him to tighten, lift, and eventually tautly shape an open-front tent with a simple sign above the entrance: Day And Night Labor: No Job Too Big Or Too Heavy. The huge pegasus had trouble keeping a steady job: not many ponies wanted to be on the receiving end of his special talent for long (strength training: done with precision and enthusiasm in a way which guaranteed results -- with the first one being two days spent shivering in an aching fetal position, wishing you'd never met him), which left him with long periods of bit-free time to fill before a new generation of unsuspecting athletes decided they needed that last crucial push before the Games. So he hired himself out for any acts of raw musclepower which might be needed and, to save time, let the employers come to him. Twilight had brought him in once herself when she'd had a sudden appointment in Canterlot hit on the day she'd been expecting a shipment of books. Thousands of pounds of books arriving on a day when the weather bureau had scheduled an afternoon downpour and Rainbow Dash couldn't be found to reschedule, all of them sitting helpless in front of the library and growing wetter by the second, defenseless ink blurring as pages began to soften towards disintegration... The thought had been unbearable: one maddened run to the market later, she'd had Snowflake heading towards the tree to move the huge bundles to safety, watching him fly away with relief, trying not to listen to the laws of physics as they wept.

Flower Wishes ('Daisy' to her friends and acquaintances, 'By Celestia's tail, would you stop panicking?' to everypony who had known her for more than a week) almost had her booth ready: flower arrangements were displayed on every possible surface, suitable for decoration, presentation to a very special somepony or, if business was slow, a pleasant light snack. The last also came into play when Daisy became bored or distracted. Twilight had never seen her consuming her own merchandise to get the energy for a phobia attack, but it was just a matter of time...

(Rainbow Dash, on one particularly insensitive day -- about a week before they'd climbed the peak to face the red dragon -- had proposed a fear-off contest between the friends known around Ponyville as the Flower Trio (or 'I swear on Celestia's mane, you three have no reason to be freaking out like this!' to anypony who had known them for more than a moon) and Fluttershy: last one to faint wins. Rarity had angrily declared the absent Fluttershy as the preemptive victor, pointing out that "Those three run from whatever's scaring them: Fluttershy would stand in place and tremble until she figured out how to deal with it -- which can certainly be more practical than just mindlessly charging at the world head-on and hoping to beat your problems out of the sky!" Rainbow Dash had looked surprised, about a tenth of a second's worth of something which might have vaguely approached a tiny semblance of guilt, then had hastily changed the subject to the Wonderbolts and kept it there until the others wanted to sit on her, which Applejack finally had.)

Those two seemed to be new... Twilight took note of them: one pale-pink unicorn with a somewhat oversized horn, a mane so deeply brown as to approach black and a field to match her eyes: deep grey. She was carefully arranging sculpture samples along a long table while nervously glancing from side to side as if expecting her selling rights to be challenged from every angle -- or worse, having a stranger approach who might have to be talked into buying something. A tall pearl pegasus with vibrant blue eyes and a pure white mane followed her, gently adjusting sculpture positions and rubbing against her nervous companion's flank. Cutie marks were -- the silhouette of a regal form for the pegasus and a flaming old-fashioned torch for the unicorn. Yes, definitely new in town, and Twilight had a moment of sympathy for the shy unicorn: it was hard to be socially retiring in a town with a Pinkie Pie. The poor mare had, at best, until the mid-morning break before she was Partied, whether she liked it or not.

Then again, it might be weeks before the actual party was thrown, even if the Countdown To Pinkification had less than two hours to run. Pinkie Pie's social calendar was starting to look like one of Twilight's more comprehensive checklists: there were a lot of new ponies in town these days -- and most of the current arrivals were Twilight's fault.

Like this one --

"HEY!"

-- and her field pulled the unicorn mare out of the bushes, lifted her one and a half standard Celests (an old measure of height: distance from the ground to the Princess' front left shoulder) straight up, and then rotated her until she was upside-down. Twilight was careful to let the field deliberately exclude the camera, which fell away from the mare's neck and thudded to the ground with a total lack of ceremony. She was getting really good at excluding the camera. There had been far too much practice.

The other most recent arrivals in town stared. A few ponies began to trot closer. Most of the merchants (and now, the majority of the earliest shoppers) ignored the whole thing. They had seen this particular play before and it always ended the same way. Two, with some anticipation, headed towards the nearest sound of propelled water.

"PUT ME DOWN! I KNOW MY RIGHTS! I CAN --"

"-- and I know mine," Twilight declared, trying not to let the frustration turn it into a growl. "Recite the law, please."

"I WAS JUST MINDING MY OWN BUSINESS WHEN YOU --!"

Twilight let a second bubble of field envelop the camera, levitated it to rest in front of the mare's inverted eyes before deliberately dropping it again. "Recite the law. Please." Three more ponies inched closer.

The green and brown unicorn groaned. In a tone which made it clear she considered everything bad in the world to be Twilight's fault and might just spend the rest of her life falsifying the proof, she rushed through "Any pony who finds somepony taking a picture of them without the subject pony's express permission may dispose of the picture and discipline the photographer in any way they desire as long as the photographer is not injured and any damage to the camera is paid for and that is a very expensive unit which you are going to compensate me for in full right --"

"It's a Bell & Hooffall, it is twenty-eight years old, it was the second cheapest model they made at the time, and the years have been slightly less kind to it on the secondary marketplace than a Jacked Chicklet tract." Twilight resisted the urge to spit as a recently-arrived Time Turner chuckled somewhere behind her. "There are more ponies willing to pay a tenth of a bit to read all about how Princess Celestia intends to bathe the world in eternal sunshine until we all catch fire than want this camera. Luna's shoes, has Murdocks ever spent a single second's income to outfit any of you?" A flicker of field opened the camera, exposed the film. "Better hope he's willing to hand over the smallest change he has, because I've been sending nearly all my compensations directly to him for distribution --" once a week by courier was just easier than carrying all those tiny coins "-- and before you ask how I knew, all eight of you have the same basic cutie mark. Does he hire anypony who doesn't show those broken scales?" One end would hold an image representing the pony's talent and the other would be empty, fallen, and rusty from neglect.

The mare either chose to ignore most of this or had been overwhelmed by the sheer flow of information. (The later wasn't exactly uncommon when dealing with Twilight.) She went with a simple, semi-stunned "...how do you know so much about cameras?"

Because after the first week, I thought I could save some time by just memorizing all the prices. Not that she had to go very deep into the catalog for Murdock's lackeys... But she didn't say a word, just watched the unicorn --

-- who was now starting to look a little dizzy: only pegasi were designed to deal with blood rushing to their heads. "Um... could you put me down now?"

"Will you leave town?"

"Look, I'm just trying to make a living..."

"I know. Off me."

The unicorn gave up on insistence and had never come anywhere near politeness: her next reply was half a species away from a hiss. "Everypony knows the Diarchy passed that stupid law just to protect you, Princess," and the last word was spat: Twilight's field caught the glob as it emerged. And she could feel the photographer's own field exert, pushing back, trying to get free -- but it was like trying to pollute a freshwater lake with a droplet of ocean: the visitor had just enough strength to carry her gear. Trixie could have turned her to powder without the amulet --

(her own field flickered, very slightly)

-- and Twilight's lack of sleep had been temporarily compensated for by muffins and long bread done in the Prance style. Keeping the restraint in place required about as much effort as blinking.

"You can't spot all of us --"

I can as long as I keep automatically probing every bush in town. Twilight raised the photographer by another Celest and added a rapid leftward rotation at the same instant Snowflake decided to take a personal interest, hovering -- somehow -- in front of one changing section of the twisting unicorn. He made a sound. It wasn't a happy declaration of support. It was more like an Ursa Minor who had just run out of milk.

"-- OKAY, FINE! I'll LEAVE!"

"Then I'll put you down." And before the photographer could say anything else, Twilight added "Fountain or compost heap?"

"WHAT? I --"

"Fountain it is!" Mostly because she wasn't sure of a location for the nearest compost heap.

Her field carried the photographer out of sight, the screams trailing away as her latest nuisance was carried with regretfully memorized precision. Twilight had a telekinetic route to the fountain from any outdoor site in Ponyville. Plus one for Sweet Apple Acres, where there had been a camera-carrier lurking in the trees.

She was so sick of this.

"Are you all right, Princess?" Daisy. Timidly. Of course. There was a splashing sound in the distance.

"I'm fine, Daisy." And that was just the eighth one from Murdocks. When she added the other so-called news agencies, independents, a few solo operators with a printing press and far too much time on their hands... "And it's Twilight, you know that --" Another splash.

"I'm sorry, Princess!" The earth pony pulled back slightly, nervously pawed at the ground with her front right hoof. "It won't happen again!"

Noteworthy now, sounding as if he'd just been launched out of a manual on courtly etiquette, somewhere towards the index, and Twilight knew which one because he'd checked it out of the library last week. "Princess, if we but knew she was within yonder greenery..." Ancient courtly etiquette.

"It's okay. It's over." Although the splashing wasn't. Valiantly, already knowing what the result would be, "And could you not call me --"

Pokey, who had just trotted over from his carnival stand: Pop The Balloons With A Thrown Dart (field or mouth-operated slingshot with a molded mounting) And Win A Stuffed Discord! "Don't worry, Princess. We'll get the next one for you."

"That's very nice of you, but could everypony --"

But they wouldn't. The small crowd just kept on apologizing for something they didn't know about, couldn't control, and they were so sorry their Princess had been bothered, that the Princess had to waste part of her morning on such things, they were just glad the Princess was all right now and could get back to doing whatever a Princess required of the first hour after sunrise before the Princess moved on to the rest of her Princessly schedule...

...and then they were blinking the dazzle out of their eyes, wondering what was so important that the Princess had to teleport off to it.

Some distance away, another scream broke the air as the photographer was dunked for the sixth and final time.

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Under kinder circumstances, Grape Indulgence would not have been the first pony to see her. Grape Indulgence saw lots of things. Depending on what he'd been consuming at the time, roughly seventy percent of them didn't exist at all, twenty percent weren't what he thought they were, and the remainder would be asked if they could spare a few bits for a drink, which left him hitting up a lot of fenceposts for loans. (He had gotten a bit out of a stile once, fallen under the little bridge between pastures, and his subconscious had since decided the rest of the inanimate world was just holding out on him.) But he was the first, and after multiple attempts to refresh his memory -- it turned out his memory needed a lot of refreshment, all of it liquid -- what eventually emerged from him was this:

Heading home after a long day of work.

His job? Drinking. No, really! An expert wine taster, with an exquisite sense of taste which could identify every ingredient in a fifty-element blend after only one sip -- no, two sips -- eight -- give him another bottle: he wanted to be sure. Almost been certain where home was, at least that time. And surely would have gotten there on the fifth attempt instead somewhere -- somewhere -- well, just call it somewhere and leave it at that for now, okay? They'd get there, right?

Why had he been anywhere near the area in the first place?

Silly question. Local wine-maker. Wanted an unofficial review of the product before he sent it to market. Little sneak preview of what the experts were going to say about it. Invited over with a payment of some bits and a few bottles. Been cheated out of the bottles. Must have been. Knew hadn't signed on for empties. Get that guy later, and get more bottles, which would be full until they mysteriously turned empty too, guy wasn't even a unicorn and he was magicking bottles empty from feet -- gallops -- fields -- something or other away, away, away down south...

What was the question?

Oh, what had he seen.

How about seeing that bottle again first?

Very gracious. Anyway... been -- somewhere -- and it could have been a farm, you know, one of those Apple family outposts you get all over Equestria. Make excellent cider. Most excellent cider. Did you read the review on their crop from two autumns back? No? Pity. Saved a barrel, but some unicorn jerk made the contents of that one go away too. Anyway, there were apple trees. Lots of them. Big and healthy, that's how you knew an Apple family orchard, plus might have tried to get a handout from the No Trespassing Sign once, which was really mean two autumns back. Come to think of it, there weren't any signs around this one: maybe they were wild trees. Which the Apples would claim soon enough for cider. And not give him any more free samples. Jerks. Market-monopolizing bastards --

-- hey, why are you so upset? Just said --

-- really?

Got any of the stuff on you?

Fine. Just have some more of this.

Okay. So --

-- there was this mare.

Absolutely sure about no cider, right?

What about her? Oh, her. She was -- tall. Sure of that. Been some distance away, behind a bush and don't ask about things done back there and don't go and step in it either. But measuring her against what a drinking contest would need, she sure looked tall. Could take lots of pints before falling behind and down, easy. Oh, and her coat was blue, her eyes were tan, and her horn was purple. Remembered that for sure because it was so unusual. A unicorn with a horn that didn't match her coat?

Did that mean she had the power to make liquid vanish out of barrels? Did anypony know?

Really?

Then why was this bottle empty?

Cutie mark? She -- had one. Can't describe it. Been trying to describe it for -- can't. Maybe later. Maybe never. Hard to look at. The center...

...

...anyway... she wasn't moving well. Looked tired. Sort of like she was hurting. Made a few little noises, kind of stuff you get from somepony who's had more than they can take when their stomach starts fighting the rest of them. Yeah, definitely hurting.

What was that? Why hadn't he helped her?

Look, she was all the way over there, all right? Across some -- distance -- which was -- distance -- and --

-- hey, did they want to know what was seen or not?

So there she was, and she was looking at the apples hanging off this big old tree. Really old tree, takes five, six ponies to stand around the trunk. Looked hungry. And she looked kind of like she was trying to --

-- you know when maybe you've had a few, and you get this really brilliant idea that's going to change the world, but you don't have anything to write it down on, nopony can understand what you're saying and you can't keep a quill steady in your mouth anyway plus it blocks the drink? And then maybe later, two, three, five days, you wake up and you want to get that idea back, but most of it went out with the, you know what the stuff is, you're mares of the world, and you sit there and maybe you pace back and forth and you just know that somewhere in your brain is this great idea, if you think about it long enough it'll come to you, but it just doesn't happen, and no matter how much more you drink, none of the liquid ever washes it to the front?

She looked like she was trying to remember something she never knew.

And there she is, twitching a little, hurting, and staring at the apples.

There's this glow. You know the one. Yeah, that one. Good glow you've got going there. Real prime glow stuff. Keep it away from the bottle. Only it's a really shaky glow, okay? Throwing off lots of sparks. Like a filly who's working on that very first spell. Got a cousin, really cute, remember when she was just starting, prettiest copper cascades of lights... And it sort of reaches forward from her horn and then it goes around one of the apples. Just like that first real spell. Little weak, little uncertain, but maybe it'll get the job done, you know? And she's pulling at the apple, but she can't quite get it down. Wasn't one of those silver apples either, the ones that go rainbow if you find them at the right time. Just a really weak pull. Or -- like she didn't know how hard to pull. You there, you got any fillies? Too young for that? Sister, then. Yeah, figured you for something with that look on your face. You know exactly what I'm talking about. Some of them get so excited just to grip and then they're not sure how the next part works. How much force they have to use. They don't have the feel yet. Old as she was --

What? Maybe a couple of years older than you.

-- she didn't have it.

So she doesn't know how hard to pull and the apple's just kind of trembling at the end of the stem, same way her knees were shaking. So naturally she must have --

-- one more, okay? Last one, promise.

No. Now.

You need this. Need... need this ship to sail. And it doesn't want to. Just got to have one because this has to get some tide behind it. It wants to stay in dock. It...

...please.

Okay. So naturally, she must have decided she wasn't pulling enough, right? First thing anypony's gonna think. And the glow gets stronger. Thicker around the apple. Applying more force, right? You two know how that works. Feels. Wishing for that feel, sometimes. Never going to wish that again.

Glow gets stronger. Thicker. And then, kind of all at once, it goes up the branch and all around the other apples and down the trunk, this rush of glow, don't know if she even realized it was happening, it was too fast, and she's still pulling and --

-- the whole tree breaks in half.

...

...said that would be the last one, right?

Horse apples.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

Time passes during a teleport. Not much -- a tiny fraction of what it would take to cross the same distance on hoof -- but time.

Time enough, in the place between, to remember.

The party was drawing near its end. It might have even been past it. Any party which saw Pinkie Pie asleep in a corner (on top of two other ponies) was probably due for an official closing ceremony. Any party which had Luna openly staggering about and yawning needed induction into some sort of Hall Of Fame for parties which had gone above and beyond the call of partyhood. She'd lost track of Princess Celestia, who was probably off to raise the Sun, potentially for the second time.

And yet Twilight was still wide awake. Still felt like she might never sleep again. Still as happy (and confused, just a little -- then) as she'd been in her entire life. She had pioneered the official Yes! Yes! Yes! royal dance earlier in the evening. It must have been a pioneering effort, for everypony had copied it.

An alicorn. Wings. A princess.

What did it all mean?

How much joy would there be in finding out, her friends beside her to share in every wondrous discovery?

She pronked in place, just a little, and hummed to herself in delight.

"We -- I do not know if I said it to you." The soft voice, the one she liked best from all of Luna's many tones, the one she privately thought of as a new moon timidly considering whether it could wax. Twilight pronk-spun for a direct look. Bleary dark eyes were gazing at a spot somewhere above her horn. Dipped, focused on her. Went off-target. Focused again. "But I am happy for you. I truly am. At first, I was..." The Princess of the Night trailed off. Made an effort. "...afraid."

Which stopped both pronking and humming on the spot.

Afraid -- of me?

It had reached Twilight's face: Luna shook her head. "Afraid -- for you." A long pause. Too long, long enough for Luna's large eyes to blink several times, for tiny bits of moisture to accumulate at the corners. "Promise me something, Twilight Sparkle. As a -- friend."

Twilight waited, saying nothing. She had known how to respond to Luna's pain on Nightmare Night, seen how to deal with a single darkness' worth of rejection. But the only way she could currently think to answer a thousand years worth of isolation contained in a single mid-sentence break was -- to wait.

"Promise me," Luna whispered, "that if the time comes -- you will not be me."

Her left front hoof came up, the silver shoe touched Twilight's shoulder. Slowly, each word forced past a millennium of weight, "The voices come, you do not listen. The temptations are offered, you laugh. They hold out everything you had ever wished for, and you say you have all you will ever need. That you yourself, and those around you, those who love you -- are enough. Forever." She leaned forward, eyes closed, touched horn to horn. "Promise me, Twilight Sparkle -- to be Twilight Sparkle, and be content."

Slowly, so very carefully, Twilight tried to raise her right front hoof to touch the alicorn's -- the other alicorn's shoulder. It wasn't easy: Luna was taller than she was, she had gained no height in the transformation (and was that right? Cadance was taller, Celestia a giant among ponies...), and the length of the day and night and possibly day again had just caught up to her in a flood of royal anguish.

To her knowledge, Luna had never talked about what had happened. Would never talk about it. This was as close as she'd ever come. A 'they' somewhere in the world, an offer...

What would they offer Twilight?

Nothing. I have everything I need. And everypony.

"I promise, Luna. I promise..."

They remained in that position for some time, long enough for Twilight to realize that, factoring out those asleep, unconscious, or dozing in chandeliers, they were the last of the party. Finally, Luna dropped her hoof, pulled back, managed a tiny (and sleepy) smile. "I will believe you," she said. The next pause was somewhat less awkward. "'Tia --" and then a hasty recovery to "Celestia is sending you back tomorrow. Or -- the day after today. Today may be tomorrow. I am -- not quite --" A long blink. "What time is it? Should I be lowering...?"

Twilight was only too happy with the relief from the resulting giggle. "I think Princess Celestia has it. She must have wanted to let you stay at the party. You were having so much fun --" and then it penetrated. "Tomorrow? But -- I have to ask so many questions! All we did today was celebrate! I need to learn about how to be a princess! You two --"

Luna shook her head: the stars in her mane twinkled. "She feels the transition will be easier for you -- if you do it at home. Among friends instead of isolated in a castle. And I -- did not feel like arguing." And with that, the younger of the Diarchy looked at her --

-- and Twilight dropped it. Because she knew that look. Luna had not felt like arguing because Luna did not see a need to argue. Princess Celestia had come to a decision, both thrones had passed the newest of laws, and the ruling held for Sun and Moon. Twilight was going home. Without lessons. Possibly even without books, although that was just Twilight kidding herself, surely there would be a whole new shelf waiting in the library for her private study and every last word in them written by one of the three...

Really, how hard could it be, being a Princess? Just being? She was a good student. She would learn.

She changed the subject. "It's been so strange today, just having all these ponies -- well -- obey me," she told Luna. "Even with the ones who just wanted my attention before this because I was her student -- they wouldn't treat everything I said as an order. It's been hard not to see it as a game, having everypony give me what I want." She had, in a moment of weakness, ordered fruit that was half a year out of season. It had arrived five minutes later. She had no idea where it had come from.

Luna smiled -- but this bit of mirth carried a touch of sadness around the corners, and her voice sounded like she was quoting another.

"'They will give royalty anything desired,'" she said, "'except the desire not to be royalty...'"

And Twilight hadn't understood.

She did now.

Twilight opened her eyes.

The teleport had brought her in under the library, in the room she used for research (and had spent far too little time in lately -- so much dust, meters which were no longer calibrated, mixtures which had to be thrown out before they changed to that last, brief new hue on their own. Spike outright refused to clean this section, citing a very strong dragon code dedicated to Not Dying). She was standing in the circular track Spike had suggested she dig out here instead of wearing away the wood of the tree's ground floor. Twilight's Pacing Place, used for when she really had to think. Or, more realistically, for when her thoughts were going around in a tighter and somewhat more inescapable circle than the one she was about to walk in.

She had made herself head into the market rather than coming home immediately -- why?

Maybe -- because she'd needed a distraction. She'd been thinking about Pinkie's question. (Everypony's question, and now hers again.) She still hadn't completely wanted to. Had she been looking for a reminder of her other problems instead, going back to the most recent emotional turmoil rather than failing to wrestle a new storm from the sky? Was she that desperate?

...actually, that sounded like her all over. New crisis arrives while others are still in progress. First response: check schedule of all current crises, see when they have a free moment, ask Spike to send a few messages and arrange for a group outing in order to save time and effort. Find out if any crisis would be interested in solving another. Tell the compatible ones to consider dating. Going to the marketplace had been a way of not thinking about Pinkie's question, an attempt to remind herself of how much else she had to think about.

Well, this was the place she used for thinking about things she couldn't solve or get away from...

Twilight started walking.

Dear Princess Celestia,

Today, Pinkie Pie asked me about how alicorns breed and whether they -- we -- give birth to other alicorns or a unicorn, earth pony, or pegasus who might one day become an alicorn. I think we need to set up an experiment. As there are four of us, two will become the experimental group while the others become the control. The experimental pair will have sex with members of all three races (and possibly the crystal ponies, depending on how they fit in) in order to become pregnant. Should the foals not be alicorns at birth, they will be typed for the frequency of how often each race emerges and followed throughout their lives to see what percentage, if any, achieve alicorn status. Naturally, I will need a list of all your past sexual partners, a comprehensive breakdown of your family tree from three generations before your birth, whenever that was, to the present day, along with all previous data you might possess, so I can see how our current study compares to the historical record. (Incidentally, if Cadance is any kind of twentieth cousin to you, this would be the time to mention it, plus this would be a great time to explain Blueblood so I can pass it on to Rarity and watch her laugh. And yes, I understand my brother is going to complain about this. Tell him that if he wants me to consider his feelings, he shouldn't tell me he's getting married and to whom just before the wedding.) Of course, in order to work with a proper sample size, the two mares in the experimental group should expect to be pregnant at every possible moment over several decades. The needs of science insist. Now, you may be wondering what the control group is supposed to do. It may come as some surprise to learn that I know all about The Most Special Spell in the Adult Mares Only! section of the library because I snuck in there in my third year and read it, even if I didn't understand it until my seventh. So as the experimental pair breeds with a carefully-selected pool of volunteers, the control group -- and by the way, this would be a really good time to tell me if I'm on your family tree, how many generations are between the two of us, and similar details relating to Cadance -- will of course be --

No. Just -- no.

More circling.

Dear Princess Celestia,

I just wanted to thank you for throwing me back into Ponyville after my transformation without so much as a By My Own Royal Leave and with absolutely no information on how to be a Princess. It's been three weeks and I have no idea how my alicorn powers, if I even have any, work. My unicorn magic feels no stronger than usual. I can't access a single pegasus ability and my flying, to borrow a word I'm certain Rainbow Dash has been just dying to use during all the 'flying buddy' excursions I keep putting off, bucks. It bucks, you will forgive the term which I'm halfway certain I'm now entitled to use, royally. I do not think any of this has been helped by the fact that you conveniently forgot to tell me what I'm a Princess of. I suppose 'friendship' would be the expected answer, but this begs a certain number of questions about how you, Luna, and Cadance became alicorns (presuming you weren't such to start with) because you said Star Swirl didn't transform due to not understanding friendship like I do and you can't all three be Princesses of the same thing, right, especially when I know you're all Princesses of other things? What would he have been an alicorn of, had he changed, since you pretty much implied it can happen to males? Or does friendship just power the change, in which case, see previous parenthetical statement and who helped you three with the Elements the previous times? -- and I think I'd better save some of this for another letter. The point is that you pushed me out here with absolutely no idea of what I'm supposed to do or how to go about doing it, and I am, I believe, understandably irritated by this. On the other hand, you originally threw me into Ponyville with instructions to go out and make some friends while giving me absolutely no information on how to do that either, so at least you're consistent...

Not for the first time, it occurred to Twilight that she became sarcastic when she was tired.

The circle groove seemed to be getting deeper.

Try again.

Dear Princess Celestia,

In the days when you were a unicorn...

No.

A pegasus...

Still no.

Dear Princess Celestia,

When I first came here, the other ponies in town understood that I was present as your royal representative, and some of them treated me the way I was often treated in school -- as somepony to be sucked up to, because I was a gateway to you. But my future friends didn't. And once I moved here and became town librarian -- after that, even with all the things you kept giving us to do, all the things we accomplished, most of the ponies here still treated me as just that: the town librarian. Because they'd gotten to know me, which admittedly didn't always wind up with a good reflection on me. (I know you remember the Smarty Pants incident. I still kind of wish I didn't.) But on the whole, they accepted me as a pony. Not a key turned in a door to unlock the palace. A sometimes-neurotic unicorn with obsessive tendencies and what I still too often feel are limited social skills. And somehow, those citizens accepted me anyway. And my friends -- were my friends.

But now I'm a Princess.

My friends, thankfully, remain my friends. Nearly everypony else seems to think they're my subjects.

Ponies keep trying to do me favors. I have a hard time paying for anything anywhere in town except the bakery and at the quills & sofas shop: the Cakes seem to understand and Davenport will only be happy when he has every bit I've ever possessed. (He has instituted the Royal Price Increase: I think he's decided that royalty must be rich. I am two additional percent over margin away from ordering under an assumed name.) And I know some of those ponies are doing so because they feel it's their duty: you can't charge royalty, right? Others feel that if they do me favors, I will return them and more using royal authority which I'm completely certain I don't have. You offer me the first pick of your garden and I have seeds from the royal private greenhouse brought in. A free lunch today and I rezone the town to get rid of the competition across the street tomorrow, or at least so Mister Flankington has firmly convinced himself, possibly because that's the only way he'll ever sell any of the week-old fungus-spotted grass he keeps trying to pass off as a gourmet appetizer, Saddle Arabian delicacy, please recommend it to all the friends you will no longer have after you force them to eat the horrible stuff too.

I know you're aware of the newspapers sending ponies to stalk me: the new law proves that, and thank you for passing it. There's a lot of other grateful celebriponies out there too, and I know you and Luna may gain more than a little incidental benefit -- although unleashing Luna with nothing more than a 'not injured' as a guideline might be a license for entertainment more than anything else. But the press is still free, and giving me the power to legally stop unwanted photography neither keeps ponies from trying nor halts the flood of stories about how I keep stopping unwanted photography and What Does Equestria's Newest Princess Have To Hide?

(They're going to find out about the Smarty Pants incident, I just know it...)

Ponies come from cities away to use the library -- no, to get my autograph on the book when I sign it out. (Incidentally, I am losing books at a frightful rate and would welcome suggestions on stopping it. Research into an automatic teleport spell which will recover any book that has become overdue began last week.) Ponies ask to have their picture taken with me. Some are moving here because they believe Ponyville will become the next Canterlot and they want to get in on it early before the land boom really hits and home prices begin to soar. Ponies think I have wisdom they need to hear and ask so many questions hoping that somehow, I can solve all their problems with a single answer. All I have is a collection of letters I've sent to you over the last few years and the lessons they contained -- lessons I learned so much later than many, simple things which I'm proud to say I now understand and embarrassed by the amount of time I needed to realize their truth. Surely most of those ponies already know those basics, learned them as fillies and colts. I don't know what I can say to them. Most of the time, I just come up with something from Bark Leaves' Book Of Quotations: the ones who don't recognize the source seem happy, while those who visibly do think I'm dismissing them, pushing them away because they were wasting my time.

They were knocking on my door at all hours. After the first week, I used a shield spell as soon as the library closed. You probably saw the story about Elitist Princess Feels She's Too Good For Common Ponies, Locks Out World. I did.

I could go on, but I think you have the essence of it. I might never have been a normal pony, not really: not with being your student, and an Element-Bearer, and with all that my friends and I did. Sometimes, just what they did, with me playing a small part or none. But once I left Canterlot, Ponyville treated me as if I was, with all the good and the bad which came with it. (It took me moons to live down Want It, Need It. Three days to personally apologize to everypony by name, with Pinkie Pie following me because she had them all memorized.)

But now I'm a Princess. I am not normal.

And with every day that passes, I wonder more and more if what I gained can ever replace what I've lost.

I'm starting to wonder if there's a way to go back. I'm starting to want to go back.

I don't know what to do.

Please help me.

Your faithful and increasingly shaken student,

Twilight Sparkle

It was a nearly true letter. It wasn't everything she was feeling, but it contained enough that the Princess might guess at what had been unsaid and gently bring those subjects up on her own. The words were some of the ones she needed to say, things which had been haunting her. It might start the dialogue which brought her to some kind of solution --

-- or told her that across a thousand years and more of experience, there had been none to be found.

To send the letter and learn the only answer was no answer at all...

She had originally been sent to Ponyville -- to deal with things. With her friends (but how could they help her?) and sometimes briefly alone (and how could she help herself?). And she had, some with more success than others, some as crashing failures where others had to save her from herself... but was she expected to keep going in the same way? She and her friends, trying to find solutions where none might exist? And given enough time...

She stopped. Looked at the last composed letter in her head, the nearly true one. Realized she wouldn't be sending it. She didn't know if she was strong enough to send it. Because when she stripped away the careful phrasing and reports of minor incidents and little jokes, it all came down to one basic statement.

Dear Princess Celestia,

I'm scared.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The fire had been out for hours.

Firefighting in Equestria tends to be a team sport. Pegasi bring in every water-bearing cloud they can find (plus a few more made on the spot by those with enough talent) and dump their contents over the external portion of the blaze. Unicorns catch some of the deluge in their fields and direct it to the interior sections. Earth ponies wearing special full-body suits bring out any victims. It's one of the professions which doesn't work anywhere near as well when done by a single race: unicorns typically can't conjure the water (and never in large quantities), pegasi are unable to precision-direct it, and earth pony bucket brigades sometimes do more damage to the brigadiers than the fire. There are emergency measure available, but -- those tend to make the fire look like the better option.

(High-pressure hoses exist, but given the typical strength of mouths and the average field, generally turn into exercises in extremely unintentional comedy.)

This particular fire had been put out fairly quickly by the nine-pony team, largely because there wasn't that much left to burn. The house in question was so far away from the rest of the town that the smoke hadn't been sighted for what the firefighters were guessing had been just a little too long, and most of the initial plumes had been shrouded by the suddenly-too-frequent trees which hid most of the property from above -- thankfully, few of those had even come close to catching ablaze.

The isolation was only geographic. Ponies went out there all the time, of course, and at all hours: the owner's occupation guaranteed traffic which knew no temporal ties to the patterns of Sun and Moon. His clients had been temporarily linked to Right Now, Oh Dear, Oh Please, Oh Celestia, It's Happening Right Now!, and that's the sort of thing no pony can schedule in advance. So they all ran there, or flew -- or in one extreme and frequently recounted case, had teleported in while inadvertently dragging a small portion of their bedroom, outer wall, and rock garden along -- because he was the one they needed, the one who would make things all right when no other pony could. Of course, they were doing so in the belief that he was actually at home and not helping somepony far away -- but even when that happened, he would somehow get back in time. He was legendary for being there just in time.

So it came as no surprise (and a welcome, heart-saving relief) to the firefighters that there was no body to remove from the ashes. Somewhere, somepony had been going through that forever-dawning emergency, and he had gone to make things go as best they could. He was all right, wherever he was --

-- but the house was mostly gone.

Some of the team openly wept at that, stallions and mares alike, started forming plans for a community building project to make the replacement. Not that the occupant couldn't afford to do it himself, of course, but -- they owed it to him. Some of them owed everything to him, the ponies who could say the same were all over Equestria and once they all heard about this, there would be more hoofpower gathered in one place than anypony knew what to do with.

A few of them started planning the routes for pegasi couriers. Others drew up replacement home designs in their heads (every one of which started with a larger waiting room). Several citizens of the somewhat-nearby town were sent out to try and find him, tell him what had happened to his home and comfort him in his newest hour of grief. And three bored ponies waited for the arson investigator to arrive and confirm that this was clearly an accident and not any kind of arson at all, because no sane pony would have ever tried to burn this house down, the resident certainly wouldn't have done it (and the thought itself went right past sarcastic and came perilously close to heresy) -- but there were rules. Arson had to be definitively crossed off the list and the sooner that impossible ugliness was eliminated, the better.

(Arson is rare in Equestria, but it does happen -- and there's only so many times a criminal can straight-faced claim 'previously unknown dragon migration patterns' before the authorities facehoof themselves into real injury. Burning down one's own home for purposes of insurance fraud is unknown, partially because the concept of 'insurance agency' lasted about fifteen moons before repeated claims from Ponyville residents bankrupted the fledgling industry while throwing the basic idea into the 'You knew that would happen, right?' cabinet under Idiots, Equestria's History Of. Princess Celestia currently maintains a public disaster relief fund which is roughly estimated to use eight percent of the national budget. In a slow year.)

So they waited for hours while the specialist was notified and flown in via emergency carriage from Manehattan, and then prepared to wait for more as she performed her exacting task: check for the telltale chemical traces of dragonfire (because it did happen every few years, although mostly when some idiot with a fast-approaching file didn't bother wondering why the land he'd just purchased along the trail of mile-wide scorch marks had been so cheap), check for more common incendiary agents, check for magic --

-- and her field flared as the spell picked up the traces of power, changed color to reflect intent.

But not from her own steady pink to the typical angry red displayed by a dedicated arsonist. Shimmering gold, slightly metallic with just hints of sparkles around the edges, nearly invisible in the warm gleam of soft yellow. A color she'd never personally seen before, one she didn't associate with a deliberate burn.

She searched. Now that she had the flavor of the spell, finding the actual source was a matter of minutes -- especially since the spell was still active. Head for the harshest part of the fire, pick her way through settled ashes while using spot castings to detect and avoid the last of the danger zones, and then --

-- well, after she finally nudged the fallen paneling aside to reveal what lay beneath, it wasn't as if it could have been any more visible.

She tried to analyze it, failed. Called other ponies in (more hours, and now the firefighters were desperate to get home), and they failed. Tried to find other ways in: the pattern maintained. The spell was somewhat transparent, she could see there were no survivors waiting for rescue or bodies awaiting removal -- but for the sake of the former home's owner, it had to come down eventually. And if that one had been the origin of the spell (and who knew he was capable of this?), then he still had to be found. In fact, if he'd cast it, then when had it happened? And what had happened to him afterwards?

More search parties were sent out, this time with extra urgency. Word was passed from pony to pony, the express route moving at the speed of rumor. Inevitably, the news began to spread across the continent, heading directly for Canterlot --

-- with a stop and reroute to Ponyville.

Shading

View Online

Does he move himself within the world, or does he move the world to where he is? He would laugh at you if asked, and not kindly. He laughs at a lot of things.

It has been some hours since he last laughed, almost to the point of a personal (active) record. He is uncertain as to whether this particular jest of the universe is on him, and that's not something he deals with very well. Some pranksters can't stand being targets themselves, comedians refuse to be the butt of someone else's joke, and those who violate --

-- not him now, he would say. How could you possibly accuse? And there would be a pause before the laughter came forth.

There are many emotions which he still doesn't quite have a grasp on, or ways of relating to the feelings of others which are so new and raw that to exercise them for long threatens to become a strain. A weak grip has been placed around the whole empathy concept and it hasn't been dropped yet, but it's so very hard to hold onto. Fear... yes, but mostly just his own, and that was always rare: to be afraid of something, you have to believe it can hurt you in some way.

He's afraid of empathy. Just a little.

But anger...

...he knows anger.

This is the third site he has come to. The first one was where he raged. At the second, he plotted. And now... he is starting to move past anger. Much to his own surprise, he is approaching the outer borders of Thoughtful, and he had believed himself to be well on the way to a charming little city called Vengeance, where the weather runs to falling acid pelting against slowly regenerating skin. He was making plans for that at the second site, something he hardly ever engages in. Let things happen and eventually the screams will come, he would have said, although to whom would have been a question of some entertainment. The idea of drawing up an extended plan with detailed outlines and pre-scripted breaks for questions to which he would of course laugh at the answers before heading into the next designated stage -- well. Certain entities just must be rubbing off on him. He's not sure he likes that. At all.

But --

-- not him now.

Maybe.

He looks around. There is faint approval in his gaze. Branches everywhere, broken by the sheer random force brought to the scene. A dead dog -- well. To be frank (although you would probably never get it out of him), those? Were not one of his better ideas. If you like to dig in the dirt so much, then go ahead and live there. He could have put a lot more work into the actual execution of that one, but it wasn't his style. Let things happen as they happen, or as they're triggered, and eventually lots of things come. He does not think about how many they came to and what became of them, and would not on his own. He has too much present to deal with first, and he likes present second-best. Past cannot be changed, and that which is frozen is seldom of long-term interest, hardly seems worth bothering with unless someone presents a truly compelling reason. (The concept of that 'someone' -- or 'somepony' -- is one of the newest.)

Future, where anything could happen...

A dead dog, and broken branches, and animals which have retreated again. They still will not come near him, not most of the time, not without additional company. Something in the blood remembers.

The blood...

He looks closer.

There has been some trouble in tracking this. He can taste his own, of course: find the remnants everywhere he looks, no matter how much time has passed. The delightful sweetness of prior delights wrought and jokes played. (How many were truly funny? He does not think about that. He will not.) But he's always had trouble getting the sense of The Other. Opposing charges should not, sometimes can not touch, and while he can make contact if he absolutely needs to, he doesn't understand what he's touching and then you have the sheer burn of it, the wave which picks a single option before forcing all others to cease any existence they might have ever achieved, the calcification...

...never for long.

Once for too long.

...track his own. Trouble with The Other. This, where one of the tastes seems as if it should be stronger, but he's still having so much trouble connecting these hot spots with a trail... Is it because there's a mixture? Might there even be something in it which almost feels new?

Ah. There. Right against the wood, and would you just look at those fracture lines? Such beauty along the jagged edges (although it's a false beauty: natural fault lines are just that). Yes, that was where the dog hit. Such force. Such total lack of deliberate intent -- or was there?

Well, time to find out. He points at the dried brown crust, curls in a beckoning talon, and says "Show me."

And as the little animals retreat still more, the crust liquifies, peels off the bark in a glistening layer and spins itself into a red sphere which then obediently comes to him, hovering over a paw. He puts an eye on it. Then in it. Watches it drift around for a few seconds, battered by truly random currents. And when his moment of approval passes, draws it back out.

"Well," he tells the part of the world he has come to (or which has come to him). It's a thoughtful sound, yes, perhaps surprisingly so. "Well..."

One eye blinks. The other drips blood. Light hits the liquid fall, makes it twinkle. His light. The Sun has been blocked here, just for a time. There remains a certain need for -- privacy.

He examines the plans he had made. They are, he feels, good plans. They are detailed. They account for variables and contingencies. They are in no way, shape, or form, him.

A wave of his paw returns all the blood to where it had been, restores it to the crusted film. Can't go destroying or distorting the evidence, after all. Certainly can't have that, which reminds him to put the ground an inch lower and allow his tracks to wipe themselves out.

"Shall we try this -- a different way?" he asks the air.

A babble of voices answer him, cheering, applauding. Yes, he absolutely should. Because a different way isn't what anyone's expecting, is it? And that -- is the point. Or at least part of it. And as far as establishing the city of Vengeance and using his governmental authority for permanently moving a certain party to the intersection of Payback and Bitch goes --

-- the mayoralty does not entirely belong to him, now does it?

The concept of sharing is still largely foreign. He thinks he has some idea of the meaning, though. This might even be the perfect time to try it out in actual practice. In fact, it might even be --

-- fun.

Although not for everyone.

The joke has to be on someone. Otherwise, where's the comedy?

The applause dies away. He bows low -- and then he leaves, or the world leaves him. In a way, the point was always moot. It's whichever you need it to be, or it's the one you didn't want, or it's both at the same time, or even a third option you haven't thought of and it exists solely because you didn't. But it's in the past now. Should it really matter?

The past has happened. No change.

The present is happening. So change it.

The future -- every bit of it, until the present catches up -- is his.

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Quiet Presence knocked. Even within his own home, in those sections of it open to the public, he would often knock before entering a room. There's only so many jumping, spinning, screaming, startled ponies a stallion can take in one day. This private place simply required a very soft knock.

Lightly bemused, "I felt you, Quiet." The older stallion sounded stronger than he had before: rest and good food were starting to do their work. "But your practice was being done elsewhere... you can come in. There is nothing you would be disturbing."

Quiet Presence entered the room -- his property, his territory, and still solidly belonging to his visitor for as long that one chose to stay. The room was small and, of necessity, difficult to reach: the passage which led to it required its own share of careful field-nudges if the traveler was ever going to see the other end. (It was fully possible to hurry and have one's eyes reach this section, but with no promise that they would still be attached.) There was a bed, which his visitor was still resting on -- but now up to knee level, semi-reclining with body having regained the same share of strength as the voice. Two light sources, which had been steadfastly shining on command for six centuries with no signs of slowing down. Food: anything which would keep well and wouldn't need replenishment more than once every six moons. Fresh water from an underground spring, carefully channeled to this level. Several emergency books: field-written copies, essential notes, just the core of what had to be taught. Two passageways which a dedicated searcher might eventually locate, designed to look like routes for getting that information out. And one more, much harder to find, which wasn't immediately fatal.

As a colt, he had often slept here. He liked the privacy, although the lighting was frankly horrible for reading.

"You have news," his visitor noted. "As do I... yours first, or mine? For some reason, I suspect neither of us is about to lift the spirits of the other."

Which told a shocked Quiet Presence just about all of what he was about to hear in results -- and surprised him to the point where the need to get a reason became immediate. "Then you take it," he wryly said. "I think I need to find out just how much larger this burden is about to become before I try carrying any more of it. You know how little I can haul."

"Physically only," the older stallion said, and favored him with a brief smile. "In spirit -- the weight of generations." Followed by a sigh. "I cannot find her."

What Quiet Presence had been expecting (at least for the last few seconds), and now for the "Why?"

"Her essence has changed." His visitor made a move as if to stand, but the injured leg slipped against the soft surface of the mattress: he let the attempt go. "I knew that it would, but -- I did not know how. I thought that once it happened, I would have time to learn her anew, but -- things which have happened but once --" ruefully "-- at least in my presence, do not have much in the way of precedent. I could have found her as she was anywhere in the world, given enough time to spread the spell. Now -- if there is a portion of her left unchanged within the new, I cannot locate it. And with that new, my experience was limited, brief, and -- there were a number of other concerns taking place at the time." A small, equally rueful shrug. "I plead distraction."

"I absolve," Quiet Presence adjudicated -- then, seriously "What are our risks?"

"Extant," the older stallion admitted, "but limited. She will not approach others. She would not speak to anypony who does not know about The Great Work -- if we should only be so fortunate as to have that encounter happen. She is -- faithful."

"And -- if somepony saw her?"

A long pause. "We would know. If it had truly worked, we would know within hours. The news certainly spread quickly enough the last time, and nearly arrived here before the royal proclamation. The fact that we have heard nothing means that she has either stayed hidden, been lucky enough to encounter nopony -- or that we are merely closer instead of there." A deeper sigh. "I know what I saw and I know what she did. It was a teleport, and that means we achieved something. But without her here, or being able to reach the site..."

Quiet Presence nodded: they were closer to his news, but there were a few more things which needed to be said. "Continue forward from the teleport. She did not come here afterwards. Why -- and what will she do?"

His visitor's response was not long in coming: something which had been worked out before he arrived. "The first teleport -- was not planned. The effort simply manifested in that form. But knowing how something works does not tell somepony how to achieve it." He smiled gently upon seeing Quiet Presence's look of confusion. "I can take any game the foals play and tell you all the rules and every move in it, Quiet, then place you on the field -- and you will still have no experience of deflecting the ball as it approaches. Theory has to turn into skill through practice. So -- she would first try to establish where she was: she knows teleportation without a full frame of reference for both departure and arrival is too risky..." He stopped. It took him a few seconds to get going again. "And for that, she is limited. The same problem: she knows the cities and towns, but not of them, and would need a major landmark for the lands between. She has no real experience of distance. But she would try to orient herself. When she succeeded, she would attempt to reach you or me, staying hidden as best she could. If she should master the teleport -- and that will bring us to you, in a minute -- one or the other. She would not risk flight. Otherwise, hoof -- and we have no idea how far she has gone." A long pause. "Stay concealed, stay safe, come to me if at all possible, come to you as the secondary option, come home. That is her plan."

"My news, then," Quiet Presence carefully checked, and received a nod. "The most important thing: her place is safe. I was able to get in and out through the emergency passage. There was no damage from the fire in that section --"

He had not quite been able to keep the lingering surprise from his face: the older stallion responded to it. "-- because it did not start there. We were -- outside when it happened." And that surprise must have really stood out, because it got an immediate "Not very far, and still in the protected places. But the seal would have blocked the fire and most of the heat. So -- they have not found it, and she has somewhere familiar to return to. The first crisis averted." Another inspection of Quiet Presence's expression. "And now your bad news, my young one."

"Your home -- is gone."

A sad nod. "I guessed as much. And accepted. Go on."

A deep breath: his weak ribs ached. "As per procedure, an arson investigator was summoned. She must have felt something was amiss, because they have sealed the area with a shield spell. I could see part of what was going on within it, but that was mostly just ponies standing around, seeming as if they were arguing with each other. I don't know about what: the barrier distorts the sound too badly. And I had to be careful: there are a large number of ponies along the border of the bubble. Some of the townsponies. More than a few of yours, and some more arrived while I was there." He forced a smile of his own, one with more than a little reality to it. "You are missed, first friend. A good portion of Equestria may be considering the fastest routes to get here, and the longer you stay out of sight, the more of them will be combing the countryside from here to the Empire and beyond. At some point, we have to consider when you're going back out there."

"We will," he was assured -- but he could hear the older stallion's concern. An ongoing investigation... "No hints as to what they were looking into?"

"We don't have anypony in the fire department --"

"A natural oversight. Don't waste any time regretting it."

"-- and all the crowd had was gossip. The usual rubbish, none of which reflected badly on you. Hidden treasure was the typical guess, and for any pony of your breeding, it's a logical one. But while I was there, the investigators remained within the field. I couldn't try to create a hole: the caster was present. And I have no magic to become intangible, or change my form into one of theirs and request entry, and my authority in this matter is limited to being another one of yours who desperately needs an update -- which would just get me assigned to a search party. And there are a lot of search parties." He gestured with his front right hoof. "I think this means we start considering whether and when they are going to find what they're looking for."

His visitor nodded. It was clear he'd been considering the answer during the last part of Quiet Presence's report. "Coming out gets me access to the site and allows me to see what's being investigated. But I would prefer to know what I'm walking into rather than having to create excuses and stories on the spot. Let us take a little more time and see if we can harvest any actual information from the rumor fields. A day, perhaps, or a bit longer. And then I will pick up the pieces of my life and begin to rebuild --" his head dipped: the horn nearly touched the bed's railing "-- for the second time."

Quiet Presence saw the old sorrow and immediately knew how to deal with it: he laughed, and the pain in his sides was a welcome sacrifice. "You'll have to shove a hundred fields and a few dozen wings out of the way first! Let me tell you about some of the architectural fantasies ponies were tossing around on your behalf..."

If it worked, it only did so for a moment. The older stallion smiled -- and then simply looked at him. "We will find her." A statement.

"We have to," Quiet Presence replied. A fact.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

A pony's nose is not as sensitive as it could be: something which applies to all three of the main races. For most ponies, the brain prioritizes in this order: what can I see coming, what can I hear, what can I feel (the exact 'feel' depends on the race and doesn't apply with every individual) before finally getting to what can I scent? But it's still more acute than that for some of Equestria's other sentient species -- griffons in particular, who have very good olfactory detection for blood, fresh meat, and just about nothing else until it's either directly under or actually within their nostrils. You can get sneezing powder within two inches of a griffon before they start to realize there just might be a problem, and their chefs tend to work beak-to-griddle. For the male cooks, cultivating and keeping facial hair is a mark of skill: they can tell exactly what they've created without burning their decoration off. Older griffons tend to mutter darkly about younger generations who won't do their own hunting before pounding on the table and demanding to know why such a talented chef didn't have the entree ready twenty minutes ago.

Twilight's sense of smell was a little below average -- 'feel' will soon be coming along nicely -- but it was still enough to, with her lightly snoozing deep within a protective cocoon of blankets, still pick up on the following, in turn.

Sheets. Cotton. Warm. Nice warm sheets. Don't want to get up. Been up. I buck at 'up'. Was up, left, right, down, and then tried for up again and hit a bell. No more up. Sleep.

Pancakes. Lovely velvet pancakes. With maple syrup. Don't care. Ate already. Was having this horrible dream where I was an alicorn and didn't know what to do. Maybe had it because I ate too many pancakes. Pancakes are evil. Wanna sleep some more.

Ink. Open bottle. Should seal it before it all dries out. Should write a letter to the Princess. With another bottle of ink 'cause that one can die and I can always get more ink. Davenport doesn't sell ink. Free ink for me. Too much free ink. Not. Getting. Up.

Singed hair. No -- burning hair. Smelly. Somepony's hair is on fire. Smells like a tail. Scorched special tail conditioner, like that one time Rarity was in the spa way too long and then Spike had the hiccups and they ran into each other when she was coming out and oh dear Celestia it took five hours before he'd stop apologizing and then he cried himself to sleep for a week. And there's shrieking. Female shrieking. So there's a mare shrieking because her tail, which had way too much conditioner in it, is on fire. Figured it out and never even had to get up. Gonna go and slee --

-- as it turned out, one of the few things her wings were good for was standing straight out from her body as she flew (with a regrettable lack of literalness) into a panic, the new limbs exploding the cocoon from within. After that, it was a matter of dashing down the stairs (perilously close to the edge because her wings would once again not fold back down and the tip of the left one kept scraping against the wall), closing in on not the scent, the source of which was already out the door with the scream of anger just behind it, but rather the cause...

"Spike! The law said no injury! You're not allowed to hurt anypony just because they're taking a picture of me!"

The little dragon spun on a single claw and stared up at her, eyes defiant. It was a familiar pose, the one which said I May Only Be Your Little Brother, But I'm Not As Little As You Think. "Photograph, yes, I know what to do with that, Twilight: I burn the camera and nothing else, they yell, I throw them out of the library, and we just do it again two hours later! Steal is something else entirely! She was trying to get your notebooks, Twilight. Your personal spell research! And when I caught her, she just started ranting about how information wants to be free and all data belongs to the people, she wouldn't drop them and just tried to run with them instead -- so I made her drop them." He pulled himself up to his full height, which meant a lot less than he thought it did. "Your notebooks are safe. She's gone. I'm not sorry. And -- maybe you'd better look around?"

Twilight blinked as her still quarter-dozing brain considered whether or not it really wanted to catch all the way up with reality -- then slowly, slowly rotated her gaze.

The library was full.

Again.

Ponies with piles of books they wanted checked out -- but only by her. (The shelves were, at best, two-thirds full. At the current rate, she had less than a moon before it was just her and that lonely eight-pound economic fable no pony ever got past the first two paragraphs of. And she wasn't sure about that last part, because it could still be signed out, if for the very first and possibly last time.) Ponies who had been waiting for an audience with her. Ponies who were staring at her in startled wonder now that they were in the presence of a Princess. Luna's mane, possibly even ponies who had been watching her sleep...

...and a butter-yellow presence cowering in a corner near the atlases, trying to hide behind a coral-pink mane with absolutely no success. It was very clear that horrifying things had been happening to her, and those things were known as Other Ponies, Immediate Presence Of. One stallion with a craned neck still had a camera pointed in that direction, must have been eager to get his very own personal picture of the former supermodel, and Twilight knew what would have happened there. The law said you had to state your desire not to be captured on film. And other ponies had to hear you.

Twilight sighed.

"It was only the tail -- right, Spike?"

"Dragon's honor!" her reptilian assistant -- familiar -- newly self-assigned bodyguard -- and, let's face it, Little Brother From Another Very Large Mother -- huffed.

And what a very frequently challenged honor it had been over the last three weeks. "Then thank you, Spike -- again." He beamed.

She had, at best, seconds before the crowd found its mental footing. "And now I think I'd better start seeing to all these patrons." Most of whom are going to be on the receiving end of my automatic recovery spell in a week or so. I hope. It should be a lot easier since I don't have to recreate all the notes... "Starting with --"

-- and she headed directly for Fluttershy, passing a box full of temporarily confiscated cameras on the way. Missed one, Spike. Of course, there was every chance the stallion had gotten his back by sincerely promising to photograph Fluttershy and only Fluttershy, on pain of flaming mane.

But she had to walk: no room near the pegasus for a teleport arrival, still couldn't fly, and her friend wouldn't try to come to her, not cornered as she was. It meant she had to pass through some of the false patrons. And that in turn led to --

"-- Princess! Princess, I need a few minutes of your time..."

"-- for my fashion column, that dress you wore at that Gala --"

"-- get a look at the Elements?"

"-- picture for my family --"

"-- needs to be in a museum!"

"-- and it's my yard, it's been in my family for generations and she --"

"EVERYPONY STOP!" The roar (which was starting to get some real volume behind it) was punctuated by a little burst of green fire. Given the incident Twilight had just missed, the crowd's attention collectively decided to consider itself as gotten and swiveled towards the little dragon.

In his best Hearth's Warming Host voice, "The Princess --" (and she knew he had just done that for her benefit, would apologize later) "-- has made a royal decision to consult with an Element-Bearer. If one of Equestria's valiant defenders --" and dear Celestia, Fluttershy was shrinking into her own withers, but there was no other way to do this "-- requires the attention of the throne -- " virtual throne, anyway "-- she naturally has priority." Spike paused, looked as if he was searching for one more theatrical flourish, found one. "For who knows what trouble might have visited our fair land at this hour?"

Twilight wanted to applaud.

"-- errr..."

"...she's an Element-Bearer?"

"-- I guess if something might be happening..."

"-- run away!" She hadn't even seen Roseluck over there.

Spike nodded, rather imperiously. "Right. So everypony clear out, leave your books where they are, I'll push the camera box outside and you can all sort it out from there, the library will be open again once Equestria is well and truly safe from the dangers within and without and sometimes underneath and above or..." Twilight lost the rest of this under the sound of many dropped tomes and shifting hooves, but the end result was on its way out the door. All of it. Including, naturally...

Twilight sighed and let her field gently tug on a single yellow feather. "You stay."

"...okay," Fluttershy whispered. Even more softly, "But I don't want to bother you... you have so little time to yourself right now and really, I can get what I need on my own..."

Luckily, this had been too soft for the departing crowd to hear (which included one vaguely depressed stallion). Twilight picked up her own volume. "Yes, that sounds if it's going to be crucial to national security. You can tell me the details once we're alone."

Spike hustled, pushed on a few flanks here and there, ponies yelped and grumbled and shuffled towards the exit --

-- and then, with the sound of a clicking lock, they were alone. Twilight's wings finally went down.

Fluttershy blinked a single visible eye at her. "...sorry..."

"Fluttershy, what do you have to be sorry about? How could any of this possibly be your fault? You haven't done anything wrong!"

"...I could have asked some of them to leave..."

No. You couldn't. And I am not going to take any of my life's turmoil out on you. Twilight put on the gentlest smile she had, the one which said everything was all right, had been all right forever, and there wasn't an event which could take place anywhere in the world which could be blamed on a shy pegasus who had come calling. It was almost enough to make Fluttershy's wings stop trembling.

And it never worked before, either. "Come on, Fluttershy -- we'll talk away from the door."

"...right here is fine, thanks."

I can't get her to move now? Very carefully (not that it was probably going to matter), "Why?"

"...the atlases are what I need. I just don't know -- which one. Or the best flight routes. Rainbow Dash has a collection of air paths with labeled streams and currents, but she's not home and I know you have a collection, so I thought... but your time is so important right now..."

And this she could say with complete sincerity: "Fluttershy, right now, nothing is more important for spending my time on than you."

The rose-tingled blush got deeper. "...okay."

Silence.

A longer silence.

The exact amount of silence required for Twilight to realize the pegasus, with approval for the meeting finally understood, still needed permission to begin it. "So where are you trying to get to?"

"Umm... it's a town called Trotter's Falls. I have a friend out there -- a really old friend... and I think he might be in trouble. I wanted to go there... and see... if there was... anything I could maybe... do?"

Twilight searched her memory. Geography wasn't her strongest suit (although it had at least gotten a couple of cards into the deck), but that name sounded vaguely familiar. Trotter's Falls, Trotter's Falls... hadn't there been some kind of big discovery made out there within the last generation? Something medical, she was fairly sure of it, but how far... "Well, that shouldn't be a problem!" she cheerily declared. An easy problem to solve for once: one map, one flight path with labeled air currents, check-earning in progress! "Let me just start looking that up for you..." Her field exerted: the thick volumes of maps began to march in order, earning a startled eep! from Fluttershy as one passed above her head. "I'm sure your friend will be thankful to have you there, no matter what the problem is." And she would be down one pony from the small circle she could still deal with normally, but Fluttershy had her own life to live and that life...

...stop. "This looks promising..."

Fluttershy moved closer to get a look at the flipping pages, seemed to consider whether there was a personal space rule she was on the verge of violating, backed off, realized she didn’t have a sight angle from her retreat point, flew a couple of feet up and hovered there so as not to be in anypony's way. "You think so?" Her voice was beginning to brighten with hope. That particular crisis over, then. Or at least postponed.

"Yes, there it is in the index. Now we just need the right page..." Skimming, careful around the corners, she didn't want any creases... "And there it --" The blink was hard enough to almost hurt. "Fluttershy, that's a fifteen-day gallop and three by train! Even if you fly, it'll take..." She stopped herself right there: even after Fluttershy had won some praise from the water transfer operation, the pegasus' normally slow flying speed remained an especially weak spot in her forever-fraying confidence. Although it was more than Twilight could manage. As was the hovering...

She's prettier than me, she deals with the wild better than I do, any flying she pulls off is superior to my aerial flailing. And she is my friend and I love her for all of it and more. I am not jealous.

Twilight resolved to say it a few more times in private until it sunk all the way in. "How did one of your animal friends get all the way out there?"

The sound from above was exactly halfway between a whisper and a squeak.

Twilight kept the sigh internal. "Sorry, didn't catch that."

"...pony friend."

"You have --"

The overhead eep! told her she'd gone too far. Again. Yes, Twilight, she has a pony friend who is not you or one of the other Bearers. Fluttershy's existence did not begin the day I came up behind her while she was rehearsing with her bird chorus. Somehow, the single most shy and retiring pony I've ever seen steeled herself to the point of making a friend without my having to be a direct witness to it, I hope it happens again someday, and I truly hope things stop slipping out of my mouth really soon now.

Pick up the shattered pieces of the fragile conversation. Examine edges for possible fit. Apply adhesive and hope to the Princesses (hope to herself?) not to wind up with even smaller pieces. "So -- a pony friend outside of Ponyville?" She was trying to keep it casual, might have been within a kingdom of it. "Mare or stallion?"

After far too long a version of 'eventually', she finally got "...stallion... but not like that." Just the smallest emphasis on the last word. "...he's an old friend, really... I've known him forever. He used to come to Cloudsdale to see me every year or so, just to make sure I was okay. Made the trip just for me. He's so nice to everypony, and he always has so many ponies who need him, but he would take the time for me..." Twilight automatically looked up: sure enough, the blush was deeper than ever as Fluttershy struggled with the idea that anypony would consider her worth the effort to cross a street. "And it wasn't easy for him to come there, either... but he would... for me..." She stopped, looked directly at Twilight. With that firmness which surprised the others almost every time it emerged, "If he's in trouble, I have to go help him. No matter how far it is. Even if I have to go all the way there on hoof."

An old fillyhood friend. Somepony who clearly cared about Fluttershy (and Twilight was guessing unicorn or earth pony if just getting to Cloudsdale was a problem). A pony who had managed to win her trust to the point where she would drop everything at a moment's notice just to go and see if he was in trouble...

Twilight wanted to meet this pony, and one of the first things she wanted to do after pressing his hoof was ask him how he'd done it. "He sounds very special, Fluttershy."

"...he is. But... I might have to... I'm so sorry, but my bits... the train all the way out there... I don't know if I can really... my stipend hasn't..."

"I can loan you a few if you need it to make up the difference," Twilight assured her, and waited for --

-- sure enough. "...I'm sorry for being so poor..."

Applejack was forever worrying about the farm, but the family survived and even threatened to thrive during the weeks when they didn't have to rebuild any barns. Rarity had to anticipate (or create) the tides of fashion or drown in a sea of debt. Rainbow Dash spent freely and frivolously, generally on herself. Pinkie Pie had very little money, but somehow managed to make what she had stretch to fit one pony, one alligator, and fifteen tons of party supplies, some of which Twilight was sure hadn't existed until the moment they were pulled out. For her own part, she had her research grant plus a small award from the Equestrian Magic Society every time she improved a spell and got to add her librarian's salary to that: if she kept the little boosts in casting efficiency coming and didn't let Davenport rake her over the coals, she was typically able to get by. (She had yet to recalculate for 'royally free', a factor Davenport hadn't wiped out -- yet.)

But Fluttershy... a little agreement with the Cakes for her extra eggs, some pet grooming plus kennel hosting services when ponies had to travel away, a small stipend with associated tax break from the Weather Bureau that she'd never quite explained in detail, some under-the-bridle veterinary services from those ponies who trusted her more than the official vet in town (and no wonder when it was a choice between her and somepony who couldn't recognize a dragon) -- and most moons, that was about it. Given the amount of animal feed she needed to buy, the frequent repairs to the cottage after a new animal visitor hadn't quite calmed down immediately, and the few ponies who tried walking out on their bill in the certain knowledge that Fluttershy wouldn't want the stress of dragging anypony into small claims court, some of whom had kept coming back for more freebies because they were equally sure she'd be too skittish to send them away...

(That part had mostly stopped after Iron Will: in addition to no longer being walked over quite so badly in the marketplace, Fluttershy could now manage the occasional "You never paid me the first time" -- and would then sneak onto the pony's property to treat the animal in secret and for free, because "I just can't leave the poor thing to suffer." In the event that the creature needed home care, she would heed the lesson of Philomena -- by leaving a note. Possibly signed with the animal's name.)

Fluttershy generally teetered along the absolute edge of an economic chaos curve with bankruptcy on every side. Having to travel so far for so long would be a financial hardship she might not be able to endure. She had to know that. And she was still going to throw her entire life into a holding pattern in order to go help her friend.

Twilight really had to meet this stallion. And before she did that, she had to speak to the others about a sudden need for a full round of pet grooming. Although getting Fluttershy to charge very much for friends was difficult, and a full bill on Tank was just about impossible. ("...I cleaned his feet, I polished his shell... and there was still fifty-seven minutes left...")

"You'll pay me back," Twilight told her. And I will forget the debt. The problem: you won't. But that was an old problem, something else she couldn't find a solution for and incidentally, one more thing where being an alicorn meant nothing. "So what's your friend's name? Anypony I might know?"

Surprisingly, she got a shy nod. "...you might... so many ponies do... he's --"

Lock. Click. Door flying open. Spike running in, any chance of having Fluttershy finish her sentence shredded under the pressure of pounding clawed feet. Holding a scroll, an official scroll which was crackling with fast-fading flame -- and an odd underlayer of energy, almost gone. (There would be times Twilight wished she had taken a closer look at that vanishing field, and there would be many of them.)

"We're needed in Canterlot!" Spike gasped. "All of us! Right now!"

And all the crises had to be pushed aside to make room for a new one...

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It had begun to rain, and every drop had been like a little hammer slammed into her skin.

She had found a hollow of sorts. This was the base of a hill (her first hill), one covered with greenery and thin trails she was unable to use. But there was also a boulder, about two Celests higher than her mane, protruding from the side of the hill. She knew it was a tiny part of the internal structure, pushed out over the course of centuries by tremendous unseen pressures. (She did not question how she knew that. The knowing had very little pain associated with it, and most of that could have been misdirected nerve firings.) She could see that the rock had not been anywhere close to complete extrusion and collapse to ground level yesterday, and she knew it would not fall today or tomorrow or the day after or for many days and nights to come. It was shelter. So she huddled under it and trusted it more than she trusted anything else in her environment, including herself.

The hunger was still with her. When she had run from the wreck of the apple tree, a single fruit had trailed in her wake: it had not been enough. She had been taught about which things grew and where, but she couldn't find any more of them. And then there was the grass. She knew a pony could live on grass if they were desperate enough. But there wasn't much nutrition to it: tremendous amounts were needed for more than make it to tomorrow, and she was using far more energy than that. Chewing the grass, swallowing the grass -- her jaw trembled and lost half the mouthful, her throat ached and tried to push it back up. It had been that way for the apple too, but at least the taste had been normal. There was still that. Her senses worked, even if new ones pushed in, faded out, gave her information she couldn't always interpret. She knew the rock -- because she always would have known the rock. Nearly everything else was a blur of synesthesia, and most of it was twisted by the pain.

But that pain was just physical. Agonizing, fire and lighting and cold and sources she had no names for, all searing her without respite -- the least of her hurt. The one which would never heal lay within her soul, and the wound wept words in endless litany.

I wasn't the One.

I didn't finish The Great Work.

I failed.

I failed everypony.

I failed him.

The pain was building again. Soon, she would start to lose her feel for the rock. She would try to hold onto it, use it as an anchor to keep her from being lost. She knew she would fail at that too.

I wasn't the One.

I didn't finish The Great Work.

I failed.

I failed everypony.

I failed him.

It felt as if her ribs were trying to shift under her muscles. And soon they would, and the muscles would tear to let new bones through, the skin distorting but never quite breaking -- at least, not the first time. This would be the second pass coming, at least this way. And maybe it would tear this time, let the blood rush out, end the litany of her failures in a single liquid cascade --

-- or maybe it would simply stretch.

Over and over and over.

I wasn't the One.

I didn't finish The Great Work.

I failed.

I failed everypony.

I failed him.

Please let me die.

Angles

View Online

There are a lot of things 'right now' is not, and the most typical is right now.

First thing on the checklist: gather everypony and make sure we're all set up to be away for a while. There was no telling what might result from an emergency summons to Canterlot, not to mention how long that summons (and the results thereof) might last. So given that, Twilight had to start with --

"-- Spike, you too?" The little dragon nodded. Definition of 'all' confirmed. Okay, so much for her first choice for substitute librarian. "Do we have any time? Apparently so. "Can I see the letter?" He held it out: she enveloped the scroll in her field and unfurled it. (For a moment, there seemed to be a strange lingering feel to it -- but then it was just the scroll's texture: she decided it had been nerves.) All right -- typical -- a little time to play with -- that's kind of unusual, but fine -- and here we go, I have no idea if I'm even remotely ready for this, no I do, I am not, but it's the Princess so here we go again... "Fluttershy, you know the drill. Let's get to the market: we can pick up Applejack there and you can see who's available to take over for your animals -- Snowflake had his tent up today: maybe he hasn't been completely booked yet..." If only: the huge pegasus was incredibly gentle with anything smaller than he was (which meant just about everything) -- and almost as much to the point, he was one of the few creatures in the world Angel Bunny wouldn't try to pull too much with, just in case Snowflake decided to make one exception.

"...but I can't afford..."

"Fluttershy. Royal. Summons."

"Oh!" The yellow pegasus briefly beamed. "That's right! Let's get going before he's all taken! Oh, I hope he still has time free..."

Good enough. "Spike, clear a path, then start putting my emergency saddlebag together!" He threw the door open, roared something about a Royal Extreme Emergency, Element-Bearers only, everypony get out of the way!, and managed to get enough of the waiting crowd moving for Twilight to gallop out (hoping no pony would think about why she wasn't flying), Fluttershy a little ahead of her, heading directly for the market field. And other than Twilight stumbling a little as she failed to completely vault a freshly-fainted Lily Valley, they were smoothly on their way...

...a state which typically lasted until she found the next Bearer.

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"Did she say anythin' 'bout why she needs all of us? Twi, y'know Ah love the Princess and Ah'm proud ta serve her in any way Ah can, but Ah need t' know how long Ah'm gonna be gone."

Twilight shook her head. "Just that we've got to get going. Fast. I'm sorry, Applejack, but she wouldn't send for us if it wasn't important..."

"Ah know," the farmer grumbled through a mouthful of brass latch: she had started to close the stand the instant she'd seen the other two rushing towards her. (There's common sense, there's Pinkie Sense, and then there's the internal voice of repeatedly battered experience.) "But sometimes Ah swear, Twi, it's like we're the only six mares in all of Equestria..." Her tail swished with badly-repressed frustration as she eyed the baskets of apples which were going to go unsold. "At least there's The Fund now."

(The Fund had arguably sprung directly from Applejack, who had approached Princess Celestia just before they'd originally left for the Crystal Empire and had a few private words with her -- words so important that her hat had actually been draped over the end of her tail as she spoke. Twilight hadn't eavesdropped, but had gotten the essence from the results: they were six ponies without much in the way of personal wealth and while being the kingdom's apparent continual first resort was well and good and necessary, it didn't pay anything and every one of these trips left them with bills piling up at home and no way of earning the bits to pay them. The Princess had looked surprised, then embarrassed -- and knelt down in front of Applejack to whisper gently into the earth pony's ear. They had returned home from the Empire to each find a bag full of bits in their homes, compensation for the funds they had lost and spent on previous missions along with the most recent one --

-- and ever since, any official summons opened The Fund: a royal exchequer which paid for replacement labor at Sweet Apple Acres (and lots of it: it took at least three ponies to replace one Applejack), multiple substitutes for Fluttershy (or one Snowflake), a typical week of sales at the Boutique, got a student baker into Sugarcube Corner, put overtime in for one of Rainbow Dash's fellows, supplies needed, expenses incurred, and now had to cover somepony who could hopefully tell one end of a week from the other and not take any guff on late fees. At best, the six of them broke even -- but it beat the alternative.)

"I've got to line up somepony myself: Spike's coming along again," Twilight told her. "How does Fluttershy look like she's doing?" She could have gotten a viewing angle herself if she could have moved five feet -- straight up.

"Ah think she's got him... yeah, he looks all happy. Oh, Angel's gonna hate this..." Applejack managed a chuckle, and her tail slowed down a little. "An' she'll get back t' find every last bag o' feed stacked exactly where she needs it. Stallion doesn't stop workin'." A strong note of approval in her voice: it was no secret that Applejack liked the huge pegasus -- in a distant admiration sort of way. "Okay, Ah'll see who's available. Would have liked t' get him --" and again, only in that laborer way "-- but she needs him more. Jus' let me close up here, take some ponies on, get Apple Bloom back from wherever she ran off to, an' tell Big Mac an' Granny Smith 'bout the incomin'. Don't s'pose y'saw her when y'ran in?"

"No, we didn't pass her --"

There was a crash somewhere off in the distance.

Applejack closed her eyes, tilted her head so that her hat slid forward to shade them. "Y'wanna bet...?"

Twilight repressed the urge to groan (again) and went with a simple "It'll be over soon." Oh, if only. From all reports, there were now two cities under siege, and the movement was threatening to spread. Cluelessness bred in every junior schoolhouse and, before Pinkie Pie asked, was known to produce exactly two things: more cluelessness and a very large trail of wreckage.

"Ah hope so. Ah truly do." The earth pony sighed. "But some days, Twi, Ah swear, Ah think there's a cutie mark for causin' disasters. An' Ah think it's invisible..."

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"To Canterlot? Now? But I haven't gotten to read the latest trades! What is in fashion? It's been three whole weeks, Twilight! You don't understand the pressure! There's every chance my onsom from your coronation has -- completely slipped off the map!" The last five words came perilously close to a Fluttershy level of squeak. "And even if it hasn't, I would be wearing the same thing -- twice!" The mere concept nearly forced Rarity into a swoon: she settled for leaning on a stack of convenient fabric rolls. Rolls she had been next to at the exact moment her familiar mode of panic had brought her to the time she might consider swooning. (Common sense, Pinkie Sense, experience, and drama.) "Even an extra two hours, I could throw a little something together..."

"No."

"One hour?" The white unicorn forced open one falsely-lashed eye, visibly summoned all her strength to bat it at Twilight. "I can have some basics packed in an hour -- some works in progress I could throw together on the way..."

Along with half the contents of the shop, every single seasonal piece you own, a few things you were hoping to parade around in on the streets to gauge public reaction, possibly Sweetie Belle to serve as an assistant if Applejack can get the tar off her and the other two in time and if I give you sixty-one minutes, the actual Boutique. Twilight put her hoof down. "No."

"Forty-five minutes, Twilight, just forty-five tiny little insignificant minutes... there's something I want you to have and I'm so very sorry for springing it on you like this, it was going to be your complementary outfit for when the Princesses are flanking you, something to highlight your coat and set off theirs the next time you were at the palace, it was going to be a surprise, it's not quite ready yet and that next time is today..."

"No."

"But -- Twilight...! ...thirty minutes? The train doesn't leave for at least thirty minutes."

"We're not taking the train," Twilight told her. She wasn't sure what they were taking: she just knew the train wasn't it. She was expecting a royal express air carriage pulled by the Solar Guards. She was dearly hoping she wouldn't be asked to help.

"We're not? Well, I can leave my train hat at home -- fifteen minutes?"

"N -- fine."

(Twilight had budgeted twenty.)

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"Yes! The Heroes Of Equestria are summoned!" Rainbow Dash hoof-uppercut her napping cloud: it shattered. (The pillow fell. Twilight dodged. The pegasus didn't notice.) "Enough of this boring weather plan and just waiting for the next round of academy lessons -- hey, you think we'll be back before the next round of academy lessons? Because it's like totally okay if we aren't because we're just going to be doing spinouts again and I've done more than enough spinouts myself. I mean, you've seen me spin out all the time -- but not on purpose! Just for, you know, practice. Lots and lots of -- practice. Yeah. So -- no idea on how long?" Magenta eyes blinked at her in anticipation of an answer which the pegasus was almost certainly going to talk over.

"No, it just said --"

"That's cool. Because the longer we're out there, the better the chance we're gonna get another window pane! We should really each have one of our own, you know. I've been writing up some designs to show the Princess the next time we get there. I can't draw, but I can sure describe the awesome colors they can put in mine, and Pinkie told me about some crystals they can use for my mane and tail -- which reminds me: those crystals are kind of on the pricy side, I want a full-sized version to use as a window in my place, and I sort of just got an autographed Daring Do hat, signed by the author -- I'm going home! I am so totally gonna wear that on our adventure! Rainbow Dash And The Heroes Of Equestria, Volume Four!"

"...Volume -- Four?"

"Oh, yeah --- that's right... I could -- kind of use an editor on Volume One. The whole -- paragraphs thing. And -- sentences. And -- those fiddly little bits you're supposed to put at the ends of sentences. Those rules are just weird. When we get back -- won't take more than two or three moons of your time, I swear, maybe I'll bring the first batch with me and you can start on it on the way... why do you look so down, Twilight? We're on an adventure again! Wanna race back to my place?"

"I still have to go get --"

"Cool! And after I beat you there, you can tell me all about that stupid asp-asked-trophy thing. I have no idea where those bucking things are supposed to go. See you there, flying buddy! Bring my pillow! In three, two, one --!"

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"It's nice to see you, Twilight, but --"

"Pinkie."

"-- I'm kind of in the middle of packing right now because --"

"Pinkie."

"-- I have someplace really really important to go and --"

"Pinkie!"

Three was normally the target number -- but this time, the prime hadn't hit the mark: Pinkie Pie was still racing back and forth around her attic room at Sugarcube Corner, grabbing things in her mouth and throwing them halfway across the space towards the saddlebags on her bed. Some of them went in. Most didn't. Several were draped over Gummy, who blinked, yawned, showed off the interior of his toothless mouth, and patiently put up with it. And one had just been field-flicked away from Twilight's horn. None of this had been noticed by the earth pony, who was still determined to get everything together for wherever it was she needed to go -- something she couldn't pause long enough to explain to anypony: according to the Cakes, she had stopped in the middle of talking to a customer, thanked her, apologized to them, and run upstairs. This hurricane of packing was the result, and precious little of it seemed to be streamers.

"-- I'm sorry, but you don't know how important this is, this is just about the most important thing ever and there's only one or two things which could interrupt it so I really really have to go and I'll see you when I get back in a few -- bird! Bird made out of paper in front of my face! Hey, did you know birds could be made out of -- wait. Is this a scroll? -- oh."

And she stopped. Collapsed to her knees, stared at the words which were still hovering, adjusted to remain in front of her. Her expression had fallen ahead of her body. She read, quietly, sad eyes going from beginning to end and back again.

"...Pinkie?"

"It's okay, Twilight," she was falsely assured. "I mean -- this is one of those one or two things which could interrupt it, right? It's maybe even more important. And besides, I'm probably not needed anyway. I just really wanted to go. The Princess needs us and she needs all of us. So we'll get my Element out of the vault and do what she needs us to. That's what we're supposed to do. And maybe I'll even be back in time to go anyway."

I thought... What? That the mysterious, untestable, ungraphable, and frequently-targeting-her-future-injuries Pinkie Sense had told Pinkie she was going on a long journey before Twilight ever arrived -- but not that the journey was being done with the group? And all she was doing by showing Pinkie the scroll was giving her confirmation of the premonition and a direction to move in? No, Pinkie had been on the way to somewhere else. She was interfering with her friend's life, something important was going on and she was stealing some more of Pinkie's time...

...stop. It was a royal summons. The Princess needed them. No matter how much some of them occasionally groused about it in public (and all of them, even her, had at least had the thoughts once in private), they had been called and they would come. Every time, Fund or no Fund, no matter what the reason. It was the Princess. That was enough.

"And I'm already mostly packed," Pinkie told her. Glanced at the bed. "Sort of. Maybe. Anyway, I can be in front of the library in a few minutes. I just have to get somepony in for me plus a backup babysitter and I'm set." Perking up a little, "Say, my Element is okay, right? I mean, we never tested it after it hit you. Or after the colors got switched. Not that we usually play around with them or anything, but maybe we'd better be sure they're working right before we head off. I don't want to go firing off a Honesty beam when nopony's expecting it!"

"We're not taking them," Twilight told her. That had been spelled out in the letter: the Elements stay in the vault. It had to mean the problem wasn't at the worst end of the scale. "Pinkie, where were you going?"

Either Pinkie hadn't heard her, decided to ignore it, or it didn't matter to her now: she let that one rest where it landed, a new foal question delivered solely by adults. They were going to Canterlot. Issue over and dropped. "Oh... well, we should really test them sometime anyway. Just to be safe. Why are you carrying a pillow?"

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And they were gathered.

So was the audience.

It was something else Twilight wasn't used to considering full-time in the days following her transformation: ponies listened to her now. Listened for words of wisdom, inadvertent gossip, anything which might be turned into a newspaper story by ponies forbidden to photograph, but still perfectly free to write. Words she had said to Fluttershy on the way had been recorded by twitching ears and repeated into eagerly-turned ones. Repeated into a lot of ears.

The instructions in the letter had been clear: get everypony together in front of the library, and you will be picked up there. It was just that 'everypony' now numbered more than eighty ponies.

Rainbow Dash was basking in it. Fluttershy had just about vanished -- behind Spike, which really counted as an achievement. Rarity tried to pass out fliers (she had packed fliers, Twilight had gotten her down to a mere two balanced saddlebags through threat of force, apocalypse and ultimately, not wearing the new outfit, and Rarity had still found room for fliers...), Applejack was busy with a near-endless verbal track running along the lines of "An' you put that hay-twisted camera away, too! An' you! The one over there with the stupid-lookin' scales on your flank, don't think Ah don't see you! Yer gonna find out just how well Ah can reach you inna minute!" with regular threatened stops at Clobbering and Beatdown, and Pinkie Pie had stepped into Fluttershy's usual role: apologies. Lots of them.

"...and I'm sorry, but it's going to be at least a day and that means I can't throw your welcoming party on time, or yours if it's two days, or one for the two of you if it's more than a week, but I talked to three of the local fillies, you don't know them, but they're very interested in getting their cutie marks in party throwing so they kind of made me promise that if I was gone that long they could throw yours for me and if that happens? I'm really, really sorry..."

None of this did anything to stop the questions, from established locals, press, and new arrivals alike. Where were they going? What was so important? Did the Princess have any news? Did the Princess have anything she needed to tell the public so they wouldn't panic? Was the Princess aware that three mares had been found fainted dead away together an hour ago and it was all her fault?

"Twilight, dear?" Rarity shouted to her over the babble. "The next time I tell you I want to be surrounded by ponies everywhere I go, please be certain I'm leaving the word 'entourage' out?"

"What's wrong with you guys?" Rainbow Dash gleefully questioned at the top of her lungs. "This is awesome! We've deserved this since Nightmare Moon! The world is finally playing catch-up -- let it give you everything you want! Okay, who wants my autograph?" And that got her an immediate flood of you're-not-the-Princess, who-are-you-anyways, and one what-for-opening-another-jar? "Jerks... hey, Twilight! Get up here and take a look down the street! I think there's more coming!"

Spike groaned. "Twilight, I don't want you to worry or anything, but dragon flame? I can't do it forever. If I don't get some gems pretty soon, I'm going to run out..."

"Do not even look at my saddlebags, Spike!" Rarity called out. "At least not until you're down to twenty percent or so! And then start with the spicule emerald!"

"-- an' you over there? Fine!" There was a very loud splat. "One cheap camera, one free apple! We're even!"

"...oh, where's the carriage?" Fluttershy whimpered. "Please, please tell me the carriage is coming..."

"Can't see it from here!" Rainbow Dash called down. "Twilight, what time did the Princess give you for pickup?"

"She didn't!" Twilight yelled up. "Just that we all had to be in front of the library, and then --"

As it turned out, and then was right now.

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It was Twilight's first night back, and she had a 'flying buddy' appointment in the morning. Rainbow Dash wanted to see what kind of 'moves' she had come into her wings with, along with "Showing you some things -- you know, just rookie stuff, pure filly food, nothing I won't teach Scootaloo once she gets up and going, except that she's got all that midair experience on her scooter and you don't, so maybe a little below that... or more... But we've got to get you up there for more than a little sightseeing! Besides, you've never seen me work from close up -- if you can keep up with me -- which you can't, but we'll work something out..."

Twilight knew what this was about, of course -- the same thing it was so often about.

Books could be written about Rainbow Dash's ego. (Twilight had thought about it. Four volumes' worth of 'about it', which would come back to haunt her about three weeks later. She had finally dismissed the idea as insulting to her friend.) Dash had to be the best at the most important things there were -- speed, racing, coolness, awesomeness, radicalness, and presumably being able to tell those last three apart. Having the top position in her chosen fields was an absolute. And as for everything else? Ponies could outrank her for skill in anything -- as long as that thing was 'lame'. How did something become 'lame'? In Twilight's view, it happened by having anypony be better at it than Rainbow Dash.

Fluttershy could do things with animals which Twilight had never seen matched and might even be a better herder than Applejack if she could just force herself to do something so forceful as group direction -- so hanging around with critters? Was 'lame'. Rarity -- and to some degree, Pinkie Pie, although it didn't manifest as openly or often -- could work out the social dynamics of a group just by walking in and listening for a few minutes: who ranked and where, sometimes who owed what to whom and how desperately. 'Lame': just impose your own personality on the place instead of reading everypony else's! Dresses? Slowed you down in the air: lame. Apple farming? Any job where you couldn't sleep in (even when you shouldn't) was lame. Parties? Not lame, but geez, Pinkie, get a few new themes, I could do this better than you if I really wanted to! And Twilight, sure, you've got magic, but where does that magic come from? Books. And books? Are lame. Do I need to say more? And then she would. For hours. It was easy to get sick of, and Twilight often thought that the Mare Do-Well hoax had truly come about because five ponies had collectively, almost silently decided they needed to show the sixth what it was like to be on the receiving end of the 'lame' for a change by forcing her to come in second.

But...

...shortly after it had happened, she had watched Rainbow Dash flying back home. The cyan pegasus had been moving more slowly than usual, looking down at the passing ponies below. As if looking for somepony to glance up and declare joy at her presence -- while knowing it wouldn't happen. Might never happen again. And then she'd put on a burst of speed and vanished before anypony could catch her checking -- anypony she knew about.

Twilight had watched that, and thought about how she'd been in school shortly before Nightmare Moon. When her studies were all. When she'd shifted much more towards treating Spike as live-in labor than the little brother she'd helped raise for years. When nothing was as important as the next book -- in fact, nothing else was important at all. When the mere concept of making friends was stupid, pointless, a total waste of her time, absolute frivolity which could never have a purpose to it and only hurt the real thing in her life. If you had pressed that particular Twilight for the lowest-level vocabulary she could use on the topic, that unicorn would have ultimately said that friendship was --

-- lame.

And if you looked under all the protests and excuses, she would have said that for one and only one true reason: because she was terrified she would have failed. Known she'd be no good at it. That any attempt would have ended in laughter directed at her, and she would have earned every peal.

She had been Dash's friend for over a year at that time. She hadn't started to understand the pegasus until she'd seen that rainbow trail vanishing across the sky. And she still wondered what had happened in Dash's life to make her treat everything as a case of first place or no point. Another question unasked -- this time on purpose.

Rainbow Dash had changed, slowly. Books had entered her life (although non-fiction was so totally lame -- oooh, wait, is that a book about pegasus military tactics across the ages? Maybe there's some awesome maneuvers in there which everypony else forgot about! Any way I could maybe have that for two weeks?), and suddenly writing wasn't lame. She had opened her heart to Tank, and now animals were sort of not lame and there was one tortoise who was so totally cool that only she could properly appreciate (and see) it. Is that outfit really going to cut down on my wind resistance? Awesome! And so on down the line. And Twilight had changed, too -- she had learned that there were times when she should let Rainbow Dash show her up a little. At least on one or two subjects. (The placement of the asp-asked-trophy would not be one of them.) Twilight had acquired wings. Rainbow Dash had to be better at using her own. So it would go.

But it didn't mean she was above a little late-night practice in the name of giving the expert a little 'yes, and I took fifth place that time too' surprise...

Twilight had unfurled her wings, flapped a few experimental times, and calmly stepped off her porch.

Once the pain had died down to a background Day Of The Pinkie Sense level, she had forced herself to go back up and try it again.

And again.

By morning, she was sending Owlowiscious up with a note saying she couldn't make it, had to postpone, Princess stuff, they'd reschedule for later, and she hadn't been sure when 'later' would manifest. All she knew was that --

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-- she was in trouble.

A single whimper. A lone shout. Two exclamations of delight: Pinkie and Rarity. Spike sitting down heavily, with a few of his scales smoking. And a moan from Applejack. "Ah think -- oh, Celestia, Ah think Ah'm gonna be sick and Ah can't do it here..."

Typically, Rainbow Dash had recovered faster than anypony. "Twilight, that was actually cool! -- just don't get into the habit because couriers need jobs, okay? Wow! All seven of us over that distance? I thought you might get a few extra tricks when the wings showed up, but I didn't think any of your old ones were gonna get a boost!" She paused halfway past a brilliant rock crystal mounting, one which was adding extra rainbows to her coat. "Did anypony else have any weird memories in that middle there? I was at that one lunch... hey, see that blank spot over there? That? Is where my picture's gonna be! I'm going to go measure it out!" And she did, having some visible trouble keeping her hat in place.

Fluttershy had managed to uncurl and immediately flew over to Applejack. "...is there anything I can do?"

The farmer shook her head, looked even more queasy after the motion. Applejack cautiously brought a hoof up, made sure her hat was still there. Its presence seemed to reassure her. "No, it's okay, Fluttershy. Ah just -- Ah can't explain it, but Ah'm better now. Or Ah will be if Ah can jus' stay still... Twilight, Ah appreciate that y'can do that now and y'kind of want to, Ah can even understand it with that crowd an' all, but some warnin' first would have been nice..."

"It wasn't me."

Rarity froze in the middle of what was going to be a congratulatory pose. "...it wasn't? But the teleport is your trick. And darling, not to be unkind, but you've done it without entirely meaning to before."

"I'm not the only pony who can do it. I've seen Princess Celestia do it, I've heard of plenty of others -- and I've never tried to move that kind of mass over that much distance," Twilight insisted. "And I always try not to teleport with Spike unless I absolutely have to: something between doesn't react well with his scales and if I don't remember to shield him first -- well..." Her horn inclined towards the little dragon, who still had little curls of black vapor coming off his shoulders. "Plus I know when I've cast a spell. That -- wasn't me."

"So the Princess brought us in?" Spike asked. "This must be really important."

"No, she didn't." -- and the words came from Rarity and Twilight at the same moment. They looked at each other, decided to postpone the jinx.

Fluttershy, of all ponies: "...but... how do you know?"

Another awkward look between the unicorns (one current, one sort of former): the white one took it. "It didn't -- feel like her," Rarity said. "There's a certain -- feeling... I'm sorry, Fluttershy, I don't mean to sound insensitive by talking about an ability you lack, but there's a sense you get with a horn, at least with some of us. I'm hardly anywhere near the best with it, but I've been near Celestia a few times when she's been working magic, and she's so powerful that I can't help but feel her. And she feels like nothing else in the world. I thought it was Twilight bringing us because she'd never done anything on that scale before and what with becoming an alicorn, I thought her -- feel had changed."

"...I'm not offended..."

Twilight was looking around. "There are times I've known it's about to be morning just because I can feel her raising the Sun. Mostly when we're in Canterlot overnight. I attended one Celebration when I was young, and I've always been able to pick the Princess out when she's working, ever since... This wasn't her." There had been this strange -- underlayer...

"Luna, then?" Rarity proposed.

"It's possible -- I'm not as familiar with her work and the one time I felt her teleport, she was -- you know -- wasn't Luna yet. But it still didn't feel like her..."

"So..." Rarity cautiously asked, "where are they?"

"I don't know..."

Pinkie was pronking about. "Look! There's the first one of us, and -- that's you, Twilight! And we're with you! Kind of small, though..."

Guess who heard that. "What? Twilight has one almost all to herself? That's it: I'm going to demand some equal time! What's hers showing, The Invention Of Eggheading?"

Pinkie didn't bother answering that: she'd already moved further down. (Although Spike did, shouting out, "No, but there's one of you after that trick you tried three moons ago. It's The Invention Of Traction!") It was left to the others to close in on the newest stained glass portrait in the Hall Of Legends.

Me. Me in the middle of them and yes, noticeably larger than they are. I'm being hit with rays of light from them, and my wings are unfurling. Transformation. Change. Ascension. Mistake --

"And here's the one with Discord," Pinkie cheerfully called down the Hall with its portraits of heroes and horrors, events which had changed Equestria, some now known only by those portraits to the casual viewer, a few which Twilight had never gotten the chance to research and kept meaning to catch up on, giving every figure in the Hall its rightful name. "And here's the other one with Discord..."

"You have no idea how annoying that is. It's like being released from prison and stepping out into a room full of Wanted posters. Oh, you may have changed, you may have reformed, but here's every reminder of what we consider to be your crimes, and they get shoved in my newly-innocent face every time I enter this Hall. It's the permanent record. It never goes away. And yet there is no portrait showing my reform, and I? Have to question why that is, I really do. Is it because no pony thinks it's going to be -- permanent?"

Six of them froze.

No...

"Oh, yes," Discord said, "Welcome, welcome, welcome -- to you and you and you -- and most especially you, Fluttershy." The stained glass peeled off the window, gained dimension and weight as the sunlight streamed away from it... "The only pony here who moves towards me. Everypony else has their muscles and wings and horns and all three for you completely lock up, but the one among you whom you see as the weakest comes directly to me..." He reached out a now-solid talon, scritched the coral mane. "...without fear. There's a lesson in that, if anypony has the courage to write a letter about it."

Fluttershy looked up at him, eyes welcoming -- but a little uncertain. "Did you..."

"Oh, yes." Sounding amused. He so often sounded amused, and the joke was always on them... "That was me: I brought you here. Really, I'd think you'd have enough experience with my style of magic to have the feel of it -- but then, it's always hard, getting a sense of The Other, isn't it, Twilight? I can create a scroll without issue and the little loops a certain Sun-raising killjoy puts into some of her letters are no trouble at all, but I'd think you would have learned to tell when I make something -- or apparently not. Well, you'll have time to work on that, I suppose. Potentially lots of time... oh, don't give me that look, Fluttershy. This is a perfectly acceptable means of gathering. It's a tradition. A letter gets sent from the palace and you all? Come. And here you are. My good and only friend, Fluttershy. Twilight Sparkle, new limbs and all -- how do those feel, by the way? Any cramps in new muscles? Rarity, looking stunningly underdressed for the occasion. Pinkie Pie, who has yet to throw me a welcoming party. Applejack, who wouldn't dream of catering it. Rainbow Dash, so upset that I get more picture space than she does. And -- the other Rainbow Dash. Don't get greedy for my attention, young one: we all know how that works out. Welcome to all of you, whether you want to believe it -- or not."

Spike was bristling: his normally even-lying scales were beginning to angle up just enough for Twilight to see. Rainbow Dash was angry enough to be searching for a target. Twilight herself was trying to remember every offensive spell she knew at once. And he made us leave the Elements behind! Rarity's visible tension would have normally resulted in a six-hour spa visit with the option to overnight. Applejack had been caught searching for something she could kick: right behind Rainbow Dash on that option and with no thought to clamping the other's tail. Pinkie Pie didn't have a laugh in her. And Fluttershy --

-- was patient. Not completely trusting? Arguably -- but trust was there.

She believed in Discord. More than anypony. And she had been the one he had attacked directly, gone into her head, Applejack had used the lasso because Fluttershy (or Flutterbitch, as they'd joked later -- painfully) had attacked them, sent her animal friends in a wave which the farmer had been unable to herd away, too many targets for Twilight to field-effect at once, she had nearly taken them out before Applejack had gotten the rope through the swirling mass of birds and pulled her out of the air. The effect had gone so deep...

She trusted him.

Celestia trusted him enough to let him stay loose.

Twilight didn't understand why. And frankly, didn't want to. "You have no authority to summon us!" she yelled. (Her own volume surprised her: it echoed off the stone, the glass, touched her own portrait and changed to a deeper note.) "You counterfeited a royal sending, and you are not royalty!"

"I used to be," Discord calmly replied. A crown flickered into existence on his head, took on a rakish angle across the antler. "Ruler of all ponies, and so much else besides. What -- no great-great-great-don't-bother-counting grandfather clause for the old prince?"

"We took you out once!" Rainbow Dash declared. "We can do it again if we have to!"

Fluttershy glanced back, and her eyes were hurt. "...Rainbow Dash, he just called us -- and... um..." She looked up at Discord again, then back at her friends. "Would any of you have come -- if you knew he was calling you? Even after Celestia said he's okay?"

The other six stopped. Looked at each other. Almost tried to look anywhere that wasn't the Celestia-freed and declared-reformed Discord.

No. Fluttershy would have. They would not.

"And they say Twilight's the smart one," Discord groused. (The grouse in question was rather surprised to find itself existing, took a second for evaluating the matter, and then took off down the hall at its best possible speed before its creator changed his mind.) "All the things she can't figure out, they still say she's the smart one -- and yet Fluttershy beats her to it again. I say let this one wear two Elements: see how that works out for the group. Twilight's so busy, anyway... Yes, I tricked you. I'm Discord: hello! A harmless jest through the infinite between space, I knew it, Element-Bearers. And here you all are -- unhurt, in a place you know, with your precious rulers a yell for help away. If I had wanted to, I could have pulled you to much more interesting places. This land has volcanoes, you know. The heat -- nothing to me. I can have a meeting on top of lava if I want to. You? Well, I suspect Rainbow Dash Number Two would rather enjoy the soak under normal circumstances, but swimming through your ashes might put a certain taint -- on the experience?"

"So yer expectin' us t' thank you -- for not killin' us?" Applejack got out with significant effort. Her teeth were clenched, her fur raised, tail lashing in all directions...

"A little appreciation for the common courtesies is of course welcome," Discord replied. A small gold star attached itself to Applejack's hat: she angrily hoof-scraped it off. "And I will take that as thanks regardless of whether it was meant as such. I know your limits, earth pony -- but does anypony else?"

Applejack's nostrils were fully flared now, all legs spread, ready to kick or charge. Pony tails were flicking all over the Hall. All but one.

"...he wouldn't have called us without a really good reason... not just for a joke... not with what the Princesses would do..."

And Discord -- nodded.

Just nodded.

Nothing appeared. Nothing vanished. Nothing changed.

A simple nod.

"Yes."

Twilight had no response. Five others found no words of their own.

Fluttershy looked up at him again. Back to the others.

"...I think... we at least have to listen."

More sunlight streamed through the hall. It never quite reached Discord, moving away from him in visible rays to break up into rainbows of shadow and sound. And yet there was still light.

He was standing. Still. None of the mismatched parts were moving. He wasn't talking. The red eyes gazed at Twilight, the blinks coming normally. No staring contest here, just --

-- Discord.

Waiting.

"Let's say -- just for the bucking Tartarus of it..." It felt good to curse. Twilight had never cursed in the palace. She was a Princess: she had to at least get that from the word. "...that I'm willing to give you a few seconds before I do yell for the Princesses and they summon the Elements here before you can get a single chocolate milk cloud going." (Pinkie softly moaned.) "If the others agree."

Rarity. "I had to put up with Blueblood for hours. I can give him two minutes. Possibly three."

Fluttershy. "Yes."

Applejack. "Only, and Ah mean only, if the stone option is back on the board!"

Pinkie Pie. "I..." Her effect had gone nearly as deep as Fluttershy's. "I... not for long."

Spike. "Say the word and I'll burn him, Twilight. I swear I will..." His voice was shaking, his knees and spines and everything was shaking, he knew it would do no good and he was still holding his ground...

Rainbow Dash. "Fine, but I get to blast him first."

"It seems," Twilight said slowly, "that we have a consensus. So why, Discord? Why did you summon us?"

"For the same reason she would summon you," Discord told her. "I have a mission for you."

"No. You. Do. NOT!"

And the fear broke, the tension began to drain away, they were saved, everything would be all right, they had held out for long enough...

Discord sighed, looked as put-upon as his features possibly could have managed, manifested a KICK ME. KICK ME HARD! sign on his back, front, and sides. "Of course," he sighed again. "Naturally. Perfect timing. I finally get them to the point where they're willing to listen to me for a few precious seconds and what do I get? The namby-pamby Grimcess. Well -- one of them. The pambier. Dear sweet you, Celestia, do you have any idea how hard it is to get through those skulls? Especially with the orange and blue ones? You could have given me two more minutes, but no, you just had to come in and ruin the party just when it was truly about to get started. I'm learning new habits: a thousand years and you haven't even picked up one. Can we just rename 'Equestria' to 'Dullsville'? Here, let's try it out..."

A glowing sign appeared over Celestia's head: PRINCESS OF DULLSVILLE: POPULATION: YOU.

It caught fire. Turned to ash. The flames didn't even last long enough for anypony to feel the heat. The Princess glared at Discord. That raised the temperature of the Hall. "I gave you a lot of freedom, Discord --"

"You gave me a very long leash. I am perfectly aware of who's holding the other end."

"-- but you have no authority in this matter. None."

"I have not gone where I wasn't invited. Oh, I'm sure there was a lovely coronation which I completely missed, with lots of musical numbers and something vaguely approaching dancing..."

A long pause.

He stared at her. "You let me come out -- for a reason. You gave me a chance -- for a reason."

"Yes," Celestia agreed. "I did." Her left front hoof came down: the marble underneath discolored. "And is this it?"

The fallen prince and ruling Princess looked at each other across a millennium and more.

"...no. It is not."

Furiously, "Then --"

Softly, oh so very still. "It is -- important."

The Hall went silent.

"Important to you," Celestia said after several long seconds, "is not necessarily important to Equestria. If you wish to talk to me about this --"

"-- no." And that was petulant. "Important to me. My mission. It is for the good of Equestria, it is necessary, but -- mine. You have no part in this. You cannot have a part in this. You don't understand..."

"What I understand," Celestia told him, her voice molten fire, "is that you have no authority over any pony, and even less over the Element-Bearers. I am sorely tempted to put you back where you came from, Discord. You do not rule here, and I will not let you hurt them. You cannot assign missions. You will not put them at risk. I will not let you send them into danger. And I can stop you..."

"No, sister."

As one -- Discord included -- they all turned to face the other end of the Hall.

Luna's arrival had been silent. Nothing else about her was. "You are wrong. There is a way he can do this, and you are not thinking of it. Perhaps you do not wish to."

The glow which had been building around Celestia's horn dimmed, the flowing colors of her mane twisted against their borders. "Luna, this is not the time --"

"This? Is the perfect time, sister." The other ponies might as well not have been there. Even Discord seemed to be ignored, which might have been the reason he momentarily doubled his size just to see if anypony would notice and, when no pony responded, shrank back down again. "I hold half the throne. I am the night: you are the day and the day alone once again. I have more than a right to be heard: I have a duty. He did bring them here where we would see and hear what was done. Everything out in the open, and we both picked up on every word. You simply waited until you decided you could stand no more. I waited until I had something to say."

Discord spread out his mismatched arms towards her. "Ah, Luna -- listening to the voice of reason instead of the other --"

"Shut up."

He shut up.

Luna looked down the long Hall at her older sister. Dozens of yards separated them, and that was the least of it. "If I had called them -- would you be here, supervising to make certain I said or assigned nothing you would see as wrong?"

"Luna --"

"Would you?"

They all heard the lightning, high overhead and still seemingly only inches away, saw Luna's eyes go white.

Celestia's tail was flowing faster now as well. Her voice gave no answer. The eyes seemed to plead.

(Discord was inches high, pretending to hide behind Fluttershy's mane.)

"A matter for another time," Luna softly said as the dark blue returned to her gaze. "You are right, sister -- and you are wrong. Discord has no authority over the Element-Bearers or any other pony, not until you let the last of the leash go. He cannot assign them a mission, certainly not with conjured scrolls and faked words. But he has a way. He can ask them -- as a friend. And if he does, and they should say yes -- how could you stop them? It goes against everything you believe, everything you teach. All he has to do is ask. They can listen and say yes or no as they like. Or you could order them not to listen, or send them away before they could hear a word -- and then what would you be?"

There were no words for the silence which descended on the Hall. It was the not-sound of thought, of a logic trap snapping shut with jaws which would never be pried open, of a very old mare looking back at the philosophy which had ruled her life and considering whether it was time to violate it.

"Discord." He took his full size back, looked at Celestia. "Speak. Quickly."

The draconequus turned to face Fluttershy, dropped to one knee, took her left front hoof in his paw. Looked at her soft blue-green eyes and nothing else.

"I -- need your help," he said. "There is something -- which needs to be done. You are the ones -- who can do it. Will you?"

She trembled. She shook. Wings half-unfurled, vibrated, curled back in towards her body.

"...yes."

He looked back at the rest of the group. Luna's wings spread, covered them in protective shadow. "And will you," he asked softly, "leave her to do it alone?"

Twilight wondered if her mane was on fire. Oh, he learned about friendship, all right! He learned how to grab one link in the chain and use it to pull all the rest along! If we had her alone, we might be able to talk her out of it, get some sense into her, get out of this, but she's going to go for him, she's going to risk everything and this stallion she's missing out on seeing, he probably bucks just as much, Fluttershy has the worst taste in friends ever and I am one of her friends and I am going to stop this train of thought right here.

The Element-Bearers, caught without Elements, caught without a response -- five ponies caught, in fact, by the short hairs plus one small dragon by the smallest scales -- looked at each other. Looked for a way out.

Found nothing.

"We go?" Twilight asked the others. Saw what she needed to see. Everything she wished she hadn't. "We -- go."

"Excellent!" And Discord was back on his uneven feet, beaming, light coming off him in waves. "So Celestia, Luna -- I believe this would now be my show. Feel free to keep listening -- in fact, even if you should for some unimaginable reason leave, I think you'll find a very nice transcript going on right in front of your eyes. I've gotten so good at your writing: it's a shame not to keep it up... Now, let's see -- the rules. Since we're doing this the pony way, there have to be rules. And here's the first one -- the one I already gave you: no Elements. -- oh, wipe that look off your face, Celestia: consider it advice if it'll give you any comfort. They will not solve this. They would, in fact, only make it worse."

"How can you be sure?" Rarity just barely managed to demand.

"Again: hello! I'm Discord!" He laughed. It was not kind. "I'm the living embodiment of chaos and you're the unicorn with the rock and hoof fetishes along with an accent more put-on than your eyelashes! And now that we know each other again -- no Elements, ladies -- and gent. Oh, and that brings us to Rule Two, which I also already gave you, generous deposed prince that I am. It's the seven of you this time. The poor little lad hasn't gotten out much: I think it's well past time to change that." Spike was still trembling, still trying to draw himself up to his full height. It still wasn't doing much. "Rule Three: it is just the seven of you -- to start. You may recruit any help you like when you get there from anypony you choose. In fact, you may recruit any help you can. But you think locally to act globally. You do not call back to Canterlot. Lady Light Of The No-Party and The Darkness Which Dares Not Brush Its Mane are staying home." He looked to each sister in turn. "Because you would never interfere in the missions you gave, would you? So for the favor I have asked as a friend -- one which was granted -- you will kindly keep your wings and horns out of it. This is a one-alicorn operation."

"Discord," Luna said, her voice now too soft for anypony's comfort, "you presume."

"No," he replied. "I ask. Because -- it is necessary. And besides, I am playing this your way. You do not interfere when you do this. I have not interfered since I was -- 'freed' -- now have I? Shall we pretend to consistency?"

The Princesses looked at each other. "Continue," Celestia said, and more of the marble discolored around her.

"Oh, Celestia, so gracious of you. Of course, judging by what happened during that whole changeling fiasco, you could use the rest, seriously, beaten by a bug with a codependency complex..."

Blasphemy, he speaks blasphemy in front of them and they allow it...

"Well," Discord said, rubbing paw and talon together. "That would be all the rules! See? That didn't take long. Now -- shall we get started?"

"...um... Discord?" He looked down at the yellow pegasus. "...you didn't say -- what we're supposed... to do."

"Oh, right! Silly of me! Well, we're doing this the pony way, so..." He leaned in, his size increasing as he did so until his head was large enough to loom over all of them at once, allowing a true group false whisper. "You're going to go do something that I, with all my power, could seemingly accomplish all by myself with practically no effort on my part. But instead, I'm sending a bunch of considerably lesser strengths out there for reasons which I will not explain and allowing my quasi-omnipotent self to take a nap while everypony else deals with all the trouble." He glanced back at Celestia, adjusted the lampshade resting on his head. "That's about right, isn't it?"

The Solar Princess said nothing. There was no white marble left within a radius of ten feet.

Luna's wings spread wider: darkness and stars began to swirl around her horn. "There are many things my sister is which I am not, Discord. Such as -- patient. Reach your point."

"Oh, the point..." He returned to his normal size and snapped his talons: no white light bloomed. "The point of arrival! Very well. I will not send you to the beginning. You'll get there at the start of the middle. It will be your job to find the beginning on your own and then use it to help reach the end. Everypony's clear on that?" He didn't wait for an answer. "Good! Now, mission supplies... one earth pony, one pegasus, one unicorn, one dragon. Also one Pinkie Pie, one Fluttershy, and the one and only, thank goodness, Twilight Sparkle. That should about do it. So if we're all ready to be on your merry ways..."

"...we're not... getting anything?" Fluttershy's eyes seemed larger than usual: the moisture from the tears served as a magnifying lens. "That's all you're going to tell us, isn't it? You're not giving us any help, or any information, or anything at all -- not even for a friend..."

He knelt again, took her left front hoof in his paw a second time. "I can't," he said simply. "This is the instruction, dear Fluttershy: there is something wrong, and you will go and do your best to fix it. You will know something is wrong. It may take more looking for some than others, but in time -- you'll all see it. I can't give you anything more than that. Not if we're playing it this way."

"...you're -- sure?"

"Certain..." And then he blinked. "But! Wait! Yes, let's try the reverse of it! I will give you nothing, Fluttershy, nothing for any of you -- but I will take one thing away."

And that brought back a flood of horrible memories to join the ocean already washing about the Hall.

"Don't even think about grabbing my wings again, freakface!"

"My horn..."

My -- and Twilight found herself wondering if she would try to stop him should he reach for her wings.

"Again, because it doesn't seem to have sunk in: reformed! Seriously, Princesses, do you see how hard these skulls are?" The KICK ME signs came back. "No, this is something -- different." The talons snapped against each other.

A tiny blue bubble appeared just over the claws. Drifted like the most fragile soap film down through the air, came to rest against the nape of Fluttershy's neck.

"That," Discord told her, "will be invisible in a few seconds, and no power known to unicorns will detect it once it fades. It can't be seen, felt, or confiscated. But it will stay where it is until you decide to use it. And when you do, you may make one thing --- go away, never to return. Any one thing of your choosing. I'll know when you want it, and I will make it so -- or unmake it so. Your decision, Fluttershy. I trust you to make the right one."

"...but... if I made a pony go away..."

"Is that something you would do?" Another look at the others as Fluttershy began to tremble again, the shivering beginning to approach the point of spasm. "Oh, you would, I know... you would hate yourself all your days for it, you would cry yourself to sleep on those rare nights you could sleep at all. If it was the one thing you needed to do in order to save somepony, you would do it..."

"You're hurting her!" Pinkie Pie, breaking her own personal silence record. "You know she can't --!"

"-- she can. She will. The responsibility is hers alone."

And not even the Princesses could speak.

"Something has happened," Discord softly said. "More things will happen. Unless the seven of you stop it. That is the mission. Now go do something about it."

The talons stretched out, raised up.

"Good luck -- my little ponies..."

Two of them made contact.

Landscape

View Online

there is no ground

there is no earth

there is no ground

there is no earth

no rock below me

no foundation holding up the sky

there is only nothing

and it is everywhere

and everything

there is no ground

there is no earth

and ah am lost

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Twilight never heard the snap. Never heard anything in the between. The next sound she was aware of came from a friend, and it was that of a mare being very noisily sick all over the --

-- where are we?

Other priorities came first. "APPLEJACK!", and that was echoed from Rarity (who had been closest) and Fluttershy (although much softer). Twilight took it from there. "Did Discord do something to you?" She ignored the resulting squeak from Fluttershy. "What's wrong?"

"Ah... oh, no..." Another heave: this one brought up nothing but extra stomach cramps. "Ah... don't think Ah do well with teleports, Twi... really don't think that at'tall..."

Twilight immediately looked around, gave up a few seconds for checking the others. Spike was -- yes, as expected: he would be sending up plumes for at least a minute and this time, even his elbows were involved. Pinkie Pie was rocking a bit from side to side as if trying to work out which was which -- but it stopped almost as soon as Twilight saw it. The others were fine. "Based on how long we were between, this one was a greater distance..." Actually, lectures weren't really going to help anypony right now. "Applejack, is there anything we can do?"

"Jus' time, Twi... and promise y'won't do that t' me unless you've absolutely gotta..."

"I won't," Twilight immediately promised. She'd never seen a reaction like that! Was Applejack somehow allergic to between, similar to the way Spike was -- just something internal? "Rest for a few minutes."

"Take all the time you like," Rainbow Dash said. "I don't think four of us are going anywhere without being carried."

And that was her cue to look around again.

The ravine cut deep through grey and brown stone. It was easily ten Celests to the top edge on either side, those sides slanted down harshly: a sixty-degree angle at least -- and the walls displayed little in the way of the wide, closely staggered, and frequent ledges which would make them suitable for climbing -- as in 'nothing'. (Ponies are horrible at climbing. Their legs don't orient naturally for wrap-and-shimmy, won't push if the position is forced. Rope-and-pulley arrangements require the equipment and somepony at the top. Hoofs don't fit in narrow cracks where claws might find purchase. Pegasi seldom have to consider the issue and the other two races generally wind up hoping never to encounter it. A unicorn -- one who can't self-levitate or teleport -- stuck in a hole too wide to brace opposing legs against is in variable-depth trouble.) What ledges there were tended to be too narrow for hooves and sharp-looking besides. There was tight-packed earth at the very top, with a few tree roots -- a very few -- poking out the sides. Amazingly few, really, given that the trees at that level were so thick: there barely seemed room to squeeze a pony body through, although Spike would have had less trouble. Pines: Twilight could see that from here, all tilted away on an odd angle, as if they could not stand to face the crack in the land. There was very little else in the way of tree species.

The place certainly knew water, though. They were on a bank about fourteen feet wide, an abrupt leveling out at the bottom of the slide -- and then came a river, forty feet across at least, rushing forward at a speed Twilight had never seen level water moving in. The water radiated cold, smelled of nothing except itself. Turn around, and the source vanished into the rock about fifty feet behind them. Look across, and there was a second bank, slightly more narrow. (Fortunately, all of them had arrived on the same side -- and not quite in the positions relative to each other they'd started in.) Forward -- more of the ravine. An easy hundred feet, maybe a hundred and ten or more, and then the water vanished into the stone again just before the shadows clustered off to the right. That shading gave her some indication of the Sun's relative position, and she looked up...

"A much greater distance," Twilight softly said. "I'm pretty sure we're still in Equestria, but unless Discord moved us in time --" oh, please tell me he can't do that... "-- we went east. Really far east. We might be a few days' gallop from the coast."

"Ah've -- if you're thinkin' about it, ah've seen the ocean, Twi. It's not all it's cracked up t' be." Applejack took a step, tested her footing, looked around at the ravine's walls. She seemed less ill than she had on arrival -- but not by much. The farmer still appeared to be deeply shaken. "Too much movin' around..." A longer survey. Another step. "Ah want -- Ah want out of here. Somethin' --" and visibly stopped herself. Backed up, both physically and verbally. "Why would Discord put us here?"

"Comedy," Twilight darkly proposed. "Fluttershy, I know you trust him and I know you're trying to help -- what's wrong?" Because with Applejack's crisis seeming to have mostly passed (although there was a residual tension to her which wasn't going away), the yellow pegasus was trembling on the ground, small tears running down her cheeks. What isn't wrong, Twilight? She's just been wrenched across whole gallops of land, you've been speaking against someone -- not and never 'somepony' -- she considers to be a friend, she was just given the ability to erase a pony from the world and guess how well she's probably dealing with that, and by the way, there's also this mission which she got us into and if I start blaming her for it...

Twilight stopped and tried to back up emotionally before everything went too far, with very limited success. (Almost none.) More softly, "Fluttershy?"

"...they were fighting... the Princesses... I know it was Luna, it was just Luna, but they were fighting..." Genuinely upset, latching onto that for a source of sadness out of so many possible choices. "..I know they don't hate each other, but I just wanted everything to be fixed..."

"It was a long time, dear," Rarity gently said, coming closer and rubbing against Fluttershy's shivering flank. "There's -- rather a lot to fix. A single rainbow can do a lot, but it can't do everything."

Twilight, with far too much Discord to think about at the time, had almost lost it in the flood of events. The Princesses -- fighting. It was a blow against an already-shaken psyche. More Luna than Celestia, certainly, Celestia had pretty much just been on the receiving end, but -- fighting. Not like rulers, not as Sun and Moon. As --

-- sisters.

She took a deep breath. It did nothing. She took two more. They voted the same way as the original.

"Everypony, just take a few minutes," she told the group. "Rainbow Dash is right -- we're not going anywhere just yet. Since there's no visible crisis here at the moment, we can afford the time. The start of the middle..." She hadn't expected to suddenly figure out what it meant just by repeating it and as expected, it didn't happen. Her first right call of the mission.

"I can start evacuating right now, Twilight!" Rainbow Dash called down: she was about a third of the way up the left wall. Judging by the way she kept adjusting her new hat into ever-jauntier poses, she might have been inspecting for traps. "If you, me, and Fluttershy kick in, it's two trips! One if Spike rides one of us on the way up!"

Spike, for his part, had finally stopped smoking. "Fluttershy, are you okay to fly?" And then what Twilight had dreaded: a look at her, with the same question clearly forming on the reptile tongue. Oh Celestia, she had been keeping that secret from everypony -- and one dragon. He thought she could fly...

Fluttershy bought her a few seconds. "...yes... it's just... hard to see them like that."

Twilight purchased the opportunity with every bit she had. "I know," cutting off Spike before her sibling could begin. "We get so used to thinking of them as -- the Princesses -- that..." And the next words tasted like a personal flavor of blasphemy. "...we don't think of them as ponies..."

...just like what's happening to me. The wrong thoughts, given a portal, began to crowd through while bringing three weeks' worth of friends.

Pinkie Pie shook her head. "Sisters fight! That's all. I fought with mine! Well -- they fought with me. A lot. Sometimes a lot a lot. So Luna got a little angry. Everypony's backside is ungobbled! Twilight -- are you okay? You still look kind of -- well -- mad."

"Mad?"

A straw doesn't have to be the last one. It just has to land on the right sore spot of a back that's already far too burdened with weight.

"Yes, I'm mad! Fluttershy, please don't take this personally, I know you think of him as a friend, but Discord just put us out here in the middle of nowhere, we're in a ravine for Luna's sake, we don't know where we are and before anypony asks, I don't know any where-am-I spells because I usually don't get teleported into unknown places by jerkass entities of chaos, we don't know what we're supposed to do except that it's Discord and my first instinct is to find out whatever he thinks is wrong and make it worse! We're on a bucking mission from Discord and dear Celestia, Pinkie, why are you wearing sunglasses?"

"Because there's Sun in my --"

"I don't even care! I still don't know what we're supposed to do and the sunglasses aren't helping! I don't have a place to start! I have a middle! We're stuck here because --" and she couldn't stop it "-- Fluttershy apparently needs two minotaurs in order to say 'Why?' or 'I don't have enough information' or maybe, how about this for an idea, 'No' when the other bucking option just stands a chance of getting everypony killed and I don't want to --"

The water soaked every inch of her, matted down her mane, left her tail drooping, worked into her wings and refused to leave. Her bangs were in her eyes. So was water. Steam was coming off her horn.

Five long horrible seconds of silence (broken only by the soft sound of Fluttershy sobbing) passed before she could force herself to look up.

Rainbow Dash was standing on top of the hastily-grabbed small cloud, glaring at her. The same way she had glared at Discord. "Are we done, Princess?" the cyan pegasus demanded. "Got all of that out of your system? All Canterlot Royal Voiced for now? Anypony else you'd like to make cry today?"

Oh no. Oh no, oh please Celestia, Luna, no, please don't let them, Applejack looks so angry and Pinkie Pie won't move, Fluttershy's crying so hard and Rarity is furious, Spike won't even look at me...

...please don't let them hate me...

...they're all I have left...

Her face was so wet.

Her eyes were so --

-- and then she was on the ground next to Fluttershy, front legs over the pegasus' shoulders, openly weeping into the soft coral mane. "I'm sorry I'm sorry oh Celestia Fluttershy I'm so sorry I don't want you hurt any of you I just don't know what we're doing and I'm scared --"

Warm yellow wings unfurled, reached forward as best they could, wrapped her in the warmth of a friendship unbroken.

And then there was a pile of ponies (and dragon) on the bottom of the ravine, huddled together against the unknown.

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It equaled the most pony voices she had ever heard at one time: three. And on this occasion, none of those voices were her own.

They were pegasi: there was no doubt about that. They were standing on a low-resting grey cloud which was just barely visible above the treeline. She could not see them through it, and they would not have seen her had they poked their heads through the vapor's bottom edge: she was too well-concealed. But there were voices, and they were talking about things. Topics which were not subjects. There were no lessons being taught overhead: just discussions of -- life.

They spoke of sports. (She knew of a few, knew their rules and in a couple of cases, old players and records, only in those areas where talents might have figured in.) Which teams were placing where, who was going to play next week and consideration of the playoffs next moon. There was a brief verbal tussle over the food they had brought with them, who had packed the jam and not brought enough for three. A quick game was played to determine who would go without: the loser fumed and used words she had been told only to bring out on special occasions for direct attention-gathering emphasis -- if at all. This was followed by another argument, this time about how the loser deserved the short end of a wheat stalk once in a while because he always got all the mares and it was only fair that he should not get something for a change. There was laughter at the end of that, and it came from all three.

She listened to every word, and it was almost enough to make the pain feel like something lesser. She would not have moved without a direct threat of discovery. There were ponies in this world, and they were talking. She knew there were, of course, that was beyond basic, had been taught so much about them and some of the things which concerned them in their lives, but -- right overhead. Directly overhead. And she could hear them.

She could have stayed there for hours and fallen asleep to the gentle babble of conversation.

And then --

-- they mentioned him.

This was but a rest stop: they were flying to Cloudsdale. (Was she near that? How far out were they? Hours, days? How many gallops, how long for them by flight?) Keeping their energy up was important (and she knew few pegasi had much in the way of marathon endurance). But now they were recharged, and they had to go and see if he was among the vapors of their home. One of his might have needed help. If only that were so, they hoped, they hoped so strongly. If they could but find him, all would be well. And perhaps they would be the ones to send back the good news...

...they were gone.

They --

-- were searching --

-- for him.

Not her, of course, never her, she had been careful (a lingering lesson, yes, but more strongly practiced in self-loathing and shame). But -- she had --

-- what had she done?

The memories -- if she could just capture them, get them out, but she had nowhere to put them and nothing to capture them with, not in this forest. She could only do it at home, and home was --

-- did she even have one any more? Would he take her back after she had failed so horrifically?

No. No, he won't. Nopony would. Nopony should. I'm --

She thought -- she had protected him. The event was a blur and just trying to look at it too closely without her memories around brought a deeper kind of hurt. But it had felt like protection. She hadn't known what she was doing or how on any real level, theory forced to exist in solid form without any real thought -- but on some level, she had been aware of -- heat? Heat beyond the edge of the event. (She could not call it what he had. It had not worked. She had failed.)

...she thought she had protected him. He and her memories. And still they were looking for him.

She had failed at everything when it happened. Everything they had done, everything that was The Great Work. And now they were saying she had failed to save him.

Had she --

-- did it kill --

-- did I kill --

She spread the wings, bit back the scream as she flapped them. The ground and her hooves parted company, just by a few inches. Dropped back down, let the moan come. Yes, at this stage, she could probably take off now, at least a little. Perhaps go straight up, get to that cloud level if she was lucky. Let the wings go back against her twisting body.

Drop straight down. Headfirst.

But the last time...

...she couldn't be sure it would work. And -- she also couldn't be sure that he was truly gone, or that she had done it. There had been rules. If there had been heat, had been fire --

(her memories, oh her memories, and she hated herself for thinking of that at all when she should have been thinking of him and him alone)

-- it might have meant attention. Attention meant other ponies. And other ponies meant hide.

He could -- he could, if it had happened that way, be hiding. With the other one, the Emergency Only pony. There was a chance she had not failed, at least for that one thing. But she did not know where she was. How to reach that place from this one. And he would not take her back. Should not.

She looked up at the cloud again. Measured the prospective drop...

...no. Not yet. It didn't matter that he would never (and should never) take her back, at least not right now. She had to know there was a he still in this huge world. Had to find out if she'd accidentally done a single thing right while wasting years of his life and invalidating her entire existence. That came first. So --

-- a fresh spasm hit as the wings purpled, the cloud overhead seemed to shiver with her --

-- she needed more information.

And the only way to get information -- was from other ponies.

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A simple and wry, "Well, I must say, this is an improvement."

The warm voice, where even the sound seemed to be tinged with soft pink. "What do you mean, Rarity?"

Dryly, "Well, normally we'd be fighting over a doll by now."

Twilight giggled. Then did it again, harder, as Fluttershy softly laughed and the pony pile turned into a wriggle of mirth. "Applejack, did you ever find out --"

"Ah don't know where he's keepin' it and Ah don't want t' know! Y'could just ask!"

"But... he seems to love her so much... How could you ask me to break up Ponyville's happiest couple?"

More giggling.

"There's nothing wrong with a stallion getting in touch with his mare side," Rarity opinionated. "As long as he knows exactly where he's touching..."

Pinkie Pie, in a perfect deadpan. "He hasn't asked me for any advice yet."

And in the last possible moment before the group could react to that one, Spike timidly said "...is this stuff I should be hearing about?"

That did it. The pile broke apart into six ponies rolling on the ground with laughter and one very confused dragon watching them. "Oh, come on, guys!" Spike grumbled. "Is anypony going to tell me if I'm too young for this talk or not?" Which didn't help anything, and he finally just sank down into a squat and grumbled it out until the ponies had all staggered to their hooves.

"Oh dear," Rarity giggled. "Oh dear, and me without a wedding dress plan on me..."

Back down they went. And they had almost recovered when Fluttershy said, all quiet innocence, "...but who's going to tell Cheerilee?"

Finally, after Take Three had succeeded, Twilight faced the others. "I'm sorry. And I'm addressing everypony." Her voice was normal now, at least: they had given her that much back and a little more. "Just because I'm scared of what we're potentially facing doesn't give me the right to take it out on everypony here. It's my fear: I shouldn't try to deal with it by turning it into anger and throwing it in everypony's face. And Fluttershy... if you see something worth trusting in him, I can take a chance." One. "It's just -- we all remember the first time, and -- I don't know if I'm completely past it yet. No, scratch that: I know I'm not. You got further than I did, and --" She couldn't make herself lift the weight of the last words.

And somehow, this time, Fluttershy could. "...and he did more to me. I think... that's why I know him a little better. Why the Princess asked me to try. He went in, and -- I think we sort of touched. He didn't mean to, I know, but... nothing left behind, I asked the Princess once, but we touched, and -- I don't understand anything I felt, really, but... sometimes I feel like I understand him, just a little. Not as much as I understand any of my animal friends, not even ones I've just met... but enough that we can sort of meet somewhere between us. I don't think he understands what he touched with me, either, but he's trying, I know he is... and this is important to him. He took a risk. If the Princesses had been any madder..."

Which stopped them all dead in their mental tracks.

"...they would have summoned the Elements," Rarity breathed.

"We would have had him back to stone in seconds!" Rainbow Dash declared -- but there was a little thought inside the bravado. "And -- he had to know it -- didn't he?"

Spike was a little more dubious. "He can work fast, guys -- really fast. Maybe he could have gotten away first or --" the little dragon hesitated before risking "-- done something..." and Twilight wondered if he was thinking of the lava. "...but with Celestia and Luna there..." One buying time, one teleporting. It was still a race, but the ponies would have had a chance, and Twilight was seeing it as a fairly strong one.

Pinkie Pie nodded. "It's a big chance to take for a joke."

"So -- this really could be important to him," Twilight slowly reconciled. Although I'm still not placing any bits on 'for the good of Equestria'. She would remain cautious. For all they knew, they had been sent to look for the world's most powerful magic leash cutters. "All right, everypony -- let's --" and it was still hard to keep the next words from being bitter "-- take him at his word for a little while. This is what he called the start of the middle. Presume this ravine is important. Why?"

"It's pretty new, for starters!" Pinkie pronked in place as the others stared at her (and for a split-second, Applejack's gaze seemed simultaneously frustrated, worried, and -- no, that couldn't be anger...) "...why are you all looking at me like that?"

"Pinkie, dear," Rarity carefully asked, "how can you possibly know that?"

"I used to be a rock farmer, silly!" (Applejack was tensing, just out of Twilight's redirected line of sight.) "Look up, everypony!" They did. "See those ridges? They're sharp! The wind and rain haven't really hit them yet! They haven't been worn down even a little. So this place has to be fairly new! One century or less, maybe two, could be three at the outside I guess but that would really be pushing it..." (The farmer relaxed. No pony or dragon caught it.) "...what?"

"That's -- interesting, Pinkie," Twilight lied, "but I'm not sure it helps us very much." The apprentice baker stuck out her tongue. Pinkie knows geology. Why didn't I find that out before the mirror pool? "Okay -- everypony keep looking. Use everything you've got!"

And for the better part of an hour, they did, starting by moving to the absolute back of the ravine and then inching their way forward. Slowly. Twilight continually checked for traces of magic, but all she won herself was an interesting display of pinkish reflections off wet stone (it had rained recently) and that familiar feeling of tangling as her mane and tail dried out the wrong way. The two pegasi scouted overhead and came back to report "It's just forest for a ways out, really thick. You can barely see anything looking down. We're going to be grounded --" openly disgusted "-- while we're in there: I can' t track all of you on the ground and there's barely any room between trees to fly. I didn't want to go too far just in case there's a monster somewhere in this thing."

"...monster?"

"Yeah! Maybe in the river!"

"Oh, please!" Rarity grumbled distractedly: she seemed to be concentrating hard on something. "If we were only so lucky as to run into such a polite gentleman as our last so-called river monster! There is no living thing in that river except some horridly pale fish which completely forget to pack their eyes." It had taken two minutes for the unicorn to stop shuddering. "Take them out, if you would please, and all there is would be some exceptionally fast, clear, cold, and pure water." They'd all had a drink before starting the slow comb-through. "I wish I could bring some home with me." Muttering to herself now at a much softer level, one which not everypony caught. "Rock fetish, hoof fetish... I should have given him a taste of a future horn-spearing fetish to see if he liked it, and he probably would have too..."

Rainbow Dash had only heard up through the water part. "Want me to use some for making mud and try it on your face?" the pegasus asked with just a little too much innocence.

The white unicorn missed it. "Not -- just --- yet..." Rarity frowned. "Wait... I think I'm getting..." She angled her horn forward, turned her head from side to side.

Twilight blinked: her eyelashes seemed to tangle. ...ahead of me?

And the white horn lit from base to tip with that soft blue glow. "Yes! I'm sure -- oh, what is that? I've never felt anything like this!" She was moving along the absolute edge of the riverbank now, galloping forward as the glow intensified. "It's -- oh my, I can't even begin to guess! I'm sure -- yes!"

There was no time for staring at each other (although several managed to work it in on the way): they galloped behind her, Spike grabbing a position on Pinkie Pie's back. "Rarity -- are you okay?" the little dragon worriedly inquired, looking as if he was resisting the urge to wring his tail.

"Okay? I think I might be about to achieve absolutely fabulous!" She had stopped about two-thirds of the way up the ravine, her horn glowing brighter than Twilight had ever seen it shine. "Yes, right -- oh, dear, this will be a bother... Twilight? Could you possibly do me the smallest of favors?"

Mindful of a Discord-level 'small favor', "...yes?"

"If this goes rather towards the wrong side, please haul my body out of here if you can? Thanks ever so."

Rarity's horn ignited. It lit up in a way Twilight typically saw in mirrors (and then only briefly before her vision was blurred by white), the blue glow becoming more intense around the horn itself before a second layer of incandescence (something Rarity had never achieved in her sight) appeared around that, the inner core moving to more of a blue-white as sweat broke out all over the unicorn's body, as shine reflected off every wet surface in the entire ravine and glinted in the water, as Spike shouted in alarm...

"RARITY!" Twilight chorused -- but the unicorn kept right on going. What is she doing? Twilight had never seen Rarity put everything she had into a spell like this! (The layering wasn't a sign of power, it was effort, reaching deep into reserves. Nearly any unicorn can manage a double corona, especially if they're desperate enough.) The others were leaning back, not sure what to do or if anything they could try would only hurt whatever was going on, Applejack was trying to restrain Spike and not doing all that well... "What are you doing? It's taking too much! You can't --"

Gasping, words comprehensible but not for much longer, "It's just a tiny differentiation problem, darling... nothing to worry about..."

"Differentiation?" Applejack yelled. "What the hay does that mean? -- Twilight?" For Twilight's eyes had gone wide with horror.

"She's trying to move something inside something else!"

Differentiation: the third-year lesson that made students who were getting a little too full of themselves turn into spark-generating preschoolers. It was supposed to be so simple. There was a box. The lock was on the inner surface and the outer edge of the keyhole was blocked. The key itself was inside the box. And all you had to do was unlock it. Twilight's teacher had watched the lesson patiently, mostly for signs of students who were about to overcommit into the hospital.

A unicorn's field would surround an object, coat the exterior surface. You could adjust the strength around different portions, if you had the practice: flex a joint, twist a rope. But you couldn't reach inside. For all intents and purposes, anything within the box was considered to be part of the box: you could hear keys rattle as fields tossed containers about, and sometimes an especially lucky student would have the right end temporarily land in the keyhole just on momentum -- but the magic never actually touched the key, much less turned it. It couldn't --

Trotter's Falls, why am I thinking of Trotter's Falls

-- be done. And that was the lesson: that there were things which were impossible and you shouldn't hurt yourself trying to prove otherwise. Star Swirl had failed, and it was something Twilight had never been able to correct the long-ago caster on. And still, years after they all graduated, generations of professional magical researchers had collapsed in their workshops trying to do it. Rumors and legends claimed some had hurt themselves more badly than that. And the darkest whispers murmured about a few...

"You've got to stop!" Twilight screamed as the sweat became a froth coating nearly every inch of the delicate white coat, Spike sounded like he was thinking about flaming his way free, he knew what could happen, had been the one to catch Twilight in her dorm room as she'd collapsed...

Labored breathing. Ribs heaving. Eyes unfocused. Knees starting to buckle. "...just.... just water, dear... just trying to move through water... it's just a little on the deep side..."

"That much liquid is virtually the same thing as a solid! You're trying to move the river!" You've got to stop! Rarity!"

...and now that terrifying third layer appeared as the base moved to hot white, Rarity committing every reserve she had...

The other ponies were frozen with fear: they didn't understand magic that well, only knew something horrible was happening. And Twilight, who knew exactly what was happening, was even more helpless than they were. Too late in the spell to try and weld her strength to Rarity's, a ridiculously advanced technique which both unicorns had to know if there was any chance of reconciling their disparate fields, and Rarity had never advanced that far in her studies anyway. To physically hit her horn at this stage would guarantee backlash, and the nightmares of having that happen now would have Luna cradling a screaming dreamer for moons and beyond.

Spike's struggles had stopped. He knew how far it had gone, knew it was too late. Touches of the blue glow (all so close to white now, too close) were on the surface of the water as it rippled and heaved, the ravine had turned into a private lightshow, the likes of which Twilight had never seen from the outside and never wanted to see again. Rarity had two choices. She had already picked one. All they could do was watch as the first of Twilight's own nightmares, the one she had shielded from the younger Princess, threatened to erupt into horrid waking day --

-- and then a gleaming green stone, slightly smaller in diameter than the bottom of one of Rarity's hooves, erupted from the water instead. Landed at the unicorn's front hooves.

The glow vanished, all at once, and Rarity collapsed against the fine layer of dirt on riverbank stone. Horn steaming. Skin steaming.

She doesn't know how to cooldown, she needed to let go in stages, she never got that far in school, oh Luna, help me... "Everypony!", and the others were all too eager to jump. Spike, bless him, was already heading for what Rarity needed most. "Water, now! Splash her, wet her down, we've got to get her cooled off!" She was already moving herself. "Don't stop! No matter what happens, don't stop until all that froth is off her and she's breathing normally! Then get her up and walk her around!"

Just the smallest of whispers from Rarity. "...fine... just fine... see? Nothing to worry about..."

They ignored her. They worked, Fluttershy finding an immediate expertise in making sure the water was splashed where it most needed to go, Rainbow Dash bringing down every cloud she could find. They worked until the unicorn's breathing slowed, until she could pick her head up by a few vital inches and smile at them. "You all -- make too much -- of a fuss sometimes, you know. And I speak -- as one -- who knows fussing..."

Twilight wrestled with the urge to ponypile Rarity. Sent it to fight the urge to kill Rarity. The two desires battled to a draw. "Rarity -- look at me." She did. "I'm the stronger one, right?" A nod. "Then why didn't you leave it to me?!"

"You -- wouldn't have found it, darling..."

"It's a stupid gem," Rainbow Dash growled. "It's not worth your life, you facet-obsessed..."

"I know -- you're all upset," Rarity breathed, a little more strongly. "And I forgive all of you for anything you have said or might say, and I am so sorry for making you all worry like that, I could have said something a bit less -- dramatic, I suppose... but this is a discovery, and that? Is worth so very much..."

"I know your gem-finding spell." Twilight was trying very hard not to yell again. After feeling as if she'd nearly lost her friends once today, she wound up watching the single (or second) most stubborn unicorn in the world nearly cast herself into a faint or worse... "You taught it to me. I. Could have. Gotten. It."

Spike was simply brushing through Rarity's mane, silently restoring it to pristine beauty, something he hadn't done for Twilight yet. Fluttershy had gotten a compress out of her saddlebags, soaked it and was now wrapping it around the horn with delicate mouth movements.

"No... no, you couldn't. I'm sorry again, Twilight, but -- you copied my spell. There's something to be said -- for being the original. Try -- try detecting it now, please?"

This surprised Twilight enough for her to make the attempt on reflex: she turned her energies towards the stupid topaz disc which Rarity had risked so much for, reached back into her memory for the slightly dusty feel of Rarity's personal magic, managed to wrestle her own field into shape and let it visibly flow towards what was definitely the world's single most worthless gem, not worth a pony's life, not even a second of it...

...and there was nothing there.

She could see the topaz stone. She could surround and lift it. But she couldn't detect it -- and the look in Rarity's eyes said the unicorn knew it.

"A cutie mark -- has meaning, darling. You're a wonderful caster, the best of your generation -- but there is only one Rarity. I barely found it, almost didn't recognize it as a gem. You did say to search with everything we had, and you can copy my spell, spread it farther and find more at once -- but the fine touch -- remains mine." Another smile. "Forgive a mare her pride."

'Kill her' was being pressed back into the corner of the arena. "But for a stupid topaz disc --"

"-- topaz?" A tiny laugh. "Look closer."

They looked.

It was ruby.

And then as they stared, it became diamond. Then opal: white, followed by black. Garnet. Amethyst...

Pinkie moved closer, watched as the disc slowly shifted to emerald again before phasing to a deep sapphire which matched Rarity's eyes, gave the find an identity in a single awed breath.

"It's a deathstone..."

Five of them pulled back by inches. Rarity just sighed. "Well, that rather takes something out of it. Are you naming it, Pinkie, or recognizing? Because if it's the latter, I would like a moment to feel like a silly filly now. I truly thought I had discovered something new..."

"Recognizing," Pinkie apologized. "But just from words. I've never seen one. My grandma told me about them once. They're really rare. Hardly anypony's ever seen one. My grandma hadn't, or her parents, or their parents, or mine. The Princesses might have one -- maybe between them..."

Rarity managed a smile. "Half a loaf, then. All right -- I can certainly settle for such a rarity among gems." The others got her up, forced her to start walking. "But -- why 'deathstone'? Why such a horrid name for such a wonderful thing?"

"Because you're only supposed to find them where really bad things have happened."

They all stopped.

Seven thought about the mission. Spike hugged Rarity's right front leg.

"And that?" Rarity sighed. "Is most of the rest. Very well, but I refuse to judge it on superstition. And Spike?" She looked down at him, smiling. "Thank you for caring -- and please don't eat it!"

"No way!" He disengaged, stepped back and waved his arms wide, shaking his head so hard as to turn his spines into a blur. "I'm never putting that in my mouth! Not with that smell!"

"...smell?" Rarity asked, inadvertently coming close to imitating a Diamond Dog. "I can't smell anything coming off it, Spike!"

"Well, I can," the dragon insisted. "Every gem smells different, and the better it smells, the better it tastes. This one -- just don't keep it too close, please? I can stand it, but I'd rather not put up with it for long."

"I'll wrap it?" Twilight offered. Rarity nodded, and the field began to go to work.

Rarity looked around at the group as they continued to walk her in a small, tight circle. "Now: are you all quite convinced that I'm all right after my sterling effort and will not die on the spot if you stop tending to me?"

Rainbow Dash managed a smile. "Pretty much, yeah."

Applejack chuckled. "Takes a unicorn t' overwork all in one minute..."

"Good," Rarity declared. "So in that case -- I'm going to faint."

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Once Rarity had (eventually) been revived and given more of the pure water (with Rainbow Dash making sure to ask if she was picking up any hints of fish) along with more than a little food, they finished searching the canyon, this time concentrating more on signs of disaster: bloodshed, heavy magic use for dark purposes, anything which Pinkie's grandmother claimed might cause a deathstone to appear. Nothing came of it except Rarity finally protesting the name, telling them giving a beautiful thing such an awful name was inherently prejudicial for anypony who came across it and she was going to call it a shiftstone, insisting the others do the same immediately.

They did not dive in the river: ponies aren't bad swimmers in shallow water, but going very far under is a bad idea, they aren't meant to do much more than paddle and make slow progress, and the current was simply too fast. Twilight simply field-probed it as best she could while Rarity -- once the post-faint headache finally started to wear off -- completely failed to detect any other gems. Inch by inch, plodding along, hooves and tails and claws sifting the thin layer of uneven dirt. The only results were a tidying of her mane and tail by a slightly-embarassed Spike and a near-successful infliction of insanity on Rainbow Dash, who first declared that she was bored, then awesomely bored, followed by heroically bored, and finally saw her assigned to a part-time lookout (and possibly napping) cloud so she could stop driving everypony nuts with her efforts to find an effective description beyond 'heroically'.

With Rarity's faint break included, it took them more than three hours to fully search a hundred and sixty feet of ravine -- and they didn't start thinking about throwing things at Dash's cloud until the last twenty.

"Stairs? You somehow neglected to mention stairs?"

A prankster's grin. "It's your own fault for going so slow! If you'd done the complete flyover like I did, Twilight, you would have seen them from above!" And Fluttershy had scouted the other end before they'd both gone off together... "I just thought it would be a nice -- surprise for you guys, getting to climb out on your own after all that work! We'll just have to save you helping me carry ponies out for another time. I still want a few paybacks on all the times I got you."

...no. I will not get mad. I already nearly lost friends today. Twice. And it may get so much worse before it's over... Twilight simply sighed and let this one fall upon herself. She had been the one who'd insisted on the finest-toothed comb approach, because every step had to be checked off before moving to another step. With pegasi ferries across the river every fifteen feet, so they could compare and contrast both sides of a section without losing impressions by going too far upstream. Her very own exact, cautious, completely neurotic design which, after Rarity's actions, had slowed down still more because she was simply that afraid one of them would rush ahead and do something else which was the term immediately after 'heroically stupid'. And the others might not have challenged her method because of --

-- everything.

She couldn't complain about the stairs, anyway: only about Dash's style of reveal. Anything which kept her from having to fly herself (and, Celestia forbid, passengers) out was a small miracle in itself.

They weren't real stairs, of course. The shadows at the far end (which had only deepened as the day passed, while Rarity's display found them focused on her) had hidden a natural rockfall formation, smaller pieces staged off between a slide of boulders, all collapsed onto each other in such a way as to look just stable enough to risk -- and given the varying heights of mineral deposits scattered up the gradual slope, provided a fairly steep-but-possible hoof climb back to ground level. With Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy watching carefully and Twilight and Rarity keeping their fields ready, Spike took the lead, testing footing and poking at anything suspicious-seeming with his claws, occasionally giving things light taps to see if they would dislodge. There were moments when Twilight envied the little dragon, with his ability to carefully prod with feet and claws alike. Her field substituted, and just about every unicorn could say the same -- but there were still times when she imagined what it was like to hold things that way, and wondered how the earth ponies and pegasi felt while watching. How much envy they had for his simple ability to grasp. For her magic. For wings which wouldn't work.

But that was just her mind trying to distract itself, and she knew it.

Still, she managed to at least keep the pretense up through the careful exit, always with at least three watching one and her emerging last under what felt like too intense a scrutiny from Rainbow Dash. She had been making her excuses ready all the way up. She hadn't come up with a good one. The best she had was that she wanted to inspect the happily-convenient natural formation for signs of prior passage. After all, the deat -- shiftstone had to have gotten down there somehow, even if the most likely explanation was that somepony had once dropped it into a river far away and had it rush down the current until finally lodging against some small projection at the bottom of this section. She knew why Rarity appreciated the special beauty of the stone, even if the designer had already begun to complain about how difficult it would be to coordinate an outfit with so many colors. ("And I am not selling it. The Princesses may borrow it for a time...") It would take some hours before she could personally make that attempt, and perhaps much more.

Finally, they were all at the top. Pines everywhere. Narrow gaps between them. A long, probably slow, and hard squeeze ahead, almost guaranteed to scuff and possibly tear saddlebags. And no real sign of a path or trail to follow.

"Y'know what I think?" Rainbow Dash asked without particularly worrying about whether anypony's answer counted, "I think that if Discord is playing this by what he thinks is the pony way, we should start moving up here by playing it his way."

"...randomly?" Fluttershy asked.

Rainbow Dash grinned. "Randomly."

Twilight had what she felt was the natural reaction: "Are you kidding? Just pick a direction and go? No searching? No careful checking for clues and Pinkie, I don't need the hat right now, thank you -- close our eyes, spin, and point a hoof?"

"Exactly! We just spent hours down there and what did we get? One sort of cool stone which would look awesome on me --" and just like that, jewelry was no longer lame "-- an exhausted fashionista, a whole lot of wasted time, a lesson for me to never tell you to take as much as you like, and? Not one trap for me to try disarming after all the books I've read where it happens! Come on, Twilight -- I saw some of this from above, and I know how thick it is. It's going to take forever for us to make any progress even if we stick to one direction! If this is about a pony or just about anything else on land, then this is where anypony who wasn't a pegasus would have gone in or out -- and we can't track a flyer anyway! I don't mind trying to scout the perimeter for a few minutes, but we've got to try and find other ponies! Or monsters! Or anything! We're supposed to be looking for something and this is just the start of that middle thing. I say we go find some more!"

Twilight opened her mouth. Closed it. And after everything that had happened, found no words which could emerge from it except "Okay." Which got her surprised expressions and startled blinks, with Spike's reaction the strongest of all. "We'll try it for now." Once. There was a lot of 'once' being thrown around today.

They moved out, Twilight taking the lead as they squeezed past the tilted pines into the shadowed forest, her head full of long thoughts. Nearly lost all. Could have lost one. And we're just beginning... or middling -- and I still don't know why or what or where... and I was right there with both Princesses and never asked a thing, not with everypony and him there, we can't even write to Canterlot... The others followed single-file: Fluttershy close by to check for animals and worse, then Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Spike walking as close to being alongside Rarity as he could manage in order to keep an eye (if not nose) on her, and finally Applejack.

The farmer had put herself at the back on purpose. She'd told them it was to keep an eye out for threats from the rear, and that had been the truth. But it also gave her the chance to take a long look back at the ravine, up and down the full length, and finally stopping on the path out.

She adjusted her hat to shade her eyes again before following her friends, and her thoughts were longer than Twilight's.

Layering

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Of course, as Discord would very carefully not tell you, the best way to destroy a marching order is having one in the first place.

The group initially stayed in single file as they forced their way through the dense forest, which a grumbling Rainbow Dash finally described as "Somepony trying to save room by cramming two acres of trees into one acre of stupid ground..." (Her temper was visibly soaring in the way she could not: being forced to stay on one level was always stressful for her, and the feeling of being enclosed wasn't helping. Claustrophobia is the second-most common fear among pegasi, right behind the terror of permanently losing the sky.) She was not in a position to see Applejack's face when she said it, and might not have wondered about the resulting expression if she had.

Every so often, somepony would move forward or drop back for a quick question or private talk: they're generally a social species (with a few exceptions) and long periods of silence are difficult for them -- difficult enough to build sporting events around. As they continued to encounter no threats beyond flank scrapes, saddlebag damage (producing small sobs from Rarity), and grumbling young dragons worried about where their next gem was coming from, gathering into temporary knots became more natural and inevitable, especially as there was so little else to do beyond moving forward.

No other ponies or signs of their passage. Certainly no trails showing where they might be found. No food, and that was worrying more than a single dragon. There seemed to be nothing about but grass, and that was a last resort no one wanted to touch just yet. Discord had teleported them with just the supplies they had planned on bringing to Canterlot -- and those had been chosen with the thought that they would receive anything truly needed before leaving the capital. There were some snacks for the expected carriage ride in (down one apple before they'd ever left), a couple of canteens to go with them, a few gemstones Rarity had been planning on using to finish outfits on the way, and an emergency ration packed in Twilight's bag for Spike. But as for fruits, grain stalks, anything they could use growing naturally beyond the sparse grass poking up between fallen leaves -- no. This was a wild zone, and not a fruitful one.

The Everfree is the best-known, perhaps because it's thought of as the worst -- and there are legends which claim it's the first, some of which go darker than others, more than a few blaming Nightmare Moon for the whole thing. But origins are of no concern here -- just results. In truth, ponies hold their country -- but control relatively little of it. Each city, town, and settlement represents a zone of relative safety, with weather and land tamed to their needs. Look at Equestria from above, spread the spell to detect all of the magics, and the continent will be sprinkled with sparse dots of shimmer, with the most frequently-traveled roads providing ley lines in the dark. Total all the surface area and it won't come out to more than six percent of the land (only reaching that with the most recent desert settlements) and a little more of the sky: their population doesn't add up to that of the other two races combined, but pegasi feel free to spread out.

Everything else is a wild zone.

Weather which can be controlled -- but it'll move itself when you're not looking and often tries to encroach on pony territory: part of the Weather Bureau's job is making sure pony areas only get the storms on the calendar. Plants which grow as they will wherever the climate and wars within the soil say that they should. The other sentient species, not all of which are known to the average pony, each carving out a parcel of territory in places they're sure the Princesses won't have call for, or with very little fear of pony intrusion on what they see as their lands. And -- monsters. There are monsters out there, and even Celestia may not know all of them.

For the most part, ponies stay inside the havens, thinking of everything else as 'unnatural'. Those who travel generally stick to the roads, land or above: the pegasi air paths exist for reasons beyond mere favorable winds. Very few wander the wild zones, and those who do rely on luck as much as skill. On the luckiest of days, they're no more dangerous than your average park. You can have a quiet trip with no disturbance other than the odd feel of natural mulch beneath your hooves, even when going through the worst places. It all depends on what's around at the time, and how hungry it might be. Some potential opponents have even learned to avoid Equestria's three pony races as a matter of standard policy -- after all, it's just not worth it. But you never know. Where ponies gather and take space for their own, there is an assurance that tomorrow at least has a chance to be much like today, and that still allows for Ursas of all sizes, parasprites, full-sized dragons traveling overhead, the previously mentioned invasions of bugs with codependency complexes, and other things which have yet to receive their own tales. The wild zones promise only one thing: that those who expect safety and control as a birthright will find only -- discord.

There are legends which blame him as well. He doesn't see them as being worth the effort to answer. After all, who would believe him?

But the more time which passes without an encounter, the more ponies will revert towards acting as if they were in a safe place, even those with experience. They want to talk and in this stressful situation, they almost have to. So as the spaces between trees finally began to open up a little, once they could walk next to each other, the conversations really began. Still attentive to the wild zone around them, still alert for trouble -- but there had been too much trotting ahead in near-silence to stand any more.

The shuffling began, continued -- and after a time, the six ponies found themselves temporarily grouped by (original) race: three pairs traveling together (and one of those with a dragon), with enough space between each discussion to let them speak without the others overhearing. Casual, considerate, automatic respect for privacy.

They could not hear each other. They might have been better off if they had.

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"I said I was sorry, dear. I've said it several times already, and you can see I'm fine. I went far enough in school to hear the same stories you did, and no pony's ever proven anything beyond a unicorn taking a rather abrupt nap. Again, I'm sorry for moving towards the dramatic in my speech, but..."

"But that's just you." A sigh. "There's a reason you dig them out of the dirt, you know... or why you have Spike do it... Why did you drop out after fifth year? Some of your test scores were amazing."

Surprised, perhaps a little affronted. "...how do you know what my test scores were?"

Without picking up on a hint of the above, "I wrote the school and the traveling tutors on your circuit to ask --" and a little too late, "What?"

Ladylike irritation. "Doesn't that feel rather like snooping to you?"

Now just a little embarrassed, "I was curious. Rarity, I know your field strength is pretty -- average --"

"Better than the below, Twilight."

"-- but your field dexterity scores are just about off the charts." Sincerely impressed. "Sure, I can move a hundred items at once -- if they're all the same kind of item and they're all moving in roughly the same formation or for the same purpose. A hundred books reshelving, a hundred scrolls curling up. But once you start mixing sizes and types, I get in trouble. That trick I was trying to do with some of Fluttershy's animal friends? A dozen or so smaller species with their weights not too far off from each other looping in an infinity symbol? I did it. Combined, they didn't weigh a thousandth of what the Ursa Minor did. And just the practice nearly put me in bed early. A dozen assorted animals instead of one big one and a water tower, and the weight didn't matter -- just that the coverage didn't match. I wasn't exactly in great shape when Trixie showed up again, but -- she would have clobbered me anyway, with that -- amulet. But you -- I've seen you affecting needles, patterns, cloth, ribbons, buttons -- more than a hundred things in your field at the same time, different shapes and sizes, and sometimes with multiple movement patterns. I can't do that. Not one unicorn in a thousand or more can. You could have gone farther than fifth year just based on that. So -- why didn't you?"

After several more steps, "There's more to magic that just being able to lay out stitch guidelines while keeping the stitches coming behind them, Twilight: you of all ponies know that. My strength is -- average. There are tricks I simply cannot do and frankly, had no use for learning. The one trick I've picked up since leaving is one I should arguably never use again. Honestly, when was I ever going to require some of your more spectacular spells? I was going into fashion: there's only so much I needed to learn of magic. In that sense, even five years was too deep in. I would have been better off at an art academy in their clothing design school, if only..." A brief stop, and then, "Why study offensive spells or defensive measures or any of the rest of it? I was going to have a spectacularly exciting life -- in the fashion sense. And for that? I had all I needed. I never expected..." Hoofsteps slowed for a moment, were forcibly accelerated back to normal.

Softly, "...you never expected your life to be like this."

A sigh. "Rather not. But Twilight? Please don't blame yourself for it, or the Princess, or anypony else. Maybe we were all connected from the moment of that first sonic rainboom on -- or even before -- but we didn't know. Had I known I had an Element coming, I might have pushed on for a class or two, certainly. But none of us knew. I hardly mind giving the Princess my service: it is my duty. And if I see any sign of you taking that on yourself..."

Hastily, "I don't blame myself." No reply -- and harder, faster, "I don't." Before any answer could arrive, "But -- Rarity... as long as we're the Element-Bearers, and that's potentially something for -- life... we are going to be away from the spectacularly exciting field of fashion every so often. There's a technique which lets unicorns try to combine their fields and merge strength for a spell. I know it. You don't. And if we both did, you could have found that gem and we both would have pulled it from the river."

"I've heard of it," came the careful admission. "It's frightfully advanced, Twilight. And as you said, my strength is -- average."

"But you can manipulate your field more finely than anypony I've ever met outside the Princess," came the response. "You could match another unicorn, and -- probably more easily than I can. It's not always a question of strength, Rarity -- it's control. You have control. It's just a question of what you know how to do with it." A carefully premeasured pause. "I want to start teaching you some more advanced magic. Offense, defense, and that combination spell."

The frown was audible. "Unicorns like me usually don't go that far along no matter what our educational paths are, Twilight, not unless we're going for research duties or becoming one of the Guards -- and I'm not strong enough for either. I admit it might be good for all of us if I was a little more handy in a fight with something other than words and a touch of hoofticuffs, but... sixth and seventh year spells?"

"Maybe even a little past that."

"I'm sorry, dear, but again, a unicorn -- like me..."

And the sincere words of a young dragon, "Rarity, you're the one and only Element Of Generosity. There is no other unicorn like you."

Which got an amused giggle. "I suppose I can't really argue with that, now can I, Spike? Oh, very well... I suppose a private tutoring session or three won't particularly hurt, at least not after I get that headache remedy from Zecora again. But Twilight -- please don't expect too much of me. Not every unicorn reaches those spells -- and some of us simply can't handle them. I'm willing to try, but I cannot promise to succeed."

"I think you could do more than you believe you can."

"Yes, of course. But generally with tail loft patterns. Dear Celestia, Fluttershy is more work than any three other ponies put together... So when do we begin?"

"Now."

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"...are you sure?"

"I'm sure. I know when somepony's avoiding me. Twilight's been dodging me ever since we got back from Canterlot. She doesn't want to see me, she doesn't want to hang around with me -- her coming out to get me for the summons? That was the longest talk we've had since she -- got her wings. Whenever I came by the library, or ran into her in town, or anything -- any chance to make a new appointment -- she dodged. She's been pushing me off, Fluttershy. She doesn't want to go flying with me. Every time I try to get her up in the air, she has an excuse. Even today. I kept giving her all these chances to take off, and it never happens."

"...so... why don't you ask her why?"

"How am I supposed to do that?"

"...by -- going up to her and asking?"

"Like it's that easy -- what's wrong?"

"...I was just thinking. That... it's kind of the one thing we all have in common."

"What's that?"

"...none of us are very good at talking to other ponies about our problems."

"I'm talking to you!"

"...but I'm not the pony you have a problem with."

"So? It still shows I can do it! And if you think that's a problem everypony else has, including you, then --"

"...I know I'm afraid -- of a lot of things. I know what all of them are. I even know why I'm afraid -- for some of them." Almost a whisper, "...and I'm still afraid. We're all friends. We all talk to each other. But not always about... the important things. We put the lesson in the letter... but we're still learning it..."

"-- look, this is about me and Twilight for now, okay?"

A waft of a sigh. "...all right."

"She won't fly with me." A tiny drop in volume. "I think -- maybe -- I know why."

In a tone that gently suggested getting the 'maybe' was the rarer event, "Why?"

"Because..." A long pause, time enough to gather every last bit of strength. "Because she's an alicorn now, and -- it makes her better than me."

Surprised, "...Twilight doesn't think of herself as better than anypony... sometimes it's just the opposite..."

"No. Not thinks of herself as being better. Is better. She's a Princess, Fluttershy! You know how strong they are! For unicorn magic, they're the strongest there is! And they have wings. So why shouldn't they be stronger fliers than anypony else, too? Maybe --" hesitant, the words pulled away from layers of Crusader-scraped tar. "-- they can do a Rainboom whenever they want to, and they just don't because -- they don't want to make everypony else feel like there's nothing left to try for. Or they can do the quintuple helix, you know I've never managed more than a triple. Or even a shadowfount."

"...that's just an old pony's tale, Rainbow. And --"

"-- yeah, right. It's an old pony's tale because they did it hundreds of years ago in front of a really old pony and she told somepony about it. Twilight can probably do everything now, and she doesn't want to go up there with me because she's afraid I'll see it and..." Her friend gave her the silence, let the little ear flicks and tail swishes finish the sentence. "I just wanted -- to break her feathers in. Flying's the greatest thing in the world, Fluttershy. I could never imagine anything better for any story. I was so happy that another one of my friends got to really do it. No spell tricks and worrying about magic evaporating if you went up too high -- just wings. Real ones. And -- she doesn't hang out any more. She doesn't come and see me." Volume cut by half, "She won't fly with me."

"...she has so much new in her life right now... the press, all those ponies coming to her for advice or just trying to meet her..."

"So why doesn't she stick with us? Do things with us? Do things with me?"

"...she has a lot of stress... I can see how much stress she's under, Rainbow..."

"Flying makes stress die."

Silence.

"...you should talk to her."

Even more quietly, "I don't know if I want to hear her say it... or the other thing."

Which explained that elusive 'maybe'. "...what's that?"

"That --" A slow breath. "-- we're drifting apart."

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"Y'know how close y'came back there? Do y'have any idea what y'nearly did?"

"I don't understand --"

"Tartarus, y'don't understand! 'This ravine is new!' Ah know it's new! Ah could feel how 'new' it was from the second mah head stopped spinnin'! An' there y'go an' jus' say it in front of her! What were y'thinkin'? Were y'thinkin' at'tall?"

"I -- I didn't..."

"Y'didn't what, Pinkie? 'cause Ah was right there an' Ah heard every word --"

"...I didn't feel it."

"...what?"

"You know -- you know how weak it is, Applejack. You know -- I can hardly ever feel anything. I didn't feel it. I saw it. I saw how new it was. I tried to get away from it as soon as I saw your face, you know I did..."

A long pause, and then, with all the anger gone, "Pinkie -- Ah'm sorry. Ah forgot that y'can't..."

"I'm used to it." Bitterness under the sugar. "I'm really really used to it. So you're right, Applejack. I wasn't thinking about what you felt because I can't. So I didn't think about what I could or should say in front of the others. In front of Twilight and Rarity. And guess what? I still want to go say it to Twilight!"

Tightly controlled danger under a thin veneer of civilization. "...y'wanna run that by me again?"

"It's a mission!"

"Yeah. For Discord."

"Which doesn't mean something isn't really happening! We all talked about that back there! And Twilight's our friend, you know she is, and she's kind of the leader most of the time, so if this is connected to whatever the mission is, she has to know!"

"No, she doesn't! She doesn't have t' know anythin'!"

Slowly -- and now there was a second undercurrent of danger, just a trickle of water below a pebble, "She's our friend."

"She's a unicorn."

"She's an alicorn! And she's still our friend!"

"Yeah? Y'wanna hear the stories again, Pinkie? Stories 'bout earth ponies who thought unicorns an' even some of the pegasi were their friends? Ponies who decided they could tell their friends anythin'? Ah grew up on those stories an' Ah know y'did too. Remember how they all ended? Twi's got wings now, but she's a unicorn still, all the way down t' her heart. The one chance she had t' act like an earth pony at that first Wrap-Up, she cheated inside a minute. An' even worse? She writes things down. She sends letters. Y'know the best thing 'bout havin' an oral history? Bein' able t' decide who y'don't tell it to. Sure, maybe there's this tiny chance y'could tell her. And she'd be all surprised an' amazed an' jus' thrilled t' learn an' guess what happens then? She writes it down. An' maybe she never tells a pony or shows anypony the book. Jus' maybe. Maybe somepony has t' steal the book, or grabs the letter, an' then it's all out there..."

"She's an alicorn. You think the Princesses don't know?"

"...'course they know. No way they couldn't know. Doesn't mean Twilight knows. An' Ah'm bettin' they haven't told her. We weren't there hardly near long enough -- an' she would have been all full of questions for us, y'know that. 'What's it like?' No, she doesn't know. An' Ah'm not gonna be the one who breaks the code and does it. They wanna tell her, let 'em. Ain't gonna be me."

The trickle had been joined by a few raindrops. "Maybe I will. I think she needs to know. The Princesses can't write us now, you know that. How are they supposed to tell her?"

"Ah'm sure they've got ways..."

"Not this time, they don't!" There was a dam behind the pebble. It wasn't particularly solid. "No interference, we both heard that! They can't tell her! It's you or it's me, and this is important! What if not telling her is what makes things go wrong? What if not telling her is what's wrong?"

"Ain't like that --"

"-- how do you know?"

"Doesn't matter. If that's it, we'll solve it, you an' me. We can keep it quiet. You know that's how it's done."

"Maybe not this time."

"Pinkie, don't you dare --"

"Is Twilight your friend or not?"

"...she's mah friend. Y'know that."

"No, she's more than that. You told her she was family. You told all of us we were family. What if one of your family wasn't an earth pony, Applejack? Would you tell them?"

"Doesn't happen. We've married pure from before the time the first Apple planted a tree."

"That's not the point! You said she was family, Applejack! All of us were family! You told me that once before we ever met Twilight at all, when you found out I -- could barely feel. You told me I was still family anyway. And --" oh so slowly "-- you know what that meant to me, because -- it was you who was saying it. Because -- nopony else had said it for a long time. And now you're saying Twilight isn't family, because you would tell family anything -- and so every time you told her that, you were lying."

Taken aback, scrambling to recover, "Ah wasn't --"

"Liar."

"Y'know Ah care 'bout --"

"Lies!"

And now there was a second dam cracking. "Don't -- you -- say -- that -- again."

"Why not? I'm telling the truth!"

They had stopped moving. The others hadn't noticed yet, had never heard a word.

"Twilight -- is mah friend. Ah love her like kin. An' y'know what, Pinkie? Ah can answer yer question. She's mah family, all right. Mah unicorn family. An' Ah am not gonna be the earth pony who talks 'bout it t' a unicorn -- family or no. Y'wanna be the next name in the stories? Y'wanna go betray your entire race? An' that's not figurin' for the one who gossips. Want t' go with the other two? One who brags too much an' the other you could pressure with one of her own feathers?"

"I understand."

"Ah'm glad t' see yer comin' t' yer senses --"

"I understand that you never thought of four of us as friends at all -- no, five. Because you don't trust my judgment. You don't trust family. Not without blood. And without that, we're nothing to you. Nothing at all."

The dams had vanished and taken their water with them.. Now there was just a line in the dirt.

"...y'take that back."

"Make me."

And a pair of hooves reaching towards it, one from each side.

"Pinkie, y'know how Ah feel 'bout all of you, y'know yer all mah -- Pinkie, don't walk away... Pinkie -- please..."

"Why? I'm not Loyalty. I was going to betray our race, remember?" Pink tail curls beating at the trees.

"Look -- jus' give me some time..."

"Time for what? Getting your lasso out to pull me back if I try to say anything? Maybe catch me by the neck? Or did your grandpa leave that part of the story out?"

"...t' find other earth ponies. Discord said -- we could ask for help. Gotta be other ponies where we're goin', right? Somewhere, sometime. So when we find some, we'll go t' them an' ask 'bout the ravine. Maybe somethin' happened out there with them, got nothin' t' do with this. Let's jus' -- make sure first, okay? And then we could work with kin, y'know that's the right way..."

Without a trace of mirth, "You're stalling."

"Ah'm investigatin' -- why aren't you givin' me that hat?"

"Because you're also stalling. If the Princesses haven't told her yet, then they will sometime."

"Let them decide, then! She doesn't know -- she didn't feel it -- Pinkie, don't look at me like that, Ah didn't mean t' -- Ah jus' need some time."

"...fine."

"Thank you."

"But if we don't find anypony -- or this turns out to be the problem and they're not enough -- I will tell her, Applejack. I swear I will. Twilight's my family -- no matter what she is to you."

"Pinkie? Come on, Pinkie, please don't -- y'gotta understand -- it was so strong, an' it was -- off..."

Hoofsteps moving away over soft ground, nearly covering the final protest.

Nearly.

"She's a unicorn..."

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The foal would not arrive.

He is dreaming now, resting in that safe haven. He wrote down everything he could remember, wrote down everything he could formulate, state, or put together through conjecture. Theories, so many theories -- none of which can be verified without her. It was an exhaustive effort and in time, that's exactly what it did: exhaust. He sleeps so that his body can heal a little more and slips into his own protected place. In dream, he goes to the past --

-- and the foal would not arrive.

A common theme for his nightscapes, too common. His memories hold many such occasions, sometimes far too many, and not all with happy endings. The very first -- he has gone back to the first many times, but never in dream. A simple spell cast just before sleeping keeps that away, and he has cast it every night for years, starting long before Luna returned. He thinks of it, yes. He will not relive it, not unless it is absolutely necessary. That is an absolute -- statement.

This was the second. And it was also the first, the first of something new.

He remembers very little of the parents. Parents tend to blend into each other after a while: they all have the same worries, all act as if they're the first ponies in all of Equestria to go through this. But he remembers every single foal. All of them, every name, every color and race and birthplace and situation. Because this one was a new first, he remembers her so very clearly, and often goes back to her on those nights when there is so very much on his mind and he cannot return to the true beginning.

The mother was a pegasus, as was the father. They had been traveling -- because they had to travel, even so late in her term. He does not remember why, for it is not important to the dream. But they had been forced down. Labor had forced them down. Given any choice, all pegasi will invariably give birth on the ground.

He remembers two unicorns bringing the mother to him.

She had been in labor for hours. Too many hours. Her water had broken long ago: the foal was dry in the womb. She strained and pushed and screamed in her agony, but she had no strength left, none at all. The foal had to emerge or the foal would die before it could ever see the Sun. Crisis. The point of decision. Nopony else to help. Just him. And this was only his second -- and his first. He had just received the license, hung out the sign and placed a somewhat larger one on his roof. The parents knew nothing of him. They had come down some distance from the town, been found, been brought here because he was the only pony available.

He had told no pony of what he had discovered. There had been no demonstration: there had been no opportunity. In that sense, this was a true first, the trial of the foal's life.

And if he did not succeed, the foal was going to die.

Might have already been damaged by all the dry time in the womb. The mother was weak, so very weak, hardly had any more pushes in her and those she had managed even at the start hadn't done the job. Even if he succeeded, there was no telling what the foal's health might be, if it could survive long enough for that first breath. If it was even breathing now.

It was time.

"I'm going to try something," he had told the mother. "This is magic. It's -- a new magic, untested. I am going to bring the foal out for you if I can. You'll have to help as much as you're able. I'll do everything I can, I promise that -- no matter what."

"Magic?" she had gasped, froth sliding down her distended belly. "What -- kind..."

"The last kind we have left to try," he'd told her. Gently, "Please -- for your child..."

"Yes," she had said. What else could she have said?

He had concentrated. The second corona had come within seconds, and the mother had gasped again when she saw it -- which, as another contraction hit, turned into a scream.

"Push!" he called to her, squinting against vision that was blurring as it tried to take in close and distant shadows. "I'm trying -- push!"

He cannot. He cannot. He was failing. Once again, he was --

-- there was a wing.

He could feel a wing, and a tiny hoof, and a mane, a full mane already, and --

For the first time in two years, he almost laughed. "She's a filly!" he told the mother. "I can -- I can feel -- I --"

The words reached her within the pain, forced her eyes wide with hope. Made her push harder --

(a double corona, only a double corona and it was happening, the filly needed her chance, she would be so weak, he reached deeper and for the first time ever, channeled, the rush going through his spine and down his horn and into the womb)

-- as he pulled.

Pulled.

It was happening --

-- and then it had happened.

He had cleaned off the tiny filly, gently separated and preened every miniature feather with his field. Did all the tests. Weak -- but not as weak as she should have been after all that time. Breathing steadily. Would live.

Alive.

Alive.

And that was when he did laugh, when he placed the world's newest resident in front of her mother.

He cannot remember the mother's face. Only the filly, so small and perfect and alive, the tiny yellow wings stretching for the first time, a tentative flap which turned into more of a small vibration, and the blue-green eyes looking at them both, not understanding this new world or her place in it. Not yet.

"She didn't want to come out!", he had laughed at long last -- and then smiled at her. "Hello, little one. This is your mother..." he said before the words emerged, the words he would say so many times over the following years. They were always said, for they were always meant. "...and I am your very first friend."

The mother had smiled weakly, crying with relief as she watched the wing movement, saw the filly struggle to stand up for the first time. Watched her succeed.

"Hello," she had whispered. "Hello, my little Fluttershy..."

Vanishing Point

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The yellow pegasus was looking at the damage to the tree.

She backed up slightly, tilted her head so that her mane fell away from one eye, surveyed it a second time. Her default public expression -- a perpetual aura of concern that something bad had happened which was almost certainly her fault and even if it wasn't, she was going to take all the blame for it without protest because arguing almost never worked out -- deepened.

After some thought, she moved up the procession to where two of her friends were talking. "...Twilight? I'm so sorry to bother you, but..." No good: they were deep in conversation, something about field border spikes and synchronicity tuning added to a dash of Belmont's Law with a touch of Mint's Julepian flux on the side. Rarity looked somewhat dazed, and seemed as if she had been for some time.

Twilight had just picked up on it. "Some of these things are basic concepts, Rarity..."

"Really? For whom?"

"...Twilight, I don't mean to interrupt, but there's something in the trees back there, and..."

"For -- post-graduate students." Twilight looked abashed. "I'm -- going too fast again, aren't I?"

"A tad..."

"...Twilight?" The pressure of her breath was just barely enough to shift a single hair of the striped mane.

Sometimes that was enough. "Fluttershy? Is something wrong?"

"...I think you need to see this."

Within a minute, they were all gathered around the tree. "Okay, Fluttershy," Twilight said, giving her the lead position. This was her subject: there was a fair chance that the pegasus could manage to get all the way through the news. She was always a little stronger on what she saw as her own ground, where her cutie mark trumped that of all the others and her knowledge was what could get them through. A little. "Go ahead."

"...all right... see these gouges?" They all looked. Divots in the bark, about five inches across, bleeding sap. Some punctures to the left, not so deep, cone-shaped with the tree's outer layer pushed in towards the center. "...I think we have -- Flebian rams in the area. And close by. These are fresh -- a few hours old, no more."

"Okay, Fluttershy," Applejack said, her voice serious. "Not domestic, Ah know that... got no tenants with that tag on 'em..." Which meant she would defer. "Let's hear the straight skinny. Do they have brains?"

Fluttershy shook her head. "...not sentient. Just -- mean." Her voice was naturally less hesitant when she was talking about her field, but no less soft. "Picture a sheep, make it about forty percent bigger, blue-grey, and three times as strong. Very good sense of smell. Cloven hooves, sharp at the front. Straighten the wool, move the ears all the way to the absolute top of the skull, like an insect's antennae. Give it two horns on the sides of its head where ears would normally go, which they usually keep curled into a tight spiral about a foot and a half across -- they project out about five inches ahead of the muzzle that way. Sharp teeth. Omnivores. They -- they can move their horns, change the shape. Straight out like spears to puncture, curled for battering. Sometimes out to the sides to catch something charging them that way. And they're nasty. Hyper-territorial. Anything living they see, unless it's at least six times their size, they'll treat one of two ways. Try to fight it to establish that this is their place -- or kill it for food."

Twilight had the picture and wished she didn't. She hated having to ask the next questions, especially of Fluttershy, but there was no other choice. "Do they eat ponies? Can you use the Stare on them if you have to? And what's the best way to fight them?" A little more softly, "If it does come to a fight, do we have to kill?"

Fluttershy shivered. "We're not -- their first choice of diet. They go for smaller animals first -- lower their heads and spear-scoop. And they -- play with their food. But if they could kill us, they would. And there's a few of them. They travel in packs called charges to bring larger animals down. Judging from the differences in the gouges --" she tilted her head to indicate other trees with similar wounds: her mane shifted back again "-- at least four in this one. The Stare -- would feel like a dominance challenge to them. They'd just charge -- and if I didn't do it, they'd charge anyway. They charge rocks when they're in a bad mood, and you can see what they did to the trees, they can knock down small ones if they hit them right... Fighting them... very hard heads and their bodies are designed to take impact from the front: you can't charge them or hit them head-on and expect to do much. Hit them from behind. Not from the sides. When their horns are spiraled, they can't see to the sides -- but they listen in those directions and if you charge them, they point a horn that way and..." A full shudder. "No defenses against magic. They can rotate their horns straight up, so if you swoop them, you have to watch for how far they can reach -- and uncurled, that's almost all the way to their tails. Move that straight up, and..."

Rainbow Dash nodded. She too was taking this seriously -- although that didn't prevent her from using the information to plan out a little showboating. "But I could come in really low from the back and knock out their feet, right? Or carry them straight up and drop them?"

"...maybe... if you were really careful about the approach angle... the horns twist very fast... They always paw at the ground before they charge, so there's a little warning. Our best chance is to avoid them if we can, but their sense of smell is so good... Depending on the wind, they may catch us first -- and if they don't want to eat, they will want to fight." She took a deep breath. "They can be forced to back off: they'd turn around and pretend they never met us. But we'd at least have to hurt them first -- they're hard to scare. They're too angry to frighten most of the time. If it was a fight..." She let the trail-off and shudder speak for her: yes, there was a chance they would have to kill. "And if we don't meet them, don't make them remember us -- then the next pony they find..." She forced herself to take a breath. It required more than one attempt. "Because they're wild, they can be spooked by fire sometimes..." A look at Spike. "But since you're smallest, they'll -- see you as prey before they'll think of you as a challenge. They'll charge low to spear..."

The little dragon nodded, looking solemn. "I'm faster than you think, Fluttershy."

Which did nothing to ease her concern -- but then, hardly anything ever did. "...I hope so -- but if we start a fire -- the trees aren't as thick as they were, but there's all these old leaves on the ground -- it's a little damp after the rain, but we could still wind up in the middle of a blaze..."

"I'll be careful," Spike promised. "Twilight, I know it's part of our rations, but -- I think I'd better have a gem now." Twilight nodded, opened her left saddlebag with a flicker of field and began removing contents one by one.

"...we'll hear them before we see them," Fluttershy promised. "They can't not batter things, not with all these trees around. Just -- keep rotating your ears. I don't know what they smell like, though..." Embarrassed by that. "This is all from books..."

Books Fluttershy had read very carefully: she took it as her responsibility to know all about what they might run into in the wild zones, ever since their first meeting with Zecora -- animals first and foremost, of course, but with a new secondary focus on the more dangerous plants. Not knowing about the Poison Joke had left a long-term mark. "All right, everypony -- you heard her," Twilight said. "Fluttershy, do you want us close together or spread out?" The former, but with the option to break as soon a ram saw them, presenting multiple targets: the creatures worked in narrow focus and, once an opponent was picked, were unlikely to switch. Two-on-one or worse against them was almost a foreign concept, so as long as ponies outnumbered attackers... A few more possible tactics were discussed, and then, "Got it. No talking for a while, everypony: keep your ears to the compass and look for more of those gouges."

They moved on as a tight knot of sentience against the random malevolence of the wild zone.

Not sentient. Twilight hated that. Intelligence was double-edged here: a sentient species was better able to plan against you, but there was also a chance to talk them out of things. Creatures which were four-footed and around pony size were at least a little self-aware more often than not, and the majority of Equestria's talking races were quadrupeds. Mindlessly charging animals looking to dominate everything around them on instinct... there was almost nothing they could do with that. Avoid or fight: no other choices. Given any option at all, Twilight wanted 'avoid'. But Fluttershy was right: the animals could be a danger to any other ponies who came in here -- and the mere fact that Fluttershy had brought it up (if semi-indirectly) showed how much of a threat she considered these animals to be. Part of the pegasus didn't want the rams hurt -- but the majority didn't want any ponies hurt. And it still tore her up inside every time.

Don't start fights: end them. A lesson from before Twilight's time in Ponyville, one her father had given to her before she'd started school. And like most parental advice, it didn't always work. Her brother had been more accurate: "There are times when the only way to end things is by being the one who kicks first, Twily -- but you'd better be sure.'' And he had talked to her about ponies who would try to pick fights to get her in trouble, about ponies who would lie and say she'd started everything, and all the other dangers of being in a group of social-climbing students who saw the fastest route to the top as being through stepping on everypony else. It had not been a reassuring lesson to head into her entrance examination with, and at least a little of the blame for her stress that day could be laid at his hooves.

He'd been right, of course. She'd seen those kinds of ponies in school. Lots of them. But most of them hadn't wanted to climb over her. They'd seen it as easier to attach a rope and let her haul them along. In retrospect, she had often wished for the fights...

...a squeal. Pained, agonized, a high-pitched scream of animal agony -- and then, a few seconds later, a collision, something hard against wood...

Fluttershy repressed the audible part of the gasp: it was only visible as a single shuddering breath. Her ears rotated a little, twitched to the same direction everypony else was orienting on: left. "...I can't smell anything," she whispered. "the air is too still... but that sounded close..." More collisions, two this time. Another squeal. The first one hadn't died away. It sounded as if it would go on for the rest of the animal's life, and it sounded as if that wasn't going to be very long. Fluttershy shivered. "...they're too close... maybe they were eating and just started hunting again for extras -- or fun..."

Twilight automatically looked around. Nothing visible. Their current area was still heavily forested, but there was enough room to twist and dodge. Some old trees which were large enough to hide behind if facing them directly -- nothing was wide enough to conceal a perpendicular pony form -- a few saplings straining upwards towards the remaining canopy gaps to make their own claim of Sun. Said canopy still too thick overhead for aerial evacuation (and for that, she would have at least tried as the last resort), branches not particularly trustworthy if it came down to the pegasus-assisted desperation hijinks known as Ponies Up A Tree. No clouds within easy reach for drenchings or lightning scares. Not ideal fighting ground. Which didn't matter to Rainbow Dash, who was visibly already thinking about it and had been since Fluttershy had first begun her description. After all, what would Daring Do have done?

Count on the author to get her out of it. Not an option here. "Okay, everypony..." she whispered to the group. "Easy..."

And the breeze hit them, moved towards the sounds...

There were bleats of surprise. Anger. Challenge.

"Aw, horse apples," Applejack muttered.

And that was the last thing anypony said before the charge of rams erupted from the woods.

Five of them: they did outnumber their opponents. But the rams (teeth bared in challenge, teeth bloody, more blood dripping from the horns of two, a pair had those spirals and the others were in spear formation) were choosing who they would take on, looking for the weakest among them to dominate and the strongest to knock out all at the same time --

-- the pegasi did as they'd planned. "Over here, ugly!" Rainbow Dash yelled. "All the more meat to chew on: six servings instead of four! Come on, over here! The more colors, the more flavors!"

Fluttershy, fears pushed back for a little while so that they could overwhelm when there was more time, was doing the same -- if at lesser volume. "Me! Don't you want me?" And they were peeling off from the group while staying on the ground, moving in front of the biggest trees they could find...

Rarity was getting her saddlebag open, speed-sifting through the contents. Twilight let her field flow forward, reaching towards the largest, the one Fluttershy said would be the leader. Applejack had the lasso out. Pinkie Pie -- she couldn't see what Pinkie Pie was doing and wasn't sure she wanted to...

...the rams charged. Two picked a pegasus each, their horns uncurling into spears as they charged. One headed for Twilight, one for Applejack and the last, one with no blood anywhere in the filthy matted and tangled coat, the smallest and hungriest, went directly for Spike.

She was aware of a sudden downdraft, heard the impacts as the rams went into the trees, the pegasi suddenly overhead --

-- and then she had her own to worry about.

Her field had surrounded it: she lifted, heard the bleat of surprise, threw it backwards towards the first thing in the way: one of the taller, thinnest saplings. The ram twisted around within the field before she could tighten her grip, went into the wood headfirst, there was a crack, the wood splitting up and down and across, the tree tilting forward, coming down towards her --

-- no time to think, no time to fully release her field and choose the tree as a new target. No time to get a better orientation on what was going on around her. No time. In the fresh chaos of combat already starting to break away from the plan, Twilight violated the first rule of teleportation and went between without a full understanding of her arrival point, her ears only distantly aware of the sound of flame, the bleat of anger and yet another impact, what could have been a branch breaking off from the channeled force --

-- came out eighteen feet away.

In the space that plummeting broken branch had just begun to pass through.

And then she had exactly enough time to realize she was screwed.

Oh Celestia, please don't let this hurt too much --

-- the recoil hit.

She could teleport into a gaseous medium without trouble. Arriving in liquid would displace her own volume: Archineighdes Principle. (It wasn't pleasant, but it could be done.) Small objects -- blades of grass, specks of dust -- would be pushed aside harmlessly. A particularly thin and fragile solid -- anything of less than a twentieth of her own density and a few ounces in weight at best -- stood some chance of breaking around her as she arrived: it was how she'd popped the Crusaders' ball just before the heart of the Smarty Pants Incident had begun. But anything larger and more dense than that would not permit her entry. She could not disrupt its structure and it thankfully would not merge with hers: two solids refused to occupy the same space. The arriving teleporter would be displaced, sent moving in a completely random direction until they found enough open space for their body to arrive in. And the farther they had to go, the faster they would wind up moving. It was one of the reasons those unicorns who could teleport tended to be obsessive about keeping their arrival points clear: move a table three feet to the right and send a pony two and a half Celests into the ceiling. You didn't teleport to a site you couldn't see or didn't know by heart, not unless there was, just for example, a pack of angry teenage dragons after you, your younger brother and two friends, and you were too freaked out to think and needed to get some distance immediately between the group and enemies who could fly faster than two could gallop, and she'd been lucky that time, all arrived safely with a correct guess at the height of the ground ahead.

This time, the recoil took her, instantly accelerated her body to a half-gallop as it tossed her diagonally to the right and up, she tried to get her field ahead of her to push off anything ahead, even opened her wings in the desperate hopes that it would do something, but --

-- the right side of her head went into the wood, and she fell two Celests to the forest floor, vision spinning. Her eyes wouldn't focus. Her field wouldn't focus. But she could still hear, and there was an angry bleat, pounding cloven hooves moving closer, she couldn't get a spell going, couldn't get up, couldn't fly, couldn't --

-- at least I don't have to see --

-- and there was a roar of "NO!", moving just ahead of the flame.

The ram's bleat turned into a scream of mindless agony: it veered off, barely missed her to the right, charged off into the trees...

Spike's head swiveled back towards his own ram, the one he had initially dodged rather than take on directly and allow his sister to be hurt. Twilight's blurred vision could just make it out, starting to turn for a second charge, pawing at the ground. She was distantly aware of a new sound, rope cutting through air, another bleat as Applejack snared some part of her foe, but Spike needed a few seconds to get a second burst and he might not have it --

-- six double-vision twinkles of blue glow shot past her, and there was a new animal scream in the woods.

Twilight barely managed to get her head up, turned to see Rarity with her portable pincushion (the non-reptilian one) within her field, twelve -- six? -- more long pins held as separate miniature missiles ready for the launch. "Dreadfully sorry!' she called out to the ram. "I would use much finer ones, but I don't know where the nearest shop is for a resupply! And normally I'd let you keep them, but I'm going to need those back for that same reason, thanks ever so...!" And the original shots went past going in the opposite direction.

A pink blur moved into Twilight's vision, stopped just off to her right. "We are not playing Pin The Horns On The Pony!" Pinkie declared. "Come and get me, smelly! Phew -- do you charge your mother with that coat? Rarity, what's the spa rate for Never Had A Bath In Your Life? Nyah-nyah!" To Twilight's dazed eyes, it looked as if Pinkie had a sparkler at each corner of her mouth. The earth pony probably did. Some party supplies always made it into the saddlebags. "Over here, Sir Odoriferous of Stinkville!" And she moved, luring one off, the one which was getting sick of charging into Fluttershy's chosen trees -- which just let a rainbow trail swoop past and come in from behind before a bleat of purest outrage exploded through the air...

...and within seconds, it was over.

Fluttershy landed next to her. "Talk to me." No hesitation here, not when the situation was medical in nature. "Full name, location, last thing you remember."

Twilight groaned. "Twilight Sparkle of House Twinkle. I did something stupid. I can't tell you where I am because none of us know. Oh, my head..."

A gentle hoof softly touched the impact area, triggering a fresh round of fireworks in her vision. "Nothing broken," Fluttershy told her. "But you're going to have a nasty bruise for a while. You're lucky you hit so close to the horn: that's where your skull is thickest. Any concussion symptoms?"

"Some double vision, but it's starting to clear..." Twilight shook her head in an attempt to get rid of the last bits, immediately regretted it. "OW! Fluttershy, did you pack any --"

"...sorry, Twilight." With the worst of it over, the forcefulness had vanished. "...I thought -- it was just a ride into Canterlot..."

Twilight sighed. No surprise, no blame. Fluttershy normally kept a few animal remedies in her saddlebags as a perpetual just-in-case, but she had made the same assumption on pony medical supplies as everypony else had on everything else: that they would have gotten it before leaving the palace. If I'd just looked at that underlayer a little closer, if I'd just wondered about it... "I understand."

"...I should just start carrying stuff anyway, shouldn't I? I'm so sorry..."

The others gathered around her, helped her up. Twilight blearily checked for other injuries -- nothing: she was the only one who'd gotten hurt. None of the forest was ablaze. There were no ram bodies on the ground: they'd been frustrated, injured, and in one case, mega-goosed into departure. They wouldn't be taking on ponies any more --

-- no, wait: one ram on the ground. Alive and uninjured, tied up with Applejack's lasso. And -- two other animals. Woodchucks. Gored, bleeding, soft squeals coming out of broken bodies --

-- Twilight turned away.

Fluttershy didn't. "...I..." Her voice broke. She took several slow breaths. "...I need -- some time."

The other six looked away from her, headed for the lassoed ram.

Applejack looked down at the snorting, twisting animal, matted coat scraping leaves and rot from the forest floor as it writhed on the ground, unable to work itself free. They weren't standing too close: the horns were curling and uncurling, rotating in all directions as it tried to hurt the ones who had captured it -- but it couldn't think, not on their level, and the idea of using a horn on the rope binding its legs would never come. "So -- what are we gonna do with it?"

"I still," Rarity harshly declared, "have all my pins. I left the other with one eye after it went for Spike." The anger was high in her voice, her tail lashing enough to briefly straighten the elaborate curling. "Do you think this one has learned enough of a lesson to keep both? Will it remember, or is it going to head for the first little dragon it sees should we let it go?"

Spike was staring at Rarity. So were the others -- but for Fluttershy, too far away to see the rage. "I'm okay, Rarity --"

"-- you almost weren't! I will not let these things hurt you, any more than you would have allowed them to hurt me. Twilight, if you sent it to the ravine..."

Twilight shook her head. Things spun. "I'd have to go with it -- and I shouldn't try too much of anything until the headache clears." Side of her head: she'd actually been lucky. If it had been horn-first -- no risk of fracture, the horn itself was pretty much impossible to break with impact, but she'd been trying to use her field at the time... recoil with a chance of backlash, one after the other. Decidedly not one of her better days, and that was before she factored everything else in.

"I understand," Rarity consoled her -- but then the unicorn's gaze returned to the ram, and it was no less furious for the brief interruption. "I am still very open to ideas."

The fury was no surprise to any of them. Rarity's natural inclinations did not go towards violence -- but Spike's temporary growth spurt had nearly turned into horrible consequences. Several self-important authorities claiming to work for Canterlot, who had accompanied the ones distributing the latest round of building supplies and relief funds two days after, had taken it upon themselves to try and 'confiscate' the dragon, declaring him a threat, a menace, and an animal who had to be caged -- and 'caged' was only the word they were using in public. They had claimed authority directly from the Princesses, and that any pony who tried to stop them would wind up in exile, no matter who they were or what their relationship to Princess Celestia was. They had been lying. They were kidnappers working under an air of false legitimacy, and Rarity had been the one who stalled them long enough for a teary-eyed Twilight to write the letter which uncovered the lies. But she had initially stalled the three with words, and then with a physical block -- and finally by turning into the first to physically and magically take them on. It hadn't taken long for the others to join her.

Twilight had been expecting consequences. Expecting the Princess -- to take Spike away. Blame her for not learning about the thankfully-temporary growth spurt which could overcome a dragon of Spike's age. She had initially believed the kidnappers had that authority, hadn't challenged them, seen their arrival as confirmation of her terrors. Rarity hadn't. She had bought them time, turned the others (who'd had similar fears) around, and led the charge. The Princess had arrived minutes later -- but not the Princess they had been expecting. Spike, who had himself been waiting for the fourth horseshoe to drop, unable to sleep, crying into Twilight's coat for hours in shame and regret, had, in his fear and lingering self-hatred, fumbled a letter for the first time in his life. Luna had received the scroll.

Luna had not been happy.

She had not been happy all over the town square, which was where she kept the false officials in casual high-speed orbit for an hour before bothering to notify her sister.

After a long talk with all non-criminal parties involved, Celestia had told an assembled Ponyville that a dragon's life cycle was little understood: Spike was one of the first to spend so much time among ponies, the first raised from the hatching of his egg. That Zecora had lore they did not. And now that they knew what had happened, the warning signs, and the cure, Spike would remain in Ponyville, and it would take a town to help raise, love, and forgive a young dragon who hadn't known what was happening to him, who would have given anything to make it stop. Who had made it stop. And then the Princesses had left, taking the kidnappers with them.

In time, Ponyville had forgiven Spike, the same way they had eventually forgiven Twilight for a certain doll: they now understood what had happened with the little dragon and simply took extra precautions around his birthday, which was now an event where Spike received far more than a single book, getting gifts from many of the townsponies -- and for each gift he received, giving out two.

(Ultimately, the largest post-incident problem had come from the press. It had been Twilight's first real introduction to Murdocks' muckraking and mud-stirring corps: they had followed Spike for weeks, throwing questions at him in attempts to induce rage or tearful breakdowns and when that hadn't worked, switched to giving him things, trying to bring on the initial stage of a second outbreak which they could photograph for their stories -- a little something to accompany all the articles about Princess Celestia's ignorance and how it made her unfit to rule, she should turn the government over to the Day and Night Courts immediately and of course Luna had to be deposed as well because any real ruler would have caught up on those basic unknown facts by now. A furious Spike had donated every item to charity, and the reporters had wound up in court on charges of Attempting To Induce A Dragon To Riot. The resulting fine had been massive (and had also gone to charity), with the sheer breathtaking number of bits involved keeping Ponyville free of virtually any reporter who wasn't school-based until Gabby Gums began publishing, at which point they decided the gossip flow was worth the risk and began to slowly return in a sludgelike flow of unstoppable sewage.)

But Rarity had not forgotten any of it, especially the reason Spike had found himself within the beast -- and none of her testimony at the kidnappers' trial had shown a single hint of forgiveness towards them. No pony tried to hurt Spike on her watch, and the normally peaceful unicorn could turn into a white blaze of field-slinging fury at the mere suggestion of a scratch to any scale. Her anger at the absent ram she had needle-speared was being transferred to the captured one. No pony was surprised --

-- but no pony was going to let her take it out on the helpless animal, either. "I can just grab the rope and go drop it off somewhere, " Rainbow Dash proposed. "From low altitude, Rarity. The fight's over -- it's beaten." The pegasus tended to be a gracious victor after the initial boasting celebration wore off.

"And how do you know it won't attack another dragon or pony? Is a rope enough to stick in its mind?"

"It's angry," Applejack considered. "Ah think it will charge if we let it go here..." She gave the lasso a long look. "Had t' use a lot of rope to get it hogtied, an' Ah had to back off when it got too short..." Checked the end of the lasso, which was far too close to the rotating horns. "Rarity, I hate t' ask --" and her face showed it: she would take help from friends now, but virtually any loss of self-sufficiency still rankled the farmer "-- but when we decide, would you unwrap that for me? Ah don't think Ah can get that close right now, an' Ah don't want t' lose it."

"Of course, Applejack... but we have to decide first."

And they were all looking at Twilight.

They would have been looking at me before the wings, too. She tried to clear her head again. Nothing helped. "I think -- we move back a good distance, and Rarity unwraps it from there, but keeps one loop around a leg. If it charges for us or Fluttershy, she yanks it back..." With average field strength. So actually, "Rarity -- can you?"

The white unicorn eyed the writhing ram. "Not quite -- but how about tying one end to a tree and then still keeping the loop on? All I need is a trick knot or two. Once we see how it wants to move --" reluctant, distaste still present and wanting to get a vote in "-- we can let it go -- if it's learned enough to run away."

"That could work," Twilight decided.

"Good. Now all I need is the right trick knot -- Applejack, would you teach me one, please? Mine are rather meant to stay together."

A few fast lessons practiced on a twisted fabric sample later, they had their setup. "And if it moves towards us," Rarity cautioned, "are you ready, Spike?"

"Ready."

Her field surrounded the rope, moved it. The ram realized something was happening almost immediately, regained its feet as they were freed, tried to bite at the remaining tie while ponies and dragon backed away -- then looked at them. Seemed to be thinking about how tight that last loop was. Pawed at the ground. Charged.

Spike, whose aim had been prealigned, breathed out. Just a little. And one very loud bleat later, a ram with a lightly singed and quickly respiraling right horn was crashing through the trees, trying to get back to its charge and find anything to hunt which wasn't a pony and didn't come with scales and fire. There had to be plenty of those around -- somewhere else. Somewhere far away, where it and its fellows could begin the process of pretending nothing which smelled and looked like what they hadn't ever fought existed and would take great pains to make sure nothing like what had never happened in the first place ever happened again.

Spike shrugged. "Slow learners," he opinionated -- then looked at Rarity. With that familiar, slightly dopey smile which he only got around the unicorn, "You saved my life again."

"And you've saved mine. Are we keeping a running tally?"

He laughed. "Twilight made me take the count out of the Code." But the smile didn't fade.

Fluttershy slowly trotted up. "...I'm ready." She looked up at the canopy, noted the colors visible in the specks of sky as the fast-dropping Sun began the final portion of its descent. "...we need a clearing... we'll need to make camp soon..."

They continued through the forest. No sounds followed them.

And Twilight thought about the other part of Fluttershy's tending to her flock and the beloved pets of Ponyville, the part no pony talked about, the bit everypony seemed aware of and never discussed. How Fluttershy understood the natural cycle best of them all, and there were ponies whose cherished companions were sick beyond help or injured past recovery, ponies who would bring their loved ones to Fluttershy knowing that the fragile pegasus would take them in. Would cool them with water and ice, would give them the medicines to take their pain away in the final hours, would gently stroke a wing against their heads as she whispered words of comfort to them. Words which would be the last ones the animals ever heard. She understood predator and prey, knew the necessity, but she mourned regardless -- and when either one could no longer continue, or a cherished friend was about to take the final gallop, Fluttershy would be there. She never let any animal who had been a friend go alone into the dark.

They had not watched her as she went to the woodchucks. Not listened. Tried not to notice when the squealing stopped.

Rainbow Dash, already moving close to her friend, suddenly pressed tighter, their feathers touching, cyan brushing into yellow. They walked together that way, with one pegasus carefully not paying attention to the tears in the other's eyes.

For Fluttershy would leave no poor thing to suffer.

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"So who's got a story?" Rainbow Dash asked. "Mine -- might need a little work." One of the traveling conversations had turned into a flank-blistering lesson regarding wanton cruelty to the common comma. (In retrospect, bringing half the first draft of Volume One? Not a great idea. Especially for Twilight, who had read as much as she could stand with her headache before beginning the harsh edits. To wit, three paragraphs. Or something which was meant to be paragraphs without ever quite making it.)

"I've got a new one!" Pinkie happily declared. "Cranky taught me some donkey legends! Have any of you ever heard about the travels of Donkey Hote?"

"Aw, no," Applejack groaned. "Not a donkey story..."

Pinkie fixed Applejack with a sudden hard stare, which had to cross the full fire circle -- they were on opposite sides -- and picked up extra heat along the way. "And what have you got against donkeys?"

A fast, defensive, "Nothin'! It's jus' that -- all their stories always end the same way. Badly. Everypony dies, or everypony was jus' dreamin' the whole time an' their real lives are miserable, or the lovers find each other an' then one of them dies out of nowhere, or they both do, or there's that stinker where one killed his fool self thinkin' the other was dead, an' then she wakes up an' sees he's dead, so she lies down an' dies next t' him, then both their families get mad an' they all kill each other. It ain't a donkey story unless there's a pile of bodies in the middle of the last page an' every survivin' character is so depressed, they're fixin' t' join 'em."

"But this one's really funny! It's got all sorts of comedy in it! And -- I don't want to ruin the best part, but just wait until you hear the bit with the windmill...."

"Yeah? How's it end?"

"Um..."

And that ended the longest exchange Twilight had seen Pinkie and Applejack have since they'd made camp. The earth ponies had worked hard to help clean the ground in the small clearing, ring a fire pit with rocks, and Applejack had rigged an earth pony firestarter stick to get the actual blaze going with. (They were already working to conserve Spike's reserves. Twilight had watched the process with some interest, making a number of mental notes which managed to find their proper filing area in her somewhat-less aching head. Not as effective as magic, certainly, but -- workable.) But they weren't talking.

It had been a long day for everypony, though -- and threatened to be a longer night. They were on short rations and would remain so until they found a source of food. Water hadn't been a problem and wouldn't be as long as Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy could find and wrestle down clouds -- although that usually just meant Dash. But no food had appeared, and they'd carefully divided out a third of what they had between them before sharing it among the group. The rest had been grass. Twilight hadn't eaten wild grass in years, and it had grown no tastier during the long abeyance. The others had wound up with similar reactions, starting from Rainbow Dash openly wiping off her tongue on her removed saddlebag through Rarity repeatedly asking for "Just a little more water, please -- I swear, Applejack, I'd sooner have a mug of Flim-Flam cider than this rot..." and Fluttershy finally deciding the real reason the herbivorous part of her flock stayed around was just to avoid this experience.

"I've had good grass, truly I have," Rarity assured them. "Hentucky Blue -- there's nothing finer for a light snack when a lady is watching her figure before everypony else can get a peek. But this? Is not it. This is enough to make one think about meat." She -- and several other ponies -- shuddered. "I believe something marked territory on this. Several times."

"Starting a fire is marking territory," Spike pointed out. "At least for some of us... Twilight, how's your head?"

She sighed. "Getting there. I can --" she checked: yes, she could surround and lift one of the waiting firewood branches "-- handle the basics. But..." Her head twinged, and it moved up the scale from there. "...that's it: basics. I'm sorry, but -- I can't manage a shield spell tonight. They're always harder without a structure to anchor on, and the way I'm feeling..."

"Just rest up," Spike said. "I've seen you try to do too many things when you're not in the right condition before, remember?"

Twilight managed a small chuckle. "There's no dorm nurse to pull me to any more, either."

Rainbow Dash looked briefly curious. "Wait -- Twilight's gotten hurt trying new tricks?"

"Exhausted, usually," Spike explained. "She'd try too much, or for too long, before she was really ready, and --" a quick look at his big sister: the smile told him to continue "-- was too stubborn to stop. There were a lot of nights in the dorm when she'd just keep pushing until she passed out." A side glance to Rarity (after another check with Twilight). "And one of them was after the differentiation lesson."

Twilight sighed. "I was just so sure I was overlooking something really basic..."

Rarity was intrigued. "So -- over your full school terms, how many times did you...?"

Brother and sister together, "Nine." Spike laughed, then added "And she's heavier than she looks, and the nurse was two floors down, and I had to bring the patient to the office when it was drain because it was supposed to be a lesson to me, so I'd stop her the next time -- but have you ever tried stopping Twilight when she gets a problem she wants to solve?"

Twilight managed a smile. "I've gotten better."

"Yeah. Now you usually stagger to bed on your own."

Twilight ruefully nodded. "And I know better than to try a shield spell when I'm like this -- so I'm sorry, everypony, but we'll have to stand watches tonight."

"...I can take the first one," Fluttershy volunteered. "...and maybe the last. I'm not tired, really... I can stay up for a few hours and let everypony rest..."

"Ah can stand the first one," Applejack gently offered. "It was a long day for you, sugarcube."

"...but really... I'm not tired..."

"Well -- if yer sure..."

"...I'm fine."

"Okay. But Ah'll get second."

Pinkie Pie volunteered for the third -- "I would have been up anyway" -- and that brought them back to the original problem. "So -- no donkey stories because some ponies don't want to risk a sad ending, at least in a story." A long, clearly miffed look at Applejack. "Anypony else got a new one, then?"

"I know one about Star Swirl --" Twilight began, and stopped as the usual result manifested at the instant she hit the name: five ponies and one dragon simultaneously pretending to fall asleep. "Oh, come on! One night, I'm going to tell this!"

"But not tonight!" Rainbow Dash chortled. "Oh, and --" suddenly quieter, just a little "-- it is night, and -- we're on a mission, and -- you know, Fluttershy had a really long day... I don't mind if anypony wants to -- say it." The looks passed around the fire circle, picked up no heat. "The one for wanderers. I'll even lead, okay?"

Another circle of glances, this time with Dash excluded -- and then they all nodded.

Rainbow Dash got up, stood on all four hooves, looked up at the star-filled night sky.

Softly, with the voices of the others behind her, "Luna watch over us, for we know not where we are. Luna guide us, for we know not where we travel. Luna protect us, for we know not who we will meet. Luna keep us under your wings under blessed night until waking day, when Celestia will stand her watch. Luna watch over us -- and know we love..."

She sank back down, ruffled her wings a few times. "It's funny," she said quietly. "My dad taught me that one when I was a filly, and I thought -- it was just another name for the Moon. Maybe everypony did when they were that young. And they still made sure we learned it... Pinkie?"

The earth pony's right ear had just gone back. Then forward. Wriggled twice. Repeated the cycle.

Pinkie looked directly at Twilight, raised a hoof to her mouth as if wiping away grass stains, blocked her lip movements from casual side view, mouthed the confirming words.

They were being watched.

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She heard the voices at the same moment she saw the light. And then she moved closer, as close as she dared, for these were other ponies -- and they might have information.

And there she had stayed.

There were six of them: the voices told her that much. Six. She'd set a personal record. (Plus one, seven altogether, but that one almost did not seem to be a pony at all -- improbability upon strangeness.) She could see three of them from this angle, her body crouched low in tall grass, hidden in the shadows of thick trees. The pain was very much with her, would never leave, and the urge to vocalize it kept crashing against the barrier of her clenched jaw -- but she had not uttered a sound since reaching this position. She would not.

Three ponies. In her sight. At the same time.

Two were pegasi. One was cyan, and her mane and tail flowed with all the colors of a prism. Her voice was brash, and she had trouble staying still: little shifts of the hooves, vibrations of the wings. A sense of flight temporarily postponed and ready to be instantly resumed. She looked at the world as if deciding which parts of it she might want to own. The cutie mark -- a tri-color lighting bolt, plus a cloud. Possibly worked in weather manipulation. The second -- a classic beauty, she knew that much from some of the books and a few memories kept towards the back. A lovely shade of yellow, the long mane and tail a hue of pink she desperately wanted to remember in full detail later (if a normal 'later' had still existed), shy eyes and a retiring posture. There was also a sense of movement waiting to resume with that one, but of a different kind: she flinched at the cracks and pops from the fire, seemed ready to flee at any harsher noise. The mark -- three butterflies, and that almost sent a signal all the way through her agony, nearly made a new thought come. Put together with the names, and it felt as if she should know them. Something mentioned -- something overheard...

The third was orange. Three apples on the flank. Muscular, strong. A blonde mane and the thickest tail she'd ever seen, one which needed a loop of thin rope at the very end just to keep the hairs from going everywhere. A hat -- the second one with a hat: the cyan pegasus was wearing one in a strange style, but she clearly wasn't comfortable with it, had been distractedly adjusting it for much of the watching time. But this orange mare, the one with the freckled face, almost seemed to have hers as an extension of her body. It hardly shifted when she moved, only changing position when she wanted it to. Why hide the horn that way? The hat would forever be in the way of a field, an initial obstacle to be overcome for every spell. A strange fashion choice at best.

Two of the hidden others were definitely unicorns: there had been talk of spells. One was talented -- a shield spell had been part of the discussion: even if she could not cast it now, just being able to manage it normally raised her in the ranks. She couldn't begin to take a guess at the sixth, a voice which ranged from enthusiastic to happy through overjoyed with occasional stops at deeper, harsher emotions. One of the hidden unicorns had a faint Canterlot accent overlaid with something else: time spent in the city, but not a lifetime. For the rest of them -- none had accents she could place, or ones where she had been told the origins. The other unseen unicorn had an accent she wasn't sure existed.

But there was no shield spell. And the orange mare's saddlebags were resting on the ground, one was open --

-- and she could see food within.

They had not spoken about him. They sounded as if they were lost. No help to follow them from a distance --

-- but I could listen, I could hear them talking if I stayed far enough back, I could just --

-- no. Following those who didn't know where they were or where they were going was begging to make things worse. Company for a night, company who would never know she had been there.

Company with food in an open saddlebag.

She was so hungry.

It was their food. They seemed to have very little.

But --

-- she was so hungry...

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Twilight had never learned any spells for communication without sound. She had heard legends of them: castings which allowed ponies to speak mind-to-mind (although never for long or too closely: the legends claimed thoughts would leak, ones meant not to be sent crossing the gap, incidental memories following along), but had never found one in the library. Spells existed to replicate sound at a short distance, but the sound had to be made first. Being hit by a spell would sometimes let the target experience some of the caster's emotional resonance, but -- that meant being hit by a spell, and it required a powerful caster along with, typically, a not particularly friendly spell. Not something subtle to be done by firelight. Making plans without tipping off the spy would be difficult -- perhaps impossible.

Pinkie Sense. She had learned to trust it. She had also learned to check the condition and relative proximity of all available medical supplies whenever it started going off. She'd never identified a pattern to its manifestations (other than the one which said 'And I will be aching for hours at the very least') -- except for one: it most typically showed up when Pinkie had been -- well -- not partying for a while. If the baker had strength to spare and no social calendar dates to cross off for the day, that was when Pinkie Sense was likely to appear. Not guaranteed -- just more probable. All this told her was that it took a certain amount of energy to work. Every other detail remained a mystery, and one she had almost given up on trying to solve.

It was going off now, and it said they were being watched. Twilight had faith in that. And she knew their medical supply situation was horrible.

"My father taught it to me too," she admitted. Raised a hoof to her own mouth to wipe away her own imaginary grass remnants, mouthed Pony? Pinkie nodded and made a point of blinking a single time: just one. "Maybe they're words for fathers to pass on..."

"It is funny, really," Rarity smoothly acted, stretching her legs and arching her back: just loosening up, nothing to worry about, surely wasn't going to leave the fire and go check anything. "Mine too -- and he's not exactly a stallion much concerned with words." She very carefully did not look at the surrounding shadows.

"Mine didn't," Pinkie said. "But my family was -- different that way." Her right front hoof casually flicked a non-existent bug away -- then another. Both in the same direction.

Twilight judged the angle. Somewhere behind me and off to the left... Well, there was only so much grass to wipe away without...

Reluctantly, she captured some more in her field, forced herself to take a very messy bite just so she could get rid of the excess. She wished she had left more excess. Hostile? her lips asked while her tongue vowed to hate her forever.

Pinkie gave her a mildly dirty look, because of course she had to do the same. A frustrated, disgusted chew, and then she mouthed Can't tell...

All right. A single pony, somewhere in the dark, watching them. Possibly lost. Potentially a spy. Maybe even -- could they be this lucky? -- the mission, and that would wrap things up in a single night and get them home, which meant it was completely impossible. One pony, if it came down to hostilities, against six Element-Bearers with a dragon on the side. But a pony who had made no offensive move.

They all knew what was going on now, had enough experience with Pinkie Sense to have some of the more common sequences memorized -- and given the number of poorly-hidden photographers around Ponyville, 'we're being watched' was currently as common as it got -- but they didn't have a plan yet. And there were reasons for a single pony to be hiding in the dark which weren't bad for them, although Twilight was having trouble thinking of any. A reporter out here? How many bushes did she need to probe? Was she in any condition to try a blind circle-sweep and see what she could identify, especially with a tree right behind her to disrupt and so many others out in the forest --

-- and then she felt it, a split-second before seeing it.

Magic. Uncertain. Disorganized. Off. There was something -- misaligned about it, as if it wasn't quite right, like there were other factors trying to find their way into the watcher's field, not so much contamination as a weird blend, and she couldn't pin it down --

-- eyesight took over.

There was a hint of color inside one of Applejack's saddlebags. The open one. The one they'd taken some of their dinner from.

Slowly, the color strengthened. It was gold, oddly metallic for the hue, putting Twilight in mind of Rarity's finest (and hardest to make) capes. There were sparkles there -- but instead of the white points of twinkling light normally seen, they were multihued. Some reds, a few greens. Mostly dark blue. (Had she ever seen that before? Even read about it?) And they all surrounded the food within the bag and cautiously slid it out, scooted it around the edge of the fire circle, staying low...

Twilight was very carefully not watching. They all were. Even Rainbow Dash was cautiously paying a given lack of attention. "I know, Pinkie -- rock farmers," the pegasus continued the conversation. "And you have never told me how it's possible to farm rocks. One of my roommates in flight school said it's just something ponies do to get a subsidy for not growing food."

"It's not!"

"Then what is it?"

"It's -- rock farming!"

A not-particularly-faked groan. "Pinkie..."

The field seemed to hesitate at those words: the pull briefly stopped, then resumed.

A single pony, hungry in the dark. A spy or hostile force would have stolen all the food, left them to their own hunger. This was just a single apple and some hay stalks. Taking just enough to try and live on.

Somepony who was lost.

Twilight risked it without adding the blocking hoof: mouthed the word Lost to the others, gathered several subtle nods in response. But -- why hide? Why not step towards the warmth of the fire and company of ponies who could help protect a lost stranger against the wild zone? Not even Fluttershy would stay back in that situation -- maybe. This one refused to take the chance...

Only one thing to do, then.

She stood up.

"We don't have much," she announced to the night, "but you're welcome to some of what we do have. I wouldn't wish this grass on anypony. Just come out so we can see you?"

A gasp, almost directly behind her, the field yanked on the pitiful ration, the glow and its contents skidded into the dark...

"Wait!" Twilight spun as the others began to get up themselves, took three steps away from the circle and the wide tree trunk she'd been sitting near, leaving her perfectly visible against the background firelight. "My name is Twilight Sparkle --" she couldn't make herself add the 'Princess' "-- and you're welc --"

It all seemed to happen at once, and it would take her hours to sort out the actual order.

Another gasp, somewhere ahead of her, this one startled, shocked, and -- pained. There was loss in that sound, and regret, with despair soaking through. And hatred.

A golden glow, low in tall grass. A purple horn. Dark purple, much darker than her own coat, the shade of Rarity's deepest dyes. Purple reaching towards black.

A flare, the glow rushing outwards.

The wave.

She felt the field before it hit. Felt the raw power, the surge, and even a bit of what was behind it, the taste of the somehow-wrong magic carrying a little of the caster's resonance. For a moment, there was a distant sense of agony -- but not her own. It was as if she had two bodies with the second connected by a single fine thread, and the other end of the silk was on fire. The emotion behind the spell impacted her next, all of the flavors in that single exclamation and something else, something so strong that the empathic residue went into her own thoughts, took over for a single fraction of a second --

-- hate self hate this hate me hate being want to die want to die want to die --

-- and kept her from countering.

The field hit everything. Every tree, every blade of foul grass, every item and everypony behind her. Shoved all of it backwards.

Twilight flew. Not the way she had wanted to, not the way she couldn't. Ten feet straight back. Everything that could be moved went ten feet back, and that included her friends, all their supplies, some of the smaller trees, broken branches, plants torn from the ground and the fire, now scattered and threatening to spread...

Gasps behind her, ponies scrambling to get back up, rolling away from flaming branches and hot cinders. Rainbow Dash had recovered before hitting the ground, was already going up for a dousing cloud. Twilight forced herself to her hooves, tried to shake off the intruding emotions --

-- ran forward again, following the glow which was galloping away in the dark, this time gathering as much magic as she safely could. Magic which wasn't going to be enough if something like that came again, but if she could deflect even a portion... "Please!" she called out. "I -- I know you're scared! We can help you! I'm --" and was this the right time to play that card? "-- a Princess, and --"

The others were fighting the fire behind her, or trying to get reoriented. It was just her and the distant unicorn -- the one who had stopped moving. She froze to match it. All she could see was the glow at ground level, still pulling the food -- and the same around that deep purple horn, with leaves and Luna's shadows hiding everything else.

That was when the voice came, and she wished it hadn't.

It was a broken voice. Every word had been forced through ground glass coating the interior of the throat, a tongue of barbed wire pushed against teeth wet by acid. It was a voice which said the effort required to speak was the worst thing to happen in her life -- but all that was needed to top it was living long enough to hear her own words.

"Princess -- Twilight -- Sparkle..."

There was loathing in that voice.

Twilight fought the urge to shudder, felt her wings vibrate. "Yes!" she tried, forcing herself to continue. "Please -- I can hear you're hurt, and I know you're hungry..."

Silence.

She didn't think about what had happened with the intruder's magic. Tried, with limited success, not to let herself think about it just yet. Concentrated on the sound of that horrible pain, the thought of what it would be like to hurt so much as to make any words sound like that. The urge to fix it. "You were just -- scared." The power in that spell -- the agony... "You can come out. I'm not mad at you, I promise. None of us are. Fluttershy knows some medicine -- if you're wounded, she can do some things for you..."

There was a sound, a single sharp note. It could have been a laugh. She hoped it wasn't. She would have given so much not to hear that laugh (if laugh it was) again.

"Just -- come out..."

More words. Horrible, pressured, agonized, thoughtful words.

""Twilight -- Sparkle. Unicorn. Alicorn. Success. The -- one who -- finished."

Finished -- what? "...please -- we won't hurt you..."

In a tone that made the ground glass into powdered bone, "Hurt..." And that horrible mockery of a laugh. "Don't. Want. To. Hurt..."

Twilight took a step forward. Just a small one. Just enough to notice.

Just enough to scare.

The wave came again, she tried to deflect, got everything into her spell she could manage, trying to shield her friends with what little she had to give. And she did manage to weaken it a bit, enough so that the sweep eventually faded out beyond her hindquarters --

-- but it was still more than enough to pick her up a second time, fling her straight back, and this time her lit horn went into the wood first.

The last word to go through her mind was backlash.

And then that first-stage backlash ripped through her, took all light and pain away, and sent her down into Luna's blessed dark.

Converging Lines

View Online

She talks to the rock, and it will not listen to her.

This is not a typical stopping point for her dreams. Memories are incredibly rare, fully coherent storylines only slightly more common. Her nightscape tends to be a chaotic thing, with bits of ideas chasing each other around a twisting land. Pastry and candy will feature prominently, and sometimes make up the land itself. If a concept holds together for a virtual five minutes, it's almost an event, proof that there was something deep on her mind which needed closer examination. Otherwise -- things come, things go, and while it all makes sense to her, it generally leaves Luna with a pounding headache.

But this was a day for being -- reminded. She had been thinking about her first family. About the way somepony she considered to be a friend had acted towards her. About feel. Put it all together and it has sent her back, stabilized the nightscape into a place she still hates, trapped her in a younger body on a grey field under a grey sky with no knowledge that there is an older self coming at all. She is there and then has become now.

In the now of dream, she pushes the rock with her head, as her father taught her. Contact is essential for the youngest, or so the earth pony way teaches. The old earth pony way. Her father is an adherent to the strictest of traditions solidified by age into what he sees as absolute law, imposes them on his family without concern for what they might be thinking, for only his beliefs are the proper ones. He has certain -- standards.

There are no unicorn-enchanted conveniences on the farm. None at all. It is not the old way. Everything is done by hoof and mouth and feel. Any attempt to do otherwise will be punished. Any attempt to discuss otherwise is punished. Her father does not like unicorns. She has his long rants fully memorized, starting with the one about being ripped off on the prices as the most common, and then there's the one about how the Sun and Moon must secretly hate being touched by that filthy horn. He thinks of the Princess as a unicorn and thus he does not like her -- to use the mildest of terms. Every so often, her father will hire a unicorn who's especially desperate for bits, set them to breaking apart rocks which were good for nothing else for hours on end, underpays them horribly, gives them only the leavings from the family meals, tells them to sleep in the fallow fields and then carefully notes the upcoming rain days on the calendar. It cheers him immensely.

He will deal with pegasi, for there are few other ways to get the final product to market in time, especially for the most distant of customers. But he does not like them either. Endless complaints about the cost of moving simple things, how mass shouldn't matter for shipping cost, featherweights with featherbrains, good only for arranging rainstorms on poverty-stricken worthless unicorns who could just conjure bits if they were really so talented. He rants against each in turn, has special rants for taking on both at once when he feels they've been conspiring against him. There was a truly epic rant the previous night, although this was an especially rare specimen: it had cause. A monolithic rock which he had personally been working on for four years, shipped out to a repeat client with a promise of payment after delivery, had been dropped. Somewhere. The pegasi had been apologetic, refunded his bits, but it did not matter. They could not find it and, after he had finished screaming at them, were no longer so willing to look again. She had been in her bed during that fight, huddled under the blankets, wondering if he would be calm in the morning. He had not been.

He does not like most other earth ponies. They have grown weak, he will yell, they take the magic of those lessers for granted and it's all just a conspiracy to hurt their race, perhaps even drive them to extinction should the other two ever learn certain truths and perhaps figure out how to duplicate them. Any true earth pony who works with one who does not follow the oldest of ways, or one of the others for any reasons other than strict business (while ripping them off as much as possible in the process), is a fool, a traitor, or both.

Her father likes very little, and loves even less.

She is pushing the rock. She has been pushing this same rock for half a day. It is the first one on the West Field. She was taken off the North Field after it became clear she was making no progress. (Again. Always.) The rocks she speaks to do not revert for her efforts: she at least does not make things worse when she tries. The fields she is set to do not become fallow -- just frozen, locked into Tartarus-chained stability until she leaves.

Her head hurts. It hurts from the uneven pressure of the stone against it. (She must develop callouses, she has been told. She cannot seem to make one form on her heart.) It hurts from the effort of trying to talk to the rock. It aches from the silence which has been her only answer for all her life. She longs to hear something, tries so hard every time no matter what her father says. He claims she doesn't make any effort, that all their line has had the feel and she has it too, she just doesn't care and would sooner see her family starve than try. He cannot hear her efforts. He will not listen to her protests. He takes her crying as a sign of weakness.

She is trying not to cry now. She is begging. She has been begging the rock to respond for hours, wants nothing more than just a single whisper. Never receives it. The only thing which has happened is that one of her ears is now twisting, without her consent or ability to stop. This and similar uncontrolled movements happen sometimes, starting over the last two moons. The family has seen it. They feel it makes her defective. Another thing which makes her defective.

Her sisters yell at her because her father does, and in that way win an extra share of his approval. Her mother barely acknowledges her, gives her no more attention than telling her to set the table or, if it's a good day, one where the rest of the family has done so well that her own failures can be overlooked after no more than twenty minutes of yelling, to help prepare dinner. She feels a little better in the kitchen, where the things she does work like they're supposed to. She would be happy to simply cook for the rest of her childhood and never return to the fields -- but there is always another morning, always the call to go and speak. Always another failure.

She does not attend school. Her mother educates her on writing, reading, and some math: just enough to know when a bill is written properly and if the ripping off is being done to standards. Her father tells her who she should hate. Those are all the lessons they feel she needs, especially since she can't do the single most basic thing. There are almost no books to read in the house anyway, none of interest beyond a few cookbooks and a single precious baking guide. The others are about different types of rock. (She has them all memorized anyway.) Anything else might present dangerous ideas. There are stories told, of course -- mostly about other ponies. And what happens if you talk to them.

She is not allowed to meet other ponies. She is supposed to stay out of the way on the scant occasions when those of other races are present. She is not permitted to speak with them. There is a single exception, but it is rare.

She has never been so much as a single hoofstep beyond the border of the fields.

Five nights ago, her father had yelled at her mother about other ponies. About her. About whether one of those others was her true father, because surely any child of his would have the feel and that meant her mother must have...

She had heard it all. She is sure she was meant to.

She has been working this field for hours. She will work it until sunset, and then perhaps beyond, skipping meals, staying out here as long as she can stall before her father calls another failure upon her and the yelling begins again. And this will continue for what she sees as the rest of her life, a road ahead going nowhere and still so very long.

There is a sigh, behind and above her. "You are the saddest little pony I've ever seen, Pinkamena."

She jumps a little in the furrow of her own weary trail. It is -- him. She had not known he would be coming today -- but then, they seldom get warning. He just -- comes. He is the only unicorn permitted to be on the farm when he does not have business with her father and even then, he is something much less than welcome.

He comes to see her. This makes her father very angry, and he will yell at her afterwards. Sometimes -- more. But he still permits the visits, perhaps because he is not entirely sure how to stop them. And -- he owes this unicorn a debt. This makes him very angry, especially as part of that debt seems to concern her, with the rest being about her mother. He cannot repay it. He rants to the fields about an angry world which will not let him shake this horned intruder from their lives. He tries to supervise every visit.

The rest of the family is inside having a meal. She is trying to work through it, if her endless failure could ever be called 'work'. There is no supervision.

Another sigh. "They never trim your mane," he says. "I know it's supposed to be a tradition that the mane is never cut until the cutie mark comes, but yours grows so fast..." A gentle hoof reaches out, brushes a little of the straight fall away from her face. She did not turn to look at him after that little jump. She is still trying to talk to the rock. "I wish you would tell me what was wrong. I wish you would talk to me about anything. I worry about you."

She does not answer. Neither does the rock.

"I was just in the area," he tells her. "Another one of mine is in flight camp." She does not know what that is, will not ask. He continues anyway. "She's a year older than you. She's been having trouble, too." More softly, "I wish you could meet her. I wish you could meet all of them. So many..." He stops himself.

A silver glow surrounds the unresponsive rock. She pushes against it. No movement. None at all.

"I'm working." A whisper of protest.

"You push rocks up and down the field all day and your father calls it work," he says. "And then he screams at me about how bad you are at it. And then he screams at me because he screamed at me about that. And he never tells me... well, I don't expect him to. He follows the oldest ways. It's a miracle he didn't throw me out the night you came, Pinkamena."

"...please don't call me that," she whispers.

"What?" Confused, but sincere in wanting to know.

"That -- name. I hate my name. It's stupid." Because Pinkamena is the name of a failure. If she had another name -- if she was another pony...

The hoof makes the gentlest of contact with her mane again, brushes it back a second time. "Names can mean too much," he calmly tells her.

The glow will not release. She cannot push the rock. The only thing she can do with it and he will not let her. But she pushes anyway.

"You'll hurt yourself," he tells her.

"...don't care."

He sighs again. "I want to help you," he tells her. "But I can't. Not unless I know what's wrong. And you won't talk to me. If you said anything at all, even once, the smallest hint..."

She does as she has been taught. She says nothing.

The glow releases. She pushes the rock. He walks alongside her for a minute or two.

Finally, he says "I'll be back another day. Maybe I'll finally find one where you're ready to speak. But... I will come back. Until we know what's wrong. Until it's fixed."

A hoof goes under her chin, tilts her head to face him. Lets her look at the only warm smile she ever sees.

"I'm not giving up on you."

And then he is gone. She goes back to pushing the rock. Pleading with it. Delaying the time until -- after. The after which keeps getting worse.

It is four days before the blast of color will explode across the sky. It is three moons before the last time her father will ever yell at her. Three moons and a sunset before she steps off the fields, never to return. Another moon spent running through a wild zone before he finds her again and takes her to something infinitely wondrous called a town, where a newly-married couple has just opened a bakery and doesn't mind a little live-in help during the hours when she is not trying to catch up with her new studies, learning how to play as a child long after everypony else did. But in the dream, she knows none of this. It is simply now, the same now it has always been and will always be, with a small filly in a field, pushing a rock which will not listen to her. The now she is waiting through.

She spends most of her time waiting to die.

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The horn is the seat of a unicorn's magic. Backlash comes when somepony knocks them off the perch.

Untold generations of unicorns -- typically the most egocentric ones -- have complained about this. Those few who believe their race was set above the other two simply for having magic have always treated it as an especially sore point. All the power (more for some than others), all the potential (ibid), and all it can take to ruin them is a simple moment of hard contact. And armor does no good: anything placed over a horn beyond a simple fall of mane represents a barrier to outgoing spells. Wear a helmet into battle if you so desire, but place steel over what's not quite bone and take away most of your prowess. The horn must stay exposed if the field is to be used. It's one of the many factors which has kept unicorns who were a little too full of themselves from taking over. Because with the horn exposed, backlash is an ever-present risk. They'll even use it against each other in battle: any edge over your foe, after all, and many unicorn combats come down to a series of maneuvers designed to get around the other's guard and land that physical blow. It can end the fight. It can do a lot more.

There are four stages of backlash.

The first is known as Stage Zero (much to Twilight's perpetual annoyance). This is the stage the typical unicorn deals with in their everyday life, when a field is being used for nothing more than simple manipulation of a small lightweight item or three. To make sharp contact with a horn while it's channeling the energy of the field in this fashion will disrupt the flow of magic. The field winks out, the objects fall, and the unicorn is probably rather annoyed with her little sister. Talented casters can usually ignore S0 if they see it coming and keep their field going regardless, but it takes a skilled unicorn and a lot of very discomforting practice.

Stage One comes when a unicorn is using more energy, something beyond basic everyday impact on the world around them. At that point, disrupting the field will cause it to briefly flow against the unicorn. Typical results include headaches, bruising, a moderate weakening of the field which makes everything more difficult for a few hours, and mild nosebleeds. A unicorn who's already weakened or injured (as Twilight had been) can be knocked out by a particularly bad S1 -- and the more powerful the unicorn, the more severe an S1 tends to be: there's that much more energy moving the wrong way. A very good, braced caster can stay on their hooves and keep going, but at this stage, the spell is pretty much always disrupted, and multiple S1s are cumulative in their effect on the unicorn's body.

By Stage Two, bracing does no good except to perhaps keep the unicorn conscious -- which at this point isn't always a favorable result. Star Swirl, Celestia, Luna -- legends say they could keep working through an S2 and even ignore some of the worst effects. (But then, legends say Star Swirl could consistently work through a hat -- and wore one just so everypony would know it.) Everypony else will have the spell disrupted, perhaps because it's rather hard to focus on your magic when two of your ribs just fractured themselves. Unicorns unlucky enough to have this level of backlash hit them can look forward to torn muscles, deep hoof clefts, bleeding from ears and eyes, weakened senses for a few days, and a potential addiction to the painkillers they are assuredly going to need. And at this stage, the pony who started the backlash may want to be some distance away, because some of the disrupted field will move out -- and from there, things might happen, depending on the backlashed unicorn's overall strength. Nothing as harsh as what the target's going through, but minor to moderate random magical effects can appear as the field burns off energy on the surrounding environment. (Ducking is generally recommended.) But whereas every unicorn in the world has run into an S0 (in part because they're deliberately inflicted in school: how else will they learn to deal with them?) and many have had the misfortune of an S1 even in peacetime, very few personally know what an S2 feels like. Because for this stage to hit, the unicorn must be channeling enough of their personal reserves to achieve a double corona, and that's hardly an everyday event. (Twilight herself went through a single S2 in her fourth year of school. It's not something she likes to talk about.) Cumulative S2s typically don't happen because after the first one hits, most unicorns won't be doing any more magic for a while. Or moving.

Stage Three is talked about around unicorn campfires when the storyteller wants nopony to sleep through the night.

Stage Three requires a triple corona.

Stage Three kills.

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Her first thought as consciousness reluctantly began to flow back: Well, it happened again. Pinkie Sense goes off, and? I get hurt...

Voices filtered into her awareness next. "...is she going to be all right?" Fluttershy was worried about her. Of course she was. Fluttershy always had to be worried about something or her worry muscles would start to lose tone.

"I told you, dear, she'll be fine... just a little touch of backlash from that falling branch. Bad luck to have that windstorm when we did." Rarity -- making excuses? But...

And a new voice, male: "I'll agree with Miss Rarity. The Princess already slept through the worst of it -- and see, she's starting to wake up."

Twilight opened her eyes.

The first thing she saw was a stallion's reassuring expression. Look past that: dark blue with copper mane. Middle-aged unicorn. Glance down the side -- the common sort of red cross for a cutie mark. He smiled at her. "Good morning, Princess Twilight. How do you feel?"

She searched her memories. Put several of them aside for later before going with a sincere "Surprised... how long was I out?"

"The whole night," Applejack said, looking somewhat concerned herself. (Twilight looked up. She was on her right side: twisting her head let her catch the first glimpse of rising Sun. It looked to be a clear, warm day.) "Ah knew you took a hard hit in that fight, but Ah didn't think you'd be in that much trouble from a second one..."

"It was just backlash," Twilight automatically insisted (even though she wasn't sure Applejack knew what backlash was) as she looked around a little more. There were two other newcomers in camp. Both unicorns: a second stallion, younger than her medical attendant, dark green with a gold-and-black mane and the familiar compass rose for a cutie mark, with the other a young mare, very light blue with a white mane, mark showing a loop of rope. "I... think I missed something." She tried to stand. All four hooves seemed to be there, and the medic allowed her to get up.

"We found you a few hours ago," the new mare said. Looking shy, blinking large silver eyes. "I'm Helping Hooves, Princess. These are Traveler and Heartbeat," indicating the medic with the later. "We're one of the search parties."

Twilight blinked several times. "Searching -- for us?" Had the Princesses located them and found some way to send help from afar after all?

Heartbeat ruined her brand-new day: he shook his head. "Pure random coincidence," he said. "There's search parties all over the area. Ours ran into yours. I just hope somepony's run into him by now." His face twisted into concern, and he took a deep breath before shoving most of it away. "We spotted your fire in the middle of the night. The Element-Bearers explained about the storm." He sighed. "Unnatural weather in unnatural places... as Miss Rarity said, just bad luck. We were waiting for you to wake up before we brought you back to town. You're not that far out -- a quarter-day's gallop. But you know backlash -- if at all possible, you don't move the patient until she's up and talking and can tell you how she feels. You were sleeping normally anyway and all the signs said a bad Stage One tops, so we decided to wait for the Sun to get the word from your mouth." Grinning, "And it's more than my life's worth to take chances with the health of a Princess."

Windstorm? But it was... no, they've got some reason for lying: just play along... "Thank you, but please, it's just Twilight Sparkle..." More survey of the area: the damage from the wave was still present: broken saplings, damaged trees, fallen branches, torn-up dirt where plants had been ripped away. There were some scorched portions of earth about: the fire. Everypony seemed to be okay, although Rarity was surely longing for a bath and Spike seemed to have put most of the fire out by rolling on it.

Typically, a frustrating "You're quite welcome, Princess."

And I'm still missing something. No, a lot of things. Her checklist had been torn at the middle, leaving a huge gap of ignorance. Discord had probably done it. He thinks we're a search party... why are the others -- minus Applejack, who just looks really uncomfortable -- lying? Actually, maybe we are a search party. We could be anything, so why not that? They'd certainly found something...

...no. If the others weren't talking about it, then she wouldn't either. Not yet.

Rarity gave her a little more help. "We've been having quite the discussion, they and we. About our problems with the rams, the raccoons stealing most of our supplies while we were fighting... I'm afraid it's made us all look rather bad."

Traveler immediately protested. "It would be hard to make you look bad, Miss Rarity." (Spike glared at him.) "There's a lot of ponies who wouldn't have done so well in a wild zone. Flebian rams -- the three of us would be lucky if we were still breathing. Getting a raccoon pack just then while your backs were turned -- just more bad luck. I swear, it sounds as if the seven of you have had Discord breathing down your flanks since the moment you got here."

"You have no idea," Twilight darkly said. Keep it going, but don't risk adding too much... "Unfortunately, the automatic recovery spell I've been working on is for books."

Rainbow Dash laughed at that, and probably would have laughed regardless of the situation. "They're going to lead us in so we can restock. The town merchants will just bill the Princess later." Her expression suggested she'd been thinking of potential ways to abuse that for at least an hour -- and failing. "We can get back to the hunt after we're in shape to stay out here for more than one night."

Helping Hooves blushed. "And we're honored by your presence, Princess -- you and all the Bearers, and your companion as well. To think that all of you would come for him..."

And out of a (verbal) nowhere, Pinkie Pie: "We wanted to. I really wanted to, and so did Fluttershy. The others really came along to help us. We go together, you know. Can't have two Elements out in the woods by themselves!"

"...yes," Fluttershy softly added.

"Can't have that!" Applejack declared, possibly because it seemed safe to say.

Heartbeat beamed -- then bowed low, bending his front legs until his chin was almost against the damaged ground. "We're honored regardless, Princess," he told Twilight. "Honored that you would care so much as to help, even when you're not one of his." And Luna's mane, now the other two were doing it...

Heartily embarrassed, "Please get up." They did. "I do feel all right to travel, so -- if you would lead the way, kind mare and stallions? The sooner we're resupplied, the sooner we can go back to the search. And I promise we'll all keep a closer eye out for masks."

The search party laughed at that, a little too loudly: the sound which said it wasn't all that funny, but a Princess had made the semi-joke and therefore laughter had better be happening. Once that horrible sound had stopped, they did their best to help pack up the last of the Royal Camp, and then took the lead on walking the other (Royal) search party out of the wild zone: close enough to be easily seen, far enough away to let the Element-Bearers talk. Pony courtesy again -- and besides, only a certain class of people would presume to eavesdrop on a Princess and her entourage.

Twilight still allowed much of the projected quarter-gallop to pass before risking it and kept her voice low anyway. "Anypony want to fill me in...?"

Rarity took it. "It seems one of their own has gone missing after a fire," she told Twilight. "There are ponies combing the countryside -- searching all the way across the continent, in fact: it's just more intense locally. Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie knew the name, and we built the story from there. Remember, the press saw us depart, darling -- sooner or later, that story is going to arrive here. Being another search party gave us a reason to be in the area without telling them what our mission really is, especially as we're not sure ourselves."

Twilight slowly nodded. "But -- why not tell them the truth?"

Rainbow Dash snorted. "Because I've read more than enough Daring Do stories to know that when you tell a bunch of completely random strangers about a secret mission, they're either evil henchponies working for the bad guys or they turn into your closest allies -- and in that case, Chapter Fifteen comes along and boom!, they're dead. I didn't know if they were the enemy and if they're not, then they're too nice to bump off in the middle of the book. Just because we're allowed to look for help doesn't mean we should be grabbing Granny Smith's loudspeaker and rounding up a pony posse every three steps! We've -- got to be careful."

O-kay... Well, she'd always wanted Dash to get some book learning under her wings. Twilight was almost certain this wasn't what she had meant, but... "It's kind of a restrictive cover story, though. What if we need to hang around this town?"

Applejack sighed. "What if we ain't s'posed t'? The problem with not knowin' what we're s'posed t' do is not knowin' what t' include or exclude. One of the problems. Ah mostly just stood around an' kept mah mouth shut. Besides, we had time t' talk before those three showed up an' right now, most of us think it might be 'bout -- her."

The group slowed at that word.

"Her," Spike said softly.

"Miss Gold Field," Pinkie tried out before shaking her head. "No, that doesn't work..."

Unnoticed by everypony, the group's spoken volume was dropping. It was slightly more difficult to pick out on Fluttershy. "...Twilight? That -- push... the one which hit everything... could you have done that?"

She's asking if this one's stronger than I am. It was a question Twilight had been asking herself throughout the breakdown of what remained of their damaged Royal Camp. Softly, "No. Not against that wide an area and that many objects with that kind of force. A narrow cone, maybe. As a wave -- I couldn't. It may not make her stronger than me, though -- just powerful in a different way." Was she lying to herself? "Maybe that's a spell I could learn." Twice? "But she does have strength."

Rarity looked as if she really didn't want to ask her next question. "When it hit -- did you feel --"

Twilight searched her memory, continued sorting. "-- like it was wrong? There was something to that magic... something I haven't felt before..."

"No," and that was Pinkie Pie. "The hurt."

Twilight blinked. Then she did it again. Turned to stare at Pinkie, completely missing a startled Applejack. "You got that? The spell was that strong?" For an earth pony to pick up on resonance... she'd never heard of that happening.

"We both did," Rarity told her. "Pinkie and I were right behind you before that first push hit. You got the initial brunt and we got the rest. Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, Spike, and Applejack -- they didn't pick up on it. But both of us -- we felt it. Maybe we absorbed it. How much pain was there. And..." She couldn't finish, looked to Pinkie for help.

"Hatred," Pinkie gently concluded, worry in every syllable. "But -- not at us. Not completely, anyway. Self-hatred." And deep regret, sorrow in knowing there was somepony out there who desperately needed laughter, somepony she couldn't currently help. "It's -- easy to tell the difference."

"I knew it was a her," Rarity made herself resume. "Something in it just came across that way. But we didn't have a chance to follow you: we were rather busy with keeping the forest from going up. There was only so much Spike could roll over in a hurry. And then you ran off -- and when we went to find you... I could see it was backlash, especially after I spotted where your horn had hit the tree." Concern increasing with each word. "I had to explain it to the others. If she had gotten the best of you in a fight, then... We had to tend to you, and chasing her through the dark was a bad idea to begin with..."

"It -- wasn't a fight," Twilight told them. "Not really." Embarrassed, "A fight would have meant I at least got a spell off. I weakened that second push a little, but..." More sorting: she was fairly sure she had it all together in the right order. "This is what I remember happening."

They all trotted along in silence for a while after the story was complete.

"...she sounds like she's in horrible pain," Fluttershy whispered. "...anypony's voice -- sounding like that... why wouldn't she accept our help?"

"I don't know," Twilight sighed. "She's scared -- I know she's terrified of something -- but... not what. And there was something about the way she said my name... like she knows me."

"...everypony knows you now, Twilight... oh. I'm sorry... I didn't mean to ruin your clue..."

"No -- it's not that. Maybe not knowing me. More like it was something --" she hesitated "-- personal. I've been trying to remember all morning if I ever saw that combination of colors: dark purple horn, gold glow, multicolored sparkles. I'm sure I've never seen that. I don't have your memory, Pinkie, but something like that would stand out -- especially having sparkles of anything other than white. I don't know her, not by her magic -- even if she knows me."

"Twilight?" This voice came from a lower level: she looked down at Spike. "I've been thinking -- about her. About why Discord would send us out here, just in case it was her he was sending us for. She was really strong, I know that. I've been around enough really strong unicorns to know, even if I can't pick up the feel. And -- all you saw was her horn. Do you think -- maybe..." He put his arms out to the sides, bent them back towards his body at the elbows, flapped them.

Twilight laughed, and it was a relief. "An alicorn? Another one? Come on, Spike! There's been unicorns on my level in the world. Some of the legends say stronger. A lot stronger, if you believe everything they say Star Swirl could do and don't pretend to fall asleep. It's a lot more likely that this is somepony who's --" and now the thought started to sink in "-- strong -- and can do things I can't -- who doesn't like me..." Uh-oh. "But -- why would Discord be concerned about that?"

Applejack had a ready rejoinder for that one. "Why would Discord be concerned 'bout anythin'?"

Not even Fluttershy could answer that.

Twilight shook her head. "Occlop's Tail Trimmer: the most likely explanation is usually the truth. She's a strong unicorn with a weird field and something -- odd to it. I'm not going to go seeing alicorns everywhere without some proof."

"I know you didn't see wings," Spike pointed out. "But just because you didn't see them doesn't mean they weren't there."

Another laugh, this time slightly forced. "And if I see them, I'll believe them. Not before. There's three -- four alicorns in the world. I'm not placing a tenth of a bit on getting to five within one moon. No, I didn't see wings." And she didn't (wouldn't) expect to. "All I saw was the horn, and her glow, and..." Thinking hard. "...height. She could have been standing on higher ground or had her front hooves elevated on a tree root -- but if we were both on level ground, then judging by how high up her horn was -- and I didn't hear flapping or feel a downdraft, Spike -- she was tall. Maybe a little shorter than Luna. And we've seen regular ponies that tall before -- remember that one mare coming out of the bowling alley?" Pinkie automatically supplied the name in the background: Allie Way. "Just -- something to remember. One more identifier." Name, cutie mark, race, colors of mane and tail -- height wasn't a common feature to pick somepony out by, although it was somewhat more reliable than luggage. Still more than they'd had.

"But she could be the mission," Rainbow Dash considered. "Or part of it. Or none. Or..." Disgruntled, "This is where Daring Do gets another clue, by the way." She looked up at the sky as if expecting one to fall onto her back. Nothing happened.

Twilight had decided to think about something other than a dramatic twenty-five percent increase in the alicorn population. "Fluttershy -- you knew the name of the pony they were looking for?" (Pinkie Pie knew thousands of names. Many of them were associated with parties.) The pegasus nodded. "That's lucky." Was that a hint of field hue ahead, or just a weird tint in the cloudless sky?

"...not really... not if they haven't found him yet..." She sounded even more worried than usual, which took some real work. "...oh, I hope he's okay... I'm glad we're in the area, I was thinking about him for all of yesterday, but..." A glance at Pinkie. "...it's funny. I was in so much of a hurry, I didn't think about your going too..."

"I know!" Pinkie laughed. (Twilight wasn't really paying full attention: she was squinting ahead, having just caught a definite glimpse of non-gold field as they climbed a small slope on a trail which was starting to become a road, with the upcoming magic manifesting as a smooth pinkish surface moving up in a hemisphere.) "I was going to come get you at first, but then I just thought you'd be on the train and if I went out to find you, I'd miss the first one, or we'd both get stuck packing up your stuff and arranging help so we'd miss two trains, or three if Angel decided to make a fuss, and it was just faster to see if you were in the passenger car -- I'm sorry, I know that kind of sounds like I wasn't thinking of you at all..."

"...no, that's okay... we both had the same reaction... we had to go..."

"Wait," Twilight distractedly said, still trying to make out the shape of the stable spell ahead. (The ground evened out still more beneath her hooves, and there was a scent of burnt wood and scorched stone.) A shield out here? And the non-Royal search party was heading for it without a trace of concern? Maybe they were evil henchponies. Rainbow Dash would be gloating for days. "You both know this pony?" In more than a party way for Pinkie and for Fluttershy, at all?

"Well, of course we do!" Pinkie indignantly said. "He's only the most important pony in the world -- for us, anyway! Without him --"

-- and the view opened up all at once as they crested the little rise.

A shield spell. Covering a burnout. And ponies. So very many ponies...

Sort it out. First, the burn. The foundation of the home -- and foundation was almost all that was left, a few partial walls and the arch of a doorway, some husks that might have been the most durable of furniture plus touches of soot-blackened metal -- indicated it had been bordering on estate before it had been destroyed. Seventy feet across at what Twilight was sure had been the front, perhaps fifty deep. Many rooms could have been contained in that kind of area, and that was assuming it had been one story in height. There were no hints of the remains for gardens around the perimeter. Trees, a few of which had taken their own damage, a path leading up to what was now definitely the front door, the remains of a sign near the entrance. Something which might have been a foal recreation area off to the right side: she could see the remnants of what she was fairly certain had once been been playground equipment. No secondary structures. Just what had once been somepony's home, and her first look at it made her wonder how anypony could have survived being inside when the fire hit. No pony could have come through that without magic, and there were few spells which would have done the job. And the home had been so large, would have held so many ponies...

Second: the spell. Standard -- no, actually, it was flickering a bit around the edges and near the peak (about twelve Celests up). Substandard. She could have broken it within a minute without the additional pressure of repeated changeling impacts, and Shining Armor would have had a good laugh spotting the flaws, followed by a good lecture correcting the caster. Or it simply might have been up too long without reinforcement -- or the repeated small collisions along the lower edge were taking their toll.

And that brought her to the ponies. Within the shield -- four. She couldn't quite tell what they were doing beyond a continued inspection of something at the back left corner. Outside -- not counting her own group and the search party who had led them in -- at least a hundred. Virtually all young adults. Ponies from everywhere. She had never heard so many different accents in her life, nearly every possible tone to a pony voice gathered and with the arrival of Rarity, the assembly was probably complete. (No other pony sounded like Rarity. Nopony ever did.) The majority were unicorns, followed by pegasi and some extremely outnumbered earth ponies -- only four, clustered in a tight knot. Several unicorns and two pegasi wearing official-looking vests were calling to those ponies who were milling about the border. Trying to get their attention.

"Okay, everypony, here's what we need now! Do we have any teleporters? Any teleporters who can try to handle a jump to San Dineighgo? No? Wasn't expecting it, kind of an ultimate longshot, but had to ask. All right, then I need three pegasi willing to make that trip. All right, you -- you -- and you with the map on your flank. Good map, by the way. Say hello to each other, get your names right, then head over to Coordinator -- he's the one with the red tape, can't miss him -- and get your party and destination registered. Unicorns next: I need four unicorns..."

Fluttershy was staring at the remains of the home. Weeping. "...I... never thought it would be so bad..."

"Maybe everypony's okay!" Rainbow Dash tried to reassure her. "I mean, if they're sending out search parties, then they didn't find -- anything -- inside there, right? Maybe everypony got out in time!"

"...but -- why hasn't he come back yet? What could have happened?"

Twilight was trying to breathe steadily. How many ponies in a home that size...? "What could have happened here?" she softly echoed, feeling as if she was asking the air as much as her friends. Was that metal in the one corner? Was it melted? How hot could the fire have been?

Pinkie, right next to her on the left, and Twilight knew there would be tears in the blue eyes. "No... oh no, oh please --" and she broke for the downside of the little road, galloping towards the shield. There was a rush of wings, and Fluttershy was directly behind her, one moving at the speed she only achieved when truly upset and the other keeping up with a rush Twilight had only seen once before, when they had been closing in on a greyed-out Rainbow Dash, trying to restore the final Element...

"Pinkie Pie? Fluttershy?" No answer: they were focused on something more important than her words. "Oh Celestia, what happened --" and then she was racing down behind them, the others trailing in her wake. Heads turned at the sound of a fresh approach, eager, hopeful faces desperate for news --

-- every one of which saw a slightly-built purple figure with a single pink stripe in her mane, one with a horn and wings pressed tightly against her sides.

Identification was something beyond immediate, and it was already starting as she passed the ponies who had led them in.

"Princess!"

"It's the new Princess!"

"Behold the approach of our royal savior, for Canterlot has come to our aid!" Apparently the local library had a copy of Noteworthy's reading material.

"Princess, can you find him with a spell? Do you know where he is?"

"Are those -- the Element-Bearers?" (Above her, Rainbow Dash took what little she could get.)

"Princess, we didn't know you were coming! We should have laid something out for you! I can go get something right now! -- do you like Hentucky Blue? It's imported!"

"Princess..."

There were dozens of variations, every one of which hit her like a field-propelled pin and took its share of virtual blood. And that was before some unsung genius, possibly the same pony who had turned his speech back centuries at the sight of her, decided to dip his chartreuse head towards the ground as his front legs sank into a low bow. Other ponies saw that. Wondered why they hadn't thought of it. Then wondered why they hadn't done it already, followed by a quick concern as to whether they should be doing it now, and --

-- there were a hundred ponies bowed down in front of her. All the pegasi had landed just to make it a complete count.

Dear Princess Celestia,

About all those times my friends performed an Official Royal Greeting Stance upon your arrival:

I think we owe you an apology.

Probably several.

P.S. I did not have the single most embarrassing moment of my life today, but I am putting it into the top ten with exact rank to be determined later.

Your faithful student whose face is currently on fire,

Twilight Sparkle

"Please get up..." The too-soft tones of mortal embarrassment. Top eight, definitely. (Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy were still moving ahead of her, the former now having a much easier time of it. The others had stopped behind her, (actual) search party included. She couldn't see them. She was so glad for that, because there was a chance they couldn't see her face.) A little louder, "Please get up, everypony. I'm just here to help with the search, the same as everypony else..."

One of the ponies lifted her head a little. There were tears in her brown eyes. "Princess..." Twilight waited. That seemed to be all she could say, because she said it again just to get her point across. "Princess..."

Twilight couldn't tell if Rainbow Dash's forever-short patience had chosen that moment to run out or whether the opportunity to boss that many ponies around in one shot was just too tempting: the results were the same either way. From overhead at top volume, "Hey, listen up! The Princess is very pleased with your greeting, but taking a timeout on the ground like this is keeping you from getting anything done, so she requests that you all get up now and get back to what you were doing before she got here! Because it's not like she could have you sent to the Moon or anything --" (a lot of ponies looked up at that point) "-- and she's really not that kind of pony anyway, but you're all just wasting --"

There were now a lot of ponies who were not bowing down. In fact, there were a lot of ponies who seemed extremely eager to get back to whatever they had been doing so the Princess could have some space, and the phenomenon was spreading across the land faster than a sonic rainboom. Within seconds, the crowd was back to what it had been doing before their arrival, only with the addition of an invisible bubble around Twilight which nopony dared to cross.

"Rainbow Dash!"

Which got her a smug "What? It worked, didn't it?"

There is a game some older ponies play called Buck, Marry, Kill. Twilight went through a quick twenty mental rounds without ever getting Dash out of the Kill position. She finally gave up when she found herself creating a new ranking known as Kill Twice. "...let's just go see if there's anything we can do. And where we can resupply." That was their cover story and she was sticking to it. "Let's just look for the pony with the red tape... Coordinator -- now why does that sound familiar...?"

(Several curious ponies did follow in their wake. At a distance.)

He didn't take long to find, especially since Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie had found him first, making out lists on the far side of the shield bubble. The dazed brown-and-white unicorn stallion was already being questioned, mostly by Pinkie Pie. If you could call it questioning. "-- but if you've already covered that area, then why not spread a few ponies over to this section? And I can cross a few things off the map for you! For starters, he is not in Ponyville. Some ponies checked before we left. He's also not in the Hall Of Legends in Canterlot, although I'm not sure why he would have been because he's not that kind of legend, at least not just yet but I'm sure he could get in there if he wanted to, and it's not as if the Princesses need him, although there might be a spell to hide it, we're still looking into that, I never got the chance to ask --"

"-- I'm sorry --" he clearly wasn't "-- but who are you?" And just like that, Twilight knew him. The voice hadn't changed. However, the air of self-importance radiating from his speckled coat had gotten five feet wider.

"Pinkie Pie!"

He looked Pinkie over. He didn't seem all that happy with the result. "And -- what does that mean to me, exactly?"

"It's what it means to me! And him!"

"Oh -- one of his. Yet another one." He looked her over again, and it seemed to the approaching Twilight that he took a little too long in doing so. "A fifth... Well, there must be a search party which will have you. Somewhere. Go look around until you find one. I believe there are four others you might be comfortable with and if you keep your mouth shut long enough, they might even get you away from here."

Pinkie, to what might have been her credit for patience or just another sign of how little attention she was paying to the exact wording, continued with "But I'm already part of a search party! Only another search party found us and brought us here, even though they weren't searching for us, because we got a little off track, wherever the track was supposed to be -- the railroad station is pretty close, right? Maybe we should have looked for the tracks. Anyway, I just really really need an update --"

"-- you were in a search party. And you. Got. Lost." The unicorn had gone from dazed to annoyed and was now heading for I do not care with no other planned stops along the route. "Then get back to them. I have no updates for you. I'm not sure you would listen if I did."

From just over Pinkie's head, "...sir, we just wanted to know if there's been any news..."

"So does everypony. You two are part of the same group? Then please rejoin it immediately and refrain from wasting my time, which I assure you is much more important than yours..."

Which was all Twilight could take.

"Yes," she said as she stepped forward, letting just a touch of anger go into her voice. She knew this type. She knew him. Put him in Canterlot and he would immediately place himself in front of the Princess so he could pretend to have her authority when the crown wasn't looking. The Princess always dismissed this kind after a day or two of letting them suffocate in their own self-importance. Twilight didn't have that kind of patience at the moment -- and just as important, this was finally somepony she could take it out on. "They are part of the same group. A group known as the Element-Bearers." Buck it: if she had any weight added from these stupid uncooperative wings, this was the time to throw it around. "She is Kindness, which is why she's still being polite to you." The anger was coming fast -- too fast. Not as quickly or strongly as it had risen at the ravine, but there was still so much looking to emerge and she'd given it an opening for what she thought was a deserving target, Spike was lightly tugging on her tail and she didn't care... "And she is Laughter, which really makes me wonder how she's restraining herself at the sound of you trying to order them around because believe me, that is funny."

(Ponies were backing up in all directions. Several bumped into the shield. A few tried to keep on going.)

He turned to face his accuser, face already flush with a bored sort of fury. His expression fell apart. His dull grey field, which had been holding a clipboard, winked out and dropped the tablet on his own front right hoof. There is nothing more fearsome to petty power than having the actual thing show up, and a slightly-built purple once-unicorn clearly represented more actual than he'd ever had in his sights during his life.

"And I," Twilight continued, trying to ignore the increasingly-hard tail yanks, "should be familiar to you, given the number of times you tried to attach yourself to my flank. But right now, I would like you to think of me as Magic, which gives me a very long list of options for the next thing I might want to do and should give you a very short one for how you might want to consider answering their question: has there been any news?"

She was being petty herself. So what? She was two hoofsteps away from Blueblood. It didn't matter. Ponies like this were a reason to be angry, and she doubted anything else would have gotten the job done. Didn't care if anything else would have worked.

"I -- I --" he stammered.

"Yes, that is very helpful," Twilight nearly spat. It felt as if her tail was about to be yanked out. "I see your talent for obfuscating discussions has suffered over the years. Do you know what's even more helpful than a repeated pronoun? The rest of the sentence. So let's try for that, shall we? You -- you -- what?"

"I -- have no news at this time -- Princess..."

"Thank you," Twilight very nearly hissed. "See? Now your precious time has been saved. Simple, wasn't it?"

The bureaucrat tried to get his field around the clipboard again. It took three attempts before he could grasp it, and he moved away while sliding it along the ground. There was a murmur at the far edges of the crowd.

"Twilight, dear..." Rarity carefully began.

"I don't care. He deserved it." The murmur was getting louder. No doubt this was going to make the papers. Dangerous Princess Abuses Local: Is This The Next Nightmare Moon? So what? They would have said that if she'd dunked another photographer. They already had.

"I know a certain amount of well-placed harmless malice can serve as relief, but this may not have been the ideal time, and malice directed at a pony is never truly harmless..."

Pinkie Pie was looking at her with open concern. "He was just a meanie, Twilight! I know how to deal with meanies. You keep going until they tell you what you want just to make you go away! I would have had him in another minute!"

"...it wasn't -- nice," came from a little ways above. "...but nothing bad happened..." Were those cheers off in the distance? Maybe local law enforcement had been summoned to arrest her.

"Sugarcube, y'ain't been doin' well since we left --"

"-- I'm fine!" Lots of cheers, and now there were ponies flowing away from them. "Some ponies need to be scared a little! There are ponies you can't make friends with, Applejack! Not on first meeting, not at the last, not ever! I know him -- you don't! There are few ponies who deserve that more! You'd have a better chance --" and even she couldn't believe the words were sincere "-- of getting friendship from Discord! And why is everypony cheering?"

They turned. They looked around, ultimately peering through the shield bubble --

-- and then Pinkie and Fluttershy were off again, with a briefly confused group of five following in their wake. Briefly. The cause of the celebration was evident within seconds: it was the confirmation that was the problem -- at least the visual end of it.

It took some time for them to work their way in, and even Rainbow Dash keeping up a stream of "Element-Bearers! Element-Bearers and a Princess coming through! Come on, everypony, move! -- oh, buck it -- Spike, how much flame do you have left?" didn't do much. There was too much happiness taking place, too many tears of joy for any kind of authority to get a word in edgewise, royal or not. The relief was more important, the outpouring of affection and love took over all. Long minutes to even get close, minutes with ponies pressing into their flanks and sides and waving tails in their faces, the Royal Bubble shattered without a thought. Not even Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash were safe, as the pegasi in the crowd jostled with each other in the air for better positions. But slowly, the seven worked their way closer (with no flame used). Hoofstep by hoofstep, they continued their pressed-in approach as some of the happiest ponies Twilight had ever seen went by going the other way.

And there he was. The final piece to the little puzzle which had been humming along in the background since the previous morning. Fluttershy needing to travel, Pinkie Pie leaving town as well. Suddenly thinking about Trotter's Falls while watching Rarity battle against differentiation. All these ponies gathered from all over Equestria. All who must have been equally as desperate to come here and finally have their chance to help the one who had helped them.

A unicorn in late middle age, his warm mauve coat starting to grey a little around his muzzle. Limping a little, the right hind leg dragging. Kind orange eyes. An unusually stocky build. Mane and tail of soft red, putting her in mind of a winter fire meant to warm travelers for hours. Cutie mark showing outstretched hooves and a bundle of blankets held in a silver field.

Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy had seen him now, and she had never heard the pegasus call out so loudly, never heard her match the earth pony in open volume. The joy was equal in their voices and they reached him at the same time, both crying out as their own tears began to flow. Twilight lost their words in the babble of the crowd, but she knew what they would be.

Purest relief.

Happiness.

Love.

Pinkie draped her front legs over him, gave him the nuzzle meant for relatives. Fluttershy gently landed, covered him in her wings before doing the same. He nuzzled back, laughing a little. "And you two as well? How much of Equestria has been disrupted because an old stallion doesn't turn up on time? -- no, it's not criticism, Fluttershy, it never could be. But all of you have your own lives, and you two surely had more important things to do than come and check on me..."

"Never!" Fluttershy laughed, and wing-hugged him again. "You're all right, I'm so glad you're all right -- your leg! Has anypony looked at your leg yet?"

"About a hundred ponies and counting," he assured her. "It's not that bad, I promise..."

"Legs heal!" Pinkie declared. "If that's all there is, it doesn't matter! As long as you're okay, my first friend..." Another nuzzle. "You're okay... thank Celestia and Luna you're okay..."

They both seemed to become aware that there were other ponies waiting their turn, withdrew slightly, crying and beaming and as happy as Twilight had ever seen them --

-- but that just gave him space to see Twilight.

His eyes widened --

-- then twinkled. "Now I know you're not one of mine," he said. "I remember them all, young lady. And I'd certainly hope not to have made so much of a fuss around the continent as to bring you here." Looking around, spotting the others. "So I can only assume that all of you followed them in to help, and may the Princesses bless you for that -- although --" with a small laugh "-- given the pony I'm looking at, they might already have. So -- what can I say to our newest member of the royal family?"

But Twilight knew what she could say to him. The only thing there was to say.

She dropped to her front knees, dipped her head low and felt her wings do the proper thing for the first time in weeks as they spread and dipped with her.

"Sir."

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She had been following. Not too close -- no, definitely not too close. Once again, she was being careful, and now she had a reason to be more careful than ever.

There were ponies ahead -- their voices told her it was another new record number of ponies, by orders of magnitude -- and she made sure she was hidden, got under full cover again just before several cheering pegasi streaked through the clear skies above her. She could hear the joy in their voices, hear the name. And she knew he was all right.

And before the previous night, it would have been enough. She would have known that she had done a single thing right, if only by accident. That he was well. Still would not (should not) take her back, but he would live and with that knowledge, she would have been content to find some way to die.

But not now.

At first, after her encounter, she had been ashamed of herself for many reasons. Not the least was that she had broken a rule -- one of the most fundamental -- and she had done it the instant she had spoken. But that shame had faded quickly in the face of a simple realization: she had not broken that rule at all.

Should she have found herself on the outside, she was not to speak to anypony who did not know of The Great Work. And that -- had not happened. She had spoken -- to a pony who had completed The Great Work. One of only four in the world to have done so. Delivered here by a providence which suddenly seemed determined to make partial reparations for what had happened.

And with that, hope began to bloom.

Her failure -- was still her failure. Her horror. She could not be fixed. (She would not allow herself to have that hope. She had failed. She did not deserve to hope for that and after a single breath, stopped.) There had been a single moment. It had passed and could not be taken back or changed. The past was frozen: there was no point in wishing for it to be altered.

But -- here was one who had succeeded. The most recent. (In her pain, she had not initially thought about the names as closely as she now felt she should have. Some names repeated, after all -- nearly all did in time -- and she had no memories for this. It had only been sight which told her the final truth.) And if there was anypony in the world who might have the last piece -- who might know where it had all gone wrong -- why would it not be the purple once-unicorn she had seen against the firelight?

She would follow that pony. She would get the information from what was nearly the best of all possible sources. And then, knowing now that there was still a he in the world, would deliver those final truths to him so that he would at last have his answers. It was a new reason to live, at least until she brought those most crucial of facts to him as her final apology.

Twilight Sparkle had to know what had gone wrong. How to make it go right.

And so Twilight Sparkle would tell her.

No matter what she had to do in order to get those answers.

She owed it to him.

Setting

View Online

This silence needed some extended taking in to fully appreciate.

The hush had not fallen over the crowd: it had crushed them, obliterating all sound under the weight of disbelief. Ponies were staring. Ponies were caught in between breaths, and some of them needed to move on from that rather quickly. Ponies were wishing for cameras, but -- well, there wasn't exactly much of a press above that school level in this area, and nopony had traveled in to cover the story just yet, with a few relying on the flow of rumor racing through the air paths instead. The events seemed a little too much like actual news: why get involved?

It was a pity, really. All of the reporters and photographers stationed in Ponyville (some still seeking word of the Princess so they could go harass her in a new location, others using the time to find more reliable bushes) would have given so much for this. To capture the sight of a Princess bowed down low in front of a common citizen -- oh, there would have been so many options for association with that image. Cherished secret father figure? Actual father? (Nightlight, one of nature's faster learners, had required a mere two days to stop reading any and all newspapers.) Dare they push for -- older lover? So many stories to spread, and if any of them accidentally happened to be fact -- well, that had to happen eventually, right? Spread enough wild tales and you might hit the truth by mistake. And this time, it wouldn't have even been the standard attempt to kill the battered thing.

Twilight Sparkle. Caught in the position of deepest honor. Holding it for what would have been a respectable amount of time in the presence of Celestia or Luna (and a little over what was universally deemed appropriate for Cadance). Not looking up. Apparently rather intent on the act of inspecting the inside of her eyelids. Waiting to be released by a single word, and seemingly content to wait all day.

Thousands of Murdocks' bits would have been given out for that picture. Most of them would have been counterfeit.

The stallion's voice carried a touch of deep, calm bemusement: no mockery meant and none should be taken. "Royalty is bowing down to me. Something feels deeply wrong with that. Please arise, Princess Twilight. I am honored -- confused, yes, but honored. Now why in Equestria would you feel the need to do that, other than trying to take the weight off my leg by inflating the ego?"

"Sir," Twilight breathed as she straightened back up. "For the discoverer of Doctor Gentle's Differentiation Exception..."

He chuckled. "An honorary doctorate from the Equestrian Magic Society, no more. Technically, I'm a midwife. A stallion midwife, which continues to confuse certain ponies to this day, no matter what kind of title some ponies insist on throwing in front of my name. I am Gentle Arrival, Princess Twilight -- but if you want to use the 'Doctor', I can't really think of a way to stop you. Or any other pony."

Rarity was confused. "Differentiation -- Exception?" And that was the least of it: her expression suggested she was debating between bowing down herself, taking a quick gossip survey of the crowd in order to confirm exactly where she should be placing Doctor Gentle in the social tiers, and perhaps just a tiny touch of inquiry as to whether he was single. "I've never heard of such a thing."

"I have!" Pinkie laughed. "And then some!"

Doctor Gentle nuzzled her again, did the same for a lightly giggling Fluttershy -- then spotted Twilight's expression. "I know that look: somepony who knows all about it to the last degree and is simply waiting to see if I wish to say it first. And possibly one who knocked herself out in school trying to find a second -- yes?" The lightest of teases, and Twilight saw it for just that: she giggled a little herself. "The floor is yours, Princess."

She nodded, still unable to shake the feeling of awe. To meet this pony... "It's a field tuning which allows a unicorn to both feel and move one thing inside another -- but it only works on a single very specific definition for each. An unborn foal inside a mother." With some of that awe in her voice, "He invented obstetrics." And again, because she felt it needed to be said, "Sir." Was three enough?

"He," Doctor Gentle corrected her, "was both too stubborn to quit and lucky enough to find a single key. But one fortunate discovery -- that was enough." He looked at all the young mares and stallions still gathered on what was left of his grounds, ponies nearly all within a few years of Twilight's own age: those old enough to be on their own or simply allowed to travel without supervision. No wonder... "A single moment of fortune, and Equestria becomes so much richer for a little luck. And please don't argue that, my eldest." This to Fluttershy. "The world is better off for having all of you. Every last pony."

"I don't feel the other way any more," Fluttershy softly said. "Not for a long time." (Pinkie adjusted her position, hugged them both.)

"Eldest?" Twilight asked. "Wait -- Fluttershy --?"

He nodded. "My very first." She blushed. "Fluttershy is the oldest pony here: my career truly began the day she was born. A dry birth -- her mother had been in labor for hours, and -- well, I was desperate enough to try and lucky enough to succeed. About a year later, I was traveling and had the fortune to hear screams from across the fields -- and that eventually brought Pinkie to us. She was a breech."

Rainbow Dash had just barely been keeping up before that. "A -- what?"

Pinkie giggled. "I tried to come out tail first."

Twilight couldn't help herself: she laughed, and heard the others doing the same. Pinkie had been Pinkie from before she was born...

Doctor Gentle was considerably more somber. "As close as I have ever come to losing both mother and filly without having that tragedy actually take place," he softly said, gazing at Pinkie with warm eyes. (All the laughter stopped.) "I was able to turn her and bring her out, but by the time I heard them and arrived -- the strain on both..." Sadly, "I have lost the battle, of course: too many years, too many foals and mothers for whom nothing could be done. But Pinkie stood on the absolute border of the shadowlands and made her own decision to walk under Sun. So close..."

The earth pony hugged him again, said nothing.

Another nuzzle, and then "I am truly sorry, my young ladies, but -- there are others waiting their turn, and I wish to send them home before too much more of their lives are given to waiting for me. Will you be heading back to Ponyville today, or do you have a little more time in the vicinity? It's been nearly a year since we saw each other last -- I would enjoy catching up on your news."

Twilight thought fast. The mission was in this area, they knew that, presuming Discord wasn't expecting them to step through a local portal to somewhere else in the world. (It was possible. Too many things were.) They had to stay here (or roughly in the vicinity) until evidence pointed to another location on the map -- so before either pegasus or baker could reply, she said "I allotted several days for this, sir. There's no rush for us to return. Besides, I haven't gotten to travel to this part of Equestria before, and --" she just got the rest out with a straight face "-- it seems I should take the chance to meet ponies wherever I go." The next thought was closer to being sincere. "At some point, we should all take the full tour... but for now, we can stay. And --" this was beyond sincere and heading, with unstoppable force, directly towards the wild pronking gait more appropriate to fanfilly "-- I would love to take a night and talk about magic with you --"

The breeze came back up, carried a bit of soot and smoke residue into her nose while lifting an entire locale's worth of reality and crashing it into her brain.

Oh. Abashed, "-- but you have so many other things to do..."

He shook his head. "Most of my clients come to me, Princess -- and unless I hear of an emergency, I'm not scheduled to travel again for a couple of weeks. I've already asked my young friend here if he'll host me until I have a place of my own again, and he's consented."

Young friend here? Now there was a major category to narrow down. Young friend where?

"I will have the time to talk about magic with Equestria's most talented caster, although --" another twinkle "-- I'm genuinely not certain what I could possibly teach you. Actually -- given the amount of space he has available, he might be able to host you as well. Not that I mean to volunteer on your behalf, Quiet, but -- would you think about it?"

"I already have, Doctor. I would be honored."

Twilight jumped. Not very high or far: a full-body start which echoed from hooves to tail and wings (which didn't seem to know what to do with it), two inches or so in a series of traveling stages. But jump she did, and more than a few other ponies copied the action.

There was a young adult unicorn stallion present, a full body length or so away from the doctor's back left. She hadn't noticed him until he'd spoken. Not as a full presence, not as part of the background -- at all. But he was there, must have always been there: no tang of teleportation in the air, no feel of magic at all. He had just escaped her notice so completely as to not effectively exist, lost in the shadow of the legend's presence.

He was -- grey. The single most grey pony Twilight had ever seen. Hues of grey, yes, fine gradients: his coat one shade, his mane and tail yet another (with what seemed to be fine grey stripes running through that last) and eyes still one more. Small for a full-grown stallion, a little smaller than her, and she'd always thought of herself as being slightly built for a mare. Thin legs, a narrow body, breathing steady but with that seeming to require conscious attention on his part, as if he had to be sure the next one was coming. And the cutie mark was --

-- was...

...it was. Twilight was sure of that. She could make out its presence in the proper location. But it too was grey, and that made it difficult to identify the exact shape. If she just had some more time to look, time where it didn't seem to any spectators as if she was staring...

"Thank you, Quiet," Doctor Gentle said. "Truly and again. Now don't feel the need to follow or wait for me -- there are many ponies waiting their turn, and at some point --" sadly "-- I will be asked to inspect the remains. I can see the investigators waiting from here. And I refuse to believe in arson, so I am truly curious as to what they have to say..."

He kindly disengaged from Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie, then limped away, giving Twilight a closer look at the injured leg. Medicine wasn't really in her knowledge comfort zone, but she had seen enough of her former fellow students suffering from backlash aftermath to identify a truly bad muscle pull. It would heal, but the process would not be quick, and very little could be done to hurry it.

The new stallion (had he just arrived while they were talking? Had she overlooked him that completely?) bowed briefly, straightened and smiled at her. "So," he began, sounding more than a little bemused himself. "I want to make sure I have this right -- greetings and welcome to Trotter's Falls for all the Element-Bearers, Defenders Of Harmony, Exemplars Of The Six Pony Virtues, Saviors Of The Land." (Three Celests overhead, Rainbow Dash briefly felt better than she had in two days.) "And a most particular welcome to -- I'd better have this right or it's my head, isn't it? -- The Fair Princess Twilight Sparkle Of House Twinkle, Our Lady Of The Dusk And Dawn, Incarnate Of The Future, And Most Gracious Blessing Of Hope Upon The Land And Sky. Now if you'll all follow me, I will do my best to trust Doctor Gentle will have a sufficient number of stallion-sitters without my being there, and I see six mares -- and a dragon? Truly? -- in need of a good meal and a hot bath. Not necessarily in that order." (Rarity moaned. Just a little.) "So -- this way to the castle, if you're quite ready for either or both..."

The group began to shift forward. Except for Twilight, who had been paying close attention to the light humor which had underlaid her greeting. "A moment first, please." They all stopped. "I didn't get your full name, sir."

"Quiet -- Quiet Presence. And it's hardly a 'sir' --"

"-- and -- you have a castle?"

"Well -- yes. It's inherited, but..."

"Then you must have a title."

A blink. A quick, embarrassed gaze directed towards the crowd (which was pretty much all following the doctor towards the shield border -- and then had to stop as the spell parted to allow him and only him through), then at the ground. His left front hoof scraped a shallow trench into the sooty dirt. "Well... yes, but..."

Teasing, "Then -- shall we hear it?"

He looked around again, visibly seeking escape. And there were plenty of directions to run in, endless amounts of wild zone in which to hide -- but absolutely nowhere that the question would not find him. Reluctantly, "His Most Gracious Lord Quiet Presence, Heir To The House Of Deluge, Bearer Of The Standard, Light Of The Storm's Passing, And Holder Of The Sacred Leg Rings Of Trotter's Falls." (Applejack bit back a giggle.)

"And how do you feel when somepony addresses you that way?"

Without a moment of hesitation, "By the time they finish all that? Bored. -- all right, I get your point. Just Princess Twilight, then?"

She grinned. "Just Twilight, actually."

He nodded. "Twilight." And led the way.


[/hr]

Take a few minutes and have a good look around Trotter's Falls. You're going to be spending quite a bit of time here, so getting the feel of the land -- but not necessarily the feel -- might help you out a little in the future.

Start from overhead as we leave the doctor's estate, where an increasingly-frustrated Rainbow Dash is openly wondering how under the Sun and Moon Daring Do ever manages to do any kind of flying whatsoever and still keep her hat on. (The answer: her author said so, which is not something Dash is about to consider just yet.) You're going to be moving ahead here -- it'll take a while to walk and overfly the long road which leads to the main town.

If you moved above the trees and went a good distance to the east, right up against the town's borders (and close to where Quiet Presence lives), you would find the falls in question: a nine-Celest white foaming drop into a pond full of the clearest, coldest, and best-tasting water most ponies have ever had -- which then exits via a river, forming the eastern border of the original settlement, established a little over six centuries ago. (The anniversary? Just missed it. It was a major celebration: sorry you couldn't be there.) It's about three days' gallop west of Baltimare, which also means we're that far from the coast and giving somepony other than Applejack a theoretical chance to see the ocean.

Should you be expecting another Ponyville -- don't. There are differences. Some of them are immediately visible.

For starters, it's more spread out. The town itself exists in a carefully-hollowed clearing within the forest, and that clearing was made by tearing out trees as each new resident decided they had a need for space. The shopping district is tightly clustered, but that's six streets at the center of the community, and they're not long ones. Residences tend to have quite a bit of space between them. Empty space. There is nothing between homes, but if the occupants have anything to say in the matter, there's going to be a lot of it. Fences aren't common, but borders are everywhere. Most of them exist in the minds of the inhabitants, and the majority are uncrossable.

Look at the buildings for a moment. They're elaborate -- almost too much so. Painting is done with an eye towards the artistic appreciation of the passerby, along with how much attention might be grabbed away from a neighbor. Architectural flourishes breed when you're not looking and raise little columns in the shadows of partially-enclosed porches. There is no exterior surface which cannot have one last touch of texture, hue, angle, or curve tinkered with in order to create a more perfect distraction. Styles have been borrowed from everywhere in the world. Streets tend to stick to a single region, at least until one neighbor goes for a total redesign and winds up either leading the pack or kicking off the first angry fight. There is the distinct sense that this is a community which can not only spell and define 'crenelations', but is carefully watching to see if you get it wrong.

Back to the shopping district. There's a word you're going to want here, and you're going to be wanting it in large quantities: 'imported'. Virtually everything for sale in Trotter's Falls has been brought here from somewhere else, and the distances cross all of Equestria and sometimes go beyond. It's a point of pride for the town that they not only had artwork from the Empire in the windows at nearly the same time Canterlot did, but managed to charge a little more for it. (Several enterprising residents want to have a home in that fashion, but -- well, eventually, the material costs do add up.) A few things are homemade -- note the craft shop over on Suffolk Downs, next to the bar -- but those tend to be minor artisan productions, locals with time on their hooves and some skills they like to demonstrate at no more than a minor loss. For the most part, the town practices the philosophy that intelligence begins at home, standards come from the heart, and a truly impressive purchase starts at least three days' gallop away in any direction. Prices are high here, starting at about eighty percent over what you'd expect to pay in Ponyville at the low end of the scale -- and that's just for the most basic items. (We'll come back to that.) Rarity has sent a few shipments in this direction, and will shortly be proud to see some of her finest creations with a place of prominence in the town's premiere garment shop, identified by designer and point of origin in large letters. She will also be shocked to see some of them commanding three times the bits she ever gets, and will be having a long talk with the shop's owner later. (It will turn out that as soon as she discontinued some of her older styles, the shop decided to market them as collector's items. It's not really working.)

There are several restaurants, all of which specialize in one kind of foreign cuisine each. The grass at one is a Saddle Arabian delicacy and at the bits you're paying for it, may have been carried in blade by blade.

Here's the town square. Note that for the most part, it's empty. There are no open-air vendors here -- after all, who would be caught buying from that kind of establishment? (Well, maybe if they'd traveled here all the way from the far coast...) You buy high-end in Trotter's Falls or you move to an area you can afford. The town square is used for concerts in the spring and summer around the gazebo (once per moon, classical music until the last waltzer drops), public meetings when the mayor calls them (very rare), and hanging around the fountain. It's a very nice fountain, and twin sprays of water emerge from Luna and Celestia's horns. This was the first town in Equestria to have a fountain honoring both sisters once the Return was known, and it's another point of local pride.

There's a government district of a sort -- three whole buildings: a courthouse, a town hall, and a final structure which contains what little exists of the police department and that portion of the local fire squad which is based in the town itself. The crenelations on that last are particularly impressive.

One major bakery -- and 'major' is the right word. A few places to buy non-prepared food: most specialize, one goes for generalities and prices them based on how far they had to travel before getting here. And this is where the budget takes the repeated hits, because the food still starts at that 'eighty percent over Ponyville' mark and goes up from there. If you can afford to eat the basics in Trotter's Falls, you can live like something very close to royalty in most of Equestria's other cities, and if you're eating like a Princess here (the bakery is proud to send Celestia four cakes a year) without holding the actual status, then you are not and never have been worried about where your next bit is coming from. You might think this place would send Fluttershy into bankrupt despair within two days, but you wouldn't believe what the local pet groomer is getting away with.

That's some of what there is -- what you can see at first glance, anyway. But what there isn't may be just as important.

The large stretches of land between homes are decorated with ornamental rocks, small fountains, the occasional koi pond, and frequent eruptions of lawn sculpture. Nothing else. And they rise from paved surfaces, or pebble beds, or even brick for those following the second most-recent trend.

The streets are paved with small flat cobblestones, presenting a fairly smooth surface that's relatively friendly to hooves while covering up the fact that there's nothing but dirt underneath. And that's all there ever was.

There are no local flowers which haven't come from the wild zone, and even those are scant and short-lived. (The flower shop charges at 400% over margin.)

There are a few surviving trees here and there, but it's mostly just the same pines found in the surrounding wild zone. None of them bear fruit.

The homes have color -- lots of it. The stores import still more. The town gets downright festive when it has something to celebrate, and the Sun brings all those hues to life in the same way it does for all of Equestria.

But look away from that --

-- and there is brown, and grey, and black, and the red of those bricks, and pine-needle green, and all the sparkle-filled colors of the fields wielded by the majority of the town's residents. Throw in the variegated coat and mane colors of those residents, plus the occasional shine of a feather. And that's it.

Then again, why would you want to look away? Wouldn't you rather look at the latest addition to that building, or that one over there, and isn't that latest sculpture just magnificent? Pay attention to the things the town considers important: surely they know what they're doing. They have for just over six centuries and truly, it was a spectacular celebration. They had so very much to celebrate in their beautiful town -- and it is a beautiful town, really. Everypony says so. Everypony who lives here. Any other opinion is, well -- imported. And those the residents can have for free -- so they frequently won't take them.

Welcome to Trotter's Falls.

You do feel welcome -- don't you?


[/hr]

The news of their arrival had spread quickly, although it took third place in the local unprinted headlines behind Doctor Gentle Returns Mostly Unhurt and Princess Bows Down To Local: Everypony Deeply Honored. (Twilight had unknowingly made a huge number of, if not new friends, then deeply respectful acquaintances with her instinctive response.) But they were still one of the local stories, and a traveling one -- which meant Rainbow Dash and Spike were spending quite a bit of their time maintaining the integrity of the newly-reestablished Royal Bubble. More than a few locals wanted to get a look at the Princess. Or get a word in. Several words. Complete speeches, which were all the more amazing for being totally spontaneous. And all Twilight wanted to do was get to a bath. Rarity might have been the one with the most sheer desire, but Twilight had been thrown into trees -- twice -- and landed in dirt -- same -- plus there had been a ravine and scrapes against bark and the sheer aftertaste of that horrible grass was still in her mouth. She tried to make it clear that she wouldn't mind talking to everypony later (or at least to create that illusion), but she was feeling dirty and really needed a good meal, so did her friends, and if they would just let this kind stallion get them to the bath, maybe later...

Quiet Presence was the one who finally put an end to it. "-- and once the Princess settles in and gets a day or two to recover from her time in the wilderness, there will be a party!" (Pinkie immediately perked up.) "But until then, can we put a good face on our town by being the first ponies not to bombard her every three seconds? After all, I'm sure that's what they've been doing in Canterlot..."

And somehow, that dropped things down to a level the others could deal with. All except for Applejack, who couldn't shake the feeling that everypony was -- looking at her. Perhaps because so many of them were.

"Ah don't mean t' pry," she cautiously began, "but -- what happened t' yer town? There's so little -- of anythin'..."

Quiet turned slightly to face her, sighed a little. "We're a unicorn town, I'm sorry to say," he told Applejack. "And when I say 'unicorn town', I mean ninety percent of the population: the rest is pegasi. There are earth pony settlements in the desert right now with hardly a horn or pair of wings to be found, yes? Because they're establishing the Cornucopia Effect. In our case, we're the reverse. So the local vegetation takes over -- and for us, that means some impressively foul grass, a few berries for the whole six weeks of their season, and a small natural apple orchard some distance from town, which everypony raids for sport and pretends they don't. It's in the wild zone, Miss Applejack -- healthy and thriving, but untended. And as far as native food goes? That is it." Another sigh. "You would be amazed by what the local stores get away with -- no, perhaps you wouldn't. But without a permanent presence from your people, we are stuck bringing in virtually everything, at least until ponies learn to eat fish."

"Wait -- no earth ponies? None at'tall?" Applejack's tail swished for a few seconds before she got it under control.

"Well -- none who live here. A few members of the fire department are earth ponies, but it's a joint effort with another town and the local pegasi neighborhood -- they bring them in when they're needed. And of course we have them coming and going all the time, bringing food in and getting what I believe are remarkably good prices for it -- which the merchants then mark up still more. But -- this was originally a unicorn settlement. And through time and tide, it's remained so. You're from Ponyville, yes? When did your home fully integrate? And I mean beyond a token family or four."

Applejack briefly paused in her step, gave it some visible thought. "'bout -- forty years ago."

"And I'm willing to bet unicorns were the last in, correct?" She reluctantly nodded. Quiet Presence sighed again. "Believe me, I'd welcome some earth ponies around here. I'd like to have a garden which grew something other than fish -- it's called a koi pond, Miss Applejack: I'll show it to you later. But we're isolated here. Unicorns carved this hollow out of the forest, pegasi came to establish the courier routes -- and your people went to where there weren't so much clearing of the land needed. It's only in the last two centuries that you could take ten steps in this town without hitting a leftover stump. But with so much work to get started -- we'd need a huge influx. And this place is expensive, which makes it hard for large groups to get established -- and then there's the clearing I mentioned -- there was another major attempt two generations ago, but it met the same result as all the others: faded out, and took the Effect with it." Sadly, "My grandmother still talks about the flowers..." Looking directly at Applejack, "Earth ponies establish a town, and in time, the unicorns come. Unicorns set up a place, and in time, the earth ponies come -- except here." He switched to Fluttershy. "And pegasi establish a place -- but everypony else takes one step onto their main street and drops five hundred feet straight down. Sometimes, living together takes quite a bit of work."

The yellow pegasus seemed surprised to be addressed, and needed a few seconds to get an answer going. "...I live on ground level -- it's just easier for everypony. Easier for me... and my friends..."

He smiled. "It's a rare feeling -- wanting to make things easier."

Rarity went along with that. "Not as common as it could be, certainly -- Luna's tail, I have never charged that much for one of my creations in my life! How are they getting away with that? How -- oh. My apologies." She pried her front hooves away from the shop window and dropped back to a standing position, tried to pretend there weren't any spectators staring at her. "I think I will need to have a talk with the proprietor. I already know the subject."

(Unseen by the rest of the group, Applejack and Pinkie Pie were staring at each other. There was a contest in progress to see which was the more worried. Applejack was running away with the title by eight lengths.)

The small stallion laughed at that. "My wife has two of your dresses, Miss Rarity -- both purchased here. Are you suggesting I should order direct?"

"Quite, and thank you so much for honoring me with your taste --" She stopped. "-- you're married? But you're so -- young!" Her eyes were already beginning to widen with anticipation: there was little Rarity enjoyed so much as a story of True Love, especially if it had been Forbidden at any point and a little bit of Star-Crossed did anything but hurt. "You're our age at best! How did you come to be wed already? Was there --" her voice dropped "-- a tale involved?"

"Not much of one," Quiet replied. (Rarity pouted. Meanwhile, Applejack pulled ahead by two extra lengths.) "But yes -- married. Not quite a year yet. We do things a little differently out here, Miss Rarity -- my status isn't unusual. But --" back to Applejack "-- once the Doctor's searchers clear out and the delivery ponies head home -- well, there's a good chance you and Miss Pie will be the only earth ponies in town overnight. And if you had a mind to, you might be able to rent yourselves out for truly astronomical amounts of bits to those who don't understand how the Effect truly works and haven't been taken by traveling con artists before -- the ones who promise a full garden in a week or your bits back, walk around the property twice and move on the next home before vanishing three days later..." A small, shy smile. "I'd be the first giving you money -- but unfortunately, I read."

Applejack and Pinkie Pie managed smiles of their own. But that was all.

(The Cornucopia Effect is what unicorns and pegasi recognize as earth pony magic. Put simply: where earth ponies start to work the land -- bringing in their own seeds, as they do not create from absolutely nothing -- the land will begin to respond. And it will frequently respond whether or not the environment says it should. As long as the pegasi keep a degree of moisture coming every so often, a group of determined earth ponies can get an apple orchard going in the desert. There's some limits to this -- tropical fruit in a tundra at least requires a lot of constant fires going in the area -- but to a large degree, anything at least has the potential to grow anywhere. And the Effect doesn't stay strictly within the land being worked. Get enough earth ponies together and the radius of soil fertility will begin to gradually spread out beyond their immediate territory. It's slow to take hold and there's an absolute limit to how far it can go based in the total number of earth ponies in an area -- but it will spread. An area with a significant earth pony population in place will have the resident unicorns and pegasi finding they're able to maintain small gardens and cultivate a few vegetables of their own. But should the earth ponies leave, the Effect will fade -- quickly. It can take a generation to get a town the size of Ponyville covered with background abundance -- and if every earth pony there happened to simultaneously depart, the place would become a wild zone within two years, leaving the locals stuck with whatever the land would provide on its own. Ponyville could survive for a while that way. Other areas -- can't. Pegasi and unicorn histories alike include major raiding periods, and some have tried -- other solutions.)

The unicorn male managed a light shrug as he walked: the movement seemed to pain him somewhat, and he took a deep breath before continuing. "Frankly, that would have been the only silver lining to having Doctor Gentle go missing. Enough time for more of his to arrive from distant corners of Equestria, and we could have had an actual population of sorts going. But I'll make that sacrifice to have him back."

"You're one of his, aren't you?" Twilight asked.

Quiet nodded. "One of the earliest -- about six moons after Miss Fluttershy."

"Do you know what happened to him?" Softly, "And -- if anypony else survived the fire?"

He blinked. "Anypony -- else? The doctor lives alone, Twilight." Permission to go with an informal address for her hadn't removed the automatic 'Miss' from the others -- along with a calm 'gentledragon' for Spike. "There would have been nopony else to save."

"Oh!" Genuine surprise. "It's just that -- the home was so large... I thought there had to be a lot of ponies living there -- family, servants..."

That got a smile -- but it was a sad one. "Doctor Gentle has his, and that gives him what might be the largest family in Equestria -- but in the sense of blood alone, he has no family of his own. And servants have simply never been part of his lifestyle. Frequent visitors, and some stay for a time, yes. But on the whole -- he lives alone. I know he had no guests that night."

"So you know what happened?"

Another nod. "To him, at least. But it's his story to tell -- and frankly, not a particularly exciting one. Tonight over dinner, perhaps. Now -- accommodations. I'm afraid 'castle' is a bit of an overstatement, at least for somepony who lived with the Princess --"

"-- I didn't," Twilight quickly said. "Not the way most ponies think. I took lessons from her and spent some weekends at the palace, but most of my school time was in the dorms."

"Oh... well, misconception corrected. It's comforting to fix that hole in Coordinator's story, actually... but still, I have some space. With Doctor Gentle staying with me, it's enough formal guest rooms for perhaps four more -- or five, gentledragon. But I also have a guest cottage near the edge of my property. Again, not very large -- two or three more could stay there. But it's the only thing I can offer without asking some of you to sleep on piled blankets on the floor, and I know the hotel has been packing eight or more to a room since this began. If you don't mind splitting up...?" He turned around, checked the group as they exited the shopping district, started through a residential neighborhood which was far too much in love with Trottingham building styles.

"I'm okay with a basket and blankets," Spike assured the unicorn. "I'm not sure I'd know what to do with a bed." (Although his expression suggested he wouldn't have minded finding out. Also possibly that Twilight's mattress wasn't as safe during her travels as she might have thought.)

"Umm..." Rainbow Dash uncertainly began. "I don't like sleeping on -- floors..."

Pinkie Pie shrugged. "It's just a sleepover, Dash! And you sleep on branches, clouds, roofs, hay wagons, moving carts, apple piles, the Crusaders' catapult, some of the market tents, Twilight's porch --"

"But this is a -- floor."

"Wait," came from a suspicious Applejack. "Let's get back t' the catapult. Catapult?"

Rainbow Dash instinctively began flying a little higher. More out of lasso range. "It's not finished or anything -- they've only really got the scoop done, and it's pretty good for curling up in..."

"An' what the hey are they makin' a catapult for? Cutie Mark Crusaders Siege Engine Warfare Experts, yay? Celestia's mane, Dash, who gave 'em that stupid idea? 'cause Ah know they ain't thinkin' of that one on their own. They would have had t' get it from somepony else an' Twilight, Ah see you tryin' t' get ahead there! Ah begged you t' tear up their library privileges! Why can't y'jus' let 'em come up with disasters they can think of instead of ones somepony else already wrecked stuff with? It's bad enough that y'let 'em get away with that love poison book, but now yer lettin' 'em go for weapons?"

Twilight was doing a credible Fluttershy. "...but... they said it was for a history report..."

"They lied! Or -- it was Scootaloo who got it, wasn't it? Oh, the next time Ah see that filly..."

...and Quiet Presence was laughing. Hard, ribs heaving, gasping for breath to the point where he seemed to be in real trouble --

-- and then he was. An intense coughing fit took over, grabbed him in its vise, would not let go.

Fluttershy immediately swooped in, tapped her hooves there and there along the stallion's thin chest.

The coughing eased. Quiet started hard, as if surprised it had passed so quickly -- then saw the pegasus. "Thank you." Calmly, "It's usually much worse than that -- and would have been without you."

"...it's all right... it wasn't anything, really... does that happen a lot?"

"Enough. And no -- before you ask, there's nothing you can do. But -- thank you again, because I know you were about to. And please, no pony apologize -- not for making me laugh, not ever. Fillies looking for their cutie marks, isn't it?" (Twilight tried to make out his again, failed.) "And I'm guessing at least one of them is a sister." A small chuckle: no coughing. "Cherish it, Miss Applejack. It may be chaos -- and for some reason, catapults -- but at least you have that chaos, and the weary happiness that will come on the day they find what they're looking for. They'll live through it. They always seem to. It's just everypony else who suffers... at least until enough time passes to make it a story. And the stories will come -- and you'll love telling every one, especially to her fillies and colts. In time."

Which finally got a real smile from Applejack. "Voice of experience, Mr. Presence?"

A small head shake. "Voice of hope." And before anypony else could speak, he pointed a thin leg down the road. "We're not that far out -- you might want to talk about who's sleeping where before we get there. I promise, the cottage is comfortable and warm. I just want Doctor Gentle in the main residence so I can keep an eye on him. No matter what he says, I don't like the look of that leg..."

He continued to lead the way while the Element-Bearers sorted it out -- a process which didn't take long, as Applejack practically demanded the cottage -- "Me? In a castle? Canterlot, okay, that's the Princess, but..." and verbally dragged a protesting -- just short of kicking and screaming without actually doing either -- Pinkie Pie in with her. "An' you with castle kitchens? Naw, yer better off where Ah can keep an' eye on you, instead of lettin' y'have the run of their pantries an' samplin' every last dish by eatin' every last dish..."

"I don't like splitting up," Rainbow Dash insisted. "If somepony's just willing to take the -- floor..."

"It's jus' a cottage. Y'can come out any time. Or y'could sleep on the floor in there."

"Umm... the castle's fine..."

"Sure y'don't want t' try the branches over the cottage, if we've got any? Or don't y'have any pillows hidden out this far?"

And Equestria's least believable protest in two moons rang across the land: "What pillows?"


[/hr]

They had walked him through the ruin of what had once been his home.

It had been like moving through a mirage. If he tried not to see -- if he let himself peer at past instead of present...

That part was easy. Here: he was moving through his waiting room, where years of fathers and Second Mothers had paced back and forth for endless circuits in the well-established floor groove and complained about the lack of room when what they were really complaining about was their lack of ability to influence the situation. Complaining because pacing and worry were all they could truly do.

Here: the birthing room. Not all of his came here, of course: he always traveled where he was needed and, as with Pinkie, found himself making a few unexpected stops along the way. (He had been surprised to see her and Fluttershy -- and happy. He was so proud of both.) But the majority had their first view of the world here. Endless hours spent decorating to make sure that initial view was a pleasant one.

This space: a study.

This one: the secondary research room.

He moved around where his bed had once been.

But stop trying to see what had been, even for a moment...

...soot. Ash. Remnants. Final bits crunching into smaller pieces under his hooves. A little trail where one leg was still dragging.

Nothing left.

It hurt less than he had expected it to. There were other things on his mind.

And then they showed him the reason the investigator had put the shield up --

-- and he laughed.

"We couldn't break it," the surprised arson investigator said, a sturdy unicorn mare with the slightly unfortunate name of Surefire. "And we tried. I've never seen this kind of shield, sir -- never in my years of visiting sites -- like this one." Which was followed by her third hasty "I'm sorry for your loss," of the short walk. "Not one that was so completely heatproof. We closed the area off to keep other ponies away from it -- guard what little you had left -- and I am so sorry for your loss -- but we couldn't get in, and -- from what I can tell, the fire started right outside this. But everything within looks completely untouched... We couldn't find any magical indications of a fire, or any other signs of an arsonist. But because this is here, and the fire started nearby -- some of us thought there was an attempt to destroy this which failed. And that you cast the shield. But we'd thought you'd been here at the time, and now... well, we'd appreciate an explanation, sir."

He chuckled, smiled at her. "No -- no, you wouldn't have seen anything like this. And I hadn't either. What you're seeing is the result of a purchase I made decades ago. A traveling unicorn salespony who swore he had a security device which would protect my valuables from harm. He was very persuasive, especially for a pony who also swore he couldn't demonstrate it because it took an actual disaster to set off the spell stored within. I finally risked a few bits just as thanks for the pleasure of his fast-talking company. Well, this makes me wonder what became of him... and if I should have invested in his product..."

"It certainly works," one of the pegasi said with awe. "I'd buy three..."

"Yes, it certainly works," he said. "And it will continue to work, because I have no idea how to take it down. There was a command word I had to say and a manual which had it written within -- but that was so many years ago, and the manual is -- part of the ash. I will try to remember, and perhaps call for friends who know how this kind of spell might operate. But for now -- it's doing the job it was meant to do. It has protected --" more softly "-- that which is precious to me." A sigh. "If I had to lose everything else -- at least this is still here."

The oldest of the fire squad -- a local, one of his own generation -- gave him a slow, sad nod. "One blessing, Doctor. Yes -- at least it's this. I never knew you kept --" and stopped himself.

"I couldn't throw them away," he sadly answered, "and I couldn't look at them any more either. No -- this was best. And here they still are... I have a favor to ask." They waited. "Please, if you would -- key your own shield to me and leave it up? It should hold for a while yet. I know no pony would steal this, but -- even if I can remember how to get in and out, I don't want everypony to see. Your shield will give them doubled protection until I get through this one and move them to a fresh safety. It's just that -- it's all that's left..." He let the silence speak for him before continuing with "As for the fire starting near here... I wish I knew. I don't think the spell discharged itself by accident and created heat along the border: no shield works that way, and you said there were no signs of arson... Perhaps it just held all the heat there was outside it and made things that much worse in its vicinity. A small price..."

"I still wish I could find a cause," Surefire said. "I understand what you mean, but..." A quick, sharp shake of her head: her short mane vibrated. "It's not arson, it's not magical discharge from the shield because I would have found that, and it's not chemical or lightning. I don't know what this was. Spontaneous combustion is a myth -- or I thought it was until now. We'll keep looking for a while longer, but... this may go unsolved, sir. I'm so sorry..."

He raised his right front hoof. "Not your fault. Sometimes things just -- happen."

A reluctant nod. She would continue to search, he knew -- and in time, she would give up. "I'll key the shield to you, sir. It won't last more than another week unless I drop by to reinforce it -- but I might be able to come down if you need me. In the meantime, you'll be able to pass through casually. I just hope you have your answer by then."

He looked at the golden shield. Stared at the things within.

"So do I," he told her. "So do I..."

Craquelure

View Online

The past is frozen.

It cannot be changed. Nothing he can do will take back a single second of what was, and that alone is cause for hate. But ultimately, there are so many reasons for past to be his least favorite -- and high among them is the clarity of memory. He does not remember everything. He will not. But for what he does choose to remember -- it is too clear. He remembers things at an intensity just a single nerve below having it all happen to him again. Phantom pains are just that -- barely. And there are things which threaten to remove that last barrier, send him far too close to going through it all a second time. Past can be a horror, containing more than a millennium’s worth of --

-- nothing.

And that was not the worst of it.

The past is frozen. And in the past, that which he thinks of now (against his will), so was -- is -- he.

He cannot move.

He cannot change. Not himself, not anything else.

He can still sense -- somewhat. He can feel the world around him. Sight and hearing -- if he strains, concentrates nearly everything he has left in a single effort, he will sometimes get a picture of events taking place at a distance. It is almost all he does, when he can spare the strength. Raging against his prison, pounding his will against the encroaching calcification, hunting for any weakness -- that occupies much of his endless time. Hate takes up most of the rest. Despair... not that he will admit to, not even to himself. And survival -- simply trying to reach the next second, swim across a single droplet of forever's ocean without giving up and letting the stability have his core... there are days, moons, years when that is all he does. All he can do.

Before this was done to him -- so long ago, memories he tries to cling to, something to give him hope for any future -- he had his fun. He did so many things, and at this point in his existence, he still considers every last one of them to have been worthwhile amusement. He was amused: the opinions of everyone else involved do not count. And should he ever get free, he will do all of it again with no regrets or cares for the consequences -- but with two differences. The first is that he has been forming a plan -- an actual plan! -- to avoid being caught a second time. It surprised him when he began to work on it and still continues to as it's refined step by laborious step, the very concept of advance strategy almost anathema to his very being -- but he has so little else to do. And it touches on a secret he has yet to discover: that within the purest chaos always lies a touch of natural order.

The second: he will never trap any entity in stone. Change, distort, twisting of minds and things much worse, things he has been planning -- but not stone. Centuries aware while the world changes and he cannot do the same... no. He will not inflict that on anyone, ever. He has developed a standard. There are some things too cruel for any entity and that, amazingly, includes those who did this to him. If he does not do the same to them, then he is their moral superior, or so he tells himself -- and so much time spent saying it has rendered it locally true. No stone, no calcification, nothing that leaves any other entity frozen. That is his vow and he will keep it until all the possibilities have come true.

(It is, in a way, the beginning of empathy. He does not know that. He would have been horrified.)

He is also planning a vicious campaign of extinction against the cockatrice. One at a time, with each being ended in a completely original way.

But when he is not doing all of that, he is frequently trying to sense, get some idea of what's going on outside, take what little comfort he can from the natural chaos of life, even as the surviving Princess tries to enforce her brand of hated order on it. He needs to know that things still can change. And --

-- he needs to be aware of his environment.

He has to know what's coming.

Just lately (how much time? How much time...), there has been something -- new. And he would have thought that anything new would be automatically welcome, any sensation beyond the endless battle to keep the calcification from reaching his heart and rendering him into a perfect example of order. Where there is perfect order, tomorrow is exactly like today. Exactly. There is no change. There is no possibility of difference. There is only tomorrow, which is today, which was yesterday, and nothing distinguishes them. A future the same as the past. Forever. And a statue sitting in a garden which no longer has knowledge of having once been something more.

That is his terror (although he would never admit it, and there is no one he could admit it to anyway, no means to speak). That is what he struggles against second by eternal second. At this point in his existence, it is the one thing he is truly afraid of --

-- or it was.

Something -- new -- has entered his fears. Something -- recent. Something he tries to keep his senses out for, something he needs to know is coming.

It is change, yes. But...

...and it is coming. Now.

He can feel it. There has never been difficulty in finding his own, not even like this.

It is -- day outside? No, night: he lost time while he tried to focus. Sunset leading into the shadows which the survivor has claimed. So much time and she still isn't completely expert at it. He remembers the half-sense of the lost (displaced, submerged, buried, screaming to get out, trapped in a different kind of stone) one's efforts and she was frankly the superior, had the common sense to at least let the sky's endless variety and change shine through. This one is a forger trying to recreate a lost masterpiece from memory. Casual viewers can't pick up the little touches which show an inferior product. He has had the time to become an expert on her flaws and came to appreciate the casual artistry of the one who was lost. Not on his level, of course, but -- at least she made an effort...

...he is trying not to think about what's coming. He knows that.

This -- could be the last. Any of them could be the last. And it happens again, and again, and again -- unless it reaches the point where it can happen no more. He has so little left, just barely enough to fight and keep the core of himself free, but this...

It's getting closer.

He can sense it. Feel the movement.

...he could --

-- give up.

Let go. Let the calcification have him. There would be nothing left to resist. There would be nothing left at all. It would be a way to defeat this other, stop it from happening because there would be no reason for it to happen. Victory by -- suicide.

...no. He will not. There has to be enough of him left to fight, to stop this if nothing else. If he truly tries this time, gives all his attention and strength to a single effort, if he can only --

-- change...

He is frozen. He cannot move. He cannot change. He is too late.

It has begun.

He tries to fight. He has been trying for -- how long has this been going on? How many times now? Dozens, at least that, could be over a hundred at this point in past. He would know if he thought about it, but he cannot think, not for more than a few seconds before even his thoughts are ripped away from him, torn and shredded into the chaos which is the essence of sentience, pulled out along with the bare scraps of strength he still has for his own, the power which lets him keep that core intact, pulled away and out, never to return. And it goes on and on until the eternal seconds become centuries, millennia, the unbearable time before there was time to keep, until he has been this way forever and there has never been anything different, his entire existence spent as a single atom feeling the electrons being torn from their shells and waiting for the nucleus to shatter. An atom which cannot scream.

It is more than theft. It is violation, reaching all the way to the core he has been so desperate to protect. It takes some of the last strength he has, the energy which allows him to still exist. And every time it happens, he waits for it to become complete. For the final dream of freedom to be rendered into its component energies and pulled away from him like everything else. For the calcification to reach his agonized thoughts and leave behind a perfect statue in a perfect garden, forever.

But -- it never goes that far. Or at least, it hasn't up until now (then). He will be left with just enough to hang on, and in time, his strength will rebuild as much as it can within this prison, bring him back to the state where he can struggle, try to sense and -- dread. Dread the next coming, the thing he cannot stop, that which his original surviving tormentor knows nothing of and in these moments of violation, of rape, he thinks that he would tell her if he could, surely she would stop this, never meant for this to happen, not -- not even to him. But then those thoughts are shredded along with the rest, and he will remember nothing of them until they come again. And they only come when it happens. And it happens again and again and again.

He can feel the calcification moving deeper. Feel what may be the next-to-last pieces of himself going away. And he screams within his prison, screams what he always screams and will continue to scream for years to come, always unheard. For to speak is to potentially change those who hear you, and that was taken from him long ago.

You're killing me!

And then even that is pulled away.


[/hr]

When each of the pony races construct buildings on their own, with no help from the other two...

Pegasus structures tend to be elaborate. After all, the building material is free, plentiful, and can be replaced with virtually no effort. Want a mansion? It's a few hours of extra work, mostly spent in the molding and application of those special touches which make the vapor resistant to future change from anypony except the owner. (Another pegasus can't casually break up somepony's home the way they do other clouds: taking apart an actual structure requires the same amount of demolition effort as it would take for the truly solid buildings on the ground. It's a simple and practical measure for a race which used to spend a lot of time planning siege warfare against everypony else -- and each other.) Even the laziest among them will typically wind up with something of multiple stories featuring vaulting curves and prismatic fountains. Why not spread out? It's not as if anypony charges rent for the sky, and one of the rudest shocks for those who emigrate to the ground is the concept of land ownership and everything that comes with it -- something which has sent a few flying back up, vowing never to return.

Earth ponies, who know all about land ownership (or as they generally think of it, long-term rental with no option to truly possess), are of necessity more practical. Their buildings take longer to construct (although some have rendered barn raising into a two-hour art form) and require much more effort. This sends some of them into practical streaks: you only put together what you're going to need because every nail is going to be hammered in by the tool in your own mouth and you will feel the vibrations in your skull for hours, so it had better be worth it. (Steel shoes for hoof-hammering exist and are used, but never completely came into fashion for those who follow the oldest traditions.) It doesn't mean furnishings tend to be spartan -- just that the structures containing them are typically more basic. If an earth pony goes for a major spin around the world of architecture on their own, it represents an incredible dedication to the final result. Blood, sweat, tears, musclepower, some very complex pulley systems, and a whole lot of headache to create what's yours. Other earth ponies look at such buildings with respect: the builder thought the result was worth it, and they will appreciate the effort -- if not necessarily the art.

Unicorns generally don't like to admit it, but the average strength of a typical field can't move anywhere near as much mass as an earth pony can haul. Oh, they can use earth pony techniques (but not pegasi ones) if they want to and some will supplement their field manipulations with more than a touch of old-fashioned horsepower, but there are always elitists who refuse to get their mouths dirty. For them, it's a magic-channeled build or nothing -- which, given the difficulty in combining strength, gives you a good portrait of the main builder's raw power. Thin wooden planks, small stones, normal bricks -- signs of an average field at work. Those with higher strength tend to -- show off. They won't necessarily go piling up the largest boulders in the area and calling the center hollow a living room, but there will be indications of power somewhere in the structure: heavy beams, major stone columns used as supports, with extreme cases displaying a single huge leveled-off rock turned into the base of the ground floor.

Twilight's first impression of Quiet Presence's castle was that the original builder had constructed a three-story shout of ego -- one which Rainbow Dash would have considered excessive. (And a short distance above her, the pegasus was doing exactly that.)

It was, as the small stallion had said, not particularly large -- for a castle. The entire thing would have fit nicely in the party-hosting center of the Royal Gardens without touching a single border plant, or could be dropped into Luna's favorite (and private) bath without doing more than flooding two neighboring castle wings. But it still had more than a little size to it: the ground floor rang in at roughly a hundred and twenty percent of the dimensions for the base of Doctor Gentle's former residence, and it kept that up without inward slant all the way to the roof -- plus a single conical tower at the back left, which had -- she squinted -- yes! A telescope! But at the base level -- slabs of stone. Thick field-carved planes of rock levitated into place and then forced against each other into natural bracing positions which kept the smaller boulders above them well-supported while simultaneously screaming Look What A Really Big Rock I Can Lift! Can You Match This? I Don't Think So! And By The Way, The Only Reason I Didn't Keep This Up All The Way To The Top Was Because Some Idiot In My Family Really Wanted Some Stupid Windows! Which meant that at second glance, it came across as a castle -- and at the first one, as something sitting on a giant stone pimple. A pimple which had fortifications.

She looked at Quiet. He blushed, a tinge of faint rose within the grey. "I did say it was inherited, right?"

Twilight fought back the giggle. "You mentioned, yes..."

"Oh. Good."

Placidly, "Middle Period Neoclassical Self-Importance, right?"

"Actually, I think he was going for Early Canterlot Look What A Strong Field I've Got. And I know -- it looks as if I should be able to host all of you and your extended families without having to move a single couch, but the problem is that my family's been living here for centuries. And they all added their own touches to the interior -- none of which I'm permitted to throw away because it would disrespect my ancestors, plus Celestia only knows when we're going to need an armory again. Generation after generation of pony shopaholic hoarders. I've kept the corridors clear, but the place is still about one-fourth living space and three-quarters museum." A tiny, fully resigned shrug. "And I swore I wouldn't make it worse for anypony else -- until I discovered I liked furniture."

"An' playgrounds," Applejack grinned. "Ah've never seen so many little rides an' sports fields in mah life -- an' they're all new." She nodded at the extensive array of equipment, roughly a third of which was being used by a wandering tumble of unicorn and pegasi younglings. "That's from you, Mr. Presence?"

He nodded. "Given that we're several hundred years past worrying about needing the space to repel invaders, I thought I could do something a little more practical with it. Since we really can't get a park going -- well, the Doctor entertains those of his who come by and I take everypony else."

The farmer chuckled. "Ah don't even want t' think 'bout how badly yer gonna spoil the first one of yer own..."

The unicorn stallion looked away from her, turned his attention to the children. Listened to their laughter. Wouldn't look at any of the adults. And all of the Elements found themselves bearing a single piece of knowledge.

Applejack's voice was soft. "Ah -- Ah didn't mean --"

The softest of sighs. "No, Miss Applejack -- you didn't, and you had no way of knowing, and you are not going to apologize for anything because there's no reason to. But your guess is correct. I -- have a weakness in my blood. It's the reason I'm a lone foal, and I will not chance passing it to the next generation. But -- there is hope. There is work being done on a cure, and some of it is starting to show promise. I brought children here so there would be fillies and colts laughing on my fields -- but my own may still join them someday. We're closer to that than ever before." He turned back to face her, smiled a little. "Voice of hope."

Solemn, "Ah wish you all the luck there is, Mr. Presence."

Gently, "I'll take it, Miss Applejack, along with your keeping of my semi-secret -- and that is a koi pond. Miss Pie? They will look out of the water to see you. It's really not going to help them if you keep your head dunked..."


[/hr]

It was surprisingly easy to settle in.

There weren't many guest rooms left in the castle. (Quiet showed them a few which had once held that status, now stocked with paintings, sculpture -- and yes, an armory, which included a selection of pegasi tail-mounted razorwhips. Twilight just barely restrained herself from a full immersion in the flow of history, especially after their host offhoofedly mentioned that the collection had never been cataloged.) But the ones which were left were elaborate, with fine old furniture, soft (if slightly musty) beds, and a large number of very old and still functional enchanted conveniences. Rainbow Dash was rather taken with the automatic bookmark, while Fluttershy stared (but didn't Stare) at the timed animal feeder. "...and it drops a new ration every eight hours? Without needing anypony to trigger it...? and it can add a cherry to the top? ...where could I find one? ...oh, but it's probably really expensive..."

"I have no pets," Quiet had told her. "And I need the space more than a conversation piece which has had one pegasus mention it in four centuries, plus I'm sure there must be one ancestor who isn't paying attention. Please take it with you when you go. In fact, if you want to mail it ahead, I'll give you the directions to the post office right now..."

Overall, the place was astonishingly homey, especially given the forbidding exterior at that ground level and the slightly chill-feeling stone which made up virtually all of the walls. The furnishings could be somewhat overbearing, and Rarity pulled Twilight aside to make a slightly unkind remark about somepony who surely wasn't their host, somepony who'd had the sheer lack of grace to bring in anything from the Vorpidi era and not use it as kindling on the spot... (Twilight had spent a good five minutes examining the offending hoofbath before realizing she was never going to find anything wrong with it and moving on.) But the place had a real sense of having been lived in: perhaps it was at best one-quarter residence -- but for that portion, ponies had been doing a lot of residing. It didn't hurt that Twilight's room (towards the back, facing the falls -- their known presence was more a matter of hearing than sight, but she found the sound comforting) had a porch -- one which seemed to have been added a few centuries after the original construction.

The third-floor baths had been set up in the classic dual style: a single large shallow pool for groups (elevated: they had to climb steps to reach the water level) and smaller, partition-shielded miniature grottoes for individuals. (A number of ponies still regard baths as social occasions: get most of the dirt off in private, then join the family in a soak for half an hour or so before retiring behind the partition to rinse.) There was enough hot water available to keep Spike happy, and the seven took an extended time-out, letting the lightly-perfumed plumes of steam do their healing work -- or as much as they could before Twilight found herself on the receiving end of a lecture delivered by, of all ponies, Rainbow Dash. "Seriously, Twilight, your feathers are horrible! I know you just got your wings and it's not like your parents ever showed you proper preening techniques, but you should have come to one of us! If you let that get much worse... you are begging for some nasty parasite to take you on as a permanent lunch date! Get over here: Fluttershy and I are going to be the teachers for a change..." And then she'd had to hunch down low in the water while the two pegasi had systematically shown her how to properly clean her feathers, one at a time, including getting some of them dirty again so they could watch her new and awkward technique at work. Thirty minutes had become eighty before they were satisfied enough with her amateur efforts to release her, and Twilight silently swore at least a little of the lesson had been payback for the oft-repeated definition of an anemometer.

Her wounds had been tended to. The backlash's effect had mainly sent her into unconsciousness, and the extended soak shoved most of the lingering aches into the background. Fluttershy checked the head injury and pronounced it healing, but (pointlessly) advised Twilight to try and avoid having anything hit her for a few days.

There was talk of their host (although not of the mission). "A perfect gentleman," Rarity decided, "although I think I will have to do something about getting him to drop that 'Miss'. I appreciate the proper formalities as much as any lady, but to have him on a strictly casual basis with Twilight and not the rest of us... something may have to be said."

Pinkie was floating on her back at the far end of the pool, occasionally blowing small fountains out of a snorkel which might have been in her bags. Or not. "He's got really great taste in playground stuff! I've never seen a slide that high! You'd have to rig one off the side of the castle to beat it! -- say, do you think if we asked, he'd let me --"

"NO!" -- and after the group shout turned into a group giggle, Fluttershy awkwardly took it from there. "...I wish I knew what was wrong with him... I know how to stop a cough like that, at least until the next time -- but if it's something inherited..."

Applejack sighed. "Takes a big stallion t' hold himself back from makin' things worse for other ponies, even when that stallion is --" she frowned, as if a thought had momentarily slipped the lasso "-- a -- small one? Yeah. But -- Ah don't know. Ah kind of like him, an' Ah appreciate what he's doin', puttin' us up like this -- but Ah don't like bein' here. A town with no earth ponies but me an' Pinkie..." Another sigh, and she sunk lower in the water. "Now that's not natural. Ah heard what he said an' Ah understand it, but -- doesn't feel right. Not at'tall."

Twilight twisted in the water to face Applejack more directly, let the heat work into her withers. "Ponyville only integrated forty years ago, though?"

"Yeah," Applejack reluctantly admitted. "We started as an earth pony town, an' -- well, it's pretty much what he said. Once we were up an' running, the pegasi came in an' started the distance trade routes. After a while, a couple of unicorns showed up. Then we had families, an' -- the population started t' -- balance, Ah guess. It's still an earth pony majority, pretty much. But -- we're a young town, compared t' this place. They would have had lotsa chances t' mix up."

Rarity rolled onto her right side, let her mane stream out in the flow from the waterspout behind her. "But what about places like Appleloosa? Where just about everypony is an earth pony." There was a long pause before she continued with "I -- had some stares when we were there. And part of that was just for the rarity of my presence, and I know Twilight had her share -- but there were a few frontier ponies who..." She looked briefly, oddly awkward, as if the next words were being blocked by a dam of social graces -- and the water within was turning foul.

Applejack didn't take the cue: she simply lowered herself still deeper into the water and let her tail spread across the current.

Twilight finished the sentence instead. "...who looked at us as if we didn't belong there."

And that got Applejack's attention. "Two new unicorns in an earth pony town, y'two, with the Effect still bein' laid down -- of course yer gonna stand out. That's different."

"How?" Pinkie, oddly challenging. "How is that different from us being here as the only two earth ponies in a unicorn town?"

The farmer's increase in volume was small, but sharp. "Just is! Look, can we not compare apples t' oranges here? 'cause Ah ain't bringin' mah Manehattan family inta this. Ah just wanna get the rest of the dirt off an' go have dinner. An' after that, we've got -- other things t' think about."

Rainbow Dash looked up from her own feather preening. "I want to go into that bar we passed."

"Why?" Applejack asked with just a little too much residual challenge.

"Because Daring Do says you're always supposed to go into the bar! Okay, and -- maybe that turns into a fight most of the time, but it's the seven of us! We can handle it!"

"Six," Twilight firmly insisted. "I am not bringing Spike into a watering hole."

The little dragon pushed himself away from the main hot water spout, sputtering. "Twilight!"

"No, Spike. Not a bar. Mom and Dad would be in my mane for moons. You are years away from going in there on your own, and after what happened the last time you got ahold of firewhiskey..."

"Nothing happened!"

"I know. Nothing happened to you. The pony you got into the drinking contest with didn't wake up for two days!"

"But what if you need me? What if you need a little fire, or -- you have to send a letter, or -- Rarity needs to adjust a dress and has to use a backup pincushion, or..." It might have seemed impossible for her brother to reach more than that, but he gave it a try anyway. "...there's a migration coming through here by accident and you need somepony who can give them directions..."

"No. Means. No." Some of the water around the little dragon flashed into steam: she ignored it. "Not a bar. I promised our parents and it's more than my life's worth to get Mom that mad. You're going to hold down the home base. That's it."

"So we're going?" Rainbow Dash enthused. "Cool! I haven't gone bar-crawling with you guys since we closed Doughnut Joe's after the Gala!"

"Yeah," Applejack darkly muttered. "An' there's a reason for that."

"Aw, come on! The Princess got all the charges cleared!"

Twilight sank so low in the water as to nearly have the warm flow washing into her mouth, which at least might have gotten rid of the last lingering bits of aftertaste. "Arrested," she muttered, still feeling the residual humiliation. (Which actually tasted worse than the grass.) "Arrested because some of the Gala attendees called the Lunar Guards and we didn't know about it until they stormed into the bar." The Princess hadn't known about it because she'd been with them through the closing of the doughnut shop -- and had then headed to bed. "And then you resisted..."

"Because all I did was catch a statue!"

"Yes," Rarity dryly agreed. "Badly, Rainbow Dominoes."

"Thanks a lot, Cake Makeup Of The Moon Club." Assorted giggles, including from the insulting parties. "Look, if it'll make anypony feel better, I won't start anything."

"...you said you didn't start it last time either," Fluttershy reminded the other pegasus. "...just that you were finishing..."

The cyan one treated her fellow to a timber wolfish grin which suggested the only thing she personally might have liked more than loops was loopholes. "Let's dry off and go eat, okay? I really want to see what our host is going to do for Element-Bearers and a Princess." Her tone suggested the food would need to be coated with edible gold. "Besides, Twilight has to teach the Doctor all about how his own trick works. Good thing he doesn't have feathers to clean..."

And that did leave a fully sunken Twilight with a snoutful of water. (It did nothing for either aftertaste.)


[/hr]

Dinner was -- interesting.

No servants had worked at Doctor Gentle's residence. Quiet seemed determined to make up for it. Their dinner was cooked by unicorns, with empty plates whisked away by fields within seconds and new courses floated in directly behind. There were foods Twilight had never seen, pastries the Princess might not have gotten to yet, actual Saddle Arabian grass -- oddly light, somewhat flavorful, with a burn which only kicked in ten minutes after you stopped eating it -- and sorbets to cleanse their palettes between dishes, which finally got rid of the lingering wild zone grass. The long low table (which was Neoclassical: they were essentially lying down to eat) was continually being filled and refilled without pause -- or, after the fourth course, mercy. Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie managed to keep up with all of it. Twilight and Spike, who both had experience with Canterlot feasts, saw it coming early and went into portion control mode. Fluttershy politely begged off after the fifth round. Applejack, used to farm meals and the hearty amounts of calories required to keep her roaming across Sweet Apple Acres for far too long at a stretch, spent an awkward minute carefully asking their host about which items within a single course were meant to be eaten first before he cut her off with a smile and freed her to just eat. And Rarity, who was determined to match this new form of courtly table manners, did her best to keep the empty plates flowing away from her -- at least until the whites of her eyes began to flush green.

"You can't always eat like this," she told the thin stallion. Her face briefly assumed the expression of somepony who was assuredly not swallowing back a burp. (There was at least no fear of offending Quiet's spouse, who was in Manehattan and was expected to remain there for the next three days.) "Nopony could without needing even more servants to carry them everywhere they went."

Quiet smiled. "I confess -- I'm showing off. I don't even have this many ponies on my staff, but with the Element-Bearers staying with me and the promise of a Royal Voucher for all my costs -- well, I just had to bring in a temporary or two from town. You're having some of the best of what Trotter's Falls has to offer -- which means the best of Equestria and beyond. You have been enjoying your food, yes?"

"Yes, of course," Rarity quickly admitted. "I just hadn't been expecting to -- enjoy so -- much of it." The expression came and went.

Doctor Gentle smiled down the table at her. "I'm afraid that along with a desire to impress, my young friend is prone to the relaxed sort of jest, my dear. It would not surprise me if he had also wanted to see who could manage to set a pace. And even with my having missed seeing half the dinner --" he had arrived three courses in, citing extended discussions with many of his who had needed to hurry for the train station, needing to get back to their lives but refusing to do so before they spoke with him "-- the part I did witness saw a certain stallion revisiting his youth by smuggling some of the food off his plate when nopony was looking..."

Quiet chuckled a little. "All right, all right -- I owed a certain somepony for making me recite my title. But unfortunately, she's managed to keep up. Canterlot training strikes again... and I understand you're going out after this?"

Twilight nodded. "Just to the local bar."

Rainbow Dash took over. "I saw this vintage in the window which we just don't get in Ponyville. I kind of talked the others into it. Besides -- when else are we going to be hanging around here? I want to see what this town's really got to offer!"

"In the case of the Suffolk Downs Vineyard? Enough foreign tannic acids to change the color of one's coat for days," Quiet dryly said. "But I'm assured the taste is worth it... Well, if that's the kind of local color you're after, you're all grown mares." (Spike pouted.) "And it's not as if I can tell any of you what to do -- but Celestia's shoes, avoid the peanuts and at least half the patrons."

"Only half?" Doctor Gentle calmly asked. "Well, the locals have calmed in my brief absence..."

Twilight smiled at him. "I think that's your cue, sir -- especially since we're on dessert."

The older stallion nodded. "It's not much of a story, Princess. If you're looking for a daring escape from a blaze chasing after my tail, I can't offer it. I wasn't at the house when the fire came. I --" he hesitated, then continued "-- well, it's hardly a secret: I have my own skill at teleportation. It's what helps me arrive in time when I can, although I still have to travel normally to some of my clients and most cities first. You know the procedure."

Twilight wasn't surprised. "Learning the environment and establishing a safe arrival point," she said.

Another nod. "Exactly. And I've still been through recoil, thank you... more than a few times." And a small sigh. "Unfortunately, nesting future mothers have a tendency to rearrange furniture... well, in this case, I had an appointment in Las Pegasus, or at least below it. A friend and actual physician who insisted that I and nopony else attend at the arrival of her first."

Twilight blinked. "You -- can go that far?" She'd never managed that kind of jump -- not even an appreciable fraction of it! "I've barely even read about those kinds of attempts!"

Doctor Gentle shook his head. "Yes -- and no. I have safe points along the way -- some of mine maintain spaces for me so that I can travel in a series of shorter journeys through the between. In stages, it's much more manageable. So I arrived to find that her prediction of her due time had been accurate: she was in labor. And as she had feared after checking her family history, the foal was not in a good presentation. So I invoked the Exception and began to turn her newborn -- a colt, by the way -- but as soon as I'd finished, she..." A long, embarrassed pause. "Well, she was in labor when I arrived. There was no time to get her to the table, so I was unable to strap her hind legs -- and between the moment I finished turning the colt and the one where I would have released the field, the pain hit her and -- she kicked. I think you can guess where her hoof landed."

Rarity and Twilight -- along with a freshly-educated group of friends -- winced. "Oh dear," Rarity breathed. "A Stage One, I take it?"

"And not a kind one," the doctor verified. "It could have been much worse, actually -- when Fluttershy came to us, I needed a double corona just to establish a grip. It's become easier over the years -- but it hasn't been that long since I managed to get it down to a single. As it was, she wound up doing the rest of the work on her own and then had to tend to me immediately after checking on her son. And she kept me in her home until she was sure I'd recovered enough to travel -- which, combined with a new mother's reluctance to leave her foal and my own less than ideal condition, kept us both out of the rumor loops for some time. I didn't know about what happened until her husband was finally released from caring for both of us and ventured outside. But --" looking around at all of them "-- the leg will heal, my home can be rebuilt, and nothing has truly been lost. I am simply sorry to have caused so much of a fuss. It has been wonderful seeing so many in a short time -- but the reason, and the time some of them could not afford to give... I will be a long time making amends."

Pinkie shook her head, and the force behind it sent curls bouncing everywhere. "You gave us our time! All of it! Why can't we give some of it back? Without you -- some of us wouldn't have had any time at all. And me..." More softly, "I had to come."

"...we all had to," Fluttershy softly added. "...all of us. Please, Doctor... you should never feel bad because friends want to help... and you were our first friend..."

He managed a smile. "I understand, my eldest and my most determined. It's just -- the quantity, I suppose."

"You've touched a lot of lives, first friend," Quiet told him. "I think you lost track of just how many until they all began to show up. Remembering every name is one thing -- seeing every pony is a little more overwhelming. And that was still only a fraction of them -- and there are those in transit who won't get the news until they arrive here, and they'll insist on seeing you before they turn around -- your social calendar is going to be busy for some time. If you could just manage a small kickback from the hotel..."

Which got a little laugh. "Yes, some of them did mention the conditions. You can't ask pegasi to sleep in chandeliers..." (Rainbow Dash looked away and tried not to whistle.) "I suppose I can try to think of it as a very intensive reunion. Which reminds me -- tomorrow, could I have time with the two of you, if at all possible? I'll take my own rest tonight while the younger seek out their fun, but hearing about the most recent adventures of the Element-Bearers... I have yet to reach the Empire on my own: I would love a firsthoof account." Fluttershy and Pinkie immediately assented. "Thank you -- and now I believe you all should save some room for drink? And the young dragon will surely need to sleep some of that meal off. I know our local garnets look beautiful, but I have no idea what they do to a dragon metabolism when consumed in bulk."

"They... make you sleepy," Spike yawned, and shot a brief glare at Twilight, who had loaded up his plate herself. "And some ponies know it... fine, I'll get some sleep, Twilight." That with a distinct undertone of I Will Have My Revenge, But It Will Take Some Time To Figure Out What It's Going To Be.

"You do that," said the older sister in the certain confidence that she would see it coming (when her actual record was closer to seventy percent). "Once again, Quiet, thank you for the meal --" and thank goodness the Princess would be hoofing the bill: free food and Dash was a dangerous and expensive combination with normal prices "-- but if you can continue trusting us to take care of ourselves, we should probably be heading out."

"And what could I do if I didn't?" Quiet asked, bemused. "But be careful, even so -- the town is in a celebratory mood, including its visitors -- and celebratory is going to turn into drunk before the night ends."

"We'll manage," Applejack assured him. "So thank y'kindly, an' let's send all these other ponies back t' their own homes..."

Within three minutes, the Element-Bearers had cleared out -- with Twilight levitating a sleepy dragon back to their temporary quarters -- and the servants, both hired and borrowed, had left the room. It was just the two stallions remaining, and they both took their time making sure that was absolutely the case before continuing the conversation.

"So what do you think of them, Quiet?"

"They're -- a strange group, in their way," the younger stallion conceded. "So many backgrounds, so different in their personalities. And yet they all manage to stay together and achieve some form of Harmony. I normally wouldn't believe you could keep that kind of assemblage together for more than a single task at best, but -- there they are. Not what I had expected. I've heard stories of Twilight's skills and of course I remember what you said about yours, but -- in a fashion, they're almost ordinary. Certainly not the egos I would expect from those who've done so much -- well, with the one obvious exception."

The doctor chuckled. "Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie are anything but ordinary. Our new Princess is extraordinary. I've heard of the pegasus and her achievements in flight. I suspect the other two have their hidden talents as well. But yes -- it's an odd collection, but a pleasing one. I suppose I'm simply satisfied to see mine with such good friends. Especially Fluttershy. When last I saw them both, they were full of stories about what they had all done together, but -- I had no time to meet the other four. Well, with them here..." He trailed off, glanced at Quiet. "I will admit -- it was something of a shock to see a success."

"For me as well," Quiet confessed. "She's beautiful -- she truly is. And I'm completely certain she doesn't realize that..." A sigh, and a pained shrug. "But you are the lucky stallion here. All this time when we couldn't approach her, not with her under the wings of the Princess -- all those missed chances to have some of ours speak with her -- and now? She has come to us, arguably right when we need her most of all. And she wants to talk with you about magic. She loves to learn, I can see that -- no matter how Coordinator tried to twist it in his description. And I think she loves to teach just as much. If you ask your questions carefully..."

"I intend to," Doctor Gentle assured him. "It may take some time to find the right phrasing, but -- she is probably used to being quizzed on it, given how new it is: everypony must be asking her. I will just -- take more care." His field surrounded a pastry, brought it up for a touch of sweetness. "If they'd only brought the Elements -- but then, why would they, just to search for me? They have no finding powers -- at least, not that I've ever discovered."

Quiet paused, gathering his slight strength. "My -- condition came up." The older stallion looked at him with open curiosity. "A coughing fit on the way in -- your Fluttershy is quite the skilled emergency medic. And after that, there was an opportunity to disclose -- another part of it. A natural outflow of the conversation."

"And yet a painful one." There was no argument. "How did they react?"

"With sympathy."

"I would have expected no less. Quiet -- do you feel they like you?"

He gave the question some very visible thought before starting to venture around the curve of the punctuation mark. "Casually. The earth pony is reluctant to -- I think it's my title as much as anything else, along with a possible nod towards my horn, but she at least has some respect for me. The others have no objection to my presence, and Twilight --" he smiled "-- does like me. I'm sure of that. You don't put somepony through a title unless you're looking for a war or a friendship. I'm certain it's the latter."

"And you like her." A simple statement.

Quickly, "I'm married. And even if I wasn't, she's an alicorn: so far above even my station as to -- and nearly every stallion or mare she encounters is going to feel that way, aren't they? At least most of the sober ones and those who aren't using romance for climbing to the highest tier or just want to say they spent the night with a Princess without lying... oh, what a mess her dating life is going to be. But yes -- I like her. More than I expected to. She's this delightful blend of eager and awkward added to knowledge and power... an amazing mare."

Doctor Gentle smiled, adjusted his position to let his injured leg have more freedom, took another bite of pastry. "Are you willing to use that connection?"

"You know I am."

"I know." Another statement. "And -- will you?"

"If I can."

"Good."


[/hr]

She was home.

She did not intend to stay for long. She had barely gotten in: the emergency passage had been almost impossible to find from the outside, and had remained so until she had thought (with some embarrassment) to simply ask. And it had still taken hours to reach the place where she could ask, along with working her hidden way around so very many ponies, waiting for the Sun to set and allow her an unimpeded search... one where sight had been no good at any point and only feel had worked in the end. But for now, she had a place to hide where no eyes would find her -- not even his, for she had no intention of allowing him to see her until she had her answers to give.

There was no damage here, at least to the rooms. (The irreparable harm she had done to herself and him did not count.) So she had cleaned herself -- the washing had been still more pain, but so was everything else and at least the scents of the outside were gone for now. The food supplies would last her some time: as he tended to take long absences, there had been care taken to assure she could survive for extended periods without his presence, and she doubted she would need all of it before reaching a conclusion. Her notes were intact and after a time spent reviewing, she began to add new ones.

Her memories were out of reach -- for now.

She had begun to -- experiment. It was necessary. She hated her failure, wanted (almost) nothing more than to reach the end of both it and her wasted life -- but now she had to understand it. There would be a success facing her, and that would have been an intimidating prospect at the best of times. This was anything but. She did not feel she had a single advantage going in, no edges over what she might be confronting -- but the more she knew about her horror, the better she might be able to withstand it long enough to use any edge it might somehow offer.

In a way, she knew more about two of her twistings than most of the ponies who lived in them. But that was just knowledge, studies made with the idea that when The Great Work was complete, she would finally be able to put those facts to use. She had failed. Not been The One, not united into a coherent whole. There were just -- stages. States of being in near-perpetual transition. But she knew those stages and when she was fully in the heart of each, the magic inherent to those states functioned. To that degree, the failure had not been total.

But -- she only understood those magics as knowledge. The practice -- she had learned to grasp, but managing force was so very difficult to master. (The idea that simply getting a grasp that quickly would have been an immense achievement for somepony else never reached her.) Flight... yes, somewhat, but it was as much a matter of getting the atmosphere to stop responding, and that was a problem she continued to have with the here-and-gone-again horn. Things happened, and she controlled very few of them. However -- things were happening, and some of them had been controlled. With time, more control might come.

(She had killed. She knew she had killed, knew what and understood that they were threatening her, would have done the same. They were still deaths. Still unintended. Still her fault.)

As for the third -- she was managing. Somehow, apart from the pain, she was managing. But it seemed as if the feel was everywhere, especially in her place, and there were times when her own voice seemed so very --

-- loud.

She could not stop the changes: nothing she tried had slowed the endless cycle by so much as a single heartbeat. She had wondered about the opposite, and it almost seemed as if it might be possible, but -- it was the agony of the twisting. To accelerate -- would it mean going through all of that at once? She didn't know if it was possible to survive that. As a final means of ending, there was a certain irony to it: as a tactic -- no. Not unless there was no other choice. For now, she would simply have to be very careful about her timing, venturing out when she was closest to each center stage in order to take best advantage before one state began to fade so another could ascend. Literally ascend.

Being seen... that was still a concern. But her appearance was changing. She only appeared as something close to herself in one of the three. (There were some small differences. She could not ignore them. She had tried.) Did it count as being spotted if nopony could recognize her a few hours later? She wasn't sure about that. And she knew she would need to be out there if she was going to have any real chance of making this work. The true core of the rule, she felt, was not being tied to him. That might make it more a matter of caution about words than appearance...

...no. The rules were still the rules, and she would follow them as best she could -- but ultimately, if it came down to somepony other than her target potentially seeing her, with that sighting meaning the difference between solving the puzzle of The Great Work and yet another failure -- then let her be seen. Ultimately, she knew what had to take priority. The goal remained the goal, even if she could no longer achieve it. This was still about everypony else, and her disaster might bring them that much closer to their own successes. She had failed him. She could not do the same for the thousands of unknown others.

(Thousands of ponies. She could almost picture that now.)

So -- if she had to be out in public -- the key might be in keeping other ponies from realizing something was wrong. It wasn't just venturing outside during the (literal) peaks: it would be allowing no signs of her pain to escape. Could she manage that? Was it even possible? If she had the right medicines -- painkillers strong enough to at least coat the sharpest edges in dull earth, turn slicing stabs into grinding bruises... but there was nothing in her place: he had treated her on the rare occasions when she became sick, and she knew better than to trust leftover drugs which had aged far past their prime. Still -- something to be considered for whatever amount of later remained. For now, her next concern was being able to travel. And for travel...

...all she had to do was wait.

She had listened to the ponies from her hidden places, and there had been a second topic roaming through the air. There was him and the relief she shared -- and there was Twilight Sparkle. Who would be staying at the castle for some unknown period of time.

She could find a castle.

Hue

View Online

Six Element-Bearers walk into a bar. Everypony else immediately becomes the punchline.

Until recently, most of Equestria's citizens had very little idea of who the Element-Bearers were. After all, some of their more important missions were just a little too much like news for the papers to report -- and a certain Princess might have been trying to keep a slight lid on things for the first two years, giving them a chance to grow closer without having cameras stuck in their faces every few yards: only the rumors claim to know for sure. Everypony knew Luna had returned -- but the parties responsible? Not so much. The majority of citizens had been dimly aware that something called the Elements was involved and there were those who Bore them. More educated ponies knew there were six Elements along with most to all of their Elemental names, and that there was a pony matched to each. Those truly in flow with current events might find out there were two from each race and that the Bearers lived within roughly a gallop of Canterlot, if not the capital itself. Insiders knew one of the Princess' favorites was involved, and those standing near her when letters came and went were aware that one was Twilight. And for pretty much everypony outside Ponyville, which had made a studious practice of ignoring the potential celebrity aspects of their residents (at least for anything pertaining to government work), that was just about it. A very few knew more -- and in one or two cases, much more -- but on the whole, the six remained more or less anonymous, much to Rainbow Dash's perpetual chagrin.

While that status quo had gone through a very slight change after Discord (although not enough for Canterlot's upper class to have any idea who or what a Rarity was), the true shift had begun after the changeling invasion -- or rather, after Shining Armor's wedding to Cadance. While the near-war was news and accordingly got stuck on Page Eight, the marriage was celebrity gossip and took nearly every headline across the continent. Having an Element-Bearer as sister to the groom? Certainly something to keep an eye on. The stories that she'd fought with the bride -- fighting with a Princess! And one who was her former babysitter! -- before the wedding? Never mind stories about the cause: circulate a few about divides in the new royal family, get a few quotes from her on why she hated a Princess so much (which had amounted to "'Get. Out," happily spun a thousand unfavorable ways), and who were those ponies she came in with? See if they have anything to say -- wait, what did the cyan one say they did?

From that point on, the six of them had been on the gossip map. Not a place which required much in the way of tourist traffic, since they hardly did anything real -- but at least worth the occasional peek-in to see if they'd been humiliating themselves lately in a way which would justify an article about having them deposed before blaming the whole thing on the Diarchy and getting rid of the Princesses right after. (Even Rainbow Dash had seen where things were going after the first interview and huffily refused to participate in anything where she couldn't see the final version before it went to press.) But it had meant Equestria was slowly becoming aware of who they were. Ponyville remained Ponyville and continued to studiously ignore the whole thing, at least until Twilight's transformation had overwhelmed the town's weirdness censor and replaced it with royal awe and pride in their homegrown Princess. The rest of the continent gradually realized there were in fact six Element-Bearers (even if the actual Elements got left out of the most recent stories: they only made certain ponies appear to have positive qualities). They were all mares. Every last one was -- well, attractive -- and that was at the minimum.

(Admittedly, they were physically appealing in different ways: Applejack's fans liked raw power in their fantasies, while Twilight's were attracted to the studious type and even more power. Fluttershy got those who were into the classics, Pinkie Pie drew in ponies who thought they could handle that level of energy, Rarity's fanbase ran from high society to those who considered sheet changing to be an unnatural event, and much to Dash's perpetual annoyance, most of her devotees were underage. (Incidentally, there are pinup calendars. Excepting a few leftovers from Fluttershy's modeling days, none of them are authentic, every last one is illegal, and most of the pictures are faked using badly-chosen stand-ins.))

And they were all single.

Oh, there were stories about that too. Endless speculation on who each of the Element-Bearers might regard as their very special somepony. A flood of tales circulated about their having hooked up with each other in pairs or triads or a six-pony group marriage -- all legal, but the last option was so rare as to barely exist. Ponies seemed to enjoy reading about those fantasy matchups, so a cottage industry sprang up in the gossip pages which had the Bearers switching off so often that every last waking moment would have been spent in having sex and every dozing one in sleeptrotting to their next conquest. The Bearers very carefully ignored all of them, with the exception of Rarity saving some of the most fanciful to a well-hidden scrapbook (kept in a cubbyhole behind a Sweetie Belle-proof security spell) for those times when she personally needed a good laugh.

But most ponies believed them to be single -- or at least so open-minded as to still be taking applications for the group. And so when six Element-Bearers walk into a bar... they will find a large number of ponies who suddenly believe that this is their chance at romance, at one night spent doing something other than just standing, taking part in something with a group, or possibly even becoming an emergency substitute Bearer and taking on the role of Rainbow Dash Number Three. Those with enough courage -- natural or liquid -- will then attempt to begin manifesting those fantasies into reality.

From the outside, it can look funny. From the inside...

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Like more than a few of their personal disasters (including, unknown to the group, the traveling incurable chaos plague known as the Cutie Mark Crusaders), this one had begun as Dash's idea, grown from the fertile pages of Daring Do's fictional conquests. Where do you find out about local events? The bar. Where do mysterious strangers hang around looking to spill their secrets? The bar. Where do you find the love of your life who happens to be in disguise, the pony you'll meet up with for seven pages in every four hundred before they're whisked off to their own next adventure and all you can do is wait for the sequel? The bar. And slightly less to the immediate point, where are dozens of Trotter's Falls residents going to treat Equestria's heroes to free drinks? Take a wild guess. Twilight had agreed to it because they still weren't completely sure of what they were supposed to be doing and hanging around the local watering hole was as good a way to pick up information as any.

What they got could certainly be filed under 'picking up'.

Look around the Suffolk Downs Vineyard for a moment. It can legally hold eighty ponies at maximum capacity and with that number present, has just enough free floor space to let them all move around each other -- barely: a lot of flanks get rubbed, and not always unintentionally. The tables are set at a bit below shoulder height, and every last one of them is at least four hundred years old and brought in from the oaks in the wild zones around Fillydelphia. Recessed magical lighting tends towards soft blues, mostly to make the extensive wine display behind the main bar look a little more exotic. (It's also flattering lighting for most ponies -- at least for those whose coat doesn't clash and the occasional pony who just goes nearly invisible against the background illumination.) There are a few booths for the patrons who want the illusion of privacy and two side rooms (both currently occupied) taken by those ponies who prefer more of a reality. Two unicorn mares tend the bar: two more wander the floor and take orders. Crystal mugs hang from the ceiling and are fetched by fields. Very few of them have the hoof loops used by pegasi and earth ponies: there's little need. A couple of steel tankards are kept around for those drinks which -- do things to crystal: one to a customer please, and that's one per moon. Ponies talk, ponies drink, the ponies with more bits than sense hand over the former for all-night access to the communal trough and keep it up until they completely lose the latter. (Twilight never goes near those ancient holdovers: in a word, 'backwash'.) The trough holds whatever beer the Vineyard has far too much of: other drinks tend towards the imported, the exotic, the enchanted, and oh dear Celestia, the next-morning hangover which should have stayed chained in Tartarus.

The place legally holds eighty ponies. With so many of the Doctor's still in town and locals spotting the Element-Bearers heading out for the evening, following to see where they were going -- well, the Vineyard was packed from floor to pegasi-crammed ceiling. Many of the occupants were already drunk. Several were trying to get there in a hurry because surely the next drink would provide the ability to approach the former supermodel without fear -- or maybe the next one -- could be the one after that -- well, now there was a choice of three identical pegasi, so go with the one on the left...

Try to trawl for information in that kind of setup, with the group being broken apart by the crush of the crowd, and it's the other ponies who learn things they didn't want to know -- starting with why those six are all still single.

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Yes, there were ponies who were drunk, bold, egotistical, or social-climbing enough to try and get their very own night with a Princess. But Twilight had always been skittish about dating: too many fellow students who wanted to attach their tow rope via binding social contract. The years most ponies spend in beginning to explore their sexuality had been used by a once-unicorn for delving ever-deeper into the library and the safe privacy of her own head. A pony who needed to learn lessons about friendship is not going to have a natural talent for relationships. Before her transformation, anypony who tried to pick her up in a bar would have found somepony only too happy to use the chosen small talk subject as either the launch point for her own lecture (because she frequently knew more about the topic than they did) or the start of a precious new lesson with those things she hadn't really learned about yet. (Or, with some of the more blatant drunken skip-the-preliminaries proposals, the other pony would have received free instruction in how long it takes to blink teleport flash away.) She was about as competent in the dating wars as she was at ice skating, random shelf arrangements, and slumber parties without benefit of guidebook: a former self-determined social outcast who had never learned the appropriate cues or responses and was just barely able to spot a few of the more subtle danger signs. And that was before the change had added an extra level of uncertainty to her psyche. Try to pick up Twilight with a line about how dazzling her eyes were in this light and --

"-- because it's the refraction of the light, really. When you have this exact frequency of blue arranged along that kind of grid and directed with just the right angle, you're going to get some degree of dazzle. Plus there's the optics in play with your own lenses, and did you know that different eye colors receive light in slightly different ways? For example, green eyes are better at spotting movement! It's absolutely true! A lot of ponies don't know that. Anyway, back to light studies. This particular frequency of blue is supposed to be calming, although I really don't think it's doing anything --"

-- on the plus side for the hosting bar, ten minutes spent on the receiving end of that will drive most ponies to drink -- more.

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Go ahead, try to pick up Fluttershy. Just try it. Oh, there were ways to get into a conversation with her -- for starters, you could bring your pets (although that's not an option at this bar) or just bring them up. If your animal companion happened to be sick, you might even get her to go home with you -- all the way to the front door, where she'd wait patiently for you to bring your pet out so she could look it over and start working on a diagnosis. But any overt attempt to coax her into bed -- or dating -- or any social relationship beyond her typical business ones or a light touch of merchant-customer exchange -- would bring, at best, an "...eep!" and at worst, a full-scale rush for the exit which wasn't particularly concerned about the amount of damage being done along the way. (Blocking is not encouraged: she's stronger than she looks.) For Fluttershy to find a very special somepony would first require her to find the mental strength to

A. look.

B. be looked at.

C. talk.

D. feel she was worth talking to in the first place.

E-Z. forget it: we never even got to A.

And in this overpacked, overloud, and overstimulating environment, where she'd basically inserted herself into the most defensible ceiling corner available and was steadfastly trying to pretend all comers didn't exist, with those blue-green eyes almost squeezed shut?

Good luck.

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Of the six, Rarity spent the most time in bars of her own accord. She firmly believed that a single drink -- just one, mind you, carefully chosen for taste, fragrance, point of origin, reputation of the winery, and the elegant contour of the bottle -- helped open the floodgates of creativity. A few sips and ideas begin to flow: too many and the ideas were all about how far it was to the door and how she couldn't possibly make it: would somepony please hold back her mane? (Surprisingly, Rarity was the lightweight in the group: one mug happy, two dizzy, three semi-coherent, and four meant a day of traveling around Ponyville desperately trying to find somepony who would tell her why her tail was now dyed fluorescent green.) And as she did have a certain appeal even for those without scales and was in the right environment more than the others, ponies would try to pick her up. A lot. In fact, it happened so often that she'd become an expert on methodology.

"Yes, I am quite aware of how my mane looks in this light. And if you had truly wished to have a chance, you would have much been better off trying something a little less -- trite. Seriously, dear: there are dozens of mares in this bar and while you were within my hearing, you have spoken to all of them about their manes. So either you are into manes to a degree which some might find a touch frightful or you simply have no other approach to offer. So while I do appreciate the fact that you are making an effort, don't you think you would benefit from some variety in your attempts? There are a thousand disguises in the social wardrobe and you? Are wearing the same outfit to every occasion. And that's without getting into your using a disguise in the first place, Baron... I did see you polishing the fountain on the way in, you know, and you would have been so much better off admitting that to begin with..."

Oh, Rarity still believed in True Love -- or rather, she believed in it again once the Blueblood nausea wore off, which had been two moons after the Gala. And she no longer felt her chosen prince had to be one or come from high society at all: a very special somepony could climb out of a ditch, although that pony had better try to find a bath rather quickly. But she still insisted on manners, the polite approach, romance, being swept off her hooves, and everything else which could be found in the lesser class of romance novels, also known as 'anything where the cover image has the dress strategically ripped over the cutie mark'. And that meant --

"Really. You're being serious. You truly think telling me my hooves look like marshmallows is going to get you somewhere. Let me tell you something: I have had more refined attempts to win my favor from Diamond Dogs. And quite frankly, their breath? Smelled better than yours."

-- she was a little fussy.

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Contrary to popular opinion, Rainbow Dash could talk about things other than herself. Or herself and flying. Or herself, flying, the Wonderbolts, adventure novels and just lately, tortoise care. Admittedly, she would tend to drag the topic over to one of those five given any cue and the first was her favorite thing to discuss of all. Rainbow Dash would happily sit down with anypony who wanted to talk about her and provide an epic-level dissertation on the subject with footnotes, references, ponies to check her sources with, and no more than twenty-five percent exaggeration. And she would listen to the other pony -- mostly for those verbal cues which would allow them to get the focus back on her. For the casual pony on the social approach, conversation with Rainbow Dash was actually a lot like being talked at by Twilight, only without the chance to pick up a few incidental school credits along the way. The more determined ones tried to ride out the verbal flow and hoped to reach a calm spot in the rapids which would allow them to drop anchor and hold fast until the current slowed down. It never slowed down. She could talk about herself for hours. She could go for moons without repeating herself, keeping a side glance out in self-defense to see if any of her friends were about to sit on her. And part of it was --

-- a test.

She would never admit it, of course, and the odds were something less than even that she was aware of it. But the test was there regardless: are you so interested in me that you're willing to put up with this? After all, only the truly -- well, loyal -- would stand by her side through all that and still be there when she ultimately decided to finish. If you could stick it out through Dash's barrage of self-interest, then you just might be a pony worth getting to know. Stay by her side, stay interested, nod at all the right places, and pay actual attention because there would be a test later -- that was the way to get the pegasus curious about you.

Nopony ever made it that far.

Seriously, there's only so much talk about shell cleaning anypony can stand.

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You'd think Pinkie would be the easiest to pick up: after all, she'd admitted that she has sex. (Discussions of 'with whom?' are not going to take place here.) But most ponies would consider her priorities to be -- skewed. Pinkie didn't think of sex as part of a relationship: she didn't even really see it as working into dating, and one-night stands ("Stand?" she'd giggle. "You think we're supposed to be standing the whole time?") didn't come into it at all. To Pinkie, sex was -- therapeutic. It was something she did when a friend really needed that last possible boost to raise them out of the emotional dumps. It could be for giggles and good times and just having fun, sure -- but she took her role as Laughter seriously and recognized that there were times when there was just that one thing which might make somepony happy -- or rather, pull them out of deep depression. She had sex with no emotional commitment beyond that involved in 'I am your friend and I'm doing this because I care about you'. And with six deep friendships and hundreds of casual ones plus new ponies to meet every day (especially lately) -- well, how much time did a single pony have to use? Especially one who had to bake, host parties, run her greeting schedule, keep up with everypony's birthdays, and so on down the eternal line? Twilight had never recognized it, but Pinkie had a knack for time efficiency which not even certain obsessive once-unicorns could match -- and even then, the baker was perilously close to being overbooked at all times. Pinkie didn't have enough hours in the day or night to have a very special somepony because there were so many ponies who were already special and they all needed her.

(It would not have surprised or offended Pinkie to discover there had been a very small betting pool around Ponyville -- four participants -- wagering whether and when she would finally attempt to befriend Cranky through a last resort. She would have simply (and patiently) explained that it was something to be done for those she already knew and had a strong friendship with. You couldn't make or keep friends through sex. And she would have explained that after getting somepony else to bet on her behalf and walking off with everypony's bits.)

Yes, she was in her element (but not Element), or at least a subset of her cutie mark, which manifested here as the ability to keep up with the best of them. Party with some of the new ponies in the bar? Done. Beat them all at every bar game offered? Easy. Pull out the little tricks and mini-cons which show a drinking crowd that you know all the angles and aren't going to be fooled by anything? Of course. Make new friends? Perhaps. But as for leaving with anypony other than the ones she came in with... not going to happen. Because she didn't know anypony here well enough to understand whether they really needed her and there were much more important things to do anyway. She was listening to the babble of the crowd, subtly reaching in for the social cues and gossip flow which were part of any mass party --

-- but she couldn't attune herself to this group. Not completely. Because while those of the Doctor's were happy to talk to her and she was having a good time with them, most of the locals were avoiding her. Several were ignoring her. Some were acting as if she didn't even exist and as Octavia might tell you, that's the performance of a lifetime. And she wasn't going to be picked up for a one-night not-standing -- not now, and especially not when most of the ponies in the bar didn't care to try.

Pinkie had things other than good times on her mind, and most of them involved frequent checks on the departing-and-returning Applejack.

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Ask around Ponyville after Applejack's conquests and you'd get the complete list: none. Applejack generally didn't date. Applejack didn't have time to date. She had an apple farm to run, a sister who kept trying to destroy the town and most of that seemed to be by accident, a grandmother to support and brother to ignore, friends who needed her during moments when all of the previous wasn't happening and sometimes when it was, and every so often a Princess or chaos entity came recruiting. Applejack only had time for a social life when her work life let up a little, and that mostly meant during the winter. Once the snow came in and the Acres were put to bed for a few moons, the farmer might venture into town to see what the local selection had to offer. And the answer to that was 'ponies who'd had the previous misfortune of being approached by Applejack'. She was very much the aggressor in her potential relationships, choosing which ponies she'd go after with exacting standards followed by (should she come up to somepony) an even more exacting quiz. Her standards were well-known: she wanted an earth pony within a few years of her own age, strong, durable, not needing much in the way of sleep -- somepony who was a hard worker and willing to commit hours upon hours to seeing if they could sort things out together, mostly by waiting until spring and then doing that relationship work right beside her on the farm -- while incidentally working on the farm itself. The general opinion around Ponyville was that Applejack wasn't looking for a very special somepony so much as she was after free live-in labor and a way to create the next generation of seriously underpaid help. It was unkind, unfair, and more than slightly accurate.

Applejack hardly had any objections to love and wanted an emotional connection with whoever she wound up with -- but romance would pretty much have to fall on her if it was going to have any hope of getting her attention, and the idea of getting a next generation to keep the farm in Apple hooves was very much on her mind. She didn't trust Apple Bloom to take over for her, mostly because any cutie mark showing a talent for running the place would have surely manifested by now no matter how much the other two tried to distract her sibling from those duties. The youngest Apple was on track for something else: Applejack recognized that and was preparing to deal with it when the time came -- but that meant the farm was going to need a next generation, and getting Big Mac out into the social wars was more difficult than launching Fluttershy into the battle. She had a chance to lasso and drag Fluttershy. Big Mac? Not so much. So she put herself out there -- and found, much to her surprise, that nopony was willing to work a fourteen-hour day alongside her in the name of seeing if they were compatible. At least, not for more than a week's worth of them, and typically much less. Some of them didn't even make it to lunch -- and frankly, she was running out of ponies. Twilight's ascension had done her the favor of a population increase, and she'd been looking forward to winter just to schedule another series of future tryouts.

But Trotter's Falls found her on a different sort of prowl. Relatively few ponies were looking for her (although many were looking at her, especially as she insisted on staying in the rough area despite the increasing number of stares) and none of them fit her standards anyway. But she was still looking for earth ponies. They could be of any age or marital status as long as they were earth ponies. She needed somepony to talk to -- badly. Somepony who wasn't Pinkie Pie. And there were a few -- a very few, and most of them left quickly after grabbing a single drink to nurse on the train. Those who'd come to check on Doctor Gentle had already departed. What remained were the ones Quiet Presence had mentioned: merchants who'd come in to deliver food. They were mostly willing to step outside with her and get to an isolated spot so they could speak earth pony to earth pony. But once they understood the topic (or at least what she was willing to cautiously suggest of it)...

"I'm sorry, Miss Applejack, but -- I don't know about anything odd happening anywhere near these parts. It's a four-day haul for me just to get here, and I only escort my goods because I want the bits to come back with me. I drop off, I get paid, I leave -- and I have a big family to get back to, which is what these trips pay for. Why? Did you hear something?"

And then came the art of lying without lying. "Naw... nothin' I want t' bother y'with... Ah'm sorry, it's jus' stupid stuff. Y'know -- Ah don't want t' spread any rumors. Wanted t' make sure they were stupid an' if y'ain't heard of them, then stupid they've gotta be. Ah won't spread rumors, that's all... Get back t' yer kin. That's what's important."

And that was the best of it.

"Live here? And risk having other ponies come in after me? Too many of us laying the Effect down, they'd have their own food supply and prices would drop. Any pony who moves here is ultimately just betraying those of us with business contracts in the area, and I'm not going to be the first to drop that horseshoe. I need the money: I commute. Besides, who would want to live -- here? Geez, lady -- I don't know where you got that idea, but get rid of it fast before the stupid thing pulls your hat over your head."

"I can get paid here and make a living or I can stay here and not get paid enough to live. Guess which one I picked."

"I don't stay overnight. I have never stayed overnight. I am not going to start staying overnight now. Not for a vaguely dropped half-hint with no details in it. Better luck next pony."

"...oh. I thought you wanted to... well... no, I don't know anything. Sorry. And -- you know, your legs look really strong in this light, I bet you bring down apples like -- um... I'll go now..."

"Right. Me. First earth pony in Hornville. Buck you very much."

Until, finally, "Something weird? Well -- that private room in the back, the one on the left? There's an earth pony in there. Grape something or other. He was trying to get drinks out of the patrons before you came in by offering to tell this story about some mythical super-powerful unicorn to anypony who'd buy him a mug, or just access to the trough -- but only one-on-one. The older bartender finally threw him into the back room just so he'd stop bothering everypony. I think he still might be nursing a drink in there. If you're really looking for something strange, you might want to try washing his lies out of him until he finally passes out and clears the place for somepony else. And now if you'll excuse me, I am getting on that last train out tonight before this crowd goes ugly. They started as happy drunks, but -- that doesn't last. It never lasts. And I have no intention of being here when it inevitably goes the other way. Good luck, Miss Applejack. If I hear about anything strange, I'll send word back -- but I don't expect to. Just take care of yourself. You're a good mare, I can see that -- and I'm not sure this is the best place for a good mare..."

And then she went back into the bar (pushing her way through an increasingly drunk crowd, one which seemed more reluctant to let her in) and told her friends about the earth pony in the back room. Because it was something -- at least, it was something she could tell them. Because they were her friends. No matter what Pinkie Pie said...

...she had to keep an eye on Pinkie.

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After Grape Indulgence had finished his story -- collapsing into a snoring single-pony pile almost immediately after -- they waited a few more minutes while Rarity casually checked the location-based details with the bar's staff. After that, the Royal Voucher in the amount of far too many bits was presented to the younger bartender and the group left the Vineyard, wandering down magically-lit streets to try and find a private place to speak. It took some work: several ponies tried to follow them out, and some managed to keep the stagger moving in their general direction for several yards. The town was celebrating. The town was getting drunk, and not all of them had done it in a formal setting. There were some half-understood calls from house windows made in the group's direction. Twilight recognized that some of them were trying to hail her in her status as Princess. Others were too slurred to make out.

Weaving ponies bumped into them. Some of the bumps were on the hard side. Applejack was nearly knocked off her hooves twice, visibly strained not to retaliate. Pinkie, legs and tail twitching to her private beat, dodged them all.

Eventually, they reached the soft white glow of the gazebo in the town square and found nopony there. It was a warm night and any similar structure in Ponyville would have been a temporary home to dating couples and romantically-inclined married pairs (and, very rarely, trios on up) -- but the parties were in bars, and homes, and wandering up and down the streets in search of fresh recruits. For now, the cane-woven walls formed a suitable barrier to intrusion, and a check for eavesdroppers came up empty.

Rarity led the way. "Our hosts for the evening deal with the winemaker in question -- and they said he's a four-day gallop to the north." With very little effort to disguise her distaste, "Mister Indulgence was clearly wandering around in the wild zone for days. Celestia protects children and drunks, indeed... he's lucky to be alive. Unicorns making his liquid payment vanish -- I believe I know where every last drop of it wound up."

Pinkie nodded. "But at least we know what she looks like now! That's weird, isn't it -- having your horn be a different color than your coat?"

Twilight mustered a sigh. "It would be unusual -- and no, I can't think of any other unicorns I've seen with that color differential -- but at the same time, he was drunk. Drunk when he was talking to us, maybe drunk when he saw her -- I know he saw somepony, but it's hard to trust the details."

"I trust him." And that was from a completely sober (in more than one sense) Rainbow Dash, camped out on one of the gazebo's benches, voluntarily staying on their level for a very rare once. "What happened -- it shook him up. Some ponies lose details when they're afraid -- and some focus. When you're going through a triple helix, trying for a quadruple, and things don't -- quite work -- you start paying attention to everything. When I -- hurt my wing that one time, went to the hospital -- I remember everything that went wrong and -- every second leading into the ground like they were taking a year each. I think -- it was like that for him. That seeing her was so intense -- he almost had to drink so remembering it would scare him less. You see some old fliers..." She trailed off, stared at the gazebo's roof for a few seconds. "I say he was telling the truth and his memory was good."

"Breaking a tree in half..." Rarity mused, looking disturbed. "Applejack, the way he described the trunk -- how large would that typically be?"

"Big," the farmer flatly replied. "Gotta be that same orchard everypony raids. We'll get directions an' go check it out when we've got some Sun t' work with."

"...it could really be her, couldn't it?" Fluttershy whispered. "She's hurt, she's hungry -- she needs help."

"Which brings us back to why Discord would care," Twilight very carefully didn't snap. "I'm still looking for motive, Fluttershy... he might ask us to help you --" forcing herself to fully believe that for the duration of one sentence "-- but somepony out here..." Some random pony we don't know anything about except that she's strong and doesn't have control... strong enough to break that leash?

"...he cares more than you think... he's trying to care... Twilight? About the sparks from her horn...?"

"It is what he said there," Twilight conceded. "Everypony does it when they're just starting: the field doesn't focus and you just send little bits of energy everywhere. But -- he said she's a couple of years older than you, Fluttershy -- maximum. Most unicorns start to get control when they're a little older than Sweetie Belle: some younger, some older -- but not that old. Even if you aren't taught, you get the basics on your own. For somepony to be showing first spell signs at her age... Well, we were looking for strange..." A tall mare. Blue coat, tan eyes, and that strange purple horn. In pain. Hungry then, lost in the wild zone. But -- not visibly wounded, at least not that their witness had seen. What was wrong with her?

Pinkie had been visibly bothered by a missing part of the description when it wasn't made, and was still trying to deal with it. "He remembered so much else -- why couldn't he tell us about her cutie mark? That's one of the first places I look when I meet a new pony! Everypony does, because it can tell you so much about who they are! How can a cutie mark be hard to look at? I've never seen one that was ugly or even had really clashing colors!"

It had been bothering Twilight too -- but the line for that stretched all the way back to Ponyville. "I don't know -- maybe he just didn't get a good look and was making an excuse..." She sighed. "Okay, everypony -- I'm not fully convinced that she's the mission, but I'm hoping she's at least part of it. So much for our being out here on a wild antelope chase..." (They weren't fully sentient. They still loved to race anything they encountered, ground or sky. They loved winning slightly less than Rainbow Dash and in their way, gloated just a little more.) "We should go out to the orchard. Maybe we can find something he missed."

"We'll have to be careful about time, though," Pinkie pointed out. "Doctor Gentle is expecting Fluttershy and me sometime tomorrow, and you wanted to speak with him later -- and if we're here long enough, there's going to be a party."

That got a small, weary smile out of Twilight. "I do want to talk with him..." (The weariness was focused on the inevitable party.) "Let's get some sleep." With slight (but real) mirth, "I might even let Spike sleep when we get back in and give him the bad news in the morning. Grape Indulgence might have missed a cutie mark somehow, but I don't think he would have missed wings..."

Rainbow Dash looked up at that. "We should really go out together tomorrow morning, Twilight! Get the overhead view of the area -- see if there's anything weird we can spot from above! I can even -- get up -- early -- and meet you at the front --"

"-- we'd better just concentrate on the orchard for now," Twilight quickly interjected. "Back to the castle, everypony -- and anypony who's had drinks, sleep them off!"

"I had one, dear."

"I know. You're still upright."

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Five ponies were in bed. One dragon was curled up in a basket (although Twilight's sheets looked suspiciously straightened). One pony was still awake.

Applejack was asleep. The cottage was pleasant enough, reminding Applejack of an only slightly overdone earth pony building -- at least when compared to the other residences they'd passed. And the bed had been comfortable. Too comfortable, really: Applejack was trying to half-sleep, keeping an ear out for movement. She hadn't hauled her temporary bed to block the front door for only one reason: there was also a back exit. So she was trying to practice the delicate art of resting with awareness, something she'd only had scant experience in and that had led to something less than wondrous success: Apple Bloom had gotten out to wreak havoc anyway. The farmer was trying regardless.

Pinkie was asleep one room away. She had known why Applejack had made sure they were in the cottage together. She was, in her way, more than a little -- angry -- about it. But she wasn't going to make her move. Not just yet. And when (if -- no, at this rate, when) she did, Applejack could do everything up to and including diving into a mirror pool and creating a horde of single-minded earth ponies to block every way out. It wouldn't matter. Pinkie had made her own decision and was just waiting to see if -- when -- she would have to enact it.

Rarity was out cold. The sheets were slightly musty. They were also heavenly.

Fluttershy was having a perfectly lovely dream, reliving one of the happiest days of her life.

Rainbow Dash -- well, it wasn't as if anything short of a -- floor -- was going to slow her down.

Twilight was staring at the canopy bed's fabric roof.

She wasn't sure what time it was. (There was an enchanted clock on the wall which would have told her if she'd asked. She didn't want the voice to wake Spike.) Just that it was too late -- and, given how long she'd been doing this, also too early. Her thoughts had been going around in circles again, and it would have been impossible to wear out a track in the stone. All she could do was stare at the linen ceiling and think. There was too much to think about, and none of it ever seemed to go beyond the original groove.

The breaking of the tree -- nopony had asked Twilight if she could have done it. They probably already knew: she could -- but not casually. Not without at least a double corona, and not by seeming accident. The story's conclusion had shaken all of them -- Rarity and Twilight most of all. Especially Twilight, who was still hoping Grape Indulgence, watching the apple and glow, had left an extra layer out somewhere. But if he hadn't... yes, this one was strong. Strong on a level which kept trying to terrify her. Strength without control. The waves in the wild zone might have been the best of all possible results. Power without restraint or knowledge of how to temper it...

Not an alicorn. But -- the power of one? Strength beyond hers, a field which might operate somewhere between her level and that of the Princesses? Or --

-- no. She's not an alicorn. Unicorns existed who were stronger than me. I've read about them. Star Swirl -- I finished one of his incomplete spells, but I still can't do everything he did and he never -- changed. She's just -- strong. But there's seven of us. We have the numbers, we have practice and tactics and strategy and she --

-- just breaks huge trees in half.

By accident.

It wasn't a thought which encouraged sleep.

She'd almost gone down to the largest of the armor rooms and started cataloging just to have something to do.

The bar. She had seen the potential value in going and in fact, Rainbow Dash had been right: if this strange unicorn was their mission, then they had that much more information about her. But -- well, with limited exceptions, it hadn't been a night of being Princesssed into oblivion. Instead, it was ponies trying to add her to a private list of lands conquered -- a list which wouldn't have remained private for long. She had wondered -- before the change -- how many ponies who claimed to look at her with romantic intentions were really seeing her for herself. That thought came more often now. She was sure all the ponies from this excursion truly saw were wings. Lectures were her automatic reaction to so much -- sometimes too much, and she knew it -- but now they were turning into self-defense. And there were still ponies who would have listened for far longer than any of Dash's failed suitors managed to hang on if it had meant the chance to be with her. It sometimes felt as if the only chance she really had now was --

-- well, that was just silly, really. No matter what some of the gossip columns tried to say.

Quiet... he'd been nice. No -- not just nice. Casual. As if meeting a Princess was just another part of an ordinary day, happened all the time. He'd greeted her with a tease about her status, the best way to say that it meant nothing to him whatsoever except as a chance to joke around a little and watch her squirm, she'd done the same to him...

...married.

Figures.

What are we doing here? What does Discord want? If it is her... then should we even be helping? Is that what would help him? But she's in pain -- so much pain... how can anypony get even a hint of that and not want to help? (She was still mad at Grape Indulgence for his lack of effort.) But if...

'But.' 'If.' Words she was coming to hate.

She couldn't write the Princess -- or Luna -- but could she contact the Canterlot Archives? Ask about horn-coat differences? If it meant anything?

But -- there's other ways for a unicorn to be that powerful...

She blinked, turned slightly to the left. The wall held no more answers than the ceiling had. Still -- I will send a letter tomorrow. No point to waking Spike: this is going to be a hard target for him and he'll need to be fully refreshed before he tries. But it's a question I can ask, and there might even be answers...

...I can't sleep.

Carefully, she got out of the bed, slid her hooves across the carpet and chill stone rather than allow the tapping to wake Spike, carefully opened the doors to the outside and stepped through, closing them behind her.

The porch was -- calming, in its way. Twilight had always liked porches, appreciated a view from overhead gained with something solid beneath her hooves. Liked being able to see and study so much at once. Even though there wasn't much to see here, really: the Moon was waxing towards full -- another four days and it would be there -- but the light didn't reflect on much other than a lot of playground equipment and some sports fields. From here, she could see the river which Quiet had told her formed the town's border. The falls themselves were out of sight -- but she could hear them, and the sound was more relaxing than anything else. He'd mentioned that portions of the landing pool were shallow enough for swimming, although the water was so cold that most ponies only went in on a dare.

Twilight was enjoying what bit of view she had. Probably would have enjoyed it just as much from fully overhead, from flight. But...

...I have to get this right. I have to fly. I have to fix one thing. She's not going to stop asking me. She's...

A quick look at the sky. Partly cloudy: the Moon was showing through a large hole in the layer, one which wouldn't last long: there was a breeze whipping up in the upper layer of atmosphere and the clouds were beginning to shift east in something of a hurry. It didn't look like there were any rain clouds in the group, at least not in this lighting. She wondered if Dash or Fluttershy would have known at a glance. Tried to figure out why she didn't.

Back to the ground. The edge of the porch. The railing...

...no. This is higher than my porch at home. When I fall here -- if -- no, let's face it, when, it's going to hurt a lot more. That might be a hospital fall. This isn't the time or place to practice. Stepping off into air gives me more of a chance to catch the wind with my wings and get the right airflow pattern going, but...

She wanted so very badly to do something right...

...she was being stupid. It was too high up, it was too late at night, and the wind gusts (which were moving lower) were frankly too strong for her to think about going out in. A warm wind, at least: she didn't have to retreat from the chill -- but enough to move the end of her tail and send her bangs swishing about in an uncomfortable manner.

Couldn't fly. Couldn't touch the clouds. Couldn't do anything but fall.

She felt stupid.

A bare whisper. "I hate feeling stupid..."

"Then. Teach!"

And the wind had her.

There was no time to react. No field to push back against, no grip to break or magic to counter. No chance to think. There was just a howl of wind as the air surrounding her spun, faster and faster, lifted her from the porch, taking her up as she spun around and around within the dust devil, barely able to breathe in the twisting atmosphere, raised into an involuntary form of flight, uncontrolled --

-- no. Not under her control. Under --

"-- who are you?"

She had been raised to be on a level with the roof of the observation tower -- but not in contact with it. Three body lengths away and four stories above the ground. Hanging within the air, wind still twisting, keeping her up -- but with the air pressure somehow rendering her stable inside the dust devil. She was no longer turning, even with the wind buffeting her and her tail being whipped into her right flank. And her words had not been taken by the wind, not completely. They had been heard by the tall pegasus mare standing on the conical roof.

A tan coat. Blue mane and tail, both short. Deep purple eyes. Incredibly dark purple wings, large and unfurled in a posture which, on Rainbow Dash, would have been challenge. And -- she noticed it, wasn't sure why it of all things registered -- a touch of that same purple at the very bottom of her hooves.

That voice -- but...

The pegasus had heard her question, yes -- and responded to it with a sound. A sound Twilight had heard twice before and still never wanted to hear again.

"...no."

Her thoughts spun faster than her body had, would not come together. illusion disguised field shapechange on that level impossible for anypony outside of the Princesses sisters from the same family faking not that can't be that can't be... And her own wings spread, pushed -- but all it did was start her spinning again as the dust devil caught them: she just managed to bring them back against her body.

She could hit the pegasus with a spell. But she couldn't fly, and the dust devil was the only thing holding her up. And if she knocked the other pony out, or her opponent chose to drop her...

Teleport? Try to reach the ground? Do I have a clear enough image of the bedroom to go between with? Can't just aim for the roof: can't stay out in the open...

And the pegasus trembled, feathers vibrating. Clenched her jaw as her eyes narrowed, bit back most of a moan. "Not -- stupid. Finished. So -- teach."

The voice was the same. Exactly the same. Torture rendered into words.

"Teach what?" Twilight cried out, fighting against inner and outer confusion. Could anypony hear her? Her friends scattered about the castle and grounds, too deep into night for anypony to be up, and any signs of a signaling spell...

Another moan: the dust devil seemed to vibrate in sympathy. "You -- finished. The -- Great Work. Complete. How?" Anger, challenge -- and desperation, with the wind now moving faster than ever.

"I don't -- understand!" Twilight gasped, still trying to find a plan. "The Great Work -- what is that?" Sisters, it had to be sisters, some kind of family conspiracy, she needed the complete identifiers, had never met or heard of a pegasus who could do this, somepony would know her, she had to see --

-- looked at the pegasus' flank. At the cutie mark.

And her mind almost broke.

The mark was present, a icon she had never seen before. It consisted of three Möbius strips linked to each other: she could see the twist in each of the loops. They were arranged a hundred and twenty degrees apart along an imaginary circle: the one facing almost straight up was cloud-white, with the next clockwise loop bright gold and the back-facing one forest green: the colors were most intense at the outermost parts of the loops and began to fade into each other as they came back around. But that was not what struck the blow against her sanity, nowhere near the factor that sent her thoughts cascading on top of and around each other with all order momentarily lost.

It wasn't the center -- or the lack of center. In the place where all three loops should have met was -- nothing. Not only no mark, but it almost seemed as if there was no flank. No view of space beyond or the interior of a hip, just an overwhelming sense of vacuum against her eyes, almost impossible to look at for more than a second, painful to keep coming back to. A total absence. It should not have been, and it was not. It kept right on not being no matter how hard she tried not to look at it, and it was always not there when she returned. Still not the part which nearly shattered an orderly universe into purest discord as a screaming fragment of her mind wondered if her own coat had begun to grey.

What nearly broke Twilight was the movement.

There was a silver fizzle on the white loop, just beginning to dip below the uppermost ascent of the curve. And it was shifting, slowly, visibly getting lower as the entire mark moved in turn, the loops rotating counter-clockwise oh so slowly, just barely enough to see. White dropping, gold ascending.

Transfer, yes. That had happened, and the undoing of it had undone Twilight's entire life. But cutie marks did not move. Could not move. Had never moved in Equestria's history. The images were stable. They did not change in any way, not color, not iconography, not ever. The mark was permanent, fixed forever from the moment of appearance. No magic known to the three races could make it move.

impossible impossible impossible impossible

The Twilight Sparkle who hadn't faced Nightmare Moon would have broken. The one who hadn't been inverted by Discord's influence would have screamed. The young mare from years before seeing Sombra's shadows flowing towards her would have curled up sobbing as the last bit of predictable order in her universe shattered.

The Twilight who had lived through all of it made the effort of her lifetime -- and thought.

"I --" and she gasped again, tried to get her breath, tried to keep her focus, "-- haven't -- heard of it! Maybe it's what you call something I know, but --"

The pegasus stamped her left front hoof: whether in frustration, anger, or pain, Twilight couldn't tell. The air spun faster, made it harder to catch the words -- but catch them Twilight did. "The Great Work! Alicorn! You know! You! Finished! How?!?"

And the impossible flashed across Twilight's mind for the second time, an idea which could not exist, a concept too insane to face, a leap of intuition born from the purest discord...

It couldn't be.

Could not. Should not.

Voicing it would prove it wrong.

"You --" Her bangs whipped as the dust devil vibrated again, her feathers trembled as her wings seemed to try and uselessly unfurl on their own a second time, as the fizzle moved lower on the loop. "-- from the wild zone, you can't be the same, you're not a unicorn! You're not the same pony!"

The laugh, the scream of internal agony expressed as the darkest of humor. "Not -- unicorn. Not -- pegasus. Not -- anything. Failed. Broken. You -- finished. Tell me. How. Tell me -- so -- failures end." And a little softer, the pain coming out more clearly, almost destroying the words, "Others -- need. You -- other three -- finished. You are -- here. Need answers --"

The silver shifted. And the wings -- involuted. They shrank, just slightly, the pinfeathers becoming a little smaller, the wings themselves diminishing just enough to notice. The pegasus screamed, a scream which went no further than Twilight before a new wind ripped it apart, the dark purple-black eyes squeezed shut against the fresh wash of internal acid --

-- the dust devil dissipated.

Twilight fell.

She tried to reorient, tried for the teleport, make it to the roof if nowhere else, but she hadn't been able to get a fix during her time within the wind, too much else to think about, didn't know if she could make it to her most local truly memorized spot within the ravine, had to try --

-- and there was another rush of wind and the sound of wings --

-- but not her own.

Downward momentum went angular, bled off along a new pattern as the pegasus caught her, rushed inches above the ground with Twilight's small body pressed between outstretched front legs, going across most of two fields before the stranger had managed to slow enough to safely drop her. The former unicorn landed on all four hooves, tried to reorient again from the sudden motion. It gave the intruder precious seconds.

"You -- didn't... Fly," she said. "Why. Didn't you --"

Another spasm. She dropped two feet to the ground just as Twilight got her head up again, saw the wings involute just a little more. The white was rotating away. The gold was getting closer to the top. And under the moonlight, there seemed to be just the tiniest purple spot on the pegasus' forehead.

Twilight had the edge: back on the ground, the pegasus distracted by the pain. She marshaled her field, grabbed the intruder, held her hooves against the dirt. "Who are you?" she demanded. "What's wrong? If you --" can't be, can't "-- are the same pony, then let me help you! Nopony should hurt like this!" Pleading, "Please -- if you just give me a chance..."

"A -- chance..."

The wings, just a miniscule percentage smaller than they had been seconds ago, flapped.

Twilight saw the lightning the barest fraction of a second before hearing it, saw the bolt hit the river. Wasn't willing to believe coincidence. Managed to keep her field in place. "How can you do that without contact? How? You weren't even flying around me to create and maintain the funnel! What you're doing isn't thaumaturgically possible! Not for --"

Luna in the Hall Of Legends, with no clouds in sight

It almost made Twilight lose her grip. "-- almost anypony! Just talk to me, and --"

"-- talk..."

The pegasus looked up, seemed to check something behind Twilight. The pained eyes widened with panic. And the wings flapped again.

It was a blast of wind this time, moving playground items which hadn't been put away, lifting them from the grass. Twilight, too close to her last backlash, saw the objects moving and released the field before thinking to track them. The pegasus lifted off, hovered a few feet over the grass.

"Talk," she said. "Talk -- tomorrow. Night. Falls. Tell nopony. Don't -- tell --" A spasm: she nearly fell again. And now there was a new note in the tortured voice: begging. "Don't..."

The wind surged. Dirt and dust were kicked up, went into Twilight's eyes.

And by the time she could see again, the pegasus --

pegasus?

-- was gone.

Naturalism

View Online

It will be one of the happiest days of her life.

She is almost finished completely moving in (a process which has taken two moons), is as close to broke as she has been since fillyhood when her parents (who love her, who don't understand her, don't understand this) would give her a tiny portion of allowance to spend on diluted rainbows and candied cumulus, neither of which ever truly appealed to her. She would spend on fruit. Summer hay. Things from below, even when she was very young, long before she made her first (involuntary) visit. Foodstuffs she can now have all the time if she can just get things going to the point where she'll be able to pay for them -- or simply take advantage of what comes from being on the ground.

The place is truly her own. Her parents gave her the money to pay for it. It was the extensive savings of bits which were originally supposed to be used for weather college, now sunken into ground. They (care for her so much, sometimes look at her as if they can't understand how she could truly be their daughter) had such hopes for her, she knows. So much of her extended family has worked for the Weather Bureau, many high-ranking, some in charge of entire cities, a few even venturing out into the wild zones and trying to establish control before control, taming the worst portions before they can surprise pony lands. And so long before she was born, her parents began to save, for scholarships were hard to come by (although they'd been confident in her -- before she was born) and the best weather colleges were always expensive: even a full break on tuition and a possible legacy discount for board would have meant high expenses for food, books, and everything else that came with higher education -- everything except dating. She gave up on dating while she was still attending the most basic of flight camps, surrendered the idea long before the point of first inquiry to an attack of foal laughter and fled from it, never to return. She has known she would be an old maid of a mare from the age of ten. Nothing has happened to change her mind. She has nothing anypony would desire to be with. She is --

-- defective.

She knows it.

And maybe now it won't matter any more.

She looks around. The land was -- well, cheap, really. She got quite a lot of it for what she had to spend and understands that it's hers, although she's still trying to work out this thing called 'property tax' and hopes it won't come back to haunt her. Nopony else wanted to live here, and she does understand why. The reason scares her, has kept her from sleeping well on those occasions when she does sleep (averaging less than three hours in every day even when she was the tiniest filly, and then a little less after her mark appeared), and she is waiting for something to go wrong there. But in a way -- this is where she had to be.

Still -- she is living right next to a wild zone. The real estate agent had kept explaining that to her, over and over, as if afraid she might come back to sue him over claims that she'd never been told. The strange realm known as the Everfree Forest starts mere hoofsteps away from the edge of her property. He had told her she was barely within the zone of control. Said something she didn't really understand about background effect possibly not reaching her. That he wasn't responsible for whatever scented pony so close to the border and came out to get a closer look -- or worse, like the worse which he never quite discussed, the one which seemed to have happened to the prior occupant. He, in fact, nearly talked her out of it several times, and it was with shaking feathers and chattering teeth that she finally signed the papers (with signature not all that legible), just barely old enough to legally take responsibility on the contract, and she only managed it because she'd been waiting for years to do it and saving up that much courage over so very long had turned out to be just barely enough.

But -- this is where she has to be, isn't it? The animals are in that forest. Some of them may venture out to her. She may (it scares her, it terrifies, it makes all four knees shake) have to go in deep to find them. That's her job. She knows that more strongly that she's ever known anything, and all it sometimes takes to make lingering doubts go away is a glance back at her flank. It felt as if the mark spoke to her on the day it first appeared, told her what she was meant to do and be. And now she is old enough (if just barely) to do and be. She is here, on the ground.

She is home.

For the first time in her life, she is truly home.

And now she is making ready for her first visitor -- well, her first pony visitor, anyway. Some of the animals have already begun to find her -- and the reverse. Resting in her living room right now is a baby -- bunny? Yes, bunny: she's still trying to learn all of the names -- whom she found along the edges of the Everfree during her first cautious peek in. It had been under attack by something which -- well, which had every natural right to attack and eat him because that was how the bigger thing lived. She understands that, knows she'll have to deal with it over and over in the years to come, realized that so early. But it still hadn't made her happy, and she had --

-- done --

-- something.

Eye contact. Something in her stare. Something which makes her a little afraid of herself --

-- but it had worked, and now the tiny bunny (whose parents she could not find) is recovering in her living room. She pulled him out of the cycle when she did that, she knows, felt it on the level of the mark. But -- there's such a thing as pets, right? Pets who aren't birds and bats and the larger insects. Pets are outside the cycle, just a little. Maybe he'd like to be her pet. She'll have to ask him.

She sings to herself as she walks along the ground -- walks! Ground! -- and makes ready. The interior of the cottage has been cleaned, something which has already shown the signs of becoming a permanent struggle: few of her early guests are housebroken. She cleaned the exterior, floor to roof, and was amazed at the solidity against her hooves. Clouds always felt -- too soft. Tacky. Like she was sinking a few centimeters into slightly undermade taffy. Walking across the floors of her parents' house, the streets of Cloudsdale, watching all the pegasi going about their business as if strolling on vapor was the most natural thing in the world -- she never quite got the feel of it or the total feel. And now she knows why. Because this wonderful place was waiting for her, and all it took to make things right -- or at least create the chance for it -- was the arrival of her cutie mark.

That, ultimately, was what her parents had understood. The mark could not be denied. They love her, they wish her well, they did everything they could to help set her up in this new life. Don't understand her at all or how such a strange mark could manifest on their daughter. Still. And they love her anyway.

She checks the little stream. A fish pokes its head out at her, raises back fins slightly out of the water and splashes her face. She laughs.

And her visitor's voice is alight with wonder. "There were days when I never thought I'd hear that, Fluttershy. Never hear you happy."

She doesn't jump or start: he always comes like this, and she's been expecting him all morning. "Doctor!" she laughs again and gallops towards him, almost bowling him over when she makes contact. (She is thin still, just filling out along her body, the stretched-out appearance and overall gawkiness of an early puberty finally starting to fade, but she's stronger than she looks.) "You made it!"

His eyes twinkle. "Did you think I wouldn't come?"

She seems to shrink a little. "...no... just that... there are so many other ponies and..."

A hoof gently touches her chin, props her head up. "Relax, my eldest. I came to see you. My newest friend was two days ago and my next should be here in another three. My time now is for you."

"...but I'm not worth..."

He shushes her. She hugs him with her wings as best she can. And then she begins to show him around.

"A henhouse?" he asks, and his voice is -- amazed. "Were you also planning to take on tenants?"

"Not really," she tells him. "The big farms get most of the boarders, and I'm still getting used to having the ones who don't talk around. But -- I like the chickens, and they like me. A rooster came in two days ago... there's a couple in town who said they always need fresh eggs, and that's a few bits... I know it's going to be hard to keep this place up, but if I line up everything I can -- I did the math, I think I can manage if I just watch my expenses. Boarders wouldn't hurt, but..."

"They talk," he smiles. "Maybe in time --" and the words stop. He is staring. Looking at the ground ahead as if he might never blink again.

"...Doctor?"

"I," he softly declares, "seem to be rather hungry after my journey. Do you think any of those carrots are ready?"

"Yes!" she laughs, and runs into the garden to pull the choicest one out herself, lets his field take it once it clears the ground. "It was one of the first things I began working on when I started moving in two moons ago. It's an earth pony town, at least mainly, and with so many of them -- I just tried, and I could do it! It was so easy! And anything I grow is one less expense, some of it is food I can give the animals..." Her voice fades a little. "I'm still trying to figure out -- meat. I know I'm going to get carnivores. I asked around, and -- the places that make food for pets, they scavenge the wild zones and use magic to clean up -- remains. It's -- not a -- nice job. And I don't have the magic for it, and their needing meat makes those kinds of pet food so expensive..."

"You'll work it out," he tells her, his voice filled with more confidence in her than she ever feels in herself. With pride, "If you got this far, there are no limits to the horizons you can pursue. Just talking your parents into letting you come down... even with your mark, there were times when I thought they'd never let you descend, certainly not while you were still so young. And here you are -- with your own home, the start of your own business..." He is smiling at her, and his eyes are warm and kind. "Show me, Fluttershy. Show me what you can do down here, with creatures other than the ones you know."

She doesn't ask. She doesn't question. She is just happy, fully within the realm of her cutie mark, in the heart of her talent, standing on her own ground and about to do what she can manage better than anypony in front of somepony she loves. And she looks out at the border --

-- there. Most would see a hole in a tree. She sees a home. And she makes a sound, a noise she hadn't known she could make or was even aware of until that moment, a sound she's never heard before and one entirely natural to her.

The creature pokes out a nose. Then a head, and little paws that look as if they can grasp. The rest shortly follows, concluding with a tail large enough to drape across its entire body and provide shade for everything below. She laughs to see it, kindly. The creature doesn't mind: it runs up to her, nose twitching, makes a sound like a light squeal, the twin to the one she'd just created -- then runs up her left hind leg and stands on her back, upright on rear paws.

"What is it?" she softly asks. "I know it's a friend..."

"It's called a squirrel," he tells her. "You've never seen one before?"

She shakes her head -- then corrects herself. "I have, once -- that first day -- but I didn't know the name, and there's so many books -- I didn't speak to one until just now, not personally... Oh -- I think I upset..." It has jumped off her back and run to the tree, back into the hole -- but seconds later, it's returning to her. "Um... what do you think I should do?"

"Say thank you," he suggests. "But tell it --"

"Her."

"-- tell her you don't really need the nut right now, but you're grateful for the offer and will remember it."

She does. The squirrel chatters at her, looks pleased, and leaves. She glances back at her visitor.

There are tears in his eyes.

"...Doctor?" Has she done something wrong? The other pegasi -- her parents -- so many ponies who felt this was wrong, that it was even cutie mark as another sign of defect -- he can't be one of them, would never be, just can't...

He trots closer, puts his front legs over her shoulders, gives her the nuzzle meant for family.

"You are exactly where you should be," he tells her. "Exactly who you should be. Never forget that. In all this world, you are unique. Your gifts... you are a wonder, Fluttershy. My first, my eldest -- my special filly..."

She nuzzles him back. And she is happy.

The rest of the day will be spent with him. He will remain by her side as they finish the tour of the cottage and the surrounding grounds. He stays with her as she summons her courage (so much easier with company) and ventures a little way into the wild zone to meet new friends. He will be there in the late afternoon when a stranger with a sick pet comes down the approach road, disgusted by the town vet's inability to diagnose her companion's illness and willing to try anything new to give that friend a chance. (She works it out within minutes: eating the half-dried paint in the new colt's bedroom.) He helps her speak to the first of her clients, sets a pay scale, gives her still more books on animal medicine and a few bottles to get her private pharmacy started, along with tomes of herb lore and some exotic instruments reconfigured for mouth operation so she can start mixing some medicines on her own.

It is the warm spring day when she finally feels complete, with warm ground under her hooves, the smell of animals and fresh earth, and a kind voice guiding her through the first of what will be so many to come. The day she knows that she is truly -- exactly where and who she should be. And on days when she still has doubts, afternoons where her fears threaten to overwhelm her, or nights after being with the one who always believed she would find her way, she comes back to this place in her nightscape and lives through all of it again.

It is one of the happiest days of her life.

And then she hears thunder in the distance.

There was no lightning that day.

Fluttershy woke up.

It was habit, too deeply ingrained to break: growing up in a family grooming her for the Weather Bureau (generally in spite of herself) plus knowing how easily some of her animal friends could be spooked by lightning -- she always had the Ponyville weather schedule memorized and Rainbow Dash had made a permanent bolt strike exception for her cottage: lightning came down around her property -- there was nothing Dash could do about that -- but never on. It helped a little with the noise from the thunder, at least until an unnatural front blew out of her neighboring wild zone and startled everypony anyway. (There had been a major unexpected one two weeks prior, but it had gone over her and continued into the Everfree. Rainbow Dash claimed to have no idea how it had started in pony territory, was still searching for the culprit, and Fluttershy believed her -- especially after she'd seen Rarity marching across town in the affronted huff of the falsely accused.)

So almost as soon as she'd gotten into the castle, she'd timidly asked Mister Presence for a copy of the local schedule, which he'd kindly given her. There was a big storm on the calendar -- but it wasn't supposed to come in for a while. There was no lightning set up for this night, and her first thought was that Rainbow Dash had found somepony to prank -- but at this hour? Dash never saw this hour unless she was approaching it from the other side. The sound struck her as strange, and strange was what they were supposed to be looking for. She got up.

"...light?" she cautiously asked. The enchanted lamps turned on. Fluttershy exhaled and trotted to the window for a closer look. It couldn't hurt to check -- probably. Peeked outside, shaking her head a little to clear sleep-pressed mane away from one eye --

--- Twilight. On one of the sports fields. With a tall pegasus. The glow of Twilight's field around the stranger's hooves. And the pegasus looked up, saw Fluttershy's silhouette within the backlit window --

-- a window just large enough for Fluttershy to climb out of. She launched --

-- but it was already too late. By the time she reached Twilight's position, the stranger had taken off and put distance between herself and the two of them. Too much distance. There was no way for Fluttershy to catch up, especially given the speed the other pegasus had been moving at. Fluttershy could -- well, not barely fly, no matter how much the chorus of memory tried to insist on it. But her maneuverability was less than perfect, her typical speed low, and there were times when flight was the last option she thought of -- and that generally when it was already too late. She could fly well enough to get by, at least as far as the average unicorn and earth pony were concerned. Among other pegasi -- no. And against one who had just put on a burst of speed nearly suitable to Rainbow Dash, even if it had all been low to the ground...

Which meant she had other priorities. "...Twilight? Are you okay?" Because her friend looked -- deeply shaken. Scared. Sick. No, she wasn't okay at all. "Is there anything I can do? Do you want me to get the others? Do we have to chase her?" Whoever that had been, it was a pony who'd upset Twilight as much as she'd ever seen her friend upset. Frightened on a level which a pre-reformation Discord hadn't been able to inflict. Shaken to the point where a moon's worth of letters would have had to go missed and every last one sent before that returned with a single word stamped across all of them: WRONG. "What happened?"

"...impossible," Twilight muttered, seemingly not fully aware of Fluttershy's presence. "That's -- impossible..." And a hard head shake: wind-blown bangs settled partially back into place. "I -- I think the mission just came to me, Fluttershy. I think she's coming back tomorrow night -- to talk. And --" She turned to face Fluttershy, and she was shaking "-- oh Luna, oh Celestia, Fluttershy, Discord was right -- something is so wrong, wrong like I've never seen or imagined -- wrong that shouldn't be -- but she is..." Blinking away tears of pain witnessed and not helped. "I want to -- wake up. I keep trying to wake up and make this not be and go to Luna, ask why she wouldn't stop that kind of dream within seconds. But I am awake, and it's all so wrong..."

Fluttershy had known Twilight was stressed, was more aware of it than any of the others. Had seen the worries settling in after the change, the fears she couldn't identify and still recognized as such. Fluttershy knew fear. How to recognize it, always: deal with it, hardly ever. Had been afraid for her friend without knowing how to fix it. Now she saw her friend on the verge of drowning in hurt -- both for the stranger she'd had a mere glimpse of and the personal piled-up agonies which Twilight didn't know how to deal with. And all Fluttershy could do was softly ask "...are you hurt?" Knowing the emotional status answer wouldn't come.

"...no. Not -- physically. She caught me in time."

"...you fell? But --"

"There was -- a miniature tornado -- I think it's called a dust devil -- just big enough to hold me, and she held me..." Large purple eyes looked at her as more tears fell away. "It's -- too late to follow her. Too late for -- I should have, I should..." Stopped. "We -- can't do anything tonight. The others -- need rest, and she won't come back. Not yet. I'm sure of that. We have an appointment. I..."

Twilight collapsed. Her legs gave way under her, head dropped, tail drooped.

"It's wrong... and -- it might be my fault..."

Fluttershy dropped down next to Twilight, did the only thing she could: pressed tightly against her friend and let the tears fall on her again. "...please, Twilight -- let me help... you have to let all of us --"

"-- not tonight," Twilight whispered. "No good to do anything tonight. How did you even know?"

"...I heard the lightning -- I knew we didn't have any on the schedule -- it woke me up... Twilight, please talk to me... please..."

Her friend took a slow, shuddering breath. "Tomorrow -- we can talk about all of it -- tomorrow. We should -- just get back to our rooms. Before anypony else wakes up and sees us out here."

And Fluttershy knew Twilight was lying. They would talk tomorrow, all of them. About the mission. About what had happened on the field and above it. But not about what was truly important.

The only thing Fluttershy could do was keep trying. Keep waiting. Keep being there.

"...all right. But... I'm staying with you tonight. Don't argue."

Which got a tiny smile. "I won't."

They went back to the castle. And in time, Twilight fell into a restless sleep, hooves pushing against covers and rendering blankets into a shapeless mass of displaced stress. Fluttershy knew because she saw all of it, curled up at the end of the mattress, watching. She'd had enough sleep for one night.

Fluttershy watched over her friend.

Guarding.

Helpless.

Guarding anyway.

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The early morning consisted of three conversations. The first was the quickest, and it began with words she'd been longing to say ever since the mission/disaster-potentially-in-progress had begun -- even if she couldn't follow them with the three which might have made everything better. "Spike? Take a letter."

The little dragon sat up straighter in his basket. "Really? Who am I sending to? Because 'Dear Princess Celestia' is kind of off the map right now."

"You'll know when I start dictating it." He shrugged, glanced at Fluttershy's tail as its end swished around the last bit of doorway, the pegasus heading for the bathroom. Visibly decided not to ask just yet, went into Twilight's saddlebags and fished around until he had the scroll and ink, stood at the ready. "Dear --"

Spike listened, wrote it all down without questioning the contents, let Twilight sign it herself, and then glanced at his older sister. "Okay, Twilight -- the next part is you. And I know you packed it because I just saw it. Do you think she'll be able to handle it?"

"I believe in her," Twilight replied. "She -- has enough skill to work it out. I just hope this works at all -- we haven't really tried it before."

("Failed. Broken.")

The little dragon sighed. "I don't believe you packed it. I just saw it and I don't believe it."

"It was a mission. It felt like a good time to try it out. Are you arguing the results?"

"Not until it blows up in my face," Spike grumbled. "Okay..." He went back into the saddlebags, rummaged. "Got it." The thin vial was hematite: carefully hollowed, just large enough to hold about an ounce of fluid -- or something else. "At least my part's easy..." A deep breath, he pursed his lips into the tiniest circle he could manage, looking exactly like he had the day he took (and lost) the bet about blowing up two hundred of Pinkie's balloons in a row -- and exhaled a single wisp of flame, jamming the jade stopper onto the vial a split-second later. "Your turn."

Twilight nodded and captured the vial within her field, let it float in front of her eyes. Concentrated -- then stopped. "Umm -- you might want to stand --" and he was already in the doorway. "Voice of experience, Mr. Spike?"

"Voice of painful experience," he corrected -- but wouldn't go any further than that, just in case she needed him. "It's all you, Twilight."

She focused. The edges of her vision started to fade into white as the second corona appeared.

Reach. Feel the dragon flame within the vial. Touch it. There is no burn, there is no heat: it's just imagination. It's just energy, and it's an energy I know. Diffuse -- but diffuse without losing strength. Let part of it blend into the vial, just for a few minutes. There's space available. Space within solids. A grid: plenty of room. Let the solids not just envelop the flame, but hold it. Move it delicately -- and make a cage. Temporary. It'll have to flow back out and she'll need all of it. Diffuse and suffuse, just for now. It's not paper or parchment, but it has to move like them, and the only way it can do that is if the magic considers it to be part of the flame itself. Have it be two things at once and keep it that way for just long enough...

She could feel it happening as the vial glowed, the green of Spike's flames shimmering throughout the hematite and adding extra highlights to the jade --

"-- got it!" She let the corona drop one stage at a time as Spike ran back in and plucked the vial from her fading field. "Quickly, Spike -- I don't know how long they'll stay united! It'll just harmlessly leak back into the vial, but...!"

He nodded, claws working furiously to tie the vial to the scroll. "On it!"

"And it's all you now," she told him. "Can you hit her?"

"I think so -- I wish I knew where she was, but it's not like we ever know unless she's right on top of us... I'll use the aimfiz variant: that should target the pony instead of the location." Spike took another deep breath. "Here goes..." He exhaled a second time, and this flame had a faint purple tinge along the edges of the green.

The scroll vanished.

So did the vial.

Twilight laughed, the joyous mirth of having made a spell that much better, of having done something right -- and incidentally, the laugh of a pony who might be sending a missive to the Equestrian Magic Society in a few days. "It works! -- well, at least for just sending it along, we don't know if it got there yet, but it works!"

Spike took what he could get and grinned, gently hugging her front legs. "She got it. I'm sure she got it. It's not like Princesses, where I could mix them up..."

"You were stressed, we all were, and it's over," Twilight assured him. "So..." The momentary happiness had already begun to fade.

Spike sighed. "So -- now we wait."

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The second would come back to her later, and it began with a thin grey unicorn stallion leaning against the edge of a doorway, one who was looking vaguely bemused. "Twilight?"

Where did he -- wait... who is... Oh! "Good morning, Quiet," Twilight greeted her host. "Did you sleep well?"

"I'm pretty sure that's supposed to be my question for you," the noble-of-sorts replied. "Although I do have a few potential others, starting with this one: do you know where you are?"

Twilight was momentarily confused. "You said this was your main armor room."

He nodded. "Good. You have a location. You know it's an armor room and you're aware it's mine, if only by inheritance -- I never purchased any of the stuff and I'm certainly not about to try carrying that much steel on my frame. Your little head injury hasn't touched your memory. That's a positive sign. So next up would probably be -- and why are you floating so many of the pieces around the place while taking what looks to be some very extensive notes?"

She blushed. "Umm..." One of the helmets (a pegasus style: the back was aerodynamically low to the (currently absent) skull and there was no hole for a horn) dipped a little closer to the floor. "...I had trouble sleeping last night, and -- I was up pretty early -- and you said nopony had ever cataloged this, so I thought..."

("Failed. Broken.")

"Which at least tells me how you slept," Quiet dryly noted. "I'll try not to take it as a personal offense against my guest rooms." Then, with a little extra humor, "And is this what you always do when you aren't sleeping well and get up too early?"

"Well -- no. I usually just wind up doing some spell research, or checking in some new books -- reshelving, that's always a big concern -- getting letters ready for sending to ponies whose late fees are piling up, even when I know they're going to ignore them..." She sighed at that last. "I've been working on a spell which would automatically teleport overdue books back, but --" and for a rare once, stopped herself. "-- you probably don't want to hear about that."

He raised his left eyebrow. "A teleport spell that goes off on its own and brings something back to a preassigned point? Just because I can't do it doesn't mean I'm not curious about how it would be done. I'm already imagining what it would mean for security device sales. Valuables which could be stolen by any thief without the owner having to worry because they'd be back a week later... you could make me a much richer pony, Twilight, if you'd just allow me to handle the marketing..."

She couldn't repress a giggle. "It's dragon flame based. So far, it would probably only work on paper. It's the timed release that's the biggest problem..." Not to mention (and she wasn't going to just yet) keeping it from consuming the pages.

Quiet smiled. "All the better to safeguard my own library, then. I know I have some books I don't want to lose -- things I don't even like loaning because I'll never see another copy..."

Her eyes were sparkling. She knew it. She didn't care. "You have a library?"

"Did we miss that on the tour? Yes, but -- probably not entirely to your taste. I mostly collect tomes of unicorn history -- and your face tells me you're at least still curious. All right -- maybe later: I typically don't even get that far before the colts and fillies pretend to fall asleep... And you're -- actually a librarian? Truly? I saw that mentioned in an article, but..." He groaned softly, rested his head against the door frame. "...well, let's just say I was considering the source at the time. And in this case, the source was Murdocks and they also wanted me to believe you were conducting experiments to take over the world with a magically-created army of earth ponies who were, for some reason, pink. I've already dismissed the part about your keeping a dragon in abject slavery -- you're blushing." Surprised. "Dear Celestia, I know none of that tripe could have been accurate, but please don't be embarrassed by somepony else's rather stupid lies."

"It -- wasn't what happened," Twilight sighed. "Yes -- I'm really the town librarian for Ponyville."

Quiet looked as if there were about a hundred questions he wanted to ask: all of them were reshelved in favor of "Still?"

"Still," she confirmed. "The Princess never changed my posting -- and now you're blushing."

The shade deepened. "It's just -- not what I would have pictured you doing -- all right, after seeing this --" a nod towards the floating armor "-- it's exactly what I would have pictured you doing, but it's not what most ponies would ever expect from somepony of your new status -- Luna's mane, that's why you need to recover books, isn't it? Autograph seekers and sellers..." He spotted the wince. "Twilight, I know this is an odd thing to say and -- I know it's very personal, especially given that we've basically just met and spent most of our introduction titling each other but..." Softly, "...it hasn't all been coronations and dances, has it? Celebrity isn't a double-edged blade, just a single -- and the pony holding it is the only one who ever seems to get cut."

She blinked. Stared up at him as the armor pieces in her field threatened to dip into the stone. Couldn't bring herself to answer.

("Failed. Broken.")

"The funny thing," Quiet gently continued, "is that I think most ponies envy you -- on instinct. The mares dream of being a Princess and stallions -- well, I guess we'd need a precedent and some would probably think there was a mandatory gender switch involved, but -- there's envy there at the core for so many. To become a Princess and everything we think goes with it -- but what we think about is coronations and dances. Not having to be introduced to every pony at the dance and never getting to take the floor..." He shifted his position slightly, rotated an aching shoulder. "I have -- a little celebrity -- well, of sorts, although it mostly slips everypony's mind. I am the ranking noble for the area, although my family very happily granted over whatever authority we had to the mayoralty a few centuries ago because the generation at the time frankly couldn't be bothered -- and believe me, I have no desire to get it back. All being the reigning Lord and Heir to the House of Deluge gets me is some party invitations to events I don't want to attend, the right to get the entire town on my lawn a few times a year, and any number of charitable organizations asking me for donations when I have to think about keeping a group of servants in happy employment: I have enough bits, but..." A pained shrug. "My title is -- other than being boring, mostly an annoyance. But I can still go out and wander freely as -- just another unicorn. And you can't any more. I'm imagining what it would feel like to lose that, and..." He couldn't finish. Looked at her, almost helplessly, as if not knowing whether there were still words which could be said at all.

"Say it," Twilight whispered.

Quiet took as deep a breath as he could manage, his face twitching at the ache it brought. "...you have my admiration, Twilight. You would have had that without wings. But I can't give you my envy."

Twilight had been through awkward silences before. The one which had descended on the library after she'd explained the last part of Want It, Need It to the Princess: that was her all-time entry. It was closely followed by that which had resulting from trying to tell Shining Armor about her entrance exam -- and leaving a very deliberate gap in the tale. And then there was this one. Third place with a sling dart.

"I --" she breathed, "-- don't want it..."

They stayed in their respective positions for several heartbeats. Armor dipped, rose, moved out of the way.

Finally, he trotted in, sat down next to her and began to read her notes. "So," he restarted casually, "have you found anything of particular interest? Such as why I have all these pegasus pieces around the place when I'm not sure my family hired a single winged soldier since we moved here?"

"I'm not sure they were soldiers to begin with," Twilight quickly replied. "The colors on this one -- I'd have to recheck my own shelves, but I'm pretty sure this is from a mercenary company. Rainbow Dash asked for the book a few moons ago and I paged through it -- see what looks to be spaces from missing feathers along the side plumes? That's not battle damage or age: that's deliberate -- it means the pony who wore it hadn't taken down enough of the enemy to completely fill it in yet."

Quiet winced. "Let me guess -- counting coup, right? A feather from each fallen enemy?" She nodded. "Do I really want to know what they took if they brought down a unicorn or earth pony? -- no, wait: I do. It's better that I get this over with than allow Princess Luna to clean up after my imagination tonight. Let's hear it."

She told him. And they talked about it and the natural tangents until Rainbow Dash finally struggled out of bed.

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The third brought the most immediate hurt.

They'd had breakfast (a mere three courses, with the Doctor fully absent this time -- he'd gone out to greet those arriving on the early train in the name of getting them home more quickly) and then made their excuse, which was a simple one: explore a little in Sun. Twilight had assured Quiet they'd be there long enough for the party ("You're holding me to that? Tartarus chain it, the entire town probably will too...") and that they'd be back by late afternoon, so please let the Doctor know she'd have Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie around in time to chat. He'd told them to be careful if they went into the wild zone because Coordinator had been all too full of himself for juggling so many search parties and the last thing he wanted to see was the speckled unicorn enjoying himself as it was done all over again. And off they'd gone.

Fluttershy seemed to have kept her silence throughout the morning, at least about what she'd seen and what a shaken Twilight had said to her -- Twilight thought. It almost felt as if the others were giving her some -- well, strange looks as they made their way out of town via the most secluded path Rainbow Dash had been able to survey from the air. Or maybe I'm just thinking about it too much. Reading too much into things. Going through too many emotions...

Spell experimentation (although with a planned letter). Cataloging. Talks. All self-distraction. She knew it. Nothing stopped her from knowing it. And she did it anyway, just about every time. Compulsive behavior. Denial expressed as action. What was sometimes obsessive action. Trying not to think about what had happened before the Sun had risen until she had to. Constantly failing. And now -- she had to relive it, tell the others everything...

So she waited until they had reached a clearing far enough away from the town, a hollow in the pines which looked as if somepony had been clearing land for a new residence and then changed their mind -- no, and left: they found the dirt-shrouded foundations of the former home as they moved closer to the center. Somepony had been here, decades ago -- and then departed. Nothing left but carefully arranged stone in a place the trees could not reclaim.

Twilight told them everything.

And in almost immediate retrospect, she had told them too much.

It didn't hit immediately. When she finally stopped and the last tears of empathy had fallen from pony eyes (along with one dragon who was looking with a little too much determination at his own feet), things began normally enough: with her own summation. "Let me talk for a few more minutes, everypony -- I know you have a lot of questions, but this -- well, it won't take that many of them away, but I might beat you to a few." They agreed. "At this point, I think she is the reason we're here. I think --" and this part was still hard to say, the words continuing to carve trails of near-disbelief across her sanity "-- the unicorn from the wild zone and the pegasus from last night are the same pony. I don't know how. But -- I didn't feel any magic last night. Not unicorn magic. There are ways to disguise a field, and some unicorns have one that's naturally hard to spot. You probably saw Quiet's while he was eating -- or barely saw it. He's one of the few whose field just operates on that level. It runs in certain families. But -- I could still feel him moving his food if I tried for it. Last night -- things got confused, and I know I'm still trying to sort everything out. I'm sorry about that, and I'll come back to something if I catch up with it later. But I'm sure I didn't feel a field at work. Because I don't think it was a field. Right now, I think it was pegasus magic -- something close to what Luna uses when she sets the clouds off at a distance."

Rainbow Dash was frowning, concentrating more deeply than Twilight had ever seen the pegasus focus when she wasn't figuring out a trick. Fluttershy was trembling. They all continued to listen.

Twilight forced herself to go on. "What she called The Great Work -- from what she said, she sees it as the process of becoming -- an alicorn. She called herself --" and it nearly took everything she had to voice the words which kept echoing in her head "-- 'Failed. Broken.' Like she tried to become an alicorn -- and what I saw last night was the result. She wanted to know -- how I'd done it. How I had managed it when she couldn't. And -- when she comes back tonight -- she'll want answers." She had to will herself to breathe. "Answers I don't have. And she implied it was about -- other ponies. 'Tell me so failures end. Others need.' Like there are more ponies who might try to -- change -- and she's what happens if they get it wrong. But -- I don't know how ponies try. How it works. How it -- fails... or if it's failed before, and she's just the latest victim, and..." She couldn't continue. Not at full volume. The last words were a whisper, the words she had to say because they were so probably true, and if she didn't, Fluttershy would bring it up, had heard them already and wouldn't keep them a secret, not those horrible words, what was nearly the only possible conclusion and lone truth. "...it could be -- my fault." Raised a hoof, stopped the babble of protest before it really started. "No. Think about it, everypony. I just changed a few weeks ago. Cadance -- I don't know exactly when she changed. Or even if she did." Why hadn't she ever asked? How many chances had she missed? "But I'm pretty sure she was around before I was born. Which means I was the first pony in at least a generation to -- change. Maybe -- depending on --" she forced herself to focus on Pinkie "-- whether -- " and it was still barely emerging "-- the Princesses were ever -- anything -- else -- maybe the first ever. So suddenly, everypony knows it can happen. Which means some of them are going to be thinking about how to make it happen -- how to become Princesses or even Princes themselves. And she -- didn't make it, and if I hadn't changed, then ponies wouldn't be trying, and -- there could be others. There probably will be others. She knows some, and... if they don't make it..."

It was all she had. All the self-hatred, all the blame. She stopped and looked at the ground. The lost foundation did not threaten to crumple beneath her. That was the job of her legs, and she laid down in the dust before it could happen. The others all laid down with her.

"It's -- not you, Twilight." Spike: she felt his claws running through her mane. "The Princesses have been around for a long time. Princess Celestia -- you know there were attempts to seize the throne. You thought they would make good funny bedtime stories for me because some of them were so stupid. Like all the ones after Nightmare Moon was banished because some idiot ponies thought the Princess would be weak alone. Ponies have been trying to get power for a long time. I bet ponies have tried to become alicorns before this. Lots of them. We just didn't hear about it because --"

She cut him off. "-- because they failed? But if they failed -- you'd think nothing would have happened, Spike. Just a very frustrated pony who was still a normal pony. Because I don't know any magic which would do it. Just the Elements -- maybe -- and I don't even know how those work! Their magic is so powerful -- but it's also so subtle. I know each is connected to one of us -- now. When I gave you Rainbow's necklace -- I really thought it had a little chance to work. You've always been loyal: I thought it would feel that in you and activate. It didn't. It's tied to Rainbow Dash for -- the rest of her life. And I can't feel that connection: I only know it's there based on effect. I don't know if the Elements just transported me to that place where I spoke to the Princess and I did the rest from there. If I did do it myself -- can it only happen in that realm? Did the Elements prepare me, send me halfway and then I finished the process? And if I did do something on my own, I don't know what or how! But if it was the Elements to any degree -- she didn't use them. I know they haven't been out of the vaults at any time when we weren't using them, except for that brief time when Discord was hiding them -- and I really don't think he can use them. He can't connect." She wanted to blame him. She couldn't. "Which says they might be necessary, and she's as far as you can go without them -- or that there might be all sorts of different routes and she took another one which still failed -- or all they did was send me to the Princess for a talk first..." She was repeating herself, the circle back at the beginning of the groove. "I don't know anything, Spike! All I have are questions! And she needs answers. To keep other ponies from going through that. I don't ever want to see another pony hurting that way. But if I even knew how it worked and told her -- why did she try to change? What was she going to do as a Princess? Just -- be an alicorn and call it done? Take the throne? Find her own thing to be a Princess of? I don't know her. Just that -- she's hurting. And I -- want to make that hurt stop... but I don't know her as a pony. What happens if we fix her? Complete the change or even send her back to where she was? What's her personality? Is she a good pony? A bad one? I --"

Stopped.

Fluttershy sighed, scraped at the ground with wings and hooves. "...it's not your fault, Twilight. But... I know you want to help, I do too... but I understand what you're saying. All kinds of ponies might try to become alicorns, and some of them might not be... nice. Can you imagine -- the Flim-Flam brothers if they were --" trying out the word "-- Princes?"

Applejack groaned. "Yeah, Fluttershy, Ah can. An' thank y'kindly for puttin' that picture in mah head. They'd try it, all right, if they thought they had a way. Princes Of Rip-Off Businesses. Short-sighted ones, too. An' they would have been able t' keep the Acres that way..." A slow head shake. "Jus' for starters."

Rainbow Dash switched concentration for confusion. "Keep the Acres?"

Applejack blinked, looked at the ground as if the words she'd just spoken might be lying there and she could get them back into her mouth before anypony else noticed. Reluctantly, "Well -- y'know, they're -- unicorns. So if they hadn't gone an' ran -- well, we wouldn't be workin' the land any more. So the Effect would've -- gotten weaker. With Golden Harvest an' the other farmers around, it wouldn't have gone away completely. But Ah don't think there would've been enough left for them t' keep runnin' the Acres at full production with no earth ponies makin' a personal effort. Unless they spent a big bundle t' keep ponies on the place -- and jus' cider sales wouldn't pay for it -- Ah would have given it a crop or two before the Effect dropped too low t' keep goin'. Ah know we didn't technically lose the Acres in that bet -- jus' the cider sales rights. But without 'em, we wouldn't have had the bits to keep goin' ourselves. Probably would have sold 'em the land -- on purpose. Hopin' it would stop producin' fast enough to chase 'em off -- an' then if we were lucky and no other pony got there first, maybe we could've brought it back cheap. They were parasprites, Dash. Come, eat, ruin everything an' leave. Parasprites don't care 'bout what happens to the husks. They never could've made it work without a partnership... they were jus' too blind t' see it." A tiny shrug. "Y'know something? Before Ah saw what we could all do goin' full speed like that? If they'd said twenty percent them, eighty us? Ah would have agreed t' try it for a day an' see how it went. But -- parasprites. Never leave anythin' behind..."

"So how do they keep them if they're alicorns?"

Applejack didn't answer. Twilight did. "I guess because alicorns are part earth pony, too -- the Princesses could probably bring the Effect on their own if they wanted to. The palace gardens hold on really well given how big they are, how few earth ponies live and work in the city, and how much variety the Princesses put in. Maybe they're maintaining everything there almost by themselves."

"That sounds right." Pinkie, who wasn't looking at Applejack. "That's only common sense."

As if every letter had been dragged out of her by lasso, "Yeah," the farmer agreed. "Common -- sense. Still leaves us with the other problem? Look -- Ah don't know if y'all remember, but we can't get the Elements. That was one of the rules, an' Ah don't even wanna think 'bout what happens if we try t' break it. If the Elements could fix her -- finish it or send her back -- we can't use 'em. Can't ask the Princesses t' do it neither. Gotta take those two things out right now before we start countin' on 'em. Sorry t' be harsh, but -- some truths are hard ones. We're stuck. Maybe we can find out what she used an' fix that one way or another, but -- goes back t' what Twilight said. If we don't know how it works..."

Twilight sighed "...then we don't know where and how it can go wrong."

"It's not as if we don't have somepony to ask, though," Rarity pointed out. "She knows what she did to get -- where she is. She can walk us through it step by step. Every trick, every bit of magic. What concerns me is -- her cutie mark." It was her turn to dig a little trench. "I've been -- thinking about that. Not that -- hollow. The presence. And I would guess it's something none of us really want to think about -- but unfortunately, that apparently means it falls to me." And of all the possible subjects, she looked at Spike before she continued, her voice soft and gentle. "Twilight -- dear -- it may not be possible to fix her. Not at all."

It might have been something Twilight had been thinking about. Or something she'd been trying not to think about, succeeding for a rare change. Possibly an idea she'd refused to confront at all -- and here Rarity was dragging it out under the Sun. "What makes you say that?"

"Because -- it is the cutie mark." Cautiously, white hooves picking their way through a field of quicksand, "I was thinking about -- the shape you described. And the movement. Assume for a moment there is no conspiracy of sisters or magic Twilight couldn't feel -- an illusion strong enough to cover the mark and temporarily replace it with one that seemed to shift. Believe, if you will, that everything seen was the truth. I'm not trying to sound condescending, really -- we may prove otherwise later, but for this purpose, I just need everypony to accept that for a moment as an absolute reality." Slow, reluctant nods around the circle: some (including Twilight) were still hoping for a trick.

"Very well," Rarity continued. "It seems to me that she's essentially bearing -- a clock. Each loop represents one of the three main pony races. The white is clearly pegasus. Given the color of her field, gold would be unicorn. Green then becomes earth pony. You can all see that, yes?" Agreement, just as slow as the first round of nods. "Think on what Twilight said. The silver is near the top of the pegasus stage, but it's dropping. The white loop is pointing nearly straight up -- but it moves back as the silver drops. And the gold is coming around to the top. So as the silver moves down, she becomes less and less pegasus. The white -- moving away. The silver simply shows how much of her is pegasus at the time. When it's at the absolute ascent or close to it, she is completely a pegasus -- or as close as she can come. Based on what happened -- complete. As it drops -- less. At some point, the silver would have to cross loops -- and then she would start to become more and more unicorn, until that descended -- and so on. Over and over -- and --" She shuddered. "-- that is the pain. Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy have muscles the rest of us do not. Bones. Feathers. I know pegasus anatomy: I must in order to design for it. Their musculature around their rib cages -- and even through them, to an extent -- is completely different from that of an earth pony or unicorn. To truly transform oneself into a pegasus -- bones would have to grow. Muscles rearrange. Joints simply appear. You can all see that, I trust?" They could, and the looks of discomfort and empathy aches showed they had anticipated the next part. "Now -- imagine how that would feel. And then how it feels to have all of it go away. How do the new bones vanish? Do they simply become nothing? Do they break? And pushing against the skin from the inside, constantly..." There was an underlayer of green beneath the white. "I can imagine it. But I never want to go through it. Cosmetic magic -- all the kinds I've heard of -- only affects the outermost parts of a pony. Change the color of a coat or mane. The wings Twilight gave me -- an artificial construct: no part of my actual body, just made to respond to my thoughts. Anything deeper than that..." She looked to Twilight.

"The Princesses." Twilight gave her that. "I've heard stories that they can completely change -- at least to the shapes of other ponies. Rumors that they -- well, go out in disguise sometimes. I don't know if it's true, but you'd have to think if any pony could -- just them."

Rarity nodded, resumed. "And there is her agony -- or at least part of it. As we discussed in the Hall, Twilight and I have a sense that the rest of you lack: our feel of magic and its use. And -- Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash -- I am sorry, I know this may be somewhat personal -- you have a sense we lack, do you not? Something within your sense of touch, at the very least, to feel the density of a cloud? Or within feathers for the flow of wind?" Rainbow Dash slowly nodded. "Applejack and Pinkie Pie --" (the farmer tensed, held her breath) "-- perhaps you can tell how promising soil is with a single glance and have a feel for what would grow there best?"

"Ah -- think that's -- safe t' say," Applejack just barely got out. "Sure. A feel for it. Each of us with one of our own -- an' she would have all three, wouldn't she? One at a time, comin' an' goin', not understandin' 'em, an' --"

She went pale as her tail gave one mighty lash. Her hat slipped.

Rarity misinterpreted it. "Yes. Chaos in her mind to go with that in her body." Sadly, "The poor mare must be struggling moment by moment to simply exist -- or even want to. And -- she may have been doing so for years." A little faster, "Twilight -- there may be ponies who try to become alicorns because you did. That is possible, and if it happens or threatens to do so and go wrong, we will deal with it if we can, as best we can. But she? Is not your fault. Because -- it is the cutie mark. Please, all of you -- think. About what that means."

They did. And Twilight (who might have been thinking about it in her subconscious all along, who refused to remember her dreams from the previous night) got there first.

"It means --" oh no "-- her talent -- is for transformation." With sickness rising, "The focus of her personal inherent magic -- the unalterable destiny of her cutie mark -- is change. It's -- built into who she is. She's been this way ever since her mark appeared. By the Princesses -- how does that happen? How does a pony wind up with that on her flank? How can that kind of talent even exist?"

"I don't know," Rarity said, her voice the tiniest break from weeping. "But -- you see the problem. One cannot cure a cutie mark. One cannot change it. Not even the Princesses could manage such a feat. There is a spell to block access to one's talent, if I remember my final year of school correctly -- but only the best casters in the world can do it, and it lasts but for seconds. It might be possible to transfer her mark by using Star Swirl's spell once again -- but to whom? What pony would bear that curse? We would give one a life by destroying another -- at best: with us, only the mark moved -- not our talents. What if we somehow wound up cursing two ponies that way? She is -- what she is, Twilight. And given the typical age when a mark appears, she was like this long before you even heard of the Elements. Her attempt to become an alicorn... likely took place when she was a filly. The years -- spent in that kind of -- I am going to be sick..."

She got to her hooves, ran off a short distance down the approach path and into the bushes, left them all to the company of thoughts which refused to leave. Thoughts that went unvoiced.

Finally, Rarity returned and took her place in the circle again. "I am sorry," she told them. "I pictured it -- too clearly, I suppose."

"...I was almost right behind you," Fluttershy whispered. "You can't cure a cutie mark. I've heard of parents who -- hated the talent their child had and tried to change it after the fact... stories I never wanted to hear twice..."

Twilight shuddered. "There's just as bad on the other end. Ones who try to stall marks indefinitely if they feel the 'wrong' talent is coming. If you ever wanted to see the Princess furious..." She had attended a few trials during her school years: the Princess had wanted her to see how parts of the legal system worked. One of them... "But if I had a filly and knew that mark was coming -- Luna's shoes, I would try to stop it with everything I had." A child of hers in that much pain and is that what happens when alicorns have children? No, please, don't let that be it, anything but that... She just barely managed to push the thought aside. Let it torment her later: other horrors had the floor. "You're right, Rarity -- you and Fluttershy both. I hate that you're right -- but you are. A cutie mark has no cure. It just is. That's going to be her for the rest of her life. We might be able to work out what went wrong with her and stop it from happening to somepony else, but -- it can't be fixed." Fluttershy was softly crying, empathic agony for a patient beyond cure. She wasn't the only one. "Is there anything we could do for her?"

"...painkillers?" Fluttershy faintly proposed. "...strong ones? But -- anything that strong would have long-term consequences, and -- I don't know if anything is strong enough... I can check the pharmacy in town, or try to mix something suitable for a pony, but... I don't know..."

"Meditation techniques?" Rainbow Dash wondered. "Like the stuff those fictional monks use so they can walk on hot coals and -- fictional. Right. ...never mind."

"I don't know of any magic that blocks pain," Twilight said. "I would have used it." An automatic glance at Pinkie Pie as certain memories replayed. "A lot."

Pinkie thought it over. "I -- wish I knew." And that was all she had.

"I don't know anything," Spike said heavily. "Just -- if she'd been like that for years -- what you all told me about her with the orchard -- why would she have trouble with a spell? She would have been going through the unicorn part for a long time -- more than long enough to start figuring out how the magic worked. I think -- I think we're missing something..."

The silence spread around the circle, made a partnership with the thoughts which would not leave, gave birth to nightmares.

"...I don't know," Twilight finally said. "I don't know what we're missing. But I'm going to see her tonight, and for every question she has for me, I'm going to have at least three going back. We'll work out what we're going to do when she shows up. But for now -- let's go see where she broke the tree. That was magic -- maybe there's some residual feel or something..." She stood up. "Come on, everypony -- maybe we'll think of something on the road."

"Not so fast, Twilight."

Rainbow Dash stood up. Trotted up to her, stopped inches away. Magenta eyes fully open. Angry. The others stared, but did not intervene.

"...Rainbow Dash?" What did I do? Why is she mad at me this time? I thought -- we were all okay after the ravine... "What's wrong?"

Solidly, a furious tone which would take only two answers. "Fly. Take off and land. Right now, Twilight. No excuses. I want you in the air now."

oh no oh no oh no... "Dash -- I don't have time to race right now..."

"You think this is about racing?" The pegasus laughed. "This is about your nearly dying! She caught you. I don't know if she saved you because she's a good pony at heart or she's evil and just needs you alive to get her answers, but she caught you. Slipped up, Twilight: should have watched your wording a little better! You were falling and she did a pretty good save. You? Just fell."

She's not supposed to pay attention like that! She's not supposed to analyze! Oh, Rainbow Dash had been changing since Twilight had first met her -- and for the first time, it seemed as if she'd changed too much. "I couldn't think! I was trying to -- keep it together after seeing a cutie mark move!" Better to admit that. "You would have had the same problem! You don't know what it's like, seeing that -- you won't until you do! It goes deep, Dash, deep like Discord! And I was trying to save myself! I was going to try a teleport before she caught me! You of all ponies know how fast a fall accelerates: I didn't have the time to focus my field for a push, that works best when it's a greater distance and I can think about it, and I'm not about to reverse gravity when there's nothing above me! I'd just wind up falling into the sky!"

Rainbow Dash -- grinned. Viciously. "Slipped again, Twilight! I believe you about your field: I know you don't always block because you're thinking about blocking and don't do --" She stopped. Eyes widened -- then focused again. "But not reversing gravity? You would have fallen up, all right -- to a safe height, because then you could have let the spell go and flown down. Or just stopped and teleported after you got your bearings -- while you hovered."

"You weren't there!" It was nearly the only protest she had left, the only one she could come up with which wouldn't give more away. "I don't have to prove anything to you!" She probably should have stopped there -- but halting her words in time had never been her strength. "The dust devil -- I was disoriented! I couldn't focus, I told you that! Couldn't think!" And still the others weren't intervening, not even Spike, they were letting the two of them have it out here and now and she didn't understand why...

"It's a neat trick, I'll give her that," Rainbow Dash allowed. "And we're going to talk about it later -- and maybe a lot of other things. Guess what, Twilight? None of those things change what I already asked. Here and now."

She knew what the next word would be. None of the others would stop it. Twilight couldn't stop it. And with the inevitability of Sun and Moon, it rose over the horizon and turned her world into fire and frost.

"Fly."

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He slipped away for a moment.

In a way, he had been enjoying seeing so very many of his. It had been a reunion, and these -- only the ones within a few days' travel, those old enough to go on their own. The younger ones, those too young to be without their parents -- so many more of those. If he had the bits to bring them all to a single place -- a total reunion once per year, or even once every five -- that would be something to see. He found himself hoping he could do it one day.

But he still had other things on his mind. And when he could get a moment, he slipped away -- to her place.

It was, as Quiet said, intact. And it was silent.

He had been thinking about -- the darker possibilities.

She had teleported. He knew that, had seen it: no other interpretation was possible. But teleportation without destination came with consequences. She could have arrived within an object so large that the recoil acceleration resulting from the exit would have sent her materialized form into the nearest solid object with enough force --

If she had arrived safely -- based on percentages and sheer geography, she would have been most likely to appear in a wild zone. Something she had no personal experience of. Could have met one of the other sentient races, or -- one of the monsters. Something much less than friendly. All the power, yes, but with no idea how to use it yet. If something had confronted her with violence --

Or -- flight. Forgotten a rule (although that was the least likely possibility), tried to reach him in a single mad rush through the air before she was truly ready to do so: flight camps existed for a reason. Run into conditions she couldn't handle. Wind dashing her against the ground, lightning through her body, all so very possible to see for a mind wracked with worry --

There were so many coming to check on him. So many more too young to try. And then -- there were those who would never come. Those who could not. The ones where he had taken the walk.

Too many years doing this. And as he had told the new Princess, there were times when he had lost the battle. Foal dead. Mother and foal -- Pinkie, so close to the absolute edge, to being an absence on his grounds. Sometimes foals in the plural: multiple births had their own terrors. Sometimes...

mother dead, foal might still be alive, mother dead

...that.

And he would have to take the walk. If there was a father or Second Mother or any of the other possibilities Equestria's many means of love created pacing about his waiting room. He would have to go out and -- tell them. That one was lost, or both, or many, and there was no way to take it back. No way to return them. And sometimes he would stand still and let them weep against him. Listen as they raged. He had allowed himself to be kicked without retaliation: he understood. Twice, when all had been lost, he had found himself stopping a suicide as a devoted partner decided the only course left was to follow.

He had come to her place to see if she had returned. And it felt as if he was talking the walk -- for himself.

He called out into the empty halls again. Received only echo.

He had done what he had to do. He knew that. It had been necessary -- not just for her, but for so many. Every part of The Great Work, every step they had taken together along the seemingly endless path -- doing the needful. Given the chance -- and at the same time, given no ability to change the beginning or full understanding of the future -- he would have accompanied her a second time. But that knowledge was no comfort -- not now. He didn't know where she was. He didn't know if --

-- he had to face this...

With his having openly returned, he and Quiet were free to do more. But it had never been four eyes and ears searching: it was simply Quiet to whom he could speak, always had been for his most devoted. With Quiet, there was that extra measure which brought him closer than the others. His hope. His pain. From deep into his friend's youth, he had been able to tell Quiet anything -- and had. No other pony outside of he and she and perhaps the Princesses knew as much about The Great Work as Quiet did. And the young stallion wanted no part of it for himself. He was almost unique that way among those who knew even a little bit more.

In Quiet, he confided, nearly every last detail -- but not every last thought. He had not told his friend about this one. Suspected it had appeared independently, and the young unicorn simply did not wish to make him confront it just yet.

There were more looking now. That was spreading. He could openly contract a few, they would tell others, and it moved out from there, as quickly as the news of the fire.

But he could not find her with magic. Nor could they. And she would try to stay hidden: that was the rule. So ultimately, all they could hope for was signs. Some kind of indicator. Or -- return...

...or a body somewhere in Equestria's wild zones.

Possibly beyond.

He didn't know if she was alive.

Finish The Great Work -- and lose her to its completion.

Irony.

He should have set up more places for her to go. Safe zones. He should have...

"Please," he whispered. "Please be alive..."

He could not stand to be there any longer, and the flash of light took him away.

Twenty feet below his departure point -- with all sound blocked by stone -- she slept.

Morellian Analysis

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Consider the brown and white speckled unicorn stallion known as Coordinator. (It's Clear Coordinator, actually, but nopony calls him Clear -- including his parents, wherever they currently are, who have likely forgotten they ever applied it in the first place when they aren't trying to forget they ever produced him.) There are several things worth knowing about him at this time.

First: he has passed almost every test which was ever put in front of him. He took virtually none of them.

Second: he attended Twilight's school while she was there, entering when she did and graduating on the same day. He would have gone through the entrance exam three places before she did, if he'd gone through it at all.

We may need to expand on those two for a while before moving on to the rest.

Coordinator never should have wound up in a school for gifted unicorns, at least not when ranking purely on field strength and magical potential. In terms of raw ability when graphed on the Celestia Meter (Adjusted), he falls into that category which would have trouble lifting the application forms. His field was, and always would be, somewhere below average strength. He hated this about himself and went to great lengths to conceal just how magically inept he truly was. Oh, he could get by for day to day purposes: in fact, practically nopony would ever notice a thing -- except, perhaps, that his field tended to wink out when he was feeling a high degree of stress. Therefore, one of Coordinator's self-assigned missions in life was to make certain that only other ponies went through stress, preferably arranged, caused, and justified by him. Certainly enjoyed. In some ways, Coordinator can best be described as the sort of pony who, knowing others have become used to filling out forms in triplicate, will send the set to sextuple and add subtle differences to the extra three copies so the complete group will be impossible to complete the first time through. And he will do it simply so he can watch and wait for the moment when he can tell you to start over. The expressions are priceless.

Actually, that description might be a little too kind.

But there are times when it's not what you know or how much you haven't bothered to study: it's how deeply entrenched your family is into the back alleys of the Day and Night Courts. Understand, Coordinator's parents weren't incredibly well-connected, not living in the relative backwoods of Trotter's Falls. If they pulled every Canterlot-attached string they had via remote at the same moment, they just might be able to manage two tickets to the Grand Galloping Gala, and no amount of claimed friendships towards extra potential guests would ever bring another. (The tickets would not have been sent by the Princess, either. Other ponies would have to give them up -- and not willingly.) But they knew enough ponies in strategic positions to get their son into Twilight's school using a labyrinth of regulations and paperwork which shuffled him through without ever having to do more than have somepony else sign his name to a few forms, a mixture of legacy admission and a carefully arranged chain of slipped memories where nopony had any idea who had handled that last filing, but filed it had been and so student he must be. His parents intended for Coordinator to get out of Trotter's Falls for a single reason: it was not Canterlot. And after they had explained that to him in great detail over most of his childhood, he had not only readily agreed with it, but suggested some improvements to the overall plan. The first stage was to attend the school. Done with style and a special flourish of fieldwriting.

The ultimate goal was that Coordinator would work for the palace. Be at the Princess' right front hoof. She would speak through him -- or rather, he would speak for her. In fact, Celestia would hardly need to speak at all and would have been shocked at some of the things she hadn't been saying. And that was necessary, because the existence of certain policies throughout the land and its laws proved the Princess wasn't capable of speaking for herself because she kept saying the wrong things, words like 'tolerance' and 'acceptance' and -- brace yourself, this one can make you ill if you're forced to hear it too often --'equality'. Clearly she needed somepony who knew how the world really worked -- or at least, how it should -- to make a few moves on what everypony would assume was her behalf. And the first step in getting Coordinator to that honored position was to get through school -- or rather, to have the right other ponies get him through school. Happily, this also happened to be an early lesson on how to get into what Coordinator and his parents saw as his future palace life. All that was required was getting the right other ponies under him and allowing them to hold him up. It was that or take a chance on the full weight of his words descending on them. Numerous colts and fillies chose to go through that risk. Few tried it twice. And only one was partially immune.

(If you ever wondered how a shy, bookish, but ultimately happy and friendly unicorn filly who had been chosen by the Princess to be her personal part-time student could have wound up as a self-determined social outcast with absolutely no interest in making friends within her own peer group or virtually any other, you're about to get part of the answer.)

Coordinator's path through school was a simple one. Listen to other students. Go through their words, including some of the ones they'd written down -- when they weren't looking. Turn those words against them. There were many times when he'd invent words himself and plant them in another pony's writings, or claim he'd heard them saying those foul things and other ponies whom he'd had previous contact with would be only too happy to back him up. Surely no reasonable pony would want such things to get out, would they? Oh, or there were events to create. He'd seen a pony going into the restricted access section of the library -- well, he hadn't, that pony never went there at all, but he had plenty of ponies who'd swear they'd all seen it take place. And who was that pony who started the fight which didn't happen? (He would make other ponies ram their bodies into walls and furniture to create the evidentiary bruises. Sacrifices had to be made.) It got even better when the class had aged to the point where those first tentative fumbling relationships began to blossom: that let him invent infidelity. And all you had to do in order to keep Coordinator on your side (or rather, behind you, listening to everything and waiting to use it against you) was make sure he passed every test. Whole new methods of cheating were invented and smuggled past teachers in order to get a single colt through his classes. Coordinator ultimately graduated with just enough understanding of magical theory to squeak past those practical exams which were personally supervised by those adults his parents couldn't bribe (or, in his later years, the ones he hadn't quite managed to manipulate himself), but with invisible doctorates in rumor, social climbing, and blackmail.

And since it wasn't what he knew so much as who (and what he knew or had invented about them), Coordinator paid particular attention to the fact that there was a filly in his class who took special lessons directly from the Princess and even went to the palace on some weekends, plus there were rumors of royally-escorted field trips and so much more besides. Clearly a unicorn who was going places --and look who was always going with her. Coordinator had made a number of friends quickly -- or rather, he had accumulated a quantity of protective shielding bodies, both those who saw and liked his style and the ones who quickly decided it was better to risk a hit from the outside going in rather than the reverse. So he decided to add one more friend to the list, the one who would be his most special friend of all. Even in his first year, he'd already formed a vague idea that an eventual upgrade to very special somepony might be the best move he could ever make.

She rejected him.

Rejected. Him.

He didn't understand why. (He still doesn't. He was and is perfect in every way.) He made up any number of excuses, starting with the Princess herself, who believed in all those stupid things like tolerance and acceptance and he could just vomit at this one, equality, and so would only have taken on a student who was so much of an ignorant self-blinding moron that she'd believe in all that idiocy too. The reality (which he did not and still will not see) was that Twilight's little bare portion of natural social empathy combined with her brother's careful warnings had been more than enough for her to look at the bottle she was being offered as a gift and see the word POISON written on every last square inch. But no, it must have been the Princess. And the Princess created -- problems. He could only do so much with Twilight. Oh, he could spread some rumors about her and invent tales and use every other tool in his growing kit -- but if he did too much -- well, the other students could, at most, run to teachers (many of whom he would eventually have) and parents (largely helpless and it wasn't as if the stories ever truly led back to him anyway, not that anypony could prove), but Twilight Sparkle could gallop right up to the palace. There was only so much of a risk Coordinator could take, and the chance of getting that result locked a number of tools away. Attacking Twilight with anything more than the most indirect methods appeared to him as an open begging for his own expulsion -- or worse. But he could still see the benefits in being her friend.

So the next step in becoming her friend -- was to make himself into the only option for friendship at all.

A lie here, a lie there...

Oh, Twilight always had ponies trying to use her as the key in the door which would unlock the palace: he was hardly the only one there. Students came to the school from the most ancient and supposedly-noble of the Houses, and many of those had their parents instructing them to tie their leash around the purple one from the moment they saw the Princess coming to pick her up. But being from one of the Houses did not automatically make a pony into a social-climbing sociopath with no real emotions beyond the negative ones. There were and are Houses who host kind, friendly, charming unicorns who are truly worth getting to know, who understand friendship and would be happy to try forming one with you. Some of those current young adults went to school with Twilight as well, saw how much she would benefit from having a friend and tried being one to her. And none of them ever had a chance. Each well was tainted, every ray of light blocked by shadow.

Some of the rumors meant for the student's ears made Twilight into a danger. Nopony knew how much power she really had and everypony could see that her control was lacking, especially in the early years: a little stress in class and her corona went double, sometimes with her eyes turning white. Best not to be too close in case she lost it, yes? (Coordinator never learned about exactly what had happened during Twilight's entrance exams. He would have been thrilled. And then would have created an extra layer of protective pony bodies.) Others had been designed to eventually drift into Twilight's twitching and increasingly paranoid ears. What were the motives of all these ponies who claimed they wanted to be her friend? Well, the easiest way to go there was by taking his own motivation and assigning it to others, although that was hardly the only take he spun. And should a pony keep on trying regardless, or if Twilight seemed to almost be on the absolute verge of reaching out to a particularly persistent student? Attack the student. Try to be Twilight's friend and your school life would be a misery -- until you stopped. He had to isolate Twilight -- but he had to do it carefully, because there was a very large shadow of wings lurking overhead, waiting to swoop down on the first mistake.

It was a testament to his skills that he succeeded as well as he did. Oh, he couldn't manage a complete victory. He couldn't do anything about the dragon. The infant learned to talk within moons, spent slightly more time at the palace than Twilight did and was rumored to be receiving private lessons of his own. What Coordinator would have used as a personal assistant and virtual slave labor was (disgusting, sickening, unnatural) being treated by Twilight as her brother. And the dragon would not listen to anything he made other ponies say. Wouldn't take any side which wasn't Twilight's. The bond was unbreakable and oh, he tried to prove that wrong, tried over and over -- but before that first year was over, the dragon was on his feet and toddling along at Twilight's side or on her back (she let him ride, there were no words for how low she had sunk, but he had to swallow it and get close to her anyway), always trying to help and sometimes even succeeding. They could not and never would be brother and sister, should never be anything other than master and servant (or worse). And yet they treated each other as siblings and it was a horror, it made his parents pale when he told them, it should have been a crime -- but it was and it would not break.

But other than the dragon -- complete.

He approached again. Was rejected again. (She could still read, still had a mentor and brother to be with when the loneliness threatened to erupt into tears, hadn't even begun to learn about tracking the flow of rumor, much less approaching other ponies with her problems. She's still working on that last.)

Twilight Sparkle would not allow him to be her friend. So until she did, Twilight Sparkle, excepting that damnable dragon, would have no friends.

She never accepted him. He never allowed anypony to accept her or let her think well of those few who wouldn't learn their lesson and still occasionally tried. And so the years passed.

Oh, she was smart -- in some limited ways. There were times when Coordinator thought she was threatening to pick up a new kind of feel, had managed to detect his own resonance in the echoed words. But it was never anything she could prove or even dig too deeply into, and he was never sure she'd truly figured anything out. Dark looks in the hallways, sitting as far away from him in the classrooms as possible. Nothing more. Perhaps not all that smart, at least for things other than magic. She had very few social skills and had never picked up more, her development there arrested at the level of a shy young filly who had once truly wanted friends and now simply didn't care any more. In fact, she even seemed to be regressing: as graduation approached, the horror of the false sibling relationship began to diminish. By the end of their seventh year, she was starting to treat the dragon like the servant he should have been all along. He took all silent credit. He was very proud.

But then she received her diploma and moved on to postgraduate studies, without a single relationship to her credit outside of Princess, parents, brother, and dragon (with that last now just barely), still not his friend -- and he shrugged. He'd tried. If he'd done damage, she had deserved it and quite possibly more. It didn't matter any longer, as least not as far as it affected him. Coordinator had graduated. He had no intention of advancing his studies further: his triple invisible doctorate would serve. It was time to begin life as a young adult, a life in the palace which would in time place him at the Princess' right front hoof. Or, more to the point, turn him into the voice for one whose true words would eventually no longer be heard at all. Every string was in place, every contact his parents had made tied to the ones he had arranged, and they were all yanked at the moment he handed over his application.

He was rejected.

Rejected.

(The Princess had never been told about him at all, never had a chance to delve into the school's social circle and see what was truly happening, hadn't known how to reverse Twilight's diminishing desire for outside contact and couldn't make her student talk about it. But she could also read.)

And he didn't understand why. He had done everything right. There had been no fault at all. The plan had been perfect and executed without flaw. But she had turned him away. Had never even met with him. (Normally, Celestia gave such a day or two of suffocating in their own self-importance before dismissing them. In this case, the writing had been too large.) The place refused to reconsider him. The heart of Canterlot was closed, and there would be no path in through the Courts no matter how many lives he threatened to ruin. In the end, his power to destroy was considerable -- but compared to the shadow of those wings, it was petty. They could risk him or they could risk her.

With no other choices, he'd returned to Trotter's Falls. As a failure.

His parents had treated him accordingly.

That particular piece of resulting blackmail hadn't been as satisfying as he'd hoped.

It hadn't taken long for Coordinator to work into the town's government. (Not the mayor, but close to him. Always have at least one shielding layer whenever possible.) But there was no satisfaction to it. No power beyond the ultimately petty. And always the knowledge that petty was the only kind of power he would ever have -- unless a certain impossibility was true, unless what could not happen somehow came to be, something he had been told about about early on and never quite believed, keeping it in his mind as nothing more than a fantasy to carry into the nightscape for a dream of real power. It would never occur, of course -- but if it did, it should happen to him. He deserved it. Not --

-- her.

Sickening. Disgusting. Unnatural. Never should have been allowed to breathe.

He refused to acknowledge that memory unless there was no other choice. Had no idea she'd made one of her own -- but would almost never visit it.

Time passed. He became a fan of Murdocks' publications, would often write guest articles sent from the wrong postmarks under assumed names for no money whatsoever, for he saw it as his duty to do anything which stood a chance to eventually depose such a clearly unfit ruler -- and, in time, an extra nightmare (with the capital dropped): the plural. He did not speak against the Princess (and then Princesses) in the open, of course -- not unless he was among very special company. But speak there he did, and write, and added darker dreams to his nightscape, dreams he used that thankfully-basic spell to keep away from prying eyes. (He would have given much for that ability, and it was unfair that a Princess had it and he did not. So much blackmail material in the nightscape...) And Twilight Sparkle mostly faded from his life -- at least for a time. The name came up on rare occasion, of course, and he would automatically repeat some of the things he'd said and spread over the years (attributing them to other sources), making certain her reputation among those surrounding him was no better than it had been in school: that was what she deserved. But it was a rare occasion indeed --

-- which then started to become more common...

...his article writing had picked up considerably, he had a skill for taking a debate and twisting it so that only one side ever got a word in and for the other to be permitted speech was a capital crime, with the later never a problem since he got to write the (in)complete argument...

...and then the true nightmare, as the petty power of mere magic suddenly became something actual.

Slightly over three weeks later, actual and right in front of him.

That power was unhappy.

Had she grown social awareness to go with the wings? Finally realized how much he had truly been involved in her isolation? What was she planning to do? Because she could retaliate now. She always could have beaten him in a fight, the prospect had been terrifying and his best bet would have been to hope others gave up their bodies long enough for him to find some way to escape. But now she could isolate him. A few words from a Princess and everything he still had... gone. Forever. With no way to rebuild it.

Coordinator hated her. Hated every alicorn at this point because they had actual power. All he would ever have was ultimately petty --

-- or so he'd believed.

There were new stories circulating. A sight to watch out for. Something which threatened -- success.

He didn't believe it, of course. It had been madness all along and he had only entertained it as a fantasy (although a delightful one), even if that delusion was being enforced on a walking sickness instead of, should any chance of such a thing be true, being given to the deserving.

But... 'but' was an interesting word. There was a chance something had happened. Madness had a way of producing results simply through attempting things the sane would never try. Coordinator was -- curious. At his previous best, he had treated the concept with detached amusement (along with that permanent disgust), but now....

Coordinator wanted power, always had. Actual power. And with the return of Twilight Sparkle to his life -- a Twilight Sparkle who openly didn't like him -- he wanted that power more than ever. Needed it. Coordinator was always on the side of anypony who could help him, and if the impossible was coming true -- why, then Coordinator was about to become the single most devoted member of the cause (or The Great Work) anypony had ever imagined. Besides, even if it somehow couldn't be his immediately -- well, the best counter to a Princess had to be another Princess, correct?

However, until then, Twilight Sparkle was here. Angry. Possibly suspicious -- or worse, with suspicions confirmed and just waiting to make her move. Petty power would do well to hunker down and pack its bags just in case it needed to move unexpectedly.

Coordinator should have recognized that. A truly intelligent pony would have purchased an open-date train ticket on the way back from the burn site. Those with foresight would have already been on the train. A pony with survival instinct ascendant would have skipped that stage and just run. And Coordinator was intelligent (in certain ways), would anticipate certain possible results (in a few categories)...

...but he loved power. Was, in fact, addicted to it. (He did not recognize that. Nothing controlled him. He controlled everything -- or so he told himself, wanted to believe, longed to do.) Exercised it at nearly every opportunity, although most of those took place out of sight and hearing of the ponies targeted.

Twilight Sparkle was here. In his territory. And once the terror began to subside, he decided that if she could have proven anything, she would have acted already. And a coward like Twilight Sparkle would never risk a move without proof, not to mention that she was far too tied to the open rules to do anything outside them. The junior Princess had actual power -- but only in theory. Power she had no idea how to use. She could not be allowed to operate in comfort and acceptance on his territory. Ever. She needed a reminder of what petty could do when exercised properly.

Coordinator, on the morning after Twilight arrived in Trotter's Falls and brought more of the unnatural, the warped along, with his terrors lesser beneath the new Sun, began to write. Speak. Neither of which would ever be traced back to him: he was certain of that, because it never had been.

He should have run.

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Rainbow Dash wasn't backing down. She almost never backed down and when the confrontation had a physical component, somepony generally had to make her back off -- typically by clenching teeth or field around prismatic tail and dragging her away. Letting a confrontation diminish on its own or outright canceling it -- hardly ever. It was a challenge, after all, and to back down would be to come in second.

Her muscles were visibly tense, tendons standing out along her legs (wide stance, braced) and the partially-unfurled wings. Teeth clenched after biting off the end of the final single-syllable sentence. The nostrils were flared. Head not lowered, but it would have been the last step to being in a full pre-charge pose. And she would not back down. The last word still hung in the air around her, in front of Twilight, surrounded the others and kept them from moving. The word to which there were only two responses.

I should have looked at the scroll's feel. I should have wondered about it. I should have...

Twilight wished for a monster to burst out of the wild zone. The foundation to disintegrate beneath their hooves and send them tumbling into a lost basement, dungeon, Diamond Dog lair. The appearance of the pony she was now convinced was the mission target (even if she still didn't understand why Discord would pretend to care, much less any chance of his actually doing so). Gilda could crash into her back and Twilight would have thanked her. She would happily settle for the totally unexpected and suddenly very welcome return of Sombra, and in fact was briefly willing to entertain any and all disasters -- well, not losing Luna to Nightmare Moon a second time or having Celestia be submerged within something even worse, but anything short of that might get at least five seconds of her delight just as thanks for the distraction. Twilight wanted something to explode and gave brief thought towards trying to create one out of sight in the trees -- but while she had hidden her field a few times, such as with a certain ill-fated Come To Life spell during her first Winter Wrap-Up, she wasn't all that good at it and it tended to make the spells cast during that state go out of control. Not a good idea when used with offense. So she took a breath and relied on the potential malevolence of the wild zone to save her.

And with the smugness of a universe which had decided it was on Dash's side, nothing happened.

Fly. Or admit she couldn't.

No other options.

So she went with the wrong one.

All right. I am an alicorn. Whether I want to fully believe it or not, whether I want to be one or not, I am a unic -- alicorn. Alicorns have wings. Alicorns fly. I've seen all three do it. I have wings. They flap. Alicorns flap their wings and fly. So. No real wind here right now. Maybe a little jump to get some height before the first flap. Gravity is of course a constant and not to be worried about. Airflow should be normal around wings because it always is. Vectors, force applied, calories burned with muscles exerted. Basic calculations. Consider the efforts involved in a very simple path. All she asked for was take off and land, but that's probably not what she meant: if I just went up two Celests and then came down again, she'd say I wasn't really flying and challenge all over again. I need something a little more complicated. Haven't even begun to figure out hovering yet, so let's just say -- take off and circle the clearing once. Nothing fancy. Just tour the border without going too close to the trees, return to start and land. I can even drop down for the last part if I'm close to the ground. I don't have to go that high at all. It is a basic circle, low to the ground, which I have already roughly calculated for force, exertion, vectors, and everything else physics say should go into this, and it should fulfill her requirements. I am going to do this. Because somehow, I am an alicorn. And alicorns fly. A includes B, B is a subset of A, and A has been achieved, therefore B is now automatic and not even remotely worth so much as a single moment of light concern.

Right?

Right.

So here I go.

And to the accompaniment of total silence, Twilight went.

A number of things happened. None of them would have had a captured image fetch less than four thousand mostly-counterfeit bits.

The silence settled in again and hung around for a while, getting comfortable and checking out the available snack supply.

Finally, "Twilight?"

The whisper of humiliation beyond hope of recovery. "...what?"

It could have been the offer of a save, one last way out. "Was that -- supposed to be a joke?"

Trying not to cry, one more rubbing straw creating an exposed sore on a back which was being asked to carry a greater burden with every step, so close to total collapse, "...no..."

More softly than she'd ever heard Rainbow Dash speak, "You missed the thermal by the path. How could you miss that? And that shift layer coming off the west -- you went right through it without even trying to adjust. You weren't accounting for -- for anything, Twilight. You were just -- pushing. There was no flow. You didn't work with the air, you just..." Volume dropping still more, "Twilight, stop crying -- please don't..." The pegasus dropped down next to her, began inspecting the splayed left wing: Fluttershy moved in to check the other side. "Nothing hurt..." Dash decided (with Fluttershy confirming). "You took a tumble after that final rebound, but that last roll didn't do any damage... Twilight, I saw you fly. Right after the coronation. And -- you did a good job. Nothing too fancy, you had a sort of nice basic swoop at one point, but -- you flew. I thought you might be hurt or sick and trying to hide it, or she did something, or part of that stupid backlash stuff..." It felt as if Dash was trying to make excuses for her. It had gone that far.

And Twilight barely noticed. Head down, eyes focused on the ground she never should have left, unable to look at any of her friends. "...there -- was a thermal?"

Rainbow Dash blinked. "How can you fly at all and not feel --" stopped dead for ten eternal heartbeats. "Because -- you can't -- can you? You can't feel -- and if you can't feel at all, then you can't fly. You just push and beg the Princesses that nothing goes wrong..."

Feel? There wasn't any magic. What didn't I --

-- no. They'd just discussed it. Pegasi had their own feel. One Twilight had never knowingly experienced -- one that was apparently necessary for flight to take place at all.

"...I..." Twilight whispered, "...don't feel anything... not like that..." She would have thought it impossible for the humiliation to become deeper. She would have been wrong.

Confusion from both pegasi, with Dash as the one to express. "Then -- how did you fly the first time?"

"...don't know... I don't remember... I just -- wanted to fly... I wasn't thinking about it and I don't remember..."

The silence moved in again. Nopony or dragon tried to stop it.

"Get up, Twilight." The voice was brash: it almost always was. But there was no teasing or anger in it. Just a simple instruction. "Go ahead -- just get up."

Slowly, Twilight got back to her hooves, putting her head as far above a surface as she was convinced it ever would be again. She couldn't look at Rainbow Dash. Still couldn't look at anypony. They knew now. She was a joke of an alicorn, another failure and in her way, equally broken. Couldn't fly. Never should have changed at all. A pitiful excuse for a Princess, a Princess of nothing with no way back to just being a unicorn with five good friends and a little brother, all of whom had just found out her so-called ascension had been a drop. Good for nothing but luring in press to disrupt everypony's lives and losing books and giving out unhelpful advice other ponies had written long ago. Student to Princess Celestia in a course which she had taken over more than half her life -- and finally flunked.

Rainbow Dash moved around her (as Fluttershy backed away a little, as the others let it continue to be just the two of them), got in front of Twilight again and propped her head up on the pegasus' front right hoof, gently forced warm magenta and tear-streaming purple eyes into gaze contact. "No flight camps or schools," the pegasus softly (gently) mused, thoughtful on a level Twilight had never seen from her. "No parents to watch you on those first attempts and no infant surges working on instinct to barely remember when you start to really try. No feel. And -- you're thinking. All you do is think..." A bare wisp of a sigh. "I should have figured that out when you didn't know how to preen or even before that, buck it, buck it all, too much Tartarus-chained thinking... because in your head, you're still a unicorn and you're one who doesn't know how to do anything but think..."

Twilight blinked. Tears fell. Rainbow Dash was still there when the blinks stopped. "I -- don't understand..."

"Of course you don't." She'd never heard this level of softness from Dash, this amount of open caring. Hadn't know Dash was capable of it. "I never should have expected you to. Never assumed. That first flight tricked me, tricked all of us, but when you didn't repeat it, I thought it was because --" and another stop, five heartbeats this time. "Thinking... well, this isn't what I think, Twilight: it's what I know. School is back in session. I'm your teacher. Somepony has to get you to feel instead of think and it's going to be me. You are going to fly or I'm going to die trying. Nothing is keeping my flying buddy grounded. Ever."

"But -- but I don't -- I can't..."

The pegasus dropped her hoof, moved closer. Gave her the nuzzle meant for family, and a little bit more.

"Ever."

They stayed that way for a time. Rainbow Dash refusing to move. Twilight sobbing. One of the straws finally dropping away.

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The group was moving towards the wild zone orchard again. Dash had resumed her normal level of volume. She had not resumed her normal height, not in the sense of Celests above the ground. She had walked next to Twilight for a while, drawing up the tentative lesson schedule. "...and there's no way I'm going to let anypony else laugh at you, no matter how funny that one accidental rebound double spin was. So we're gonna have to figure out a way to do it in private. Maybe -- oh, Celestia blast it -- in the middle of the -- Luna shock me, we're really gonna have to -- night. When -- nopony's up to watch. Can't do it out here -- too much to run into too early. I can't get you to the normal training level because you can't stay up there on your own... Tartartus, ground level interference is an advanced course, we're going to need a ton of open space... maybe Quiet's fields: he's got lots of room. We can try that for a while as long as we're here. When we get back to Ponyville... I'll scout something out. I might have to -- be up at -- all hours of the -- night to find something, but we'll get a place. Sure not gonna be the Gorge..." And then she'd stayed on ground level even after letting Twilight have the sole lead again, which might have been a weird form of student-teacher solidarity.

There were going to be classes. For once, Twilight hadn't been able to make herself look forward to them: she knew they were going to involve still more failures, and Twilight was used to passing her courses -- sometimes very quickly, occasionally pulling ahead of her unicorn teachers. But classes there would still be, and -- now they knew. And they were her friends. Still her friends, and they loved her no less for her failures. Twilight didn't know why she had so much trouble making herself remember that or believe it beyond the time it could take to write a letter, why part of her was always convinced that the next wedge she drove would be the one that split them once and for all. Why some lessons had to be studied over and over.

They loved her. She hadn't let herself believe it. Again.

How much do we have to go through together before I let myself accept that this is real? That I'm not one stupid word away from losing everything and everypony, or just waking up and finding myself back in the dorms in my first year with no friends and losing all hope of making any? That I'm not watching ponies murmur about me or try to use me or start to move in and then back away without ever completely knowing why some of them left?

Well -- she knew why some of them had left, or at least had suspicions. Some of the stories in school had seemed to have a suspicious brown-and-white speckled hole in the center -- one which had kept trying to attach itself to her flank to be towed along. She'd never been able to prove anything and without solid evidence, approaching the teachers who'd seemed so much in his thrall -- or worse, bothering the Princess with her stupid filly problems, ones which had no evidence...

There are ponies you can't make friend with, ever. There are ones you shouldn't make friends with. And there are ones who deserve to be scared...

He'd been scared of her. She'd seen it. On a level not too far from the surface, enjoyed it...

...so why did she feel just a little bit ashamed of herself? Because it was something Princess Celestia wouldn't have done? Luna would have.

They weren't in school any more. But she'd still reacted like a filly...

He deserved it.

Next problem.

Too old for a first spell... All right -- reasons for that, ideas she would share with the others later, some of which might have been conceived independently. Discussion for the way back. First, it might have taken years of -- the cycle -- for the actual power to build. Maybe it had just been the physical changes to start with and the ones to her magic had come later. Or -- well, if she'd started as a unicorn, she could have had her natural magic disrupted by the changes: getting her cutie mark just as she would have started on the path which led to the basics. Pegasi magic coming and going -- how could anypony hope to learn two forms of magic at once? Years stalled because as Rarity had said, it had been a moment-by-moment struggle just to exist and anything past that for a long time might have seemed beyond hope. Possibilities.

Another one: her magic had been bound. Twilight was familiar with the devices used to restrain unicorn magic: not only had she studied the theory and practice, she'd seen them on some of the prisoners in the trials she'd visited and, when the Lunar Guards had arrested them, found one clamped onto her horn for the first time. The last wasn't one of her better memories. She's strong. Anypony around her knows she's strong and at her level of power, strength without control is terrifying.

(There was something she almost thought of then, but stopping that memory was one of her oldest habits and the success was virtually automatic.)

So somepony could have put a restraint on her if her first tries were doing damage and just -- left it there. But that's postulating a lot of things, starting with at least one other pony. A parent or guardian. Or -- would she have restrained herself? Seen she was a danger and stopped herself from casting for years? But then -- why would she stop and come out now, unbound? To look for me and try for her answers? That's possible -- hope for a cure, an impossible cure after years like -- that -- and she might have decided it was worth the chance. But why not go to the Princess before that? I know she doesn't want other ponies to know about her or what happened: 'tell nopony'. Is she hiding from somepony? Everypony? All questions to ask her, and --

-- I still feel like I'm missing something.

Or --

-- like she wasn't telling herself something. So many changes to her life, struggling to adjust and reconcile and eventually just to hang on, and then this nightmare of a mission from Discord with everything inherent in that name, horror after horror adding to the burdens she was already carrying. One lifted, but so many others still present and more piling on all the time. It was as if there was a thought she'd almost had and couldn't quite finish yet, just because the nightmares had been there all throughout what had existed of her sleep and Luna, bound not to interfere, had chased none of them away. Nightmares Twilight couldn't quite remember and didn't want to. But dreaming was still a form of thinking (if not the kind Twilight usually engaged in, the one Dash seemed so set against) and possibly there were things she didn't want to face which had emerged under the Moon, possibly related to a thought which would not come into the open beneath the Sun...

Maybe it was just something she was still trying to work out, deep down.

There were a lot of reasons to show first spell signs at that age. At her age. Eventually, Twilight might come up with more. And there would be at least one chance to ask her...

'Her'. We haven't tried to name her beyond Pinkie's one discard. I keep thinking 'she' or 'her' and nothing else.

'Who are you?' One of the biggest questions of all.

'Not unicorn. Not pegasus. Not anything.'

Not an alicorn.

Failed. Broken. Malformed.

Malicorn.

No. The name was too cruel to apply on anypony going through so much suffering. She wouldn't use it.

Rainbow Dash had asked for a group session later, told the others they need to learn more of pegasus magic than they'd ever understood before and had to do it before tonight. The rest of the outbound journey was being used for simply calming down, at least as far as they all could -- but before they met this stranger again, they needed to have a stronger comprehension of what she might be capable of in that form. Twilight already had a good idea of what she could manage as a unicorn: raw strength (and possibly strength which surpassed her own), but potentially with no comprehension of how to channel it into any spell more sophisticated than movement -- or not. She didn't know and the idea of seeing so much energy channeled into a more advanced working was its own horror. She had already told the others what to expect there if such happened: anything -- which helped nopony in the slightest. She couldn't help it: telling them about every spell unicorns had ever invented over the centuries couldn't be done in a single day or even a year. And there was knowledge lost, new discoveries being added...

If she comes as a pegasus... if she comes as a unicorn...

She would be coming. Seven of them and one of her.

The odds seemed a little too long on the wrong side.

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What the orchard mainly told them was that the tree had been big. When intact, it could have sat at the bottom of the ravine and had the uppermost branches peek over the top. Applejack had softly whistled upon seeing it and its brethren. "Eastern Red Giant," she'd told them, and the stress which had been visibly tensing her entire body since their discussion at the foundation briefly eased. "By Celestia's mane, Ah never thought Ah'd see one -- everypony, grab an apple an' eat it, you're not gonna see another one for a while. Tart an' sweet at the same time, natural candy... Ah've seen some of the apples, 'course, but the seeds -- almost impossible t' get an' the apple sellers core 'em out t' keep 'em rare, charge way too much an' limit the sales. Takes the trees decades t' get this big on their own... even if Ah brought some seeds home an' the whole family all worked on it t'gether, least a year t' get the first bloom an' five before they'd start t' peak... an' why am Ah sayin' 'if'? Sorry, everypony, but y'know Ah've gotta... the cider off these is legendary..." And they'd let her have a few minutes to herself as she happily collected some of the apples in the delighted knowledge that she'd eventually have a new crop to offer -- but as soon as she'd finished, all the tension had dropped back in, leaving her once again with a tail which tended to lash whenever she wasn’t paying attention to it, ears almost constantly flat back against her head, and the general aura of a pony with one wire tied around her forelegs, another looping the back, and a train attached to each -- which were pulling away in opposite directions. That talk had shaken Applejack more than it had Twilight, and the former unicorn wondered what was going through the farmer's mind. Possibly wondering what she would (or even could) do if it came to a fight: this wasn't an opponent Twilight could picture being beaten by lasso.

It had been a big tree -- very big: Twilight had to boost Applejack and Pinkie Pie over the trunk (with Dash initially carrying Rarity), as the fallen wood cut across pretty much the entire clearing and going around would have taken too long. They found where Grape Indulgence had been standing: the discarded bottle (which Fluttershy took for her own saddlebags and eventual disposal) was the clue, along with a few thin tracks that proved he'd been pulling a very light cart nearby and stopped to detach himself from it. (There was also a slight lingering odor, which they took care to avoid.)

The tree had not fallen directly towards him: given Twilight's best first guess of where she might have been standing -- she had picked up on a degree of residual feel (still off somehow, but she was unable to analyze a fading signature which would have been gone in another day and had only lasted so long because of the sheer power originally involved) near the base of the break -- he'd been observing from about a hundred and fifty degrees to the left. But the crown would have come close, and -- who would have stayed? Certainly not a drunken pony who hadn't given a single thought to help.

What he hadn't mentioned became evident within seconds of closer inspection: the intruder had pulled the whole tree down towards her -- and had instinctively thrown it over her body. There was an eight-foot gap between dying stump and fallen trunk. An incredibly small fraction of the pressure she'd put on the tree had been brought against her body, enough to leave an impression of hooves in the dirt.

"No shoes," Rarity frowned. "I know that's common in everyday wear... but not only no shoes, no signs of shoes, none of the little indicators you find where shoes have pressed. These are practically virgin hooves..." A glance back at the others, who (other than Applejack) were looking amused. "All right, very well, but it's all I have to contribute at this time. My apologies for not having put more time into studying detective work and Pinkie, there is nothing that hat goes with unless you have the appropriate half-cape, thank you..."

Pinkie shrugged and put it away -- somewhere -- then looked over the fallen trunk again. "Poor tree," she sighed. "At least it was quick... do you think we can just leave this here? Other ponies are going to come out for more apples, and they might -- wonder what had happened. Maybe they already came out. But we can't put it back where it was -- unless there's a spell to -- make it whole again?" She looked hopefully at Twilight.

No such luck: the head shake came immediately. "I'm sorry, Pinkie, but -- it's dead. A complete break and a couple of days... a wood mending spell would have had to be immediate to have any chance, and it's not my specialty."

Rarity sighed. "I grafted some sculptured dead branches back once. They were still dead. Ask Applejack how that worked out... dear? Are you sure you're all right? You look rather as if you have two Ursa Majors playing tug-of-war with you as the rope."

"Ah'm -- jus' -- thinkin', Rarity. Ah think sometimes. Yeah, Ah remember the branches. Wouldn't want t' see this poor old beast crash down in the middle of a slumber party neither. Y'can't get rid of this one the same way, right?"

"Far too much mass for me, although Twilight can surely do it... Personally, I rather forced the issue the first time and I'm still surprised I affected as much as I did. And getting rid of the trunk still leaves us with a stump, moving the stump leaves us with a hole... if we've found as much as we're going to, perhaps we should just -- move them closer? Cover where she was standing?"

Spike had been confused by the latest turn in the discussion. "Why are we trying to hide so much? We're allowed to ask for help, guys! Doesn't that mean we're allowed to tell ponies what we're doing? What's been going on? Maybe if we started spreading the news around, we'd find somepony who knew everything."

Rainbow Dash shook her head hard enough to blur the colors of her mane: for a moment, there was an impression of muddy brown. "No way! You never know when things are going to get back to the wrong ponies! She said there were others who needed to know, remember? What if they find out we're looking and decide we're trying to keep them from changing? Think that would go over well? I'm not making any public announcements and nopony else should either. We could start a panic, we could start a riot -- against us. Like, maybe, what if the whole town was in on it, like in Volume Twelve of the expanded universe series, and we're the only ponies in the dark, and -- okay, stop snickering, it's possible, right?"

"Your potboilers over," Rarity quipped with a dignified giggle. "I understand your point, but I suspect that put against reality, you're rather overstating the case. Still -- caution, I think."

Fluttershy had been inspecting the trunk for lost animal homes and had thankfully come up empty. "...it would scare ponies... some of them would just think about how different she is and not her pain... they'd be scared and when some ponies are scared, they do -- stupid things. We don't know her well yet... we shouldn't scare them unless we know she's trying to do -- something which isn't -- nice. All fear usually leads to is... more fear..."

Twilight nodded to that. "I'm not going to risk a panic or a mass faint. If we need to alert the town, I promise we will: no information concealed if we're sure hiding it would hurt somepony." (Applejack felt Pinkie Pie staring at her, wouldn't look back.) "But she hasn't attacked the town, she didn't take all our food, she saved me when she could have let me fall..."

"I already found more than one reason for that," Rainbow Dash said with just a touch of snit, offended by both Twilight's slip of memory and 'potboilers'. "She had to save you, no matter what her motivation was."

"...Discord... we're giving him a chance here," Fluttershy half-whispered. "...is he the only one?"

Pinkie answered that. "Sometimes the fastest way to turn somepony into a bad pony is by telling them they're a bad pony." Looking around at the others, gentle blue gaze steady. "I don't want to say that about anypony before we know."

"I agree," Twilight said. "So far, she's been dangerous by accident -- or when she's scared. There's a risk there, but -- again, tonight. With the way her changes are visible if you're watching her long enough, and how hard it is to hide that pain or manage with it -- I don't think she goes near other ponies much. Maybe -- hardly ever." A life of agony, in self-imposed isolation. Can't get that close to anypony or risk letting them get close to you. No stability. Feel coming and going. No friends and no hopes of ever having any, because nopony would ever stay near you and you're afraid to be near them...

Too many horrors under waking Sun, too many for the Moon, and Twilight found herself hoping not to remember her dreams again.

"Maybe -- we were the first since -- her mark appeared," she forced herself to finish. "Tonight... we'll make plans, I promise: we have to. But if we don't threaten her or upset her, I don't think she'll attack. Attacking means no answers."

Spike looked up at Twilight. "And what if not having answers is what upsets her?"

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The body gave them a possible answer.

They had taken a different route back. Several of them were carrying maps of the area (provided by Quiet, who had passed them out without comment) and Rainbow Dash occasionally took a brief jaunt up so she could stay oriented on the town. Twilight had felt she'd picked up a last bit of feel heading towards one edge of the clearing, and broken small plants showed something had rushed through the area. Moving away before completely releasing the bulk of the field. She had likely gone that way, and following a bit of her trail might find more clues -- where she'd come from, where she hid...

...who she'd killed.

Rarity drew back, almost reared up in her desire to get a little further away. "Oh, no... the poor --" Stopped. Looked again. Looked harder. "No, I take part of that back. I regret his death, but this is not necessarily a poor thing. This is an exile, and the crime was theft from the pack."

Nearly all of them looked at her, and none with more tension than Spike.

She had the grace to blush. "I never -- entirely broke off contact." Stopped the protest before it did more than scare several hiding birds. "No, everypony -- it's quite all right, and I always told Twilight where I was going and when I would return. She even accompanied me a few times at random intervals, to keep them on their toes." (There was a second immediate blush visible within the purple coat -- especially as her brother hit her with a glare which was just a little cooler than his fire, a promise that there would be a Talk coming later...) "I am not a fool -- and neither are they. We came to an understanding. I would return every so often and show them where to find a few gems within their mines, of my own free will. I would keep a portion -- very well, a large portion -- and freely depart. In exchange, they would not attempt to kidnap any ponies, I would not ask the Princess to evict them, and we would all keep our voices level and controlled. Spot, Fido, and Rover -- yes, those are their names, it took moons for me to learn them and please do not laugh any more about it -- aren't always happy with our arrangement, but they lost status when we all got away. Pretending it's a trade agreement of sorts is the only thing keeping them as anything close to alphas. It gives me gems, it keeps them out of trouble, and other ponies are safe. My main cost is an extra-long spa day when I emerge."

Twilight sighed: another secret out. "I was always supposed to call everypony and alert the Princesses if the Diamond Dogs ever tried anything. Their tunnels -- wouldn't have lasted long. As it is, it's a truce with attached trade agreements in everything but the signing -- and they don't really write. She's always come back safely: they're still scared of her. And at least this way, they get some gems -- since she doesn't take them all." Not quite. Sixty percent, tops, and that only with the highest grades.

Rarity managed a small smile. "'Tyrant of the Underdark', Rover once called me. I think he meant it with respect. But -- I have been among them often enough to pick up some aspects of what culture they possess. To know what their crimes are. Do you see the scar on his forehead? Recent wound, isn't it? Odd shape? And no part of the ones which killed him. That mark indicates a Diamond Dog who stole. For all their greed over gems, they share freely with the pack: to each their own portion according to the work they had done to gain them, and always at least enough to adorn. Theft... they do not look kindly on theft. The wound is made so it will scar in that shape, a special kind of dirt rubbed in to discolor. He would have had to scalp himself to be rid of it. Any Diamond Dog who so much as glimpsed him would know this one had stolen from a pack and been exiled. No tunnels would have taken such a one in: the punishment is for life. And the smaller scars next to the main one -- he was exiled with a group. Four others. Three males, two females. They do write in their fashion, Twilight -- they simply don't read anypony else's words."

"And he was killed by a pegasus."

The others turned and looked at Rainbow Dash.

There was no fury in her magenta eyes, no anger or protest. Just acceptance of the facts. "You felt a trace of what had happened at the tree, Twilight. I can feel -- something on him. It's hard to -- we'll go over it later, I promise. But for now -- he was hit by wind. Wind which a pegasus changed. The feel is all over his body -- almost gone, but... there's still enough. Another day... too late..." A small head shake, and then there was a touch of light confusion in her voice. "It is weird -- talking about this. It's not a secret or anything, but -- we're taught everything -- with other pegasi. By pegasi. Flight camp, flight school, colleges." (Fluttershy sighed: ponies noticed and wondered why.) "There's never any earth ponies or unicorns in those classes. And after, it's like boasting -- about flight. Just flight, when other ponies -- can't. You don't want to keep making ponies think they're -- missing something. Only other pegasi understand how it feels, but we pretty much all feel --" (another sigh, this time softer, mostly missed) "-- and so -- when everypony can do it, why talk about it? And when everypony can't do it... we knew Twilight for nearly three years and Rarity for longer before I ever heard 'feel' come up and... maybe it's the same. It's so natural that you don't talk about it. It's like talking about breathing." She visibly rejected the comparison, went back to what she saw as the better one. "Or flying -- when other ponies can't."

"I understand," Twilight said, and she did. "No pegasi or earth ponies in my schools... Luna's shoes, what don't we tell each other just because we don't think about it...?"

Applejack shuffled slightly, moved her tension-riddled body towards the back of the group.

A rare sigh from Rainbow. "Anyway -- it's the same feel -- I can't believe I'm using that word -- you had this morning, Twilight -- just weaker because it's been longer. He was surrounded by wind at some point. Maybe another one of those dust devils. And then he got thrown out of it and -- you can see the tree. Broke his back, and..." She looked down at the body again. "You said her magic feels -- off. This is so weak now, but -- I can't be sure, and... I -- oh, horse apples, I don't know with him, there's just barely enough to feel. But your residue wasn't -- right... buck it, I don't have the words..." She looked as if she wanted to ram her traitorous head into the nearest tree for having failed her. Or another tree, one not quite so bloodstained. "Why don't I have words...?"

"You need a better editor?" Twilight risked joking, and it got a small grin in response. "So -- we don't know if she killed him, but -- the odds are pretty good. Rarity -- would they have attacked her? Exiles without a mine to make her work in?"

Rarity was taking on that faint undershade of green again. "There are -- reasons, Twilight. Not -- kind ones. I -- oh dear, this is only going to make you worry more and I assure you that our local Diamond Dogs would never so much as entertain this thought, not even as a passing fancy... please don't yell or scream or faint, but... Spot told me there are legends of those who ate ponies -- and at least you all held most of that back. There were supposedly days when they were able to keep slaves, and that was how they -- disposed of the old ones. No, I did not ask how we tasted, Pinkie. But -- they do badly under Sun and Moon. Our local pack will at least venture outside for brief periods: most others will not risk even their minor sojourns. They don't understand how to survive on the surface. Five exiles, and the scar was still healing... too soon to have learned? And then they find a pony -- a single pegasus, alone, and -- in pain. Appearing weak. Fido spoke to me in confidence once about -- kidnapping. What they are taught of how -- and who. I think he was worried that I would travel and some distant pack would be stupid enough to try a second time, so he wanted me to know in order to protect them..." She trailed off, took a few deep breaths.

"Go ahead, Rarity," Twilight gently encouraged. "I know this isn't easy."

"Rather not. Well -- on the whole, they want pegasi because flying is, to them, useless in the tunnels except for freeing gems near and in the ceiling, and weather changing does little underground. But they can't catch them. Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash can evade them simply by taking off and hovering out of reach. Unicorns... we make them nervous. They don't understand magic beyond the faint bits they have for their own -- oh, they have their tricks, girls: that tunneling is not entirely without power behind it. The range of our abilities worries them, as they can never know what a single unicorn is truly capable of. And earth ponies --" a look at Pinkie, with Applejack out of sight "-- they are terrified of. He couldn't say why. Just that he was taught to leave them alone unless there was no other choice. I suspect a truly bad experience some generations back, exaggerated and partially lost in oral history. But a lone pegasus -- one who was hurt, who might have looked as if she couldn't get away -- that would be their ideal catch. For slavery, or -- worse, as they would have had nowhere to keep a slave and -- no idea how to catch the local food. Yes, they might have attacked her: five on one, seeing easy prey. I imagine what happened next would have -- been a surprise... Spike?"

He looked up at her, waited. He always did.

"You are -- the best digger among us. I will help, and I'm sure the others will too, but -- if we are concealing, then I would like to bury him. He committed at least one crime in his life and was likely trying for another, but -- he never would have been content to rest under Sun and Moon. Let us return him under the ground and perhaps in that way, he will find some small measure of peace. A final gift." Even for one who might have tried to kill a pony, who didn't deserve such a favor, Rarity had something to give.

The little dragon nodded and began looking for a good place to start.

"Rainbow Dash?" The pegasus looked away from the body, back to Twilight. "Can you track her from here?"

This negation was slower: the colors remained distinct. "It usually doesn't last long in air, Twilight. Seconds if somepony's just flying normally. We can't track each other just by feeling which way somepony's gone, not unless they're moving super fast and there's no other air traffic around... and in here, with the forest this dense... she probably would have been grounded anyway. Maybe -- depending on where she was in her -- cycle -- she couldn't fly. But she could still move the wind..." How shaken was Rainbow Dash? So shaken that she'd momentarily forgotten to try and hide it from the others -- and there she went. "It's all right! Like you keep saying, we've got her tonight! All seven of us. We'll talk more when we get back in, and then you can do what you do second-best after boring everypony to sleep with lectures or that dumb Star Swirl: come up with a plan... wait. I'm -- gonna be -- lecturing, right? That's what it's going to feel like... do not fall asleep on me, this is crucial stuff..."

She's killed. Twilight could see what Rarity had proposed, could easily imagine the scene. Should that have been the way events worked out -- then self-defense, nothing more. But -- she had killed.

One dead.

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It became two before they reached Trotter's Falls again. This fallen Diamond Dog had retained her vest, but Rarity was unable to identify her home tunnel. "The gem pattern is the identifier -- and if you steal from the pack, you lose what the pack granted. She did not take their gems: the pack did..."

And then there had been a second burial, with Pinkie Pie saying the words over the body again, ones she assured them the Dogs wouldn't mind. "We return to the earth what came from the earth," she'd said, voice soft and as calm as they'd ever heard her. "The lost life which was first granted by soil will bring forth more life in time. The loan is repaid. Give those who come after the protection of the contract completed -- to come forth, to work, to honor, and to return..."

She'd said it was something her grandmother had recited when her grandfather had passed into the shadowlands. Words for rock farmers. And that no true Diamond Dog would ever object to those.

(There had been a moment, after she'd finished speaking, right after she'd walked around the grave three times, when it had seemed as if her curls were gone, just a single second in which the pink mane and tail had collapsed into straight falls of slightly darker hue. But then it had passed, and they'd moved on.)

That was all they found during their ultimately meandering, seemingly random trek through the wild zone. A broken tree, a set of hoofprints, a pair of dead bodies, and fast-fading feel -- two kinds. That and Twilight knowing that there were lessons coming, teachings in pegasus magic and flight. Lessons from Rainbow Dash, ones she wasn't sure she could pass -- but at least now there would be lessons. Plus a stranger returning a little ways into the future. One they had to plan for before sunset came, and there was still Pinkie and Fluttershy's appointment with Doctor Gentle and a potentially looming party and a letter which she hoped would be coming back and the Princess only knew what else -- but even if the Princess knew, there would be no word.

They knew little more than they had: Twilight's telling them her late first spell theories on the way in had just added extra questions. But at least a single thing had been settled. No flight -- but still love. There was that, and it kept the worst of the horrors away from Twilight's thoughts as they made their way back, rejoining the original trail near the lost foundation (with Dash's help), and it was easy from there. A peaceful time granted by the wild zone, which had found other ways to instill trauma.

Quiet was at the edge of the hoofball field as they emerged, his nearly-imperceptible field raising and lowering a whistle from his mouth. "No, you may not use your horn for anything other than a deflection! And it's a physical deflection at that, Splendor! Do you really want to have your horn lit when one of the balls comes right at you? If you want a backlash so badly, just come over here and I'll inflict it: maybe it'll knock some sense into you! And Darkwing, if I see your hooves more than three inches above the ground one more time, I am bringing out the penalty rope! Dear Celestia, is this a scrimmage or a scrum? Do I need to start going through the armory and fitting all of you? Because part of it was cataloged this morning, I now know I have at least one colt size in there, Luna only knows how that happened, and if I have to wrap bodies in steel and horns in worse to enforce the rules -- oh, Twilight, didn't hear all of you come in -- Sun and Moon, very nice Royal Greeting Stance, everypony, but get up -- Princesses, present company excluded, why do I bother -- hmm... And is that why you went out? You're hardly doing a good job of concealing it, Miss Applejack."

The farmer jumped. "Ah -- what? Ah didn't -- Ah don't know what y'mean --"

He grinned. "Please. I can see the outline of the apples in your saddlebags. No Eastern Red Giants in your orchard, I take it? I'm vaguely familiar with the attempts at seed restrictions and artificial price hikes. Well, I'm certain Ponyville won't object to a new flavor and since the orchard is nopony's property, it seems to me the seeds belong to whoever brings them out. Just plan your plantings well -- as I'm sure you saw, they take a lot of space."

Applejack blinked twice, adjusted her freshly-slipped hat. "Um... yeah." With increasing certainty, "Believe me, Ah'm lookin' forward t' getting 'em in. Ah haven't had these since Ah was in Manehattan an' Ah never thought Ah'd get some in the Acres. Ah'm thinking 'bout mailing a few ahead so the family can get started before Ah get back. Y'still got those directions t' the post office handy, Mister Presence? 'cause it's still early enough t' catch airmail out, by Ponyville standards."

He nodded. "If you'll stay with me a few minutes, yes -- oh, Luna's tail, that was a foul! Don't think that just because I'm speaking to her, I'm not watching you! Darkwing, if you don't get yourself over right here now on hoof, I am going to tie the penalty rope so tight, your parents will wonder where I found a turkey to squawk! Of all the blatant..." A groan. "Or perhaps more than a few minutes. I don't suppose you've ever refereed hoofball?"

"Played," Applejack replied. "Refs -- mostly ignored."

Quiet sighed. "Yes, a perfect example to hang around me while they're practicing. I'm sure you have a lot to teach them. And they'll try to get away with all of it. Miss Pie? Miss Fluttershy? The Doctor is in at the moment, but he's napping. I'm trying to make sure he gets plenty of rest, mostly in spite of himself -- the more he's off that leg, the faster it should heal. But he should be up in a short time to join the two of you for your update and tales. And here we have Darkwing, looking vaguely ashamed of himself in a way which he sincerely hopes I will take as contrition and not gave him the penalty he so richly deserves. Should you remain in town long enough, you'll become very familiar with that look. I personally see it at least twice per practice session. Hold very still, young colt, and you won't need to be preening bits of hemp out of your feathers tonight. Twilight, I generally wouldn't discourage education, but if you ever teach this one about counting coup, I have another rope and I am only incredibly afraid to use it..."

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It is called chaos terrain.

There are places in Equestria where ponies do not go. The wild zones -- that's one thing. There is no overt control there, and some of the other sentient races take their residences along with the monsters and plants which do far more than just taste good on a plate -- some of them can and do try to eat ponies right back -- plus magic with no grounding or purpose and everything else unnatural -- but there are ponies who will venture inside, because the wild zones also hold items worth bringing out. There are things which can be done with the bounty from the uncontrolled regions, and some of those bring bits by the saddlebagful. He is becoming increasingly familiar with the riches of the wild zones. He has been forced to learn a large number of things since --

-- it happened.

He is about to try something new.

Research, so much research -- and nothing. Oh, he found something, all right -- he found the place where they should have been. He still swears he was in the right place, exactly the proper location -- and there was nothing except wild zone. He has wondered if they -- hid from him, somehow. Decided he was not meant to find them and concealed themselves accordingly. It's possible. Almost anything is when it comes to that subject. He intends to return to the chase later after still more research has been done. He might have been in the wrong place after all, or could find a way to break any concealment. It is not a road he feels he is anywhere near finished with -- not yet.

But he cannot commit to a single plan. It is possible that they will remain hidden, that neither he nor anypony else will ever find them within his lifetime. He can study, research, unearth the dustiest of texts (and a certain private library has proved more helpful than he would have dared to dream), but it ultimately may come down to his magic versus theirs -- and that is a battle he feels he would lose. He is stronger than he ever suspected, never knew what he could truly do until the day this path began -- but not that strong. Learning every day, yes, every day until this plan which he is starting to call The Great Work is complete. But even if there's a way to beat such things and he learns it, using it -- another matter. And so he has, after much study of lost works and words believed to be insane, created a backup plan, one which may have to become the primary.

It is eleven moons before his eldest will arrive. Fourteen after -- it happened. Nearly all of that time spent in study and travel, acquisition and interpretation, desperately seeing answers and forming the first steps on the path. And on this day, late dusk in the nightscape with the Sun fast-descending, years before there was a returned Princess to take control of her own Moon and the mere possibility was a dream in only one alicorn's mind, he has become very probably the first pony to venture into chaos terrain for the first time since it formed. Or was formed.

He wishes the first way had succeeded. That he had been able to find them. But he was not. And so after looking through the lens of recorded madness, he has found a second means. It begins today. If he is lucky. And if not -- one thing he has learned: there are always more beginnings.

The chaos terrain is -- just that.

He is fighting the urge to run. To gallop, or even teleport. Anything which would take him away from here. Something deep in his blood recognizes the nature of the place, that ponies should not be here and things happened to any who once were. His tail is lashing, ears back, his breath comes in great shuddering snorts. But his mind is overriding his body. A heartbeat-by-heartbeat accomplishment -- but he is managing. He will do the needful. Nothing will stop that, not ever, not if -- The Great Work -- is to be complete.

With great effort, he makes himself look at the ground. There is consistency within single hoofsteps, but not much further than that.

There: broken land, jumbled rock, with great spikes of thin metal jabbing up between crevices. There: a patch of greenery, or a color which only registers as green to his eyes because he has no sight or feel for what is truly present. Something which could be plants is in that area. They move. They reach towards him and stop at the border. He still will not venture too close to the line. They could be bluffing.

Lava in that next section, three body lengths across. A ice field twice that size on its right. Curious, he does force himself closer to the later and notes with faint amazement that he can feel the cold only when he puts a hoof over the line and holds it above the ice. He has to stand on a portion of gameboard to do so, although no gameboard ever bore such colors.

Desert. Then tundra. Oasis, followed by rain forest, accompanied by a two-Celests high section of mountain slope which he must cross -- and when he steps onto it, mere feet above sea level, the air grows thin and cold as snow whips across his body, blinds him for several hoofsteps until he tumbles off into plains.

Ridges and cracks now, running through dead ground, intermeshed, as if dozens of miniature rivers had run through this portion before going dry. He feels oddly -- tall -- in this section. After a time, he stops looking down.

A smooth black surface which feels like nothing he has ever walked across and nothing he ever wants to walk across again.

And onward.

Most of his will is being bent to moving forward. Not running away, and he wants to run more than nearly anything else ever desired in his life. But even more than that, he wants The Great Work to be achieved. There is nothing he will not do for that. For her. And so he forces a step and another step, as his will drives him and his magic is forced to reach outwards. To feel for something he is not certain can be felt.

The practice was simple. He stood still and tried. Over and over. He could not stay for very long and had to go at odd hours or somepony surely would have inquired why: the lies he had made up in advance thankfully remain untested. And when he believed he had felt something on repeated tries -- he came here. It had taken so much to find that last bit, what virtually everypony must believe doesn't even exist. He had nearly wept when he first believed himself to have felt it -- nearly. Emotions have barely come over these last fourteen moons, a dam waiting to break with much building behind it. Tearless sorrow and determination freely flow through. And love -- always love. But not laughter. Not yet.

He needed that feel. It was a first step. It was a necessary one. But he has been studying so much, chasing down so many possibilities in seeking paths, and he is all too aware of the mind's power to delude itself. He might have believed himself to feel simply because he needed to so badly and he was in a place where that illusion could have been brought onto himself. This is a truer test. He will succeed or fail.

This is where it should be. In chaos terrain. But he does not think he can feel very far yet: he had to be within a few hoofsteps when what still could have been delusion finally came. So he pushes himself through the areas where he can step -- walk without dying. And if it's in another, if he should somehow find it and getting it would mean instant death... what then? Retreat? A new plan? Would it move?

Hail sticks to his coat. Insects half the size of his hooves try to land on his flanks and bite: his tail lashes them away. Sand blows into his eyes --

-- and he feels it.

He stops. Blinks, uses some of the water in his canteen to wash the grit away. The feel remains. Not the normal one, not that of magic, but that which he has desperately been training himself to try and find, what he believed (hoped) he had succeeded in attuning to. The weakest sense, just barely there, insisting on registry simply because he has been trying so very hard, that barest remaining trace of -- Other.

He is within a mere two body lengths.

Then one.

And then he begins to dig.

Inspiration

View Online

There was a list Twilight had never written down, one where every entry was something she kept hidden from herself. None of the items on it had ever been checked off. Her subconscious read it every day before once again burying it beneath any possible waking notice. Twilight lived by that list and had, as of a little over three weeks ago, been adding to it without any true knowledge of having done so.

Of course, it wasn't the only one. Twilight had a love of schedules, of check marks, of virtually anything which would make the universe function in some kind of comprehensible order. It's all right for a train not to run on time in Twilight's world, but the conductor should be able to break down all the reasons for the delay and work to make sure none of them ever happened again. She had an affection towards things which were predictable and even more when that certainty of sequence sprung from nature itself, since that was a sign of the world trying to get it right. Ponies who wished to make a favorable first impression shouldn't give her flowers, but flower clocks. This species opens its petals at four in the afternoon and closes them at five, just in time for another to take over. Others make their move at night, adapted by centuries of natural background magic to receive nourishment from Moon, when there's a little less competition to worry about. Get enough different types together -- about three square yards to make it all work -- and you'll have something accurate to the quarter-hour: hardly perfect, but it shows nature is trying and Twilight would truly appreciate the effort, including that involved in gift-wrapping three square yards of earth and carrying it along in such a way as to make the presentation into a surprise.

(She spent a moon in her third year trying to make one herself, but -- unicorn. The 'dragons might be natural gardeners' theory also bit the dust.)

When Sun and Moon moved as they should, when equinoxes and solstices arrived on schedule, every time the stars marched across Luna's sky in the patterns they always followed, Twilight knew the world was a place where discord -- and Discord -- hadn't won. It made everything else that much easier to deal with. The universe wasn't necessarily orderly by nature -- but portions were, and those portions could at least try to organize the rest. She had yet to realize the true value of having a little chaos around -- certainly not to the point where she would have written a letter on the topic. It was a lesson Pinkie had been teaching her for nearly three years, and Twilight still hadn't realized there was even a class in session. Disorder, missed deadlines, things which came out of bucking nowhere, and chaos -- those could still throw Twilight for a loop, or at least send her into the groove for a good long pace.

And natural events going off schedule, or those which operated by no true schedule at all -- well, those weren't exactly in her comfort zone...


[/hr]

They were watching what Quiet had assured them would be the last few minutes of the practice. The penalty rope was still being used. As was the backup penalty rope (although not on Twilight), and the backup to the backup, along with Applejack having taken out her lasso before doing the last series of knots herself. Hoofball was like that: a game where sixty minutes of supposed action could easily take place over four hours, much of which was occupied by the calling and enforcement of penalties from a rulebook which had, over the course of a millennium, reached the point where virtually nopony could actually lift it and most unicorns needed a double corona just to flip through the index. And in this case, it also had Applejack and the tiny subversive streak she typically kept hidden at the lowest level of her psyche -- the one which had chosen to peek out through her stress and whisper a few words into the ears of hogtied colts. "...an' he's only got the one pair of eyes, don't he? So the time when y'want t' retaliate for that last hit is when he's callin' one on somepony else. Jus' make sure yer standin' -- and Ah mean standin', don't want his attention at'tall -- nearby when that whistle goes off, a little out of his sight, an' then y'jus' move your hoof in an' out real quick..."

(Actual games work with a team of six referees, mostly so they can guard each other's flanks during their escape should the home team happen to lose. It does nothing to stop the penalties, but it does tend to add an extra thirty minutes to each quarter.)

Quiet missed (or at least pretended to miss) all of it, watching the children, calling slightly fewer penalties than would have been found on the professional level, and listening to Twilight. "Signs of Diamond Dogs? Strange... the only tunnels I know of are several gallops away, and they've never been known to poke their heads out for more than a second or two. They're well outside their territory." There was a minute-long interruption while more penalties were announced, enforced, and gleefully forgotten by most of the players. "I'll let the mayor know, though -- that's an extra hazard for anypony who heads into the wild zone, and the town should be aware of it. A one-sheet slid under the door of every home and business should do it."

Twilight nodded. "Rarity thinks there's a chance you've got exiles -- three of them." They'd discussed it on the way in: it wasn't as if the Dogs were likely to communicate with anypony -- and might not even approach one after what had happened to two of their number. But they were still out there, and could be more desperate than ever. Raid the town: virtually no chance. Take one more chance on getting a pony: unlikely -- but the odds weren't fully at zero for either. "Two males, one female, all adults. They don't know how to survive up here and the longer they're on the surface, the more panicked they might become. I just want everypony to be aware they're out there, before they try something stupid. But --" she sighed "-- there probably isn't much point to sending out more search parties to find them. They'll scent us before we see them most of the time -- and then they might just tunnel."

"And that is the voice of experience," Quiet noted. "Is there a story here, Miss Rarity? I hardly would have expected you to be an expert on the burrowers, especially given how limited their wardrobes tend to be."

"Most of them won't even consider my designs, not even after I spent half a moon on them! And trying to make something for hands... Celestia's shoes, no appendage should have that many joints, the gloves kept wearing out against the, oh, what was that word -- knuckles, and then they wouldn't trim their claws and you can imagine what that did to the tips..." Rarity took a breath, then tried two more. "Oh, yes, right -- there's a smidgen of story there, but I think we can save it for later."

Their host chuckled. "Somepony should probably be writing some of this down. I understand what you mean, Twilight, and I don't think the mayor will ask the townsponies for anything on that scale anyway. The Doctor was one thing -- this is another. And there really aren't many of us who go that far into the wild zone when apples aren't involved. Just alerting ponies to travel in groups for a while should do most of it."

Twilight hoped. It was a balancing act: make sure the locals knew about the dangers they had to be aware of without scaring them to the point where they could turn a potential innocent into a threat -- or something along those lines, anyway. Twilight also wanted her to feel secure enough to approach them, not hiding because there were ponies crashing through the woods in all directions. Maybe it was the search parties which flushed her out, just through having so many ponies in her area?

"I have been writing some of it down!" Rainbow Dash insisted with the slightly frantic tones of a pony who could see somepony else, one who was a little less wantonly cruel to the common comma, beating her to the copyright office. "Lots! I just need -- to polish some of it a little, that's all..."

Quiet's expression took on a faint layer of surprise. "A budding author? Well, keep it detailed, factual, and dry and I'll be sure to add a copy to my library. Add lies about scandal and sex if you want to sell two."

The brash tone was terrifyingly thoughtful. "Scandal and sex -- huh..."

"Dash, don't y'dare, Ah swear Ah'll get every rope on this field and make y'wish for the Running Of The Leaves because y'won't even tie for last any more, y'won't even get on the course 'cause y'won't be movin' --"

-- and the pegasus came down right in front of them, a scream of pain emerging as she contacted the ground.

One of the very rare metallic coats: a light touch of emerald across her entire body, a hue which extended to her eyes. White mane and tail. Adult. Half-covered in froth. And pregnant. Very pregnant. Almost as pregnant as it was possible to be without finishing -- which was the problem currently in progress.

"The doctor..." she gasped, "...they said he was here... please..." Her front knees buckled, and she made an effort to keep standing, to keep her belly off the ground. "...I need -- the doctor..."

The moment froze --

-- and the ice flashed into steam under the heat of action. "Right!" It was the first time any of them had heard Quiet seriously raise his volume and the reason for that was immediate: pain flushed his voice as the overexertion hit him. He kept going regardless. "Every colt and filly, practice is over, those of you with ropes and lassos get them off and then head home immediately! Twilight, I know you can lift her, carry her in, please... I cleared a room when I took him on as my guest, I knew this would happen several times before he had anything of his own again, it's on the second floor, look for the double-edged mouth-mounted parry blades and then take a hard left. Miss Dash, fly ahead, the Doctor is five rooms down from that, wake him up, I assure you he won't mind -- dear Celestia, she's fast. Madame, we're going to take care of you. I won't ask you to relax, but do know you're in the best hooves and fields available for all of Equestria, and there is no chance better than this one."

The pegasus squinted against the pain of the fresh contraction as Twilight's field gently raised her, looked down at the source. "...Princess?" There was an attempt at a midair dip. The belly didn't make it look any less awkward. "The Princess -- here?" Her eyes widened again -- and then, out of nowhere, "Please -- please bless my foal..."

Twilight blinked. ...what?

The pegasus, having clamped onto the idea, was holding on for dear life. Possibly two lives. "...you're here... you can make everything -- all right... please, bless..."

Twilight looked at Quiet. He returned the favor. No words arrived with the eye contact.

...okay... I always wanted to see the Exception at work and try to feel what Doctor Gentle was doing... at least, I did right up until I got a possible chance at it... "I -- I'll -- ask the Doctor if I can -- attend the birth?"

Another cry of pain. "...please..."

Twilight decided it was a course of action. It was something to do. It was anything which wasn't the word 'bless' and everything which was threatening to come with it. "Let's get inside, everypony! We've got a foal to deliver!" For a one-pony value of 'we'.

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As it turned out, Doctor Gentle could wake up fast: Rainbow Dash later said she'd never seen a pony go from prone and unconscious to standing and fully alert so quickly. ("Too much practice," he would tell them over dinner that night.) He'd asked her to leave the room while he made ready and emerged less than two minutes later, covered neck through tail in the largest garment any of them had ever seen on a stallion, dark brown with numerous large pockets scattered over its length, several of which were laden with weight. "Birthing garment," he'd explained in a hurry as they moved towards the makeshift delivery room, Doctor Gentle limping along at his best speed until Twilight finally decided to save a few seconds by adding him to her field, which he took with aplomb. "I never know what I might need and all of it has to be close..." More softly, clearly hoping the new arrival (floating some distance ahead) would miss it, "And I'm horribly short on supplies right now: nearly everything was lost in the fire and all I have is what I've been able to purchase in town or have shipped in at emergency speed within a few hours, this is sooner than I thought it would be..."

Spike was running alongside them, with the little dragon holding his nose. It gave an odd tone to the words. "I can send letters to some ponies, Doctor Gentle! If it would get things back faster!"

Doctor Gentle smiled as he looked down. "I'm not quite sure what you mean, young dragon, but -- does the garment smell that bad to you? It's an old one which was at the town laundry when I left. I suppose some stains never fully come out. All right -- Shining, you truly wish the Princess to attend? I have no objections."

"...bless..." the pegasus whispered.

They both took it as an answer. "Very well. We three inside -- I'm sorry, young dragon, but a sentient who emerged from an egg might not want to see this at this point in his life -- and everypony else, do your best to wait for us in whatever space you can find. We may be some time..."

The door closed, and it was just the three of them.

Doctor Gentle glanced at Twilight as she released him from her field. "This is a messy business, Princess. Have you ever been at a birth before? No? Without meaning to be indelicate, things can emerge which are not the foal, and I have no garment for you. I realize you may wish to observe, but I recommend doing so from a slight distance."

Twilight didn't have Rarity's mild rupophobia. She wasn't all that comfortable with the range of concepts presented by 'things' either. And deferring to those who were at the top of their professions was practically built into her hooves. "Yes, Doctor." Twilight took half a step back.

This upset the newly-named Shining. "...but -- bless..."

Another glance, this time with increasing awareness dawning in the Doctor's eyes. "I understand. Shining, I assure you the Princess is bringing her blessing to our mutual efforts simply by her presence: words will await your foal's arrival so she can give the child appropriate ones upon first sight. But if you need more --" clearly trying to calm the mother-to-be down, his expression both telling Twilight that and softly requesting it "-- Princess, would you --" visibly thinking fast "-- invoke a blessing field upon this room?"

Twilight, her own mind working at full speed, coated the walls with soft, passive, doing-nothing-whatsoever glow. Shining sighed with relief, and Twilight got her onto the birthing table.

Doctor Gentle exerted his own field, helped Shining get her hind legs into the padded cuffs before carefully closing them. "At least this came quickly," he softly told Twilight. "Quiet ordered it yesterday via the fastest pegasus he knew and kicked bits around to make certain it would arrive shortly after the Sun rose."

Whispering back, "Do you -- have enough?" Because the room was virtually empty. There was the long low birthing table with its padded surface, almost large enough for a pony and a half, with Shining occupying about two-thirds of it. A smaller table bearing a silver tray which had a few scant instruments on it, objects Twilight had never seen before and wasn't sure she wanted to see in action here: she wanted to observe the Exception (which this particular birth might not even require), not -- whatever those did and how and she already knew where. A tiny elevated bath filled with warm water, which Rainbow Dash had placed in the room some time before they'd entered: she could see the splash zone around it. Three small bottles and two larger ones. And stone walls coated by glow.

Just barely at the edge of her hearing, "I hope." Back to normal volume. "All right, Shining, let's see where we are..." His horn lit --

-- and it took Twilight a moment to see the strangeness, something which hadn't happened when Doctor Gentle had been eating dinner. "Doctor?"

He glanced back at her again -- then made the correct guess. "Oh -- yes, I know it's odd. The heads of the Equestrian Magic Society were the first to remark on it: I truly never noticed before they did, and it only happens when I'm doing this. The sparkles will return for every other spell, but when I'm on the verge of or actually using the Exception, they vanish. There doesn't seem to be any harm to it. I'm preparing -- relax, Shining, the Princess has never seen this before and asked for instruction, simply feel honored to become part of her education -- but I haven't invoked it yet. Your contractions are very close, Shining -- but you're nearly two weeks early, and your foal is rather on the large side. I suspect this one simply couldn't wait any longer. The presentation --" and he carefully moved his front hooves across the pegasus' belly, made just the lightest of contact.

All expression vanished from his face. He looked at Twilight.

And she knew. The presentation isn't right.

"-- can be dealt with," Doctor Gentle continued. "Princess -- please continue your blessing."

Possibly more than the presentation wasn't right.

Twilight -- couldn't do anything. She didn't know how to invoke the Exception. Couldn't feel the foal. Certainly had no power to bless. She could only watch and feel as helpless as she had after the Elements had failed against Discord, the inversion of her friends and absence of Rainbow Dash taking the only hope she'd had and leaving it as rubble scattered across gameboard ground. Just as weak and ineffective as she'd been making her way up the stairs to pack, defeated and looking only to find a place where nopony would ever see her greyed coat again.

She intensified the useless glow. Shining smiled as she blinked back tears of pain, looked happy.

If the foal dies -- if the foal dies and I couldn't do anything to stop it...

...wait! There was something! "Doctor -- Gromway's Combiner..." Weld her strength to his! If he could use the Exception with her power behind it...!

He blinked. "I -- know of it, Princess, but I do not know it. And I have never been sorrier for that gap in my education."

Which once again left her unable to do anything beyond adding a few more lumens to the light.

"Very well," Doctor Gentle said. "Shining, I will have to move the foal somewhat. There will be additional discomfort from the internal shifting, but it will simply feel very strange. I regret that I do not have the medicines I would need to take some of your pain away, but mares birthed long before there were foul-tasting liquids in bottles. I will do my best to ensure we all come through it together -- all four of us."

Shining bit back a scream. "I -- trust you, Doctor... I trust in the Princess..."

...don't... please don't...

The Doctor smiled -- and made it worse. "As well you should," he said, and gave Twilight another look, one she could clearly read and wished had never been written. This mare needed something to believe in right now, and a truly helpless Twilight was going to be it. "Princess, this is the time. Shining, I know how difficult it is, but you must try to restrain yourself from pushing for a time. Do your best."

The sparkleless silver glow around his horn intensified, reached the absolute limits of a primary corona -- but did not go further than that. The same hue surrounded Shining, most intense around her belly.

Twilight, who had wanted to observe (but never like this, never this, not with a life at risk), stretched out her senses simply because there was nothing else she could do. Tried to get the feel of that altered field.

Power. He's stronger than I thought he would be. But it's not a working -- and yet it is. This is the most basic manipulation of an object, but there's a twist to it. I can feel where the field has been warped, but not how. The difference is present and visible -- but how do you copy it? I know he's tried to teach it, and I know he's failed... Luna's tail, no wonder ponies come from all over Equestria, he's just about the only chance...

Another, much lesser layer of frustration. There was the twist to the field. It was right in front of her. And she had no idea how to even begin duplicating it. Spell copying was hardly instant for her in most cases: it had taken six hard hours of instruction and supervision before she'd found the key to Rarity's gem detector and -- well, as she'd found out two days prior, she'd never quite achieved the same level of refinement. The mark did mean something and, as with her too-fast-approaching Moon-lit appointment, there were times when it could mean too much. But Twilight's mark was for magic itself, and that meant she usually did get the sense of a unicorn's personal spells when she tried hard enough, could learn to replicate the feel with enough study and practice. It was just going to take a lot more than a single exposure for this once-impossible trick -- and there were only so many births she could attend while she was in Trotter's Falls. Only so many she wanted to attend if this one went wrong while an innocent mare trusted in her.

I know he's doing it. I can feel him strengthening his field over selected areas. He must be -- grasping the hooves, maybe? Inside. But I can't figure out entirely how. Just that -- it works. And it's a miracle. If there had to be a single exception to the differentiation rule, at least it's this one --

-- but is this a miracle that's going to work?

Doctor Gentle continued to concentrate. "Almost there, Shining," he assured the mare. "Incidentally -- a filly." That with a smile. "You can cut your name list in half now. A very large filly for a pegasus -- and yes, that means her size, gender and race: I can feel the wings..."

Shining was crying now, still looking at Twilight with that trust, still smiling. "I -- wasn't sure," she gasped. "Unicorn -- four generations back -- my Second Mother's side... couldn't be sure..."

"I remember," Doctor Gentle told her. "Now -- she is all right." (Twilight's heart soared, Shining's tears flowed faster.) "There has been some strain on her from the presentation, but she will be perfectly all right once she emerges. You'll simply wish to keep her from exercising too much for the first few days. A little more --"

(-- and that twist in his field seemed to widen, became a channel and Twilight could feel something moving down it, a rush of energy like none she had never sensed before, something she couldn't begin to identify beyond the surge of resonance, so much emotion present as to actually impact her without being the direct target, a burst of hope --)

"-- and push, Shining!" he told the mare, volume suddenly increased, eyes lit by emotion. "I have her from my end -- your part is now! Push with everything you have, and bring her to Sun!"

The mare screamed. Tried to kick, with only her uncuffed front legs moving. Pushed.

It was happening --

-- and then it had happened.

Twilight stopped trying to feel the Exception, which had just been released -- and as he had said, sparkles seemed to flow back into the Doctor's field as he gently moved the pegasus filly towards the little bath. Stopped watching Shining's face, even though it was the strongest expression of pure happiness she'd ever seen. Stopped trying to do anything other than prevent herself from vomiting all over the floor.

'Messy business' had been the understatement of a lifetime --

-- please tell me that isn't a placenta, oh please, oh Celestia and Luna, I learned about 'afterbirth' but I never thought I'd see it, and -- well, there's muscles contracting everywhere, so I guess some of the wrong ones would go along and -- the smell --

-- it took four slow breaths (taken through her mouth) for her to retrieve any idea of 'I may someday have a foal of my own' and jam it back into the mental folder where it belonged. A folder which had nearly been thrown away a thousand times over the last few weeks to begin with.

"She's beautiful, Shining," Doctor Gentle smiled. "I'll have her to you in a few minutes... I need to clean her and do the standard tests first, but I already know she's healthy. Princess, if you'd like to say hello?"

Twilight forced herself to approach the bath. (She still hadn't released the glow.)

And she was beautiful, now that some of the -- muck -- was being wiped away. The same metallic tint which was in her mother's coat had manifested here -- but instead of emerald, it was ruby. Emerald eyes, though, almost all pupil, blinking slowly as the mind behind them made its first attempt to reconcile the new environment. No mane yet, although there was a bit of tail hair: obsidian. And --

-- how did that...? Twilight pointed a hoof at the infant's neck, inclined her horn towards the bruises.

Doctor Gentle's voice dropped to a whisper. "Umbilical cord around the throat," he told her. "It was -- closer than I want to tell Shining right now. I had to unwrap it inside before bringing her out. This little one nearly didn't make it, Princess. Close -- too close... but here she is, and that? Is the only thing which matters. She will live: she simply needs rest for a time. A moment -- removing caps never stops being tricky..."

"Caps?" It was something to whisper back, something to try (and fail at) moving her mind away from the nightmare which kept pressing against her imagination. A stillbirth, strangled in the womb. A mother crying from something other than sheer relief and pure joy. A funeral among the clouds. But for him.

"These." He pointed his horn to each in turn: two hard-looking shells of slightly translucent tissue. "Only earth ponies lack them at birth -- and perhaps the crystal ponies do as well, I have yet to go and see -- but then, earth ponies don't need them. On a pegasus, they protect the wings from the stresses of the birth canal: for a unicorn, they protect the mother from the internal wounds which might be caused by a horn. A capless birth... almost unheard of, and never without consequence for mother, foal, or both. I've had -- two. One of each. They..." A shiver, the pain of memory made manifest. "...with Treylani, I very nearly lost her mother: the horn cut, and the internal bleeding -- in the end, both lived, but it was as much luck as anything I did. For Snowflake -- for those I have nearly lost, he ranks perilously close to Pinkie, and there was damage to his wings --"

"-- Snowflake?"

Doctor Gentle looked at Twilight more directly -- then figured it out. "Oh, yes -- he did move to Ponyville about two years ago: of course you've seen him. I hope he heard the news of my return in time if he was one who decided to be on his way, but I'll certainly be happy to see him should he arrive. He's one of mine, Princess -- one I'm very proud of. I truly never believed he would fly at all, but he somehow makes up for his birth injury with sheer strength and force of willpower. Not only a flier, but one good enough to get into the Wonderbolts Academy. He had no real intention of joining them, mind you -- he just wanted to prove that he could operate on that level. Snowflake took what many ponies would have seen as an insurmountable limitation and used it for personal drive. He's grown into an extraordinarily determined, resourceful, and intelligent young stallion." The warm smile of purest pride. "If slightly overexuberant."

Which made Twilight giggle, just a little. "I've noticed."

"Yes, most ponies within about three hundred yards do... well, caps generally fall away after a few days on their own, but it does no harm to remove them early. Mothers are divided just about exactly down the middle on whether to soak them off with warm water -- and there's a lot of care involved in the removal then -- or let nature take its course. Some even save the things. I asked Shining during her first examination -- too early to use the Exception for checking anything -- and she requested the removal." He diligently worked to remove the caps, his field exertions precise and gentle. "Look at this little filly, Princess. One of her two great moments of destiny passed, and she has no awareness of it. All she knows is that she's here -- and soon, she'll decide she's hungry..."

Twilight blinked. "I don't understand what you mean, Doctor." And didn't.

He chuckled as one cap came away, began to preen the tiny wing with a hundred times more expertise than Twilight possessed. "It depends on what you believe, Princess -- and some ponies believe in destiny. That there are things we are meant to do. Ponies we will meet, things which shall be achieved, events which cannot be stopped --"

a wave of color spreading across the sky, six cutie marks triggered on fillies all across Equestria, none aware of all the others, the invisible bond made long before the tide of time began to push us together

"-- and for some who believe that, birth is one of the two great moments. To arrive safely in this world is to be made part of fate's tapestry. She is here, and now her thread will begin to weave through the work and touch so many others. Oh, there are supposed to be other moments -- naming is a major one and personally, I've seen too many ponies with names suited a little too well for their jobs to suspect mere and frequent coincidence or simply taking one's own name as inspiration for a career path. If you think on it, you'll probably come up with many examples of your own -- myself included, although it took some time for me to realize --" hesitated, resumed more softly "-- what I was truly meant to do. But for the believers -- birth is the first of destiny's two truest touchstones."

I need to spend more time with the library's philosophy section. "What's the other?"

"The one you would expect," Doctor Gentle told her. "The manifestation of the cutie mark. Some take that more as confirmation of a destiny, but as I see it, it's as often the start of a new road as it is the continuation of an old one."

Which left a momentary bad taste in Twilight's mouth. The thought that she had been destined from birth to bear that mark and go through so much pain... no, on second thought, those books could arguably stay shelved for a while, presuming anypony hadn't already checked them out just to get the autograph. Still, there was a need to reply. "I understand, I think -- I mean -- Pinkie..."

A deeper chuckle. "Yes -- not a mark you'd expect to appear in a family of rock farmers, especially if you know anything about their practices and traditions." (Twilight didn't, and books on the subject didn't seem to exist.) "And -- not one they --" stopped himself. "Her tale, not mine."

Twilight pushed the curiosity back: there would be no more details from this party, and she knew it. But since they were on the subject... "Doctor -- what is rock farming? Pinkie never says, and I always thought it was just a colloquial term for mining."

"I always understood the same..." The second cap came away. "But they never practiced it while I was visiting her. I don't think they wanted me to see the entrance to their tunnels. Then again, Pinkie's father was so hidebound that he barely wanted me to see Sun and changed his mind on that issue every other second --" and another stop, but this one resumed after a single breath. "-- no, that I can speak about, at least for this," and his voice briefly went harsh. "Should his mine ever collapse on his head, I hope Pinkie never hears of it. And that I do. But those aren't thoughts for first minutes, are they, newest citizen?" He smiled at the tiny filly. "Cleaned and freed -- yes, there go the first flaps -- and merely bruised: no scars will come from that first misadventure. So now I believe it is time..."

And he field-carried the infant to her beaming mother, set the filly down in the light of glowing walls. "Hello, little one. This is your mother... and I am your very first friend... and this is Princess Twilight, who will now give you words of blessing."

Oh no.

She flipped through hastily-memorized imaginary pages, checked the phantom index three times before forcing herself to face a simple fact: Bark Leaves had never attended a birth in his life or collected a single quote from those who had. It was almost betrayal -- and now she had to think of something to say...

Horse apples.

Oh Celestia, don't say that.

I didn't say that, right?

No, nopony looks freaked out. They're just -- waiting. Shining looks happier than any pony I've ever seen in my life and she thinks I did something when it was all Doctor Gentle, she'll never believe anything else because she doesn't want to and she's waiting for me to say something and she'll just lie there with that look on her face for hours while I find the perfect blessing which won't do anything just like I couldn't do anything during the birth, oh Celestia, Luna, why...

They were waiting for her.

She came closer, leaned in, gently touched her glowing horn to the infant's forehead.

"May all your friends be true," she whispered, "and may you be a true friend to others. Let happiness find you wherever you fly and spread in the wake of your wings. Live free, live long, without pain. Leave the world a better place than you found it with memories given to all who knew you and tales of the joy you brought repeated for a thousand years and more. Live."

Shining began to cry again. "Princess..." she whispered. "I can't name her after you... no pony will ever be named Twilight again... but... Our Lady Of The Dusk And Dawn... Dawn..." She nuzzled her filly. "My little Dawn Sky..."

And Twilight had to leave, had to release her field and get out of the room before it all broke loose, found an empty hallway because it had been too crowded with everypony waiting in the corridor and they'd probably retreated to the nearest room instead, thanked Celestia for the momentary privacy --

-- and that was the Tartarus of it, right there.

How many times had she sworn by them? More for Solar than Lunar, of course: that was just a question of time. Swearing by Luna had caught on -- quickly. Very quickly. There was a second ruler to swear by and it added a certain variety to the oaths, so why not? It had become at least semi-natural within moons and, after that one Nightmare Night, turned into automatic reaction. But it wasn't just swearing by them -- it was, at times, entreating --

-- no, it was more than that. There were times when it was prayer.

Shining had called on her. And through Doctor Gentle's skills, through no effort of her own, it had all worked out and all it meant was that Shining would call on her again, teach Equestria's youngest pony to do the same, and it would march through time, moving ever forward and outwards...

...there are thousands of ponies or more who might believe the same and -- there are ponies out there who would usually swear by Luna's mane or the Princess' shoes who might right now be saying 'Twilight's horn' and I can't stop them from believing in me...

Luna keep us under your wings.

Celestia stand her watch.

Twilight bless my foal.

And in that moment, it felt as if there was nothing she would not have given up to change back.

En Plein Air

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The stone would not wear away.

Applejack knew Twilight had a pacing problem, was well-aware of the deep-carved groove in the library basement. She'd never understood it. When you had too much to think about, you worked. When you were stressed to the point of snapping, you worked. And when you'd worked too much and should really stop before you started to do something stupid like trying to harvest the entire Acres all by your lonesome, you -- well, even these days, you still might take a few seconds for clenching your teeth and perhaps even worrying at your mane a little before you could make the words 'please help me' come out, but before that, you worked. Sure, maybe walking around in a circle gave you time to think, but what else was being done? Nothing whatsoever -- so in the end, didn't that make Twilight's idea of intensive thinking a waste of time, at least in the sense that the thinking was the only thing happening at all and not necessarily getting anything accomplished? Think, fine. But think while you work, because thinking without action hardly ever got anything finished in the farmer's world and she didn't really understand why it should be otherwise for anypony else. Even Rarity sketched while she considered problems, or tried out stitch patterns on sample patches. Maybe fancy dresses were ultimately pointless -- honestly, what was the reason for creating something which was meant to last a season before no pony would ever want to use it again? -- but at least Applejack could see where work was involved.

(She never really considered that ultimately, she was raising a crop to be enjoyed for a few minutes and then forgotten until the next time: Applejack saw her efforts as a drop within the generational bucket. There were a number of issues where Applejack was at least something of a hypocrite, but that one was more a matter of long-term perception. Refusing to recognize that Rarity was, in a way, her own Manehattan road not taken, and the willful disconnect which had come from that -- a deliberate blind spot.)

She even understood how hard Rarity's work was now. The rearrangement of the marks had left her with the urge to create -- and no ability to do so. Applejack had imagination and used it, but generally as a means of temporal projection: what kind of crop are we going to need for late fall? What's the potential cider traffic? How many pies do we have to throw together for the festival and how many can the cart even carry safely? She would imagine those futures and then work towards them. But weaving dreams out of silk and fancy -- no. Of the other five, Rarity had always been the most alien to her, the pony she had the most trouble even beginning to understand. Twilight's drive to improve her studies made sense to the earth pony. Pinkie was -- well, Pinkie -- but the baker's roots went back even further than Applejack's: she had to respect that and even understood the decision to break away from them. Rainbow Dash's laziness irked her even on the best of days, but the weather coordinator could exert herself when she really wanted to and like Twilight, she had that need to push. And Fluttershy -- she'd always felt connected to the shy mare, appreciated how love of land and nature could have drawn the pegasus down from the clouds and kept her at ground level: even at their first meeting, Fluttershy had practically felt like kin.

Rarity, though -- the unicorn, with her odd tastes and worries about what others thought (and there was a little of that hypocrisy, not that Applejack had noticed) and incredibly skewed priorities, had less in common with Applejack than the farmer had with the average minotaur. They had come to a truce during the slumber party and in the time since, had found some degree of bond -- but it was arguably the weakest connection Applejack had in the group. Or it had been until the transfer, when Applejack had found herself staring at endless arrays of fabric, colors and types forming an unbreakable wall between her and what she needed to do. A wall she couldn't kick through. All she had been able to do was stare at them until the tears came and try to dream, try to think of anything which would coordinate or drape or at the very least not fall apart when she was putting the horrible ugly results on the dress forms. Nothing had happened. She had tried until she could have sworn she was beginning to sweat blood instead of froth, and nothing had kept right on happening. She'd been crying when the others had finally brought Rarity in, buried instincts about to restore that piece of the puzzle. Crying because work was hard... no, never in her life until that moment, when she'd realized that dreaming for a living could feel like wounding her own soul to see if it bled diamonds.

In the weeks since Twilight's change, she had found herself growing closer to the designer, even spending a barely-able-to-spare hour in the Boutique just watching the unicorn weave visions from desire. Because it was watching work. Hard work. Unlike pacing, which just wore away the library's basement and Twilight was going to find herself crashing into an abandoned Diamond Dog tunnel one of these days.

But Applejack had a lot to think about. Too much to think about, and there was no work to be done. No Acres to maintain. No local gardens she could peek in on and offer a helping hoof with unless she counted the koi pond, and how was she supposed to do anything with fish? Couldn't clean the castle because there were servants for that and she respected their need to make a living. Certainly wasn't going to catalog anything in this small art gallery and barely recognized what the word meant. ("Inventory? Fifteen paintin's, ten sculptures, one of those 'kinetic' thingees with all the soft little bell noises, an' Ah think that over there jus' got left behind by the cleanin' crew -- what?") So after Twilight had vanished through the door with doctor and patient, she'd found the little display room to wait in and --

-- started to pace.

Because there was nothing else to do. Because her thoughts wouldn't leave her alone. Because her tail needed to lash and Luna, she wanted something she could kick. Her muscles were made of taut wire, her skin felt as if it had shrunken under Sun, and she was oddly aware of her teeth to the point where she kept wondering if they were about to grind. Did pacing actually work for Twilight? At all? Did it work for anypony? Was there any chance it could work for her, with no work to be done and no other alternatives on the horizon?

So far -- no.

Ah'm runnin' out of options...

The thought surprised her, almost made pacing into something worse than worthless on the spot because the idea was so stupid. She didn't have any options to run out of.

Pinkie was going to talk.

No -- Pinkie was going to betray. Greater crimes could be committed against a pony, but not against a race. Pinkie had every intention of going up to Twilight and -- telling her. Everything. And given Pinkie's background, her amount of 'everything' might even be more than Applejack's. The stories said what had to be done when somepony betrayed or even threatened to. All of it.

Pinkie had been right. She'd left the lasso out.

And, in the oldest stories -- the neck...

...no. Ah can't. Ah never could. Not -- not Pinkie. Maybe not anypony. Ah can't do that. But if Ah don't figure out how t' take care of this, jus' me an' her -- she's a walkin' breach, Celestia, any moment she's in that part of the damn cycle, she could be in front of somepony who scares her an' -- then it's all out. Nopony but Pinkie t' help hide it, an' she can't hardly feel. Can't help stop it. An' usually, that wouldn't matter. It would still jus' be me against her. One pony against one pony. A voice against a voice. We'd cancel. But...

...what she did...

...she's shoutin'.

Yes, fifteen paintings, ten sculptures, a kinetic thingee, and what had to be some kind of unicorn implement for tidying up. She hoped. The circle had brought her past all of it. Several times. She wasn't counting the circuits, didn't want to start. That felt as if it would lead directly to Want It, Need It all over again, only with her own eyes twitching and a lasso encircling --

-- no. Never that. Not her. But --

-- shoutin'.

Apple Bloom. Young. Innocent. And, she had to face it, not the brightest filly in the world. Oh, her little sister had her moments, but when it came to some of the most basic things under the Sun, stupid. The whole ongoing Cutie Mark Crusaders experiment was proof of just how willfully dumb Apple Bloom could be, and never more so than a few seconds after the cutie pox had been cured, just after Apple Bloom had finally seemed to understand the lesson of patience -- the moment she'd thrown that lesson away. Kids were idiots and in Applejack's opinion, Scootaloo made things worse. While Apple Bloom was more than capable of coming up with some great acts of stupidity on her own, the pegasus filly had a way of diverting the other two away from potentially safe activities (although when the trio was united, fabric samples tended to explode) towards the dangerous, the foolhardy, the outright idiotic and, in Applejack's worst nightmares, the ones she had at least once a moon no matter what Luna did, the deadly. The farmer had thought about ordering Apple Bloom out of the Crusaders a thousand times. Known it wouldn't work just as many. The bond between the three was too strong, even if it generally seemed to have been woven from purest idiocy.

But -- Apple Bloom was close to the other two -- three if you counted Babs. She considered them to be her closest friends in the world. The bond between them might be as strong as the sibling one. Could be -- she hated thinking about it, was coming to hate this stupid circle -- stronger.

What would happen if the others ever asked her?

No -- that was a stupid question. Virtually nopony ever asked, had certainly never asked Applejack before this mission -- although Rarity of all ponies was now trotting around the absolute edge of it, she'd worked out the existence of earth pony feel on her own, if not completely for what. (There were times when they all lost Rarity in Twilight's shadow, forgot there was a second fairly major intelligence in the group -- and there were days when Pinkie made it three.) But other ponies -- they saw the Effect and decided that was all there was. That was the idea, or at least part of it. And it wasn't as if the other Crusaders had their magic yet. Apple Bloom did have hers -- well, at least the basics. Her sister could bring the Effect with the rest of the family, although hers would need some more time before it reached full strength. Most earth pony colts and fillies had the capacity to at least pitch in a little before they started school and long after the lessons of the stories had been taught: Apple Bloom was actually right on pace, even if she insisted that even this was something for now. The rest would come. Sweetie Belle was just barely beginning to spark and Scootaloo couldn't hover for more than a second: they were the ones who were behind (even if Twilight claimed Sweetie was on pace herself), and they wouldn't really talk to each other about magic until those magics began to truly manifest. And Apple Bloom had learned her lessons: she would listen and nod and delight in the discoveries of her friends. Without talking. Without -- volunteering.

Except -- they were so close, that trio. So very close...

Applejack had been told all the stories. And how so many of them ended.

rope hangin' from a tree branch, deadweight at the end

It was getting harder and harder to keep walking. Her tail kept lashing on its own.

Such a thing had never happened in Ponyville, of course. The stories usually took place in far older towns and cities, and they were all set long ago. And it had seemed to Applejack even in the first times she'd heard them that sometimes ponies took a lesson and turned it into a story so the youngest would be both more willing to follow along and capable of truly understanding -- but also that there were times when something happened and those who witnessed it made a story from the results. A cautionary tale. Oral history, passed down from one generation of earth ponies to the next. Granny Smith to her parents, who had told her and Big Mac, and they, with mother and father lost, had been the ones to tell Apple Bloom. Stories. Echoes of the past meant to never fade. It had happened, somewhere and somewhen. It could happen again.

Pinkie had been told the stories. Might have been told more stories, ones which ran older and deeper. Stories only rock farmers passed along as the self-proclaimed purest among the earth ponies, the ones supposedly closest to the heart. Applejack had possessed cartloads of respect for rock farmers right up until the moment a much younger Pinkie Pie, voice nearly shredded by memory, had told her the most personal of truths. She still respected the profession -- but not all who practiced it. Certainly not after she'd met --

-- don't wanna think 'bout that right now...

Pinkie didn't know. Should never know. A secret which was easy to keep. But -- Pinkie was ready to talk. Applejack had never heard an earth pony say they were about to betray. It hadn't been a casual decision on the baker's part: the mission and the ravine had needed to team up before it had been enforced, along with --

-- don't wanna think 'bout that neither, stupid brain, listen t' me --

-- Twilight. Twilight and the change. But Twilight was a unicorn in her head and heart, even Rainbow Dash could see that. Maybe the Princesses would never tell her. It was possible that she'd never find the feel, certainly not on her own. Nopony had to be told anything...

Except that Pinkie was ready to tell her.

Pinkie. Her friend. Her traitor.

Maybe that had been part of Discord's intent in assigning the mission. To break the secret once and for all.

No earth ponies here. Nopony but me an' Pinkie. Nopony t' know but me if she -- does it. At least t' start. But if she tells once, she can do it again. Or Twilight could. Twilight, who writes things down, who never had a lesson she didn't want t' jus' turn around an' teach...

Pinkie was in the room, watching her pace. Keeping an eye on the endless circle as the stone floor refused to wear away under Applejack's hooves. The baker's expression hadn't changed since they'd entered: placid, patient, ready to talk if Applejack was. The look of a clock which knew its ticking had accelerated -- and then started the gears turning on another. Turning faster.

Either Applejack fixed everything (and how could she? How could any single pony against this level of horror?) or Pinkie talked. And the consequences from there, oh Celestia, the things which could happen -- or the things this nightmare of a failed transformation could do, the things Applejack couldn't stop...

"What are you thinking?" Pinkie, warm and caring, seeing her friend in pain and wanting to help. Even though she was a source of the pain, one of many. She still cared. And she would still betray.

"Y'see that paintin' on the wall?" Applejack inclined her head towards the ornate frame. "The one with what Ah think is s'posed t' be a stallion on some kind of bridge, with the sky all red an' somethin' wrong with the water an' two strangers approachin'? An' he's jus' screamin' at the air?"

"I see it."

"Ah know jus' how he feels."


[/hr]

As it turned out, Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie missed their appointment with Doctor Gentle -- or rather, had it postponed. The birth itself hadn't taken all that long: less than an hour for happening to become happened. But there were follow-up activities to go though: cleaning up the birthing room led it off, followed by watching a proud Shining Sky show her newborn to all of the Element-Bearers while gushing about the blessing which the Princess had bestowed -- and that quickly segued into the others staring at Twilight as the mortified (and something more, something which added still another layer of stress to the tally Fluttershy was continuing to keep) librarian tried to invent an invisibility spell on the spot. There was cooing to be done towards the innocent face of Dawn Sky, with Rainbow Dash as the filly's biggest (and first) fan. "Will you just look at that rib cage? That is the rib cage of a courier. She's going to be an endurance flier, I know it! And a metallic -- better buy her a date calendar tomorrow and start taking reservations, I kind of wished I was a metallic for a while -- um... at least until I realized how much cooler prismatics were! ...not to say she isn't totally cool or anything -- or that you aren't -- hey, did you check out her tail hairs yet? How cool is that color?"

But Shining had just kept beaming through all of it, the happiest pony any of them had ever seen. And there had been a first nursing, Doctor Gentle had realized no pony had brought in the paperwork he needed to fill out for a birth and sent for it before the town hall began to stress ("Either I get it in before the Sun sets or Coordinator will charge the poor filly taxes," and they couldn't tell if he'd meant Shining, Dawn, or even somehow both), Pinkie played the first game of peek-a-boo and somehow managed to lose, Rarity took a few minutes with some of her samples and created a newborn bunting while doing more than a little cooing of her own and making sure Shining had the Boutique's address because metallics were such a wonderful challenge to design for -- oh, there were things to do with a newborn in the castle which took time, including Quiet insisting that Shining pick out something from a room as his birth gift for the filly, something without an edge, please, or at least something with a safety cover for practice... which inspired Spike to hand over a loose scale as a keepsake.

It all took time -- more than enough time for the second near-future mother of the day to arrive. And after Shining had gushed in that direction, the newly-arrived panting unicorn mare had virtually dragged Twilight back into the birthing room to get the second Princess-issued blessing of a new alicorn's life, with helpless purple eyes staring back towards the group, silently begging for a rescue which couldn't come...

[hr[/hr]

...and then with new mothers and children (the second had been a colt and that parent, not to be outdone, had named him Dusk) departed, they were having dinner, which was thankfully back to a more typical courseload.

Rarity was in a teasing mood. "So, Twilight -- how did it feel, attending while your brother birthed?"

Slightly more normal than anything else which happened since this started? "Names repeat, Rarity -- you know that." Although hers no longer would. There was a reason no fillies were named Celestia or Luna, a tradition which had solidified into invisible law -- and now 'Twilight' was apparently being added to that list. "'Shining' by itself is gender-neutral."

The unicorn giggled. "Yes, I know... it was simply the image. And it's possibly the only way you could get him into the birthing room at all. Should Cadance become pregnant, I simply cannot picture him attending. The valiant defender, all knees buckled and being pushed in with horn prodding his rear, perhaps..."

Twilight was about to take offense -- then considered it. "No -- field-carried. And kicking all the way."

Doctor Gentle chuckled. "Some fathers do make it in, young ladies. But they are very much the minority. So, Princess -- did you learn anything from watching me work?"

She sighed. "Not really, sir." The honorific had ridden back in on the knowledge that the Exception would not be anything close to an instant copy. "Not in the sense of how you're achieving it. No pony's ever been able to duplicate you, have they? Or has anypony managed it since that last article five years ago?"

He shook his head. "I try to teach, Princess -- I keep trying, and there is no shortage of midwives and physicians who see the value in having such a tool. But nopony has ever mastered it. Happily, it's not exactly a requirement for the job. I would say I use it for less than one in every ten births, on average, and some of those are simply minor positioning adjustments. You saw Dusk's arrival -- perfectly normal."

That much blood is normal?

The Doctor took a sip of his juice. "But -- if others could learn it, then more of those on the edge could be saved. So I keep trying -- and..." He sighed. "Believe me, I would give much to have a full corps of graduates benefiting from my tutelage. But it simply hasn't worked out that way."

Quiet gave his guest a reassuring look. "Some tricks always remain unique, Doctor. Twilight can probably think of a dozen unicorns or more who developed a personal spell which never appeared again in Equestria's history."

"Thirty-seven," Twilight automatically filled in. "Not counting the current generations. And those are just the ones who demonstrated their tricks and had them recorded... I always thought there was a lot more lost. Of course, Star Swirl's one of them and I hope pretending to fail asleep in that sauce stains your coat, Rainbow Dash..."

Pinkie nodded -- after her eyes were open again and her head was off the table -- and continued from there (while an unabashed Rainbow Dash licked most of the sauce off her own face). "And some are so rare that ponies just think they're unique. I knew Twilight wasn't the only unicorn -- unicorn at the time -- well, Nightmare Moon was technically an alicorn, or at least in the body of one -- who could teleport, because I saw Doctor Gentle do it before that. But she did it, and Twilight did it, I'm pretty sure Princess Celestia can do it, which means Luna can do it, so that's sort of five right there, or maybe four and a half, which is still a lot more than one..."

Doctor Gentle was clearly used to it. "About one in every three hundred, Pinkie. Uncommon, but most towns with a significant unicorn populace will have their share. The range of travel is a bit trickier... and because recoil is such a concern, most of those who can do it still only make line-of-sight jaunts or simply return to their homes, so courier duties remain the realm of the pegasi. Having such variance of magic among unicorns is sometimes seen as an advantage -- and also an issue."

Fluttershy looked slightly confused. "...I don't understand, Doctor... how can being able to do a lot of things be a problem?"

"Well -- most unicorns can't do a 'lot' of things, my eldest. The typical unicorn has their field and can manipulate the world around them with it to some degree through telekinetic movement. Most will have a personal spell or two, the majority of which do repeat in time over the centuries, and some of which can be taught. But -- not all can learn. There are a number of unicorns -- the majority -- who will always have their field, a personal spell, a few basics picked up from study -- and nothing more. Some have less than that. So if you need a given spell, you must typically seek out a unicorn who can use it -- and as the Princess said, some spells have never appeared a second time. Furthermore, even if you find that spell, the unicorn in question may not be strong enough to use it as powerfully as required. It is difficult for us to combine our strengths: the technique for doing so is incredibly advanced. Two who know it can merge fields with some care. Perhaps three. More than that -- the stuff of legend. So there are many wonderful magics out there among my race, Fluttershy -- but finding the magic you need at the intensity you require can be the search of a lifetime."

Twilight had to agree with that. "Part of what the Canterlot Archives does is track the rarest talents and strangest spells, just in case they're needed -- and we're still missing a lot. Some unicorns don't know their spells are rare or unique -- they don't have the education or haven't met anypony who would recognize the frequency."

Doctor Gentle sighed. "In my own case, I'm registered as a 'valuable resource'. Possibly part of why the news of my absence seemed to spread so quickly... Princess, with the topic raised -- I have a favor to ask, and it may seem an odd one."

It's not as if Equestria doesn't owe him a favor or several hundred... "Doctor?" Waiting.

Hesitant at first, words picked carefully, "Should Princess Cadance ever be with foal -- I would truly love to attend the birth. No midwife in recorded history has ever been present when an alicorn brought a next generation into the world. If she ever comes to be expecting -- would you ask her on my behalf?"

'Where do alicorns come from?'

Doctor Gentle didn't seem to have given up on his foal questions either. But as favors went, it wasn't only minor, it wasn't even ultimately hers to grant. "I can ask, Doctor -- but I don't know what she'll say."

"Asking is enough," the Doctor smiled. "And Princess -- I do apologize for helping to put you on the spot earlier. I am aware of how uncomfortable that must have made you, but -- Shining came to me because her family has a history of hard births. Her own parents -- failed twice before she came to Sun. She was hoping I would be what she needed to break the pattern. And then, with you here -- you gave her confidence, Princess, and Exception or not, there are times when that extra bit of belief can make all the difference in the world. You may have felt you simply stood, watched, and spoke -- but you did help her in a very real way. What happened after was more -- upponyship, I suppose -- but for Shining, you mattered."

I did nothing. I meant nothing. I can't mean anything. I shouldn't... But a nod was required at the absolute minimum -- and after a great effort, it was all she was able to give.

Doctor Gentle accepted it and then changed the subject. "Young dragon, are you feeling any better?"

Spike looked like he really want to grumble. Or worse. But all he could manage was an abashed "Yes..."

"And do you now understand why I said a sentient who emerged from an egg might not want to see such a thing just yet?"

Doing a remarkably good unknowing imitation of Fluttershy (one that made the pegasus giggle), "...yes..."

"Are you going to peek into the birthing room a second time?"

"...no..."

Kindly, "Very well -- and incidentally, does your species always scorch the landing site after fainting?"


[/hr]

Sunset. Dusk. Twilight, although the disgruntled and shaken former unicorn was wondering if anypony would be allowed to keep using that term. They'd made a fresh excuse -- checking out the cottage to see how Applejack and Pinkie Pie were being hosted, along with giving Twilight a chance to discuss the births in more detail than anypony should go into over food -- and had gone right out the back, making their way towards the falls. She wasn't due until full night, and they had no to-the-minute idea when within that rather wide range. So there was (probably) still time to plan (and some was done on the way) -- but for now, it was time to learn.

The path to the falls was entirely within pony territory, and that included the side detour. Curious, they followed the rising trail until they found -- a hollow.

At first, the trail widened so that three ponies could walk next to each other comfortably. The ground became more even as the sound of rushing water intensified -- and then the falls themselves appeared, a tumble of white foam directly in front of them. They were about halfway up the drop, with the trail slanting sharply behind the water, far enough back so that keeping to the cliff edge would leave a pony no more than very mildly damp. And in the shadows of that edge -- a small cave, one with smooth walls and a clean floor, oddly so for each -- at least until Twilight and Rarity simultaneously picked up on the residue which said the place knew more basic shield spells than a typical home safe and Fluttershy, blushing, spotted the lover's nest of carefully maintained blankets at the back. Everypony's romantic getaway, even with the horrible humidity from being so close to the water: the blankets had clearly been added to by generations of ponies, with those couples (on up) who would go on to marry stitching their names into the patterns. Others had brought pillows. Snacks were left behind by silent group arrangement and steadily replaced after each tryst. There might have even been an availability schedule posted somewhere in Trotter's Falls and they'd just neglected to sign up, which meant they couldn't be sure when somepony new would be arriving. But cave occupants couldn't see anything on the other side of the falling water, hearing beyond it was equally impossible -- and there was only a tiny portion of approaching trail to check the land and water below from before all vision was lost. Still, they could use the cave to talk for now, and Twilight set up the shield (easy: the cave was -- used to it) plus a little patch of field on the path which would theoretically signal them if somepony was coming up -- should they step directly on the very visible glow.

(Twilight preferred to think of it as an 'Occupied' sign and hoped nopony would come closer after seeing it. All the gossip columns needed was for somepony to find all seven of them in here. Spike had thus far managed to escape notice in the impossible relationship carousel, but if anything might do it...)

"O-kay..." Rainbow Dash carefully marshaled herself. She'd been a teacher of sorts before, of course, she'd made a point of telling Twilight that -- but coaching Fluttershy in cheering... "So. Pegasus magic. Yeah." She checked the field-covered cave entrance, then looked at the back of the cave, and finally moved to the ceiling. No replacement instructor appeared from any of those places. "Um... everypony comfortable?"

"Since somepony does seem to be keeping this nest clean, yes," Rarity assured her. "Normally I wouldn't consider lying down, but since the sheets smell of detergent and nothing else..."

"...it's a nice pillow," Fluttershy decided. "...there's something in the middle, though... I'm right on top of it..." She worked it forward with her hooves, pulled it out with her teeth -- and then hastily stuffed it back in before Spike could get a look.

Pinkie jumped in the air as high as she could, came down in a storm of feathers and flung cases. "We should totally have a pillow fight in here later! We've never all had one together!" She looked around for the most likely easy victim. "I call dibs on Rarity!"

Which finally got a completely inadvertent honest laugh out of a still-stressed Applejack, "Pinkie, Ah would love t' see y'try. All set here, Dash."

Spike nodded. "Ready." (He had originally tried to bring a fresh scroll with him, but Twilight had asked him to leave it behind. It hadn't seemed to fit the cover story and besides, Rainbow Dash was probably going to find things hard enough without anypony taking open notes.)

Twilight agreed. "I don't think she'll come too close to sunset, Rainbow -- she'll wait for full dark and for ponies to fall asleep: less chance to be seen." (Spike had taken a long (if unintentional) nap, so was ready to be awake for a while.) "Don't rush anything because you're worried about deadline. I'll peek out every so often and see if I can spot her."

Rainbow Dash nodded, and the uncertainty was actually visible in the movement. This wasn't her usual role. She was a good coach and strong coordinator when it came to group efforts, but had a certain tendency to overlook problems like a rapidly-spreading flu. And she assumed no student could ever be as good as the teacher, especially with the teacher being her -- but her leadership was still for things physical, not intellectual. And so, "Fluttershy... you were kind of on track for Cloudsdale University for a while, and your family --"

The yellow pegasus shook her head. "...I dropped out of school, Rainbow... you know that... and my family is -- my family. They aren't me..."

Which made the cyan mare bite back a sigh. "Fine... so... okay, pegasus magic..." Visibly searching her recently-traitorous head for words. "First -- what the Doctor said over dinner, about it being so hard for unicorns to work together? It's not like that for us. And we don't have spells to learn -- just techniques. Not everypony knows every one, and -- there are some tricks which are more rare than others, things a few ponies can pull off where others can't. I can -- only do -- two or three." Almost immediately, defensive, "My cutie mark is for speed more than anything else: weather is secondary. But any pegasus who knows a technique can work with another -- or a group. It's not always easy to coordinate -- you remember the waterspout, Twilight: with so many of us there, it wasn't simple to keep things under control. And it takes some practice. Technically, I guess it's kind of possible that any pegasus could learn every technique if they worked at it long enough -- but some are just better than others at making them happen, you know? But there's no ultra-fancy twenty years of school spell to make it all work."

Rarity frowned. "Wait -- tricks? Other than flying ones? How so? And what?"

"Well -- okay, none of this is secret, but -- we mostly just show off for each other... Like, I don't need a cloud factory. Not all the time, not if there's a lot of moisture in the air. A place like this -- hang on..."

Rainbow Dash took off, hovered a little bit over the cave floor, brought all four hooves together under her body. Began to do something which made it look as if she was operating an invisible loom, all of her legs weaving in and out, the motion constantly repeating --

-- and a vaporous substance which was not cloth began to appear, although there was some resemblance to cotton...

(Twilight reached out, tried to feel. Nothing there. Not a trace of magic at all, or not one her senses would recognize as such. And it was happening anyway.)

A single strand of white fluff at first. Then more, rapidly spreading out from under her body as the weaving drew in more mass. And the air was getting -- drier. Easier to breathe...

...Rainbow Dash was standing on top of a freshly-made cloud, just large enough to take a nap on. "See? All it takes is -- well -- I sort of collect the water that's already in the air and -- move it in a little more... If I keep gathering, I can increase the size of this one, or make it denser and get fog. Or I could just add to the moisture and really get it ready to rain. But it's not my specialty, guys -- I need a lot of moisture around. Other pegasi can do more with less. Or charge a cloud, especially when there's lots of different weather patterns in an area. They sort of take the conflicting energies and store them -- inside. Lightning on demand, and more than an average cloud holds. It was an old military technique... what?" Because with the exception of Fluttershy, they were staring at her. "Okay, okay -- I know you haven't seen it before, but come on! It's a basic trick. We just keep the cloud factories around because they're faster and not everypony picks up this technique anyway."

"So you basically learned this so you could make your own beds wherever you went?" Pinkie innocently asked, batting her eyelashes.

Dash fell for it. "Of course! Wherever there's enough water in the air --" The cave rang with laughter. "-- hey! There's lots of uses for this, okay? It's one of the only ways to dry out the air: you make clouds so you can make rain and get the stuff back into the rivers. We can't destroy water -- and we can't create it. And with lightning, we can't create energy. Same thing with heat -- okay, not quite for either. There's always a little potential lightning in a cloud just from the energy involved in making it -- and when we exert ourselves, we generate a little heat and we can use that. But mostly, we just -- move things. From one place to another. Concentrate or dilute them."

Why didn't I ever think about this? Even after the switch and seeing Rarity's fumbles, I never considered how much magic would have to go into weather manipulation. How fine the changes would need to be, on a large scale or a small one. Just making a cloud -- that's an act of telekinesis on a microscopic scale. And moving heat...

It was a field, it had to be. It was another kind of field, one which worked on a finer level than even Rarity could dream of. It was possible that the only reason a mark-switched Rarity had been able to do anything was because the designer operated on a plane of field refinement well beyond what most unicorns would ever achieve -- and, because it was still nowhere near what Rainbow Dash had just casually done, hadn't been able to make things work right...

"So," Twilight tried carefully, "when you start or end winter -- what are you doing?"

Rainbow Dash shrugged as she made herself comfortable on the cloud. "Move heat out, move it back in. There's always heat somewhere, or a place which needs it -- most of the time. But you need the heat so you can move it in the first place. I couldn't keep warm when we were on the way to the Empire because there was nothing to use. And I'm better with cold than the rest of you: most pegasi are -- and I was still freezing. All I could do was keep my own heat closer, and -- I'm -- not so great with that. And when it's too hot, you need a place to shift things to -- there's always the upper atmosphere, but that can sort of backfire if you do it too much..."

Rarity looked at Twilight, then at Dash. "I -- almost remember some of this," she breathed. "As if it was a dream I had and woke up in the middle of... that there were classes I took at some point in another life..."

Rainbow Dash, still trying to get on a roll, ignored it. Half a memory wasn't enough to let Rarity take over anyway. "Wind -- is putting your own energy into the air. That I'm good at. You've seen me make funnels all by myself, like with the parasprites." Carefully ignoring how that had ended and probably still (with some accuracy) blaming Pinkie for it. "It's harder to stop wind than it is to get it going, though. The energy still has to move somewhere. You can -- kind of try to make it go -- inside, but it's hard to hold and you have to use it up or redirect fast or you get in real trouble. Breaking up a tornado -- usually you just try to unwind it. It takes an idiot to try and absorb it and -- most of them don't last long. Mostly you try to cancel force with force, you know? Equal and opposite? But if there's too much wind and you don't have time to counter it or enough pegasi for a big one... sometimes you've gotta try and absorb..."

"Can y'do that?" Applejack, fascinated in spite of herself.

Reluctantly, "Yeah. It -- kinda sucks. Honestly, guys -- clouds, making wind, and moving some heat. More than that usually takes a team. Setting up seasonal changes always takes a team -- I guess maybe the Princesses could do some of it on their own for a city or a region, but they don't... Canterlot's team is good, though. Really good."

"And -- lightning?" Twilight, who was now wishing for a new wing (no pun intended or probably extant) of her library and planning a raid on the Cloudsdale book exchange program.

Dash shrugged. "Oh, anypony can trigger that. It's the aim..."

Images of a ruined Town Hall flashed across several minds.

"Okay," Dash continued without bothering to ask for questions. "Flight -- that's something I want to talk about with Twilight later in private: the rest of you don't need that. We know she can fly, but -- I don't think she'll go too high. Fluttershy said that when she made a break for it, she stayed close to the ground. I think -- she's worried about the pain and her cycle, both at the same time. That she'll have a spasm and lose control, or her wings could -- shrink -- too much and send her down. What that mostly means for us is that she'll probably do anything to not go high. That would usually keep the clouds away from her -- but after what Twilight saw..." The pegasus took a visibly deep breath, probably one deeper than she'd wanted the others to see, didn't notice. "This is where we -- get outside my range. I know Luna can trigger from a distance. But for pretty much all of us, our magic is -- like unicorn magic. In that it's in -- specific places. Wings and hooves, mostly. And eyes. I guess there's a trace in our skin so we can lie down on clouds, but -- wings and hooves to manipulate with, and eyes to see what you're doing. But because it's wings and hooves, you almost always have to make contact. I knew one pegasus in flight school who could set off lightning from about a body length away. He was really proud of that, because it meant he could prank without being suspected -- in theory, y'know? But the reality was that it tired him out like he'd just done a Las Pegasus to Manehattan run in half the normal time and when the teachers saw him panting next to the cloud... "

Twilight suspect it was more than that: a field which didn't project away from the body in most cases, one that stayed in and just outside the skin, hooves, and feathers. Tactile telekinesis -- except in that case, how could the weather coordinator reach out to gather in more water for her cloud? Maybe it stayed closer for some things than others. And Dash's classmate had figured out how to extend his reach for lightning, but at a horrific cost to personal reserves. Incredibly simple -- and at the same time, complicated beyond belief.

She's moving things too small to see. Casually. Only there's something in her eyes and she can see them. Princesses, what does the world look like through pegasus sight? And she talks about it like every pegasus in the world could do all of it if they just wanted to practice enough. Not all with the same talent or strength because fields are always going to vary, but -- every trick potentially in every pegasus pony... Celestia and Luna, why didn't I study...

Because -- she'd been a unicorn. And unicorn magic was a subject which she could study for a lifetime without ever completing it. She didn't have any need for pegasus magic because she was never going to use it. Something in the background, a part of everyday life which she took for granted because somepony else was handling it. Magnificently basic -- and simultaneously, incredibly complex.

One lifetime to not even come close to full and true mastery of one -- now there's another -- and as for lifetimes...

...stop.

Rainbow Dash kept going. "That -- I guess kind of brings us to what she could maybe do as a pegasus. We know she's good with wind. Better -- than me -- for some things. She isn't flying around to create and maintain funnels. I could make a wind gust by flapping -- but not what she's doing. I can -- maybe -- counter a dust devil or two if I move fast enough -- I know I can do it for a normal one, but I'd have to see how strong hers really are. Or -- feel it. I think wind is our biggest problem right now -- it's what she might have the most practice with, especially given that stunt she pulled on Twilight. That was an awesome trick -- I'm not praising her or anything! I'm just saying that -- inner core stable, outer layer twisting -- it is awesome, and it's a great way to throw off a new flier. Just not -- who she used it on, okay? But I don't know how she's managing that. It's like she's got -- I don't know because I've never seen them do more than stand on clouds or just trigger lightning -- but maybe she is -- strong. Strong -- like them."

"...like that part worked," Fluttershy whispered. "...not an alicorn -- but as strong as one..."

Hearing her own fears echoed from the others didn't make Twilight feel any better about them. "She's not all of us," she told them with a firmness she wasn't quite feeling. "She's not every Element-Bearer put together. Keep going, Rainbow."

The pegasus forced a nod, again just a little too visibly -- and didn't correct for it. "Lightning -- I can stop that. I checked the weather calendar and talked to some of the local Bureau members at the bar last night: they don't do much in the way of night runs. I can clear out every cloud around the falls for a good distance without anypony noticing. No clouds, no lightning. I can't stop moisture, not with the falls right here. But if we see her weaving, we break it up." Visible relief from the group: it had been one of the biggest concerns. "Heat -- we haven't seen her do it yet and it's one of the trickiest techniques. Again: no clouds, no rain -- and no snow or hail. I can kill that before she ever gets started. But if she can move heat -- it's a warm night and if she concentrates a lot of it in one place..."

This was Spike's territory. "Could she start fires, Dash? Or -- put heat into a pony?"

Rainbow Dash frowned. The thoughtful expression was becoming increasingly familiar. "Not into a pony, Spike -- putting heat in a solid is just about impossible: it bleeds off too fast. I guess you could make somepony sweat or maybe faint, but that's about it. Starting fires -- it's easier with lightning. Getting a whole lot of heat into a little area of air around something really small and dry and keeping it there -- it's a party trick, and it's a pretty boring party unless you're using it for a hothoof." A subtle grin suggested she'd seen it done. "But -- you'd usually notice. It would take heat away from everywhere else. I'm -- more worried that she'll shift heat out. Do it fast enough, get it cold enough, and it's almost instant hypothermia..."

"What keeps the heat in the surrounding area from pouring in to equalize things?" Twilight asked. Physics was one of her oldest friends and often read her bedtime stories.

That got her the 'duh' look. "Magic. It's not easy magic, but -- magic, Twilight." With a distinct of-all-the-ponies-to-ask air, "That's why heat transfers aren't easy. All the other heat keeps trying to, you should excuse the words, horn in."

Ask a stupid question... She got up, peeked outside at the deepening darkness (which wasn't too bad: the Moon was coming out and heading with wonderful predictability towards full). Nopony yet, and back to start.

"Sugarcube, what's the worst case here?" Applejack carefully checked. "It feels kinda like you're givin' us middle of the road things, Dash, holdin' back -- other than the major distance lightnin', stuff some pegasi could maybe still do on their own. If it goes as far wrong as it can, what are we lookin' at?"

The pegasus winced -- and looked ill. Day Of The Baked Bads ill. "I -- Applejack, this is deep college stuff, I didn't go that far, but..."

She couldn't continue.

Rainbow Dash couldn't talk about something --

-- so somepony else saved her.

"...tornadoes."

The group refocused, stared.

Fluttershy whispered on. "...real ones, full size. Hailstorms with ice bigger than your head. Or even blizzards -- we can't get a hurricane, it would have to start over the ocean... things out of the history books, when pegasi -- attacked earth ponies and unicorns almost every day..." The others looked at her: she blushed -- but the fear was still prevalent and dominant. "...before the Hearth's Warming Eve Accords -- we weren't -- nice. And... even after... it took time for everypony to -- change. Sometimes I want to believe that -- Private Pansy was a real pony... that somepony among us really did make part of the first try and she isn't just a character in a holiday story... I want to think one pony was different because -- somepony had to be... We were horrible once, almost all of us were horrible. We didn't care about anypony else... or each other, we fought each other. It was all about who could hold the most sky, and take the most from the ground. Like we could own sky... and steal everything under it... You read the book, Rainbow, you talked to me about it and -- how sick you felt after. I know you don't want to scare everypony, not like that, or make them think of us like that... but they have to know... If it went as far wrong as it could, everypony, we'd -- be fighting for not just our lives, but the whole town. If she can do... all by herself... what the old armies and mercenary companies could do together... ponies die..."

Pinkie got up, walked over to Fluttershy, lay down next to her, pressed close and tight.

"...I hate who we were," Fluttershy trembled. (Pinkie held steady.) "Hate it. But -- that's not us any more. We're not like that. Ponies change. I don't want to remember... what we were either, a long time ago, Rainbow... but if she can do it... they have to know..."

Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. The cloud under her seemed to vibrate slightly. "If -- not knowing how strong she is, just guessing -- like if, absolute worst case, the Princesses ever..." And another breath, just as deep, but slower. "If it goes all the way wrong -- as bad as it could go -- Fluttershy and I won't be able to stop it. We could weaken it a little together, and maybe all the pegasi in town could unweave it, but -- without the Elements..."

They waited. Waited for the words they all knew would come.

"...the fastest way to keep it from building would usually be to knock her out -- and if we couldn't do that, or we did and it didn't work --"

And like the Moon waxing towards full, they came.

"-- to stop it -- we might have to kill her."


[/hr]

A peaceful evening of reading at home.

Quiet felt -- well, not completely relaxed: he wouldn't be able to manage that as long as her fate was unknown. He was carrying the Doctor's stress along with his own, and while it was a combined burden which his weak body could carry, keeping his guests from seeing the effort was an extra exertion in itself. But discount that -- as nearly impossible as it was -- and he didn't feel all that bad. He had, in fact, been enjoying the last two days on a very real level. Having the Element-Bearers in his home had turned out to be a treat, and the fact that the bit cost of every last treat would eventually be reimbursed had added icing to a suddenly-free cake. He was enjoying their company. A strange group, yes, an odd assembly, but -- personable. At least a degree of pleasure to be around across the board, even for the pegasus, once you got past the boasting -- which had taken an incredible effort. And Twilight...

...he did like Twilight. And she liked him...

Quiet chuckled wryly to himself as he turned the page. "'But for time,'" he quoted to the empty air. "'But for the cruelty of when, who could know what we would have been to each other? Another time, a sooner one, and there would have been nothing in the way, no obstacles but each other, and those cleared with eyelids raised so we could see into each other's hearts. But alas, when is cruel, and we cannot take it back...'"

Donkey stories. Well-written, some of them, if you could get past the fanciful, flowery, and frankly overblown language in the older tales, but there was nothing as depressing. And the quote didn't really sum up his feelings. He liked Twilight, yes. She liked him. But if they'd known each other when they were younger, before his marriage began to loom on the horizon -- well, certainly things would have been changed: his parents would have been thrilled by the idea of his forming a connection with the Princess' protégé, done everything they could to help. Except that -- he knew something of Twilight's school years. He'd heard Coordinator speak enough times to not only sense the lies, but the pattern in them. Quiet had a very good idea of the real reason Twilight had been alone throughout her terms, and he suspected it pretty much ran the town hall.

Quiet didn't like Coordinator. Not in the least. He was necessary -- but he was necessary in the same way that a cesspool was necessary. You had to have one. You never wanted to touch the contents.

Would he have been that strong? Could he have made herself approach and stay close, knowing what would have been coming? He wanted to think so -- but that was just want. He'd never been tested, and you never knew if you would pass or fail until the test was upon you. There was no way to tell.

Still -- the current when was now. And in this now, she did like him, and she was wonderful company. Not just for any answers she might be able to provide for The Great Work: simply a joy to be around. They were becoming -- friends. Quiet liked that.

He was worried for the Doctor. Kept hoping to find her -- or (and he had faced it early on, deliberately not spoken of it) her body. So much had already gone wrong: her vanishing, the loss of the house, Doctor Gentle's injury... and all of it still weighed on him, forced weak knees to make extra efforts before straightening. And he would never have wished for any of it to happen that way, would have stopped it given a second chance. But the events as they had unfolded had brought Twilight into his life.

It didn't pay for all that had occurred, not for him and certainly not for the Doctor: even if Twilight could help them complete The Great Work, the potential damage to his first friend and that friend's loss -- irreversible. But it was still something, a little light in the darkness, a --

-- sparkle.

He smiled.

"Lord Presence?" He looked up. Softtread, the head of the night staff, who had been with the family before Quiet's birth and thus still insisted on Lord. Quiet had long since given up on trying to break that habit. "The police chief to see you in the -- secondary study. With a -- guest."

Quiet nodded and got up, carefully marking his place before leaving the room. The primary study, of course, was the one below ground level and -- well, not a place to receive a guest without a name. And it was odd for the police chief to visit him for anything other than social occasions and full-scale meetings...

...which meant it could be news.

He accelerated as much as he dared.

Chief Copper looked over as he entered the cozy secondary study, took too long to place him. "...Quiet?" The answering nod was appropriately weary. "I'd like you to meet somepony."

But Quiet had already noted the other visitor. Coat the color of a fine white wine, unruly mane, tail and eyes all the same rich burgundy-red, although that last area unfortunately had some of the color currently showing within the whites. Cutie mark showing two tankards being pressed together. Steel tankards: probably not a good sign. Middle-aged and with all the years to follow prematurely rushing in. Listing slightly to one side -- and then the other side -- back again. And an earth pony. He'd been setting records for earth ponies in his halls of late.

"And who am I meeting?" he asked.

"This is Grape Indulgence," Chief Copper told him. "You said you were looking for interesting stories. Well, this one's been hanging around looking to bum drinks and trainfare off the locals with limited success -- so I brought him in for vagrancy. And I was going to send him on his eventually sober way, but he offered to tell me a story. After I heard it -- I thought you should too. And that you should hear it first." And that was clearly just about all he could risk with the earth pony in the room. "So here's the trade, if you want to take it. He tells you the story, and you pay him what you think it's worth. If there's anything -- interesting in there." Taking a chance on a little more, "I'm not sure it's what you want to hear -- but it is interesting."

Was it something? Anything at all? Or a drunk who'd somehow managed to figure out ponies were searching and decided to sell them something they could search for?

It wouldn't hurt to listen, other than from the harsh fumes pressing into his nostrils. "All right, Mister Indulgence," Quiet said. "I'll risk a few bits for your tale."

"...somepony -- somepony there?" the earth pony said as he jumped a little, peering in every direction but the right one. "Somepony in here with us...?"

Quiet didn't even attempt to repress the sigh. "Yes, Mister Indulgence. Somepony is here." He watched the bleary eyes slowly focus. "In your own time."

It took six drinks to get it all.

The last one was for Quiet.

Imprimatura

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It was a trick Twilight could not do. And that was why she was convinced Rarity could.

The designer disagreed. "Twilight, I do appreciate that you think so highly of me, but I believe you're overestimating what I'm truly capable of..." There was just a little sweat in the white coat this time, and most of that was from frustration. It wasn't an exhausting spell -- just an incredibly finicky one that required a degree of field control which very few unicorns could ever hope for. Twilight had seen it accomplished all of once and had never been able to pull off the feat herself. But Rarity...

"It's not power," she reminded the unicorn. "It's control, Rarity -- that's all it is. You just have to push it a little off to one side or the other and then keep it there..."

The others were watching from a small distance -- what Spike had assured them was a typical safety zone for a spell which generally had no means of going wrong in a bad way, but he'd been with Twilight for all of her school years and seen too many students fumble things which should have been completely harmless in a very Cutie Mark Crusaders sense, so just in case...

(A large percentage of Ponyville lived in dread of Sweetie Belle starting that part of her education. A moderate portion had considered offering to help her parents pay for a distant boarding school. At least three ponies were simply getting ready to move.)

They were all still in the cave: Rainbow's lecture had wrapped up and it still felt too early to move out into their waiting positions (although some part of Twilight did realize there was a degree of luck-pushing in progress -- but this was still an hour when ponies were out and about, which meant she probably wouldn't be). Twilight had needed something to pass the time which wasn't obsessing about what might happen at the meeting, and she had promised Rarity classes in more advanced magic. Things which didn't require a lot of raw strength, but simply an amazing degree of control. In that sense, this spell was one of the most demanding she knew -- and she'd had to try and teach it without being able to demonstrate it. It was certainly taking time, and quite a bit of it.

"I don't even see why you would wish me to know this," Rarity said, brow furrowing -- and then visibly forced back: couldn't chance wrinkles, after all. "What use is there in such a trick? It only does one thing, a rather pointless thing at that, and it's so hard..."

"It's a test, Rarity," Twilight explained. At least in part. She knew what Rarity's school field dexterity scores had been (although she was still insisting to herself that snooping hadn't been any part of it) and what Rainbow Dash had explained made her think those numbers might have gone up over the years through constant exercise with the moving contents within a glow-filled shop. This would be the proof of it -- and if it worked, a sign of where she could take Rarity's studies in the future. "And it does have a use. Trixie would love this one..."

"Oh, her," Rarity just got out, managing to keep her tone polite -- barely: as far as the designer was concerned, that was a pony whom she might forgive -- eventually -- and Pinkie's soft muttering chorused those feelings. "And she cannot do this?"

"Not that I know of." Maybe not even with -- and stop.

"Well, I suppose I should try to demonstrate what somepony possessing restraint might possibly be capable of..." Rarity visibly redoubled her efforts, her corona staying at an intense primary level -- but with sweat and hoof-scraping against the cave floor increased, so focused on her attempt as to actually not be thinking about any residual dirt. "I don't understand... why does something which does so little have to be so difficult..."

...and Spike's eyes went wide, every bit as large as Twilight's. His exhaled words came out before hers could, with his sister caught staring in shock, awe, and delight, his own voice reflecting all of it and throwing in triumph for the pony he believed in second-most -- on the average day, with a perpetual option to move up. "Rarity -- you're doing it."

She blinked, false lashes meeting and parting again -- but did not stop concentrating. "I -- I am? I can't see it, Spike -- I don't think it's possible for anypony to cross their eyes that much..."

Twilight continued to stare. It was happening, it was actually happening... "Can you -- split your focus a little? Grab something and bring it closer?"

"Yes, that isn't a problem..." Rarity's field reached forward, surrounded a pillow -- Applejack instinctively moved into more of a defensive stance -- and brought it into view.

The glow surrounding it wasn't a soft blue. It was more of a blue-green, almost an exact match for Fluttershy's eyes.

"You're changing your signature, Rarity," Twilight breathed. A trick she personally couldn't do -- and it was happening right in front of her. "I had one teacher who could manage this... Keep pushing a little further in that direction..."

Rarity continued to concentrate. The blue-green slowly lost the aqua tones, moved to more of a verdant shade.

"Ah don't understand," Applejack softly said. "Ah've never seen anypony do this an' from what Twilight said, Ah know it's hard -- but why would a unicorn want t' do it at'tall? What good does it do?"

"Think about how Trixie operates," Twilight said, too distracted by Rarity's achievement for a full lecture, confident the farmer could work it out for herself from a hint or two, and also caught up in, if not the feeling of a tiny piece of her own burden dropping away, then at least that from having helped a friend. "What she might use it for... Rarity, I want you to practice this whenever you get some spare time. This also works as a pure field refinement exercise: it'll make everything that comes after that much easier." Smiling, "And Rarity? I never want to hear you say you aren't capable of something again."

"I will never be able to levitate an Eastern Red Giant, not even a sprouted sapling which Applejack and her family have been working on for a mere season," Rarity grumbled, "but I am no longer allowed to say it..." But she was smiling too. "Oh, very well... you know, this would add a certain something to a fashion show all by itself..."

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And then Twilight was waiting by the pond.

She had learned to ignore the sound of the rushing and splashing water during her time in the cave. It wasn't working for the cold, a chill which seemed to radiate from the liquid and cancel the effects of the warm night. A trick for pegasi, to move enough heat in or out in order to stay comfortable in nearly any environment. Not something she could do -- and even if it was somehow within her eventual potential reach, flight would have to come first: there had been cyan-tinged insistence on that.

Rainbow Dash had already made the planned move, taking a few techniques out of her potential arsenal: the clouds over the falls (and for a good distance out) had been cleared away, allowing the waxing Moon to light up the area with a little more strength. That side effect had been a problem in itself: her friends and sibling had concealed themselves all over the area, and those hiding places had taken more than a little consideration to begin with. They'd had to think about the possibility of being sighted from overhead, or that their visitor could come from any direction on the ground -- although Twilight expected her to avoid one. The extra illumination hadn't helped. Still, they seemed to have managed the job -- at least, Twilight couldn't see any of them from her own spot.

She'd been waiting by the water for what felt like hours. It was getting late, had to be midnight or close to either side of it. Spike had brought along an emergency yellow diamond -- they affected him like coffee. Twilight hoped he would suck on it instead of biting into the jewel: they didn't need the crunching noise right now.

Twilight was still trying to figure out what she was going to say. What she could say. How to keep the focus on her. The adventures she'd had with her friends and sibling had taught her something about bluffing and making up stories in a hurry -- but she was no expert at running the long con or keeping a conversation fully steered to a single side. At some point, their visitor was going to ask for answers to questions Twilight wished had never been asked at all and was trying not to blame Pinkie for. Answers Twilight didn't have.

Well, it was like this. I got hit by several beams of light from the Elements. They sent me to a place which was a lot like the between while simultaneously being nothing like it whatsoever. I talked to the Princess. A little burst of energy came out of me and split up into pieces, which then started swirling around me while I levitated and I'm completely sure I wasn't controlling that last part. And then I was back in Ponyville, I had wings, and my life started to go seriously downhill from there, although not as badly as I'm guessing yours did. Which is not only pretty much all I've got, but I'm starting to believe it's all I'll ever have. So how did your attempt go?

...no. Just -- no.

And if Twilight couldn't keep the talk focused... if she became upset...

It was the cold coming off the nearby water which made her knees want to shake. Twilight kept trying to tell herself that. It wasn't working...

...her hyper-attenuated senses picked up the sounds of breaking twigs. Tiny pieces of wood cracking under approaching hooves.

Twilight turned slightly, faced what she thought was the right direction. If it was her, then they'd actually gotten lucky: she would be coming in on an angle which didn't come near any of the hiding places, and Twilight had believed she'd avoid the path and come in through the trees -- if she came by land at all. And a land approach likely meant she either wasn't within the pegasus part of her cycle at all or just not so far into it for managing flight. It removed several options for disaster --

-- and added others.

Possibly not a pegasus right now -- but that leaves two options, and one of them is --

She stepped out from the trees, came into sight under Moon. And for Twilight, the worst-case scenario was a mere fourteen body lengths away.

It was as Grape Indulgence had said. The blue which had been in her mane and tail was now in her coat. The tan had gone to the places where the blue had fled and additionally manifested in her eyes. And the horn -- deep purple, reaching towards black.

Unicorn. Oh, no...

Twilight had thought about it. Done everything she could to plan for this. But ultimately, having her come in this part of the cycle meant only one thing: she had no true idea of what could happen -- and too much of one for how much raw power might be behind it.

She forced herself to breathe, risked closing her eyes for a moment in order to better focus and gather her own strength -- then ordered herself to do what she had told her friends to avoid at all costs: looked directly at the visitor's mark...

...and Rarity had been right. The gold loop was closest to the top -- but not all the way there: there was still some distance to go. Similarly, the silver had not reached the absolute ascent point. Visibly in that portion of the cycle, getting closer to the heart of it, the brief moment of completely having transformed -- but not quite yet.

Which meant that she had timed this.

She had made sure she arrived when she was strong -- and the longer she stayed, the stronger she might become. When the silver reached the middle of the curve, once the loop was fully pointing towards the sky...

It had been a little easier to look at the mark this time, experience and bracing serving their purpose. But it was still an experience to shake a burdened mind -- and the knowledge Twilight had gained brought no comfort. She's not stupid. I can't risk thinking of her that way. Her words come out in broken sentences because it's so painful for her to talk. Don't fall into the trap of thinking it represents a mind which can't communicate any other way. I don't know how smart she really is, but she's not stupid and the instant I start seeing her that way, I've lost...

...she's so tall...

A full and accurate height comparison had been hard from the middle of the dust devil. But yes -- just about Luna's size.

Having to look up again wasn't helping.

The unicorn slowly trotted closer. Twilight focused, watching the horn. She had told everypony else to do the same if this happened, and they were all ready. In a way, the fight against the wild zone rams had done them all a favor -- because they all knew what backlash was now. And how to inflict it.

They were not to attack at the first sign of any spell: she might try to take the food Twilight had brought for her, out in the open a little distance to the left along the pond's edge. But if it looked as if a fight was about to begin, all of them had the same instruction: go for the horn. Make hard contact and keep making it.

If we only had a restraint... I should have checked Quiet's armory: maybe one of his ancestors purchased one. It would only take up to five days before I could find it. Couldn't ask the police, they would have needed to know why, even for a Princess and maybe even especially. Oh Luna...

...who couldn't help her any more than Twilight had helped Shining.

Closer still. She wasn't moving well: there were little hints of limp shifting from one leg to another, winces and tiny moans as she planted her hooves. The pain was etched across her face, and how many years had the agony used to try and draw permanent traces? What would she look like if she wasn't hurting? Twilight tried to picture it -- and succeeded.

She would be beautiful.

Somehow, that hurt nearly as much as her inability to invoke her own faith.

"You -- came," she said. Three body lengths away now. "I -- wasn't --" a deeper moan "-- sure..."

Somehow, Twilight managed a nod. "I -- brought food. If you're still hungry." She nodded towards the supplies.

"Not," the unicorn said -- and didn't leave it at that. "Don't. Trust."

Twilight blinked. "I don't understand --"

"-- drugs," the unicorn snapped. "Eat -- then sleep. Don't trust." She looked directly at Twilight, tan eyes on purple. Her horn, already longer than the average, seemed to project a little more. "Want -- to talk. Will talk. But -- not trust. Only. So. Far."

She'd thought of something Twilight hadn't even begun to consider, come prepared for a plan which hadn't been part of any checklist... No, she wasn't stupid -- and in this case, that intelligence could work against them, because she would not only think of things the Bearers hadn't considered, but could imagine fears which shouldn't exist and preemptively react to them. "I -- thought about trying to find some drugs for you. Something which would help with the pain -- but if you won't take anything I bring, then I can't --"

"-- no," the unicorn said, stamping her front left hoof against the pebbles along the pond's edge: another moan escaped. "Can't." Anger in her voice -- but her horn remained unlit, and her eyes --

-- she wants to. She wishes she could. She dreams of the pain going away, even a little. But she can't trust me.

Twilight was starting to wonder how much more soul-deep hurt she could take. And how it compared to what the visitor went through every second of her life.

"All right," Twilight made herself say, and couldn't add maybe later. "We can talk..." Which meant it was time for the first question of her own, just one of those which had been haunting her. "What's your name?"

The unicorn blinked. "...name?"

Later, Twilight would think about the expression she saw then, would revisit it too many times under Sun and Moon, see it during dark times within the nightscape. It was not a look of anger. No -- confusion. As if Twilight had asked a question which had no meaning, one no pony ever could have even thought of, something so instinctive that not even a newborn foal would need to search for a response. A question which was answered simply by the act of existing.

"...no name," came the answer. And it wasn't voiced in protest or fury that Twilight would try to get something which could identify her. It was a simple response to a question which was too basic to ask.

This blink was harder. "You -- don't -- look, I'm not trying to track you down, I swear." Which was a lie Twilight felt she was getting away with. "I just need -- something to call you."

The unicorn looked more confused than ever. "She. You."

With what was very nearly the bleakest of internal humor, If we're getting stuck on this, the rest of the night is probably a total loss. Try it from another angle. "What do other ponies call you?" Or rather, what name had they addressed her by before her cutie mark came and sent her into a life of agonized isolation -- or (somehow) worse?

"Other -- ponies..." And it seemed as if there was a bare second where she was about to give a response -- but then she shook her head. "No -- other. Ponies."

"I... I can't just..." Getting desperate now, "How do you think of yourself?"

Which got her an expression which didn't so much suggest Twilight's brain had momentarily ceased all function as directly state it before writing the words down and having Spike mail it to the Princess for eventual filing within the Canterlot Archives in a new wing built just for the occasion. "I."

...right... But Twilight couldn't make herself drop it just yet. She needed to identify this pony in some way, create a tiny bit of order. To name something was to remove it from the realm of the completely unknown, if just a little, and Twilight was desperate for even the smallest step in that direction. "Can I just give you a name, something to call you by --"

Anger. The horn stayed dark, the field did not ignite -- but the sheer force of the words hit harder than any spell. "No name! Names limit! Name not earned! Never name now!"

The burst sent Twilight staggering back a step, mind reeling, images beginning to rush through her --

-- and then her back right hoof hit the water.

Twilight yelped at the cold, jumped forward, nearly stumbled on the landing.

The unicorn's anger -- vanished.

She snickered.

"Cold?" she asked, and snickered a second time. There was no malice in it. Just pain -- and even that seemed somewhat lessened for the tiny duration of the sound. "We -- talk. Now. No name. She. Her. You. Always work. All. That's needed." More quietly, "Ever."

Slowly, folding her legs as if each movement might break them, the unicorn sank down to rest in the grass, her front hooves just barely touching the border of the pebbles. Her left front leg came up for a moment. The hoof touched an area just below her neck, pushed right. Went back down.

Twilight carefully moved, assuming a similar position. The pebbles weren't too uncomfortable under her body, and if they were -- well, other things definitely had first priority. "I want to start with you," she told the nameless unicorn. "What you did. You want to know -- how to make things go right. The first step in that is isolating what went wrong." Waited for the argument, for the unicorn to insist that they go through Twilight's own irreversible change first --

-- but it didn't happen. "Understand, but..." A tiny head shake, clearing thoughts or trying to banish pain. "Don't -- know. Did -- something. Something wrong. Or. This not. Happen. Don't know. Can't. Go back." She glanced down her own body -- at the mark. Words almost lost, "Can't fix."

And Twilight knew she had realized there was no cure.

She wanted to cry. Barely held back from it. "I'm sorry..."

"...my fault," the unicorn just barely managed. She was never truly still: little twitches, moderate spasms. "Not -- made mistake. Then. Not like. This. My fault. Always. Not --" stopped. Firmly, self-loathing woven into her very existence, "Mine."

Twilight marshaled herself, found a few last bits of strength somewhere. "We still have to figure out what the mistake was," and somehow kept it over a whisper. "Anything that would help -- the others." The unicorn nodded to that, and her horn seemed to lengthen still more. Twilight forced herself not to check on where the silver was. "Let's start at the beginning. How did you originally -- prepare for the attempt to change?"

A swallowed scream, the unicorn visibly forcing it back -- but it was just the twisting and not the question. "Study... Learned. About ponies. Magics."

Study? Okay... if you were preparing to become an alicorn and knew it, you'd want to learn all about what you could do as one. The irony that this one had arguably been more ready than Twilight was not lost on the librarian. "For how long?"

"Life," came the simple answer. Quietly, "Wasted."

Twilight shoved the horrors back again, made them get in line and take numbers. "Until you -- changed."

Another nod -- and then what she'd so hoped to avoid. "You? Study?"

"I -- learned about other ponies," Twilight carefully tried.

"Magics?"

How much can I lie? We need this answer and if I steer her down the wrong path with my own responses, she might come to a false conclusion on what went wrong with her, and that won't help the others or anypony else, ever...

And Twilight tossed the lies away.

"I studied unicorn magic," she told her. "For pretty much all of my life. But I never studied pegasus magic at all until -- after I changed." Watching the dark purple-black horn very closely. "And as for studying other ponies -- just basic history and culture, and -- I think I missed a lot. Lately -- I know I did. I never learned enough about pegasi, or thought too much about what they did because -- it wasn't part of what they taught in my school. I was focused..." Very close to a whisper, "Too focused. If you studied all the magics, then -- you did more." Waited, checking for the first sign of a field, the next burst of anger which would come with a wave behind it...

The unicorn blinked. Twice.

No anger. Just -- more confusion. "Not -- study? But..." and then a slow exhale which broke in the middle from a full-body shudder -- and when she emerged from that, the sound turned into an agonized sigh. "Many -- paths. Said --" another stop, and it felt deliberate. She visibly considered her next words before the broken voice resumed. "You -- took. Another. Can't -- help." There were tears in the tan eyes now. "Can't compare. Different. Roads. Same destination. You -- finished. I. Failed."

She slowly started to stand up.

Twilight shoved herself off the pebbles, scrambled to get back on her hooves. "Where are you going?"

The clearest words to emerge -- and Twilight saw that the silver was at the outermost part of the curve, the gold loop at its absolute peak. "To die."

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Doctor Gentle blinked away tears.

He had been crying for most of Quiet's relayed story. Just tears. No sobs, no gasps. He hadn't even asked a single question. All he had done was listen and let the relief flow.

"Gold," he whispered, seconds after Quiet finished. "Gold, Quiet. The same gold as the shield. Metallic-hued fields are rare to begin with, and they run in families. The colors -- shifted about her body, but her colors. If his perception was correct, her height might have increased somewhat, but... gold..."

The tears came faster and Quiet moved in, let his first friend weep into his coat. Felt the moisture running down his right shoulder before it was fully absorbed by his fur.

Quiet put the smile into his voice before the words started. "'No -- and yes,' you said," and the laughter wanted to come, the explosion of joy and hope fulfilled. A lifetime... and now... "Failure -- and success. Not an alicorn. But a unicorn. She moved between --" and he couldn't hold it back any longer: the rapture erupted, visions of children laughing on his fields and in his halls, of birthing rooms where he would not pace outside, no, he would be there for every last second of it because on some level, he had feared he would never be there at all. "The most glorious possible failure imaginable --!"

The coughing came. His ribs heaved, tried to tear themselves apart.

Doctor Gentle was positioned within instants. The tapping hit there and there.

"Don't apologize," were the first words Quiet managed. "Don't. In all my life, that one was worth it more than any other. I would go through that a thousand times with ten times the pain just to have that emotion again." He could feel his own tears coming. "Let a million failures blossom across Equestria, let them all be as magnificent as this. Let there always be stallions and mares this enraptured to have not done something. I believe. I believe it was her. She lived, she's a unicorn, you were right, even in failure, you were right..."

The two friends waited for each other, wrapped in the mutual embrace and nuzzles of family. Waited until the surges of emotion faded a bit, until they could think again, until visions of the most perfect future under Sun and Moon were finally put aside to await the time when they would come to pass. A time that could finally come to pass.

"I was afraid," Doctor Gentle quietly said as he settled onto a couch in his granted bedroom. "Afraid -- she had died. You were as well, Quiet, and I know it -- but you tried to spare me from that fear by not voicing it. Thank you for that."

Quiet exhaled and let the last of that emotion go. "Your burdens were too great already. Just because I can't teleport doesn't mean I don't understand the danger. I kept picturing -- her arriving in the middle of a hill or mountain. And -- how fast she would have been moving when she came out."

"I imagined the same," Doctor Gentle told him. "And worse." He managed a smile. "None of which concerns us now -- and much of which opens up new worries."

At least Quiet had dropped one burden before adding more. "All right, Doctor -- let's try to talk it out together. Or rather, I'll mostly listen while you speak. I know you sometimes work best when you can bounce ideas off another." Doctor Gentle managed a rueful smile upon hearing that truth. "With this latest information -- what do you now believe happened?"

"Failure to reconcile," came the immediate answer. "There was no merge. When I saw her -- what I could perceive of the ascension -- she seemed to be shifting between the three races at an incredible rate. Unicorn, earth pony, pegasus. If I looked at her directly, there was a sense of overlay, as with watching multiple pictures go by at high speed, almost creating the illusion of all three having come together -- but it was three separate states. At the time, I thought that was her body incorporating the new, trying to find a balance. Ultimately -- that did not happen. At some point after her teleport -- or perhaps at the instant before it, when the process was complete and she found her magic -- she shed two of them. Leaving only a unicorn..."

Quiet wanted to laugh again, held it back. "A unicorn," he repeated. "One who broke an Eastern Red Giant. We're going to have to get her some basic training, fast. I hope her theories become skills in a hurry, Doctor -- she may not be an alicorn, but she wound up with the raw power of one. Luna's mane, the magics she might be able to accomplish..."

The Doctor smiled. "She's a fast learner. Have no doubt there."

"I don't," Quiet smiled back. "Just to have grasped so quickly..." But there were still issues to deal with. "He said she seemed to be in some pain. I'm hoping she didn't get hurt out there. And -- there's still the larger question."

A nod. "Say it." Sometimes the Doctor worked best when he heard what others were thinking first.

"Well -- we were lucky, obviously, and she was so lucky as to practically have had Celestia personally picking an arrival point. She barely went anywhere in terms of distance, and there's only so far she could have gone since then. We have an area to search which can be searched. But -- well..." A little more awkwardly, "How much does she know of the area? Would she have recognized the orchard and realized she was so close to my castle? If so -- why not try and come to me? She could have oriented on Sun or Moon, and she knows a few ways here which skirted the wild zone to start with. Why not -- try to come home?"

Nearly all of the joy left the Doctor's eyes. "Because... partially because... she knows something of the orchard from what I've said of it: I do know I've spoken to her about it. But she might not have associated it with Trotter's Falls. Disorientation again, and not just geographic: trying to reach some kind of terms with a new body is an experience... well, our visiting Princess can probably speak to that, but no more than three others could. I imagine -- it would not be easy or instant, and that is before considering the sudden arrival of feel. But more than that, Quiet..." His volume dropped, his eyelids half-closed. "...I believe she has not tried to come home -- because she is ashamed. Because she feels she has failed. The goal of The Great Work -- was not achieved. She would not see it as a glorious failure -- simply as a failure. She worked too long and hard for anything other than a total success to be acceptable. She might even feel -- that I would..."

These tears were of a different sort.

"...be disappointed in her," Doctor Gentle made himself finish. "Be afraid to come home because she would think -- that I would hate her for failing..."

Quiet closed his eyes, left them that way for too long. It was too easy to see. "Your feelings are anything but... I know that."

"But -- she may not believe that," came the sorrowful reply, words overflowing with pain. "She could so easily feel that anything other than the total success was -- wrong in my eyes. So many years of labor and struggle... she might simply see her achievement as a collapse of all hope and -- flee. Try to gallop to where I could never see how badly she had failed... Quiet, we have always needed to find her, but now..."

"Now you have to tell her," Quiet gently said.

The Doctor nodded. "That this failure is as much mine as hers. That we did not know -- and how could we, with something never done before in this fashion? That this is the most glorious failure possible. And -- that I love her, and will continue to do so regardless of how she might see herself and the end of her part in The Great Work. She has advanced the path for others, laid a trail for so many to follow. How many can say they have achieved so much in life? And her life is ahead of her..." Just a little smile. "But I think I will tell her I love her first. And when she understands that once again, she will say she loves me. We will forge ahead from there -- together." Orange eyes closed, remained shut. "So many miracles... Can you imagine the odds associated with not a single one of the search parties which were hunting for me coming across her? They surely would have tried to bring her in, and any fleeing unicorn in the wild zone would have been mentioned. One witness, with a reputation as a less-than-credible drunk... I am starting to feel Celestia and Luna were smiling down on us. With --" his eyes opened again and a twinkle of faint humor entered the pupils "-- perhaps a little currently-local accompaniment."

Quiet's groan was sincere. "Do not tell her that. I know she's having more than a little trouble with the concept. Her face when she was pulled back into the birthing room..."

A small smile. "She will adjust -- in time. But for now -- we have a rough area to search. Only a few gallops at best. We have a description. If only he had not been so drunk as to have difficulty remembering a mark... hard to look at. More likely there were visions of pink flying donkeys hovering within his eyes and blocking the view. But the rest will suffice. And our own searchers can call to her and say it is all right, and she can come home..."

"I hate doing this, Doctor --" and Quiet truly did "-- but I have to add one worry to the total. Our drunk said he had told his story to some ponies before giving it to Chief Copper. It's probably minor -- they may have been some of yours on their way out of town and we know they weren't any of ours here -- but somepony else got that tale. I'm hoping that it won't wind up meaning anything, but -- you had to know."

The frown managed to shove a few of the other emotions out of the way -- but not all. "Likely minor, as you say... was he able to identify the earlier listeners?"

"The most I initially got out of him was 'a bunch of mares'. After some more questioning, he narrowed that down to a number between four and eight, possibly inclusive, and that they were rather pretty at the absolute least. But... that brings up another concern -- and --" part of Quiet hated this as well, and it was not a soft-spoken one " -- I think you know what it is."

All of the other emotions were gone now. "Our guests." There was no darker note in the voice. The tone was calm, thoughtful, had a sense of planning within it.

Twilight, Quiet thought, and didn't need to wonder why. "We know they were at the bar, six certainly falls between four and eight, and 'pretty' would be the least of the words I'd use to describe the group. They might have felt pity for him and decided to buy the poor sot a few drinks, listening to the tale in fair exchange. I can see your eldest doing that -- Kindness, after all. It's certainly possible that there were other mares involved, but -- it could have been them. Too easily. And -- there's more." He almost didn't want to say it. He had to. "They went into the wild zone today. To the orchard. The earth pony brought back several apples to core for seeds so she could raise a new crop. There's only one orchard, Doctor..."

Still calm, still thoughtful. "So the question becomes motivation," the Doctor said, and no hint of anything else was in his voice. "Our new Princess and the rest of the Element-Bearers might have listened to his tale and decided to examine the site. It is certainly within the realm of their normal activities. They are Equestria's defenders: for a report of a unicorn with such power to gain their attention -- yes, that is very easy to see. But they did not discuss it over dinner. They have been very open with us about their purpose and doings here -- or have they? It is possible the Princess simply does not wish anypony to panic before she and the others have learned what is going on, but... yes, I think we must give some time to considering... other possibilities."

Quiet did not speak. Didn't want to.

"I did not give any thought to the speed of their arrival," Doctor Gentle said. "News can travel fast, ponies move much slower. Three days by train -- but our new Princess is involved, a known teleporter and the strongest caster of her generation. Able to move a party of seven over such a distance? Easy to picture. Of course, she has never been here before, has no safe arrival point and I now know even a Princess is subject to recoil -- but she could have gone to Canterlot and asked our rulers to send them. To that degree, I had worked out a story which they never told. The news reaches Ponyville: no great surprise given how quickly it reached every point we know of. As so many others did, Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie decide they must come and join the search. But they have a resource others do not. No gallop or train or emergency air carriage for the Element-Bearers -- simply a word in the right place. We are under Sun: Princess Celestia smiles, and they are sent across the continent in an instant. Not to the house to sign up as a search party -- dropped off in the middle of the search zone to begin on their own. Perhaps a place our Solar ruler had as her own arrival point, with directions to reach the center. And then the wild zone greets them with something less than royal deference, a raccoon pack races off with most of their supplies, including all maps..."

A long pause. It was more than enough time for Quiet's own thoughts to intrude, insisting on ideas he didn't want to have.

"I pictured that so easily," the Doctor continued. "My eldest and most determined were happy to speak of their adventures on my last few visits to them, and there was frequently more than a hint of 'mis' applied to the beginning of the word. They have done so much, they are our nation's heroes -- but they are yet inexperienced. I did not give them the benefit of the doubt, Quiet, for there was no doubt at all. Two of mine came in search of me and brought their friends along. Perfectly natural. But now..."

Quiet didn't want to think about it. He wanted his brain to stop insisting on making him do so. His brain wasn't listening to him.

"Currently, I do not wish to think ill of our guests," Doctor Gentle stated. "Until we have more proof, I will not make the mistake of assuming that they came here to investigate something other than my vanishing. But that does not dismiss the possibility of their having stumbled onto something by accident and feeling they must look into it for the good of Equestria. And good intentions can often do more damage than anything else under Sun and Moon. We will have to try and watch them from this point on, Quiet, for as long as they remain in Trotter's Falls and when they wander the wild zone around it. We need to learn if they are investigating and if so, figure out what we will do about it. I will speak to mine tomorrow if it all possible, and then perhaps to our new Princess about magic -- and I would appreciate any efforts you made on my behalf. But -- I also do not wish you to worry unduly. Remember, it is quite possible they simply went to the orchard for apple seeds after not speaking to a certain pony at the bar. And in the end, we might be able to resolve things simply by finding her -- and then making formal introductions all around." The thought brought a brief smile to his face. "Keep the greater concerns in mind -- but do not let them rule. We have no real reason to believe beyond what has been stated. Paranoia should not completely have its day. Caution -- but not fear. And we will pay our own visit to the orchard tomorrow. If we are lucky, there might be some residual feel left from her effort. It has been days, but -- we have been lucky so far, and if such continues, it would be enough for me to begin learning her anew. A longshot -- but it would replace eyes with magic and shorten our hunt. Still -- I admit, I am not confident in finding anything left to use."

Quiet nodded at that. "I'll start notifying our own searchers on what to look for, then. Is there anything else I can do?"

The Doctor considered carefully. "We will need a meeting -- soon. In fact, almost immediately. The largest one we've ever had. I would hope to have found her before that... There is a certain difficulty here: arguably the best way to gather everypony in -- would be by using the party you have offered the Princess. But of course, that would mean she and the other Bearers are here. If they are innocent or simply tracking from natural concern -- then there is no fear. And if they are not -- well, the best time to discover the timber wolves are at your door would generally be when all your friends are on the other side, but... there is a shadow of wings here, and I would much rather keep it overhead. At the same time, however..." and he inclined his horn towards Quiet.

"...the best time to run is well before anypony would order the chase."

"Exactly. And to that extent, I am not afraid to -- take a chance, or even several. Better to know we have some difficulties than dismiss and return to comfort before hearing a hoof knock on the door. I do not believe you would object to leaving all this behind?"

Quiet's noisy brain didn't need a moment of thought for that one. Smiling, "You've given me my dream, Doctor. My title can go hang."

"Thank you, my most devoted -- but please understand: while I do not wish to dash your hopes, this is one result. We will likely have to try a second time, and a third or more -- to be certain. Still -- the impossible has happened once. Everything from here on is the possible -- and in time, the known." He smiled at Quiet. "You will have your heir -- even though you never cared if there was anything to inherit."

"It's less to deal with anyway," Quiet said. "There's something to be said for the life of a normal pony... all right, let me get started. We can discuss the rest in the morning --" he started towards the door "-- except for one thing." The Doctor, who had just been leaving the couch so he could return to the bed, paused. "I've been meaning to ask you this for years and given how many times you've hit everypony else with it, you have this coming. Have you picked out a name?"

Doctor Gentle's smile was honest and warm. It was the same smile so many had as their first view of the world. Of their first friend.

"Several."

And Quiet left.

He checked his guest rooms on the way out. They were empty.

He checked the cottage on his way off the grounds. It was empty as well.

And Trotter's Falls had a nightlife, and some of that nightlife ran late, and they were six young, single, and attractive-through-astounding mares whom anypony might be lucky to spend a night with, they had certainly gone out on the town once before and nothing stopped them from doing it again or even sleeping in beds other than the ones he had provided.

But he didn't know where they were.

Being completely out of guest rooms, he'd put Grape Indulgence up in the slightly-more-empty hotel: some of the Doctor's were still arriving and deciding to overnight before returning. The intent had been to put him on a train in the morning -- but he could question the earth pony after sleep had sobered the wine-taster up all the way: he might remember more then, although Quiet didn't like the odds after hearing the admission of having consumed to the point of unconsciousness. Still, there was every chance he'd have Twilight and the others cleared shortly after the Sun rose.

But they weren't in their quarters.

He couldn't make himself stop thinking.

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"NO!"

Twilight knew no spell which slowed time. One which allowed the user a few seconds spent in a frozen past, unable to truly affect anything and only setting up events to cascade into an abruptly (and temporarily) directed future -- a spell which could be used but once by each caster, her own single attempt foolishly wasted. But to influence the rate at which the flow moved -- not a one. A full day of study could not be compressed into a final desperate hour. Not a single known magic let that happen, although there were rumors of two lost in the streams of time: one to slow, one to accelerate. Unique spells which had never reemerged.

She could not speed the flow or hold it back. Which made the passage of the next few seconds into nothing more than a side effect of the fear and adrenaline flowing through her, turned the resulting memory into an extended exercise in self-delusion.

It did not take an hour. A year. A lifetime. Just -- a few seconds. And yet a lifetime was what it had almost been.

Twilight had turned at the sound of the yell, terrified heart already having recognized the voice.

Pinkie. Moving fast. Twilight always forgot just how fast the baker could gallop until she saw it again, somehow dismissed the knowledge that there was an earth pony who could keep up with Rainbow Dash when the pegasus was moving at her best low-altitude speed -- at least for short bursts. The speed Pinkie only displayed when truly upset. Twilight could see that emotion on her friend's face now, the concern and desperation which had driven her out of the hiding place and into the open, racing towards her and -- the unicorn.

The unicorn, who had thought the two of them were alone, also looked over towards the word. The unicorn who had wanted privacy, was so afraid of being seen. A unicorn who was suddenly very scared.

The purple-black horn ignited. There was a burst of gold, creating a nearly overwhelming sensory overload of feel in Twilight's mind. She was at her peak, completely transformed, as strong as it was possible for her to be -- and all of that strength had just been triggered. It was like having the Princess an inch away on one side and the Sun the same distance from the other, being between them at the exact moment of raising. The fulcrum point in an explosion of raw power.

There was resonance. Pain again and always, but welded to fear, terror, and shame -- with an immediate addition which overwhelmed all but the agony: desperation. A need to take it back.

But it could not be taken back.

The burst of gold flew directly at Pinkie.

Alicorn strength. Raw force, perfectly aimed -- but undirected. Power which could potentially do anything, and in Twilight's mind, every last one of those anythings added up to a single result.

There would be a body on the ground. Or there would be a space where a body had once been, smoke curling up from grass. The smell of burnt coat. Ashes too scattered for return. A vacuum against Twilight's ears where laughter had once been and would never return. There would be silence, and it would last forever.

No time to think. No time to plan. No time --

-- and a second explosion of magic lit up the night, pinkish hue moving faster than the gold, getting ahead, in front, intercepting, surrounding it.

It hurt. It burned. The feel was truly overwhelming now. Twilight was in direct contact with her magic, the magic which had been launched when the transformation was complete -- and it was still wrong. She had thought her magic's 'off' qualities came from -- blending. The aspects of pegasus departing or earth pony approaching which would have been in her cycle at almost any given moment spent with a horn. But this had come in that single instant of completion, and the wrongness was still there. Something within the field, something which was an integral part of it. Something --

-- Other.

The edges of Twilight's vision were going white. She could still see straight ahead, perceive her own field with the gold within, how the containment had stopped three body lengths away from Pinkie -- but continued straining to surge forward, to break through and impact. In the stretching of the seconds, it felt as if Pinkie had just barely begun to divert to the left, trying to dodge. She wouldn't be able to get far enough to the side.

Twilight was just barely aware of the screams. There were at least two. One belonged to the unicorn, and it was wordless agony and self-loathing and horror and a wish to make things not have happened. The other was her own.

The hideous strength pushed at Twilight. Tried to rip through her field as her corona intensified, as more of her vision was blocked by white, as her horn burned and feel threatened to take over all, the wrongness pushing deeper. Pain. Torture.

Twilight wrenched. Pulled the energies within along. Released --

-- and the gold, yanked off-course, momentum redirected, given a single opening to purposefully escape through, shot into the sky, lit up the night, a comet of power moving exactly the wrong way. Exploded into harmless shards of nothing above where the clouds would have been.

Time snapped back into its normal flow. Twilight staggered half a step backwards, not quite contacting the water this time. The unicorn was frozen in horror. And Pinkie finished her now-unnecessary dodge -- then kept moving forward, slowing slightly just before she jumped, front hooves extended.

The baker crashed into the unicorn, momentum and earth pony strength taking the larger pony off her feet, thudding down half on the pebbles, half on the grass, lying on her left side with Pinkie's body draped across her.

"NO!" Pinkie cried out again, tears streaming. "Nopony should ever kill themselves! We're not going to just let you go and die! There has to be a way to fix this, you have to give us a chance..."

The unicorn had been thrown off-balance in more ways than the physical. The appearance of a stranger, the breaking of the understanding (hope) that Twilight would come alone, the inadvertent attack which had nearly hit --

-- but now there was something else.

She squinted against her eternal pain and the fresh lesser hurt of having been knocked over, stared at the pink form lying on top of her. At the sides. The curl-topped head. Back to the rib cage.

"You..." she breathed. "What... what are..." Stopped. Blinked. The tears returned. And suddenly, "Sorry... so sorry... failed... failed you..."

Pinkie pressed her face into the unicorn's neck. "You can't die," she softly said. "Nopony should ever want to die just because they think they failed. Sometimes... sometimes the things you're supposed to succeed at don't even matter. Sometimes you have to find something new to care about. Death doesn't fix failures or make them go away. It just means you can't try any more..."

"But... failed... Can't be. Like this. Can't live. Failed. Broken. Defective."

Curls vibrated as Pinkie tried to shake her head without moving, and the unicorn's blue coat began to darken around Pinkie's eyes. Not from change -- from taking on moisture. "Never say that! Not that! I used to think it all the time, and I'm still here... You can't die. I won't let you..."

One blue leg came up slightly. Almost seemed to reach towards Pinkie. Hesitated, nearly vibrating in place. Tan eyes looked at the baker again, blinked away more tears before glancing up --

-- to find the shadow of a purple hoof held overhead.

The tan eyes widened. Twilight's narrowed.

The librarian's voice was soft. Far too soft for all the anger it contained -- and that was every last bit of fury which had been accumulating since the moment her wings had first unfurled. No frustration, no discomfort, no fraction of regret or desire to return to her former life had been left out.

This was a target she could take it out on.

"When you're a unicorn," Twilight said, voice all too close to one of Opal's luring purrs, the vibration which took over just before the claws swiped, "you have all the strengths of a unicorn. I've seen that now, and I know exactly how strong you are." It came as no consolation that both horns were steaming. "But you also have all the weaknesses. You know what backlash is, don't you? I can see it in your eyes. You're one of the fastest casters I've ever seen -- but I really don't think you can get a spell off before I bring my hoof down on your horn. Not when you're trying to cast one on purpose. And with your strength -- anything over the lightest manipulation and a backlash could knock you out on its own, couldn't it? Especially with how hurt you already are. Don't move. Don't try anything physical. And at the first sign of magic, I stomp."

More sounds of breaking branches. The others were beginning to emerge from their hiding places -- or rather, they were finishing doing so, had probably started to come out at the instant they realized Pinkie was making her rush. Seven against one now. One who was terrified, her pained eyes staring up at Twilight, pleading...

Twilight didn't feel like listening to any pleas.

"Twilight?" Pinkie, her tone careful. "Twilight, listen to me, please..."

"She nearly killed you, Pinkie." A plain statement made in that same soft near-purr. "She. Nearly. Killed you. We know she's already killed at least twice." A gasp of horror and shame from beneath her: she ignored it. "Maybe that's why she's hiding? If that had hit you..."

"It didn't! I knew it wouldn't!"

Knew? It almost got through. "Knew, Pinkie?" The laugh surprised Twilight: short, bitter, with no humor in it. "Pinkie Sense again?"

"No! I knew it wouldn't hit me, or that she wouldn't hurt me -- because you wouldn't let her." More hoofsteps from the others, moving closer. "Because I trust you, Twilight. I trust you with my life..." Strongly, with a firmness Twilight had never heard from Pinkie, words meant to carry, "And more."

The sound of the rushing falls. Splashing against the surface of the pond. A warm night but for the chill in the air from the water.

"Twi..." Applejack. "Twi, if y'jus' stay right there, Ah can use the rope..."

The unicorn's eyes were still pleading, and the broken voice joined them. "Please... can't..."

"You nearly killed her," Twilight stated. "You nearly killed my friend."

"Didn't -- mean to -- didn't -- want to -- tried to -- stop it..."

"She did." Rarity now. "I could see her, Twilight. She was trying to pull it back as much as you were trying to hold it. She simply -- did not know how to do so."

"Nothing happened!" Pinkie insisted. "Twilight, let her up -- please just let her up..."

"Pinkie, are y'out of yer mind?" Applejack yelled. "We've got her! We can wrap this whole thing up an' go home!"

"No, we can't!" Pinkie replied, her own volume sharply increasing. "Because -- she will just try to die if we take her like this! She'll kill herself! I'll run off with her before I let that happen! I'll take all of you on to get her free! She's not going to die, not because she hates herself!" Glaring around at the others, scrambling back to her hooves as she did so. "Who wants to fight me? Come on, Applejack -- you've wanted this for days! Let's go, you and me! Maybe I don't kick apple trees all day, but I used to push a lot of rocks! You kick, I charge -- let's see who comes out of that!"

The rest of the group froze. Shock had a way of causing that.

"Pinkie -- Pinkie, Ah can't --"

"You want to! Your lasso's already out!"

"Ah was gonna tie her up..."

From the ground, a soft, agonized, barely comprehensible, "Please..."

Another mirthless laugh emerged from Twilight. Her friends were fighting. Pinkie had switched sides without even having her coat greyed, was ready to battle for somepony who had nearly killed her. Plus of course, she herself was an alicorn. The world had moved beyond surreal, and the only way she currently had of dealing with it was laughter without joy. "Or what?" she asked, keeping her focus on the unicorn, the sudden anchor, the strangeness she at least had a few seconds of experience with. "You can't get a spell off that fast when you aren't just reacting, can you? And --" this thought was funny "-- what are you going to do if I keep you here long enough? All I have to do is hold this position for an hour or two, maybe more and eventually, you're going to be an earth pony. And then what's the plan? What are you going to do, grow plants at us? Oooh, that'll be scary. Suddenly the grass is four feet high, let's all run, everypony, or the giant dandelions will get us..."

Several things happened at once.

The unicorn's eyes went wider than any eyes Twilight had ever seen. Wide with the purest of fear.

Rainbow Dash snorted: no anger in it, just humor, trying to hold back a laugh.

Fluttershy gasped, a sound which made it feel as if she'd tried to inhale all the cold air over the pond in a single breath.

Spike started to shout something, as did Rarity. Sounds which could have been warnings.

Pinkie's contribution was a bare whisper of "...no..." followed by a sharp "...NO!"

There were sounds, ones Twilight only identified later when looking over her memories. A rope hitting the grass. A hat hitting the grass. Pounding hoofsteps, moving closer, getting faster --

-- and then Applejack vaulted the unicorn, head down, charging into Twilight's side. Impacted just in front of the left wing.

Twilight screamed at the jolt of pain, earth pony strength driving the hard head into her ribs, making it feel as if they were inches away from caving in. She was driven backwards, lifted off her hooves, flew into the freezing water, Applejack's momentum carrying the farmer into the liquid right after. There was shock from the cold.

More from betrayal.

"Go buck yourself into Tartarus, you bucking unicorn bigot!" Applejack screamed. "You don't -- !"

The farmer's right front hoof came up --

-- and Pinkie went into her.

Twilight's legs kicked as the battle moved into deeper water, tried to get her standing against as her mind desperately tried to find focus. The positional twisting of her own body as she tried to find purchase on the wet pebbles momentarily had her facing the shore and found Fluttershy frozen in horror, Spike and Rarity racing for the water's edge and Rainbow Dash, always the fastest to physically recover and adjust, having taken Twilight's own abandoned position with cyan hoof raised over dark purple horn, ready to inflict backlash at the first sign of any spell.

But none of that did anything for what was happening in the water.

Pegasus vs. pegasus, without their techniques figured in -- and sometimes with -- will come down to speed and maneuvering. Get your opponent out of the air. The most vicious fights will try to remove that capacity permanently. Go for the wings, try to drive the other into the ground. Use lightning and cloud cover and anything else offered -- but take away the sky.

As previously said, unicorn against unicorn often works out to who can target and reach the other's horn first. Physical damage is a part of the battle, but negating magic is the first priority -- sometimes foolishly, and on other occasions necessary just to live past the first blow.

Two earth ponies battling in front of witnesses is a horror.

It comes down to strength, experience, and willingness to let their blood speak from thousands of years in the past, long before there were Princesses or even Discord to try and rule, when it was all about holding land. When ponies did everything they could to accomplish that -- but with witnesses, with one who could barely feel and another who would not do it, the basics took over. Kick. Ram. Bite. Earth ponies were the physically strongest of the three races and on a daily basis, nearly all of that strength was held back. Oh, there were hints of it -- Pinkie could ram dancers into walls without meaning to with a simple hip bump, and they all knew what Applejack's kicks could do. But to see the two of them fighting, all that raw musclepower directed at each other, realizing that under Pinkie's slightly chubby build was pure steel, to see Applejack rearing back and letting her hind hooves fly without any restraint -- an impact Pinkie barely dodged -- was to momentarily freeze with fear at the raw savagery being unleashed, orange and pink bodies seeming to fly through the shallow water, freezing liquid splashing the banks and beyond, screams and yells and wordless shouts as civilization fell away under a single driving purpose: if I win, I'm right, and that was a goal both were seemingly willing to do anything for as curls soaked into straight falls (and it might have been more than just that), blue eyes spotted an opening, teeth snapped --

-- the loop of rope holding Applejack's ponytailed mane together was cut apart. The wet mass split, whipped on momentum, went into the farmer's eyes. Blinded, she stumbled back as Pinkie charged in with head low and knocked her over, the waterline splitting Applejack's body, half in chill and half in warm.

Pinkie reared up. Got her front hooves over Applejack's head.

"LISTEN TO YOURSELF!"

Came down.

Nopony moved. Nopony could move. Not even Applejack, frozen in place with Pinkie's front hooves having descended. One to each side of the bare head.

"Did you hear what you said?" Pinkie screamed. "Do you know what you even did? What's more important, Applejack -- ponies who've been dead for years or your friends, the ones who are alive right now? Why not just tell them to keep her here? Until the horn is gone, until the green comes up all the way, and then you could scare her yourself! That would keep the secret, wouldn't it? Seven can keep one if they're all dead! Who's your family, Applejack -- the ponies with centuries in the shadowlands or the ones under Sun and Moon? Or did you want a reunion to take the decision away? It's you or it's me, Applejack, it always was -- and now it is me! I will tell them everything, all of them everything, because they're all my family -- and what are you? Is it you, is it me -- or is it us? Last chance, Applejack -- last chance to decide who you really are! Element-Bearer? Another slave to something laid down by ponies who returned to the earth centuries ago? Or just our friend?"

Pinkie stepped away, trotting backwards, moved two body lengths towards the shore. Applejack stayed where she was. Some of the blonde mane was floating on the surface of the water. Some of it had sunk beneath. The broken loop of rope was drifting away, soaking up extra liquid, starting to dip. Green eyes dripped cold water as the farmer's head moved just enough to track Pinkie. Perhaps more than just cold water.

"I trust Twilight with my life -- and more," Pinkie softly told Applejack. "I trust all of us that way. But after this... maybe there's only one way we can ever trust you again, Applejack. Maybe they won't trust me either, because I held it back too. But I'm ready now. I think -- I've been ready for a long time. It just took this to bring it out. You can call it betrayal. You probably already have, in your head. I've heard that so many times, and -- it came from somepony who was wrong about everything. About the whole world and why I could never have any place in it. My place in this world is with them. And it should be with you, too, like it was for years, before Twilight came and the Elements and everything else. You told me we were family before all that happened... and if we're going to stay family, you know what you have to do. You have to -- beat me to it. Just let it out. Drop the chains, because that's all tradition ever is. Somepony does something, and makes somepony else do it, and generations pass until it's this huge iron weight tying us to stupid and nopony can remember why it had to be forged at all. I'm going to count to three, Applejack. And I'm going to turn around, and I'm going to tell them. Because if I don't, I'm betraying them -- and I care more about the family of my heart than the family of my blood."

Nopony else could say a word. None of them knew what was happening. Only that there was something here, something deep. The Element-Bearers watched, Spike helped Twilight out of the water, the unicorn stared in pain and confusion, not knowing what was going on at all. And it felt as if the world itself was listening.

Pinkie said "One." Turned partway towards the shore. "Two." Nearly facing the bank now. "Three." Looking directly at the group, tail facing Applejack, who was just beginning to try and get up again. Giving the farmer the clearest of shots.

But Applejack didn't take it. And didn't speak.

"All right," Pinkie said as her straight mane dripped pond water, her voice overflowing with regret. "Everypony --"

"-- she made the ravine."

Twilight couldn't move. Her mind wouldn't work. It felt as if the last bit of order in a sane universe was going away. And for once, that state had plenty of company.

There was barely any touch of accent to the farmer’s words, and her voice was nearly as broken as the unicorn's.

"That -- that's what happened. She did -- what it would've taken dozens of us t' do together. It's -- not just the Effect, it never was. That's earth pony magic. T' -- t' ask the land a question -- an' maybe get an answer. Ah -- Ah felt it when we arrived -- that somethin' big had happened -- but we can't tell, we can't ever --"

Applejack turned away, eyes streaming, and her legs splashed through the pond, beating towards the shore, away from the others. Broke out in a final splash and galloped towards the path, raced out of the clearing, unable to look at anypony. Leaving her hat in the grass.

Nopony could move. Nopony could stop her.

It was Spike who found his voice first, if just barely. "...Pinkie?"

"She needs time," Pinkie sadly told them. "Just -- give her time. It's -- easier for me, I think. I had a lot more reasons to question everything my family said. She heard laws and I -- saw chains. I don't care what earth ponies turned to dust think. If I ever do, you'll know it by the way I stop breathing." She was shivering in the water, mane and tail refusing to recurl. "I don't think I'm the first, Spike, not in more than a thousand years. Earth ponies born to unicorn and pegasus families... or just with really good friends... I think ponies talked before, and the ponies they talked to -- just kept the secret. But if I'm wrong -- then I trust all of you... and she already knows."

Twilight forced herself to blink. To turn, to look down at the unicorn again. The unicorn who would be an earth pony in a few hours. A few hours which, if they'd held her, would have brought them to...

"...you..." impossible impossible -- no. Possible. "...you -- did that? The whole ravine?"

"Didn't. Mean to. Was -- had to -- I... to not die..."

Twilight closed her eyes.

The Cornucopia Effect. Land responding whether it should or not. Equestria's means of food supply. Physically stronger than the other two pony races, with more endurance. What everypony knows about earth ponies -- isn't a lie. It's the surface, and the rest lies -- underneath the earth...

The world is insane. My life is insane. Nothing I ever learned was right, or I never learned the right things at all. Earth ponies can open cracks in the land. Pegasi shift heat. Ponies try and fail to become alicorns. Cutie marks move. I have wings. Pinkie and Applejack have magic I never knew about, never suspected, never would have guessed at.

My existence is chaos. Our friendship is being consumed by disorder. The world is --

-- discord.

"Pinkie?" Twilight could barely talk. It felt as if she barely remembered how. "Can you -- show me?" Demonstration. Experiment. Evidence. Proof. Order.

Sad, shivering harder now. "No... I -- can't do it. I'm sorry, Twilight, but... I can't do any of it. I never could. It's -- why I left the rock farm. Part of why. Applejack can do a lot of it, but -- she needs time. Twilight -- Rainbow -- please let her up? For me? And you -- please don't run?"

They did. Part of it was because a friend had asked for a favor, and potentially not one on that Discord level. But also because -- there were times when they had to trust Pinkie. When parasprites invaded. When laughter was desperately needed. When ponies were hurting -- that was when Pinkie took over. When pain that was more than physical needed to be stopped.

And she did not run. She got to her hooves, stood trembling and shivering nearly as much as Pinkie and moaning a little as her ears stayed flat back against her head -- but did not run.

Pinkie sighed -- and looked directly at the mark.

"I really don't know what you meant, Twilight," the baker said, smiling just a little. "It's so pretty..."

Twilight abruptly found her wet rump resting on the pebbles. Several other ponies also sat down suddenly, along with one dragon -- but not Pinkie. And neither did Fluttershy, who took her own opportunity to look. "...you're right," the animal caretaker agreed. "It's beautiful..."

Those words make Rainbow Dash take her own look, and she jerked her head away a split-second later, too shaken to pretend it hadn't happened. Rarity forced her eyes to stay in contact for as long as she could: five whole seconds. Spike frowned, as if he wasn't sure what the others were reacting to, and kept his gaze steady -- but with a sort of disinterested confusion laced in.

"...beautiful?" the unicorn asked, even more confused than the little dragon. "Don't -- understand... Failed..."

Pinkie walked up to her, face to face. Reared up to get the extra height, gave her a very wet nuzzle. The nuzzle for family.

"If you say 'defective' again," Pinkie whispered, "I'll kick you." Smiled.

Fluttershy forced herself closer, stood by Pinkie's side. Managed a smile of her own.

The unicorn began to shake. Weep. Sank to the ground again, trembled in the grass. Fluttershy moved into contact, checking for injuries -- then stayed next to the blue coat.

After a while, the others made themselves sit down around her.


[/hr]

They didn't manage to get anything else done.

She was still shaken by what had both happened and nearly happened. She also didn't seem to know how to deal with a group. She kept looking around at the five ponies and single dragon as if she'd never seen so many close to her before, eyes moving from one to another in near-constant survey -- but always coming back to Pinkie, whose mane was slowly starting to dry out. And once she calmed down enough to express herself again, she wasn't exactly completely thrilled about the group being present. "Said -- alone." The gold was tilting away now, the silver descending on the loop. Her horn was slightly shorter, and it seemed as if portions of her coat were beginning to darken -- although that could have been the Moon moving a little farther away, heading behind distant clouds.

"You're not the only one who had to be careful," Twilight apologized -- and used it to move into the rest. "I'm sorry. I know you didn't mean to attack her, and I believe Rarity when she says you were trying to take it back." It explained the second source of steam: reaching without knowing how... "It's just that -- you nearly hurt my friend." Six. So close to becoming five. "That scared me. And when I'm scared, I -- do and say stupid things. So -- I'm sorry. It was just... being afraid."

"Understand," the unicorn said, although she still sounded more than a little shaken herself. Accepting Twilight's answer -- but realizing how close things had come to being that much worse. "Not -- good night to -- continue. Should maybe. Try again. Later. After everypony -- rests. And -- orange pony... feels better?" She glanced at all of them again, seemed to be mentally counting. Went to Spike, whom she clearly had no idea how to deal with. Back to Pinkie -- then Twilight. "Afternoon this time? But -- different place. Orchard. Apples."

"You're -- willing to try going out in daylight?" Twilight asked. But if somepony saw her...

A nod. "Know way. Hidden way -- most of it. Rest short. Nopony see. And -- orchard in -- wild zone. Night -- bad idea. Can't come -- here -- too much. Have to -- vary."

Some small amount of irony tried to make itself known to Twilight: she made a point of ignoring it. "But -- there's traffic out to the orchard during the day, ponies getting apples. That's still a risk."

"Oh..." The unicorn frowned, looking as if the idea of ponies traveling for snacks had truly never occurred to her. "Then -- nearby. Signal you. From hiding. Place. Lead from there."

Pinkie looked worried. "Do you have a place you can stay? Food?" The unicorn nodded to both. "But... maybe one of us should come with you..."

Which got an immediate head shake, vibrating the short mane. "No. Don't trust. Not that far --" an abrupt stop -- then, thoughtfully, "Maybe -- little more. Than did. But. Not that much. Yet." She looked around at the others. "Not -- tell? Please?" They nodded.

"But I want to come!" Pinkie insisted. "I want to make sure you --"

"-- not. Kill. Self," the unicorn finished, with the last word half-scream as her horn visibly involuted. "Won't. Maybe not -- same road. But -- smart. Work out -- where my -- road broke. Save..." She squeezed her eyes shut, couldn't look at anypony. "Have to. Think. More. About that -- night. What... went wrong. Maybe together -- figure out. For others. Different paths -- but smart..."

How much do I trust her? How much of a chance am I taking on letting her go after what nearly happened to Pinkie? And on -- not having her take her own life?

Twilight looked at the baker. Pinkie nodded, just slightly.

There were times when Twilight had to defer. It didn't mean she liked all of them. But when it came to reading somepony's emotional state... "All right. If you avoid all other ponies and just run from any who see you. Shall we say -- five in the afternoon?"

"Yes," the unicorn replied to all of it, and stood up. "You come. Pink one -- also come. Maybe one other. And I come." She looked at Pinkie, and it seemed for a moment as if she might almost be trying to smile -- but then the pain hit her, and when the gasping ended, all she could manage was "Promise..."

Her left front leg came up for a moment. The hoof touched an area just below her neck, pushed right. Went back down.

She trotted away, the limp once again shifting from leg to leg as she moved. Twilight watched her go, wondering how much of a mistake she was making. If there was anything she could do which would not have been an error. How little she still knew about this strange pony --

-- how little she apparently knew about everything.

The unicorn vanished into the trees.

They all sat in silence for a while.

"Well," Rarity eventually began, "I suppose there are many ways in which that could have been worse..." She sighed. "And that's just for poor Applejack. Oh dear... Pinkie, is this because of me? Because I began to openly think and ask about your feel?" Clearly willing to blame herself, and not just to keep a little bit of burden away from Twilight.

Pinkie shook her head. The curls were about halfway back to normal. "It started when we were leaving the ravine. I wanted to tell Twilight then, but -- we had a fight. Applejack wanted to look for other earth ponies. We usually just -- take care of these things ourselves. I gave her the time, but..." She sighed. "We didn't know about Trotter's Falls..."

The things we don't tell each other...

Twilight didn't know if she was mad at Applejack. Didn't know whether she should or could be. Just that her side hurt. A lot. And... I'm not sure how I feel about anything right now...

She got up. The others followed suit.

"Pinkie," Twilight said, "there's going to be -- another class, isn't there? On -- earth pony... magic."

Pinkie nodded. "There has to be. But I can't show you anything. We need Applejack for that... there's nopony else we could ever even ask. Not here, and -- not when we can't talk to the Princesses."

Of course. Of course they can do it. But why didn't they --

-- undoubtedly for the same reason they hadn't told her anything at all and just thrown her back into Ponyville. Whatever that was.

It was knowledge. It was a secret kept through the ages. It was something Pinkie trusted all of them with. And Applejack...

...had spoken first...

...before running away as if fifty generations of earth ponies were chasing her.

"Pinkie?" Rainbow Dash looked oddly solemn. "If it's that important -- for whatever stupid reason anypony would want that kind of coolness to be a secret in the first place, then -- I won't tell. I promise. I'll even -- Pinkie Promise."

Rarity managed a small laugh. "So say we all, I think. This is hardly going to be a topic for gossip."

Fluttershy shivered a little. "...it's scary... knowing so much, but... thank you for trusting me..."

Spike smiled. "I can't teach dragon magic until I learn if I have any beyond what the Princess taught me. I'll swear, Pinkie."

Pinkie looked at all of them as her curls lofted higher -- then focused on Twilight. "This is -- really really serious, Twilight. When it happens -- everything we tell you comes down from other ponies. By voice, in stories. And some of those stories are -- why we don't tell..." Another shiver: they had to get her inside and dried off. "...but it's never written down. That's part of what Applejack -- was so scared of. If you promise -- you have to promise not only to never tell anypony else unless it's absolutely necessary to save somepony, but also not to take any notes, or send any letters to the Archives, or ever write any of it down. Not in a diary, or a personal journal, or research notes. Ever, anywhere -- not unless there's a day when just about everypony knows. And that goes for everypony -- you too, Dash, no stories or even hinting at it for a character and don't pout like that either. I trust you to keep the secret -- but for Applejack, and to help keep it a secret at all, please -- keep it the earth pony way?"

They swore. They Pinkie Promised. And they headed back towards the castle.

Pinkie brought the lasso. Twilight gently carried the hat in her mouth. The earth pony way.


[/hr]

They'd found Applejack asleep in her cottage bed, her pillow soaked with tears. She hadn't bothered to retie her mane. Quietly, they placed her things on the nightstand and left her to rest, what was nearly their last view of the night for the farmer cut off by Pinkie climbing into the bed to snuggle next to her. The last thing they saw was Applejack starting to cry in her sleep, trying to pull away from Pinkie -- who refused to let her.

The others wearily trooped into the castle, headed for their rooms.

"This," Spike sighed as he and Twilight went into their own, "has been one of the weirdest weeks of my life. And I turned into a savage brainless adult once... Do you think Applejack's -- going to be okay?"

Twilight could do nothing more than echo the sigh. "I think you're picking up a talent for understatement. I don't know, Spike. I hope she will, but..." What had it cost Applejack to get those words out? What had made the farmer charge Twilight in the first place? They'd all seen how much stress Applejack was under, but to have it break that way...

There hadn't been enough room in the cottage bed for a full-fledged ponypile. Twilight had thought about it. But there had also been long thoughts about how much time they'd known each other for. About Applejack calling Twilight family. About -- secrets.

If Discord assigned this mission to break us...

...how close had he come? Or...

...too much to think about... Carrying the extra burdens of knowing she had just let her go on Pinkie's opinion and incidentally, Twilight was personally about to take on the magical secrets of an entire race. No, Twilight would not have been good for much over the rest of the night. And her side still hurt.

They would see Applejack when they all woke up. Twilight hoped.

Spike just looked depressed. "I'm starting to hate this place," he told Twilight. "It's kind of a nice castle, our host is a good pony, and the Doctor is interesting even if his coat stinks -- but... I wanted to leave as soon as I saw Coordinator, Twilight. I wanted to just grab your tail and drag you away before he could do anything. It felt kind of good to see him scared like that, but -- I remember what he's like, and how we could never really -- close in. I don't think he's changed, and with him working here..."

Twilight nodded -- but stood her ground. "He hasn't changed, I'll bet on that. But I have -- and I don't mean the wings. He can't get to me any more, Spike. I won't let him. And my friends aren't ponies he can drive away. Let him do his worst -- I'm ready. I've seen all of it. There's no more worst he can do to me." Not compared to everything which had happened. The expectations others had for her. Blessing.

"I want to believe you..." Spike sighed. "But he was always bad news, and he's had time to learn new tricks too. I would have given anything to set his tail on fire once... but I feel like we've still got be careful -- oh! Wait a second -- I think --"

He burped.

Twilight's field caught the scroll at the same moment she recognized the fieldwriting on the exterior.

"Yes!" Twilight cried out with open happiness and more than a little relief. She had desperately needed for anything to go right, and with this... "I knew she could do it, Spike! She worked it out! Celestia's shoes, she must have stayed up all night trying to figure out how to send it back..."

Spike was smiling himself: the little dragon had been in need of something to help boost his night back up too. "I know you're not going to wait..."

"No way." Twilight was already removing the seal. "It's a longshot, but I'll take any chance I can get of help right now..."

She unfurled the scroll.

And ultimately, the results were something other than she would have wished for.


[/hr]

Dear Twilight,

You have no idea how weird it is to write those words together. 'Dear' and 'Twilight'. Really? Me? And I have to make that feel like I wasn't laughing at the time? Well, I wasn't. By the time I get this sent, I'll probably be too tired to laugh. Or even move. A burst of dragonflame, a scroll, and a vial. I wish you'd sent this a little later in the day, when I was on stage: that trick would have gotten me a few bits tossed from the audience. Remember, most ponies have never been on the receiving end of Spike's personal trick or have any idea it's even possible. They would have thought I did it. And of course, I would have been happy to take all the credit, followed by claiming I couldn't do it again for the rest of my stay in Trottingham. Any time you want to schedule one of these for showtime, just let me know in advance and I'll work it in.

But you're not writing me to ask about life on the road. You wrote to ask something which, honestly, I've been waiting for you to ask. And if we're going to be honest with each other -- we can do that now, right? A little? -- I've been dreading this.

I'm looking at this scroll right now, trying to think of something I can do which would keep me from putting more words on it. I could just lose the vial, I guess. Let it fall and come open by 'accident': no flame, no return. Or maybe it never got to me in the first place. What letter, I get to say the next time we see each other, whenever that is, and smile. You'd buy it. You have a little too much faith in ponies sometimes, especially when that pony is me. Maybe -- even extremely especially with me. One burst of fireworks doesn't make up for everything. Not even close.

You wrote me anyway. And you really thought I was going to answer -- not to mention that you thought I'd be able to figure out how from your notes, none of which give me the actual feel.

I guess I kind of have to respect that, huh?

I said some of what I'm about to tell you to Princess Celestia at my trial. Yeah -- my trial. I'm betting she never told you about that, right? Well, it happened. After I galloped out of Ponyville, I was intercepted. The Lunar Guards arrested me and put a restraint on my horn. I stood still and let them. I figured -- I had it coming. And a lot more. They flew me into Canterlot and I saw the Princess the next morning at the arraignment. She took me aside into her judicial chambers -- you know, the ones she barely uses, there was dust everywhere -- and we talked.

I'm actually on probation right now, and will be for a long time. Various Guards drop in on my shows to check on me. I have to sign some forms and swear I'm not doing anything stupid. It's... kind of the least of what I deserve. But you know me -- I'm not exactly going to throw myself at Her Royal Hooves and beg for exile time. She thinks probation is enough, the same way you think you can trust me to give you honest answers in this letter. It's not that I care about letting the two of you down or think that if I live up to your expectations, it'll show you up. It's...

...I don't know what it is.

I'd be lying if I said it wasn't fun to be the one with the answers you wanted for a change, though. But I can't win this without giving you the real ones, and as your self-obsessed wandering manestyle of a friend would say, it's going to make me look rather bad. For starters.

You asked about ways for a unicorn to make their field stronger. I know you're really asking about one thing. But hey, let's pretend for a few lines and work our way up to it.

There are three ways to do it. Two of them work.

First off, those books like Stronger Magic Fields On Six Simple Exercises A Day? Are horse apple smear. The best ones have some decent field refinement exercises in them and those do help with field dexterity, but they do nothing for raw power. So I can now move twelve things at a time. Big deal. Their weights still add up to my previous maximum lift.

(Incidentally, Secrets Of Mane Transfiguration just made my coat smell bad for a week.)

Booster drugs... I know you've heard of them, and you've probably seen a couple of students use them to try and get past exams. All of them think the visible changes won't be caught. Two ponies in my school tried it. They got caught. When the whites of your eyes turn black, it's hard to say 'I guess I stayed up too late' and have anypony believe you. So might as well admit it: yeah, I took them. Twice. I got about what I think was a fifteen-percent boost out of it, which is standard for the stuff which doesn't stand a good chance of killing you instantly. I've heard talk of mixes which go up to fifty percent -- but if it doesn't kill you when you take it, the strain you put on your body stands a good chance to kill you anyway when it all wears off. They're all good for about fifteen minutes when you will swear to any living soul that you are now Celestia herself and twenty hours of lying in bed with a sheet over your eyes because light just hurts that much. Also, your horn twinges. For three days. The first time I tried it, I figured I'd gotten a bad dose. After the second, I figured I was onto a pattern and stopped there.

I did some stupid stuff trying to catch up with you.

Which, I guess, gets us to what your letter is really about. Stuff your library doesn't and shouldn't have. All you got was the basics. The sanitized-for-your-protection edition. I have more. Too much more...

(I took a twenty-minute walk around my caravan before I started this next part. I don't know what it does for you, but me? Nothing.)

There's a whole bunch of legends about the Alicorn Amulet. Most of them are -- buried, which I guess is what happened to the real thing after the Princess got ahold of it. (She told me she was taking care of it herself. I'm glad she told me that.) I was desperate when I started looking in that direction.

No -- that's not a good word. I was stupid. I was addicted to the idea of beating you. I told you something of what happened after I left Ponyville the first time. Tomatoes in the coat really don't do much for self-esteem. And you know magic -- once you start to lose focus, it can be hard to get it back. Once my performances started sucking, they were probably going to keep sucking. Taking a job on a rock farm under an old bigot whose idea of a good time was scheduling my heaviest work hours for the biggest downpours was actually the highlight of my life for a while. When colts and fillies in magic kindergarten are publicly correcting you, there's almost nowhere left to sink.

Somewhere at literal rock bottom was the bucking Amulet.

I did a lot of research. I went to places you haven't gone and should never go. I read things... well, I'm starting to sleep again, more or less. And I put together things a lot of ponies said. Or screamed. Mostly screamed. In the end, I still may not know exactly what happened, and there's probably two ponies alive -- maybe three -- who do. I can never ask either of them about it. I know that. Maybe I don't really want to.

But you wouldn't ask unless you needed this, would you?

So let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time in the magical land of Equestria, there was a unicorn who was a great caster. The strongest of his generation. And for a time, that was enough. He invented spells, he created magics no pony had ever seen before and a few nopony ever saw again. The spells he didn't finish were legends themselves. An amazing talent. On par with you, actually. Obviously well above me.

The thing was -- it wasn't enough.

This caster lived right around the time history says the Princesses came into view for the first time. He was a contemporary of them, and I don't just mean living in the same period. He knew them, they knew him. From what some elements of the stories say -- and there are variations: I'm putting things together here and making some leaps which I think are landing on solid ground -- they were friends. There's even a hint that -- well -- with your own transformation, maybe you've thought about the idea of a before. I never did until I started researching this -- or at least I hadn't for a very long time. But dig deep enough and unearth that: the concept that for some ponies, there was not only a time when they might have thought about before, but there are stories which suggest before existed.

He might have known them before. Think about that. I did. A lot.

And he also knew them after.

He started to wonder -- why not him?

So he labored. He did -- something. I don't know what and nothing I read ever found any hint of it. It's like that was wiped from history. Pieces of the rest were missed -- but not that. Whatever he tried, it didn't work. He was still a unicorn. Still the most talented caster of his generation and stronger than any other unicorn alive -- but he wasn't them. And just being all of the previous wasn't enough any more.

He decided to try -- something else.

The darkest books -- the ones I hope you never have to see -- called it 'harvesting essence'. You don't want to know how it works. I have a vague idea -- enough that if I spent time working on it, I might be in a position to try. But I didn't do it. Even at my lowest, that would have been burrowing into the earth to places even the Diamond Dogs won't go. Let's just say the pony has to be dead. And if the pony isn't dead, they're close to it when you start and after you're done... It can't be used on somepony who's healthy, anypony who can resist. Just the concept of being able to fight back might stop it. You'd have to be horribly weak -- and once it stopped, 'weak' would have been a dream.

If you weren't dead already, having your essence harvested would kill you. I don't know how anypony could have survived it.

He took from the dead.

To start.

And I wonder why I can't sleep sometimes.

He harvested unicorn essence and -- bound it within what wound up as the Amulet. The idea was that by getting enough essence, he would get some of the magic. That essence, built up enough, would generate its own field, and the act of wearing the Amulet would sort of provide a perpetual casting of Gromway's Combiner. You'd be working through a pair of fields, and by combining enough essence in the vessel, the second field would be stronger than his own.

You might be wondering why he went exterior. Why he didn't just try to take the essence into himself. I did. All I could find was something about the concept of displacement. Like there was an absolute limit to how much essence a pony could hold. His notes -- yes, I found a couple of pieces from what I'm sure are his notes, you don't want to know the condition or where -- suggest there were ways around that limit, but that he couldn't personally use any of them. That if, in his current condition, he took new essence in, it would push some of his own essence out -- and it was impossible for him to even do that much. Something about timing. The fragments are -- just that. Some of them were destroyed, others are past reading, a few might be missing. It's all I have of that aspect. I should probably be glad for that.

So he had to keep the essence in something outside himself. Thus the spell lock where the wearer has to voluntarily take it off. About as close to a guarantee of keeping as it gets -- or so I thought.

All right. So he's got essence from -- a lot of unicorns. Don't ask how many. And it is generating a field. A really powerful one. He puts it on and the automatic Gromway links up with the most powerful caster of his generation. He now has the raw strength of an alicorn. Maybe beyond. He demonstrates his new toy to the Princesses -- still both -- and tells them how it was made.

They -- weren't happy.

Neither was the Amulet.

At this point, I have to tell you what essence is not. It is not a pony's soul. He wasn't wearing that around his neck. From what I could make out, it almost felt like the shadow cast by a soul, or -- something which could join with a soul under the right circumstances. And it's very susceptible to resonance. The reason you harvest and use it warps the essence. In his case, he had been gathering out of anger and a desire for power. So all the harvested essence took on an aspect of its own -- that of somepony who just wanted power and was angry about not having enough of it. And -- the fields were melded. When the Princesses rejected him and his creation, that resonance went through the meld and -- took over.

I thought... I thought I could stay on top of it, Twilight. I thought that even if the legends weren't exaggerated, knowing what was coming... I would be able to control it.

You tell yourself a lot of things when you're stupid. All of them were as dumb as I was.

The Princesses attacked him -- they didn't know about the spell lock yet. He put on a Tartarus of a show against the two of them, held his own long enough to get away. And then he -- or really, the Amulet by then -- decided it clearly wasn't powerful enough yet, so it started working on getting some more essence, and that's when it -- went after the living. Maybe it could drain from those who weren't on the edge of death, or would have been able to given enough time. Maybe it never got the chance. It went on a rampage for a while, it tried to carve out its own little empire in the southwest of the continent while the Princesses desperately tried to figure out what they could do to save the wearer, and --

-- well, that's where the legends go vague. I can tell you this, though: he didn't take any notes about the final battle. Because you can trick the wearer into taking it off -- or...

...the Amulet needs a host. It can only exert its own field through melding with that of a living pony. If that pony dies, the Amulet goes inert and stays on the corpse until it turns to dust.

So really, there's two ways to remove it. Funny, huh?

Did they kill him? I think it's possible. Given that it's the Princesses, maybe they just put him into exile somewhere he couldn't hurt anypony until he died of old age. Like I said -- vague. But they never got it off his living self.

After that... the Amulet kind of fades in and out of history. I think they must have tried to destroy it at first, or -- maybe by the time it was off, Princess Luna was gone and the Princess couldn't manage it by herself, as hard as that is to see. She must have at least tried to lock it away. But one legend says she did and somepony who was desperate for power stole it -- so here we go again.

You'll see the hoofprints here and there if you look carefully. Little empires. There was a fairly successful one off the west coast which took over an island chain for a while.

It wants to be worn. If you can't personally use it, it'll nudge you to get it around the neck of somepony who can. Admittedly, it seems to do so according to your nature. If you're generous, you give it away. If you're a shopkeeper, you charge through the nose. The longer you have it around, the stronger those nudges seem to become. I knew I could get it away from any pegasus or earth pony just by finding their terms, and if a unicorn had somehow been able to resist putting it on, they might not be able to resist getting rid of it.

I thought I was too strong for it to control me.

I thought so many things.

And then it was changing all the thinking.

You never asked me -- what I remembered. All of it. Every last moment. But not always from my own eyes. There were a few times when it was as if I was standing a little away from my own body. At first, I was enjoying it. Then I started -- protesting. Snips and Snails, I didn't want to do that, the little goobers might have been the only fans I had left.

Then I started screaming.

The Amulet -- I hope I can make this clear -- beyond the resonance aspects and desire to be worn, it has no personality or intellect of its own. It borrows that of the host for everything else and to that degree, reacts the way the host would react. That's why you can trick the wearer if you're lucky. In my case, the Amulet, if it could think at all in any real way, might have been considering how to take your fake version and drain the magic from it, combine that with its own. Or maybe the version of me it had partially created was doing that. But it had to have a taste first, and -- it didn't think, not about what that momentary removal would have done. And it wouldn't -- couldn't -- hear me. Trick the host, trick the Amulet -- and free me.

I don't know what Princess Celestia did with it. I hope she destroyed it, her and Princess Luna together. It shouldn't exist. If I did nothing else, at least my stupidity eventually brought it back to confinement.

Ultimately, nothing I did with the Amulet was irreversible. But it could have been. Maybe ponies only lived because -- I like showing off. I still do, I always will. And you can't show off without an audience. The Amulet took on that aspect of me and left ponies alive to applaud -- or else.

The only reason Ponyville and everypony in it are still standing may be my ego. I laugh at that sometimes, when I can't sleep.

Twilight, if you're in a situation where you of all ponies, Miss Newest Princess In History, need to think about how field strength can be increased, please -- don't be me. Don't be that stupid. Do not seek out the Amulet, if it even still exists. Don't try the drugs and ignore the books beyond the field refinement exercises which you probably already do. If you're in that much trouble, tell me and let me know where you are: I'll get there as quickly as I can. If it was just intellectual curiosity, tell me that too -- and fast. I can't tell what your emotional state is when Spike writes the letter: his clawwriting isn't your fieldwriting. But the fact that you're just asking the question has me -- scared. I admit that. It's a lot easier to admit that stuff now, because I know what happens when I don't.

And there's a punchline to this -- one I've been holding back until now, because I know it's going to hurt you. And that's not the reason I concealed it this far, I swear it isn't, Twilight... but you have to know. You have to know so you'll never think about trying to refine the essence harvesting process or ways of getting around the resonance or send the EMS any notice about it at all. You need to stay away from this for the rest of your life -- no matter how long that might be.

I researched deep into the Amulet's legend, Twilight. I told you that. I told you I found some of his notes. Aren't you wondering who made this nightmare?

The so-called greatest caster in Equestria's history did it. One of your heroes. You're always trying to keep your friends from pretending to fall asleep when you talk about him and in his honor, you dress up as him on Nightmare Night.

Star Swirl made the Alicorn Amulet.

Think about that, Twilight.

And if you ever see me or anypony else reach the point where they would think about hunting for it or making one of their own -- stop them. And that includes stopping yourself.

Because if you don't, those who care about you will have to stop you -- no matter what it takes.

We owe you no less.

Your friend mostly in spite of herself,

Trixie Lulamoon


[/hr]

Failure -- and success.

It is, perhaps, a theme of his existence.

He does not recognize that, not now, not in the nightscape. But he went to sleep on that idea, and it has brought him back to a time when he recognized both qualities happening simultaneously, sent him into a wild zone again, calling out a name the bearer doesn't want to hear.

It has been nearly a moon since she vanished: he got that much when he spoke to her father, if what he does with that party can ever truly be called 'speaking'. What came back at him certainly wasn't and before it ended, words were replaced by what he had been waiting for since he first met the stallion: attempts at kicking hooves and snapping teeth. He hadn't put up with it for long. Attacked by a grieving parent -- yes, that happens to him, especially when one or more have been lost, and he takes the blows unless doing so would mean his own end. This parent had not been grieving and after a time spent dodging, he had done what he'd wanted to do for years, only much more quickly. In the end, all it got him was a best guess at a direction.

He has been searching on and off for three days. He has appointments to keep and teleports off to them when he must, but memorizes safe points in what he is guessing as the right portion of wild zone (no way to truly tell, he may be deluding himself, he has hope and virtually nothing else) and comes back to them at every opportunity. Over and over, he calls out. He desperately wishes he had learned her essence, but -- where was the need? She was where she was, and would have remained there for the rest of her life. What little other magic he can bring to bear on the search, he does -- but it has been nearly a moon.

In his heart, he expects to find a body. Or a place where a body had fallen.

So on the third day of his search, the twenty-sixth after the date he was told she had run away, it comes as something very close to both the relief and shock of his life when he comes back to one of his safe points, a natural vegetation cubbyhole near a slow-moving stream where a thirsty pony might try to drink -- and the first thing he sees is a lank fall of darkish pink tail hair.

It is a miracle. He does not waste those.

"Pinkamena?"

She jumps, spins partially around as she does so. It lets him see what her father had described as the unnatural, the supposedly-hideous mark --

-- which is three balloons.

He truly doesn't see the horror there.

"Doctor?" she gasps. "Doctor Gentle? I --" and then she turns back towards the stream. Looks as if she's making ready to try and jump, get away from him. All she has to do is move deep into foliage. He cannot teleport-chase to where the plants are thick, and a small pony with a desperate head start could easily escape by squeezing through areas where he cannot gallop.

"Pinkamena -- don't... I'm -- not here to take you back. I swear that. I'd rather stick a hoof in my own eye than haul you to the rock farm against your will."

She will not turn to face him. "Then why were you looking for me?" It comes out in her usual tone: a sad voice, perpetually defeated, the sound of a pony who has never scored even the tiniest victory in her life.

"I was worried about you. Pinkamena, you ran away -- into a wild zone -- when you'd never left your farm before... I thought --" He has to tell her. "-- I thought you were dead, and that was the last thing I ever wanted. I had to try and find you..."

She does turn. The fall of mane obscures much of her face. The cutie mark came and still nopony thought to cut it.

"I care about you," he tells her. "I always will. I care about all of mine, but you -- you're my most determined. You've been surviving in a wild zone for nearly a moon -- there is no pony among mine more determined to live than you..."

'Surviving' is the way to put it. She has lost weight, and she was always thin to begin with. (He had suspected her father gave her less to eat as punishment for whatever her failures were. He didn't learn the natures of those failures, but he got the deliberately small meals out of the stallion during the fight and put in an extra kick for it.) There are thin trails of blood dried into her coat. Numerous small scars. Bruises here and there. The wild zone has been putting her to the test and so far, she has passed all of them. Many older ponies would be unable to say the same -- or, after so much time spent in here, anything at all.

"All I want," he continues, "is to know you're okay. And you will never be okay on that farm. Not if you ran away. I know you well enough to understand you never would have fled without a reason." Also that the nonsense her father screamed at him could not possibly have been it. Stretching for any lies and not even bothering to invent plausible ones. "If you don't want to go back -- I won't take you back. I promise. But you're a little pony still, Pinkamena, and -- you have to live somewhere."

"I live here now," she whispers. "It's -- better."

She is being sincere.

She truly feels the Tartarus of the wild zone is better than her home.

He wants to find her father and kick him again. Ensure that one will produce no more children who believe in their deepest heart that this is better than that.

"It's not," he gently insists. "There are places -- no, not an orphanage, I couldn't do that to you, even with the company you'd gain. Maybe -- a town."

"A -- town?" She barely seems to know the word.

"A place where lots of ponies live. All kinds of ponies, not just rock farmers. Somewhere pegasi and unicorns live. But one with lots of earth ponies too, so you'd have something to start with that you knew..." Which is a lie and he knows it. Anywhere he could bring her would be a massive culture shock after a life in that place, but having her stay with earth ponies couldn't hurt. "I can talk to some ponies, find somepony who would be willing to look after you." Mixed town -- well, certainly not Trotter's Falls -- earth pony majority...

Yes, he has a candidate, and part of that is based in geography. "I can't teleport with you," he tells her, and it is the truth: he has yet to learn the art of escorting another through the between. "So I'll have to stay with you until we get out of here. But we're not as far away from a settled zone as you might think. There's a town named Ponyville three days away -- two if we're lucky." Is his schedule that free? Yes -- and if not, it'll have to be. She needs him. "You went far, Pinkamena... farther than I thought you would have been able to. But once I get you there, I can find ponies to take you in, and a school for you, a real one, colts and fillies to play with..."

Her blue eyes go wide. "You -- you would do that? For -- me?" Her voice does not suggest she doesn't feel she's worthy. Her entire being says it directly, and it makes him want to weep.

"Always."

There is a long moment of silence. She looks at him. At the stream. At the vegetation beyond. He can almost feel her weighing truth. Wondering if he is about to bring her back to the rock farm and all that might mean.

He smiles at her. "I kicked him, you know."

Disbelief. "You -- did?"

He nods.

"I -- I did too..."

He laughs.

She slowly turns away from the stream again, trots closer to him. He leans in, bends down.

Experimentally -- as if she'd never been able to try it before -- she tries to nuzzle him. The nuzzle meant for family. He returns it.

And then she is crying into his coat.

He remembers that clearly, finds it easy to bring back in the nightscape. The majority for the day's remainder would require much more effort, and so the dream skips over most of the time they spent moving forward, oriented on Ponyville now, fighting off the hazards of the wild zone together. (It is easier with his magic brought to bear in her cause, and he is even more amazed that one so young has survived without it. His most determined, indeed.)

Forward -- and they have camped for the night. They had found a clearing, one easily defensible, with only a single entrance and rock against their backs. He started a fire for her: she was amazed by the process, only knowing earth pony ways to do so. She has been steadily cheering up throughout their travels. It has amazed him almost as much as her survival, for this was one he never believed he would see happy, and her increasing joy has been infectious.

"We should have a party!" she tells him. "A Going To Ponyville party!" Her pink curls flounce as she giggles at the mere idea. "Wherever that is, wherever we are... we should celebrate just because we're going, and we're alive, and --" more slowly, as if she still can't quite make herself believe it completely "-- things might be -- different."

"We probably should," he replies. Yes, he will help to keep her spirits up, especially when they're higher than he's ever seen them. "So how do you throw parties in a wild zone, Pinkamena?" Certainly not in the way her father had accused her of, the lying horse apple smear.

For the first time since he has known her, she laughs. "Wildly!" He laughs in return and watches her as she races around the edge of the clearing, a bright pink blur in action. She is grabbing low-hanging vines and yanking them down, stringing them using her mouth, working green between drooping branches. Flowers are delicately woven into what's mostly a pattern by sheer random accident -- but he can see the skills developing, the talents embodied by the mark coming to bear and with more time and practice, perfection will emerge. She's decorating, one tiny subset of her overall grouping. He is thrilled to watch it. There are more spectacular marks and talents, certainly -- but for this mark to have appeared on her... it is wondrous indeed. He truly has no idea how it could have come to pass, not from a life spent on that rock farm with her father and the rest of the family shouldn't be taking home any prizes either.

She is living. He never thought he'd see it.

More flowers are woven into the developing quasi-structure. She pulls down some large leaves which have natural shallow depressions in their centers and pours a little water from his canteen into them. Streamers are thrown about. A party hat is jammed onto his head with the elastic gently tugged under his chin: it makes him laugh again. Step by step, she is turning the little defensible clearing into something much more --

-- wait.

He is -- not thinking of something.

He knows it.

Something just -- happened. And his mind is ignoring it -- or rather, most of it is. But he has been through too much over the years, traveled to so many places and asked questions which most ponies never come close to considering in his quest to do the needful. Something happened and most of him is trying to ignore it -- but the part trained by travels and experiments and sheer drive cannot overlook it.

So what was it?

He slowly moves a hoof up.

There is a party hat on his head.

There are streamers woven into the vines.

She had no saddlebags when he found her. No supplies of any kind. She took nothing that was not hers when she left -- on purpose, given why she left at all. And there was virtually nothing which was hers to begin with.

He had packed no such things. Why would he?

Something has -- happened.

Something which should have been impossible.

He looks at her. He forces himself to see her. The bright pink coat, the bouncing curls of mane and tail. Those did not exist when he found her by the stream. There was a small pony of darker hue sporting a pair of straight long falls, the same as there had always been.

The hat and streamers...

"Pinkamena?"

She stops. She looks at him. She is still happy.

He touches the hat. Carefully, trying to stay focused, letting the questioning portion of his mind remain in control when every other part wants only a return to watching. "Where did this come from?"

She collapses.

It happens all at once. The curls drop back into the lank falls he knows so well, darken along with her entire body -- a body which falls to the ground, hind legs curling in to project her abdomen, front legs over her face. And the voice drops as well, turns into a sob and almost blends into a single word. "NopleaseI'msorryIdidn'tmeantoI'msorry..."

He stares at her in shock.

And then he knows.

He knows he should have kept kicking her father. Just for starters.

He knows why she was accused, and that all the accusations were false.

He knows he is looking at a miracle.

The amazement has to wait. The fulfillment will have its time, it must, as will the hope. He will find a place to shout to the Moon and those echoes will travel the land until they bounce off a rising Sun. But she needs him now.

"Pinkamena?"

She is trembling, eyes squeezed shut in fearful anticipation. She is waiting to be kicked. "Oh Celestia, that hidebound..." What can he do? What will she respond to? What can he say...?

"Pinkie?"

Her eyes open, just a little. There are still tears leaking out. "...Pinkie?"

He nods. "Pinkie is somepony else's name. It's the name of a little filly who's going to live in Ponyville. A filly who -- doesn't get kicked for doing the right thing. For having fun and making ponies happy. Pinkie is the name of somepony who's loved."

Her hind legs come away from her body a little. Her eyes open still more. "I can be -- Pinkie?"

"If you want to be."

"I..." She is trembling still, but there is something new in the shaking. Excitement. A desperate hope. "...you don't hate me? You're not going to..."

"I never hated Pinkamena. I'm just meeting Pinkie now," he tells her. "I always loved them both."

She untucks her body all the way, rolls partially over until she is lying down with her belly flat against the ground, staring at him.

Slowly, her coat lightens. Her mane and tail rise and spread.

"Pinkie..." she breathes. "Pinkie Pie..."

In time, she comes to him. They have the party, and it is one of the best he's ever attended with the greatest host he ever could have asked for. And when the little filly is sleeping against him with the tired smile still on her face, he stares up at what he can see of the night sky and wishes he could shout without disturbing her. But she needs her rest, and will need so much more than that in the moons and years to come in order to fully restore her heart from a life of ordeal. She will need friends, and he will have to be certain she ends up in a place where she will find them.

She is not just hope, a sign that the path is progressing, that the effort put into the Great Work is bearing fruit and the destination might eventually be within reach after all. She is a miracle come into his life. Perhaps -- the first of many miracles to come.

No miracle should be wasted.

Scumble

View Online

It was supposed to be a good day.

Things have become still worse. She has fully realized she is beyond cure. The success took a different road and her only hope -- one becoming increasingly faint, one she completely gave up on for a few seconds until the pink pony rushed forth -- is that together, they can work out where hers broke and save the others. She nearly killed the pink one. Nearly killed one (an unexpected one) who was only trying to help her. One of those she was trying to save. Somepony who...

...looks like her. Or at least like she used to look all the time.

She had never seen anypony who looked like her before. Not even in a memory.

And she came within a few body lengths of killing her. Tried to take it back and couldn't. The magic might have done anything and if not for the success... all she could imagine before slipping into the nightscape was a body on the ground, if the blast had left any body behind at all.

She is a horror. A monster waiting for tales to be written. She barely understands how the others could have made themselves stay so close to her by the falls. How the pink one would have voluntarily touched her. She should not exist.

That thought went into the nightscape with her, and it has taken her back to a time she had been looking forward to, barely restrained for weeks at the mere idea of meeting somepony other. And this would be an extra-special visitor, because it would be somepony she would be introduced to -- as herself. No false name to assume for the duration of a day. Full open honesty and the pride in his eyes as he told the other pony all about her and that one's upcoming role in The Great Work. There have been so few of those. And while some of them look at her in ways she does not enjoy thinking about after, the experience of getting to be herself on one of these visits makes the visit into something beyond rare and special.

Weeks of waiting. Too many weeks, he grumbled, especially given that this pony lives in town and seems to have been, in his opinion, making excuses to postpone. Busy with work, indeed. She suspects he does not like this pony very much. The word he has used most often about her upcoming visitor is 'necessary' and it strikes her as something less than a fully polite term. But the day came and she donned her dress, spent what felt like an hour working on her mane, paced about the rooms in her place as she waited through the final endless minutes, and then --

-- there was a new pony.

The subject of the day is administration. He has told her that when The Great Work is complete, there is an excellent chance that she will find herself in a position of some authority. Therefore, it is important that she know about how to delegate, instruct, and -- fill out paperwork. He has called it a boring subject with boring books written about it by ponies whose mere presence can induce comas at five body lengths and, while he had forced himself to go through several of those texts before picking out two for her (which have been, predictably, boring), he still felt the final touches on this topic should come directly from a pony. The new pony who is here right now.

She tries not to wriggle with pride as he introduces her as herself and mostly succeeds.

The new pony -- looks at her.

The look is...

...quickly replaced with something more favorable as the original is banished, present barely long enough to register at all.

"I'll have to leave you two alone for a time," he tells them. ('Two': it nearly makes the thought of that first look completely go away.) "Somepony was coming in just as we were arriving... well, you know how it goes. This may be quick, or -- well, it probably won't be quick..." A rueful smile. "I know you have questions about what you've read and the practical application of those details -- and I also know you're in capable hooves. I'll come back when I can."

There is a flash of light, and he is gone.

She smiles at the new pony. "If you're ready, sir?" she asks. "I have a sitting room over this way, for guests as special as yourself. There's also some snacks, should you care to indulge. He brought in Hentucky Blue -- I was told it was one of your favorites..."

"If you must," he yawns. "Let's get this over with... there are far more important things I should be doing with my time. In fact, I can hardly think of anything which would not qualify as being far more important..."

She manages not to frown. Is she doing something wrong? This isn't a standard reaction to her practiced etiquette. "I -- all right," and leads the way. It can't be her, can it? She isn't varying from her lessons, so the difference almost has to be on the other end.

They move into what she views as her sitting room. It also serves as the library: the books she studies from, some copies of her notes which he has had bound. A reading table plus an extra for snacks and waiting stacks of tomes. A pair of comfortable couches (with a third brought in from elsewhere for this occasion). Multiple light sources which respond to voice commands. She likes the room very much, although there is one other which is her special favorite and always has been.

She positions herself to face the writing table, makes the standard adjustment around her neck after the inevitable shift, then opens to a fresh page of her administration notebook and begins to ask the questions she has carefully been memorizing for weeks. He starts to answer, droning on in a very bored tone which manages to provide what feels like the correct answers while in no way being even remotely interested in the words which are coming out. It is by far the single least interesting visit she has ever had and so far, what she is sure will be the second least memorable visitor. Getting this memory to become clear and accurate afterwards is obviously going to be something of a challenge. But he has come here to teach her, given up what he keeps referring to as the time which is so much more important than hers in order to do this, and she will respect that.

She keeps respecting it for some time.

And then the boredom begins to drop away from his face.

"This," he slowly says, "is pointless."

He had halted in the middle of an answer to say that. A query about buffering layers and why it was necessary at all for somepony else to take blame for one's own actions.

"No..." she carefully tries. "It's something I was really having trouble with. Isn't it more important for a Princess to take responsibility for her own mistakes? I know ponies need to have confidence in anypony who winds up in a position of power, but I kept thinking it was better for citizens to realize their rulers were capable of failure. Like it would make those rulers -- easier to relate to." It's just a theory, but it's one she's been working on for days. "Not that I'm going to wind up ruling anything even after The Great Work is complete, not in the sense of the whole country -- but even for any small area or even concept which I might be given charge over --"

"-- have you ever truly listened to yourself?" He smirks. "I just realized -- I'm being quizzed on the finer points of my skills by a parrot. You've been taught all these things to say and the words emerge on the proper cues -- but you don't understand any of them. You aren't capable of it. A mistake is asking me about mistakes and isn't smart enough to realize she is one which should have been fixed long ago. That's the funniest thing I've heard all moon."

She blinks.

She has the distinct feeling that they have moved beyond the realm of every etiquette lesson she's ever had.

"I'm trying to learn," she replies, careful to keep her tone under control. If she's done something wrong, she's not seeing it and he's not telling her what it is. She has to at least try to stay within the teachings. "This is something he felt was a crucial subject, sir, and that you were the single best pony to teach me. I would hope you would be flattered by that."

"Oh, certainly I'm the best," he agrees, making a small gesture with a brown-and-white speckled front right hoof. "But you? You're a mistake. The fact that you're even breathing can't count as anything except an error. An error which he's spending a lifetime trying to fix -- under what I can only think of as The Great Delusion."

At first, she cannot speak. No, there are no lessons for this. There are words she wants to say, things rising on their own and demanding release, but she is supposed to follow the rules. She should never do anything to offend a guest...

...but this pony has just spoken against him.

It seems to be an occasion for new rules.

"It is The Great Work," she slowly insists. "The process by which it is possible to --"

"-- spend an entire lifetime in a happy part of the nightscape waiting to wake into a dream manifested within reality," he smirks again. "A dream which is delusion. Again, because you're clearly too stupid to have understood it the first time and there's a tiny chance repetition would get it through: you are an error. A taint. Walking sin. Your very existence is a mistake. He thinks there's a way to correct that mistake. How very -- special. How very -- idiotic."

Her heart seems to be beating much more loudly than it should.

The pony leans forward slightly. His face works into an expression she's never seen before and will have to consult many books and memories on later before identifying it as a sneer. His words seem to emerge on a slow vent of steam. "You shouldn't exist," he states. "If you were in any way mine -- well, that would never happen because unlike anything to do with you, I'm pure. But if by some Tartarus-sent nightmare, it happened to me -- well, he's spending a lifetime trying to fix a mistake. I would have done the same. But I would have fixed it in your lifetime. Which would have been about twelve seconds. Maybe one day he'll wake up and realize what a waste of time you've been and stop wasting his own life via the simple act of ending yours. Some would see that as an act of mercy, I suppose, not that you deserve any after what you did..."

Her skin seems to be too tight. It feels as if her muscles are pushing against it from the inside, like her blood is getting hotter and looking for a way to vent its own steam. She's completely sure she shouldn't be shaking.

"And you know you can't tell him any of what I've said, don't you?" he lightly laughs, the joke reserved for him alone. "No witnesses, you dumb clod. Your word against mine, and I'm the very special teacher he's been trying so hard to get for you, the only pony he wanted to teach you about still one more thing you'll never get to use. He'll never believe you -- never take the word of a mistake over that of one of his own. He'll wake up one day, you know. He'll realize the dream is just that and can never come true. And on that day, he will fix the mistake. With his own field. I give you about eight seconds there, personally -- and that's if he decides to show the mercy you don't deserve. If it was somehow me -- well, I'd make it last. Dealing with you would be a rather special experience, after all."

He relaxes on the couch, spreads out a little. His dull grey field surrounds a bit of the imported grass and brings it closer. He takes a bite, chews thoughtfully.

"I wouldn't mind coming back for that," he says. "Maybe he'd even let me watch. I've never gotten to see a pony take that kind of righteous vengeance before upon taint -- I imagine it would be a treat. Especially after what you did..."

No matter how hard she tries in the days and moons and years to come, she will never remember moving. All that will come back to her is his face. The sudden burst of terror. The field around his horn winking out and grass drifting to the floor.

Her front hooves have landed, one to each side of his body. He is trembling between them. His horn sputters dull grey sparks which will not focus.

"How dare you!" she yells. "He's a great pony! The delusion is yours! He will finish The Great Work, and when he does, you'll be the first to -- apologize! I'll stand there and watch while you come up to him with bowed head and say how sorry you are for all the things you said about him and the work he's tried so hard to complete! This is about all those ponies, and you don't care about any of them, do you? You're just --"

She has no words. None of her lessons ever covered the things she should say next. She is well beyond the realm of any teachings and making it up as she goes along --

-- she has broken so many rules, she is going to be in so much trouble when he finds out...

Slowly, she forces herself to pull back and drop down so that all four hooves are on the ground again. She should not make things any worse than she already has.

"I think," she makes herself say, as politely as she can manage, "that I might be best off concluding my administration studies using books after all. I know you have many more important things to do with your time -- you've been saying so, after all. So it's clearly best that you go and do them. After all, that's your job, isn't it?" A spark of recollection intrudes, something he had told her. "The only one you'll ever have?"

The pony stares at her. His lips pull back from his teeth, his ears go even farther back -- but the field won't focus. He knows she can see that, and visibly hates her all the more for it.

His expression is the same as it was when he first saw her, face hidden from his gaze. He wants her to die and regrets only his lack of ability to cause it himself.

"You..." he just barely gets out. "I look forward to the day when he finally deals with you, the way you should have been dealt with all along..."

She leans very slightly forward.

He scrambles off the couch, gallops from the room, the first pony she's ever seen running and therefore the fastest. And then the brown-and-white speckled unicorn is gone.

Her return to her own couch is halfway between a shuffle and a slink as her body seems to cool and her blood returns to normal liquid, leaving behind only the chill feeling of failure. She is in so much trouble. She is listing rules and the tally of those she didn't break seems shorter. Nothing like this has